You’ve likely noticed that there are many different microphones and microphone types in the world of audio. The main 3 types of microphones are the dynamic, condenser, and ribbon mic.
What are the differences between dynamic, condenser, and ribbon microphones? The main difference between dynamic, condenser, and ribbon mics is the way they convert sound to audio. As transducers, dynamic and ribbon mics rely on electromagnetic induction while condensers work on electrostatic principles. The transducer elements (diaphragms and capsules) are vastly different.
In this article, we’ll discuss all the general differences between dynamic, condenser, and ribbon microphones. By the time you’re done reading this, you should be able to distinguish these microphones and make better choices as to which type works best for your particular application!
Defining The 3 Main Microphone Types
Before we get into the differences of the 3 main mic types, let’s quickly define each of them. As I’ve mentioned above, the main differences are within the transducer elements (capsules/cartridges/baffles) of each microphone type.
The Dynamic Microphone
First, when we say “dynamic microphone,” we typically mean “moving-coil dynamic microphone.” The term “dynamic” really refers to the electromagnetic transducer type, so ribbon mics (which we’ll get to shortly) are also technically dynamic microphones.
A dynamic microphone converts sound waves into audio signals via electromagnetic induction. It does so with a movable diaphragm and attached conductive coil that sits within a magnetic field in a permanent magnetic structure.
Let’s take a look at a cross-sectional diagram of a [moving-coil] dynamic microphone’s transducer element:
Note that, to better distinguish between the pieces, the conductive coil is drawn as if it is not attached to the diaphragm, even though it is in reality.
Let’s quickly run through how a dynamic microphone works:
- Sound waves cause small variations in pressure at one of both sides of the diaphragm, which causes it to move.
- As the diaphragm moves, the attached conductive coil moves with it.
- This conductive coil oscillates back and forth within a permanent magnetic field that is supplied by the magnets and pole pieces. The magnetic structure is built with a cylindrical space for the coil to fit without touching the magnets. One magnetic pole is to the interior of the coil while the other magnetic pole is to the exterior.
- As the conductive coil moves within the permanent magnetic field, it experiences a changing magnetic flux. This changing flux induces a voltage across the conductive coil due to electromagnetic induction.
- Because the coil is oscillating (alternating directions), it produces an AC voltage. This AC voltage (audio signal) coincides with the sound waves at the mic’s diaphragm!
- This AC voltage is taken from the coil with electrical lead wires and sent through the passive circuitry of the dynamic mic before being outputted from the mic.
The Condenser Microphone
A condenser microphone converts sound waves into audio signals via electrostatic principles. It does so with a capsule designed like a parallel-plate capacitor. One plate is movable (the diaphragm) and the other is stationary (the backplate).
Let’s take a look at a cross-sectional diagram of a condenser microphone’s transducer element:
Let’s quickly run through how a condenser microphone works:
- Before a condenser microphone can function properly, there must be a constant charge on the parallel-plate capacitor. This charge can be permanent (with electret material) or can be provided via phantom power or DC biasing voltage. With a constant charge, any change in capacitance between the plates will cause an inversely proportionate change in voltage.
- Sound waves cause small variations in pressure at one of both sides of the diaphragm, which causes it to move.
- As the diaphragm moves back and forth, the distance between the plates increases and decreases. The distance between the plates of a capacitor is a factor in the capacitance of the capacitor. As the distance changes, the capacitance changes. As the capacitance changes, the voltage changes.
- Because the diaphragm is oscillating (alternating directions), an AC voltage. This AC voltage (audio signal) coincides with the sound waves at the mic’s diaphragm!
- This AC voltage has high impedance and is run through an active impedance converter before sent through the inner circuitry of the condenser mic and outputted.
The Ribbon Microphone
As mentioned earlier, ribbon microphone transducers are dynamic. The term “ribbon microphone” refers to the diaphragm of these mics and has been popularized to distinguish them from moving-coil dynamic mics.
A ribbon microphone converts sound waves into audio signals via electromagnetic induction. It does so with a conductive ribbon-like diaphragm suspended within a magnetic field in a permanent magnetic structure.
