The Sennheiser MKE 400 is an almost perfect on-camera shotgun microphone

Aug 30, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

The Sennheiser MKE 400 is an almost perfect on-camera shotgun microphone

Aug 30, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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As more people have taken to vlogging and creating other content for YouTube over the last few years, on-camera shotgun microphones have become extremely popular. One of the more well-known and long-established names in microphones is Sennheiser, who also make a couple.

They’ve recently released the second iteration of the Sennheiser MKE 400 on-camera shotgun mic and it sees a massive change in both appearance and quality over its predecessor. It’s designed for use with both smartphones as well as “real” cameras and includes some great features for both types of user. I’ve been using one for a few weeks now, so here are some of my thoughts.

YouTube video

First impressions

On opening the box, the immediate thing you notice about the Sennheiser MKE 400 is its general quite weird design. It has a very unique look to it that you just don’t find with other on-camera shotgun microphones on the market today – except, perhaps, other Sennheisers, obviously.

With most of them, you’ve got the microphone unit itself and then a separate shock mount that goes into your camera’s hotshoe and the microphone mounts inside that shock mount. With the MKE 400, the microphone capsule is shock-mounted inside the body of the unit itself.

There’s also some basic wind protection, akin to the foam windshield you might normally stick on the outside of a shotgun microphone, built into the unit, too. Essentially, everything is self-contained and there are no vital components to worry about getting lost or damaged.

There are some extra accessories, though. The separate items are the fluffy windshield for more extreme wind conditions (basically, anything stronger than a super-light breeze) and the audio cables that connect the microphone to either your camera or your smartphone.

Two cables are included. One is a 3.5mm TRS and the other is a 3.5mm TRRS. Both of them include a screw-on mount at the microphone end to provide a secure connection and prevent it from falling out.

Also included, if you get the MKE 400 Mobile Kit is a Manfrotto PIXI tripod (my favourite mini tripod) and a metal smartphone bracket with a cold shoe mount on top for attaching the microphone.

Also included is a pair of AAA batteries, which is how you power the MKE 400. I would have preferred a built-in battery, but it’s turned out to not be a massive problem. You will want to keep a couple of spares in your bag, though, just in case.

The MKE 400 Design

As mentioned, the Sennheiser MKE 400 has a pretty unique design. Because on-camera shotgun mics are designed for use on-camera (the clue’s in the name), Sennheiser has made the design as simple as possible for the end-user.

It does, perhaps, sacrifice a little versatility, but it’s designed for a specific task, and that task alone, really, bringing the benefit of being small and lightweight.

But aside from the overall shape of the microphone itself, button placement is very logical and well thought out. The socket for the cable to connect it to your camera or smartphone is located on the front of the unit, not behind. This means that if you want to look through your camera’s viewfinder, it’s not knocking you in the head.

It’s also a threaded screw lock mount, meaning that it won’t accidentally fall out or work loose when you least expect it.

On the left-hand side of the microphone (left, from the operator’s perspective when standing behind the camera), we see the power button along with basic audio settings. There’s a 3-way gain switch on the left and a low-cut filter in the middle with the on/off button on the right.

The power button is handy, although somewhat redundant – at least for those using a camera rather than a smartphone. This is where it’s not too bit of a deal that the MKE 400 runs on a pair of AAA batteries. If you’re using it with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, it automatically detects when your camera is turned on and turns itself on accordingly. Likewise, when you turn your camera off, the microphone turns itself off and stops using battery power.

Boasting 100 hours of use on a pair of AAA batteries means that they’ll last quite a while – I’m actually still using my first pair of batteries with the MKE 400 several weeks later. When you’re using a smartphone, though, you will need to use the on/off switch manually.

On the other side of the microphone, we have a standard 3.5mm TRS headphone socket for live monitoring – which is very handy for smartphones and when using it with a camera that doesn’t have a headphone output. Next to this, there’s a simple volume switch that knocks the headphone volume up and down.

The fluffy windshield that comes with it is designed to go completely over the microphone and works very well. It can make accessing the 3.5mm socket for the cable that goes to your camera a little difficult to screw in, though, so make sure you screw in your cable before you add the windshield.

While the microphone unit itself does have some basic wind protection, you’ll really want to use the fluffy windshield pretty much any time you’re shooting outdoors.

How does it sound?

I’ve mostly been using this microphone with the Panasonic G80 (or Panasonic G85 for folks in the USA). When it comes to image quality, it’s a fantastic camera, but when it comes to audio, it’s not that great. The preamps in this thing are pretty noisy, so you want to have a pretty strong signal coming into the camera with the camera’s record level set fairly low.

Thanks to the MKE 400’s three-way gain control (which cuts or adds 20dB), you can get a pretty strong signal out of it, which means I can set the camera’s record level to -12dB. And as you can hear in the video at the top of this post, it’s pretty good. The other option is to leave the microphone at zero and bump the camera gain up to +6dB, but then you’re introducing more hiss from the camera’s built-in preamp.

In a completely silent room, you can hear a little his from the microphone preamp that’s easily cleaned up in something like Adobe Audition (the audio in the video above is unprocessed), but when you’re out and about on location, you’re probably not even going to notice it against the environment noise much of the time.

Going into a smartphone, you’re using the headphone jack – if you’re using a phone that still has one. If not, you’re using a Type-C to 3.5mm TRRS adapter. Whichever way you’re going in, this is an analogue signal, not a digital one.

The sound going into a smartphone is very good, although I’m a little disappointed that it doesn’t offer digital audio connectivity using USB. Sennheiser does offer an optional audio cable that goes to a Type-C USB plug, although it’s still analogue audio, not digital. I don’t have one of those, so I use a standard Type-C to 3.5mm TRRS audio adapter cable.

