Just in in time for 2012… The Great On-Camera Microphone Shootout 2011 is here! I just tested out seven different on-camera microphones, many of which are new models that came out in 2011. The video I made will give you an idea of what these mics sound like, but I urge you to read this entire article. I explain the fine details of each mic, highlighting their pros and cons.
Think of this as “The Year In Review” for on-camera mics. It’s like the Academy Awards for mini-shotguns, except that it happened in the Fall as opposed to February. Who wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Shock Mount? Tune in and find out:
I used a Panasonic Lumix GH2 (with the Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens) in the test, but these mics work with any kind of camera (as long as it has a mic input). Keep in mind that the mic inputs on different cameras don’t all behave the same way. They have different sensitivities. One of these mics might sound louder plugged into my GH2 than it would plugged into a Canon DSLR, and so on.
All of these mics are “shotguns,” meaning they have barrel-like “interference tube” in front of their capsules. The tube makes the microphone more directional. It helps the mic reject sounds from the sides and rear. I had my female subject stand three feet (1 meter) in front of the lens, with the mic mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. This is about as far away as the subject should ever be from the mic. If your subject is going to be further than three feet from the mic, you need to put the mic on a boompole and hoist it so it’s closer to their mouth, or clip a wireless lavalier mic to their clothing.
In the video (and in this article), I’ve arranged the microphones in order of price, starting with the least expensive and going up. Every mini-shotgun microphone on the planet isn’t represented in this shootout. There are a few that I would have loved to include in the test (such as the new Sony ECM-CG50 and the Nikon ME-1), but unfortunately I couldn’t get ahold of every mic I wanted.
I did some very minimal post production sound mixing for this video. The only thing I did was raise or lower each mic’s audio level in Final Cut Pro. When we shot the video, I did my best to adjust the settings on the camera and on each of the mics so they would sound their best. In post, I simply adjusted the audio level of each mic so they would all be around -6 on Final Cut’s audio output meter. This way the viewer wouldn’t favor the sound of one mic simply because it’s louder. Okay. Let’s do this thing…
Azden SMX-20 DSLR Stereo Microphone – Late 2011 street price $149, £80, €91
People associate “stereo” with good sound, and “mono” with poor sound. This is not the case. A stereo mic simply has two separate capsules, in order to capture a stereo image (like our two human ears). A mono microphone only has one capsule, but that doesn’t mean that it sounds worse. In fact, mono microphones are preferred for recording dialog. The overall build-quality of the new SMX-20 was better than what I was expecting. The sound quality was decent as well, but it picked up a little more ambient noise than the other mics. I didn’t like the button-sized battery it required, and installing the battery was more difficult than it needed to be. It required unscrewing the body of the mic, and then forcefully removing a sliding plastic part that holds the watch-style battery. But, if you’re looking for a mic that splits the difference between being a good ambient and dialog mic, the SMX-20 fits the bill. The scale of this microphone’s design seems to suit HDSLR cameras quite well.
Sennheiser MKE 400 – Late 2011 street price $199, £179, €205
This is one of the smallest on-camera mics, and one of the best sounding as well. It runs on a single AAA battery, and a switch lets you raise or lower the sensitivity of the mic. If you’re shooting in a quiet area and you need a little extra oomph, you can switch it into the “+” position. When you’re in a loud environment, you can switch it to the “-” position and roll the sensitivity of the mic back a bit. The MKE 400 sounded great on my female subject in the test, however, a common complaint with this mic is that it lacks a bit of bass for deeper sounding voices. It also struggles in the wind, so additional wind protection is mandatory for outdoor usage (but this rule applies to every microphone). The best fluffy windscreen for this mic is the Sennheiser MZW400. If you want to hear the MZW400 in action, being tested out beside the Hudson River on a windy evening, check out this blog post.
Rode VideoMic Pro – Late 2011 street price $229, £145, €166
This is a new mic with a feature that benefits users of the Canon 5D Mark II. If you turn the 5D’s mic input level all the way down and engage the mic’s +20dB switch, the VideoMic Pro will be doing most of the work that the camera’s inferior preamp would normally do. The result is cleaner sounding audio. However, this function doesn’t benefit the Lumix GH2. In fact, I needed to turn on the mic’s -10dB pad and adjust my camera’s input level down to its lowest setting, and then I was able to record some really nice sounding audio. Be aware that the suspenders on the shock mount easily get detached. You need to check on them every time you use the mic. Opening the 9 volt battery door isn’t intuitive and requires effort. On the VideoMic Pro I bought, the shoe mount comes loose and occasionally falls off. This mic is covered by a ten year warranty, but it seems you may need to use it sooner rather than later. A lot of people complain about the cable on this mic. They grumble that it isn’t coiled and that it looks weak, but I disagree. I think it’s just the right length. I’m fine with it not being coiled (it’s less likely to bang around and create noise), and though it may be thin, it seems like a strong cable to me. One of the nice touches on this mic is that the power LED stays illuminated, so you’ll be more likely to remember to turn it on and off. Though it has a few shortcomings, this is a great sounding little mic.