Let’s take a look at a cross-sectional diagram of a [dynamic] ribbon microphone’s transducer element:
Let’s quickly run through how a ribbon microphone works:
- Sound waves cause small variations in pressure at one of both sides of the conductive ribbon-like diaphragm, which causes it to move.
- This ribbon diaphragm oscillates back and forth within a permanent magnetic field that is supplied by the magnetic structure.
- As the ribbon moves within the permanent magnetic field, it experiences a changing magnetic flux. This changing flux induces a voltage across the ribbon due to electromagnetic induction.
- Because the ribbon diaphragm is oscillating (alternating directions), it produces an AC voltage. This AC voltage (audio signal) coincides with the sound waves at the mic’s diaphragm!
- Electrical lead wires attached to each end of the ribbon diaphragm take this AC voltage and send through the passive circuitry of the ribbon mic before being outputted.
So we can infer some differences between the 3 mic types by simply understanding how they act as transducers. Now that we have a basic understanding of these 3 mic types, let’s dig a little deeper into their differences.
What Are The Differences Between Dynamic, Condenser, And Ribbon Microphones?
Tables are an effective way to display information quickly. Have a look at the general differences between the 3 main microphone types below:
Note that many of the differences here are generalized. That being said, these generalities are useful because they represent the “rule” rather than the “exception.”
|Dynamic Microphones||Condenser Microphones||Ribbon Microphones|
|Transducer Type||Electromagnetic induction||Electrostatic principles||Electromagnetic induction|
|Frequency Response||Coloured with poor high-end||Extended and flat||Natural roll-off of high-end|
|Polar Patterns||Any pattern but bidirectional||Any pattern and sometimes multi-pattern options||Naturally bidirectional but can have any pattern|
|Sensitivity||Low sensitivity||High sensitivity||Poor sensitivity when passive.
High sensitivity when active
|Self-Noise||None||Yes||Yes, if active|
|Maximum Sound Pressure Level||Often too high to measure||Measurable||Measurable, but often ver high|
|Durability||Very durable||Somewhat durable||Least durable|
|Price||Lowest Price||Wide price range||Usually fairly expensive|
|Active/Passive?||Passive||Active||Passive or Active|
Let’s talk about each point in more detail here:
Differences In Transducer Type
As I’ve alluded to previously, there are only 2 main transducer methods in the 3 main mic types. They are:
- Dynamic: converts sound into audio via electromagnetic induction.
- Condenser: converts sound into audio vie electrostatic principles.
Dynamic [moving-coil] microphones and ribbon microphones are dynamic transducers.
Moving-coil dynamic microphones have a conductive coil attached to their diaphragms. As this coil moves in the magnetic field, the mic signal is induced across it.
Ribbon microphone diaphragm are, themselves, conductive. As they oscillate in the magnetic field, a mic signal is induces across them.
Condenser microphones, on the other hand, have a different way of producing audio that relies on altering the capacitance of a parallel-plate capacitor-like capsule.
For more information on the microphone transducer types, check out my article Microphone Types: The 2 Primary Transducer Types + 5 Subtypes.
Differences In Active And Passive Components
Active components require power to function while passive components do not. It’s critical to know the differences between active mics and passive mics if we are to use microphones properly and in order to understand many of the following differences in this article.
Dynamic microphones are always passive.
Dynamic microphones do not contain active components. They have passive transducer elements and optional passive output transformers.
Condenser microphones are always active.
Condenser mic capsules output high-impedance signals that require active impedance converters (either field-effect transistors or vacuum tubes). By converting the impedance, the signal can actually travel through the circuits without severe degradation.
There are also sometimes active components in the printed circuit boards of a condenser mic.
The ribbon microphone market features passive and active options.
Ribbon microphones are dynamic and are naturally passive.
However, some ribbon mics are supplemented with active components (amplifiers) in order for them to output stronger signals.
For further reading on active and passive microphones, check out my article Do Microphones Need Power To Function Properly?
Differences In Frequency Response
Certain microphone types will have different generalities when it comes to frequency response.
