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The New ($1k) Ribbon Shootout

Friday, June 13th, 2014 | by


A handful of exciting new ribbon microphones have come out in the past year, so naturally, I got a pair of each and staged some sessions. We pulled in a few familiar models for comparison purposes; because the new mics all fall into the midpriced ($600-$1000) tier, we limited the selection to microphones under $1000.

We’ll hear all these microphones on multiple sources over the next few weeks: drum overheads, voice, and acoustic guitar for sure, with other possibilities in the works.

Meet the Microphones

The AEA N22AEA N22 was announced last Fall at AES, and has now been on the market for about 8 months. It combines a “large geometry” ribbon with a step-up transformer and an active impedance conversion stage, and as such requires phantom power. It has higher sensitivity than a passive ribbon, and seems to be optimized for relatively close mic placement, which means it does not require an especially high-gain preamp for most applications. Its frequency response is similar to many vintage ribbons, with a relatively soft top end (-3dB @ 10kHz).

The AEA R92AEA R92 is a passive microphone. Like the N22, it is designed to be used close to a sound source. Unlike the N22, it has two subtly different sounds, due to the use of materials with differing acoustic qualities in the rear grille. It has an integral mount, and a hard-wired XLR “pigtail.” The mount is designed to allow the mic to rotate 180°, making it very easy to quickly point the other side of the ribbon at the sound source.

The R92’s frequency response is relatively flat from 3kHz–12kHz, but rolls off above that point (-3dB@15kHz).

The Samar Audio Design AL39Samar Audio Design AL39 is the second production model from Mark Fouxman’s boutique ribbon factory in Salt Lake City. It bears the hallmarks established by the company’s premium ribbon, the MF65, as well as the company’s various prototype mics — a custom ribbon motor, a custom toroidal transformer, strong visual design, and refined metalwork. The AL39 incorporates some of the motor design tricks pioneered in the MF65 (which was one of the notable and favored mics in the $60,000 Ribbon Mic Shootout). It was designed to have an extended high-frequency response, without losing the character that engineers love about ribbon microphones.

The Mesanovic Microphones Model 2Mesanovic Model 2 is the second mic from Deni Mesanovic, who builds ribbon microphones by hand in Detroit. It is a passive microphone that, like the AL39, was designed to have an extended frequency response — again through both the motor design and the use of acoustic filters. It also uses a toroidal transformer from Samar Audio.

On paper, the Model 2 is the brightest-voiced microphone in this roundup; the published graph is nominally flat to 10kHz, with a broad 3dB boost centered at 13kHz. (-3dB @ ~21kHz)

The Royer Labs R-101Royer Labs R-101 has been available for a few years, and so serves as a sort of standard to which we can compare the newer mics. It uses an offset ribbon design (patented by Royer Labs) to create two subtly different sounds from the front and back of the microphone.

The R-101 has a nominally flat frequency response from 30Hz–15kHz, with a steep rolloff above that point (-3dB @ ~18kHz).

The Cathedral Pipes SevilleCathedral Pipes Seville seems to be hybrid of vintage and modern styles. For example, the body is essentially the same as an RCA 77 — but with a pair of blue LEDs inside the grille, a modern trend unimagined by Harry Olson. And its sound tends toward the rolled-off, darker end of the sonic spectrum. Yet it has an active output circuit, with a ~20dB amplifier stage following the Cinemag step-up transformer. It uses a slightly heavier ribbon material than most of the microphones in this test, aside from the R-101.

Although no frequency response chart has been published, I would expect it to look like the N22’s, with a relatively soft top end, although perhaps with more proximity effect.

Ribbon Microphones At A Glance

Microphone Street Price Sensitivity Output Ribbon Gauge Ribbon Length
AEA N22
AEA N22
$899 6.2 mV/Pa Active 1.8 micron 2.3 inch
AEA R92
AEA R92
$765 1.7 mV/Pa Passive 1.8 micron 2.3 inch
Cathedral Pipes Seville
Cathedral Pipes Seville
$850 8 mV/Pa** Active 2.5 micron 1.5 inch
Mesanovic Model 2
Mesanovic Model 2
$650 2.2 mV/Pa Passive 1.8 micron 2 inch
Royer Labs R-101
Royer Labs R-101
$799 3.9 mV/Pa Passive 2.5 micron n/a
Samar Audio Design AL39
Samar Audio AL39
$999 2.2 mV/Pa** Passive 1.5 micron 2 inch

** We do not have official specs for the sensitivity of the AL39 and Seville; however, in our own lab we’ve measured all these microphones and estimated their sensitivity at 1kHz to generate these starred values.




