Actually, since most singers and bands starting out will be playing smaller venues, it’s debatable whether the extra fidelity of higher-end mics is that important.
When you are playing smaller venues, no matter your budget, the most important things are for the mic to be heard loud enough without feedback (tight and controlled polar pattern), to sound good within the limitations of the PA system (pleasant and accurate frequency response), and for it not to break halfway through a gig (great build quality).
There are many models that sound fantastic in controlled environments, but either are of a disappointingly poor build quality; for example, an otherwise well-renowned European company glues the top part of the mic grille, which can come clean off with a moderate hit! Others will have a boomy and overly-pronounced proximity effect (bass buildup when used up close), or will have oddly shaped polar patterns that will feed back unexpectedly.
If you can afford one, a higher-end microphone will breeze through pretty much any stage and sound fantastic along the way.
The models we recommend here are all products we would feel comfortable recommending in almost all situations. However, differences in feedback rejection and tonality, as well as the undeniable matter of price, need to be taken into account before deciding on your next purchase.
Budget Vocal Mics
Lowering prices without compromising quality is one aspect where company size does give a great advantage, and therefore in our vocal mic section we only recommend the two biggest brands, Sennheiser and Shure. These are possibly the only companies in this price range that don’t outsource to third-party contract manufacturers in the Far East, keeping their plants under very close scrutiny (Sennheiser’s is in Germany, Shure’s in Mexico), with facilities to scale up production reliably – and this shows in their products.
Dynamic – Cardioid – Neutral/flattering-sounding
Although many people would expect the seemingly ubiquitous SM58 to be the flag-bearer of the Shure brand in this article, we’ve gone with a more controversial choice in the form of its little brother, the PGA58. This model was supposed to be a mere update to the PG58, which was the brand’s previous budget vocal mic, but even though there are no mentions of sound quality differences, it is quite obvious that the newer version is better in many respects. The PGA58 looks elegant and understated, has a clean, natural, and balanced sound with extended, smooth treble, and sounds great on both male and female voices.
The polar pattern isn’t particularly tidy, but it is quite directional, which means that it will work well even on small stages.
One thing that lets the mic down is the handling noise – it lacks the complex pneumatic suspension system of the bigger sibling, and it can be more prone to plosives. It also only comes with a switch, which can be a headache for sound engineers if you use it without telling them. However, if the mic is left on a stand, this is the best-sounding microphone for the money, hands down. It is also as sturdy as you’ll ever need it to be, too.
A quick tip: the PGA58 has an on-off switch. If you find this off-putting (pun intended), the PGA57 is exactly the same diaphragm and body, just without the switch and with a slightly different grille. The grille changes the sound just a smidge, and we tended to prefer the 58 in an A/B comparison, but it’s otherwise exactly the same mic.
Sennheiser e 835
Dynamic – Cardioid – Present/flattering-sounding
This microphone is possibly one of the best deals in the pro-audio market, and the price has been coming down steadily over the years due to an almost completely automated manufacturing process. Its top-end might sound a bit grainy under close scrutiny in the studio, but one really can just raise the volume and have an impressively balanced and crisp sound in the average PA system. The low-end is more controlled than on the SM and PGA58 (sometimes even without a high pass filter), the presence peak is smaller and on a higher frequency, which makes it sound crisp whilst keeping the midrange realistic, and the treble is clear and extended.
Its effective pop filtering and controlled proximity effect mean it works well even for singers who “eat the mic” – a difficult task for many other models.
An experienced sound engineer might make other mics sound better in larger venues, but for rehearsal studios, bands setting up their own system, public-address spoken word events, and small venues, this microphone is as close to “plug in and go” as can you can get, even at twice this price point.
Bear in mind – the upper-midrange/lower-treble bump helps intelligibility on most vocals at lower volumes and on baritone male vocals, but can, on brasher PA systems, become a bit harsh on shouty female and high-pitched male singers – this can be EQ’ed out, but female vocalists might sound more pleasant on one of the other mics instead.
Dynamic – Supercardioid – Neutral/present-sounding
Although it looks almost the same, this supercardioid model from Sennheiser is quite different to the e835; whereas the cheaper offering has a bright, clear sound, the e845 is remarkably natural and smooth-sounding, with a more focussed midrange. The bass is very controlled, the midrange is smooth as butter, and the very top end is a bit recessed, but easy to lift with the basic EQ on any mixer. It doesn’t often impress in comparison to brighter mics, but will sound great with basically nothing but that small top-end lift, and will never get harsh. It’s quite directional, so not recommended for people who wander around the mic, but will pull the very difficult feat of providing a natural-sounding vocal that will nevertheless land on top of loud guitars and drums.
One thing to consider with this mic is the relatively large amount of pick-up from the back, due to a bigger-than-average back lobe in the polar pattern (more like a hypercardioid pattern than a supercardioid, really) which can cause problems in rehearsal rooms where the speakers are placed in front of the mic. However, this is never an issue in actual venues, so as long as you’re OK with positioning yourself the right way on rehearsals, the e845 will give you an incredibly natural sound with no feedback problems at pretty much any live gig.
