This mic is certainly styled to look like the classic Neumann U47, but does it sound like it?
Newmann Retro are a small British company and although 'boutique' mic manufacturers are increasingly common in the US, Newmann are currently the only one I'm aware of in the UK. Until recently they offered only one mic, a model that shared the name of the company, and which I reviewed back in SOS July 2008. Anyone conversant with some of the American boutique mic manufacturers might have spotted that the Retro looked almost exactly the same as the Peluso VTB — and that's not surprising, since both have origins that can be traced back to a Chinese manufacturer/distributor called Alctron‑Audio. In both cases, the companies claim to hand‑build and tune the electronics, and the published specifications of both mics are noticeably better than those of the stock Chinese models, so it would appear that these mics have been 'breathed upon' to some degree. Indeed, Stephen Bull of Newmann Retro tells me that although the raw component parts are indeed imported, the (re)design, modifications, re‑testing, electro‑plating, tube‑selection, metal badge production and shell assembly of the Newmann models is all done in the UK, by hand and in small batches.
The latest model to grace the Newmann range is the NR47, and as the name implies it's intended to be reminiscent of the revered Neumann U47. Again, Peluso got there first with their three 2247 model variations, the basic variation of which is currently less expensive in the UK than the NR47, while the 2247SE and LE models are both slightly pricier.
The NR47 is accurately styled to look like the early long‑bodied Neumann U47, and is hand‑built to order in a variety of metalwork finishes including 'distressed vintage' matt nickel, satin‑nickel powder, and shiny, polished nickel versions. Apparently, the electro‑plating part of the process takes three days to complete. A diamond‑shaped Newmann NR47 logo on the front of the mic body is not dissimilar to those on Neumann's mics.
The NR47 ships with a kit of parts in a sturdy, locking briefcase. Cut‑outs are provided for the mic (in its foam‑lined wooden box), a cat's‑cradle shockmount, PSU, and cables (a seven‑pin PSU‑mic cable and an IEC mains lead). The NR47 itself looks very nice indeed, the review model having a polished grille and fittings, with a matt nickel body. It certainly has an imposing presence when mounted on a stand in front of a vocalist.
The power-supply case has a 'hammered' grey paint finish, and measures 102 x 100 x 225mm (WxHxD). The fused IEC mains inlet is presented at the rear, along with a red power lamp, large on‑off toggle switch, and a mains voltage selector. The front panel has a large grey rotary switch to select one of nine different microphone polar patterns, ranging from omni, through cardioid, to figure‑of‑eight (with three intermediate steps either side of cardioid). The original U47 offered only omni and cardioid polar patterns, of course, selected with a rotating slide switch at the base of the grille on the mic body itself. The slightly later Neumann U48 sibling provided cardioid and figure‑of‑eight options, and it was the U67 model that superseded the U47/U48 which finally offered all three modes.
A seven‑pin XLR socket at the base of the mic accepts the supplied cable, carrying power and control voltages to the mic, and sending the audio signal back from it, while a three‑pin XLR on the power supply provides the balanced audio output to a console or recorder. (Additional nerd fact: the original Neumann U47 used a six‑pin connector because the VF14's heater supply was derived from the anode HT voltage via a wire‑wound resistor, rather than from a dedicated supply from the PSU. The NR47 and all modern equivalents have a separate, low-voltage heater supply. That's the fundamental reason why real U47s get hot and modern lookalikes don't!) The power supply's internal construction is perfectly adequate, albeit somewhat uninspiring, and on a mic of this price I would have preferred to see genuine Neutrik and Switchcraft connectors on the case and cable, respectively, rather than the very similar‑looking ones that are used.
The supplied shockmount is a chunky casting, styled closely on Neumann's original design, and it supports the mic from a threaded ring that screws onto the base of the mic, in the traditional way. The standard of metalwork finishing on the review model's shockmount was a little ragged around the stand fitting, and the elastic suspension cords seemed unusually tight. However, a US (5/8‑inch) to EU (3/8‑inch) thread adapter is included, which is thoughtful.
