The Differences Between Condenser And Ribbon Microphones


Ribbon and condenser microphones are two types of microphones that are both popular in the studio. Although these microphone are cherished by musicians, engineers, and audiophiles alike, they are different from one another in many ways.

What are the differences between ribbon and condenser microphones? The main difference between ribbon and condenser mics is that ribbon mic convert sound via electromagnetic induction and condensers do so via electrostatic principles. Ribbon mics have conductive ribbon-like diaphragms and simple circuitry while condensers have active capsules and complex circuitry.

This quick answer tells us the big picture difference. However, there are many other differences and generalities we should be aware of between ribbon and condenser microphones. In this article, we’ll discuss these differences in detail.


Ribbon Vs. Condenser Microphones

Tables are an easy way to disseminate information. Let’s look at the differences between ribbon and condenser mics in the following table:

 Ribbon MicrophonesCondenser Microphones
Transducer PrincipleElectromagnetic inductionElectrostatic principles
Active/PassivePassive or activeActive
Frequency ResponseNaturalFlat/extended
Transient ResponseAccurateFast
Polar PatternsNaturally bidirectionalAll (especially with dual-diaphragm capsule)
SensitivityVery low (high if active)High
Self-NoiseNo (yes if active)Yes
Maximum Sound Pressure LevelOften too high to measureOften within practical limits
Transformer coupled outputPassive: always
Active: sometimes
Sometimes
DurabilityFragileSomewhat durable
PriceModerateCheap to very expensive

To read more about ribbon microphones, check out my article Dynamic Ribbon Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.


Similarities Between Ribbon And Condenser Microphones

As I mentioned above, these two microphone types are commonplace in studios, though condensers are certainly more popular. Other than the fact both types are microphones, that’s pretty much where the similarities stop.

Though most ribbon microphones are passive, some models are active and contain active circuitries (field-effect transistors, amplifiers, and printed circuit boards) somewhat similar to those found in most condenser microphones.


Transducer Principle

The greatest difference between ribbon and condenser microphones is the difference in transducer principles. Ribbon mics work on electromagnetic induction while condenser mics convert sound to audio via electrostatic principles.

Ribbon microphones work on electromagnetic induction.

Electromagnetic induction is defined as the production of a voltage across an electrical conductor as that conductor experiences a changing magnetic field.

Here is a simple diagram of a ribbon microphone baffle (transducer element):

The ribbon-like diaphragm of a ribbon mic is made of conductive material (most often aluminum). This ribbon is suspended within a magnetic baffle and moves according to the varying sound pressure at its surface.

So as the conductive ribbon diaphragm moves within the permanent magnetic field supplied by the baffle, it experiences a change in the field. This causes a voltage to be induced across the ribbon.

As the ribbon moves back and forth about its resting position, a coinciding AC voltage (microphone signal) is created.

Condenser microphones work on electrostatic principles.

To explain this, we must understand that a condenser microphone capsule acts as a parallel-plate capacitor.

Here is a diagram of a condenser microphone capsule (transducer element):

This capacitor is made up of a movable front plate (the diaphragm) and a stationary backplate. It is permanently charged with a fixed amount of charge which is supplied via electret material, DC bias voltage, phantom power, or an external power supply.

With a fixed charge, any change in capacitance causes an inversely proportionate change in voltage. The distance between the two plates is a factor in the capacitance of the condenser capsule.

So, as the diaphragm moves according to sound pressure, it alters the distance between the plates and, therefore, the capacitance of the capsule. This alternating capacitance causes an inversely proportionate AC voltage (mic signal) to be created across the capacitor.

To learn more about microphone capsules, check out my article What Is A Microphone Capsule? (Plus Top 3 Most Popular Capsules).


Active/Passive

All condenser microphones are active, meaning that they require power to function properly. Most ribbon microphones (but not all), on the other hand, are passive and do not require power to function.

Condenser microphones are always active.

All condenser microphones require power to function properly. The active components that require powering are as follows:

  • Vacuum tubes: vacuum tube electronics act as impedance converters and pseudo-amplifiers in tube condenser mics. These tube are most often triodes and require an external power supply to be heated properly.
  • Impedance converters: non-tube impedance converters are made from solid-state field-effect transistors, which require less power than tubes, but need power nonetheless. Depending on the mic, this power can be supplied by various methods (electret material, DC bias voltage, phantom power).
  • Capsules: “true” condenser microphones require external power to properly charge their capsules. Electret condensers have a quasi-permanent charge on their capsules via electret material.
  • Printed circuit boards: PCBs encompass the main circuitry of a microphone. Some condenser microphones have PCBs and some PCBs require power in order run their active components (like amplifiers).

