Modern manufacturing techniques coupled with economies of scale and intense market competition has been good news for us as consumers. It means that highly advanced products are now available to us at bargain basement prices.
With microphones, for musical performance and recording, this is particularly true. There’s an absolute plethora of cheap microphones available offering top notch performance that won’t give your wallet a heart attack.
So what are the best cheap microphones? Well, in this article we break it all down for you – it’s all about bang for buck with an upper price limit of $150. Many are actually significantly less than that.
We have a number of microphone related articles. Feel free to take a look around.
- The four main microphone types
- A side note…
- 1. Audio Technica AT2020 Large Diaphragm Condenser
- 2. Shure SM57 Dynamic Microphone
- 4. Lewitt LCT 140 AIR
- 5. MXL R144
In the best cheap mic stable there are several different types of microphone available so we’ve chosen the best by type: dynamic microphones; large diaphragm condensers; small diaphragm condensers; and ribbon mics.
We’ve made our choices by assessing price, build quality, performance, sound and application.
Dynamic vs condenser mics. Find out the difference!
The four main microphone types
We cover four microphone flavors in this best cheap microphones shoot out. It’s important to understand the differences.
Mention dynamic microphones and the Shure SM57 and SM58 will inevitably spring to mind. The market is much wider than these two legendary products, but as our review will reveal, they’re hard to beat.
Dynamic microphones are often referred to as workmanlike and that’s because they’re used extensively for live performance and recording applications. They incorporate a moving coil magnetic diaphragm to produce the audio signal.
We can’t all have an acoustically treated room to record in, so a condenser mic just might be too sensitive. Because of their ability to reject sound other than what’s in front of them, dynamics are recommended for less than perfect environments.
They’re sturdily constructed, affordable, can handle high SPLs (sound pressure levels) without distortion and, unlike condenser mics, they don’t need phantom power. Generally they can take some serious abuse physically and sonically.
Their versatility extends to vocals, drum kits, overheads, mic’ing up guitar and bass cabs, acoustic instruments and a ton of other stuff.
Large Diaphragm Condensers
Before we get started on condenser microphones – large or small diaphragm – remember you’ll need phantom power to get them to work. Most (if not all) audio interfaces come with this functionality. Let’s move on.
When it comes to versatility, it’s a toss-up between dynamic and large diaphragm condenser microphones.
Most people think of large diaphragm condensers as vocal mics and that’s certainly true, but they’re also used effectively on acoustic guitar, drum overheads and even guitar cabs so their flexibility isn’t in question here.
They’re much more sensitive than dynamic microphones so they tend to be used in recording applications rather than for live performances where their attention to sonic detail really comes to the fore on vocals, acoustic guitars or piano. They are however more prone to distortion and overload.
Because of their inherent sensitivity you’ll definitely need a popshield (to minimise sibilants and plosives on vocals) and also a shockmount to keep things steady.
Condensers pick up everything – including your neighbor’s dog barking – so an acoustically treated room is recommended. Oh and you’ll need phantom power so make sure your audio interface can provide it.
Small Diaphragm Condensers
Whereas the diaphragm on a large diaphragm condenser microphone is usually around 1”, it’ll be no surprise that the diaphragm on a small diaphragm condenser is…smaller!
They’re often referred to as pencil mics so that’ll give you some idea of their dimensions. Large diaphragm condensers tend to be side-addressed, which means you sing into the side of the microphone. Small diaphragm condensers are end-addressed.
Small diaphragm condensers generally produce more self-noise that their large diaphragm siblings but in just about every other aspect, SDCs are, on paper at least, technically superior: excellent detailed and rapid transient response (response to fluctuations in sonic dynamics); extended high frequency response and a consistent pickup pattern.
Because of the levels of detail they capture, where small diaphragm condensers really excel are with mic’ing up acoustic guitar, piano, stringed instruments and drum overheads. They’re also good on banjo, mandolin and yep, even vocals, although they’re not particularly renowned for solo voices. Great on choirs though. Not surprisingly, they’re used quite a bit for classical music. They also need phantom power.
Sensitive, fragile and once the exclusive domain of professional studios, ribbon microphones have since become much more mainstream – even to the point that we’ve included two in this review of cheap microphones. Not so long ago, this wouldn’t have been economically possible.
Ribbon mics have a character all their own. Excellent on vocals, choirs, strings and a ton of other things, they’re often used when you need to faithfully record a specific sound – perhaps a particular guitar/amp combo, a quirky vocal or even brass and percussion.
Many associate them with a vintage vibe. Often, they’ll succeed when everything else has failed. They have a knack of capturing sound exactly as its produced, taking in everything from the player to the natural ambience of a room. They don’t need phantom power to operate.
