When the M–Audio name is mentioned, a selection of well–built mid–priced products springs to mind: soundcards, MIDI peripherals, studio monitors and the like. I wouldn't normally have considered M–Audio as a first choice for a stage microphone, as there are so many already on the market by manufacturers that I know and trust, but as the Aries under review here is their first mic to focus on live sound, as it's a capacitor and as it has an RRP of just under £100, I was particularly interested to see how it would fare in a gig environment against some of my old favourites.
I had mixed feelings when I first received the Aries. It comes in a cardboard box, which is nothing new, but both the box and the manual provide very little information about the characteristics of the microphone. The accompanying blurb states that the Aries is a "cardoid design for stage and studio vocals," but claims such as "20Hz20kHz frequency response" seem rather generic and make me wish for more data. A closer inspection of the manual yields no further information, and there's no polar plot illustrating the cardoid response, either. For the more anally retentive amongst us, I suppose this could be considered a bad sign.
However, a few quick tests later, things become a little clearer. Lending itself to close–miking applications, the Aries has a flat frequency response between 40Hz and 2kHz when placed around 5cms from the sound source, and an overall lift of around 3dB across the 2kHz–15kHz range. As is common to many vocal capacitors on the market, I found a noticeable (6dB) boost in the higher frequencies at both 6kHz and 12kHz. At greater miking distances, the frequency response of the Aries naturally rolls off quite steeply below 200Hz, with the proximity effect audibly more prominent than one would expect, perhaps as a result of the high–frequency boost I've just mentioned. (My test measurements were made against a B&K 4007 reference microphone.)
The Aries is supplied in a standard zip–up soft case with a robust microphone clip (although mine doesn't include a thread–adaptor insert for the clip). The microphone looks very similar in design to a Shure Beta 57, although it is slightly larger, at 40 x 168mm. Weighing in at 260g, the Aries feels light, but it's well balanced for hand–held use and appears durable enough to take a fair amount of road punishment. Something I particularly like about this mic is its sturdy metal body, which is solid, does not scratch easily and is moulded to sit comfortably in your hand. Slightly less appealing is the grille that hides the pop shield and which is designed to protect the three–quarter–inch gold–evaporated diaphragm. The grille feels and looks a little inexpensive, although it is clearly strong enough to serve its purpose, and removable for cleaning purposes.
Most microphones of this nature boast at least a two–layer 'pop shield' but the Aries only appears to incorporate a single layer of foam, which does leave it susceptible to extreme plosives (such as 'b's and 'p's). While handling noise is reduced with an internal shockmount, the Aries shockmount seems less effective than the ones fitted to some other microphones on the market. The shockmount places the capsule within a rubber ring on the end of three rubber shock–absorbers, rather than suspending the capsule with rubber strips. The Aries' handling noise didn't concern me unduly, but a perceivable metallic 'clunking' occurred when I tapped the end of the XLR, and this was not present with my other microphones.
As far as general specifications go, the Aries claims a low self–noise of 17dBA, making it comparable with some of the more expensive contenders on the market. It can accommodate sound pressure levels (SPLs) of 134dB (for 0.5 percent distortion) which is not bad at all, and has plenty of output, requiring noticeably less gain than a Shure SM86, for example.
I put the Aries through several tests and concluded that it sounded pretty useable when I listened to it through the front–of–house system. I found it slightly lacking in warmth, perhaps due to the bright high–end, but a little desk EQ soon brought it into line with my preferred vocal sound, and although I did feel it lacked a little definition, for the price I was impressed.
However, when I put some stage monitoring into the equation, a problem became evident. Using monitoring I trust (EM Acoustic M12 wedges and a BSS Graphic EQ), I found that the Aries required more than normal EQ'ing across the monitors in order to prevent feedback at a medium stage–noise level. Problem areas were the 400–500Hz range and the 6–8kHz range, with the microphone quickly on the edge of feedback before I would normally expect this. Additional spill from drums led me to conclude that the cardoid response of the Aries is not as tight or predictable as it should be for a stage microphone, which was a disappointment.
When speaking further than an inch away from the microphone, I noticed that the sound quickly became quite thin, and although with a full band playing I could make the microphone cut through in the mix, it was a less than full–bodied sound. I concluded that an inexperienced engineer or a vocalist with poor microphone technique would suffer in a loud environment. Substituting the microphone with a range of others for comparison purposes, I could easily get 6dB or more headroom from the monitors with no additional EQ.
I think it would be wrong to write off the Aries completely, because for the money you get a durable capacitor microphone that can give a good sound at front of house. However, for those seeking a vocal microphone for loud stage use, in this price bracket a good old-fashioned dynamic such as a Shure SM or Beta 58 might yield a more appropriate result.