Wednesday, May 30th, 2012 | by matthew mcglynn
If you do much Skyping or podcasting, you’ll soon outgrow your desktop microphone stand.
Maybe you’ll get by with a boom arm on a floor stand, at least until you trip on it a few times when you get up from your desk. The problem with both those solutions is that whenever you’re not using the mic, it’s in the way. Also, neither a desktop stand nor a floor stand will let you easily adjust the mic’s position if you move during the broadcast.
The best solution to all these problems is to mount a boom arm on your desk. This is not a new technology; radio jockeys have used these for years. There are a handful of such devices on the market; in this review, I’ll test five models from K&M, MXL, Rode, and Heil. I’ll identify my favorites, and detail the strengths of all these stands for those whose needs differ from my own.
This shootout includes the following five boom arms:
I mounted each stand on my desk, in turn, and hung an Electro-Voice RE20 from it. This is not only an industry standard broadcast mic; it also was the Reader’s Choice winner in the Ultimate Podcast Mic Shootout.
All five boom arms supported the weight of the mic without sagging. The observations below describe each arm’s strengths and shortcomings, relevant accessories, and ease of operation.
Click the thumbnail photos below to zoom in.
The Heil boom arm, along among these products, provides the neat feature of allowing a separate mic cable (not included) to be strung inside the device. The cable can be hidden with snap-in plastic covers, resulting in a professional and clean look.
Although most of the other boom arms reviewed here come with mic cables pre-installed, I prefer Heil’s approach, simply because I wouldn’t want to have to replace the entire arm if the cable gets run over by someone’s chair a few times too many. I’d much rather replace just the cable, but it’s not clear this is possible for arms whose cables are embedded at the factory.
The desktop clamp on the Heil stand is solid, and turns out to be the best of the bunch. In testing, it had the deepest, most certain grip, and was easy to adjust. It is made of metal, with a T-rod for tightening and a bare metal cup to press against the underside of the desktop. It is simple and effective.
In use, the PL-2T is nicely balanced. It’s not springy at all, but does offer some resistance to movement. Once moved, the mic stays where it gets put, although it wobbles side-to-side briefly when released.
My PL-2T squeaks when the middle hinge is moved. I assume it can be oiled, but I think new hardware shouldn’t need maintenance out of the box.
Overall, I grade the PL-2T as an “A-.” It is a little stiff, but is clearly a professional-quality device. I have no qualms about recommending it for broadcasting or podcasting applications. Once properly lubricated, it would merit an “A.”
The 23860 is a slick-looking boom, with a unique design among all the stands tested here. Each arm is a single enclosed piece, with circular hinges providing good range of motion and excellent horizontal reach despite its relatively compact size.
The arm has an embedded cable, a supple oxygen-free copper variety from Schulz Kabel in Germany. The connectors are Neutrik’s basic “X” series (NC*MX male, NC*FX female).
I do not like the clamp. Although burly in appearance, it fails to grip the desktop securely. Despite progressive tightening of its knob, it slipped off the desktop in several tests.
The lower jaw is topped with a rigid plastic pad that does not grip the underside of my desktop — or, perhaps it just requires more pressure than the knurled tension knob can comfortably apply. It is designed to allow mounting on tubes as well as flat surfaces, but in my experience, it did a poor job on my desktop. If you buy this boom arm (or the 23850), I recommend also buying K&M’s screw-mount flange, p/n 23855.
I find this boom arm to be temperamental and hard to use. Out of the box, the internal springs apply more lift than my mics require. I was able to loosen the metal tensioning belt by one notch, to its loosest setting, via an adjustment plate near the lower joint. The arm was slightly better behaved afterwards.
The spring tension can be further adjusted via external knobs at each joint, but tightening these also makes the stand overly stiff and difficult to reposition. Finding the minimum amount of tension necessary to keep the stand from springing the mic away proved challenging, because too much tension makes the arm so stiff that repositioning the mic breaks the clamp free of the desktop.
The mechanism is quiet, and does keep the mic where it gets put, subject to the comments above about finding the right amount of spring tension.
One other aspect of this arm’s performance worth noting is that the mic’s angle is fixed, relative to the top arm of the boom. If you raise the mic very far, it will be pointing at the ceiling, unless you have a yoke mount for the microphone itself. All the other boom arms tested here keep the mic at a constant angle relative to the floor, even as the arm is raised.
