How To Read Microphone Specifications

Microphone University
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How to read microphone specifications
By Mikkel Nymand
Gydevang 42-44, 3450 Alleroed, Denmark • Phone +45 4814 2828 • Fax +45 4814 2700 •
Microphone University - How to read microphone specifications
How to read microphone specifications
By Mikkel Nymand (Tonmeister), DPA Microphones A/S
When you read microphone specifications, it is
extremely important that you understand how to
interpret them. In most cases the specifications can
be measured or calculated in many different ways.
This article is designed to help evaluate
specifications in a meaningful way.
Example: DPA Type 4006 Omnidirectional Microphone, P48:
Frequency Range:
On-axis: 20Hz - 20kHz ±2dB
Frequency Response:
What you cannot determine from
While microphone specifications provide an
indication of a microphone's electro-acoustic
performance, they will not give you the total
appreciation of how it will sound. Specifications can
detail objective information but cannot convey the
subjective sonic experience. For example, a
frequency response curve can show you how
faithfully the microphone will reproduce the
incoming pure sinusoidal frequencies, but not how
detailed, well dissolved or transparent the result will
The decibel (dB) scale
The basis for most microphone specifications is the
decibel scale. The dB scale is logarithmic and is
used because of its equivalence to the way the
human ear perceives changes in sound pressure.
Furthermore, the changes in dB are smoother and
more understandable than the very large numbers
that might occur in pressure scales (Pascal, Newton
or Bar). The dB scale states a given pressure in
proportion to a reference pressure, mostly 20
µPa. The reference pressure 20 µPa is chosen
equal to 0 dB. Please note that 0 dB does not
mean, that there isn’t any sound; it only states the
lower limiting sound pressure level of the average
human ear's ability to detect sounds.
Frequency Response
The frequency response curve illustrates the
microphone’s ability to transform acoustic energy
into electric signals, and whether it will do so
faithfully or will introduce colouration. Take care
not to mistake frequency response for
frequency range. The microphone’s frequency
range, will only give you a rough indication of which
frequency area the microphone will be able to
reproduce sound within a given tolerance. The
frequency range is sometimes also referred to as
© DPA Microphones -
Multiple frequency response curves
Manufacturers of professional equipment will
always provide more than one frequency response
curve, as it is essential to see how the microphone
will respond to sound coming from different
directions and in different acoustic sound fields.
On-axis response
The on-axis response demonstrates the
microphone’s response to sound coming directly
on-axis towards its diaphragm (0°). Be aware that
the on-axis response may be measured from
different distances, which may influence the
response on directional microphones because of
the proximity effect.
Diffuse field response
The diffuse field response curve will illustrate how
the microphone will respond in a highly reverberant
sound field. This will be an acoustic environment
where the sound has no specific direction but where
all directions are equally probable. The reflections
from walls, floor, ceiling etc. are as loud or louder
than the direct sound and the sound pressure level
is the same everywhere. This is especially
interesting when considering omnidirectional
microphones, because they are able to register the
full frequency range in the lower frequencies. The
diffuse field response will show a roll-off in the
higher frequencies, partly due to the air’s absorption
of higher frequencies.
Off-axis responses
The off-axis responses will reveal the microphone’s
response to sound coming from different angles.
This is particularly interesting when you want to
discover how a directional (i.e. cardioid)
microphone will eliminate sound coming from other
angles than directly towards the diaphragm. Even
though the off-axis responses are attenuated on
directional microphones, it is of extreme importance
Microphone University - How to read microphone specifications
that these curves also show a straight frequency
response, as it will otherwise introduce an off-axis
coloration (curtain effect).
Example: DPA Type 4011, Cardioid Microphone, P48:
Polar Response
A polar diagram is used to show how certain
frequencies are reproduced when they enter the
microphone from different angles. The polar
diagram can provide an indication of how smooth
(or uneven) the off-axis coloration will be.