Ribbon microphones are typically passive.

As mentioned, ribbon mics work on electromagnetic induction which requires no power to take place. Ribbon mics typically have output transformers which are also passive.

A relatively simple circuit of the ribbon baffle and the output-coupled transformer makes up a great number of ribbon microphones.

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Royer R-121 passive ribbon microphone

However, some ribbon mics are designed with active components to help boost their relatively weak mic signals. These components include vacuum tubes, printed circuit boards, amplifiers, and even impedance converters.

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Royer R-122 active ribbon microphone

Royer is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.

For more information on active and passive microphones, check out my article Do Microphones Need Power To Function Properly?


Frequency Response

Generally speaking, ribbon microphones have natural-sounding frequency responses while condenser microphones have very accurate but sterile sounding frequency responses.

Condenser microphones have relatively flat and extended frequency responses, often with a slight increase in sensitivity in the upper-frequency range.

Many condenser microphones will have a fairly flat frequency response across the audible spectrum (20 Hz – 20,000 Hz). This means they’ll capture audio very accurately.

Large-diaphragm condensers often have a slight boost in the high-frequency range followed by a slight roll-off at the very high-end. This helps to add presence to the mic signal but may also cause the mic to sound harsh.

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Neumann TLM 102 (large-diaphragm condenser) frequency response

Small-diaphragm condensers benefit from extended frequency responses (sometimes well above the audible spectrum) and a flatter high-end frequency response.

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Neumann KM 184 (small-diaphragm condenser) frequency response

Condenser mic diaphragms are often tuned in such a way that their natural resonant frequencies are diminished in their frequency response.

Ribbon microphones have relatively flat frequency responses with gradual, natural-sounding high-end roll-offs.

Most ribbon mics have a fairly flat frequency response until their descriptive gentle roll-off of high frequencies. This roll-off is often described as sounding “natural” since our ears naturally lose sensitivity in these upper-frequency ranges.

Ribbon microphones are suspended relatively loose in their baffles and so typically their resonant frequency is well below the range of human hearing.

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AEA R84 ribbon microphone frequency response

If we look at the history of microphone popularity, we’ll see that in the era of analog tape recording, ribbon microphones fell out of favour and condensers took over.

This is because the “natural” high-end roll-off of the ribbon microphones would compound with the high-end roll-off of tape. As a result, the ribbon mics sounded very muffled and dull.

Condenser microphones, on the other hand, were very bright and helped to offset the analog equipment and tape’s naturally diminished high-end.

Fast forward to the days of digital recording and we see a resurgence of ribbon microphones. The roll-off of the ribbon mic now sounds fuller and more natural in the sterile recording of digital audio.

On the contrary, condenser microphones are criticized for sounding overly bright and even harsh on digital recordings due to their seemingly great high-end frequency response.

For more information on microphone frequency response, check out my article Complete Guide To Microphone Frequency Response (With Mic Examples).


Transient Response

In general, the transient responses of ribbon and condenser microphones are accurate. However, the edge on transient response would have to go to ribbon microphones.

Condenser microphones have very fast and accurate transient responses.

The diaphragms of condenser microphones are generally very thin and very reactive to the sound pressure variations at their surfaces. This means their transient responses are very accurate.

Large-diaphragm condenser diaphragms are typically a bit slower due to their size and weight while small-diaphragms are faster.

Unfortunately, some condenser diaphragms are a bit too reactive and portray what is called “overshoot” where they artificially accentuate transients. As with any microphone characteristic, this can be both a pro and/or a con depending on the application.

Ribbon microphones have very natural transient responses.

The extremely thin yet relatively loosely suspended diaphragm or a ribbon mic typically reacts to transients very naturally.

The typical ribbon mic has a transient response that very closely represents the real transients in the sound around it. Rarely is there overshoot and rarely does the ribbon act slower than the actual sound transient at its diaphragm.


Polar Patterns

While condenser microphones are easily capable of achieving any polar pattern (and are oftentimes multi-pattern), ribbon mics are naturally bidirectional.

Condenser mics can have any polar pattern.

Condenser mic capsules are easily designed to portray any polar pattern the manufacturer desires.