If you can only afford one mic it probably wouldn’t be a ribbon, but sometimes only a ribbon will do.
A side note…
These are all XLR-connected microphones so irrespective of microphone type, if you’re using your mic for recording on a computer, you’ll need a mixer or an audio interface.
Because you can’t simply plug these microphones straight into your computer. If you want to do that, you’ll need a USB microphone but don’t expect the same quality. And if you’re thinking of buying a condenser microphone – large or small diaphragm – you’ll need to get an audio interface with 48V phantom power. Most do, but check.
Dynamic and ribbon mics don’t need phantom power.
OK let’s get to it. If you’re looking for the best cheap microphones that’ll deliver the goods, you’re in the right place!
Pound for pound, the best cheap microphone for recording
We’re straight into the world of condenser microphones – and while we appreciate there are exceptions, that means we’re talking about studio applications here because condenser mics are all about detail.
Our winner in this best cheap microphones shortlist is the Audio Technica AT2020 condenser mic. It’s an XLR large diaphragm, side address (you sing into the side of it, not the end) microphone that despite its sensitivity in use, is actually really well built and solid, weighing in at 345g.
We wouldn’t advise testing the theory but it should survive a knock or two!
The AT2020 condenser microphone features a 120-degree cardioid polar pattern so it’s sensitive to sound from the front only, with excellent sound isolation from the sides and rear. We like the way the mic has a ‘back’ label so there’s no danger of using this mic the wrong way round.
Spec wise, it cuts the mustard. Frequency response is 20-20,000 Hz but it can also handle quite hefty volumes up to 144dB. Signal to noise ratio is 74dB which is respectable at this price.
Accessories are basic but just fine. You get a microphone stand mount for 5/8″-27 threaded stands; a 5/8″-27 to 3/8″-16 threaded adapter; and a soft protective pouch.
This is quite a bright sounding mic, but it offers pretty well-balanced results across the sound spectrum. The lower mids are warm and smooth. Out of the box, some may find it a little harsh – but others would call it vocal ‘airiness’. Either way it’s easily remedied with EQ. A popshield is highly recommended.
This guy seems to be having a lot of fun with the AT2020 condenser mic. The video will also give you some idea of how it sounds:
- Versatile. Great results on vocals and acoustic guitar, but also on percussion, horns, piano and drum overheads. Some fortunate souls have even had good results mic’ing guitar cabs
- Can handle high sound pressure levels (SPLs) for a condenser
- Robust metal construction
- The price. Compared to other budget microphones, you get a lot of microphone for a modest amount of money
- No shockmount and no XLR cable supplied. Something has to give but please, an XLR cable?
- Not necessarily a con but like any condenser microphone, this is a sensitive mic that will work better in a room with decent acoustics
- Some may find the upper mids and high frequencies a little harsh for vocals
- Not the quietest mic in terms of self-noise. You need to get quite close to the source to avoid excessive amounts of gain
There are better large diaphragm condenser mics out there but not at this price point. It’s versatile, robust and an ideal entry point into the world of condenser microphones. A proper workhorse and absolutely worthy of inclusion in our best cheap microphones shopping list.
Who should consider the Audio Technica AT2020?
Good for entry-level home recordists and more experienced sound engineers alike wanting a versatile, cost-effective versatile large diaphragm condenser microphone.
Also those looking to make the step up from a USB microphone to an XLR condenser microphone/audio interface-based setup.
The best dynamic microphone for flexibility and versatility
Live or in the studio, the Shure SM57 unidirectional dynamic microphone needs no introduction – and it’s a great budget microphone.
Since its launch in 1965, it has been the de facto microphone for mic’ing up guitar amplifiers but it’s also excellent on other instruments too like acoustic guitar, brass, snare drums, harmonica and pianos.
It also excels as a drum overhead mic and it’s great on vocals. Hook it up to your mixer, audio interface or PA system via XLR cable.
The 40Hz-15,000Hz frequency response is tailored for instruments, with a presence boost at 4-8kHz. Its cardioid pattern means it picks up sound from the front of the mic while doing a great job of reducing background noise from the sides and back.
It also has a strong proximity effect which means the closer you get to the source, the more emphasized the bass frequencies on this mic become. This is why it works so well with guitar amplifiers. Experimentation with mic placement is recommended. Even try using it off axis.
Weighing in at 284g and constructed from dark gray, enamel painted, die-cast steel with a polycarbonate grille and a stainless-steel screen, this is a virtually indestructible microphone. An internal pneumatic shockmount system helps keep handling noise under control.
Useless fact: the SM57 mic has been used at the podium for Presidential speeches for the past 40 years!