The marketing literature claims that the NR47 uses a vintage Telefunken tube, and I was intrigued as to what this could be — given that VF14s are as rare as hen's teeth and 10 times as expensive, while EF14s aren't exactly common or cheap either! Peering inside the mic body revealed a familiar looking glass triode and initially I assumed this was a variant of the GE 6072A dual triode (12AY7), which is used quite widely in many modern valve mics. Apparently, though, Newmann actually use a relatively common ECC83 (12AX7) dual‑triode valve, albeit a selected 'NOS' (new old stock) Telefunken version (many of which were made by Mullard).
The NR47's capsule is, I'm told, the result of some long‑term testing and evaluation, two design variants having been rejected in that process. The version currently used boasts a 34mm capsule with six-micron gold‑sputtered Mylar diaphragms, both centre‑terminated.
The manual supplied with this mic is a single A4 sheet and provides nothing more than basic mounting and care instructions: it includes no QC test plots or microphone specifications. However, there are some basic generic specifications published on Newmann's website. Self noise is given as a respectable 16dBA, which is very good given the unusually high output level (I'll come back to that shortly) — and the maximum SPL for 0.5 percent distortion is quoted as a healthy 134dB.
The figure given for the mic's sensitivity is unusually high (48mV/Pa), and initially I thought this was a typo. However, comparing the NR47 against one of my AKG C414 B‑ULS mics (as a well-known reference) proved that the NR47 really does provide this substantial output level. To put it in a slightly more meaningful context, the NR47 is about 12dB louder than most typical capacitor mics (including all versions of the Peluso 2247). In fact, I can only find three out of the 132 valve mics listed on www.microphone‑data.com that have a higher output level. (Another additional nerd fact: the original Neumann U47's sensitivity was 25mV/Pa, which is about 6dB lower than the NR47.)
Is this an issue? It could be when close‑miking loud sources such as a very powerful vocalist or a loud guitar amp, because many budget preamps might not have sufficient headroom to cope, and few have switchable pad facilities to attenuate the input signal either. On the other hand, when working with quiet sources or if using more distant mic placements, the NR47's elevated sensitivity could prove a bonus in combination with budget preamps that have limited gain range or are noisy at high gain settings. As always, there are swings and roundabouts... and whether this is an issue or a blessing comes down to the way you use the mic and the partnering preamp's facilities.
Although the NR47 is clearly aimed to appeal to potential purchasers because of its visual similarity to an original U47, what really matters is what the thing sounds like, and I can say that the NR47 delivers exactly the kind of sound you'd expect from looking at it — the terms 'large‑scale', 'weighty', 'presence', and 'mellow' all seem apposite. As has become my standard practice when reviewing valve mics, I mostly partnered the NR47 with my AEA TRP preamp, because it adds clean gain and nothing else — although very little gain was needed for the NR47. I also tested it with a Focusrite ISA428 and Mackie VLZ preamps, the latter struggling to cope with the output level at times.
Listening to on‑axis vocals with the mic switched to omni, the NR47 comes across as slightly flattering and smooth‑sounding, with a modest sense of air, but it doesn't have the presence 'bite' I associate with the real U47 in this mode. Moving off‑axis quickly reveals a very non‑uniform frequency response, but that's completely normal for a large-diaphragm capacitor mic like this, and actually changing the angle of the mic relative to the source is a useful tonal control facility that can — and should — be used to advantage when positioning the mic.
Switching to cardioid mode introduces the expected proximity effect when working closer than about four inches, giving a big but generally usable sound. The top end also becomes a little more forward and harder sounding in cardioid mode, a little more like the original U47, and although this can tend slightly to emphasise sibilance with some vocalists, in most cases it adds a welcome cut‑through clarity and definition; there's something of a mild presence peak in this mode, centred around about 6kHz, at a guess, and that just helps to ease the sound forward in a mix without needing the services of the console's EQ.
