Telefunken USA Ela-M 251 – The Tape Op Review

TapeOp Issue #34/March, 2003 | by

I’ve been waiting for many years for someone to accurately recreate the legendary Telefunken 251 microphone. I’ve had several conversations wondering why this had never been done, with of course no comprehension of the massive research, design, and capital-sucking experimentation involved with faithfully capturing the character that makes the originals so sought after.

Although others have closely copied the approach of the 251, Telefunken USA has ventured into new territory — they have re-created the 251 from original designs, schematics, and blueprints. I’m lucky enough to have an original 251 and have always wanted another, but with the world’s supply fixed at about 2000 units, the price has climbed steadily higher; and I haven’t been able to afford one. So, I was very anxious to audition a modern-day re-incarnation of the legend.

The mic comes in a gorgeous, locking, tweed and leather suitcase with padded velvet lining, which cradles the power supply and a beautiful, handmade wooden box for the mic itself. Upon examining the mic, it looked as if one of the old 251’s had been put in a 40-year time capsule. Every exterior and interior part looks absolutely identical to the original. The only distinguishing difference is the threaded ring at the base of the mic, which is chrome on the new version instead of the pale green hue of the body color. Also, the multi-pin connector from the mic cable into the power supply has fortunately been updated to a 6-pin XLR, a change from the troublesome original connector.

The transformers are custom made to the exact specs of the original. The capsule (the really hard part to re-create,) is handmade exactly as it used to be. In fact, the entire mic is handmade in the USA. In order to emulate the capsule performance, they did a lot of listening and experimentation, as well as dissecting a couple of original examples for reverse-engineering purposes.

Now the fun part: How does it sound? My first session with the mic was a live jazz project with Dave Garibaldi on drums. He is known for being very particular about his drum sounds, so I was glad to have a pair of 251’s for overheads. I found myself running the playback level of the overheads hotter that normal, because the balance of the entire kit was so good. There was great articulation of the cymbals, and unusually good depth and balance of the snare and toms. The overheads became the element that defined the kit, while the individual mics were brought in to augment the balance and tone. Despite the fact that the two microphones were built 40 years apart on two different continents, they performed as a stereo pair, which is quite impressive. Needless to say, Dave was very pleased.

One thing I should mention: my 251 was modified years ago by Stephen Paul Audio. Other than providing necessary repair to the mic, they also installed a 3-micron diaphragm, twice as thin as the stock 6-micron. This of course changes to some degree the character of the mic, some would say for the better and others would say for the worse. So, a direct comparison to just my 251 is incomplete.

Fortunately, I was able to borrow an unmodified 251 from Zack Boles of Studio Z, to allow an opportunity to test all three versions. The differences between the mics were not all that surprising. On acoustic guitar the new 251 demonstrated the best overall balance when mic’ed at a distance of about two feet. The lower midrange body of the guitar was more than I expected, without being muddy. The upper mids and highs had a marvelous presence without being harsh or thin. In comparison, the original 251, while exhibiting a similar character, just had “less” of it. Meaning, it just didn’t seem to have the same degree of extension on the bottom and top end. This is not to say that the new 251 sounds hyped, but rather that the 40 year old model was not performing as it should. This is likely true for a good many of the original 251’s out there. My modified 251 had more sparkle on the very top than either of the other two mics, but didn’t have the same type of midrange articulation that the new one displayed. Also, there was not the same degree of lower mids. These differences are not completely surprising due to the thinner diaphragm.

When the mics were moved closer to the source, we noticed something else. As the proximity effect increased, the lower mids seemed almost to compress a little on the two 6-micron mics. The modified 251 seemed a little more controlled, although not quite as full on the bottom. The same characteristics held true for other instruments as well. On upright bass the new 251 captured a full low end, while getting a nice attack from the strings without sounding “clacky.” The old 251 seemed to lose the fundamental of the E string, while the modified 251 lacked a little depth, but had a slightly better top end. As we found with the guitar, the lower range of the bass seemed to compress just a little with the 6-micron mics. This isn’t necessarily bad, but just a noticed trait. The 3-micron 251 again didn’t seem to exhibit that effect, but didn’t extend quite as deep. It was more of the same with sax. A balanced tone was immediately achieved with the new 251, although with less top end than the modified mic. Depending on the tone of the instrument itself, that can be a plus or a minus. Since our piano is a little on the bright side, the extra top end of the modified 251 was not as complimentary as the new 251’s tone. The Telefunken is one of the best all-around vocal mics ever made, and here is where each mic sounded the most similar. On a male vocal, it was hard not to get a great sound. The 251’s naturally sound as though they are almost being slightly EQ’ed and compressed in a pleasing way.

The bottom line here is that Telefunken USA has done exactly what they have claimed to do: offering a modern re-creation of what a properly functioning vintage 251 should sound like. We all know that there is sometimes a wide degree of variance in the sound between original 251’s. This argument was illustrated by Studio Z’s original 251’s less than stellar performance. What Telefunken USA has done is try to model the new mic after the best and most consistent characteristics of the well-maintained originals. And that they seem to have done. The new mic seems to capture the glorious character of the best of the vintage examples, without the “will it work today” gamble of an older mic.

The $10k price tag is ominous for most of us, but hey — until now, there have been just a small fixed number of these mics in the world. Period. With prices climbing occasionally as high as 20k, it has elevated the mic completely out of reach to all but the elite. Now, there is the opportunity to put real 251’s in the hands of more people. Mics that work. Mics that have factory support. Service and repair is being offered also for the old mics again, with new factory replacement parts. Although it’s still not cheap, we now have a much more attainable option for achieving that classic sound. (Telefunken USA; $10,125)

Read more about the Telefunken USA Ela M 251 tube condenser microphone.

| No Comments »