The best small-diaphragm condenser microphones bring us into a pretty niche-specific type of mic to review today. As we’ve seen microphones come in different shapes, sizes, aesthetics and personalities, today we’ve got some great solutions for recording and performing those bright and sharp overtones. Although it will ultimately depend on your budget, exact intended use, and your preferred brand (at least for some), we’ve chosen a few of our favorites to give you some options. But first, what exactly is a small-diaphragm mic?
What is a Small-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone?
As seen in our condenser microphones guide, these types of microphones are superb for recording a wide variety of instruments, sounds, voices, and more. However, although you’ve come to the conclusion a condenser mic is best for you, there are a few other subcategories of these things you’ll have to figure out before you choose the best for you.
This large vs. small diaphragm article spells it out a bit more in-depth, however to summarize — as compared to large-diaphragm (1″ or more), small-diaphragm condensers (1/2″ or less) have lower sensitivity, more self-noise, less limited frequency range, better sound-pressure handling (SPL), a higher dynamic range, and easy positioning (due to their smaller size). What’s even better is a lot of these come in pairs when sold on the internet, since many people grab a few to record their instruments from different angles to capture it more efficiently.
In sum, and to simplify it a bit, due to their super-specific capabilities, small-diaphragm condenser mics are most used for the following applications: acoustic guitars, hi-hats, harp, drum overheads (not kick drums), or really any instrument with sharp transients (high amplitude, short-duration sounds) and overtones. We’ve even heard of many using it for film making, too. Those into recording techniques also state that sometimes they prefer to use both a large and small-diaphragm condenser at the same time, to capture a fuller spectrum of frequencies in their mix. A friend of mine uses this technique for his acoustic guitar recordings and they sound very full.
The Best Small-Diaphragm Condenser Mics
Up first we have the Rode NT5, otherwise known by many as a “pencil mic,” which is known to be one the best small diaphragm condenser microphones if you’re looking to record acoustic instruments, drum overheads, cymbals and live performances. If you haven’t noticed, Rode is one of the best around, and this particular NT model is featured with a gold sputtered 1/2″ capsule and an active J-FET impedance converter with bipolar output buffer for low noise and a full range frequency response (20Hz – 20kHz). It’s externally biased condenser has a tight cardioid pickup pattern, which picks up audio from the front and sides, rejecting audio from the rear, making it also ideal for using as an indoor dialogue microphone for film making on a mic stand.
The NT5 has a durable satin nickel finish to it so you don’t have to worry about scratching or harming it when you have to take it from place-to-place between your jam sessions. The Rode blends together a compact design and very solid reliability for the price, making the Rode NT5 one of the best condenser microphones with a small diaphragm which sits on the middle price point of this guide to start our list off strong.
The 2 matched condenser microphones are ideal for a stereo recording of a piano recital, choir performance, or any acoustic sound source for that matter. Coming in a pair, it allows you to be a little more versatile with the C2’s – rigging one on the drum overhead to capture your percussion and putting the other on your guitar to record your acoustics. The C2’s feature a rugged construction with a metal die-cast body, and a gold-plated 3-pin XLR connector for the most sensitive signal integrity. They also come with a maximum sound pressure level of 140dB — again, very solid for the price you are paying!
If you’re looking something quick and budget-friendly, or perhaps you’re a novice to recording, then grab the very price-friendly Behringer C-2. Typically coming in packs of two, the Behringer C-2’s are one of the best small diaphragm condenser microphones if you’re looking for some great value, as they come in a pair and sit on the lowest price point we’ve seen in this category.
Moving onto our next model in our guide, we have the AKG P170, which is one of the best small diaphragm condenser microphones that work well with everything from drum overheads to acoustic instruments, and is considered by us a bargain at its price point. This cardioid pattern mic comes with a 1/2” diaphragm that has a maximum output impedance of 200 ohms. It supplies up 135dB of maximum sound pressure levels (SPLs), and also includes a 20dB (making it 155 dB of maximum SPL) pad that will aid in capturing accurate, crisp sound.
The AKG P170 has a heavy-duty, all-metal design so that it is rugged enough to take with you if you are an on-the-go type performer. At the price of this model, you are also able to pick up a pair of these boys without having to empty your savings account – using a pair is ideal for stereo miking applications. AKG has a reputation for quality on top of it all.
Shure KSM 137
The KSM 137 is an end-address condenser microphone with a single cardioid polar pattern designed for studio use, yet durable enough for live applications. This one is versatile – commonly used for applications such as acoustic, wind, and low-frequency instruments, while also being useful for your overhead miking, your ensembles, or any room ambiance you’re looking to pick-up. It features a very thin, 2.5 micron, low mass Mylar diaphragm for solid transient response, and a Class A preamp for transparency, no crossover distortion, and minimal harmonic distortion.
The 137 also comes with a 3-position switchable pad (0 dB, 15 dB, and 25 dB) for handling all different types of SPLs. Here, we have the Shure KSM 137 which is shurely (see what we did there?) one of the best condenser microphone with a small diaphragm that can be adequately used on virtually all live applications.