Digital audio over USB is not a commonly available feature, though, to be fair. So far, the only on-camera shotgun microphone of repute that does offer this feature is the Rode VideoMic NTG. It’s certainly not an essential feature for vlogging (even with a smartphone), but it would allow you to bypass your smartphone’s preamps (eliminating any hiss caused by your smartphone) and it’s very handy for recording voiceovers on a computer straight into something like DaVinci Resolve or Adobe Audition.

It wasn’t a feature I expected the microphone to have, but having gotten used to it with the VideoMic NTG, I was kinda hoping this would start to become a standard feature of on-camera microphones now and would have liked to have seen it. But if it’s not a feature you use, it’s not something you’ll miss. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker.

One feature that did impress me, though, was the built-in shock absorption. The microphone picked up virtually no handling noise and didn’t seem to catch the bumps and knocks as I walked around the rough terrain much at all. There were times while walking around with it where I really felt I’d hear a bump in the audio, but when watching those clips back, I heard no bumps at all and the voice was still clear.

Sound not directly in front of the microphone was drastically reduced, although not completely eliminated, as you can hear in samples in the video above. The environment noise was dropped down significantly, though, to a level where it didn’t interfere with the voice at all, even standing just a few feet from the bank of a rather noisy river. In a relatively noisy environment with sound all around, it easily picks out the subject.

A word on distance…

Most on-camera shotgun microphones generally work well to a distance of about a metre or two and then they start to fall off really badly. One thing I noticed about the MKE 400 – although I didn’t have a sample clip to show in the video above, sorry! –  is that it performs well even at some distance.

While out with a friend one day, I accidentally left it recording, and it picked up our voices very well from about 4-5 metres in front of the microphone against the ambient noise. Yes, we were outdoors, so there were no reverberation issues to worry about, but this capability at a distance is a point worth noting.

Other than recording the main audio for your video, the other big use for on-camera microphones is to be able to record a clear scratch track on the video file for easy syncing to separately recorded audio in post – or for syncing multicam edits if you’re shooting with more than one camera.

The MKE 400 performs at a distance probably better than any other on-camera microphone I’ve tried for this particular use. So, if you want something for picking out clear and distinct sound for syncing that’s way better than relying on the in-camera mic, this is definitely one to check out.

Ease of use

On-camera microphones are generally pretty easy to use. So, there’s not really all that much to say here. I haven’t used it much with a smartphone, but when it comes to using it with mirrorless cameras, it’s ridiculously easy to use. Throw in a couple of AAA batteries, add the cable, mount it to the hotshoe and you’re ready to go.

It turns on and off with my camera, so I don’t have to worry about batteries draining while I’m not using it, or forgetting to turn the microphone on when I want to record. And every vlogger with a powered microphone has faced this at some point if they’ve had to turn it on and off manually. It’s what originally pushed me away from powered microphones, but now that the tech has caught up, it’s a non-issue anymore.

I like that the gain and low cut filter settings are actual switches and not just buttons that cycle through settings which can be easily bumped and change without you realising it. These switches stay firm and solid, even when the microphone’s rolling around in your bag.

One big missing feature

There is one pretty large missing feature, though, that I haven’t really mentioned so far, and that’s the lack of a safety channel. If you’ve not heard of this before, this is where the microphone sends out signals at different volumes on the left and right channels. This way, if the sound gets extremely loud and clips out, you’ve still got that reduced volume recording to try to recover it from.

This feature has historically been taken up by the recorder as it’s pretty much impossible to implement in something like a phantom-powered XLR shotgun microphone, but with more people recording straight into cameras, it’s a feature that’s started to become standard on many powered on-camera microphones recently. I have several shotgun and compact wireless lav mics here that offer a built-in safety channel feature. It’s been an invaluable feature for me when vlogging that’s saved the shoot a few times when audio can’t be monitored in real-time as it’s being recorded and it’s become an almost essential feature for many vloggers.

Fortunately, with some cameras, like the Panasonic G80s that I use for vlogging, there is a built-in limiter to help prevent clipping, although limiters in cameras only perform so well. So, you just have to be extra careful that your gain setting on the microphone and record level on the camera are set appropriately and that you don’t get too loud.

Verdict

The newest iteration of the Sennheiser MKE 400 has definitely impressed me. It looks great and sounds very good. It’s a no-nonsense microphone without any gimmicks that just provides the features that the vast majority of its users will actually need.

When you look at the performance vs the price, it definitely ranks highly. The Sennheiser MKE 400 basic kit is $199.95. The Mobile Kit is $229.95.

By comparison, the Rode VideoMic NTG is $249 for the basic kit and that doesn’t even include the fluffy windshield (that’s an extra $40). If you want the mobile kit, which also includes a Manfrotto PIXI, smartphone clamp and fluffy windshield, that’s $352 total.

$229 for the Sennheiser vs $352 for the Rode… That’s a pretty compelling argument right there, especially when the audio quality of the Sennheiser is so good.

Yes, it lacks the safety channel, but depending on what you’re shooting and the audio limiting features available on your camera, you may find that this is completely a non-issue for you that has no real-world impact.

Overall, it’s a great microphone for a very reasonable price that performs extremely well in my experiences with it so far, whether it’s your main audio source for vlogs or simply for recording a scratch track for syncing, and is definitely worth considering if you need to pick up a new on-camera microphone. And if you’ve got the original MKE 400, it’s a very worthy successor to upgrade to.

The Sennheiser MKE 400 base kit is available to buy now for $199.95, or you can get the MKE 400 Mobile Kit for $229.95 which includes everything the base kit does, along with a Manfrotto PIXI tripod and an aluminium smartphone bracket.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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