How to pick a handheld digital mic for a smartphone/tablet

There are at least 18 points to consider when choosing a handheld digital mic for a smartphone or tablet.

Frequent readers know I review lots of microphones and audio interfaces, among many other things. One of the fastest-growing segment is audio/video production with a smartphone or tablet. Beyond the previous additional quality achieved by sending a digital audio signal to your phone or tablet and bypassing its often inferior ADC (analog to digital converter), the current tendency is for smartphones to eliminate analog audio connections anyway. That has happened with the iPhone 7/7 Plus/8/8 Plus/X and Android Google Pixel 2. Ahead, let’s explore my 18-point comparison chart to help choose a digital mic… or interface to connect an analog one digitally.

What is article is, and isn’t

This article is about picking handheld digital mics or interfaces to connect a single mic to a smartphone or tablet. This article is not about how to connect more than one microphone to a phone or tablet. That, I have covered in several past articles. This article is narrowly targeted to connect a single handheld microphone to a smartphone or tablet digitally, both for quality’s sake and because many new phones don’t have analog connections anyway. This article will include no wireless mics, no lavalier mics, no head-mounted mics and no mixers. You can find those in my prior articles.

18-point comparison chart

Links to the protagonists from the chart:

  • iRig Mic HD 2 microphone from IK Multimedia (reviewed here, AmazonB&H)
  • iRig Pre HD interface from IK Multimedia (reviewed here, AmazonB&H)
  • i-XLR interface from RØDE (reviewed here, AmazonB&H)
  • HandMic Digital Sennheiser (reviewed here, AmazonB&H)

Some people mistakenly believe that pattern type are tied to transducer technology. It’s not true. There are condenser microphones that are either omnidirectional or unidirectional. The same applies to electret condenser mics: Condenser mics exist with either omnidirectional or directional types, which include cardioid, supercardioid and more. Learn more about the categories ahead, together with links to other mics.

Advantages and disadvantages of dynamic mic technology (as opposed to electret condenser or other)

Although there can be exceptions to the rule, generally speaking, dynamic microphones are considered to be more robust and handle drops better than most electret condenser microphones. Also, generally speaking, most dynamic microphones obey the inverse-square law faster than most electret condenser microphones, meaning that dynamic mics are less sensitive to sounds that are further away. This means that they are less sensitive to background sounds or room reverberation, although there is not a huge difference, and I have recently reviewed two electret condenser microphones that behave more like a dynamic mic in this respect. These are some of the reasons why many news organizations have preferred dynamic technology when choosing handheld microphones for informal interviews in the field (not for shotguns, or lavalier mics in most cases). Those are also some of the reasons why some producers prefer dynamic microphones for use in home studios that are not acoustically treated.

On the other hand, some people prefer electret condenser microphones since they generally have a wider frequency response and a hotter output, while dynamic mics often require a stronger preamp (or pre-preamp like a Fethead).

Pickup patterns: pros and cons

The advantage of the cardioid pattern (somewhat directional, heart-shaped) pattern is that it isolates the source sound more. This means that less background sound is picked up, and (in the case of multiple microphones) there will be less spill or crosstalk, where the voice of one individual leaks into the microphone of another. Spill/crosstalk is not an issue with single microphones.

On the other hand, for informal, single microphone interviews in the field, many broadcast news organizations have long preferred using omnidirectional mics due their greater resistance to wind and their forgiveness of inevitable unexpected interruptions, where directional mics often cause one of the participants to become either “off mic” (distant) or even inaudible when one of those interruptions occur.

Longer vs shorter

Shorter microphones are more portable than longer ones. However, longer ones like the Electro-Voice RE50N/D (AmazonB&H), RØDE Reporter (reviewed here, AmazonB&H), Senal ENG-18RL (reviewed here, B&H), or Sennheiser MD 42 (AmazonB&H) can reach an interviewee who is further way or much taller than the interviewer.

