RODE NT1000 and NTK Microphone Review
By: Bruce Richardson
Written: February 28, 2001
Last time I reviewed a microphone, it ended up being a lesson in everything that’s wrong with cheap large-diaphragm condensers. The ProRec mailbag exploded a few times, but we survived. Today, I get to tell you what’s right. The RØDE NT1000 and NTK break the mold, with world-class specs and a smoothness that stands alongside microphones three times the price. On top of that, they’re stunningly good-looking, with an over-the-top sturdiness that would serve as well in hand-to-hand combat as in the studio.
The Long Road to RØDE
These microphones, both based on the same edge-connected 1'' capsule originally appearing in the NTV, represent a culmination of a long-term vision, according to RØDE president and founder Peter Freedman.
“We have spent so much developing these mics we are effectively betting the ranch,” he says. “But hey, no one got anywhere in life by being cautious.”
From his humble beginnings, yanking the cheap parts out of Chinese mics and replacing them with upscale components, Freedman’s RØDE has always looked for a way to give the musician more mic for the buck. The NT2 and NT1 are the legendary results of that effort, mics which spawned many imitators. Quietly, Peter has spent the last several years and a goodly chunk of cash building one of the most advanced microphone manufacturing facilities in the world, and the NT1000 and NTK represent the most complete expression yet of his more-for-less design philosophy. They’re the new generation of RØDEs, certainly a distillation of previous efforts, but just as much a departure. From the sturdy and elegant cases to the capsule mount, every element is a lesson in functional economy.
“The NT1000 and the NTK share the same transducer, the heart of the mic. It’s the exactly the same capsule featured in our NTV, praised for its smoothness and rich bottom end, and is every bit as good as our flagship Classic-ll. With the same capsule, they have similar signatures, yet they’re very different mics. NT1000 is as clean as a wide bandwidth FET design can be, with the lowest noise floor you can get. The NTK gives you the mellow tube tone, but with ultra-low noise.”
The proof is in the listening, for sure. They sound fantastic. Startlingly fantastic, perhaps as good as any mic in the world. Certainly as good as any mic I have ever used, and yes that includes the obvious. But there’s more. These microphones are ruthlessly whittled down to the very essence of what brings value to a mic. While delivering expensive condenser sound and serious electronics, they simultaneously explore an entirely elegant and logical product design that puts almost all the money where you can hear it and protects that investment for you.
When I tell you what they cost, you’ll understand just why I’m pleasantly amazed at all this. The NT1000 lists for a scant $395, the NTK for $595. For this price, don’t expect the Barbie lunchbox cases or shockmounts. You get a very serviceable mic stand adapter and a thick-skinned bag with the NT1000, add a hefty brick-sized power supply (with groovy blue LED) and 30 foot multipin cord for the NTK.
Read ’em and Weep
Let’s talk about what you hear. Have a look at the amplification specs on these babies…
Sensitivity: -36dB re 1V/Pa (16mV @ 94dB SPL) +/-1dB
Equivalent Noise: 6dB SPL (A-weighted per IEC268-15) +/-1dB
Maximum Output: +13dBu (@ 1kHz, 1% THD into 1k( load)
Dynamic Range: > 134dB (A-weighted, per IEC268-15)
Maximum SPL: > 140dB SPL (@ 1kHz, 1% THD into 1k( load)
Signal/Noise Ratio: > 88dB (A-weighted, per IEC268-15)
Sensitivity: -38dB re 1V/Pa (12mV @ 94dB SPL) +/-1dB
Equivalent Noise:12dB SPL (A-weighted per IEC268-15) +/-2dB
Maximum Output: > +29dBu (@ 1kHz, 5% THD into 1k( load)
Dynamic Range: > 147dB (A-weighted, per IEC268-15)
Maximum SPL: > 158dB SPL (@ 1kHz, 5% THD into 1k( load)
Signal/Noise Ratio: > 82dB (A-weighted, per IEC268-15)
These are world-class specs in every dimension, both in what you hear (lots of wide-ranging signal) and what you don’t (noise). Lacking the equipment or inclination to pick nits with the published specs, I decided to do a little comparison listening.
I rang Rip to see what new and exciting mics we had in the house. Turned out we had a Shure KSM-44 and an Alesis AM-62 – a couple of hot little mics for sure. Both have gotten some good buzz, and both outprice these RØDEs by more than just a bit. The Shure lists for $1340 while the Alesis lists for $1499. To be fair, the Shure and Alesis are both multipattern mics, and the RØDEs are one-trick cardioids, so the price differential is somewhat hard to quantify.
But still, they were perfect foils for my purposes. I slapped them into cardioid mode with no pads or rolloff (the RØDEs have no switches whatsoever), hung all four in an array with identical preamps, then proceeded to scream, sing, whisper, bang, toot, and whack.