These capsules can be designed with one diaphragm and any sort of acoustic labyrinth to create omnidirectional or unidirectional patterns. Shotgun/lobar patterns are achievable by including a long interference tube in front of the capsule.

Condenser capsules can also be designed with dual-diaphragms in order to achieve the bidirectional pattern and allow for multiple switchable polar patterns within the same microphone.

Ribbon mics have a bidirectional polar pattern by default.

Most ribbon mics on the market today will have a bidirectional polar pattern due to the nature of their design.

Bidirectional (figure-8) polar pattern 2-D diagram/graph

The way a ribbon mic baffle works is that it has a ribbon suspended with its front and back open to sound and its sides closely surrounded in a magnetic structure.

Therefore, the ribbon is naturally equally sensitive to sounds from the front and back.

Other polar patterns are achievable by altering the acoustic labyrinth around the diaphragm, which offsets or even stops sound from reaching one side of the ribbon diaphragm.

To read more on microphone polar patterns, please consider reading my articles The Complete Guide To Microphone Polar Patterns and What Is A Bidirectional/Figure-8 Microphone? (With Mic Examples).


Sensitivity

Between ribbon, dynamic, and condenser microphones, ribbon mics are generally the least sensitive while condenser are generally the most sensitive.

To read my article on the general differences between all three mic types, check out Differences Between Dynamic, Condenser, & Ribbon Microphones.

Condenser mics are very sensitive.

Condenser microphones, as we’ve discussed, have internal components that either truly amplify the mic signal or at least boost its levels in other ways.

This means that the typically condenser microphone will have a higher sensitivity rating than its passive counterparts.

Ribbon microphone are not very sensitive.

The majority of ribbon microphones are passive. They rely on a strong magnetic field to induce a decent mic level signal in the diaphragm as well as a high-quality output transformer to help boost the voltage of the signal. These passive electromagnetic devices do not produce a very strong mic signal and, therefore, ribbon mics do not have very high sensitivity ratings.

That being said, some ribbon microphones are active and have similar active components to condenser mics.

Active ribbon microphones can have very high sensitivity ratings. This is often a huge benefit since we do not need to rely so heavily on preamp gain to boost high-sensitivity mic signals to line level!

For a deeper look into microphone sensitivity, check out my article What Is Microphone Sensitivity? An In-Depth Description.


Self-Noise

Self-noise ratings belong to active microphones and so condensers and active ribbons all have self-noise while passive ribbons do not.

Condenser microphones have self-noise.

The active components (impedance converters, printed circuit boards, vacuum tubes) all produce a bit of noise. Quiet as it may be, this noise is picked up by the microphone.

But the most relevant issue in terms of self-noise is the noise these active components add to the signal. Any time the mic signal is amplified, there is potential for the noise-floor of the signal to also be raised.

Active ribbon mics have self-noise but passive ribbon mics do not.

For the reasons stated above, active ribbon microphones also have self-noise.

Passive ribbon microphones, on the other hand, do not have self-noise ratings because there are no devices in the mics that add noise to the signal.

To learn more about microphone self-noise, please read through my article What Is Microphone Self-Noise? (Equivalent Noise Level).


Maximum Sound Pressure Level

A microphone’s maximum sound pressure level refers to the SPL at the mic diaphragm that will cause the microphone to produce a distorted audio signal.

Condenser microphones all have a max SPL.

All condenser microphones will have a max SPL rating since it’s easy to calculate the point at which their internal circuits will get overloaded. Often times this max SPL rating is in a practical range for actual sound sources a mic may be required to capture.

Ribbon microphones also typically have a max SPL.

Ribbon microphones, on the other hand, have max SPL rating that refer to the point when the ribbon diaphragm itself will starts behaving non-linearly. It’s much easier to “overload” the thin ribbon diaphragm than it is to overload the passive electronics of a ribbon mic.

This max SPL rating is often (but not always) above the practical sound pressure levels a ribbon mic would be exposed to.

Depending on the inner circuitry and components of an active ribbon microphone, we could have a max SPL in the range of possibility.

To read into max SPL in greater detail, click through to my article What Does A Microphone’s Maximum Sound Pressure Level Actually Mean?


Transformer Or Transformerless?

An output transformer helps to balance the audio and adjust the mic signal voltage before the microphone’s signal is finally outputted.

Some condenser microphones have transformers.

It used to be that when condenser microphones needed vacuum tube electronics, all condenser mics had output transformers. This was to help balance the audio and provide some final adjustments to the signal before the output.

