Why are fixed/handheld microphones so enormous?

Concert vocalists sometimes use headset microphones, i.e. one that is attached to their ear. The actual microphone on the end of the boom is tiny, perhaps a centimeter across with its foam cover.

When they don’t use these, they rely on a handheld microphone, or one that’s affixed to a stand. In this case, the microphone is invariably a massive thing, with a head maybe four centimeters across.

Why the disparity? Presumably both types provide adequate audio fidelity, so why is the handheld/stand mic such a gigantic thing?

Handheld microphones need to be big enough to hold in your hand; they’re often quite weighty/solid too - but a lot of this is just to deaden any noise your hands might make in handling them. Mostly, what they are is a handle for a smallish microphone element.

(Wireless handheld mics are big because they have a transmitter and batteries in them).

The Mic, they have in their ear is connected with a cable to a battery and transmitter pack, that the singer wears somewhere else on their body.
Something like this

Whereas the handheld Mic has to contain everything within itself and also needs to be designed to prevent the hand movements to generate noise that can be picked up.

It also needs to be big enough to be hold in a hand.

The little microphone is a condenser mic and its element can be very small. Most vocal mics are dynamics and their element size is relative to frequency range, much like a larger speaker can make lower frequencies easier than a smaller one. In fact a speaker and a dynamic microphone are basically the same thing with the circuit reversed.

There also are condenser vocal mics, while their elements can be quite small, the size is more like a dynamic’s for easy handling and feel.

This leaves out studio style mics.


I would also posit that there is such a thing as mic technique. An experienced singer will know when to get up close to the mic and when to back off of it (say for louder passages where he/she is really wailing).

A singer who is more concerned about his/her dance moves than about his/her vocalizations will wear a headset mic, whose element is always in a fixed position, and won’t be troubled by such subtleties.

Such is the state of “music” today that, for a significant number of performers, the former takes precedence over the latter.

I don’t understand why singers and motivational speakers are suddenly using these headset microphones that stick out over their mouth. Why not just use a clip on mic and clip it to your shirt, it’s practically invisible. Even if you’re not wearing a shirt, you don’t need a big foam ball in hooked to your ear and hanging in front of your mouth. It’s meant to be conspicuous, even moreso than a big stand microphone, it seems.

I get the impression that they want the audience to see the face microphone, like it’s a status symbol, it shows who the ‘star’ is, who the main speaker/singer is.

Proximity. The closer a mic is to its source the more gain before feedback. This only applies to live sound with a PA. When I first started using these they were Country Man E6’s and the foam pop filters were tiny, for some reason the Chinese knock offs have much larger “clown noses”. I do not know why, the elements are almost as small as the originals.


Also, a fixed distance / orientation of the mic vs the mouth is easy to deal with. Lapel mics lose the speaker’s voice if he turns his head.

This and a hand held mic gives the singer something to do with his/her hands. :smiley:

That’s a pretty big assumption.

No-one would record in a studio with a headset mic. They might record with a typical handheld stage mic (SM57/58), connected directly to the desk (i.e not wireless). Most likely, they will use a very expensive and large studio mic, for the best audio capture.

So a stage mic is a compromise between utility and performance. As noted, headsets are often used where the performer is being very dynamic on stage, and audio performance may not be as important (e.g. some of the performer vocals may be coming from backing tracks), or the physical requirements of the performance do not allow a handheld mic (musicals, theatre, opera). For some of these disciplines, performance micing is fairly new, and performers are used to projecting into the auditorium at a fairly consistent level, so the headset mic is just an adjunct to that.

However, the performer cannot use the headset mic in the way a handheld can be used, by varying the distance to the mic to manage the dynamics. But for a rock/pop vocalist, they would probably prefer the slightly higher fidelity and control of a handheld/stand mic, but (as always) YMMV.

For field newsgathering I prefer the RE 50. It’s pretty heavy and decently sized, but the sound is very good, sensitive yet not likely to pick up wind noises, able to take the beating daily fieldcraft will give it, and (not kidding) will hurt like hell if I have to hit someone with it.

Expanding on the above a bit.

Microphones come in a range of operating principles and designs. There is no such thing as a perfect microphone, and the various requirements will dictate the best choice.

For live use a lot of requirements are relaxed, but new ones added. First up is robustness. Live is a punishing time for equipment. Yet failures are intolerable. Many studio microphones would simply not survive. A ribbon for instance would not even survive being set up on stage, let alone actually being used. Robustness favours a dynamic mic, but many condensor mics are pretty robust. Phantom power is ubiquitous, so powering a mic isn’t an issue, but you would not be wanting to set up a power supply for some prized tube mic.

Proximity effect is key to a vocalist that understands how to use it. Also a skilled vocalist knows how to use the varying off axis frequency response as well. This allows the vocalist to tailor the sound of their voice as a means of dynamic expression. These effects are the province of large diameter microphones, as they depend upon selective cancellation of frequencies with distance across the microphone membrane. So, this also favours large microphones, and is why the old RCA style mic has never gone out of favour (although it is a ribbon, so not really useful live). Vocalists that know their craft will usually have a favourite microphone, one that suits their voice and style.

A small diameter condensor microphone, as seen by some modern vocalists, especially those that are more song and dance merchants than skilled singers, pretty much dictates a fixed response, and suits a vocalist whose only job is to basically sing the words. Given many such performers will have their voice harmonised before it reaches the front of house mix, it really doesn’t matter much anyway.

Small diameter microphones have higher intrinsic noise than large microphones, simply because the larger ones average more noise of air molecules hitting them, and this can matter in critical recording applications, but live matters not at all.

There is however no doubt that the microphone as stage prop is also pretty important. It announces visually who is in charge, and gives the timid something to hide behind. It is clear some vocalists feel naked without something to do with their hands whilst the rest of the band are more obviously occupied.

Maybe to emphasize they’re not lip-syncing?

  Actually, most of the ones used for headsets tend to be electret condenser mics.  Like condensers, they use a capacitor, but the charge is embedded during the production process.  The power supply is used, not for transduction, but rather to amplify the low output level close to the source.
   Some of the most expensive electret condensers can match the quality of a good studio microphone, but, for the most part, people compromise for the convenience of going hands-free.
    Because they are so forgiving, most on-stage handheld microphones are dynamic, and have a magnet inside of them to change the sounds into electrical signals with the magnetic field.  So, some of the size and weight comes from the magnet.

And a hand-held with a really big foam windscreen allows the singer to cover up his mouth from the camera’s field of view, so you can’t tell just how bad they are at lipsynching. :smiley:

ETA: or what AaronX said above.


I was going for the simple answer versus a highly technical one.