The MA301 FET claims to offer classic German sound at a Chinese price. Does it deliver?
Mojave Audio, the brainchild of David Royer, have managed in just a few years to create quite a buzz for their line of reasonably priced capacitor mics. Royer, known for his ribbon-mic designs, has applied his craft to an assortment of USA-designed, assembled-in-China microphones, including the subject of this review, the Mojave MA301 FET. The mic's capsule employs a three-micron-thick, gold-sputtered diaphragm approximately one inch across, and is modelled after the K67 capsule found in Neumann's classic U67 tube mic. Being a solid-state design, however, the mic as a whole is perhaps closer to the U87.
David Royer notes that the MA301 FET uses the same head-amplifier circuit as the MA201 FET, and the most difficult part of the design work, according to Royer, was adapting the design for the three polar patterns, since a special power-supply circuit needed to be added to provide the pattern switching. The Mojave MA301 FET contains a high-quality Jensen audio transformer, as well as military-grade FET and custom-designed, low-noise resistors are used in the circuitry. The package includes a case and shockmount.
The MA301 FET has a choice of three pickup patterns: cardioid, omni and figure-of-eight. Spec-wise, the Mojave acquits itself quite well, with a factory-rated 20Hz to 20kHz (±3dB) frequency response. The published frequency response plots show broad rises in the bass and upper mid-range either side of a dip at about 1kHz. Self noise is a reasonable 14dB (A-weighted), while maximum SPL handling is quoted at 120dB, or 135dB with the 15dB pad engaged. The bass-cut switch enables a 6dB/octave cut below 100Hz. The microphone, by itself, weighs in at just 1lb, and the entire kit, including the case, weighs 4lbs.
I love to track guitars, so, for me, a microphone must excel on my various acoustic and electric six-strings. And because I track everything exclusively at 24-bit, I need a microphone that transmits all the detail from the strings through the air or amp, with no added microphone noise. I even turn my nose up at some classic valve mics, which can sometimes be way too noisy for acoustic guitar sessions.
I connected the review microphones to a True Engineering P2 preamp feeding a Benchmark ADC1 A-D. This was linked to a Tascam DVRA1000HD recorder, set up for 24-bit/192kHz recording.
I mounted two MA301 FETs on a stereo bar in an X-Y configuration, and used them to record my Martin J40 acoustic. With the Mojaves in cardioid mode, the recordings revealed a smooth yet articulate top end, and a strummed character that pointed to a gentle warming of the bottom end. The picking detail was prominent, but without being overly crisp or harsh, while the stereo image had substantial width and depth.
I also recorded the guitar with the mics set to omni, in another room that has a slightly more reverberant sound. Here, the Mojave's tendency to enhance the low end lessened a bit, but the top end came through as well balanced, as I heard more of the room and reflections from the hardwood floor.
Since the room sounded good in omni, I decided to pull out my custom Martin OO-28 that I use for fingerstyle playing, and this sounded fantastic through the stereo setup. The increased sense of presentation from the room reflections created a sense of a bigger, almost concert-hall-like room.
Moving on to the electric guitars, I pulled out my Gibson L5CES Custom jazz guitar, which I played through a freshly refurbished 1966 Fender Deluxe Reverb. With the stereo setup, the Mojaves captured the warm, classic jazz guitar tone from the guitar/amp combo. All the picking detail was there, and I could clearly hear the edges of the modest amount of amp spring reverb that I had dialled in. The tone was relaxed, but with a bit more top-end accuracy than a cheap condenser.
Staying with the electrics, I pulled out my Les Paul Studio and an overdrive pedal, and removed one of the mics to make a single-track recording with a Fender Twin Reverb. Turning up the Fender, with the pedal crunching the tone a bit, the Mojave relayed a big, juicy, harmonic-rich sound. In this context, the MA301 FET did not overly enhance the bass response, even with close-to-cabinet mic placement. With the same setup, my Telecaster cut through better with its single-coil pickups, and the Mojave picked up the edge, but did not add any harshness.
The only keyboard on hand was my Nord Electro 3 73, which I tried in its Steinway Model D mode, through a pair of Lipinski L505 speakers, and in Hammond B3 mode through a Twin Reverb reissue. The Mojaves added just the right amount of bass boost to flesh out the piano, and they captured the B3 sound perfectly.
The roll-off filter's gentle 6dB/octave slope makes it very handy for taming proximity effect and the mic's natural tendency towards richness at the bottom end. On a boomy dreadnought guitar, for example, it cleaned up the bass to the point of making the recorded track usable.
Used as a stereo pair of overhead mics on a drum kit, the Mojave's smooth, clean character was ideal. Cymbals, in particular, came across as clear, but not enhanced to the point of sounding brittle, as they do with many cheap mics I have used. The built-in pad means the MA301 FETs can also take a reasonable degree of SPL abuse for those who play loudly.
Finally, the MA301 FET's capability as a vocal mic was just as convincing as its instrument-miking qualities. Its gentle bass warmth and clean mid-range, without any overly hyped presence, make it suitable for lead vocalists who don't need a lot of assistance from their microphone.
I had no complaints about these mics. The fit and finish was perfect, the switches felt robust, and the suspension mount was first-class. The stigma of Chinese microphones as cheap and second-rate in sound and build is a thing of the past. I have used numerous Chinese-made mics in the last five years that are superlative in their sonics, and they are often also as well made as German and USA microphones. And with the Chinese mics nailing that vintage sound without all the noise, why use some old hissy mic when you can get the same character, only cleaner? I would much rather use a MA301 FET than an old, noisy U67 — especially for 24-bit recording.
David Royer has produced another winner. If I could have only one large-diaphragm mic, I would definitely put this one on my shortlist.
Other multi-pattern mics in the Mojave's price range include the AKG C414, Miktek C7, Bock 195, Lauten Clarion FC357, Shure KSM44A and Audio-Technica AT4047MP.