SHURE SM81 Review (2020)

Shure SM81 is a transparent and neutral condensing instrument that features dielectric bias. This microphone is suitable for recording different musical instruments including cymbals, pianos, guitars, and others. However, if you’re after a drum kick microphone I can recommend this microphone and you would greater benefit from an AKG D112.

There is a range of different condenser mics available on the market, but not many can surpass or even match the performance of the good old Shure.

But how reliable is it in terms of sound quality, built, and polar pattern? We are going to find everything in this in-depth Shure SM81 Microphone review.

So let’s get started with the SM81’s sound quality.

Sound Quality

One of the top features of this condenser microphone is, it delivers an excellent sound definition and manages very consistent high and lows. There is not much distortion and the low-end quality is abundantly noticeable.

Frequency Patterns

You will notice these patterns in your frequency diagram to be pretty flat. These will be smooth until 15kHz and till then there is almost no color. From there on the mic starts rolling off but remains pretty much insignificant.

Several microphone manufacturers have been working on their products to get a perfectly linear response for many decades. These manufacturers have managed to achieve their goals successfully. But most of those devices look good in the diagrams only.

When you put them to a test in real life, they produce a pretty dull sound. The good thing is, SM81 is not one of those manufacturers and has successfully managed to achieve the expected quality.

The mic is capable of capturing every detail along with subtleties and allows any graininess or harshness in its results. Most of the cardioid mics sound awful and present you with a range of harmonics, phase distortions, and intermodulation. You will notice sharp responses in these mics are no way near accuracy.

These devices don’t pay attention to resolving these issues. Instead, they add a bit more brightness. It results in a somewhat sound clarity when in A/B comparison. SM81 doesn’t do that, so recording engineers prefer it over other condenser mics.

Distortions

When we talk about distortions, condenser cardioid devices are not great in reproducing any low-end distortions. And it is a serious issue to tackle because it can influence several such devices to a certain degree.

Most of the manufacturers are dealing with this issue by introducing low cut filters. They spoil the entire low end and don’t fix it. So masking is an effective strategy to take care of these distortions. This practice seems to be a bit unethical, as you are manipulating the reality about the overall performance of the poorly designed mic.

Now, the issue of low-end distortion is not going to be a question if you use SM81. Even if it produces some low-end distortions, they are surely negligible. Hence, the Shure SM81 sounds much better than other condenser mics with switchable filters. But if you are dealing with mixes, it can be slightly overwhelming. This is something you can easily roll off and you won’t have to reconstruct anything.

However, you need to keep in mind that the SM81 can handle low end pretty well but it won’t replace the output of a good quality LDC mic. We want to mention this here because we don’t want you to get the impression that this mic can achieve everything when you start using it for something it wasn’t made for.

Noise

Shure Sm81 has been rated for self-noise at 16 dB-A and sensitivity at 6 mV/Pa. Self-noise might be great for small diaphragm condenser mics but sensitivity is a bit on the smaller side.

You need more amplification to match it with other mics. When you are matching the levels, the SM81 might produce a lot less noise. Overall, this instrument is sufficient for a range of different instruments.

Build Quality

Shure has been around for a very long time and the company knows how to make durable products. SM81 is no different and will continue to work for over a decade if you don’t mishandle the mic.

The overall construction of this mic is rock solid. It features a -10dB pad and a couple of roll-off options to handle the low end. One of these options is a gentle 6dB/octave and the other is the aggressive 18dB/octave.

Your purchase of this mic includes a plastic case, a wind foam, and a stand clip. When the foam is switched on, you can conveniently listen to outdoor recordings. And the mic will pick a lot of noise and sounds from the environment. You need to keep in mind that the mic doesn’t feature an internal shock mount and you shouldn’t hold it in your hands.

The mic has a monolithic design so it is not only aesthetically pleasing but is durable as well. One of the best features of this mic is, you can operate it over a wide range of temperatures and humidity levels. Therefore, the mic is pretty reliable in its construction.

