Searching the terms “best microphone” into Google returns literally millions of results, and microphone comparisons tend to draw a lot of attention. It seems that most people believe that finding the best quality audio equipment trumps other factors, such as the skill of operation or practicality. A lot comes along with having the best of anything, and the best usually comes with a cost in one form or other. Like most things in life, finding the right equipment for your needs is more complex than simply finding the “best” option on the market.
Let’s get this out of the way. The best microphone on the market is the original Neumann U-47 FET, preferably with the Klaus Heyne modification. And no, you can’t afford it. Aside from finding one used in good working condition, it would be silly to drive it with anything less than a Neve 1073 microphone preamp. With a cost a somewhere between $5k – $20k each, recording with multiple microphones would be virtually impossible on most budgets. In addition, you’d need a safe to keep these locked up, or perhaps special insurance to cover the cost in case of theft. You might get nervous every time you left them in the studio, and would probably panic everytime someone handled them with all but the most delicate care. Expect premium rates for repair costs, not to mention paying for shipping each direction to the repair tech. Neumann U-47s offer the best sound quality on the market, but they’re hardly practical.
This is clearly an extreme example, but it goes to how the very best equipment offers very little in terms of practicality. Next to my highly recommended Audix CX-112B (which is a clone of a Klaus-modded Neumann U-47 FET), the average listener would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two. At roughly 1/20th the cost, the CX-112B is a better value in all but the most specialty applications where every detail is critical, and hardly appropriate for someone recording in a home or project studio. Even if you have the money for the best of the best equipment, we highly recommend starting with two of these instead, keeping a second one handy for stereo recording or as a backup should the first one ever fail.
As much as we love the CX-112B, it comes with certain disadvantages, such as sensitivity to off-axis and ambient sounds, making it a less-than-ideal choice for noisy environments. It requires a shock mount and pop filter, which take up a larger footprint than handheld microphones. Anyone recording on location, in a small apartment, or recording short takes at various times might do better with a handheld electric condenser like an Audix VX5. The VX5 offers less of a crisp, pristine sound than the CX-112B, but what it lacks in sound quality, it more than makes up for in practicality for mobile recording. The VX5 is among the best of handheld microphones, and at less than $200 each, provides excellent quality for its value. It sounds better than other common handheld mics like Shure SM-58s and Neumann KMS-105s.
Finding the appropriate equipment for your application is far more important than finding the best on the market. Consider your needs, and get the best microphone to suit your recording style. It’s best to start small, then work your way up to more expensive equipment. Find the minimum viable cost you at which you can operate, and get the equipment that satisfies your basic needs, not the equipment boosts your ego.
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Photo by Eryk Thompson. Instagram: @ErykThompson, Vero: @ErykThompson