- Absolutely bulletproof. When you buy an SM57 it’ll last for decades
- Revered as a guitar amp mic, but awesome on other instruments as well. And yep, decent on vocals, particularly for metalheads, screamers and rockers
- Cardioid polar pattern is highly front focused and rejects sound from sides and rear. Forgiving in a less than perfect acoustic environment
- Can handle insane SPLs (sound pressure levels) without distortion
- Awesome value for money – amongst the best cheap microphones out there
- Low sensitivity. For recording applications you’ll need a decent preamp/interface to get the required volume. Too much gain = noise
- For vocal recording you’ll need a popshield to tame those plosives
- No XLR cable supplied
One user said: “Would probably sound just as good if you shot it out of a cannon into the woods and found it 10 years later.”
Well that just about sums up the SM57. Sonically, versatility is its strong point and it has a multitude of uses. Primarily it is an instrument microphone but, depending on your style, it works really well on vocals.
Who should consider this microphone?
Anyone wanting one of the best all round instrument microphones in the business who also wants to use it for vocals as well. It’s a sound investment because it’ll last a lifetime.
The best dynamic microphone for live vocals
If the Shure SM57 is legendary as an instrument microphone, then the SM58 commands the same respect as a vocal mic. For live performances, it’s probably the bestselling mic of all time.
Its construction has the same bombproof characteristics as its sibling, but the SM58 features a foam filled grille to make it more plosive resistant. The 20Hz – 15,000Hz frequency response is more attuned to vocals with a brightened mid-range and bass roll-off to control proximity effect. Not too bright; not too dark. Pretty perfectly balanced in fact.
It’s shape, particularly with the spherical steel mesh grille means it’s not so versatile as an instrument mic as the 57 and it’s not really designed to get up close and personal to guitar cabs. It is a cardioid though so most of the sound is absorbed through the front with good sound rejection from the sides and back.
For vocalists, the shape is much better to hold. The SM57 just doesn’t feel that brilliant held in the hand.
- A supremely capable vocal microphone for live performers – with a frequency curve to suit a wide range of vocal styles
- Rigid and robust
- Reassuringly weighty in the hand for live performers
- The built-in pop filter is quite effective
- We’re talking budget microphones here. The SM58 is a real bargain
- Suffers from the same low sensitivity as the SM57. You need quite a bit of gain to hit the required volume when recording
- Because of the bass rolloff, the SM58 isn’t particularly suited to bass instruments although when recording you could use EQ to compensate
A legendary live vocal microphone that will also do the job in a recording environment. As a dedicated all-round mic for recording, perhaps not top of the pile in our list of best cheap microphones.
Who should consider this microphone?
Vocalists basically – particularly on stage. It’s an industry standard for good reason that’ll survive the rigors of live performance night after night.
SM57 vs SM58
If you’re after a vocal mic predominantly for using live then it’s a no brainer; we’d go for the SM58. The integral pop filter means less of a ‘raw’ sound than the SM57 and it feels much better in the hand.
But in practically all other circumstances, for us, the SM57 is the winner by a whisker and that’s simply because in our opinion it’s a better vocal mic than the SM58 is an instrument mic.
This short video explains the primary differences between the SM57 and SM58:
And if you want to know more about the proximity effect:
The best small diaphragm condenser
Austria-based Lewitt Audio are the new kid on the block in microphone circles but since 2009, when they emerged in the marketplace they’ve made a big impact in the world of best budget microphones.
Renowned musician, producer and sound engineer Warren Huart is a big fan of Lewitt microphones. In this video he takes a look at the Lewitt LCT 140 AIR and also another product from the Lewitt stable – the LCT 040 MATCH which are matched pair microphones. Definitely worth a look.
With so many products at his disposal, it’s testament to the quality of the LCT 140 AIR condenser mic that he rates this microphone so highly. As you’ll see from this video, he uses Lewitt microphones literally every day in his studio.
The Lewitt LCT 140 AIR is a permanently polarized cardioid small diaphragm condenser that weighs just 2.3oz (66g) yet with its aluminum case manages to feel substantial.
With a maximum SPL of 135dB it won’t shy away from volume and like other condenser mics it requires 48V of phantom power to operate.
It’s a very quiet mic. It ships with a windshield, microphone clip and protective bag.
Probably the standout feature of the 140 AIR mic however, aside from its fantastic sonic qualities and warm natural sound are three slidable switches on the side of the mic that enable you to engage additional functionality built into this microphone.
The first switch is SOUND and you have two options here: AIR and FLAT. AIR adds high end sparkle, shimmer, gloss and zing to the sound without any hint of harshness. It achieves this via a presence boost that starts at around 2kHz rising to 12kHz FLAT is basically 100% natural with no coloring.