Controls

The mic features different switches and knobs. And if these knobs and switches need to work accurately, they need to be built with precision and quality. There is a switch under the grill which is SM81’s attenuator.

The knob that is right in the center of the mic’s body is its response sector for the low frequencies. Both switches are easily accessible and very handy in controlling the sound output.

-10dB attenuator

With this control, you can mute any instrument with just a click. So it is a good choice if you are a drummer because there are different types of bit instruments you are dealing with and at times you have to turn some of them off.

Filters for low-frequency roll-off

The SM81 comes with these filters to roll off low frequency. These filters are there to reduce any low-end rumble that shouldn’t be on your final track. These low-end frequencies are especially the problems when you are recording instruments like percussion or cymbals.

Phantom power needed

You need to use Phantom power to run this mic as it works the best with 48 Vdc supply. It can also work with slightly low headroom and sensitivity if you use a supply that is as low as 11 Vdc. Several latest mixers come with phantom power. You just need to use a balanced power source like XLR-TRS, or XLR-XLR.

Polar Patterns

The SM81 comes with a cardioid polar pattern. The mic can only record direct sounds and comes with a powerful level of output and can easily handle low distortion with a variety of impedances.

Several users have claimed the SM81 is a brilliant choice for recording acoustics guitar. But the reality is quite opposite to that as various aspects are influencing different types of recordings. You have to be more careful to get the best out of the SM81 and record the instruments of your choice.

Generally, this mic is more about its frequency response. And you can use it to reproduce accurate sounds just like it comes out from the sound source. There won’t be any additional saturation.

Polar patterns of a device tell you a lot about the device and how it listens to a sound. The SM81 comes with a cardioid polar pattern that is most popular in small-diaphragm devices.

The SM81 is better in terms of blocking the mic’s backside and reduces feedback and background noise. As it comes with unidirectional cardioid features, you can conveniently cut out background noise and focus on the sound source.

You can find other mics that come with switchable controls for multiple polar patterns. But that would be a better idea if you are looking to consider background sound. If you want to focus on the sound source, this mic will prove to be a great choice. 

Pros and Cons of the Shure SM81

Pros

  • The SM81 has a very neutral response.
  • The mic is extremely pure and clear sounding.
  • The low end is well defined and rich with this mic.
  • This mic is suitable for recording a range of different sound sources.
  • Overall construction is highly durable.
  • It is considered to be the industry standard for condenser mics.
  • Low distortion rate.

Cons

  • Bit expensive.
  • Not suitable for holding in hands.

Conclusion:

If you are looking for a natural instrument for recording sound sources, there is no better option than the Shure SM81. This condenser mic is the most preferable choice of musicians and artists for recording various instruments like cymbals, guitars, pianos, and others.

For a condenser microphone, the SM81 is considered to be the industry standard. One of the best features of this mic is, it can handle low-end distortions pretty well. Several other mics of this category are quite dismal in their performance when it comes to handling low-end distortions. And that is why sound engineers and professionals prefer to have this microphone in their arsenal for recording different instruments.

The mic can easily negate any background noise due to its uni-directional polar patterns. If you are looking to record the sound just the way the instrument is playing, you need to go with this mic. This mic is capable of producing an excellent definition of sound and keeps it pretty consistent among the highs and the lows.

The device is robustly constructed and can easily last for more than a decade if you use it carefully. You might find it a bit expensive but you will also get the value of your investment over a longer period. That is why the Shure SM81 has been one of the best condenser microphones with a small-diaphragm on the market.

You may also be interesed in my Shure SM58 vs 55SH comparison review here.

About Shawn Shepherd

Hi, I'm the owner of the Hifi Guide and have been an audio lover enthusiast for over 16 years. I have a Bachelor's degree in Sound Engineering and I work on producing content for the Hifi Guide in my spare time. My love for audio stemmed from my Dad who was an audio technician, and now I share my knowledge here on this website!

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