External Mics for Android, iPhone: Use Case and Comparison

At the university where I work, it came to my attention that our faculty would like to record interviews with colleagues to include as content in their courses; a practice we highly encourage. As professional practitioners they have access to experts and clients with all types of experience that can add real world context and value to their courses, simply by sharing a story.

One such faculty was traveling on business and scheduled a meeting with a colleague who volunteered to share some real world examples and industry lessons learned. As the meeting was somewhat impromptu, I had little time to evaluate recording options, and ended up with an acceptable, but low quality recording. For that reason, I would like for you to benefit from my loss, by equipping you with the right tools for successful video production in the field.

Tools at your disposal

For the most part, we all have the tools to produce audio and video out in the field.  Laptops, tablets, and cellphones are ubiquitous in the marketplace and we all own at least one, if not all three.

As we have come to accept, all of these tech devices are equipped with built-in cameras and microphones; and while they were not specifically designed for field recording, they are convenient tools nonetheless. One less accepted fact is that these built-in devices are poor quality at best, as they are often not the key feature of the device. And in order to maximize the quality of your production it is important to know the limitation of your devices, and identify some accessories that can help us level up our production.

Recording with Cell Phones and Tablets

iRig Mic Lav to Cell Phone

With the exception of laptops, the built-in camera lenses for cell phones and tablets are actually quite high in quality, which is what makes these devices excellent for shooting interviews and demonstration videos impromptu, out in the field. Unfortunately, their built-in microphones are terrible.

They’re typically omni-directional mics with narrow frequency response that record sound from all directions in equal strength, giving very little precedent to sources in close proximity. These built-in microphones are designed to pass voice signals in the human speech range to our recipient’s device during phone calls as cheaply and lo-fi as possible, and for that reason we are willing to accept a certain degraded quality.

When it comes to improving audio, thankfully, the input electronics on these devices are able to accept a myriad of external microphones, allowing you to take better control of your signal quality.

The Proof

A few months back I reached out to manufacturers, and requested some devices that I could test to see if there were affordable options on the market for consumers. By donation we received three lavalier (lapel) microphones (that come at around $50 retail) to test and either praise or protest. I also picked up some compact directional microphones to test that will do or die by my recommendations.  

Have a listen for yourself to determine which microphones sound best to you.

Microphone
W/ TRRS Connector
Samsung Galaxy Phone
Using Video App
iPad Pro
Using Explain Everything
Device (no mic)
Azden EX503i
iRig Mic Lav
Shure MVL
Earbuds w/ Mic
Rode Video Mic Me*
Saramonic iMic*
*Compact Directional Microphones

Omni-directional Mic Comparisons

MIC Azden EX503i iRig Mic by IK Multimedia Shure MVL Mic Earbuds w/ Mic
Sound Quality Good Very Good Excellent Fair
Freq. Range unpublished 30Hz – 16kHz 45hz – 20kHz unpublished
Design Build Cheap/Rugged Cheap/Fragile Fine/Fragile Cheap/Rugged
Length 4’0″ 5’6″ 4’4″ 4’4″
Price <$50 ~$50 >$50 $5-15
Notes Gets the job done. Dual input, excellent for interviews. Sensitive, built for hi-fidelity voice recording. Gets the job done. When its all you have, its still better than your mobile device’s built in mic.

Conclusions

All three of the donated lavalier microphones are excellent picks for personal field recordings, and are plug and play ready, meaning they require no special setup or software unless preferred by the user. Each have unique characteristics which justify its pricing and quality, and all are approved by Tech It Out Now to deliver the quality recording results your audience deserve from your multimedia.

Below I have provided a breakdown of each microphone identifying unique qualities and characteristics, followed by an “in-short” comparison summary and recommendation.

