If you’re like most people with an interest in audio, you probably daydream about fitting out a plush studio furnished with the latest and greatest gear. You can almost envision stocking your mic lockers with the Neumann U87s and AKG C414s of the world. Unfortunately, that isn’t always realistic. For many of us, part of producing great audio is the challenge of finding gear that will do the job without breaking the bank. One of the most valuable tools in that regard is a versatile microphone that can capably handle a wide range of sources.

Enter the MXL 990. Its stubby profile, generic finish and low price tag make it easy to dismiss, but the 990 is a respectable option for a budget-friendly setup. I wouldn’t be in a hurry to reach for it during a serious studio session, but it deserves consideration if you’re a hobbyist or an artist looking for a simple, no-frills solution that simply works.

mxl_990_side

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The Good

  • Comes in several configurations for maximum versatility
  • Relatively clean and bright sound that fits a variety of voices and instruments
  • Same capsule as the well-regarded MXL 603S
  • Very affordable

The Bad

  • Can sound overly bright and harsh for some applications
  • Not a true large-diaphragm condenser
  • Lacks many of the additional features found on other condenser microphones

Anatomy of a Quality Condenser Microphone

Ask a hundred people what makes a quality condenser microphone and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers. Beauty, to adopt a phrase, is in the ear of the beholder. Still, there are a few things most quality microphones have in common regardless of the price tag attached to them.

The first is a responsive, high-quality capsule. The capsule is the business end of the microphone and it contains the components that actually capture sound. The capsule itself is composed of a solid metal backplate and a thin diaphragm made from conductive material. Most modern condenser microphones, like the 990, use gold-sputtered Mylar diaphragms to achieve the greatest fidelity and dynamic range.

The size of the diaphragm is also important. Large-diaphragm condenser microphones have a diaphragm of one inch or larger in diameter. They essentially provide a bigger surface area for incoming sound waves, producing greater sensitivity and a higher signal voltage. This makes larger diaphragms better at picking up quiet audio and subtle detail without adding unwanted noise. The MXL 990 is typically billed as a large-condenser microphone, but its diaphragm diameter actually falls a quarter of an inch short of the one-inch standard.

Technical Specifications

  • Tube Type: Pressure gradient condenser microphone
  • Diaphragm: 6 micron gold-sputtered
  • Frequency Response: 30 Hz – 20 kHz
  • Polar Pattern: Cardioid
  • Sensitivity: 15mV/Pa
  • Impedance: 200 ohms
  • Equivalent Noise Level: 20 dB (A-weighted IEC 268-4)
  • Signal to Noise Ratio: 80 dB (Ref. 1Pa A-weighted)
  • Max SPL for .5% THD: 130 dB
  • Power Requirements: Phantom Power 48V (+- 4V)
  • Current Consumption: Less than 3.0mA
  • Size: 60mm x 130mm / 2.36 in. x 5.11 in.
  • Weight: 1.2 pounds (544.3 grams)
  • Metal Finish: Champagne

Meet the Competition

The MXL 990 is somewhat unique in that there simply aren’t many comparable condenser microphones in its price range. That’s especially true when you consider that it’s available in so many different configurations. Most budget condenser microphones suited for hobby or entry-level professional audio work are well outside of the MXL’s typical price range. Still, there are a few alternatives worth considering if you’re looking for a versatile, wallet-friendly condenser.

Samson C01

Probably the most direct competition for the 990, the Samson C01 is another solid choice in the budget category. In fact, the microphone is similar in many ways. It employs a similarly sized diaphragm and frequency response of 40 hertz to 18 kilohertz is only slightly narrower than the 990’s. On a practical level, the C01 delivers a slightly brighter and airier tone than the MXL 990. Whether this is a good or bad thing, of course, will depend on your application.

samson c01

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The Samson doesn’t perform quite as well in the low range and it also tends to generate slightly more self-noise than the MXL 990. Nonetheless, it’s suitably well-engineered and it’s capable of producing a clean and responsive sound. If you’d prefer a USB form factor, you can also check out the upcoming Samson C01U Pro.

Audio-Technica AT2020

The Audio-Technica AT2020 is often one of the first microphones mentioned when it comes to affordable entry-level gear. In truth, the AT2020 performs well enough that the “entry-level” tag is almost unnecessary. The back-electret design features a comparably sized diaphragm and a full bandwidth that runs from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz. The build quality is excellent thanks to a cast metal design and a durable wire mesh cover over the capsule.

audio technica at2020

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Sonically, the AT2020 is very transparent and faithful. The mic adds relatively little of its own color and features a fairly tame proximity response compared to some of its competitors. However, some people may find the lack of character to be a drawback rather than an asset. The AT2020 is also more costly than the other options, particularly when it comes to the USB-powered AT2020USB+.

MXL 990 Review: The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the MXL 990 is everything you’d expect an entry-level condenser microphone to be. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your budget and your needs. Studio producers and professional artists will probably find little value in the 990’s utilitarian design and transparent, somewhat characterless recording quality. If you’re a hobbyist operating on a budget or looking for a simple, no-frills microphone that can handle a variety of work, however, the MXL 990 is a capable and highly affordable option.

mxl 990 case

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That’s it, thanks for reading. I hope this review helps you find the right mic for your specific application, needs, and situation!

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