It’s a Chinese measurement mic that’s the spitting image of a DPA. But is it imitation or inevitability?
Review: Greg Simmons
Flashback to late 2013… I’m sitting in a small café on Foveaux Street, Surry Hills, sipping tea and eating a brownie. Peter Orehov of CDA slides a black plastic package across the table. Inside are two sleek black microphones with stainless steel grids on the ends. “Looks like they ripped off DPA!” I exclaim with a hint of cynicism. “You reckon?” counters Peter with a grin.
MicW is a microphone manufacturer based in the Xicheng district of Beijing, China. Rather than paraphrasing their story in my own words, it’s easier to quote their publicity material: “MicW is a member of BSWA Technologies Ltd., a measurement microphone company. BSWA was founded in 1998 as a joint venture between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and five sound engineers looking to market better, more affordable measurement microphones. Today, BSWA microphones are widely used in aerospace, automotive, and environmental noise measurements. The experience and expertise gained from designing and manufacturing measurement microphones enabled BSWA to create the new microphone brand ‘MicW’ for use in audio and music oriented applications.”
As a regular user of DPA microphones, the historical parallels and product similarities between DPA and MicW are certainly not lost on me — one could easily believe that MicW was the DPA of an alternate universe.
IMITATION BY DESIGN
With its smoothly tapered matte black body and machined stainless steel protection grid, MicW’s N201 looks remarkably like DPA’s famed 4004 and 4007 reference microphones. As the saying goes, ‘imitation is the most sincere form of flattery’. But is there more here than imitation and less here than flattery?
If you are going to build a high quality reference microphone you need to start with a small single-diaphragm capsule. To ensure symmetry, you’ll mount it in an end-address configuration. If you need an XLR output, the end with the XLR is going to have a larger diameter than the end with the capsule. If that microphone is intended to have an accurate omnidirectional polar response, you’ll want to smoothly taper its shape from the XLR to the capsule so that sound energy arriving from the rear can diffract around the body and onto the diaphragm. To assist further with the diffraction you’ll fit a carefully machined acoustic grid over the diaphragm, rather than a simple wire mesh.
So it’s no coincidence every reference and measurement microphone on the market that has a built-in XLR output follows roughly the same tapered shape, size and grid — in most cases they conform to the recommended standard dimensions for measurement microphones as described in IEC 61094. Give any of those microphones a matte black finish so it won’t draw attention to itself on stage and it will begin to look like a DPA. House the capsule in stainless steel and taper the body with a smoothly changing contour, rather than a simple conical transition, and it will look exactly like a DPA. I hate to say it, but it’s true.
N IS FOR NICKEL
The N201 is part of MicW’s ‘N-Series’ of pre-polarised single-diaphragm condenser microphones and features a nickel diaphragm mounted in a stainless steel housing. The diaphragm measures 12.7mm in diameter and is 5μm thick. Being a true pressure transducer, it has an omnidirectional polar response.
According to MicW’s website the N201 offers a maximum SPL handling capability of 135dB and a self-noise of 18dBA — both in the ballpark for a diaphragm of these dimensions although the self-noise is a dB or two on the high side.
The sensitivity is quoted as a very healthy 40mV/Pa, so the N201 won’t need much gain to deliver a useful signal level. In fact, such a high output could easily overload the inputs of some padless preamps when close-miking loud sound sources. That’s not a criticism of the N201; rather, it is a criticism of the widespread move towards cheaper preamps without pad switches. Such padless preamps are currently prevalent in many consoles and interfaces, and are the bane of my existence.
The N201’s high sensitivity combined with less than 70Ω of output impedance means it should have no problem driving the long cable runs found in concert halls and similar venues.
IN THE BOX
The stereo kit offered for review was packaged in a generic Pelican-style case complete with strong locking latches, an automatic pressure equalising valve and a pick-and-pluck foam lining that had been picked and plucked to accommodate two N201 microphones, two pop filters and two shock mounts.
Hidden behind the lining in the lid was a calibration chart for each microphone. The units provided for this review were serial numbers 490530 and 490556; not consecutive numbers off the production line but the similarities in the specifications suggest they were handpicked to create a stereo pair.