Microphone Reviews

  • EX503i Studio Pro Lapel Mic by Azden i-Coustics
  • iRig Lav Mic by IK Multimedia
  • MVL by Shure
  • Earbuds with Mic
  • Røde VideoMic Me
  • Saramonic iMic
Azden EX503i designed to give you studio quality sound with your smartphone or tablet. Just plug and play.At under $50 the  Azden iCoustics EX503i is the most economical lavalier microphone of the set, designed with the mobile user in mind. Don’t let its generic manufacture and appearance fool you, the unit is built to be rugged, used indoor/outdoor for studio/stage, and to take a serious beating and keep on ticking. It comes with a handy velcro strap for storage, but no travel case making it susceptible to damage if you don’t take care of it. I would describe the audio quality as very accurate sounding, bright, crisp, clean, and true to life. The mic is highly sensitive, which gives it the presence of sounding loud, but also has the downside of letting in some extra background noise which may interfere with your source. Intrusion from background and external noise is a side effect of any omni-direction mic, but in this case noise cancellation is the least effective of the three. Indoors no to worry, outdoor urban environment could prove challenging particularly if it comes to equalization in post production. As you heard in the sound tests the recording quality is both roomy and bright due to its high-sensitivity and broad frequency range, and perhaps most likely to detect intrusive wind or touch noise when the mic is moved or rubbed on your clothing. For most users this is not a detractor, and will lend itself to the documentary or true to life recording style.
iRig Mic Lav is a compact lapel mic designed to connect directly to your iPhone, iPad, or Android device. Capture high-quality audio with a discreet condenser microphone that's excellent for interviews, on the go.Coming in an approximately $50 the iRig Mic Lav  from IK Multimedia is fairly priced for both its quality and purpose. One unique feature of this unit is its ability to chain 2 mics together, perfect for recording interviews in the field to a single device. This feature is also a slight drawback in that the chaining component is bulky, making the cord a bit tedious to wrap up and store. Specifications also indicate the unit is designed for easy monitoring, but the monitoring delay is noticeable, so I would recommend against monitoring while recording. The iRig packaging comes with a sturdy travel case which makes it good on the go, and IK Multimedia offers a price break when you order a pair for interviews. I would describe the sound quality as a bit thin, but with good noise cancellation and dampening which make it sound clearer and less penetrable by background noise. Its thin sound speaks to its ability to capture accurate sound in the vocal range, and limit intrusion some intrusion from external sources. Keep in mind that the unit is built by a company which targets both consumer and prosumer mobile devices users, and DIY recording musicians. The iRig Mic Lav is our top pick for faculty field recording.
The MOTIV MVL Omnidirectional Condenser Lavalier Microphone works with any mobile phone or tablet equipped with recording capabilities by plugging directly into the headphone jack. At over $50 retail the MVL by Shure is the luxury option for this category, and you get what you pay for. Of the donated mics the MVL by Shure delivers the clearest and most crisp recorded sound free of external background noises lending itself better to post-production work when necessary. By design the MVL is specifically tailored to the dynamic range of the human voice for film and video, albeit higher end then for mobile devices. I would characterize the construction of the MVL as finely constructed and for that reason fragile. It does come with a soft leather carrying case adding to its luxury appeal, but is not particularly sturdy, and may not withstand a beating from your backpack or purse. Shure are a renowned international leader in quality microphones and audio components trusted by audio professionals across music and film for high fidelity, durability and reliable performance. For that reason its quality is guaranteed, but could pinch your pocket a little.
For most of us, a pair of earbuds with microphone were distributed for free with our cell phones, and you either take it or leave it. For others you might actually spend a pretty penny on earbuds with mic, where the mic is a bundled feature, and not the sole purpose for the price or design. I personally can’t stand how earbuds feel in my ear, but my wife absolutely loves them for hands-free talking while driving. For the thrifty DIY folks out there, the earbuds with mic work in a pinch. If you’re like me, and the buds in your ear are uncomfortable you can cut the earbuds off above the mic, and paperclip the strand to your shirt as a makeshift mic clip. As you heard in our samples the frequency response is questionable at best, and you may not like the sound of your own voice after recording.
he VideoMic Me - is a directional microphone optimized for iOS and Android devices.When it comes to shotgun directional microphones for consumer and professional DSLR video, Røde is the gold standard and the VideoMic Me lives up to Røde’s reputation. While this mic prices out at just over $50 retail your results will be worth every penny. Pros: The mic plugs directly into your phone or tablet and comes with a simple clip that secures it to your device and will keep it from drooping or flopping around. The polar pattern is unidirectional which means it will sound best pointed directly at you, or your sound source. That said, if you are interviewing one or two people the polar pattern is wide enough that you will get great sound even from voices who are sitting a bit off access. The unit comes with a furry windsock that is customized for the unit and secures tightly to the device. Cons: the unit is a few inches long, and depending on where your headphone jack is in relation to your device’s camera, the device may appear on camera, obstructing the view. This is not the case for most iPhones, and is not the case for some Android Devices. If you are filming a voice narration or Vlog from behind the camera this will not be an issue for you. If you’re like me and you love Android phones, keep the location of your headphone jack and camera in mind when you buy your next cell phone or tablet. There are several good choices.
Saramonic iMic is professional microphone designed for iOS and Android devices, that increases the sensitivity compared with the built-in mic. Shotgun design reduces unwanted sound from back and sides.Similar to the Azden EX503i the Saramonic iMic is the budget choice for the compact directional mic category coming in at ~$20, and is an excellent value. The mic is not only compact and small, it has a flexible head you can tilt up to 90 degrees. For this reason in addition to its small size and stature this microphone will not obstruct the camera lens in any way. Technically, the polar pattern is not specifically unidirectional, but 90 degree. Typically 90 degree patterns are unique to stereo recorders, however this unit sums your signal down to mono. Precedence is still given to voices or sound sources directly in front of the mic, but will share a more equally distributed pick-up with voices or sources that are slightly off access so still excellent for multi-person interviews. And while the signal to noise ratio and manufactured components of the Røde VideoMic Me are far superior, the Saramonic iMic sounds great. You may notice some background noise introduced into your recording especially when recording in a quiet setting, but I can assure you this is not a deal breaker. In a lively or outdoor setting, this noise will be hardly noticeable, if at all.

Summary and Recommendation

The iRig lavalier microphone by IK Multimedia is probably the best pick for faculty field recording due to its ability to chain multiple units together for interviewing, sturdy travel case and reliable middle of the road sound quality. In terms of sound quality the MVL by Shure is the runaway hero of this comparison in terms of clarity, vocal range quality, and noise cancellation. If you have to have the best, and you don’t mind spending the money, the Shure MVL is your pick. All that said, do not discount the EX503i by Azden iCoustics. The unit is rugged, built to last and delivers perfectly desirable sound quality. There is no shame in the economical choice, and we will not turn away your multimedia recordings with this mic. Whenever possible we recommend against recording your earbud-mic combo, but if your voice isn’t too bass-y it could pass, and is probably better than recording with your built in device mic. Of course we can’t force you to spend the money, but a decent mic will go a long way and depending on the age of your kids you may find borrowed quite often.  

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