This valve mic from Australian company Bees Neez aims to offer a character reminiscent of some of the vintage classics. Can a mic from down under come out on top?
When I first became involved in professional audio, microphones always came from large, well-established companies like Neumann, Sennheiser, Schoeps and AKG — not forgetting the non-European brands such as Shure, Electro-Voice, Audio-Technica, Sanken, and many others. In recent years, though, several dozen small 'boutique' microphone manufacturers have emerged, each claiming wondrous properties for their various models. While some are undoubtedly selling nondescript, re-badged microphones sourced in the Far East, many are making worthwhile upgrades in-house, or are developing interesting bespoke models from the ground up.
Bees Neez are a small Australian boutique microphone manufacturer run by Ben Sneesby and his family, and they produce their own range of microphones entirely from scratch — starting with drilling out the capsule backplate's metalwork! Having met Ben at the AES trade show in San Francisco last year (and I'm still working the crick out of my neck from looking up to talk to him: you can see my brief video interview with him on the SOS TV site), I can certainly vouch for his knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, his unique microphones.
Bees Neez currently produce three separate microphone ranges, led by the Producer Series, which is entirely home-grown and sets a very high benchmark in terms of cosmetics and sound quality. The more cost-effective Studio Series models feature exactly the same microphone internals as the equivalent Producer models, but employ 'pre-made' microphone bodies, with a slightly lesser aesthetic, to reduce the cost. The Tribute Series currently has a single model, the T1, which is based (as so many are) on the Neumann U47. Although it's not a clone (not least because some of the components are no longer available), the aim of the T1 is to match the original microphone's specifications, but with some Bees Neez character thrown in, too.
All Bees Neez microphones carry a transferable three-year warranty and a money-back guarantee. The company also sell a wide assortment of replacement parts, including various grades and styles of bodies, grilles, tubes, transformers, and even their own capsules — ideal for anyone wanting to build their own mics or upgrade someone else's!
The review microphone is called the Sally, and is taken from the Producer Series, which currently boasts six other models: Jade, Arabella, Mahalia, James, Phelicity, and Elly. The Sally microphone is a multi-pattern, large-diaphragm, valve condenser microphone with a sound character tailored to provide a warm, 'lush' sound.
The impedance-converter stage uses a 'new old-stock' (NOS) Mullard CV4031 double-triode valve, and has been designed, apparently, to provide a lot of headroom. The CV4031 is a military-grade (or 'special-quality') version of the standard ECC91 (6J6) double triode, which was originally designed for VHF equipment applications. The military-grade aspect refers to a more rugged construction intended to cope with exposure to mechanical vibration and shocks. A silicon-rubber ring is fitted to the valve to damp any tendency towards microphony, and it is suspended upside down within the microphone's vertical circuit board.
The microphone's balanced output signal is provided by a Cinemag 2461 NiCo (nickel and cobalt) transformer, while the capsule itself is Bees Neez's own one-inch 'K7' design, with centre terminations on both front and rear diaphragms. This is the company's 'best' capsule, using a combination of blind and through holes drilled into the brass-capsule backplates to create an acoustic rear chamber that is very similar in design to the Neumann M7 capsule. As I mentioned earlier, the whole capsule is fabricated entirely in the Bees Neez factory, including all the cutting and drilling, as well as the fitting and tension-tuning of the diaphragms. When Ben started the company, capsule backplates were made by hand, each one took nine hours to complete — and if a mistake was made, the plate had to be rejected and started again! Today, it's all done using the company's own CNC (computer numerical control) machine, which ensures both precision and consistency — and it works around 40 times faster!
A chunky mains power-supply unit is shipped with the Sally microphone, along with a Gotham GA7C microphone cable and a cats-cradle suspension shockmount, everything being packed carefully into a very sturdy, Peli-style, plastic carrying case. The power supply has a tough, hammered-effect grey/black paint finish and features a fused IEC mains inlet, a large on/off toggle switch, and a voltage selector on one end. A seven-pin XLR input socket and three-pin XLR output socket are mounted at the other end, along with a nine-step polar-pattern rotary switch fitted with a bright-red 'chicken-head' knob. The internal PSU circuitry is to Bees Neez's own design, with a compact torroidal mains transformer at the mains inlet end, and a circuit board carrying the rectifiers, smoothing capacitors and regulators at the other. The construction is very neat, although the mains safety earth is taken straight to the PSU circuit board rather than directly to the metal case — one of my pet hates. The case carries a CE marking, but has no manufacturer's rating plate, which, technically, would force a PAT-inspection failure!
The microphone itself is a thing of great beauty. Very U47-like in style and size, it features a shiny, nickel-plated grille and base cap, with a maroon-coloured metallic paint on the body. The head grille frame is apparently machined from a solid brass rod, and the brass-mesh pop-screen is soldered into place before the whole assembly is dull-nickel-plated, which helps to control the grille resonances. It is then bright-nickel-coated "to make it look pretty”. The body casing is machined from high-carbon tooling steel, which is very non-resonant and also provides excellent protection from electro-magnetic interference.
Once fully warmed up, which takes about 10 minutes or so, the Sally sounds quite bright and open at the top end, and with good clarity and a slight forwardness through the presence region, all balanced against a gently warmed lower mid-range and a powerful, extended bass response. The sound character leaves no doubt that this is a valve microphone, but the 'valve warmth' is subtle and the mic manages to sound quite modern and detailed at the same time as having a recognisably vintage character.
While it makes a fabulous vocal mic — lots of body, warmth, detail and presence combine to make the voice sound larger than life in an impressive and musical way — its character is also sufficiently controlled and benign to allow it to serve well as a general all-rounder. There are definite traits of U47 in the sound character, particularly in terms of the mid-range and bottom end, but the top-end detail and airiness is more akin to a mic such as the C12 or Telefunken 251.
I achieved great results using it to record an acoustic guitar and a cello, for example. It had enough presence to provide just the right amount of detail on the guitar, and it captured plenty of rich body with the cello. With all three sources (voice, acoustic guitar and cello), I didn't feel any EQ was required to tame or shape the sound — it was just 'right' as it was. And that's generally the sign of a good microphone, as far as I'm concerned.
There's no doubt that this is a lovely mic, both in the physical sense and in the auditory one. The construction is to very high standards, while the sound character is delightful as a vocal mic, and often excels as an instrument spot-mic too. I look forward to trying some more Bees Neez mics, and I'm sure we're going to be seeing a lot more of these mics from 'down under' in the months and years to come. This is a boutique well worth exploring!
The Sally is a kind of hybrid mix of characters, sharing similarities with both the AKG C12 and the Neumann U47, so alternative options really centre around other homages and replicas of these mics, as well as their more modern counterparts. The Brauner Valvet is an impressive-sounding and versatile mic that is worthy of consideration, and the Microtech Gefell M92.1S is a sublime microphone with similar characteristics to the Sally. The Manley Reference Mic might also suit, although it has quite a presence lift tailored for vocal work. The current Neumann M147 has a lineage going back to the U47, of course. The Peluso P12 is an homage to the C12 and represents good value for money, while the Telefunken AR51 and AK47 microphones offer the C12 and U47 character, respectively.