Can You Use a Condenser Mic Without Phantom Power?

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Even the technophobes out there won’t be able to deny that buying your first mic is a really fun milestone for any podcaster. Because who doesn’t love a fancy looking mic? It’s one of the first things you’ll need to invest in, so it’s likely to be your first major decision as a podcast producer.

You probably already know what a condenser microphone is, or at least you’ve heard of one. But if you’re still wondering about the details, you might want to check out our head to head comparison of condenser mics versus dynamic mics

And if you’re dead set on a condenser mic — it’s because you’re hoping to cultivate a rich and sophisticated NPR level sound. But what is the phantom power that it needs? Why the spooky name?

Let’s get into the specifics and talk about some practical things to consider when using this mysterious power source.

And just so you know upfront — you’ll probably come to the same conclusion that we did…

Although you may still get a signal from some condenser mics without phantom power, it will be so weak that it will be barely audible. In most cases, you won’t get a signal at all. Condenser mics need power to operate correctly whether that be battery or phantom power.

What is Phantom Power?

It’s not as spooky as it sounds. It’s actually pretty straightforward. Phantom power is DC (direct current) electrical power, usually 48v, that travels to your condenser microphone via an XLR input and cable. Which basically means that you have to plug it into the power source.

So, if it travels through a very visible cable — what’s the big deal? How is it phantom?

It’s considered “phantom” because the input and cable look the same as any other cable. The first major difference is that you’re using a condenser microphone. And the second of course is the phantom power supply itself — which you can find in lots of audio equipment.

Mixers, preamplifiers, audio interfaces, and any other digital recorders often come with a built-in phantom power supply.  This phantom power comes from the battery or mains power that runs whatever piece of equipment you’re using. You just have to flip a switch to turn it on. 

If you plug in a dynamic microphone to a source with phantom power, but you don’t need it, most modern mics are designed to simply ignore it. However, we always recommend that you switch off the phantom power prior to plugging a mic in which doesn’t need phantom power as in some cases, it can cause damage.

Why Does a Condenser Mic Need Phantom Power?

To answer this question, you need to understand a few technical details about electricity and the internal components of condenser mics compared with other types of mics.

Essentially, a condenser mic uses a transducer or “capsule” design to convert sound waves into an electrical signal. This transducer is made up of a front (diaphragm) and backplate. The front plate needs to be electrically charged so that the capsule is polarized — creating an electric field inside the mic.

As sound waves hit the polarized capsule it converts them into an electrical signal. So, without phantom power, the diaphragm is not polarized, and you don’t have the electric field required.

A dynamic mic, which is the other most common mic doesn’t use the same mechanism. Its transducer is completely different. It doesn’t have a backplate and it uses a coil and a magnet to create a magnetic field — so it doesn’t need phantom power to work.

Hopefully that wasn’t too confusing, and if you’re second-guessing your decision, take another look at our dynamic mic versus condenser mic comparison

Podcasters often choose a condenser mic when they are looking to record full and crisp tones that can give any DIY podcast a more professional feel. But its complexity and range don’t necessarily make it better for everyone. If you don’t have the budget to invest in a condenser mic with audio equipment that can supply phantom power, then you might want to reconsider your choice and go with a dynamic mic.

How to Supply a Microphone with Phantom Power

If you have the appropriate audio equipment, this should be a breeze. You just plug in your condenser mic and flip the switch for phantom power on. 

Of course, you have to be sure that the hardware you’re using comes with a phantom power supply. It’s usually labelled as “phantom power” or simply +48v. Some more advanced mixing consoles and audio interfaces come with phantom power switches for each individual channel, so you’ll want to check that you have the right channel turned on. 

But if your mixer, preamp, or digital recorder doesn’t come with a phantom power supply, you can always check out separate phantom power supplies (Amazon affiliate link)— which are external but affordable.

One thing that you should also be aware of is that the standard phantom power voltage is 48v, but not all mics need that. Some may only need a small portion of that voltage and some may need more. So make sure that your condenser mic and phantom power supply are compatible.

What Happens if you Try to Run a Condenser Mic without Phantom Power?

After doing some of our own experiments, we’ve found that it’s not a great idea to run a condenser mic without phantom power. If you try it — the result will probably be a recording that sounds really quiet, or just completely inaudible. 

We’ll spare you the in-depth electronics lesson, but there’s a very good reason for this. Because of the more complex circuitry that makes up the transducer inside a condenser mic, the output has a high impedance and needs a more robust power source to reduce it and create an audible sound.

So, the takeaway is that using a condenser mic without phantom power is technically possible, but that doesn’t mean you should do it. It’s more than likely to leave you with an unusable recording — and if you can somehow salvage it, the post-production won’t be fun. 

Our recommendation is plain and simple: don’t use a condenser mic without phantom power.

Can you Power a Condenser Mic with a Battery?

Once again, technically, yes. This type of mic exists — but a condenser mic that uses a battery instead of phantom power is usually pretty expensive or just really hard to come by.

But if this is your top choice for a mic, you might want to check out these.

While we’re on the topic of alternative mic options, the AV nerds out there might be wondering about electret condenser mics. The transducer inside an electret condenser mic (ECM) doesn’t need phantom power because it self-charges or self-polarizes. This type of mic is relatively common, and the micro version — MECMs, are actually the type of mic found in most iPhones.

“Electret” may seem like a typo, but it comes from joining “electrostatic” and “magnet.” ECMs use electrostatic principles to quasi-permanently charge a mic’s transducer so it functions like a magnet would in a dynamic mic. But don’t be fooled — while this may be another great mic option you want to explore, you’re still going to need phantom power to charge the other, more powerful internal components of your electret condenser mic.

Final Thoughts on Phantom Power

We hope that we’ve helped illuminate the mystery of phantom power — and while we know that not everyone is interested in learning the tech side of podcasting and audio electronics, it’s useful stuff to know. Especially if you’re hoping to produce a quality podcast with killer sound. 

It’s not a coincidence that podcasters are often hyphenated artists and professionals — so you might as well embrace this new skill set. Now that you know the basics of what’s going on inside your mic and power source, you’ll have no problem finding the right equipment for you.  That doesn’t mean that you won’t have more tech questions or face audio obstacles down the road. But remember, a struggle with phantom power should never be one of them — so choose a simple option that works best for you.