Do these low-cost condenser microphones from Marshall Electronics' MXL range have what it takes to stand out from an ever-increasing number of competitors?
MXL is a subdivision of the US company Marshall (no connection with Marshall amps) and their range of studio microphones comprises nine different models running from the sub-£100 hand-held MXL 1000 capacitor microphone up to the MXL V77 tube microphone at around £700. In common with many other cost-effective capacitor microphones, these models appear to utilise Chinese components, though Marshall themselves are located in Los Angeles. I've picked three mics from the new range that I feel will appeal to the project studio owner, the least costly of which is the no-frills MXL 1006, a large-diaphragm capacitor microphone with a fixed-cardioid pickup pattern.
The MXL 1006, costing a little under £130 in the UK, is a recent addition to the range and features a large-diaphragm (25mm) capsule with a 6mm gold-sputtered membrane. The circuitry is all solid state and incorporates a transformerless, transistor output balancing stage yielding a useful frequency response of 30Hz to 20kHz, with the response rolling away gently above around 16kHz. It has a respectable sensitivity of 15mV/Pa, an A-weighted signal-to-noise ratio of 80dB (referenced to 1Pa sound pressure), and can handle SPLs up to 130dB before distortion exceeds 0.5 percent. A fine but tough wire mesh protects and screens the capsule while the familiar locking ring at the XLR end of the cylindrical brass body is used to secure the mic to the included standmount. A plastic carry case is provided. The brochure describes the finish as champagne, but 'metallic beige with a hint of khaki' might be more accurate, lending the mic a slightly military look.
From the supplied frequency plot, it can be seen that the MXL 1006 has a nominally flat response with only the gentlest of presence peaks centred at around 12kHz. It is clearly designed as a low-cost vocal recording microphone, but, as with many such designs, it will also work well for acoustic instrument recording and it may be used as a drum overhead mic.
The somewhat higher-priced MXL 2003 (£399 in the UK) is similarly styled to the MXL 1006, though black and a little longer. As with the V77, a suspension shockmount is included -- it's a shame that such a mounting isn't included with the other more expensive MXL models, as this would make them even more competitive. The 2003 features a larger 27mm, gold-sputtered diaphragm a mere three microns thick and includes a three-way 6dB/Octave, 150Hz roll-off switch that incorporates a 10dB pad option. The signal-to-noise is quoted as 77dB and the frequency response is slightly unusual in that it is very flat all the way to 20kHz, then instead of falling off, it actually starts to tip up slightly. The output stage is electronically balanced (no transformer) and the polar response is fixed cardioid.
Again, the mic is primarily intended for vocals, but may also be used for acoustic instruments, including piano. It's also recommended for miking guitar amp or for use as a drum overhead, where its maximum SPL handling of 130dB (140dB with pad switched in) should ensure the sound stays clean at all levels.
Though the MXL V77 (reviewed by Hugh Robjohns in SOS January 2001) was a valve microphone, the MXL V67 uses no valve -- the V stands for vintage, apparently. Once again there are no pad or roll-off switches, but the outward appearance is livened up by a striking green paint job, complemented by a gold-plated basket and gold legending. The basket is circular, rather than the more traditional 'squashed' shape, and incorporates a dual-layer structure for better wind shielding.
On paper, it looks technically similar to the MXL 2001 (which I reviewed back in SOS October 2000, and which was provided for comparison), with a very flat response up to 20kHz, a fixed-cardioid response and a 25mm, gold-sputtered six-micron diaphragm. Again the sensitivity is 15mV/Pa, the signal-to-noise ratio is 80dB and the maximum SPL is 130dB, though the recommended uses, after vocals, now include close-miking guitar amplifiers and drum overhead miking.
The brass body houses a FET preamp with a balanced transformer output stage, and closer inspection reveals that the circuitry is identical to that of the MXL 2001, aside from the part number on the transformer. If the capsule is also identical (and I've no way of telling if it is or not), it is difficult to see how the cost difference between the two models can be justified, though I'll reserve judgement until after the listening tests.
To gain a meaningful insight into how these mics performed, I compared them with a number of known studio mics, with some interesting results. My first point of reference was the Rode NT1 -- though this is officially a more expensive mic, it's worth noting that its current street price is almost on a par with the MXL. On vocals, the Rode delivered a slightly smoother sound, but the MXL 1006 sounded a bit more open at the high end, no doubt a feature of its presence peak. Overall it sounded reasonably natural, with a nice touch of warmth coming in when used at close range, though I felt I could detect a small amount of coloration to the sound when comparing it against more expensive studio mics such as the AT4033. The metalwork also tended to ring slightly if tapped -- the similarly-structured MXL 2001 fared rather better in this respect. Putting the sound into perspective though, the project studio owner looking for a competent capacitor vocal microphone at the lowest possible cost should be pleasantly surprised at just how good the results can be from a microphone of this type.
MXL 1006/2003/V67 £129/£399/£279
Something suitable for all budgets.
Good sound quality.
Stand adaptors and carry bags included.
No pad or roll-off switches.
The V67 might be more competitive if bundled with a shockmount.
A well-designed range of mics to suit all budgets, but competition in this market area is extremely hot at the moment, so it's worth comparing these mics with as many of their competitors as possible.
Changing to the visually distinctive MXL V67 revealed that the tonality is indeed quite different to the other MXL mics, so unless there's a lot of magic in that transformer, I have to assume that the capsule is in some way different. The high end is all there, but it seems less splashy and more tightly controlled than on the other mics in the series. The low end also seems very supportive. It isn't quite a tube-mic sound, but it is warm, comfortable and focused without sounding obviously coloured. Comparing this mic with the Rode NT1, I found that the two sounded somewhat similar. The Rode was slightly more coloured sounding, but the characteristic warmth and focus were definitely similar. Of course, mics have a habit of sounding different again when used with different singers, so you really need to give your prospective purchase a good try out before finally deciding.
These MXL mics are attractively priced in the UK and their build quality is generally good, as is the performance, even at the lower end of the price scale, but, because of the subjective nature of microphone tonality, if you're thinking of buying one of the more expensive mics in the range, I'd recommend that you line it up against a few of its competitors and see what works best for you. After all, we now have some superb low-cost mics to choose from, with manufacturers such as Audio Technica and AKG doing their best to match prices with budget imports while maintaining European build quality. In this price war, the consumer is most definitely the winner.
MXL 1006, £129; MXL 2003 with shockmount, £399; MXL V67, £279. Prices include VAT.
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