As you would expect, the figure‑of‑eight polar response builds upon the cardioid's proximity effect quite significantly, but at reasonable working distances the character remains usable, and with distant placements is quite neutral. There is, perhaps, a very mild dip around 2kHz in this mode, and the side nulls aren't anything like as deep as you'd achieve with a ribbon mic — but at least the front and rear capsule faces have identical tonality which is useful for dual source miking and Mid/Side stereo applications.
The marketing information on the Newmann Retro web site states that this mic is an 'homage' to the U47, and intended to bring that kind of sound within the budget of those who can't afford a real U47. I guess, then, that the burning question is whether it sounds like a real U47. Well, I've already given some clues, but the sheer physical nature of the large‑diaphragm capsule, and its placement in relation to the grille, the impedance converter electronics and the output transformer, all impose some elements of the original U47's character on the NR47's sound.
It would be easy from reading the sales literature to get the impression that this mic is intended to be a clone of the U47, but Newmann appear to have chosen their words carefully: an 'homage' isn't necessarily a clone — and as good as this mic sounds, if you lined the NR47 and an original U47 up side by side and A/B'd them, I don't think anyone would find the two mics indistinguishable from each other for a moment.
The NR47 is a fine-sounding mic in its own right, though, and perhaps that's enough. Of course, the number of people who've had the pleasure of using real U47s is diminishingly small, and most potential purchasers of the NR47 will be basing their conception of the original mic's sound qualities on passing comments in magazine articles and web sites. So I suspect most will think the sound should be smooth and refined, with a nice sheen at the high end and a full-bodied bottom end — and the NR47 gives you exactly that.
However, that kind of tonality was only achieved with original U47s when using a relatively distant placement of about a foot (30cm). When used up close, they tend to exhibit a fairly strong upper presence that made voices and instruments stand forward in the mix, and a powerful proximity effect. More nerd facts: in the 1950s, these were considered undesirable characteristics, and that's why Neumann introduced the U67 in 1960, and voiced it to serve as a close‑working alternative to the U47 — although perhaps the way the Beatles liked to sing up close into Abbey Road's U47s changed the listeners' expectations anyway!
A lot of modern capacitor mics tend towards an edgy, bright or sharp character and in a straight comparison with modern capacitor mics the NR47 might be perceived as sounding slightly dull. In fact, it does provide plenty of top-end air and detail, and while it might not be an ideal choice for distant placement in large rooms, used up close on most sources the NR47 sounds lovely. The mid-range is fast, detailed and clear but not overly 'valvey', while the bottom end exhibits a slightly warm and full-bodied character that is flattering to most sources — especially vocals. I rarely felt the need to equalise the mic within mixes (other than to tame proximity), either on male or female vocals, which is quite unusual with modern mics and generally a good thing. Tilting the mic back slightly, or rotating it a little relative to the source, usually provided all the corrective EQ that was required.
One practical issue became obvious very quickly, and that was that while the shockmount seemed effective above about 150Hz, it wasn't particularly efficient for subsonic noises such as adjacent foot‑falls or kicked mic stands. The mic seems to be held very stiffly in the mount, as I mentioned earlier, and I wonder if the elastics are actually too tight to provide effective subsonic isolation. The mic also seemed very sensitive to mechanical vibrations travelling up the mic cable, so careful cable dressing is essential, such as taping the cable to the top of the mic stand for example, to trap vibrations and avoid passing them to the mic body.
It's probably obvious from my comments above that I'm not a huge fan of lookalike microphones: unless you're genuinely trying to recreate something you can no longer purchase, it all seems a little misleading. Anyone in the know will realise this is not a real U47 — and anyone not in the know won't care anyway, as long as the results are good. By all means, use a mic that exhibits some of the desirable tonal characteristics of unaffordable but revered vintage models, but why go to such extreme lengths of trying to appear like the real thing when so much about it is totally different: the capsule construction, the impedance-converter electronics, the transformer, the case and grille construction, the power supply...?