Neumann KM 184
The Neumann sits on the on the higher price point in this guide (they’re the luxury brand for mics — for a reason, of course), so if your pockets are deep you should definitely look into investing in this miniature mic. It comes equipped with a pressure gradient transducer which features a very smooth full-range frequency response, not only for the 0 axis, but also for the off-axis (lateral) sound incidence. With the KM 184’s self-noise reduction and transformerless circuitry, this model is able to handle sound pressure levels of up to 138 dB.
One of the key characteristics of the KM 184 is that the output is balanced and phantom (48V) powered, therefore, the Neumann will operate without any problems, even if the input of following equipment happens to be unbalanced. As said above, this model is for your percussion junkies and is a little on heavier on the wallet, but if money is not an issue, then you will be pleased with KM 184. The Neumann KM 184 is one of the best small diaphragm condenser microphones which is specifically designed for your overhead drum miking.
Audio-Technica Pro 37
We now look at the Audio-Technica PRO 37, which is ideal for acoustic guitars, overheads, piano and group vocals – excelling most with SPL applications. With the PRO 37’s versatility, it serves as one of the best condenser microphones with a small diaphragm for studio recording and/or live performances. This model has a low-mass element for very solid transient response (30-15,000 Hz) and a low-profile design for mic placement when recording in the studio or jammin’ at a gig. It also comes featured with a cardioid polar pattern design which reduces any ambiance coming from the sides and rear, enhancing isolation of the sound source.
The rugged design and structure of the PRO 37 makes for reliable performance and solid mobility when breakin’ down and traveling between your gigs. The Audio-Technica sits in the middle price point of our guide, and if you need something to amplify your shows, then don’t hesitate to grab this stud.
If you’re looking for something with a heavy-duty body that is designed for the stage (or even studio), then the Rode M3 is the best small condenser microphones with a diaphragm for you. It is also fitting to use as an instrument microphone for guitars, percussions, or even vocals. This model has an internally shock mounted ½” condenser capsule mounted for end-address, while being powered by either an internal 9V battery, or via P48 phantom power. The M3 also supplies a -10dB and -20dB level pad, which is selectable from within the battery compartment that allows you to record your really loud instrumental sources like guitar amplifiers or snare drums.
What’s neat about the Rode M3 is that it has a high-pass filter selectable on the mic power switch that introduces a filter at 80Hz to manage any noise and reduce low-frequency sounds. This model also sits in the middle price point of our best small diaphragm condenser microphones guide if you need something with a heavy-duty body for your on-stage performances then you will be pleased with the Rode M3.
Like the previous NT5, this model is also referred to as a ‘pencil mic,’ which gives instruments a balanced sound. The MXL features a 6-micron gold-sputtered diaphragm and a .87” capsule – both pretty impressive for the price. It also comes with two interchangeable capsules for all kinds of recording, and supplying a SPL (sound pressure level) of up to 148 dB at maximum output. The hand-crafted components and transformer-balanced output deliver a clear bottom end and exposed top, making it suitable for applications such as guitars, drums, piano, or even choirs. The V67N has a flat response that leaves recordings feeling like they are natural or pure – ideal for intricate acoustics.
This model also sits in the middle price point of our guide, and will have you feelin’ like a king once you hear the soft, yet robust sounds this mic captures. Here we feel one of the best small diaphragm condenser microphones for your bright instruments, such as the acoustic guitars or violins, the MXL V67N.
sE Electronics SE5
Almost to the end of our guide we take a look at the sE Electronics sE5, which has a hand-crafted true condenser and a 23mm diaphragm. With a smooth full-range frequency response and solid transient handling, the sE5 is one of the best small condenser microphones with a diaphragm ideally used for recording drums, percussion, pianos or any stringed instrument. The capsule in this model delivers a clean and crisp on-axis response, with off-axis (lateral) rejection that is necessary when recording the source amongst unwanted ambiance, or even sounds from other instruments.
The sE5 also comes with a 100Hz bass cut filter that can be applied to decrease the level of proximity effect, which is used to isolate from low-frequency rumble via other sources. Featuring a -10dB and -20dB pad, the sE5 can miked up to loud sound sources such as drums or guitar cabinets, and the pads will reduce the level output from the mic to the source, ensuring a balanced output. The sE5 is a little more highly priced in the market, but if you have a little money to splurge, then don’t afraid to grab this sleekly designed mic.
Sennheiser MKH 50
This is one of the best small diaphragm condenser microphones for soloists, or using it as a spot microphone for applications that require a high degree of lateral sound muting and feedback rejection. With low inherent self-noise and symmetrical transducer technology (which helps you lower any noise distortion), the MKH 50 has a transformerless and balanced output. The black, light metal structure of the mic has a roll-off filter which may be switched in order to assist any proximity effects at any distance up to 0.5m, and a switchable pre-attenuation pad.
The MK50 also comes equipped with the MZS40 shock mount and a MZW 41 windshield for enhancing the experience. Finally, we look at one of our more advanced models, the Sennheiser MKH 50, which is a super-cardioid microphone that offers a higher reduction of surrounding sound than the standard cardioid microphones.