Example: DPA Type 4006 Omnidirectional Microphone, P48:
Equivalent noise level
The equivalent noise level (also known as the
microphone’s self-noise) indicates the sound
pressure level that will create the same voltage, as
the self-noise from the microphone will produce. A
low noise level is especially desirable when working
with low sound pressure levels so the sound will not
“drown” in noise from the microphone itself. The
self-noise also dictates the lower limitation in the
microphone’s dynamic range.
There are two typical standards:
1. The dB(A) scale will weight the SPL
according to the ear’s sensitivity, especially
filtering out low frequency noise. Good
results (very low noise) in this scale are
usually below 15 dB(A).
2. The CCIR 468-1 scale uses a different
weighting, so in this scale, good results are
below 25 - 30 dB.
Example: Type 4041-S Omnidirectional Solid State Microphone
Equivalent noise level A-weighted:
Max. 7dB(A) re. 20 µPa
Equivalent noise level CCIR 468-1:
Max. 19dB
Sensitivity expresses the microphone’s ability to
convert acoustic pressure to electric voltage. The
sensitivity states what voltage a microphone will
produce at a certain sound pressure level. A
microphone with high sensitivity will give a high
voltage output and will therefore not need as much
amplification (gain) as a model with lower
sensitivity. In applications with low sound pressure
levels, a microphone with a high sensitivity is
required in order to keep the amplification noise
A reference point on the outer circle is defined,
often by a 1kHz sinusoidal tone aiming the
microphone directly towards its diaphragm (0° = on
top of the circle). Each shift between emphasised
circles normally indicates a -5 dB step, unless
otherwise indicated. In this way you will be able to
determine how much weaker the signal will be
around the microphone for certain frequencies,
commonly 5kHz, 10kHz, 15kHz and 20 kHz.
The response curves should be smooth and
symmetric to show an uncoloured sound. Extreme
peaks and valleys are unwanted and the response
curves should not cross each other. From the polar
diagram you can also see how omnidirectional
microphones usually become more directional at
higher frequencies.
© DPA Microphones -
According to the IEC 268-4 norm, the sensitivity is
measured in mV per Pascal at 1kHz (measuring
microphones at 250 Hz). As an alternative, the
sensitivity can be submitted according to the
American tradition, which states the sensitivity in
dB, relatively to 1V/Pa, which will give a negative
value. A serious microphone manufacturer will also
state tolerances in sensitivity, according to
production differences - such tolerances would
normally be in the region of 2 dB.
Example: DPA Type 3530 A-B Stereo Kit, P48:
Nominally 10mV/Pa; -40dB re. 1V/Pa unloaded (at 250Hz) Max
difference 1dB
SPL handling capability
In many recording situations it is essential to know
the maximum Sound Pressure Level (SPL) the
microphone can handle. Please note that in most
music recording maximum peak SPL's easily
supersede the RMS value by more than 20dB.
Microphone University - How to read microphone specifications
The RMS value indicates an average SPL and will
not show the true SPL peaks.
It is important to know
1. The SPL where a certain Total Harmonic
Distortion (THD) occurs.
2. The SPL where the signal from the
microphone will clip, that is the waveforms
will become squares. This is the term: Max.
SPL and it refers to peak values in SPL.
A commonly used level of THD is 0,5% (1% is also
often seen), which is the point where the distortion
can be measured, but not heard. Ensure that the
THD specification is measured for the complete
microphone (capsule + preamplifier), as many
manufacturers only specify THD measured on the
preamplifier, which distorts much less than the
capsule. The distortion of a circular diaphragm will
double with a 6dB increase of the input level, so
you can calculate other levels of THD by using this
Example: Type 4004 Hi-SPL Omnidirectional Microphone, 130V
Maximum sound pressure level:
168dB SPL peak
Total harmonic distortion:
142dB SPL peak (<0.5% THD)
148dB SPL peak (<1% THD)
Microphone specifications do not tell the whole
story about a microphone's quality, and are no
substitute for the sonic experience. Although
microphone specifications may not be fully
comparable between manufacturers, when properly
evaluated they do provide useful objectivity and will
help in the search for the optimal microphone.
© DPA Microphones -
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