Best Cheap Ribbon Mic Choices

In this guide, you’ll learn about ribbon mics and be presented with a list of the best cheap ribbon mics around. Buying a decent ribbon mic used to be a very expensive endeavor, but in the age of bedroom recording, the number of cheap options available to you is growing every day.

Ribbon mics are unique in their principal of operation, which is quite different from condenser mics. Their typical bidirectional polar pattern is tricky to work with, but once mastered can prove to be extremely useful in capturing ambient room acoustics along with the main sound source. If you’re in a hurry, check out our top picks. And don’t forget to listen to some audio samples to get an idea of how each one sounds!

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Last Updated: January 30th, 2020

In a Hurry? Here’s Our Top 3

8 of the Best Cheap Ribbon Mic Choices

MXL R144 (Best Cheap Ribbon Mic – Top Pick)

MXL R144
MXL R144 Ribbon Microphone with Shockmount
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

First up on our list comes from the budget, entry-level microphone brand, MXL. They make some pretty decent condensers, and the R144 is their take on the good old ribbon mic. It looks very similar to any side-address condenser mic you’d find out there, but don’t let that fool you. Behind the mesh windscreen, things are very different.

The R144’s aluminum ribbon element is just 1.8 microns thick and 47mm long. It has a frequency response that reaches all the way down to 20 Hz and stops just short of the upper limit of human hearing at 17 kHz. Like most ribbon mics, sensitivity is low, coming in at -56 dB (0 dB = 1V/Pa). You should use a mic preamp that’s capable of higher gain without much added noise. Max SPL comes in at over 130 dB SPL, making the R144 well suited for many loud sources like guitar cabinets or brass sections. If you’ve never used a ribbon mic, this one may be your best choice for getting acquainted.

Features & Specs

♦ Frequency range: 20 to 17,000 Hz
♦ Sensitivity: -56 dB (0 dB = 1V/Pa)
♦ Maximum SPL: >130 dB SPL
♦ Impedance: 250 Ω
♦ Rated load impedance: >1500 Ω
♦ Polar pattern: Figure-8
♦ Passive circuitry

Cons
  • A quality mic preamp is recommended (added cost)
Pros
  • Very inexpensive for a ribbon mic
  • Great for beginners
  • Comes with case and shock mount

Apex 210B

Apex 210B

Apex 210B
Next we’ve got the Apex 210B. We read some good things about this one, and it definitely deserves a spot among the best cheap ribbon mics. One thing that sets the 210B apart is it’s insanely-high max SPL figure of 165 dB SPL. This makes it capable of handling any loud sound source with ease. In fact, it’d be pretty hard to exceed that SPL figure without causing property damage. Not recommended, but you can buy some hand grenades here.

Laughs aside, the aluminum ribbon behind the windscreen of the 210B is just 2 microns thick and 2 inches long. It has a signal-to-noise ratio of 70 dB, and sensitivity similar to the R144 we covered earlier at -55 dB (0 dB = 1V/Pa). It comes with a carrying case and integrated yoke stand mount. You’ll have to do some hunting for a relatively large shock mount, though. The 210B has an outer diameter of 67mm.

Features & Specs

♦ Frequency range: 30 to 18,000 Hz
♦ Sensitivity: -55dB (0dB = 1V/Pa)
♦ Impedance: < 200 Ω
♦ Maximum SPL: 165 dB SPL
♦ Weight: 31 oz
♦ Signal-to-noise ratio: 70 dB
♦ Polar pattern: Figure-8

Cons
  • A quality mic preamp is recommended (added cost)
  • Larger diameter is less compatible with stand mounts
Pros
  • Inexpensive for a ribbon mic
  • Phenomenal results when modded
  • Comes with case

Superlux R102

Superlux R102

Superlux R102, one of the best cheap ribbon mics

The Superlux R102 is next in line in our list of the best cheap ribbon mics. This mic has active circuitry and requires 48V phantom power to work. In contrast the the previous mics we covered, the R102 has a higher sensitivity, making it a little friendlier if you don’t have a high-quality preamp. The modular ribbon assembly makes the R102 easy to repair or mod.

The ribbon in this guy is also aluminum and 2.5 microns thick. Frequency response data shows a completely flat response curve all the way up to 5 kHz, and then the treble roll-off typically seen in ribbon mics from there onwards. The front lobe has a steeper treble roll-off in comparison to the rear so this mic may not be ideal for mid-side recording work. It also comes with a carrying case and yoke stand mount. You can listen to some audio samples here.

