While USB mics are often cheap and easy to use, XLR microphones tend to emit less internal noise and feature replaceable parts. They’re used in almost all professional settings, and are great for making high quality recordings as well as amplifying sounds in live performances. If you’ve accumulated some studio headphones and studio monitors, and have written some songs to record, you just might be ready to buy your first microphone for your home studio. There are countless styles of XLR microphones out there, so we’ve compiled this list of the top five to help you narrow down your decision.
Editor’s note: this list of the best XLR microphones was updated on April 14, 2021, to include links to relevant information.
The best XLR microphone is the Shure SM58
This dynamic microphone is a live performance industry standard, but it is also well-functioning as a vocal recording mic for both singers and podcasters. The frequency response is designed to highlight vocals and combat the proximity effect by de-emphasizing low notes. Therefore, this XLR mic is not ideal for recording instruments such as a bass guitar. Being dynamic in nature, the SM58 does not require phantom power, and its bulbous grille acts as a built-in pop filter. It has a unidirectional cardioid pickup pattern, making it best for recording what’s placed directly in front of it.
Shure SM58Full Review
The SM58 is affordable and durable, making it highly convenient for traveling to live shows. The microphone contains an internal shock mount, so live singers can take the mic off its stand to do air kicks during their performances, without distorting the sound.
Shure SM58 speaking sample:
Shure SM58 singing sample:
Shure SM58 acoustic guitar sample:
Shure SM58 electric guitar with amp sample:
What you should know about the best XLR microphones
What is an XLR microphone?
Microphones with XLR inputs are used all across the board, in recording instruments and vocals, radio broadcasts, live performances, and more. XLR microphones don’t produce the same internal electrical noise that USB microphones do, producing a high quality, clean sound that’s easy to deal with in post-production. In order to adapt one of these to your computer’s recording software, you will need an audio interface or a preamp. However, if you are using the microphone for live performance, whether or not you need an interface will depend on if the microphone is dynamic or condenser.
What is the difference between a dynamic and condenser microphone?
The most notable difference between dynamic and condenser microphones is that the former does not require phantom power provided by an interface in order to pick up sound, whereas the latter does. Additionally, dynamic microphones are able to withstand loud volumes without distortion or clipping, making them suitable for picking up a voice or instrument in a loud room during a live performance, or for recording loud instruments such as drums or electric guitars in the studio. Condenser mics, on the other hand, absorb subtle noises, making them ideal for isolated studio recordings where you want to pick up the detail of a voice or acoustic guitar.
What are the uses of different polar patterns?
Depending on the use you have in mind for your XLR mic, you will want to look for a specific polar pattern, or shape in which a microphone picks up sound. The main polar patterns are as follows: cardioid, omnidirectional, bidirectional, hypercardioid, and supercardioid. Each polar pattern has certain uses more suited to them, depending on the direction the microphone is pointed or placed.
The XLR microphone with the best sound is the Rode NT1-A
This all-metal condenser microphone is best known for its audio quality. The Rode NT1-A has an internal capsule shock mount system, and creates little internal noise—no more than 5dB(A), making it useful for recording vocals, guitars, and percussion instruments. It has a neutral-leaning frequency response, so it reproduces audio accurately to what the ear hears, and the emphasis from 1kHz and higher improves speech intelligibility. The NT1-A has a cardioid polar pattern, and picks up sound from its flat side, making it an ideal vocal mic.
Rode NT1-AFull Review
This XLR mic requires phantom power of either +24V or +48V, which needs to be purchased in the form of an interface or preamp. However, the microphone itself comes with an external pop shield, shock mount, downloadable instructional video, and 6-meter XLR cable to plug the mic into your interface. While the microphone is not very portable, it comes with a dust cover to keep it safe in your studio when not in use.
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The AKG P420 is extremely versatile
AKG’s microphone has a dual-diaphragm on its condenser, so it can provide multiple polar patterns, including cardioid, omnidirectional, and bi-directional. This makes the P420 extremely versatile, and can be used for vocals, instruments, whole-room recordings, and more. It provides the option to switch on a high-pass filter to reduce the proximity effect and the level of room noise, and the option to switch on a preattenuation pad to reduce distortion coming from sounds with a high volume.
This condenser microphone comes with a shock mount and a carrying case, but you’ll want to buy a pop-filter for it to reduce those plosives and fricatives. It also requires +44V to +52V phantom power. The build is all metal, making it durable, and it has a static condenser, so you’ll want to keep it in the shock mount at all times to reduce unwanted noise.