The next switch is FILTER which is an 80Hz low cut filter if you need to remove annoying low-end rumbles; the third switch is PAD which reduces loud sounds by 12dB if they’re getting a bit wild!
- Fantastically detailed audio quality across the sound spectrum with excellent transient response
- Great on acoustic guitar, piano, choirs, as drum overheads, congas, percussion and snare drums
- The AIR option switch is a killer feature. Adds smooth top end zing. Perfect on acoustic guitar
- Great price
This mic really doesn’t have any
An absolutely marvellous example of an inexpensive small diaphragm condenser that punches well above its weight. At this price point there’s little to touch it.
Take a listen to the mic being used on acoustic guitar:
Who should consider this microphone?
Anyone who needs a mic to capture the natural sound of acoustic instruments with clarity and precision.
The best budget ribbon microphone
Top end ribbon microphones are expensive so it’s good to be able to select a decent example at the budget end of things.
Ribbon mics nearly always have figure of eight polar patterns which means they accept sound from both the front and rear of the microphones but reject from the sides. The MXL R144 is one such mic – but the sound from the rear isn’t the same as that from the front. It seems a little brighter.
Ribbon microphones are fragile – try very hard not to drop them, and certainly don’t blow across the ribbon as you run the risk of doing some serious damage but the MXL does its best to offer some protection via its all metal body and grille.
The mic performs particularly well on acoustic guitar, brass and vocals and a drum overhead mic. Some nice accessories are included comprising a shockmount, carrying case and cleaning cloth. Ribbon mics may be fragile but the MXL R144 can still handle 130dB which adds to its flexibility. Frequency range is 20Hz – 17kHz.
Many people get really good results pairing an MXL R144 mic with a Shure SM57 on guitar cabs. The darker sound of the MXL complements the brighter sounding SM57 perfectly.
- A great price for an entry-level ribbon microphone
- If you’re happy tweaking EQ and experimenting with mic placement the results are worth it. Warm mids and the ability to tame a harsh top end are the trademarks of ribbon microphones. But make no mistake, this is quite a dark sounding mic
- Fast transient response
- Nice case included
- Not so much a con but you absolutely must use a popshield with the MXL R144 mic – and actually with ribbon microphones in general. They’re particularly susceptible to plosives
- It’s unlikely you’ll get the exact sound you want without some tweaking straight out of the box
- A tendency to be boomy and very prone to the proximity effect if you get too close to the source
- Low sensitivity which means you’ll need a decent quality, quiet mic preamp
- Poor quality shockmount. It holds the mic OK but does nothing to reduce vibration
Many of the things that afflict the MXL R144 are common to ribbon microphones in general so let’s not be too hasty here.
For the price, this provides an excellent introduction to ribbon microphones. Be prepared to work with the thing and the results can be excellent. Just don’t expect perfection out of the box. And don’t forget the pop filter!
Here’s a really informative video that sees the MXL R144 mic used on vocals, electric guitar and acoustic guitar:
Who should consider this microphone?
If you already have a couple of mics – perhaps a decent dynamic and a large diaphragm condenser for example – getting a ribbon microphone just adds another dimension to your armoury. If this is you, the MXL R144 is a really nice sounding, excellently priced option.
It’s great that there are budget products in this category. Ribbon mics are an acquired taste; you often have to work harder to achieve your sonic objectives but often they’ll reward you with qualities and a character of sound that you just can’t get with other mic types.
As this video explains, mic placement is everything:
Generally ribbons are something you acquire once you’ve got a decent dynamic and a condenser under your belt first. We really can’t recommend them in isolation if you’re on a budget.
To be honest, we don’t actually recommend just having one microphone in your collection. Different mics do different things so asking one specific type to do everything is a bit unfair.
But this is the real world and we all have to start somewhere.
There’s one scenario that does have a clear winner though: if you want a great budget microphone for live vocals, go with the Shure SM58.
For recording, things get a little more convoluted and it will depend on your application. If mic’ing up an electric guitar cab is in the equation then you really should have a Shure SM57 in the cupboard. You can also use it for acoustic instruments and vocals.
If your passion is acoustic instruments and vocals that could stretch to a guitar cab from time to time, a large diaphragm condenser like the Audio Technica AT2020 is the way to go. Ideally, have both to cover all your bases.
Of course, as instrument mics with supreme clarity and accuracy, let’s not forget small diaphragm condensers like the Lewitt LCT140 AIR which are superb for this application.
But if you can only afford one microphone and one microphone only, go for the AT2020 large diaphragm condenser. When it comes to budget microphones, it takes pole position in our best cheap microphones shortlist!