Dynamic microphones generally have the most coloured frequency responses.
The weight of the typical dynamic microphone diaphragm/coil combination makes it difficult for these microphones to capture high-end frequencies. High frequencies are relatively weak and have very short wavelength which have difficulty moving the diaphragm.
Additionally, these diaphragms often have resonant frequencies in the audible range due to their weight and diameter. These resonant frequencies can be damped but often cause some peaks in the frequency response.
A few examples of dynamic microphones with coloured frequency responses are the Shure SM57 and Beta 52A:
Condenser microphones generally have the most flattest, most extended frequency responses.
Additionally, condenser microphones are often separated into 3 distinct categories, each with their own generalities when it comes to frequency response:
1. Large-diaphragm condensers tend to have very wide and extended frequency responses and commonly have a slight boost in the upper frequency range.
2. Small-diaphragm condensers generally have the flattest frequency responses that extend across the human range of hearing.
3. Miniature condenser microphones (like lavalier/body mics) tend to have frequency response that are more coloured than thei SDC and LDC counterparts. Many miniature mics have interchangeable caps to alter their frequency response by altering the acoustic labyrinths around the capsule.
The extended high-end of condenser microphones was a large part of their rise to prominence in recording studios. In the days of analog tape recording, the record would naturally lose top-end. Condenser microphones allowed for brighter and more natural sounding records on analog tape!
Ribbon microphones generally have very natural sounding roll-offs in their high end.
Ribbon diaphragms are typically tensioned loose enough so that their resonant frequencies are below the audible range.
Like their moving-coil dynamic counterparts, ribbon mics tend to loose sensitivity in the upper end. However, the ribbon is still sensitive to these high frequencies. The result is a natural sounding roll-off of high-end rather than a sharp cut-off.
The gradual roll-off of ribbon mics has been a big part of their resurgence in the digital audio era. This “natural” roll-off sounded muddy in analog tape recordings, but sounds incredible in the world of digital audio, which is often described as “perfect” and “sterile.”
For more information on frequency response, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples)
• What Is Microphone Frequency Response?
Differences In Polar Patterns
Polar patterns are more microphone dependent than they are microphone type dependent, so to speak. However, there is something to be said about each microphone type and their common/achievable polar patterns.
Dynamic microphones are designed with and capable of all the main polar patterns except the true bidirectional pattern.
Dynamic microphones designed feature many omnidirectional and unidirectional (cardioid-type) polar patterns.
However, due to their design (a diaphragm with a conductive coil attached to its rear), it’s impossible to achieve a true pressure-gradient (bidirectional/figure-8) polar pattern with a moving-coil dynamic mic.
Condenser microphone designs enjoy the versatility of all the main polar patterns. Many condenser microphones even have adjustable polar patterns, which are easily achievable with a dual-diaphragm condenser capsule.
Condenser microphone designs easily accommodate dual-diaphragm capsules. By combining 2 back-to-back capsules, any common polar pattern is achievable.
In single-diaphragm condenser microphones, omnidirectional and unidirectional patterns are easily achievable.
Ribbon microphones are naturally bidirectional. It takes clever engineering to create other polar patterns in a ribbon mic, but it is completely possible.
Unlike the moving-coil dynamic and the single-diaphragm condenser, the ribbon microphone, by design, has a true pressure-gradient element where both sides of the diaphragm are equally open to sound pressure.
In simpler terms, a ribbon microphone is naturally bidirectional.
That being said, there are methods of shaping the polar pattern of ribbon microphone into the standard omnidirectional and cardioid polar patterns.
For a detailed guide to all the different microphone polar patterns, check out my article The Complete Guide To Microphone Polar Patterns.
Differences In Sensitivity
Before we get into the general differences in sensitivity between the 3 main types of microphones, let’s define what a microphone sensitivity rating actually is.
Microphone sensitivity tells us how strong the mic’s output signal will be at a given sound pressure level. In other words, it tells us how effective the microphone is as a transducer (with its capsule and internal circuits).