Most often these were step-down transformers that were used to fix the impedance of the mic signal rather than the voltage (strength).

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Neumann KM 84 (1966) condenser microphone has an output transformer

Early solid-state condensers also had transformers. However, in the late 1970s, manufacturers began opting for transformerless output designs.

Neumann KM 184 (1993) condenser microphone has a transformerless output

Neumann is also featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.

These designs were made of solid-state electronics that could potentially reduce noise and certainly reduce cost and real estate within the microphone. High-quality transformers have not dropped much in price over the ages, but transistors and other solid-state components continue to become cheaper.

Today, there many condensers on the market with and without transformers.

Nearly all ribbon microphones have transformers.

All passive ribbon microphones have step-up transformers to boost the low-level signal from the ribbon diaphragm and to help protect the microphone from unwanted DC voltage (like phantom power).

However, like the solid-state condensers above, some active ribbon microphones are designed with balanced transformerless output circuitry rather than transformers.

I should note that active tube ribbon mics typically do have output transformers, like their tube condenser counterparts.

To read more about transformers (and transistors for that matter), please check out my article Do All Microphones Have Transformers And Transistors? (+ Mic Examples).


Durability

In the beginning of this article, I mentioned the popularity of both ribbon and condenser microphones in the studio. Although studio microphones do not need to be the most durable, it’s still an important aspect of microphone longevity. Condenser mics are typically pretty durable while ribbons ofter require a bit more caution and care when in use and when not in use.

Most condensers are durable.

Although I would never recommend foul play with any microphone, most condensers are built to last.

This is particularly true of the solid-state (FET) condenser microphones. The printed circuit boards are stationary and durable; the condenser capsule is typically fairly resistant to damage; and the entire mic is covered with the mic body and grille.

Some multi-pattern condensers may be at higher risk of damge since they have more moving parts. However, in my experience, solid-state condensers will last a long time so long as they aren’t subjected to high humidity or physical damage.

Tube condensers, on the other hand, are less durable. Vacuum tubes are made of glass and are relatively fragile. They are sensitive to temperature and can break if exposed to prolonged cold. Additionally, vacuum tubes will eventually wear out while solid-state electronics will last much longer.

Ribbons are fairly fragile.

Ribbon diaphragms are notoriously fragile.

The benefits of passive ribbon mics is that they are fairly resistant to temperature and humidity.

However, the downside is that their diaphragms can be easily stretched or snapped.

Sharp particles of air have been known to tear a ribbon diaphragm or two, so care should be taken when moving a ribbon mic around.

Shorting the connection to a ribbon mic when any kind of DC bias or phantom power is on the line can damage the ribbon as well. It’s best to avoid hot patching a ribbon mic altogether.


Price

Ribbon and condenser microphones both have very wide price ranges, though the condenser microphones easily out-range the ribbons.

Price range of condenser microphones:

Condenser microphone prices range from less than $0.01 (for bulk orders of cheap electret mics) to well over $10,000 (for vintage tube condenser microphones). There are condenser microphones at every price point in between these two loosely defined limits.

Price range of ribbon microphones:

Ribbon microphone prices range from under $100 for consumer-grade ribbon microphones to multiple thousand dollar for the high-end (mostly active) ribbon mics and vintage models.

For more information on the price of microphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles: How Much Do Microphones Cost? (With Pricing Examples) and Top 20 Most Expensive Microphones On The Market Today.


What are the differences between condenser and moving-coil dynamic microphones? The main difference between dynamic and condenser mics is that dynamics convert sound to audio via electromagnetic induction while condensers do so via electrostatic principles. This leads to differences in design and overall sound. Condensers are active while dynamics are usually passive.

To learn about the differences between condenser and moving-coil dynamic mics in greater detail, check out my article Differences Between Dynamic & Condenser Microphones.

What are the differences between ribbon and moving-coil dynamic microphones? In moving-coil dynamic mics, the mic signal is induced across a conductive element (coil) attached to a diaphragm. With ribbon mics, the diaphragm itself acts as the conductor. Moving-coil mics benefit from better durability, ease of use, and lower prices while ribbon mics sound much more natural.

For more information on the differences between moving-coil and ribbon dynamic mics, check out my article Differences Between Moving-Coil & Ribbon Dynamic Microphones.

For an in-depth read on dynamic microphones, check out my article Moving-Coil Dynamic Microphones: The In-Depth Guide.

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