High-End Dynamic Vocal Mics
If you’re a serious singer and you want a microphone that will actually enhance your performance, you will want to consider spending more on your microphone and really take that sound to the next level. People often balk at buying an expensive model, without realising that the guitarist right next to them will be lugging around several grand worth of gear every time! Even the most expensive vocal handheld will be cheaper than many classic instruments that are seen as a sensible purchase for professional musicians.
There are other dynamic mics that might sound fantastic, but most will have certain snags and drawbacks that put them behind these ones.
Hypercardioid – Present/flattering-sounding
Although never as famous as the SM58, (mainly due to the higher price and the rather delicate silver version that was available at the time the 58 came out), this microphone has been a staple of many live shows for decades. It’s one of the nicest-sounding dynamic microphones available at any price, and has been used in the studio to record lead vocals for many number one hits and platinum albums. The sound is natural, impressively detailed for a dynamic, and warm without becoming muddy. The presence boost is there, but doesn’t sound anywhere near as obvious as the one on a 58, for example.
Its handling noise is rather high and it is rather prone to plosives, but the branded windshield works really well for this, and the hypercardioid polar pattern (more of a supercardioid, really) is very well-controlled – it works great on a stand, particularly for guitar players who move about a bit.
Supercardioid – Present/flattering-sounding
Someone who wants the best guarantee that their pop or rock vocals will sound great no matter the environment, type of voice, or music genre, this might possibly the best choice. The handling noise is lower and the pop filtering better than many mics, the polar pattern is tight but not so much that you can’t wander around the mic a bit, and it sounds fantastic even when used very close-up.
The sound is crystal clear, with warm bass, clear midrange, and very clean top end, with a narrow treble peak to aid intelligibility. This allows it to cut through even through busy, loud guitars, yet retain a midrange naturalness that is very hard to carve out of the standard 58, for example. This is one of the few dynamic mics that might actually be too bright for some singers (louder female voices in particular), but it’s very easy to dial that back a bit with a basic mixer EQ and end up with a very balanced tone.
Detailed polar pattern graphs aren’t given with the product, which isn’t great practice, but in real-world usage the mic seems very resistant to feedback, and the bleed it does pick up sounds reasonably natural.
The durability of the mic might not be as great as the classic Shure and Sennheiser models (particularly with regards to moisture – the grille can get stained after just a few months of usage), but as long as you are careful with it (and you should, in any case), the mic should last a lifetime, and can definitely withstand more than a few knocks and drops. It also looks absolutely gorgeous (completely the opposite of its inexplicably gaudy packaging!) either handheld or on a stand.
Sennheiser MD 441
Dynamic – Supercardioid – Neutral/flattering-sounding
This mic was released in the early 70s, and is still the most expensive dynamic model available almost fifty years on. However, it is also arguably the best-sounding model, too. The frequency response is almost ruler flat, and the treble is impressively extended all the way up to 20 kHz, and yet it remains incredibly smooth and silky, with none of the peakiness or slight graininess one can find on practically any other dynamic mic. The circuitry and build quality are top notch, and it has many tone-tweaking options: several bass cut levels to get the best sound depending on the distance to the singer, and a very useful presence boost.
The shape is very unusual and striking in a 70s-retro kind of way, and people unfamiliar with it might give you some odd looks while pulling this out of the bag, but even though it is unusually long and rather bulky, it is actually just as good as a handheld as on a stand, with very good pop filtering and internal shock-mounting.
If you can afford it, and you like the look of it, this mic can really do no wrong. Do expect to get a spare black mic clip, since the clear one it comes with is flimsy at best!
By the way, there is another Sennheiser alternative, the MD 431, which is cheaper and looks a lot more like a standard handheld, although the sound is not quite as refined. It is, however, an outstanding mic in its own right, so if the MD 441 sounds right up your alley but you prefer a more standard-looking model, look into the smaller brother.
Dynamic – Cardioid – Neutral-sounding
Shure has been marketing this microphone very heavily for the last year, and it is obvious that they are very proud of it. It is, in technological terms, undeniably the most advanced dynamic microphone on the planet. It’s the only dynamic on the market that uses the same type of dual-diaphragm system that studio condensers use to minimise proximity effect, meaning that the voice doesn’t become thin when the singer backs away from the mic (a common problem if the singer doesn’t have the best technique).
In practice, the mic can still get slightly muddy when the singer is right on it, but anything from an inch or so away will give you a perfectly natural bass. The frequency response is the flattest out of any vocal dynamic with the exception of the MD441, with warm and completely natural midrange. However, unlike the MD 441, this gorgeous-looking mic is practically begs to be used as a handheld, with a comfortable shape, almost no handling noise, and very good plosive rejection.
It will, however, lack a bit of air and shimmer due to the slightly recessed upper treble, and unfortunately the basic EQ on small mixers might not bring up the right frequencies, often sounding a bit sibilant instead. This mic is therefore not really meant to just be plugged into a budget PA in a small venue, but rather as the start of a more high-end chain, ideally before a digital EQ capable of bringing up the right frequencies.
Overall, the Shure sturdiness, accurate sound, and amazing art-déco look (the brushed nickel option in particular), make it your first choice – but only if you have a fully parametric EQ on a digital desk or other similar gear. Otherwise, one of the other three mics might be a better option.