The charts for both microphones showed a measured sensitivity of 44.2mV/Pa at 250Hz, 4dB (i.e. 1.6x) higher than that quoted on the website. Watch out padless preamps!
The frequency response measurements were made under free field conditions and a sensible amount of smoothing was applied to iron out any sonically irrelevant ripples or kinks without hiding anything of significance. Both microphones offered a ruler flat response from 20Hz to 2kHz. From 2kHz onwards there were small deviations between 0dB and +1dB, settling to +0.5dB at around 12kHz. The response then rolled off in a very linear manner at about 6dB/octave, reaching -5dB at 20kHz. It’s not exactly the “flat frequency response from 20Hz to 20kHz” mentioned on the website, but it’s more than acceptable and can actually be quite helpful.
No phase response curves were given, but MicW’s website claims their stereo pairs are matched within five degrees.
The first thing to note about the N201 is the build quality: it is satisfyingly weighty to hold, the matte black finish feels smooth and reassuringly thick and the XLRs have gold plated pins. There are no protruding or lopsided screw heads and no gritty threads — both things that I’ve come to expect from low cost microphones from China. The hole that provides access to the screw that holds the XLR connector in place is filled with a tiny rubber plug, perhaps to keep the screw in place or perhaps to ensure a smoother uninterrupted surface. Either way, it’s a nice touch…
One thing I don’t like is that the stainless steel protection grid has a slightly larger outside diameter than the microphone body that it screws on to. This leaves a small overhanging ridge around the base of the grid, creating the impression of a bad fit.
The shock mounts are a very good copy — but a copy nonetheless — of Rycote’s Lyre system, with a solid brass thread, a cable retention clamp and a locking nut that is strong enough to hold the mic at any chosen angle. They’re a cinch to use, but I suspect the N201 isn’t quite heavy enough to put the suspension sufficiently into its elastic phase after the weight of the microphone cable has been taken up by the retention clamp — I’d like to see a bit more ‘suspension’ in the suspension, so to speak.
A close inspection of the foam pop filters reveals that they are, in fact, made of foam and they do, in fact, filter pops. Good.
HOW IT MEASURES UP
When reviewing the sound quality of a microphone it’s not good enough to plug it into your MBox and say, “One, two, one, two.” You need to use very clean preamplifiers and AD converters to ensure you are hearing the microphone and not the preamps or converters. The equipment used for these tests included the Maselec MMA-4XR mic preamplifier into the line inputs of a PrismSound Orpheus interface, the new Nagra Seven, and an Apogee Quartet — a good range of devices.
The first test was a recording of a Shigeru Kawai grand piano, played by the wonderful Simon Tedeschi. The N201s were spaced approximately 30cm apart, aligned above the curved rim of the cabinet and aimed towards the centre of the strings with the lid at full stick. This placement produced an even spread across the spectrum with no dead spots or hot spots. The resulting sound was, first and foremost, tightly controlled without being lean. Simon played a number of jazz and blues standards, and the N201s tracked the punctuated ‘swing’ dynamics very well. The attack of the notes had a good sense of felt hammers hitting metal strings, and was captured in an excellent balance with the fundamental note and its harmonics; as a result, the overall articulation and expression was represented extremely well. The only noticeable colouration — if you could call it that — was the gentle roll-off above 12kHz, which proved beneficial in this case by creating a sound that was not as in-your-face as the placement would suggest.
The second test presented something a bit more challenging: the bağlama (a Turkish lute, also known as the ‘saz’) performed by Wessam Zaia. The bağlama has a long thin neck and a relatively small but deep resonating body, with seven strings arranged in two sets of two — rather like a 12-string guitar — and one set of three. It produces a sound that is rich in transients and higher harmonics, and will quickly reveal any high frequency harshness in a microphone or signal path. The N201s were set up as a close-miked stereo pair, approximately 27cm apart and 60cm from the soundboard. One was focused on the area where the strings are plucked to capture the articulation; the other was focused on the neck to capture a sense of movement in the playing. As with the piano test, the N201s tracked the transients extremely well and captured the overall tonality with no fuss or complaints. All the harmonic richness of the strings was present, along with the complex attack transients from the multiple sets of strings. Once again, the gentle roll-off above 12kHz proved beneficial by permitting such a close microphone placement without creating any harshness. The acoustics of the studio were quite dry, but after adding a healthy dose of reverberation I was transported to a steam house in Istanbul. Pass the hookah…
As a final test on strings, I used the N201s for a direct-to-stereo recording of a string quartet with soprano. The composition was contemporary, with lots of pizzicatos and similar angular and disjointed playing — the kind that benefits from the faster and sharply focused sound of a small single diaphragm rather than the rounder soft-focused sound of a large dual diaphragm. After a bit of fiddling with the microphone placement a stereo image appeared that suited the composition very well — relatively wide, with a decent sense of depth and surprisingly good localisation. The N201s tracked the complexities of the composition with no complaints; their ability to track fast transients captured the pizzicatos with ease, while their high frequency roll-off tamed the edginess of the strings and the upper harmonics of the soprano. Happy composer? Tick!