AKG P420 Cardioid Pattern:
AKG P420 Bi-Directional Pattern:
AKG P420 Omnidirectional Pattern:
AKG P420 High-Pass Filter:
AKG P420 -20dB Preattenuation Pad:
AKG P420 singing sample:
AKG P420 acoustic guitar sample:
AKG P420 electric guitar with amp sample:
The Electrovoice RE20 is the best XLR microphone for the voice
This professional dynamic microphone is used in radio stations all across the world, but it serves just as well in recording vocal music. Its bass roll off switch minimizes the proximity effect, so you can get nice and close if you want to record ASMR, and its frequency response highlights the vocal range. You don’t need any phantom power to use this all-metal microphone.
The large humbucking coil diaphragm mitigates unwanted internal and room noise, as well as emphasize the vocal frequencies. The RE20 has a cardioid polar pattern, so it won’t pick up noise from its backside. The mic comes with a stand adapter and a carrying case, and has an internal pop filter and an internal shock mount. There is an option to purchase an external shock mount separately, if you want to add that extra protection against handling noise.
You’ll get the best bang for your buck with the AT2020
The Audio-Technica AT2020 is a condenser microphone that requires +48V phantom power, so you’ll have to invest in some kind of external preamp or interface. It has a cardioid polar pattern, and a slightly higher self-noise than normal, averaging at 20dB(A), so it is best used for vocals or close-miked instruments. Additionally, its low sensitivity combined with its ability to intake loud noises without producing distortion makes it most effective for close-proximity recording.
This metal XLR microphone comes with a stand mount, threaded mount adapter, and carrying pouch. It has a static condenser, so you’ll want to consider buying a shock mount for it to reduce handling noise. Additionally, it doesn’t come with a pop filter, so you’ll definitely want to add one to your shopping cart. For a cheap microphone, the AT2020 has good sound quality, but if you’re looking for additional features or included add-ons, you may want to consider a more expensive mic.
Audio-Technica AT2020 speaking sample:
Audio-Technica AT2020 singing sample:
Audio-Technica AT2020 acoustic guitar sample:
Audio-Technica AT2020 electric guitar sample:
For the best on an unlimited budget, grab the Shure SM7b
One of the best XLR mics in the business is the Shure SM7b, but it’s pretty expensive. If money is no object, this is definitely a microphone you want to have in your closet. It reproduces vocals extremely well and rejects off-axis noise for a crystal clear pickup. Its build is super durable as well, so you don’t need to worry that your $400 will be spent in vain. The mic comes with a pop filter installed and effectively reduces plosives and fricatives.
Related: Best vocal microphones
The Shure SM7b has switches that let you choose between three frequency responses: Flat, Bass rolloff, and Mid-range emphasis (presence boost). This helps make the microphone more versatile, and it can very effectively be used to record instruments besides vocals. It’s truly a tank of a microphone that can be applied to whatever you need it for in the studio.
Best XLR microphones: Notable mentions
- Rode NT1: If you want a slightly more neutral frequency response than the Rode NT1-A offers, the Rode NT1 is an equally great condenser microphone with an even lower self-noise than the Rode NT1-A.
- sE Electronics sE2300: This is one of the best sounding mics out there due to its neutral-leaning frequency response with a slight presence boost. The presence boost enhances vocal clarity and instrumental resonances by amplifying the harmonic frequencies. Unfortunately it is quite expensive.
- Shure MV7: Shure’s hybrid USB/XLR microphone is a very versatile option for podcasters and collaborators. You can use the outputs simultaneously to record a low-res reference file, and high-resolution file for edits. The touch control system is cool, but not very useful, because anytime you touch the mic, the vibrations are recorded. Shure’s desktop software is extremely useful, and easy to understand, making this an approachable mic for beginners and enthusiasts alike.
- Shure 55SH Series II: If you like the idea of the Shure SM58 but want something a bit more stylish, this dynamic microphone is for you. The classic Elvis mic is well suited to recording vocals and has great sound quality.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, right now the AKG P420 is on sale for $149 and the Audio-Technica AT2020 is on sale for $99.
XLR cables that have a female XLR on one end and a male XLR on the other end have the most reliable connection because they keep the signal balanced. If you want the cheapest option, the AmazonBasics branded cables start at just $7 USD, but people who put their equipment through the ringer should get the more durable Rapco Horizon N1M1, which will run you about $25 USD for a 25-foot cable.