The Transom Handheld Mic Shootout

Transom Mic Shootout-Handheld Mics

At the end of our studio announce mic shootout we plugged-up a few popular handheld mics used for interviews, to get a sense of the different sonic character of each mic. For this particular test, to eliminate other variables, we stayed in the large, soundproofed room at indre Studios in Phladelphia. So this test does not address how well each mic would behave in a more typical, noisy environment, we merely focused on the sound of a voice on each mic. In the interest of keeping the recording levels as consistent as possible, all mics were plugged into the studio’s SSL board, rather than fed into a more typical field recorder. Nonetheless, these recordings should give an idea of the different characters of the mics.

When recording the examples, we identified the mics only by letter code, to try to avoid preconceptions about which mics we preferred. We’ll reveal the mics’ identities at the end, but we suggest that you listen first, and decide which you like before checking the key. (And no, we didn’t do it the order the mics are lined-up in the photo…)

For this test the handheld microphones were indeed hand-held, with the interviewer holding the mic approximately 6 to 12 inches away from the subject’s mouth, slightly off to the side. The exact distance was adjusted by the interviewer by ear, he was listening through Sony MDR7506 headphones, and moving the mic as needed. Some mics sound better closer-in, others a little further back. Finding the right position for any individual mic requires some trial and error. We tried to present examples recorded at something near the ideal position for each mic, rather than some arbitrary distance that might not be appropriate for some of the mics.

Thanks to our interviewer, John Diliberto, and interviewee, Elinoar Astrinsky, for great autobiographical ad-libbing, and to Bob Leedom and Larry Josephson for contributing mics to the test. Special thanks to Indre Studios for their generous donation of their facilities, and to AIR (The Association of Independents in Radio) for logistical support.

We recommend listening to these audio clips on good headphones or studio monitors, the different character of each microphone will be hard to discern if played through standard computer speakers.

Mic Sample
A
Download
Listen to “Handheld Mic A”
B
Download
Listen to “Handheld Mic B”
C
Download
Listen to “Handheld Mic C”
D
Download
Listen to “Handheld Mic D”
E
Download
Listen to “Handheld Mic E”
F
Download
Listen to “Handheld Mic F”
G
Download
Listen to “Handheld Mic G”
H
Download
Listen to “Handheld Mic H”

When you’re done listening, and have made notes about your likes and dislikes, you can see names, pictures and details of the mics.

View the answer key page.

Handheld versus Lavalier

A common question about handheld mics is whether to hand-hold at all: we see people on TV every day with lavalier mics clipped to shirts or ties, and that sure looks a lot easier. And there certainly are times when a lavalier is the right tool for the job, but from a pure audio quality standpoint, they’re almost alwasya a comprimise. To test this hypothesis, we clipped a lavalier to a concerence attendee, and also hand-held a shotgun mic, and ran each mic into a different channel of a recorder. We then toggled the playback, so that the continuous conversation switches from one mic to the other. The difference is pretty clear.

Listen:

Download
Listen to “Toggling between lavalier and shotgun mic”
Lavalier (Sennheiser K3U/MKE2)
Shotgun (Sennheiser K6/ME66)
:00 – :04
:04 – :18
:18 – :32
:32 – :36

See the Transom Studio Mic Shootout.

Jeff Towne

About
Jeff Towne

During more than 25 years as a producer of the nationally-syndicated radio program Echoes. Jeff Towne has recorded interviews and musical performances in locations ranging from closets to cathedrals, outdoor stages to professional studios, turning them into radio shows and podcasts. Jeff is also the Tools Editor for Transom.org, a Peabody Award-winning website dedicated to channeling new voices to public media. At Transom, he reviews field recorders, microphones and software, helping both beginning and experienced audio producers choose their tools. In his spare time, Jeff will probably be taking pictures of his lunch in that little restaurant with the strange name that you've been wondering about. 

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  • Jay Allison

    8.07.06

    Reply
    Mic Shootout Part Two: Handheld Mics

    Our TOOLS Editor Jeff Towne is back with the final episode of the Mic Shootout, this time for field-recording gear. A handful of handhelds squares off in a controlled environment. You get to listen to audio files of each mic and decide which you like best. Then, flip the page to see which mic goes with which audio. Educational and Fun.

