sE1, sE2000, Z5600 – The Tape Op Review

TapeOp Issue #31/September, 2002 | by

sE Electronics is one of many companies these days who are marketing Chinese-made condenser microphones for prices which border on the absurd. The company offered my studio a discount rate (on top of the already low price) if we purchased microphones directly from them. The prices wound up being so low that we felt it was worth a gamble. We ordered a pair of SE1 small-diaphragm “pencil” condensers, a pair of SE2000 large diaphragm (1'') condensers, and a single Z5600 large diaphragm (1.07'') tube condenser (the company’s top-of-the-line model).

The lowest-priced of the lot was the SE1 at under $100. These are good-looking, with a clean, brushed-aluminum housing shaped not unlike an AKG C451. The stock capsules are a fixed cardioid pattern, though apparently you can unscrew them and replace them with other patterns. There is no pad or low-frequency roll-off.

I tried a pair of these as drum overheads, expecting the loud drummer to possibly overdrive the mics into distortion land. I was pleasantly surprised to find they held their ground and stayed clean. What wasn’t so pleasant was the sound they emitted — very harsh in this application. The cymbals poked through in a nasty, 3k kind of way. However, a bit of EQ tamed the situation and resulted in a very useable, if not absolutely beautiful, sound.

I had much better luck with the SE1’s on acoustic guitar. Stereo mic’ing a large-bodied acoustic guitar with fresh bronze strings at the bridge and neck joint (about a foot away from the guitar) resulted in a natural sound, with a bit of high-end emphasis (this time in a good way.) Considering the price, the SE1’s seemed like an affordable, somewhat-worthwhile (assuming you’re handy with a touch of EQ), small-diaphragm condenser to supplement a mic arsenal.

Next up the price ladder was the SE2000, at a hair over a $100. Again, a handsome mic: black housing and screen with a shape reminiscent of a Neumann U89. Unlike the SE1s, these mics each came with their own birdcage-style shockmount and snazzy-looking latchable carrying case. I figured that even if the mics sucked, at least they’d look good gathering dust on a shelf.

These mics don’t suck.

You know what? These mics don’t suck. I tried them as drum overheads (with the 10dB pad and the high-pass filter both on): nice, crisp, but not harsh. I tried one on a bass cabinet (Ampeg B-12), putting it pretty close to the speaker in an attempt to capitalize on the proximity effect (the SE2000 has a fixed cardioid pattern). With a bit of compression and no EQ, we got a fantastic bass sound. I was surprised and psyched.

My next experiment, vocals, yielded good results — but with an asterisk. I was recording a singer whom I’ve worked with a lot, and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind singing a track into several different mics. He’s a rootsy rock singer with an appealing mid-range “honk” to his voice, so I set up three very different mics: an old RCA44 ribbon, a Neumann U47, and the SE2000. I bussed them through the same Urei LA3 compressor, trying to calibrate the input gain so that all three mics were hitting the compressor the same way and could be easily compared. Well, after a lot of singing, recording, and listening, the singer and I decided to use the SE2000. Not that we were blown away with the sound of it, especially with the vocal track soloed. It surely didn’t sound as full-range and silky as the U47, and it wasn’t as smooth and dark as the RCA44; but it seemed to take a liking to the honkiness of this particular singer’s voice and allow it to sit in the mix most comfortably. The mids were nice, but there was plenty of top-end as well. We cut a bunch of songs with it.

There was only one problem, and it was fixable. Every once in a while (maybe on one note per song, on average), the mic would seemingly latch onto a syllable and emit a harsh whistle-like artifact. It was weird; I can only imagine that it has something to do with the shape of the windscreen, coupled with the singer slightly altering his distance from the mic. In any case, the few times this “whistling” occurred, I just had the singer re-sing the line and punched it in. It seemed like an arbitrary thing, never happening twice on the same line. Overall though, I feel this mic is very worthwhile — especially considering the price. Cheap enough to justify buying two, the SE2000 is a very affordable way to own a stereo pair of large-diaphragm condensers.

I was very curious about the Z5600 microphone, the company’s newest and most expensive at around $600. It features a 1.07'' gold-sputtered diaphagm and a 12AX7 preamp tube. It comes with its own road-type attache case, along with a nice birdcage-type shockmount, external power supply featuring a nine-way selectable pattern switch, and multi-pin cable — full-featured and well-packaged to say the least.

Like many of today’s inexpensive tube condensers, the Z5600 looks a bit like a sawed-off Neumann U47.

The only literature that came with the mic was a brief information sheet emphasizing the need to let the mic warm up for at least an hour before using it. After powering it up and allowing it to warm up, I tried it with a female singer. I found it had quite a bit of high-end and a nice amount of low-mids, but was seemingly scooped out a bit in the mids. For this particular recording, it suited the singer, emphasizing the sheeny, airy top end of her voice and downplaying the spiky midrange, so we used it on her project. The pleasing brightness seemed somehow “modern,” as if a really nice EQ was used to boost 15k slightly.

We A-B’d it against a vintage U47 (worth about ten times the amount we paid for the Z 5600!) and I have to say, the two mics were way more similar in character than I expected. The U47 had a nicer presence in the midrange and lacked a bit of the super-highs that the Z 5600 had. But both mics had comparable output and noise-floors (to my subjective ears).

On a different session I tried the Z 5600 on a male singer, and it just wasn’t right. The scooped nature of the mic seemed to result in a skewed sound, with fundamental voice tones swimming in and out of the mix. Since then, however, I’ve used it with great results on other female vocalists, as well as on acoustic guitars. As with the other SE mics reviewed here, the Z 5600 gives you great bang for your buck.

SE Electronics has shattered a long-standing price point.

With its new line of condenser mics, SE Electronics has shattered a long-standing price point. All in all, I’d say there’s room in most project-sized (and bigger) studios’ mic closets for at least a pair of SE2000s. They’re well-constructed and very versatile. And they’re cheap enough that you can feel okay using them for unorthodox situations. (Why not try ’em on toms? Or even kick or snare?) The Z5600 seems like a good bet for a studio looking to purchase an affordable tube condenser. It’s amazing to think that only a few years ago the least you could expect to pay for a tube condenser of any sort would be well over twice the Z5600’s price.

Finally, the SE 1s could inexpensively fill the need for a small diaphragm condenser; but given the harshness I encountered, I’d hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend it without some serious comparison shopping. Then again, the price is just so darn low. (sE Electronics)

Read more about the SE1 small-diaphragm “pencil” condenser microphone.

Read more about the SE2000 large diaphragm condenser microphone.

Read more about the Z5600 multipattern tube microphone.

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