Features & Specs

♦ Frequency range: 20 to 15,000 Hz
♦ Sensitivity: -40 dBV/Pa (10 mV/Pa) at 1,000 Hz
♦ Output impedance: 250 Ω ± 20% at 1,000 Hz
♦ Rated load impedance: >1000 Ω
♦ Maximum SPL: >140 dB SPL
♦ Equivalent noise: <20 dB
♦ Weight: 500g
♦ Requires 48V phantom power
♦ Polar pattern: Figure 8
More data from Superlux

Cons
  • Requires phantom power
  • May be over budget for some
Pros
  • Easy repair
  • Comes with case, cable, & yoke mount
  • Sounds great with a high-end mic preamp

sE Electronics X1R

sE Electronics X1R
sE Electronics X1R Passive Ribbon Microphone
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

sE Electronics calls this mic a “hybrid” that bridges the gap between the old, hand-made sound of ribbons years ago and the ruggedness and durability that modern technology allows for today. It features a classic aluminum ribbon, and it’s usually sold in a bundle with accompanying shock mount and pop filter (two essential pieces for the ribbon mic owner). Guitar-oriented gear is hardly rare, and the sE Electronics X1R works well for recording guitar amps on the road.

The frequency response curve of the X1R is somewhat unique in comparison to other ribbons due to it’s broad +2 dB peak centered at roughly 6 kHz. Passive circuitry and a lower sensitivity means this mic will fare well with a solid mic preamp. Phantom power is not required, but if you mistakenly plug the X1R in without switching phantom off, they’ve included protection circuitry to stop you from frying the internals. All of this makes the X1R a venerable contender in our list of the best cheap ribbon mics. Listen to some audio samples of the X1R on their website.

Features & Specs

♦ Frequency response: 20 to 16,000 Hz
♦ Sensitivity: -55 dB (1.78 mV/Pa)
♦ Impedance: 200 Ω
♦ Maximum SPL: 135 dB (0.5% THD @ 1 kHz)
♦ Signal-to-noise ratio: 71 dB
♦ Self-noise: 23 dB (A-weighted)
♦ Polar pattern: Figure 8
♦ Weight: 510g

Cons
  • May be over budget for some
  • A quality mic preamp is recommended (added cost)
Pros
  • 6 kHz peak reduces dullness
  • Rugged & durable build
  • Highs are defined but not shrill or harsh

Nady RSM-5 (Best Cheap Ribbon Mic – Top Pick)

Nady RSM-5

While the Nady RSM-5 is somewhat of a lesser known option, it’s price alone is worthy of your consideration. This is a list of the best cheap ribbon mics, after all. The design is similar to the popular Cascade Fathead, which we’ll cover next. It’s a highly-compact ribbon mic with an emphasis on versatile placement capability. The low-profile design can help when miking guitar amps and cabinets, brass, strings, piano, percussion, vocals, and orchestral ambiance.

The thin 2-micron thick ribbon in the RSM-5 allows for a very good transient response at this price point. It has an internal shock mount for added durability and also comes with a mic clip and leatherette carrying pouch.  This would be a great mic for someone who is just getting their feet wet with ribbon mics and doesn’t want to invest heavily in a high-end model just yet. Download the manual here for more data.

Features & Specs

♦ Frequency response: 30 to 18,000 Hz
♦ Sensitivity: -60 dB ± 2dB (0 dB = 1V/Pa.)
♦ Impedance: 200 Ω
♦ Recommended load impedance: 1000 Ω
♦ Maximum SPL: 155 dB SPL (1% THD @ 1 kHz)
♦ Weight: 11 oz
♦ Polar pattern: Figure 8

Cons
  • No external wind screen
  • Included pouch isn’t the best for long-term storage
Pros
  • Ultra-low budget
  • Rugged & durable build
  • Low-profile design for close-miking in tight spaces

Cascade Fat Head BE (Best Cheap Ribbon Mic – Top Pick)

Cascade Fat Head BE
Cascade Microphones FAT HEAD BE Grey Body/Anodized Silver Grill
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

The first thing we notice about the Fat Head is the bulky look for which it’s named. The Fat Head BE is basically the same mic as the regular Fat Head. The “BE” in the name stands for “bare essentials” because, while it uses the same ribbon motor and transformer, it simply lacks the aluminum case, wood box, and premium shock mount that comes with the higher-tier version. Cascade also offers upgraded versions of the Fat Head which contain better transformers.