Typically, a microphone’s sensitivity rating is given as:
AC voltage (in millivolts [mV] or decibels relative to voltage of 1 volt [dBV]) per 1 Pascal (94 dB SPL) of sound pressure at the mic diaphragm.
Dynamic microphones generally have sensitivity ratings between 1 to 6 mV/Pa (-60 to -44 dBV/Pa).
Dynamic microphones are passive, meaning there are no active components to amplify the signal.
That being said, some dynamic mics have output step-up transformers. These passive devices act, in part, to boost the voltage from a primary circuit (which involves the capsule/cartridge induced signal) in a secondary circuit, which leads to the mic output.
The transducer element of a dynamic microphone can only produce so much signal. A dynamic mic’s diaphragm moving-coil can only be so big with so many windings before it becomes too heavy for the diaphragm to move effectively.
Condenser microphones, with their internal amplifiers, generally have sensitivity ratings between 8 to 32 mV/Pa (-42 to -30 dBV/Pa).
Condenser capsules actually do not create a very strong mic signal. Rather, they output AC voltages with very high impedances that, without proper impedance conversion, would not be able to travel through any significant length of wiring before getting degraded.
So, immediately at the output of the capsule, condenser microphones have impedance converters. These are typically either vacuum tubes or field-effect transistors (FETs). In addition to lowering the signal impedance to a usable level, these active devices also provide pseudo-amplification to the mic signal.
Condenser microphones will also often be designed with printed circuit boards (PCBs) that feature amplifiers.
All this adds up to give condenser microphones relatively high sensitivity ratings.
Passive ribbon microphones generally have sensitivity ratings between 0.5 to 6 mV/Pa (-66 to -44 dBV/Pa).
Active ribbon microphones generally have sensitivity ratings between 8 to 32 mV/Pa (-42 to -30 dBV/Pa).
Passive ribbon microphones are among the least sensitive microphones on the market.
The ribbon transducer works on electromagnetic induction, but its conductive material is a thin ribbon diaphragm. Although ribbon mics generally sound much more natural than their moving-coil dynamic counterparts, their thin ribbons generally aren’t able to induce as much voltage as they move in the magnetic field.
Active ribbon microphones, on the other hand, have the internal amplification similar to the condenser microphones mentioned above. These amplifiers (FETs, op amps, vacuum tubes) boost the low-level signal from the ribbon element before the signal is outputted.
On top of this, nearly all ribbon microphones are designed with step-up transformers at their outputs.
For more information on microphone sensitivity, check the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Is Microphone Sensitivity? An In-Depth Description.
• What Is A Good Microphone Sensitivity Rating?
Differences In Self-Noise
Though all microphones are prone to some sort of self-noise, it is active microphones (and their active components in particular) that generate the noise we call “self-noise.”
Dynamic microphones are passive and therefore do not have self-noise ratings.
There are no active components that contribute to the self-noise of a dynamic mic. The noise caused by random air molecules hitting the diaphragm is negligible.
Condenser microphones have varying amounts of self-noise. In general, large-diaphragm condenser mics have less self-noise than their small-diaphragm counterparts.
The active components in condenser microphones produce noise that contributes to the self-noise of the microphone. These active components include the FET impedance converters; vacuum tubes; and printed circuit boards of the microphones.
As mentioned above, LDCs typically have less self-noise than SDCs. This is because large diaphragms capture more acoustic energy from the sound waves relative to the amount of noise produced by their active electronics.
Passive ribbon microphones do not have self-noise rating while active ribbon mics do.
If a ribbon microphones has active components, it will have self-noise. If the ribbon mic is passive, it will not have a self-noise rating.
For more information on self-noise, check out my article What Is Microphone Self-Noise? (Equivalent Noise Level).
Differences In Maximum Sound Pressure Level
The maximum sound pressure level of a microphone tells us the point at which a microphone will begin distorting due to the amount of sound pressure at its diaphragm.
Although some dynamic mics will have a specified maximum sound pressure level rating, the max SPL of these mics is often so high that it isn’t listed (or is immeasurable).