The RØDEs were total contenders. Matter of fact, they were champions.
The NT1000 was the clear gain-to-noise king, significantly quieter than the already quiet Shure KSM44. Wow. The NTK was neck and neck with the Shure, within a fraction of a dB. Another wow. Remember, we are comparing a sizzly hot tube mic to a very quiet FET design. The expectation would be for the Shure to be significantly quieter. That makes the NTK is a stunningly quiet tube mic, perhaps more notable an accomplishment than the virtually silent NT1000.
The Alesis AM-62 was far behind the pack, being significantly noisier for less overall gain than any of the other three. Matter of fact, it was just not in the same league in any respect. Its sound was not what I’d call pretty or polished, and it lacked the quality I’d call “expensive smoothness” that the two RØDEs and Shure had in spades. I have a “vintage” Groove Tubes MD-1, and the Alesis “GT” is not even close to the quality of tone, and downright pathetic aesthetically compared to its gorgeous machined-stainless predecessor. Downright shocking, considering the price tag.
I can almost hear Lloyd Bentsen saying, “Sir, I knew Groove Tube. I worked with Groove Tube, and you are no Groove Tube.”
I wouldn’t hesitate to throw up a pair of these mics for drum overheads in a room that could deliver the goods. They’d punch your lights out.
But that’s another review. Back to the stars of the show. Impressive performance is one thing, but it’s the sound of these microphones that has me going. They are, in a word, awesome. The NT1000 has a lovely weighty presence about it, just ever so slightly much brighter than the KSM-44 in the highest mids. Vocals sat dead-still with sparkle and remarkable presence. Some hand drums I recorded came through in the mix with clarity and power. I wouldn’t hesitate to throw up a pair of these mics for drum overheads in a room that could deliver the goods. They’d punch your lights out.
I recorded a Melodica solo that bit through a thick mix like gangbusters, without once getting the shrill quality that so many mics give the instrument. Everything I recorded with this microphone came out sounding exactly like I imagined it would in the mix, with no perceivable coloration of tone. Just a nice, big signal that takes compression and effects beautifully.
If you ever wanted a textbook example of what different amplification models can do, plugging in the NTK, with its identical capsule and high-end valve circuitry will get you there. As neutral and clean as the NT1000 sounded, the NTK takes that sound and builds a fire under it. What I noticed immediately was the expansive airiness and slightly excited quality overall. Where the NT1000 made my voice sound exactly true in the monitors, the NTK made it better than true. It gave me the feeling that I could hear the air rushing past my tonsils and the spit on my teeth. Not that it was harsh in any way at all, but just slightly bigger than life and slightly closer-sounding for the same distance to microphone. Imaging-wise, it gives a vocal a bit of spread and fullness without losing a bit of punch.
Some tube designs sound almost compressed. Not this one. The NTK will take serious maniacal screaming abuse and deliver up as much signal as you can use. The tube circuitry in this mic doesn’t top out until well past the threshold of pain.
Don’t get the idea that we’re talking about a hyped sound. Matter of fact, if I had to pick a single word for the NTK, it would be smooth. Actually, smo-o-o-o-o-o-v. I would love to hear Barry White through this microphone. Hell, I sound like Barry White through this microphone. My wacky crummy voice took on this sheen that had air for days, yet for all the high energy there was no modulated sibilance whatsoever. I even stood there hissing like a snake till I got dizzy and needed a beer. It wasn’t going to happen.
I got an amazing flugelhorn sound out of the NTK from about thirty inches — full and mellow, with a nice airy sheen and no muddiness at all. If I leaned in a little, and played soft, I got a great intimate whisper of a sound. That’s a good sign. Flugel is one of those instruments that you struggle with. As beautiful as they sound, they bring out the worst in microphones. You either get too distant, which thins out in the mix, or too close, which thins out in the mix because you have to back it down to get the presence right. The NTK gets the sound you need to make the mix. That’s usually the realm of far pricier mics.
Digging Below the Surface
Sound-wise, the choice to purchase either of these microphones is a no-brainer. They deliver world-class tracks on the cheap. But this is but one element of their charm. Overall, these microphones are standard-setters that the entire industry would do well to study.
Everything about them both belies and explains their price. The cases themselves are substantial works of engineering art, reminiscent in design and construction to the venerable solid-brass Switchcraft phone plugs (the ones that never go bad). A picture here is worth a thousand words.
There is a method to this madness. Crack open your average condenser microphone, and notice that you’re looking at some serious hand assembly. That’s money spent that has nothing to do with what you hear. Now look at these new RØDEs.