The Fat Head uses a hand-tuned, symmetrical ribbon design, resulting in nearly-identical pickup patterns from both sides of the mic. This makes it a great choice for mid-side and Blumlein stereo recording. The Fat Head pairs well with a variety of instruments, including electric guitars, drum overheads, horns, and strings. It’s solidly-built, and the grill is manufactured from zinc or silver alloy to reduce corrosion.

Features & Specs

♦ Frequency response: Click here for testing report
♦ Sensitivity: -56 dB +/- 2 dB (0 dB = 1V/Pa)
♦ Maximum SPL: 135 dB (1% THD @ 1 kHz)
♦ Impedance: 200 Ω
♦ Recommended load impedance: >1000 Ω
♦ Pattern: Figure 8

Cons
  • 3-inch diameter grill is a little unwieldy
  • No storage box, case, or shock mount included
Pros
  • Excellent for M&S or Blumlein recording
  • Warm tone, but not muddy
  • BE version provides great value for price

Avantone Pro CR-14

Avantone Pro-CR14
Avantone Pro CR-14
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Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

If you’re looking to spend a little more, Avantone’s Pro-CR14 should be in your crosshairs. It may not be cheap to some, but it is one of the best ribbon mics for the price. Along with it’s retro looks, this mic offers quality sound with a recognizable character that will fit especially well with acoustic string instruments like the guitar, mandolin, or banjo. Keep in mind that the mic will produce slightly different sound depending on which side you’re recording from, making it less-than-ideal for mid-side.

One feature that sets this one apart from the rest is it’s dual ribbon element. The two ribbons are usually tuned to slightly different resonant frequencies. This means that both ribbons will behave differently when exposed to the same frequencies to create complex harmonic interactions that really change the way the mic sounds. Dual ribbons also increase the notoriously-low output of the ribbon mic, so you can take it easy on your preamp gain.

Features & Specs

♦ Frequency response: 30 to 15,000 Hz (+/- 3 dB)
♦ Sensitivity: -52 dBv +/- 2 dB Re. (0 dB = 1V/Pa)
♦ Maximum SPL: 145 dB SPL (0.5% THD @ 1 kHz)
♦ Impedance: <= 600 Ω
Recommended load impedance: 3,000 Ω
Signal-to-noise ratio: 70 dB
Weight 16 oz
♦ Dual 2-micron aluminum ribbons
♦ Passive circuitry

Cons
  • May be out of budget for some
Pros
  • Great with stringed instruments
  • Dual ribbon increases output levels
  • Includes wooden box, metal case, & shock mount

Sterling Audio ST170

Sterling Audio ST170
Sterling Audio ST170 Active Ribbon Microphone
×
Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on https://www.amazon.com/ at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Last on our list of the best cheap ribbon mics is the ST170 from Sterling Audio. This active mic, unlike most of the others on this list, will require phantom power. The output on this mic is significantly higher than other ribbon mics, though. The ST170 sounds great on vocals, guitar, and anything with complexity in the middle of the frequency spectrum. Included are a carrying case and a shock mount to cut back on accidental vibration and noise.

Features & Specs

♦ Frequency response: 20 to 20,000 Hz
♦ Sensitivity: 16 mV/Pa
♦ Maximum SPL: 132 dB SPL
♦ Equivalent noise: 22 dB SPL (A-weighted)
♦ Typical load impedance: >1,000 Ω
♦ Output source impedance: 200 Ω
♦ Active circuitry
♦ Figure-8 pattern

Cons
  • May be out of budget for some
Pros
  • Extended frequency response range
  • Active circuitry translates to higher output
  • Includes a case and shock mount

How To Pick The Best Cheap Ribbon Mic

A list of the best cheap ribbon mics wouldn’t be complete without some tips on how to pick one. We want to make sure you choose the best cheap ribbon mic for your budget and situation. Here’s some additional advice and things to consider before you make a choice.

Treat Your Room First!

