Neumann KSM 105A Review
Originally published here: http://onstagemag.com/ar/performance_neumann_kms_robust/ ; rescued from Internet obscurity 2011-01-17
By Brian Knave; published January 1, 2001
There’s a buzz any time Neumann releases a new microphone, and that was the case at the 1999 AES show when Neumann first demonstrated the Neumann KMS 105 handheld condenser. So why are we only now — over a year later — reviewing this much-heralded mic? The final production version of the KMS 105 began shipping only a few months ago, and we waited to review the final production model rather than the preissue sample.
Though it’s not Neumann’s first condenser mic designed for the stage, at $595 the KMS 105 is the company’s first affordable offering in that category. (The KMS 140 and 150 handheld condensers both retail at $1,495.) The 105 ships in a turquoise, padded pouch that wraps around the mic and seals with Velcro. This attractive, practical container has two pockets on the inside-one for the mic and a smaller one for the nylon mic clip-and a handy flat pocket on the outside. My only concern here is that the clip has nylon rather than more durable metal threads.
A transformerless design based on Neumann’s FET 100-series electronics, the 105 employs a K50 capsule (the same one that’s in the Neumann KM 185), acoustically modified from a hypercardioid to a supercardioid pickup pattern. The sound is further tailored with a highpass filter, positioned rather aggressively at 120 Hz.
One of the first things you notice about the KMS 105, aside from its attractive lines, is that you can see through the grille basket. Typically, handheld vocal mics employ a layer of foam rubber in the basket to tame plosives. But as anyone who has used a windscreen on a studio condenser knows, foam rubber attenuates high frequencies, usually muffling the sound a bit. The KMS 105 circumvents this problem by means of a simple yet ingenious design employing three discrete levels and grades of mesh. Formed inside the large-mesh outer basket is a second, lower-profile basket made of a superfine steel mesh. These two layers make up a single grille assembly that unscrews to reveal a little nylon-mesh “top hat”-removable and washable-that slips over the capsule. Together, the three levels of mesh provide remarkable resistance to pops without dulling high-frequency content.
The brass-bodied K50 capsule is held in place beneath the nylon-mesh top hat by a rubber ring that floats snugly inside the mic’s body, helping it resist handling noise and shock. Handling noise is remarkably low, rivaling that of the best handheld dynamics. Feedback rejection is excellent, too: I used the mic in a dozen or more clubs, including some small ones where feedback is a fairly common occurrence, and the 105 got praise from all the engineers for its rejection capabilities.
School of Hard Knocks
Ruggedness, of course, is a key requirement for any stage mic, so I made sure to subject the KMS 105 to some hard knocks and falls. This included not only toppling the mic and stand a few times so the 105 fell nose-down on concrete — the fate that awaits it in the clubs, after all — but also dropping the mic and stepping on the grille basket.
Amazingly, the 105 sustained no visible damage. More important, it still worked — extraordinary, considering that we usually think of condenser mics as delicate. If you hammer nails with your favorite dynamic mic, making the switch to a KMS 105 need not curtail your carpenter activities.
Its performance always impressed me.
I tested the KMS 105 extensively, and its performance always impressed me. Perhaps most telling is the fact that no one wanted to take the microphone down after we had put it up. I used the KMS 105 for nine months on more than 30 gigs with over a dozen different bands. The groups were all over the map stylistically: country, jazz, rock, folk, funk, blues, you name it. The venues ranged from dingy dives to fine restaurants, from lush country clubs to sizable concert halls. In every case but one, the house vocal mics were Shure SM58s — and I, the drummer, tried to persuade both the singer and sound engineer to take down the lead 58 and put up the 105 in its stead. Although most of the folks were amenable to the switch — at least those who knew what a Neumann was — several people, not surprisingly, made clear that they had a job to do and that they would take down the 105 immediately if it didn’t cut the mustard.