Moving-coil dynamic microphones are very difficult to overload. Most dynamic mics do not even have a specified max SPL. The real max SPL values are generally so high they aren’t practically attainable.
Condenser microphones nearly always have a maximum sound pressure level rating.
Condenser microphones will typically have a max SPL value because there is a practically achievable sound pressure level at which their signal will distort.
This is not necessarily because the capsule will be overloaded. In fact, it very rarely is. Rather, it is because the electronics within the mic (the impedance converter, tube, and/or printed circuit board) will be overloaded by the strength of the signal.
Ribbon microphones, both active and passive, will often have a maximum sound pressure level rating, though some passive ribbons will have excessively high max SPL ratings.
The ribbon diaphragm is the only diaphragm type that can be overloaded in practical situations, although this, again, is rare.
Passive ribbon mics may have a rated max SPL but it is generally very high. Active ribbon mics, like condensers, will generally be overloaded at higher SPLs because of the overloading of their internal circuitries.
To learn more about the maximum sound pressure level ratings of microphones, check out my article What Does A Microphone’s Maximum Sound Pressure Level Actually Mean?
Differences In Durability
Durability plays a big role in microphone application and longevity.
For instance, a live vocal or film shotgun microphone needs to be durable in order to withstand the rigours of the stage. On the contrary, a microphone with a better sound may be preferred in the safety of a studio, even though the mic may be more fragile.
Dynamic microphones feature the most durable microphones on the market.
Moving-coil dynamic mics are naturally very durable.
They have the most robust diaphragms since the diaphragm must hold an attache coil. The passive components of the dynamic microphones (mainly the transducer element and optional output transducer) are much more durable than the active components of condenser and active ribbon mics.
Condenser microphones, though not as durable as dynamic mics, are still pretty sturdy, especially if they do not have tube electronics.
Condensers are often considered fragile, though that’s not necessarily true.
The capsules of most condenser microphones are fairly tough, so long as they’re protected by a grille. The same goes for the solid-state electronics.
The vacuum tube electronics of a tube condenser are relatively delicate. Extra care should be taken when dealing with tube mics.
Ribbon microphones are notoriously fragile and are the least “durable,” though they will last a long time if taken care of properly.
The ribbon diaphragm is inherently fragile. For example, these thin corrugated ribbons can sustain damage from dust particles in the air as they are transported from one place to another. Similarly, ribbon mics can be blown out by strong bursts of air or even strong plosive energy.
Differences In Price
Often times, we’re limited by budget in terms of which microphone we choose to buy. Let’s take a look at the general price ranges of the 3 main microphone types.
Dynamic microphones have a relatively small price range.
Consumer-grade dynamic microphones can be bought for well under $50.
There are many “budget options” that used in professional settings every day. The famous Shure SM57 and SM58 are both about $100.
The most expensive dynamic microphones (like the Sennheiser MD 441U) are still under $1000.
Condenser microphones feature the cheapest microphones on the market and the most expensive microphones on the market with price points everywhere in between.
There are cheap electret condenser microphones that cost less than a penny when bough in large enough quantities (think of the microphones in consumer electronics).
On the flip side, the most expensive microphones in the world are condenser microphones (and more specifically tube condenser microphones).
Ribbon microphones are generally more expensive than moving-coil dynamic mics and have a wide price range.
A quality ribbon microphone will typically run well over $500.
However, the most expensive ribbon microphones (which have active tube electronics) are not nearly as expensive as the priciest condenser mics on the market.
For more information on microphone prices, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How Much Do Microphones Cost? (With Pricing Examples).
• Top 20 Most Expensive Microphones On The Market Today.
Is a dynamic or condenser microphone better for vocals? In studio environments, condenser microphones are often preferred over dynamics to capture vocals because they capture more of the nuance and character of the human voice. In noisy environments (like live venues), dynamics are preferred due to their ability to reject extraneous noise.
Are condenser microphones good for live performance? Though dynamic microphones are much more common in live performance, condenser mics certainly have their place. Condenser mics are often used a drum overhead mics (AKG C414s and Neumann KM 184s are popular) and also as vocal mics (Shure SM87 for example).