Before jumping in to a purchase, make sure your room is properly treated to cut back on excessive or undesirable noise. With the ability to record the back and front of the stereo field, you’re also recording the spatial environment in which source is located. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that your recording space is well-treated.

acoustic room treatment for best cheap ribbon mic

Image Source: ClearSonic.com

If you’re building a home studio, there are acoustic treatment kits available online that have everything you’ll need to reduce room reflections and noise. These kits are pretty expensive.

If you’re tight on cash, spot treatment with foam bass traps and panels will make a smaller difference. Make sure you go with at least 2″ thick on the foam panels. You can use spray adhesive to glue them to a cardboard panel, and then mount the entire thing to your walls with nails.

Pay Attention to Character

Modern ribbon microphones are generally built to provide a vintage sound, and to reproduce the harmonics and spatial nuances of their ancestors. Manufacturers focus on character.

When you’re choosing the best cheap ribbon mic that’s best suited for your goals, make sure you´re focusing on the mic’s personality rather than general fidelity. Unlike some condenser mics, where the goal is a completely flat response, the ribbon mic can be used to color your sound and add warmth when mixed in with other microphones on the same source.

Search for Sounds

The best way to get a feel for a mic’s character is by using it yourself. This isn’t always practical, but thanks to the internet, you can get pretty good idea by listening to recordings and comparisons done by others. We advise that you look for samples that are related to your goal.

If you’re an electric guitar player, make sure you’re listening to amped guitar samples. If you’re looking for a ribbon mic to record vocals, start by trying to find samples that are within your vocal range and register.

Active vs. Passive

One of the most important considerations lies in the circuitry of your ribbon mic. Active ribbons are a new development and have internal amplifiers that make them more versatile. You can plug an active ribbon mic into an audio interface without causing issues. They do require phantom power, but most modern interfaces, even the budget and entry-level models, have that capability already. Active ribbon mics are also cheaper overall when you factor in the cost of an amp.

Passive ribbon mics do not have an internal amplifier, and they require a dedicated, impedance-matched preamp in order to achieve a workable signal level. If you’re not ready to spend extra money on a preamp and you desire versatility, active ribbons are the better choice.

Choosing a Preamp for Your Passive Ribbon Mic

Passive ribbon mics have a very low sensitivity, and therefore low signal output levels. To get the most out of your passive ribbon mic, we suggest using a preamp to boost the signal levels. Pay attention to the following parameters when searching for a mic preamp:

  • Gain: Your preamp should have at least 60 dB of clean gain. If you’re recording very quiet sounds, 70 dB or more is recommended.
  • Preamp input impedance: Your preamp needs a high enough impedance as to not restrict the movement of the ribbon. Restricted movement will make the mic even quieter, requiring even more gain and opening up the potential for added noise. On top of this, your bass response will be effected and the mic will sound weak and dull.In the list of mic specs, you’ll see “recommended load impedance” or rated load impedance.” It’s typically 5 to 10 times the mic output impedance, and this is the number you should shoot for for your preamp input impedance.

Again, if you’re using an active ribbon mic, a dedicated and matched preamp is not a requirement. Active ribbon mics were designed to work well on a variety of preamps, making them good for touring bands and musicians.

Why Use a Ribbon Mic?

Even the best cheap ribbon mics have a unique design that allows for an even more unique signature sound. They’re great for stereo recording, they’re extremely versatile, and they’re often described as the most “natural” sounding microphones out there.

Smooth high-end, warm darkness, & excellent transient response

The treble roll-off in most ribbon mics can help tame even the shrillest of sounds. Great applications in this sense are miking drum overheads and harsh guitar cabinets.

Ribbons tuned to lower resonant frequencies are excellent at capturing low-frequency sources like bass strings, kick drums, or bass guitar.

The ultra-low mass of the ribbon makes it great for capturing transients, again adding to the power the ribbon mic has when capturing drum overheads.

Natural stereo sound

The bidirectional nature of the ribbon mic makes many of them ideal for stereo work. A ribbon mic will add to your stereo recordings by providing a natural feel with a smooth and tempered high-end. Ribbon mics work well when recording in stereo using the Blumlein pair arrangement.

Blumlein -Stereo

Blumlein stereo arrangement showing a pair of bidirectional figure-8 polar patterns.

The bidirectional pattern also makes your best cheap ribbon mic choice wonderful for capturing room acoustics and reverberation that may not be nearly as pronounced with a unidirectional microphone.