Moving away from strings, I took the N201s to Foundry 616, a jazz club in Sydney. A single N201 placed approximately 1.2m above the snare provided a first-rate overhead supplement to the sound coming off stage. Very few microphones work well in this scenario — most end up sounding harsh and/or mushy in the high frequencies, blurring the sound of the cymbals and generally being more harmful than helpful. On kits that did not have a second mounted tom I placed the other N201 in the space between the mounted tom and floor tom, aimed towards the snare. This combination produced a remarkably good overall balance with well-defined transients, and excellent reproduction of the snare when it was being rubbed with brushes.
Inspired by how well the N201s worked on the metallic sounds of cymbals, I decided to try them on brass. The American Brass Quintet (ABQ) performing live at City Recital Hall provided an excellent sound source. The ABQ set up on stage in a horse-shoe shape, with the low brass instruments furthest back playing out to the audience, and the front-most horns facing each other across the stage. Because horns are very directional instruments that move around as they are played, the goal is to place the microphone(s) in such a way that avoids ever being directly on-axis with any one horn — lest that horn becomes way too loud and direct! I placed the N201s approximately 35cm apart on a stereo bar hanging from the ceiling, aimed just above the bells of the front-most horns and pulled about four metres back when measured diagonally upwards from the centre of the ensemble. The resulting sound was an instant crowd-pleaser; a smooth balanced sound that captured all the articulation and expression of the players in a good balance with the hall’s reverberation, without ever becoming inappropriately bright or harsh. Once again, the N201’s subtle high frequency roll-off allowed them to be used in situations where other small single-diaphragm omnis would be considered too bright or harsh.
Over the duration of the review period the matched pair of N201s inadvertently became my ‘go to’ microphones. They offered the kind of sound quality heard in microphones costing twice as much, while their gentle HF roll-off made them less critical. When there was time to tweak the placement it was possible to extract an excellent sound from the N201s, but I was constantly surprised by how fast and easy it was to produce a totally acceptable sound within heavy time constraints. More critically revealing microphones often require more time to reach an acceptable result.
One of the things that stood out during all of my experiences with the N201 was the very positive reaction it got from musicians in recording situations. In some cases, the musicians preferred the N201 to the more expensive microphones I had in place. I believe that was due to the N201’s seemingly contradictory combination of a fast transient response and a subtle HF roll-off. This allows it to be placed close enough for detail without sounding overly bright or clinical, and therefore not as revealing of flaws in the musician’s technique!
Gripes? None really, although I think the packaging lets them down. If MicW were to put the matched pair of N201s in a polished wooden box with a plush velvet lining and get rid of that huge cartoonish logo on the microphone itself, they could add another $1000 to the price and nobody would be complaining. In fact, some people might take them a bit more seriously.
Is the N201 as good as the DPAs it looks like? No, it is not; at least not in absolute terms. Where it falls short in comparison to the more expensive microphones is not in its sound quality, but in its very forgiving and easy-going nature. Its only sins are sins of omission. For those times when you need that ‘take no prisoners’ approach to absolute clarity and separation — when you simply must extract detail from a very complex sound source and you have the time to tweak the placement — you’re going to want the extended bandwidth and higher resolution of a DPA 4006 or similar. For situations where there’s a risk of the sound getting too bright or clinical, or when you need to get a good sound fast, or where it is not worth risking a more expensive microphone, it is very hard to beat the N201.
Is there room in my kit for a matched pair of N201s? Absolutely.