Que Audio Q Mini Shotgun (QMSG1) – Late 2011 street price $299, £189, €216
This mic is sold in kits, and the one I used was the Q DSLR-Video Kit. It comes with everything a DSLR shooter needs (the mic, shock mount, shoe mount, output cable, wind protection, batteries and case). I really liked its size and sound. The mic itself is the same size and weight as a metal ballpoint pen. It has an impressively clear and present sound for such a compact shotgun. The output of this mic is a small, threaded connector, and it requires a special cable that screws into the thread. The other end of the special cable has another thread onto which you must attach a special output connector. Because there are so many proprietary parts, it’s best to purchase this mic in one of the kits. B&H sells just the QMSG1 mini shotgun on it’s own, but without all of the supporting accessories, it’s useless. This mic requires two button-sized batteries to operate. I believe they’re hearing aid batteries, so, in theory, you can easily pick them up at a local pharmacy. As much as I love the small size of this microphone, the included carrying case is impractically large. The included outdoor windscreen is a little too heavy for the mounting hardware to handle. The weight of the windscreen makes the mic swing away loosely from where you position it. But, as you can hear in the shootout video, this mic sounds really good. The sensitivity of this microphone and the sensitivity of the input on the GH2 are a match made in video nerd heaven.
Ambient Recording TinyMike (AMT 216) – Late 2011 street price $439, £250, €286
Everything about this microphone system reeks of quality. Like the Q Mini, the TinyMike is sold in kits, and I used the on-camera kit with the included 3.5mm output cable (there’s another kit available with an XLR output cable). The sound of the TinyMike was excellent, and the robust build-quality of the mic, included shock mount, windscreens and cables were as pro as it gets. I even whacked the shock mount with a hammer (not hard enough to drive a nail, but hard enough to destroy of any of the other shock mounts in this shootout), and it was fine. One thing you should listen for in the shootout video is the silence between the words. The TinyMike has a low noise-floor, making the overall quality of the audio exceptional. The TinyMike also doesn’t require batteries to operate. You never have to worry about a battery dying in the middle of a shoot, and you’ll never shoot something and accidentally forget to turn the mic’s power switch on. The TinyMike comes with a lot of accessories but it doesn’t come with a case, and like a nice lens, it’s not as inexpensive as you’d prefer it to be. It’s also lacking a 3/8″ thread at the base of the shock mount, which is required in order to mount it to a boom pole (there isn’t a 1/4 20 tripod thread either). But, if you’re looking for a mic that’s built as tough as your all-weather magnesium camera body, and sounds as pretty as your picture looks, this is the mic to get. TinyMike wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Shock Mount.
Sennheiser MKH 8060 – Late 2011 street price $1249, £858, €982
This is a pro shotgun mic that was released in 2011, but you can’t plug one directly into a DLSR camera without other equipment involved. The MKH 8060 requires phantom power to operate, so I plugged it into a Sound Devices 302 field mixer (which costs $1295 on its own), and sent the outputs of the mixer into the GH2 at mic-level. The low-noise of the 302’s preamps and the exceptional quality of the MKH 8060 gave it a huge advantage over the other mics. Not surprisingly, this was the best sounding microphone in the shootout to my ears. The dialog sounded really clean, with a crisp, professional sheen that the other mics lacked. The sound quality that the Sennheiser MKH 8060 and the Sound Devices 302 captured into my GH2’s little 2.5mm sub-mini mic input was outstanding. For a complete review of the MKH 8060, check out this blog post.
At the end of the test, I didn’t have a clear favorite. Each of these mics have their pluses and minuses, and it’s up to you to decide which one suits you best. For example, if you need the smallest mic possible, one that can fit inside a tiny camera bag, the MKE 400 is likely your best choice. If you’re going to be trekking through remote stretches of South Africa for weeks on end, without question my first choice would be the TinyMike. It’s tough as nails, it sounds great, it doesn’t need batteries and it comes with a fluffy windshield that can be stuffed into a compact compartment.
Remember that these little mics are only really useful for recording the dialog of someone standing directly in front of your camera. You can’t buy one of these little mics and expect all of your audio issues to vanish. It’s a good idea to invest a little more into sound equipment than you originally planned (you’ll eventually realize that you need wireless systems, a recorder, a boom pole, etc.). Besides, you’re not shooting with a pinhole camera. These days everyone has amazing cameras and lenses. Make sure your sound can keep up with your high def moving images.
Thanks for reading this mammoth article! If you found it helpful, please use the links I provide in the article to make purchases of this equipment. I get a small commission from Amazon for sales made this way. If enough people buy stuff with my links, it will motivate me to keep creating reviews like this one. It took a lot of time and effort to make this. If you have any questions about any of these microphones, I encourage you to post a Comment below. Thanks again!