One nice feature of this arm is that the aforementioned tensioning knobs can be tightened to lock the arm into position. The arm can still rotate across the desk, but vertical movement and extension would be effectively locked.
If you’re setting up a fixed installation, or using a very heavy microphone, the 23860 is a good choice. It is strong, it looks great, and it would be easy to keep clean. Yet it seems overbuilt for desktop applications, and is somewhat unaccommodating of light microphones and applications where the mic would be frequently repositioned. As shipped, I rate it a “B-” for desktop broadcasting.
The 23850 is the more industrial looking of König & Meyer’s two boom arms. Like its sibling, it has a captive mic cable, although this one is K&M’s house brand rather than the upscale Schulz OFG found in the 23860.
Both K&M arms use the same clamp. I liked this clamp even less after testing the 23850, because it slipped off my desktop and dropped my RE20 on the floor.
The 23850 proved easier to adjust and manipulate than the 23860. The 23850 is smoother and easier to move than the Heil unit, too. The mic goes where you want it, and stays where it’s put. The arm is essentially silent to operate, although occasionally one of the springs would bind on its mount and then clangggg loudly.
The build and finish quality of the 23850 are excellent. The arm has a 5-year warranty, which I don’t imagine many customers need to exercise; this unit seems likely to provide many years of reliable service.
Overall, I grade the 23850, with its table clamp, a “B+.” The boom arm itself, if used with a better clamp or with K&M’s flange mount, merits an “A.” It has a few performance glitches, but is solidly built, will likely last forever, and provides generally quiet one-hand operation.
MXL BCD Stand
The MXL BCD-Stand is a scissor-style stand, like the K&M 23850. It is a lighter weight design than the K&M, with square steel tubes measuring about 9.5mm across (as compared to the 12mm tubes in the 23850).
The BCD Stand has a captive mic cable. I expected MXL to use its house brand, Mogami, but the unit tested showed no brand, only the “professional low noise microphone cable” legend familiar to users of inexpensive imported tube microphones.
My BCD had a minor defect: the lower spring mount was too wide for the lower frame to swing past it. This cut the unit’s horizontal reach in half, because the lower arm could not extend past vertical.
According to MXL, this condition is rare, and can be quickly remedied by squeezing the tabs on the spring mount together. They’re right — I fixed mine easily, no tools required.
The table clamp is a simple, low-profile design with a bare metal cup on the lower jaw. It has the best T-bar handle of all the models tested. The mount was secure in my tests, but the metal cup on its lower jaw sits very close to the curved edge of my desktop. The clamp’s grip would be improved if the lower jaw reached further under the desktop (as does the Heil clamp), centering it beneath the top jaw.
The BCD Stand gets extra points for including a screw-on flange mount for permanent installations.
In operation, the BCD Stand is generally smooth and quiet, with a bit more resistance than some of the other models here. The lower pair of springs creates occasional spring noise when the arm is extended, but (as with the 23850) it is not significant.
The arm’s lightweight construction (compared to the 23850) did not prevent it from working well with my heavy broadcast mics. For lighter mics, a knob on the middle joint can be tightened to reduce the springiness of the top arm.
For desktop broadcasting applications, I grade the BCD Stand a “B+.” It is a competent desktop boom arm at an entry-level price.
The PSA-1 has a design similar to the Heil, in that the pairs of arms are arranged top-and-bottom rather than the “scissor” design of the K&M 23850 and MXL. The spring mechanism is embedded within the arms of the device. The PSA-1 is a bit more compact than the PL-2T, but provides nearly as much horizontal reach.
The Rode table clamp is functional, but consumes more of the desktop surface than competing designs. The clamp itself is strong and secure, but from an aesthetic perspective I prefer the lower-profile Heil clamp.
The PSA-1 does not come with an embedded cable, nor Heil’s “topless” design, but does include Velcro cable ties so that your cable can be routed neatly down the arms of the unit.
The top joint, as with all other models here besides the K&M 23860, keeps the mic’s angle consistent (relative to the floor) as the mic’s height is adjusted.
In use, the PSA-1 is relatively smooth and quiet. It is less stiff than my Heil PL-2T, facilitating one-hand operation. It doesn’t squeak, but emits an occasional mechanical rubbing noise during height adjustments. These noises are unlikely to be audible during broadcast.