The mic definitely cut the mustard. Many — though not all — of the singers and engineers who used the 105 thought it was a knockout. The only complaints I heard from singers were that the 105 didn’t do a lot for their voices and that the lows weren’t full enough. Both of those statements concur with what I learned about the mic. People who like the vocal authority imparted by the signature 120 Hz or so boost on the Shure SM58 and comparable dynamic mics (not to mention the marked bass boost that comes from “eating” those mics) may find the KMS 105 a bit lean-sounding in the low end-that rolloff at 120 Hz, though smooth, definitely cuts into the Barry White zone.
The KMS 105 has a clean, clear, smooth, open, very natural sound, with excellent transient response. The mic’s attenuated low lows are noticeable mostly with bass and baritone (male) singers; with most female singers, you don’t get the sense that anything’s missing. Shelley Doty, an accomplished female vocalist I work with regularly, noted that she liked the sound best when she positioned her lips one or two inches back from the mic (as opposed to touching the grille). This is not to suggest that the 105’s proximity-effect bass boosting is unflattering or extreme — it’s mild. The mic simply tends to sound more natural when worked at a slight remove. As for the high end, the 105’s presence boosts are milder and smoother in character and positioned differently from what SM58 aficionados are used to. Rather than a bump at 5–6 kHz, another at 8 or 9 kHz, and a sharp dip between — characteristic of the SM58 — the KMS 105’s frequency chart shows an overall flat response with a smoothly rising presence bump starting at around 7 kHz and peaking by 4 dB at 15 kHz or so, after which point it rolls off. Checking EQ settings at the end of shows, I noticed that most engineers had boosted the 105 at 5 kHz a bit, and some had also boosted the lows by a few decibels. In general, the better the PA and the sound of the room, the better the 105 performed and the less EQ it required.
One of the larger venues I played where we used the 105 throughout the show was the WOW Hall in Eugene, Oregon. There I enlisted the critical opinions of stage manager and front-of-house engineer Jason Woods. Woods liked the 105 a lot. He described the sound as “very smooth,” “slightly tubey,” and “compressed in a good, vintage way.” He also said that the mic was easy to EQ in the monitor mix and exhibited “good feedback rejection — as good as an SM58’s.”
The KMS 105 is also a versatile and great-sounding studio mic, especially on sources where the rolled-off lows don’t compromise the sound. Not surprisingly, the 105 sounded great on vocals — very smooth, natural, and uncolored. This would be the perfect microphone to have around the studio when a singer wants to hold the mic in his or her hand.
The 105 also worked well on acoustic guitar, lap dulcimer, small guitar amps, harmonica, and various percussion sources. On a drum set, I would reserve this mic for high toms and hi-hat, where it excels in part because its off-axis response is so smooth and uncolored.
For an even more natural sound on instruments, it’s a simple matter to remove the inner mesh screen before positioning the 105. Then boost the lows a bit, and you essentially have a Neumann KM 184, albeit with a tighter polar pattern.
Top of Its Class
This is one of the best — if not the best — handheld vocal microphones I have ever encountered.
Clearly, Neumann did its homework when designing the KMS 105. This is one of the best — if not the best — handheld vocal microphones I have ever encountered. Not only does it sound amazing, it also looks great, is rugged as all get-out, and does an excellent job of resisting pops and feedback.
Though $595 may sound like a lot for a stage mic, when you consider the 105’s prowess in the studio, it starts to look pretty good. Rather than buy two separate mics — a dynamic for the stage and a condenser for the studio — live performers who also record at home could save themselves some money (and trouble) by investing in this one mic.
The only negative thing I can say about the KMS 105 is that it’s perhaps too good for mediocre singers. After all, some voices need all the hype they can get. Though the 105 provides a mild presence boost, overall it’s a clean, uncolored, and natural-sounding mic — not the type that adds authority to thin pipes and edge to muffled mumblings. In other words, this is a great mic for great singers; the rest of us will have to weigh whether we really want delivery of our true sound.
Brian Knave is an associate editor at Electronic Musician magazine.