Shorter mics don’t work well with mic flags. In addition to being relatively short, the two digital mics listed in the comparison chart have LEDs which can be blocked if you try to use a mic flag. Whichever microphone you choose, consider a branded windscreen instead. In addition to their wind protection, branded windscreens fulfill the same branding mission as mic flags, are compatible with all handheld mics —regardless of length— and have many over advantages over mic flags, as I covered in Branded windscreen vs mic flag: let’s compare, illustrated above.

Inboard audio monitoring, and its repercussions

Monitoring is increasingly important for different reasons:

  1. If you want to hear yourself during a recording for confidence reasons, it is best to do so latency free (without any delay). Hearing yourself live via the connected device always represents some amount of delay (latency), which can be distracting and fatiguing. The amount of delay depends upon the speed of the processor in the connected device and the software used. Three of the four options in the comparison chart include inboard monitoring, but only two of the four offer latency free monitoring. The last one requires the host iOS device have inboard analog monitoring via an analog TRRS connector (see TS/TRS/TRRS/TRRRS: Combating the misconnection epidemic illustrated above), in the Android or iPhone assuming it offers one. Latency free monitoring is only important to hear yourself, not for the other situations explained ahead.
  2. You’ll need monitoring if you are going to be a co-host, guest or panelist via Allo, FaceTime, GoToWebinar, Hangouts, RINGR, Skype, WebinarJam or Zoom in order to hear the other person/people on the other end.
  3. Starting with the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, Apple eliminated the analog TRRS headset jack. This includes the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X. Google eliminated the TRRS headset jack in the Android Pixel 2. (The current iPod Touch, iPhone SE, iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus still offer an analog TRRS headset jack, as do all current iPads to my knowledge.)
  4. If you don’t care about hearing yourself during a recording and don’t plan to be a co-host, guest or panelist, you will still need monitoring to check a recording you already made. This means that if your Android or iOS device doesn’t have an analog TRRS headset jack, you will have to disconnect the USB or Lightning cable to hear the playback via the internal speaker or other device you connect via USB or Lightning.

Hardware limiter

A hardware limiter prevents your audio from clipping when the source unexpectedly surpasses the maximum value that can be recorded digitally. If we don’t have a hardware limiter, I recommend making the original recording with 24.bit resolution as described in Understanding 24-bit vs 16-bit audio production & distribution even if we aren’t going to distribute at 24- bit, and to record our peaks at -12 dB, for later normalization in post to the desired loudness standard of the target distribution platform. I have covered LUFS —the new loudness standard, in prior articles.

Before the “secret” hardware limiter in the HandMic Digital (see Review: Sennheiser HandMic Digital with “secret” hardware limiter), I had only seen them in cameras, mixers from Shure and Sound Devices, and in the Yellowtec iXm Pro, which starts at US$761. The Yellowtec iXm Pro microphone costs nearly three times that of the HandMic Digital, although to be fair, the Yellowtech iXM Pro has a built-in audio recorder too, and I hope to review it very soon.

I hope this article helps you make they best option for you!

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FTC disclosure

No manufacturer is specifically paying Allan Tépper or TecnoTur LLC to write this article or the mentioned books. Some of the other manufacturers listed above have contracted Tépper and/or TecnoTur LLC to carry out consulting and/or translations/localizations/transcreations. Many of the manufacturers listed above have sent Allan Tépper review units. So far, none of the manufacturers listed above is/are sponsors of the TecnoTur programs, although they are welcome to do so, and some are, may be (or may have been) sponsors of ProVideo Coalition magazine. Some links to third parties listed in this article and/or on this web page may indirectly benefit TecnoTur LLC via affiliate programs. Allan Tépper’s opinions are his own.

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The articles contained in the TecnoTur channel in ProVideo Coalition magazine are copyright Allan Tépper/TecnoTur LLC, except where otherwise attributed. Unauthorized use is prohibited without prior approval, except for short quotes which link back to this page, which are encouraged!

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Born in Connecticut, United States, Allan Tépper is an award-winning broadcaster & podcaster, bilingual consultant, multi-title author, tech journalist, translator, and language activist who has been working with professional video since the eighties. Since 1994,…

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