I recently tested out a handful of on-camera microphones with a video-enabled DSLR camera. In this post I share my thoughts on the sound quality of each microphone and point out their pros and cons. I took a series of photographs so you can compare the size and shape of the microphones and see how they sit atop the camera.
I used a Nikon D300s to test these microphones. Like the Canon 5D mkII, 7D and T2i, The D300s features a 3.5mm mini-plug input for an external microphone. Please keep in mind that not all video-enabled DSLR cameras have a microphone input. If you're looking for an external mic for your camera, it's a good idea to make sure your camera has the proper input first.
I'd also like to preface this review by reminding you that mounting a microphone to the top of your camera isn't the best way to capture good audio in every situation. If you're shooting footage with a subject speaking to the camera, it's a better idea to use a boompole or a pistol grip. I explain how to use an external mic on a pistol grip when shooting video in this B&H inDepth post.
Compared to the built-in microphones on your camera, using an external microphone will drastically improve the audio quality of your footage. Having one of these mics in your bag (with the proper wind protection for shooting outdoors) is a really good idea if you want the freedom to impulsively shoot HD video in the field with clean, usable audio.
1) It has a really nice sound
2) It comes with softie windscreen (a critically important accessory for any on-camera mic)
3) It has a solid construction
1) It's a pretty large microphone
2) It's a bit heavy for an on-camera mic
I find that microphones tend to sound like what they look like, and that theory was really reinforced in this test. The Rode Stereo VideoMic had a very big, full sound (which outshone the more compact stereo microphones that I auditioned). The obvious downside of this mic's big sound is its large size.
The Stereo VideoMic seemed to have a little more "reach" than a typical on-camera stereo microphone. It's not a shotgun microphone, so it's not ideal for shooting video with people speaking to the camera. But it did a fairly good job of grabbing sounds from directly in front of the lens.
The Stereo VideoMic requires a 9-volt battery to operate, and features a low-cut switch. The low-cut switch removes low frequencies from the audio. Why on Earth would you want to do that? Low frequencies can be really distracting for a lot of video work. You pick up rumble from passing vehicles and footsteps, and a lot of ugly sounding handling noise. The low-cut switch gets rid of a lot of these unwanted sounds. A few of the other mics in this post feature a low-cut switch as well.
1) It's an exteremly compact shotgun microphone
2) It sounds pretty good
3) I has a solid construction
1) Compared to some larger microphones, the MKE 400 sounds a little thin
2) Without its separately available softie windscreen, it picks up a lot of wind noise
The Sennheiser MKE 400 is a really good little microphone. It's the smallest shotgun microphone on the market, and it picks up pleasing-sounding audio. If the MKE 400 was the only external microphone that you ever heard, you'd probably be happy with its sound. But, if you listen to an MKE 400 through a DSLR camera for a few minutes, and then swap it out for any of the other microphones in this post, you'd hear that the MKE 400 has a relatively thin sound. What's interesting is that even though its sound is thin, it's an appealing sort-of thinness that suits video. In short, its sound makes the human voice stand out.
I tried using the MKE 400 outdoors with the Nikon D300s, but I found that it was the very susceptible to wind noise, even on a calm summer evening. Additional wind protection is always a must-have item when you use any microphone outdoors, and the MKE 400 is no exception. Sennheiser sells the MZW400 windscreen separately in a kit that includes an XLR adapter. Rycote makes a dedicated windscreen for the MKE 400 as well.
This microphone features a low-cut switch, but instead of labeling it as "low-cut," there is just a small illustration of the a mic on a stick beside the switch. The MKE 400 has two volume settings—low and high—and comes with a AAA battery, which is required to power the mic.
1) It has a nice, even stereo sound
2) Perfect physical design for on-camera use
3) It has a solid construction
1) It requires a small watch-style battery to operate
If you're looking for a tough little microphone to stick in your camera bag and use when inspiration strikes, the Audio Technica Pro-24CM is a great option. It's important to note that this is a stereo microphone, not a shotgun mic. It will do a much better job of capturing ambient environmental sounds, as opposed to picking up the speaking voices of people in front of the camera.
Of all of the microphones that I tested, the Pro-24CM had the best design for mounting to a camera. The partially coiled cable is the perfect length, and its shockmount is compact and pleasantly simple. The included foam windscreen did a decent job of blocking out wind noise, but you really need additional wind protection for outdoor use. The separately available Windtech MM1 softie fits snugly over the included foam windscreen and makes for a great combination for outdoor use. It's a very tight fit, but that's what you want with a softie windscreen. The biggest drawback of the Pro-24CM is that it needs a small LR44 watch-style battery to operate. It comes with this battery, but it's so small that it's easy to miss it when you open the packaging.
The Sony ECM-CG1
2) Nice, full sound
3) Doesn't require a battery to operate
1) Requires "plug-in power" from the mic input to operate
2) Does not come with a shock mount
You don't really hear about the Sony ECM-CG1 on-camera shotgun very often in the DSLR video community, so I was really curious to test this one out. When I first took it out of the box, I was a little taken aback by its lightweight, plastic-y feel. However, it turns out that the lightweight aspect of its construction is a great virtue. It helps to keep the overall weight of your camera down.
The ECM-CG1 doesn't require a battery to operate; however, it does need to receive "Plug-In Power" from the microphone input. Plug-In Power is very similar to phantom power. The external microphone input on a camera sends out a little charge to the connected microphone, which powers the microphone's capsule. Not all cameras feature Plug-In Power. Most Sony cameras have it, and I was happy to discover that the Nikon D300s I was using provided Plug-In Power as well.
I thought that this was a very decent sounding shotgun microphone. Obviously, if you were using a professional field mixer or a Camcorder XLR Adapter with a professional shotgun microphone, you could get a better sound. But for what it is, I thought the ECM-CG1 sounded impressive. The camera shoe mount that comes with the mic doesn't have suspension, so I would advise using this mic with a shock mount like the Pearstone DUSM-1. It also only comes with a foam windscreen, so for outdoor use you would need an additional softie.
The Rode VideoMic
1) Good sound with an impressive amount of reach for an on-camera shotgun
2) I gotta say it... the industrial design looks really cool
1) The shock mount suspenders cause the microphone to wobble
There's no doubt that the Rode VideoMic is a great way to improve the audio quality of a video-enabled DSLR. It does a really nice job of capturing dialog, and (like all of these mics) it can be used as an all-purpose microphone as well. It comes with a foam windscreen, but unlike the Stereo VideoMic, it doesn't come with a softie. For outdoor use you need to purchase the humorously named Rode Dead Cat separately. Rycote also makes a Mini Windjammer that's compatible with the VideoMic.
The VideoMic has an integrated shock mount, which mounts to the shoe of a camera, or to a boompole or a pistol grip. The elastic suspenders of the shock mount have a little less resistance than usual, which causes the microphone to wobble around when in motion. Some people find this very distracting, others don't mind. I personally didn't find it very distracting, but would have preferred if it wasn't an issue. This microphone requires a 9-volt battery to operate and features a low-cut switch.
Thanks for checking out this B&H inDepth post! If you have any questions about any of these microphones, I'd be happy to answer them in the Comments section below.