You just don’t see too many mics that look anything like this on the inside.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
The NT1000 and NTK are designed from the ground-up to mass produce. Henry Ford would love these microphones. They’re marvels of design economy. They share a common interior cast unit, to which all the other parts attach. It’s substantial, and you’d need a steamroller to damage it. The casting quality itself is first-rate, and the threads are silky smooth and perfectly pitched to task. It only takes a couple of quick turns to unscrew the outer case, also nicely cast with a champagne-colored nickel finish. It has a great glow, and it’s about as hard as a brickbat.
The stand-mount retainer is nicely weighted, too, and threads on and off with ease. One of the subtle niceties here is simply the way everything feels–so sturdy and positive. They’re very industrial-chic. You never have the feeling that you could possibly damage this microphone. As a point of comparison here, I took apart the Alesis AM-62, and this mic is positively wimpy and spindly inside. I could twist it completely apart in one flick of the wrist, and I mean easily. A little girl could tear it up.
You’d just twist the skin off your hand trying that with either RØDE. And the beautiful point of it all is this: such a great case probably cost Peter Freedman about 1/3 the price, because he was thinking. Parts mount and dismount from this thing like butter. I’ve had both of these mics totally (and I mean TOTALLY) apart and back together several times, and I never feel like I’m going to break or damage anything.
In all its naked glory, the capsule mount reveals more great design. Four screws hold the pop-screen assembly to the inner casting. Take those off, and the screen unit slides smoothly off with a little "schloop." Once it’s off, you see the source of the schloop sound–the entire capsule is suspended on a black rubber diaphragm, which rib-seals the screen unit AND isolates the entire capsule housing from the rest of the case. But that’s not all. On the picture, notice that there’s a little white foam nub at the top of the diaphragm mount. When you place the screen unit on the case, this nub hits the top, depresses the black rubber just a bit, and you end up with a positively damped isolation system which is absolutely resonance-free.
Indeed, one of the things that shocked me about both mics was how well they rejected low-frequency physical resonances, especially with no built-in rolloff of any kind. Again, a good simple design which works, and saves money that can get rolled into better guts.
These are as simple to assemble as the lowliest of the workhorse dynamics. There are seven measly parts to slap into the NT1000, eight in the NTK. Faster assembly means less labor means more money for the parts that count. Every mic is a complex equation of the ordinary and sublime. For a given amount of money, you want to spend it mostly on the sublime, and the NT1000 and NTK put the sublime first by brilliantly executing every mundane detail of the ordinary.
An idiot could assemble this mic, so logical and simple is its design. I had both mics apart and back together in moments – we’re talking ten screws and a setscrew for the jack. All the guts are designed to attach effortlessly to the solid-cast inner case. Back to the GT for comparison, I would be deathly afraid to take that thing apart for fear I’d never get it all lined up and back together without breaking something. The cheesy and flimsy plastic switches would be the first to go…I thought I’d break a couple of them off just getting the cover back on the thing. There is nothing on either RØDE mic you’d ever call cheesy or flimsy. They’re tanks.
The circuit boards are robot-assembled surface-mount technology. By the way, the shot of the NT1000’s circuit board is misleadingly simple. You only see the "tall" side. Underneath, there’s a way-impressive surface-mount array, including the prized FETs, which interestingly enough, were originally developed for the CIA. I guarantee you, you’ve never seen mic guts that look anything like these.
What’s in it for Me?
Bringing it all back to my original thought, these microphones are a great example of what’s right and good in our industry. They are the polar opposite of the slew of what I’d call "exploitation mics." Everywhere you look, there are great-looking, mediocre sounding large diaphragm condensers. It’s like a disease. Everybody wants to sell you a look, exploiting the profile of classy mics, but substituting dirt-cheap parts because they don’t think you’re smart enough to notice.
Not so with these. Not even close. Every aspect of the NT1000 and NTK is pure class. Instead of just trying to exploit the classics, RØDE has built a better mousetrap, designing a structure so elegant and so smart that the money saved can be reallocated towards stuffing these great cases with some of the best sounding electronics you’ve ever heard.
This is what it’s all about. This is what we wish every manufacturer would do – be artists and scientists first, and trust that musicians will recognize quality when they see it. Kudos to RØDE for bringing back a little class to a marketplace that’s gotten downright depressing.
I don’t see how anyone could miss it. This is everything that’s right with microphone design, and then some. I cannot say enough good things about these mics, and I’m damn hard to please. They are top-notch, they have a voice all their own, and quality far above the asking price. They break ground. Don’t buy a new large diaphragm condenser without listening to the NT1000 and NTK. But be prepared. Once you’ve heard them, you’ll have a hard time letting go of either one. At less than a grand for the pair, maybe you don’t have to.
Don’t take my word for the sound. Please. Go listen to these mics yourself. Stand on something soft, so your jaw won’t get bruised when it hits the floor.