Skip to main content

Best XLR microphones in 2021: pro mics for filmmaking, podcasts and vlogging

Included in this guide:

Best XLR microphone: Shure SM58
(Image credit: Shure/Digital Camera World)

The best XLR microphones will help you take the next step in professional audio capture, and they can be just as important as any camera or lens decision. The first piece of kit we upgrade to when making creative content at home or in our workspace may be a new video camera, mirrorless, or webcam, but while this is an important part of the tech space, few often realise that decent audio is just as crucial. 

Instead of relying on the in-built laptop mic, or falling back on the smartphones we have in our pocket to record audio, it’s vitally important to invest in a good quality professional microphone.

Most professional-grade microphones use the XLR connection because of its robustness and reliability. A solid latching mechanism and rubber insulation makes the XLR cable and connection very hard to dislodge or damage, so it’s no wonder audio, lighting, and video manufacturers use this type of connection for their pro kit. 

Another alternative to simple 3.5mm mic connections is a USB microphone – but while these are great for those who have a simple home setup requiring a microphone for just one style of recording audio, for those that need more flexibility and better sound quality, an XLR microphone is the way to go.

There are a few general things to look for in an XLR mic. For the average user microphones can be broken down into two categories: dynamic and condenser. Dynamic microphones work similarly to loudspeakers and generally require more audio volume to record sounds, whereas condenser microphones run a low voltage across a diaphragm for increased sensitivity. 

Polar patterns (which direction mics pick up from), attenuation pads, (reducing sensitivity) and low-cut filters (to reduce proximity effect) are all features that will make a big difference to recording quality, but not all microphones have these features, and there’s a wide breadth of price points to consider. So read on to find out which XLR microphone is best for you in 2021.

Best XLR microphones in 2021

(Image credit: Shure)

1. Shure SM58

A no-nonsense vocal XLR mic for live or studio use

Specifications
Type: Dynamic
Polar pattern: Cardioid
Pad: N/A
Max SPL: 180dB
Weight: 370g
Reasons to buy
+Absolutely bulletproof+In-built pop filter
Reasons to avoid
-Not as sensitive as condenser-Doesn’t come with XLR lead

The Shure SM58 has been around for 55 years, and used by many of the greatest musical artists and performers worldwide. It’s not the cheapest microphone out there, but is extremely inexpensive for what you get. It doesn’t require phantom power to run and has an in-built pneumatic shock mount system to reduce handling vibrations during use. Ideal for vocal work both on and off-stage, it’s one hell of a workhorse and can take a real battering. The cardioid (unidirectional) pickup pattern has a consistent frequency response throughout the axis and operates between 50 - 15,000Hz.

(Image credit: sE Electronics)

2. sE Electronics sE2200

An economical large diaphragm condenser perfect for a range of uses

Specifications
Type: Condenser
Polar pattern: Cardioid
Pad: -10dB and -20dB
Max SPL: 125dB
Weight: 611g
Reasons to buy
+Ideal for vocals and even loud instruments+Premium feel metal body
Reasons to avoid
-Fiddly to fit in supplied cradle-Not the lowest SNR

Originally the choice of the student because of its low price, the sE2200 is now carried by audiophiles for even the biggest recording sessions. A 1” diaphragm condenser, the mic is capable of capturing even the softest of sounds. But if you need to record something extremely loud, like heavy guitar amps, the -10dB and -20dB pads on offer make this possible to a maximum of 145dB SPL with the latter pad engaged. Finished in a gorgeous metal body its good looks are also designed to reject electrical interference. The XLR input is also gold-plated for a strong connection. The sE2200 also includes two Low-Cut switches at 80Hz and 160Hz to reduce the proximity effect for close-mic situations.

(Image credit: Rode)

3. Rode NT1

Once a student’s go-to, the NT1 is now perfect for pro podcasts and voice-overs

Specifications
Type: Condenser
Polar pattern: Cardioid
Pad: N/A
Max SPL: 132dB
Weight: 440g
Reasons to buy
+Low SNR+Great clarity for vocals
Reasons to avoid
-No pad for close-micing-No low-cut switches

Another sensitive 1-inch large diaphragm condenser, the NT1, although identical in looks to the older NT1-A, has been completely redesigned for better performance. It has a low 4dB Signal-to-Noise Ratio and features a gold-sputtered diaphragm for accurate audio rendition. The lack of switches/controls on the mic body make this the perfect no-fuss budget condenser for those who just want to get on with it. Handling noise and sibilance is reduced through the integrated shock mount and pop shield, respectively.

(Image credit: Neumann)

4. Neumann U87 Ai

The gold standard of professional vocal microphones

Specifications
Type: Condenser
Polar pattern: Omnidirectional, Cardioid, Figure-8
Pad: -10dB
Max SPL: 127dB
Weight: 500g
Reasons to buy
+Incredible frequency response+Ultra low self-noise
Reasons to avoid
-Very expensive-Not the most rugged

An absolute staple in any studio’s arsenal is the U87 Ai. Known for decades as one of the best microphones for vocals, it’s also versatile for a number of musical instruments. It has three polar patterns to choose from: omnidirectional; cardioid; and figure-8 (bidirectional) making it ideal for many different recording positions. The switchable -10dB pad means it can also be used on louder sound sources, with a Low-Cut switch perfect at removing proximity effect sound or simply clearing up vocals. The iconic smoothness and clarity of the midrange means it’s ideal for voice overs, podcasts, audiobooks, and other vocal-led uses, but is equally at home in classical or jazz recordings.

(Image credit: AKG)

5. AKG C214

An excellent mid-priced all-rounder

Specifications
Type: Condenser
Polar pattern: Cardioid
Pad: -20dB
Max SPL: 156dB
Weight: 280g
Reasons to buy
+High max SPL+Integrated suspension
Reasons to avoid
-Mid-range price-Not the prettiest

The C214, based on the sound of the C414 XLII but aimed at a more affordable price bracket, is a go-to microphone for anyone hoping to get high quality recordings at a reasonable price. It’s ideal for acoustic recording such as vocals, piano, strings, etc. It has the highest SPL of any condenser on this list making it suitable for any kind of sound source, either soft or loud. Priced only slightly higher than the Rode NT1 it does have a much more premium quality tone than its competitor, thanks to the C414 dual-capsule system and patented AKG Back-Plate Technology.

(Image credit: Audio-Technica)

6. Audio-Technica AT2020

Light on the wallet but heavy on quality

Specifications
Type: Condenser
Polar pattern: Cardioid
Pad: N/A
Max SPL: 144dB
Weight: 345g
Reasons to buy
+Fantastic value for money+Beautiful design
Reasons to avoid
-No pad or low-cut switches-SNR higher than others

The XLR-only AT2020 is the least expensive microphone in this buying guide but still packs a punch when it comes to recording quality. The signal to noise ratio is slightly higher than some of its competitors and it lacks any control for pad or low-cut options. But what this no-frills mic does better than most is to open up professional-quality recording options to users that want high-end sound without the price tag. This mic is the one to go for if starting up a home-studio or wanting to get a decent mic for podcasting or voice-overs to accompany video work.

Read more:

Best microphones (all types)
Best mic isolation shields
Best iPhone microphones
Best mic boom arms
Best audio recorders

Jason Parnell-Brookes

Jason Parnell-Brookes is an Internationally award-winning photographer,  writer, and former Technique Editor of N-Photo magazine. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014. Jason is a qualified teacher, Masters graduate and works with many high profile international clients.