Voicing and Positioning

Although generalizations can be misleading, I will make one here for the purposes of introducing an important discussion about the sound and placement of these six ribbon mics: Many ribbon mics exhibit significant proximity effect, and a relatively rolled-off top end.

That means, in general, that ribbons have capture less high-frequency sound than condensers or even some moving-coil dynamics, and also that if a ribbon mic is positioned close to a sound source, the track will have much more low-frequency sound than expected.

While the above is generally true of ribbon microphones, it is in fact not entirely true for several of the microphones in this roundup. That is, some have an extended high-frequency response, and some have low-frequency filtering to reduce the effects of proximity.

In most mic tests, we’d keep the placement consistent, in an effort to be fair. Given that a couple of these seem to have more pronounced differences in how they respond to placement (and specifically to the distance from the sound source), we’ll probably try a few things in hopes of highlighting each microphone’s strengths.

$1k Ribbon Review – Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Frequency Response and Proximity Test
  3. Alto Sax through Six Ribbon Mics
  4. Female Vocals Ribbon Mic Shootout
  5. Two voices, six ribbons (male voiceover)
  6. Acoustic Guitar (coming soon)
  7. Drum Overheads (coming soon)

Posted in Microphones, Shootouts | 11 Comments »




11 Responses to “The New ($1k) Ribbon Shootout”

  1. Notofme

    June 19th, 2014 at 7:57 am

    For piano, solo and ensemble strings, as well as operatic voice, which one would you recommend? Also does ribbon size make a big difference? Thanks!

  2. matthew mcglynn

    June 22nd, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    @Notofme, recommendations will have to come *after* the shootout is complete.

    Ribbon length definitely matters. Ribbon mics have so few parts that every aspect of each of the few components can play a huge part in the final sound.

  3. Mark Bolton

    June 23rd, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Very excited for this! Please try to fit in some male vocals, too.

  4. Booboo

    June 29th, 2014 at 2:47 am

    Can you include some Oktava ribbons in this test as a low-price reference point?

  5. Camilo Rodriguez

    July 10th, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    Hi Matthew,

    I really enjoyed this first part of the shout-out, very interesting selection of mics indeed. I’m looking forward to see how the following parts will unfold and the final conclusions.

    I have long been waiting to read a omni mic shout-out with DPAs, Gefells, Neumanns, Schoeps, Sonodores, Earthworks, 3 Zigmas, etc. I know that it would be a shout-out as interesting as it would be expensive, but I don’t give up hope. What do you say, any chances?

    Many thanks for your unique work and for sharing with all of us.

    Best regards,

    Camilo

  6. Pierre-Alexandre

    July 30th, 2014 at 4:24 am

    Is it too late to add a contender?

  7. matthew mcglynn

    July 30th, 2014 at 9:51 am

    @Pierre — yes, far too late. The last session was July 5th.

  8. Winnie

    August 5th, 2014 at 1:24 am

    Great comparison! Can you include a clean electric guitar recording too?

    A suggestion for the next shootout: Neumann U-47 clones!!!!

    cheers

  9. Trevor Masterson

    September 15th, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    Really great test. The difference between these mics is really evident in the male V/O tests. Would love an acoustic guitar test. Cheers.

  10. Jay Levin

    February 6th, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    How is it possible that you did this without the AT4080 and AT4081? Have you not heard of the brand AudioTechnica? Crazy!

  11. matthew mcglynn

    February 6th, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    @Jay, thank you for your thoughtful comment. We included the AT4080 in the “$60,000 Ribbon Mic Shootout.” The AT4081 would have been good to include here, but we were not able to arrange for an eval loan in time — no fault of A-T’s; they’ve been very supportive of our efforts.

    You can read more about the AT4080 in Dren MacDonald’s great piece about recording the String Arcade: http://hac.kz/1/6025

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