    Report your reactions here:

  • Bob Leedom

    8.07.06

    Reply
    This array of contenders showed clear differences…

    John’s voice seemed to reveal more and/or challenge these mics more than Elinoar’s. I couldn’t decide between B or C as my favorites. I believe B seemed to have more bottom because it was a hyper-cardiod. I own mic D. Does anyone want to buy a Beyer MCE58? (Loser!) I bought it because I thought it would sound great like it’s dynamic brother MC58, just hotter. Wrong! I should have listened first! I found mic A to be better than it’s lesser cousin mic H, which in my opinion was the second loser. I also like the shotgun (mic F) where you can or need to from about 2 feet away. The bass response is full and round to my ears. Finally, for $100 mic G (Shure SM58) was quite useable and a good value for the money. The others seemed to fall somewhere in the middle.

    – Bob Leedom

  • H Howard

    8.07.06

    Reply
    Bad file for mic b

    I am hearing and seeing digital grunge between 4.9 and 6.8 seconds. Is this in the original recording
    or just the mp3 conversion?

  • Jeff Towne

    8.08.06

    Reply
    Mic B grunge

    re the "grunge" do you mean the noise right after she says "somewhere else"? There is indeed some unpleasant non-linear audio there, but that’s not a digital artifact, it’s the signal that came from the mic, an important thing to note. I know the waveform looks whacky, but that can happen when the low end is seriously overloading…

    That Rode NT3 has a really nice sound (in my opinion) but is REALLY easy to overload with a little breath noise or even the wind across the capsule from moving the mic quickly. It also is pretty sensitive to handling noise. So believe it or not, that grunge is wind noise on the capsule as the interviewer moves the mic, and perhaps some vibration noise from his grip shifting on the mic body.

    So, if one likes the sound of that mic, it’s possible to mitigate handling noise, by getting some foam around the handle, or keeping it in a shock-mount, etc, and if one is sure to keep a serious windscreen on the mic, it can give good results. But if the circumstances where it will be used will make that too much of a pain, one might want to choose a different mic.

  • GLEN

    8.18.06

    Reply
    My Vote…

    I vote for Mic D, closely followed by F…. Mic D is the Beyer MCE 58… Yes, I agree, the is thinner… But here is where I battle with the many people who think that listeners are hearing their production on some sort of DAB receiver!!! I never forget all the extra eq added in the rack at most FM stations – and as for AM, well that speaks for itself… The sound level recorded by the MCE 58 sounds wonderful, as if someone has manually adjusted the difference between the male and female voice… I know this did not occur… So here is yet another characteristic of what I believe is a great mic. I’ll certainly have the Beyer mic on my wish-list!!! Glen.. Homepage: http://www.radiodocumentary.net

  • jenifer johnson

    9.14.06

    Reply
    and mine

    …Coming from a lay audiophile using a pair of not-so-hot headphones, I liked the way G made me feel. I closed my eyes and let the human voice do its vibrational work in my head and body. I opted for this simple experimental procedure because that is what we essentially want when we hear recordings of the voice — to capture narrative content and to be moved by human sound vibrations.

  • Steve Voeller

    10.11.06

    Reply
    Useful to eliminate mics…

    Thanks for a very interesting comparison, and for choosing low-cost mics. For me, the biggest point of the test is to show how different all these tools are (and I don’t mean the audio clips). The Sennheiser sounds great, but I know from experience that although it eliminates a lot of off-axis sound, what does come through is rather distorted, and that effects the overall sound quality. It can also be tricky to keep it aimed accurately when you are working it close. Those are two qualities that won’t show up in the test. It sounds like the diaphragm on the Rode is not protected very well, so it’s probably not a good candidate for work in the field. And as a voiceover mike, the fact that it’s hypercard doesn’t help me. So I would guess it’s useful for studio music recordings that need to separate one instrument from another…? I use the Beyer M58 for handheld. It wasn’t my favorite sound among the test files, but it works well in fairly windy conditions and the output is hot for a dynamic mic. My favorite, of the mics I thought would work in the field, was the AKG-900.

  • Pete Bansen

    1.11.07

    Reply
    VERY interesting!