I like the PSA-1. Beyond my aesthetic quibbles with the clamp, it gives me everything I would want from a desktop boom arm. I grade it an “A.”
The PSA-1 and PL-2T are so similar, I ended up mounting them side-by-side for a final comparison. The differences are subtle; if you already own one or the other, you need not switch. The Heil has a better clamp, a bit more reach, and an internal cable track. But it is stiffer. The Rode is smoother to operate, and wobbles less afterwards. If you’ve narrowed your selection down to these two, you might as well shop by price.
|K&M 23850||K&M 23860||MXL BCD-Stand||Heil PL2T||Rode PSA-1|
The five boom arms reviewed here can be grouped by design. I found the Heil/Rode design superior for my application; both these boom arms are compact and neat without sacrificing range of motion or ease of use.
The “scissor” design is bulkier, but can be capable of smoother operation, and offers external tension adjustment. Due to the exposed springs, though, this design is potentially noisier, although in practice these stands tended to be quiet.
The 23860 is a unique design. It is the nicest looking of the bunch, and has the highest weight rating, but proved difficult to use in my testing. With a heavier microphone, this arm might work better, and in fact if your mic plus shockmount weigh more than 2.5 lbs, this stand is your only choice. And while I generally don’t prefer to have cables embedded within the stand, I commend K&M for including a high-end cable in the 23860.
Based on price, features, and operation, I give the Rode PSA1 a RecordingHacks Editor’s Choice award. It will provide the vast majority of boom arm users everything they need for podcasting, broadcasting, or Skyping. It includes a flange mount as well as a clamp, and costs less than the Heil PL2T. Consider the PSA-1 “highly recommended.”
The Heil PL2T deserves an honorable mention here. I like its innovative “topless” design that allows the mic cable to be hidden. I like that Heil makes a flange mount, embeddable desktop screw mount, wall mount, and an extension bar, all available separately. Heil even makes a counterweight that bolts to the threaded rod where the mic attaches, making the arm more balanced when used with lightweight microphones. Consider the PL2T “highly recommended” as well.
Update, 2012-11: Both the PSA-1 and PL-2T have been listed in our new guide, RecordingHacks Editors’ Choice: Podcasting Gear
For broadcasters with budgetary challenges, the MXL BCD Stand is a great deal at its typical street price of $70 — including a mic cable! It doesn’t match the build quality of the K&M 23850, but for light-duty use it will work fine.
If you’re shopping, please consider buying from the links on this site, as the small commissions generated thereby help offsite the considerable expense of reviewing all this gear.
Find all 5 of the boom arms reviewed here on sale at B&H, in the widget below:
A note about noise
Every one of these desk-mounted booms shares a potential problem: they will transmit any noise from your desk directly to the microphone. If, for example, you have a disk drive or CPU sitting on your desk, the vibrations and fan noise will be mechanically transmitted with shocking efficiency to your mic.
Read more about this in my article on How to Fix Microphone Hum.
In short: use a shockmount for your mic, or better yet, decouple the CPUs and disk drives on your desktop by putting them on vibration-absorbing feet (click the article link above for a specific product recommendation).
Desktop boom arms are a big win for convenience, but do carry the risk of inducing noise to your voice track that a heavy floor stand would not.
Credits and Disclosures
The Heil PL2T reviewed here is my personal property (purchased online). The K&M stands were provided on an evaluation loan by US distributor Connolly Music. The Rode PSA1 and MXL BCD stands were provided on an evaluation loan by their respective manufacturers. I thank the folks at Connolly Music, MXL, and Rode for the use of loaner gear that shall be returned shortly (except for the PSA1; see below). I received no compensation for this review.
Love ’em or hate ’em, what do you think of your boom arms? I’m especially interested in feedback about the longevity of these stands — if you’ve used one for a while, please let us know how it is holding up.
Take one home?
The kind folks at Rode generously donated the PSA-1 reviewed here as a giveaway prize. The winner was chosen on June 15, 2012.
Need a podcasting mic too?
Hear the Shure SM7B and SM57, Heil PR40, beyerdynamic M99, ElectroVoice RE20 and RE320, and Sennheiser MD421 in the Ultimate Podcast Mic Shootout. These are the best radio microphones ever made. One of these is sure to work great for your podcast. Assuming you have a mouth, I mean. 😉