How do Ribbon Mics Work?

An understanding of how the ribbon mic works and how to care for your ribbon mic is essential knowledge for any recording engineer. The ribbon mic was made popular by the broadcasting and television industry ever since it was invented by an RCA engineer in the 1920s, but it’s still used today by audio professionals and musicians. In comparison to condenser mics and moving-coil dynamic mics, ribbon mics work differently to capture audio.

A ribbon microphone uses an extremely thin electric conductor (the ribbon), placed between the two poles of a magnet. The ribbon is sensitive to air velocity, and is usually made of corrugated aluminum less than 10 microns thick. For perspective, the human hair is only 50 microns thick. Even the best cheap ribbon mics have a ribbon that is extremely thin with a very low mass that enables it to move easily as sound pressure waves pass over it.

best cheap ribbon mic operation

As the ribbon moves with the sound waves, it interacts with the magnetic field and induces a current in the ribbon and in the wires. This current is fed into a transformer and then usually an amplifier before eventually making it to your monitors or headphones.

Keep in mind that the electrical signal generated by the ribbon mic is an analog signal that needs to be converted to a digital signal by an audio interface or a converter for your computer or DAW to be able to understand.

Ribbon Tension & Corrugation

There are different physical properties of the ribbon itself that can drastically change the way the mic sounds. The ribbon is corrugated to make it springier and to allow for a wider range of tensions. Furthermore, the way the ribbon is corrugated and the corrugation density can actually change the range of allowable tensions.

The tension of the ribbon is extremely important. Tension determines the resonant frequency of the ribbon, which in turn will effect the frequency response of the mic. The best ribbon mics are tuned to a low enough resonant frequency to allow for a linear output at frequencies above that.

Tuning to slightly below 20 Hz is common as it will cover the entire audible range (20 Hz to 20 kHz) and allows for excellent bass response. But too low of a tension will result in excessive sub-sonic frequencies in the signal.

ribbon tensioning for best cheap ribbon mic

Image Source: DIYAudioComponents.com

Some ribbon mics are tuned higher, with resonant frequencies in the 60 Hz to 70 Hz range. This results in a bass roll-off below this range and a much less-pronounced bass response. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it really depends on what you’re after. Just be aware that higher tension usually means less low-end. Even the best cheap ribbon mic can lose tension over time. It’s good practice to tune and retension your ribbon mic every so often to ensure reliable operation.

Ribbon Length, Width, & Thickness

With the importance of resonant frequency, it only makes sense from a physical standpoint that the length of the ribbon itself plays a big role. The longer the ribbon, the lower the potential resonant frequency can be, and this allows for an extended bass response.

A longer ribbon also allows for a further displacement from the equilibrium position, and therefor makes longer ribbons capable of handling higher sound pressure levels (SPL).

The ribbon width, on the other hand, is directly tied to the signal output level of the motor assembly. Wider ribbons create lower signal output levels, and vice versa. Halving the width of the ribbon will effectively double the signal output level.

The ribbon thickness is usually under 10 microns, and it’s tied directly to the transient response of the microphone. A thicker ribbon is heavier and therefore moves slower. This means thicker ribbons exhibit a less precise transient response. Thinner is better in this sense, and the best cheap ribbon mics all have very thin ribbons.

Best Cheap Ribbon Mic: Wrapping it Up

If you’re a musician looking to add something special to your recorded sounds, a brand-new ribbon mic can be just what you need. These microphones look great, add character to your voice or instrument, and are cheap enough nowadays that hobbyists and semi-pro producers can get their hands on them.

Don’t forget to keep in mind the following before pulling the trigger on a purchase:

  • Active vs. Passive – Active ribbon mics are more versatile, don’t require a dedicated preamp, and are the cheaper option overall. A passive ribbon mic requires a preamp with an input impedance specifically rated for the mic. This incurs additional costs.
  • Character – What does the frequency response curve look like? Listen to some sampled audio to get an idea of the sonic personality of your mic.
  • Application – Will you be recording guitar? Drums? Vocals? Again, sampled audio of the instrument or sound you want to record will help.
  • Room treatment – Before getting a mic, it’s really important to make sure you have a relatively dry recording environment.

That’s it! We hope this guide helps you make the best choice for your cheap ribbon mic purchase. Leave a comment below and let us know which one you went with.

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