    This is a great experiment and it really shows the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between these mics. The woman interviewee sounds pretty good on all, but the deeper man’s voice is a lot more revealing as to how well different mics handle the lower registers. I have an RE-50 and a 635A and to my ear they have always sounded much more similar than they do here. The 635A sounds bad after hearing all of these other mics, but in real life, it’s really not a bad mic at all. Maybe I just have a good one…

  • trudeau

    5.13.07

    Reply

    Those of us on the periphery of sound gathering are more likely to know the basic Shure sm58, so thanks for including this great reference item. The sm58 sound clip made my top 3.

    I have a Roland/Edirol R-09, also reviewed in your Tools, and I adore its portability. So far I haven’t produced anything for a hi-fi radio show or other critical production so I don’t mind the noise floor mentioned by the transom reviewer. The unit’s ease of use puts it in a special category. And battery consumption is phenomenally low.

  • Glenn Nelson

    6.05.07

    Reply
    HELP: (DUMB) Question about Plugging in a Mic

    Would I be able to plug any of these into a flash recorder that has only a 3.5 mm mini-plug?

  • Janet

    9.13.07

    Reply
    Field Mic

    I am just beginning my foray into the world of radio documentary production. I am going to be traveling and want to do some recording on the road. Can someone suggest the lightest/smallest mic that still has decent sound quality and is appropriate for interviewing?

    Thanks for the great Web site and board.

  • marc dykeman

    11.12.07

    Reply
    beyer mce 58

    I am having some issues with this beyer 58 that I just bought. I am getting a ground buzz that only stops if I simultaneously hold the mic and touch metal on the recorder (tascam hd-p2). I am assuming that this is a result of the unbalanced setup of this mic, but the manual said it was fine to use balanced and unbalanced connections.

    I have had no trouble using a c-1000 with this same recorder, and different cables give the same result.

    If this is the way the mic is supposed to work, is there a way to rewire it so that I don’t have to keep my hand on the recorder the whole time?

    -confused in MD

  • Stalker

    12.09.07

    Reply
    My rank of the microphones

    This is my ratings based on the blind test.

    A Electrovoice RE-50, 3 stars
    B Rode NT-3, 2 stars (I own this mic)
    C AKG C-900, 2 stars
    D Beyer MCE58, 1 star
    E AKG C-1000, 3 stars
    F Sennheiser K6/ME66, 4 stars (WINNER!)
    G Shure SM58, 2 stars
    H Electrovoice 635A, 1 star

  • Michael Minard

    1.07.08

    Reply
    Recording to I-pod via Memo attachment

    I have an attachment to my ipod that allows me to input either a 3.5mm line or mic jack and record. Any concerns I should consider with this recording medium?

    Many thanks,

    Michael

  • Mike Messenger

    6.26.08

    Reply
    Hmmm…

    I would really like if these tests were repeated in a windy environment. Also, a simple test of passing the microphone between two hands to hear the handling noise. I also would like if there was a standard dialog to get a better feel for the quality of the microphones.

    In addition, I’d like to know how you set up the omni’s as opposed to the directional microphones.

    I’m doing a lot of field recordings, as that’s the point of hand held microphones for documentary purposes. The subtle characteristics of the microphones is only important after handling noise and wind is overcome. I’d love for a more extensive review of each of these microphones to be done!

  • Andrew

    9.30.11

    Reply

    The sample files are no longer on this page.
    Just blank space next to the letters.

    The studio shootout was excellent and I really want to hear these examples.
    thank you.
    -Andrew

  • barrett

    10.03.11

    Reply

    Andrew, thanks for the heads-up: soundfiles are back,
    BG, Transom Code Monkey

  • Mrmarkie

    7.26.12

    Reply

    Great shootout as far as it goes, and still relevant as there’s not many good comparisons of handhelds out there. These days it’s mostly broadcast and podcasting shootouts. How about a renewed handheld mic test with some of @Messenger’s suggestions, and talking more about gain for the 1/8″ input/mini-recorder folks? Seems like we’re hitting a sweet spot for performance/price. We need more data!

  • karen werner

    10.26.12

    Reply

    I am looking to buy an AKG c900 microphone and having a hard time locating one for sale. Any leads appreciated.

    • bstrom650

      3.29.14

      Reply

      I just ordered one used from a Guitar Center in Michigan for $66 shipped. There are some on eBay I believe – just gotta look hard. Be sure to get a quad star (balanced) cable to make the most of any mic.. B&H has a good selection of Canares where I am buying two 10-footers.

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