Having got that whinge off my chest, though, I must say that the NR47 is a nice‑sounding mic. As mentioned earlier, the finish of some of the accessories is disappointing for a mic at this price, but the same criticism could be levelled at some other boutique manufacturers. The mic itself exudes a much higher standard of quality in its fit and finish, and it possesses a very usable vintage sound character. Unfortunately, it's fighting for a place in a very competitive part of the microphone market: since I started this review, the price has dropped from £1150 to £999 (including VAT and delivery to customers in the UK, EU and US), and that clearly helps to boost the mic's attractiveness, but it's still in the midst of strong competition.
The obvious directly comparable alternative, retaining the U47 vintage styling, is the short‑bodied Peluso 2247 (as opposed to the slightly more expensive long‑bodied LE or SE versions). In the UK, this model costs exactly the same as the Newmann NR47 and comes with an identical package of accessories — although the technical specs are slightly different (more normal sensitivity, lower self‑noise, higher max SPL).
Continuing the vintage valve‑mic theme, other Peluso offerings spring to mind, including the P12, 22 251 and VTB, as do the Rode Classic II and the MXL Genesis. Moving up to modern solid‑state classics, the Neumann TLM193 is a great‑sounding mic, as is the Brauner Phantom classic. The diminutive Microtech Gefell M930 and M940 models also sit in this price range, as do the Blue Woodpecker and Blueberry models. There are also some nice ribbon mics worthy of consideration if you are looking for that smooth sound character, including the AEA R92 and R84 models and the Royer R121.
The original Neumann U47's main claim to fame centres on the fact that, when it was introduced in 1949, it was the very first switchable‑pattern valve capacitor microphone. The earliest version used the (now infamous) M7 capsule, which had been developed for Neumann's first capacitor mic, the CMV3 'Bottle', but the U47 was the first production microphone model in which both the front and rear capsule diaphragms were wired to the impedance converter — which is how the switchable pattern facility came into being, of course. The U47 really was a revolutionary product and it established a benchmark standard for microphone performance and specifications that a surprising number of modern mics still fail to equal even today!
Following the Second World War (and up until about 1958), Telefunken distributed Neumann's outside West Germany, placing their own logo on the body instead of the Neumann badge (leading to Frank Sinatra's famous insistence on using a 'Telly 47'). However, this was more than just a convenient distribution arrangement, since it allowed Neumann to avoid paying royalties to Telefunken over patents that company held in vacuum tube technology (the VF14 valve used in the original U47s was a Telefunken design).
The U47 was a prominent studio workhorse microphone throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and is still popular today, but it went through a number of significant revisions right up until production ceased in 1965. For example, the original Telefunken VF14 pentode valve (which was operated as a triode) became unavailable by the early 1960s and was replaced with the 13CW4 Nuvistor valve. There are custom modified U47s around with EF86, GE 6072, or Telefunken AC701 and EF14 valves installed too (all with appropriately modified circuitry and power supplies, of course).
The original M7 capsule (with its thick and heavy gold‑sputtered PVC diaphragm) was superseded in the mid 1960s by the K47/K49 capsule, which used a thinner, lighter and far more stable polyester/gold diaphragm), and by the U47P variant with the M48 capsule, which used an aluminium diaphragm. The output transformer design also changed over the years, later models having a smaller transformer that gave a slightly curtailed bass response and a different overload characteristic.
All of these small revisions changed the sound character of the microphone to some extent, of course (the capsule changes mainly affecting the high-end character and the valve and transformer changes affecting the low end, predominantly). Added to this, over 50 years of use and component ageing mean that it is very unlikely that any randomly selected pair of U47s will sound identical these days anyway, let alone identical to the sound of an original U47 leaving the factory!