The Phantom is the first valveless mic from a company known for their top-quality valve designs. Will their solid-state debut make as good a name for itself?
Dirk Brauner Röhrengerätemanufaktur (the big word means 'tube equipment manufacturers') was a company set up originally to design and build specialist valve-based audio equipment, and to service and modify vintage pro-audio devices. I first came across Brauner microphones about five years ago when I reviewed the then-brand-new VM1 large-diaphragm capacitor mic — a hand-built capacitor microphone with a valve amplifier. Since that first, impressive, beginning the company's product portfolio has expanded to include a small range of models, all valve based until now.
The latest addition to the Brauner family is the new Phantom, a stylish externally-biased capacitor microphone which employs, for the first time in Brauner's catalogue, solid-state electronics. The external styling of the microphone is almost identical to Brauner's Valvet and it is supplied complete with a simple but brilliantly clever shock-mount design. In fact, the engineering of the whole microphone is typically Germanic: solid, efficient, reliable, and expensive — although, for a hand-built microphone of this quality, the UK pricing actually represents value for money if you can justify buying at this end of the market.
The capsule is the same as that used in all the Brauner models. However, the VM1 and Valvet use external power supplies, from which the polar pattern can be controlled (continuously variable in the case of the VM1, and switched between cardioid and omni in the Valvet). The Phantom requires no external PSU, so the body of the mic has been modified to incorporate two miniature toggle switches just below the grille. One selects from three polar patterns (omni, cardioid or figure-of-eight), while the second introduces a 10dB pad.
The microphone measures about 170mm in length and its body is almost a perfect cylinder, 50mm in diameter. A male output XLR is incorporated at the bottom of the body and a serial number (004 in the case of the review model) inscribed below the Brauner logo and model name, which also identify the front of the mic. The case has a plain silver-metal finish, and the capsule is protected behind a double-layer wire mesh grille which occupies the top third of the body.
The suspension cradle is constructed from pairs of upper and lower C-shaped arms, linked to each other by metal rods. The inner and outer cradle are coupled to each other via six rubber rings which provide the isolation. The inner arms wrap just beyond the half-way point of the microphone's circumference, so that the microphone snaps into place and is held firmly by the suspension rings. As I said, a very ingenious engineering solution.
The stand bracket is equally well engineered, with a long plastic lever arm to ensure that sufficient tension can be applied to the pivot lock. A 3/8-inch adaptor is supplied for the 5/8-inch standard threaded stand socket.
The technical specifications of the Phantom are every bit as impressive as you would expect from a company of Brauner's reputation. The microphone's internal amplifier draws a reasonable 4mA of current from the phantom power supply, and produces a self-noise of a very respectable 8dBA. The capsule can tolerate an SPL of 142dB for just 0.5 percent distortion, and provides a healthy output of 28mV/Pa. Frequency response is quoted as extending between 20Hz and 22kHz, although no limits are given. Since the capsule is the same as that in the Valvet, all the specs are identical between the two models, except that the Phantom's noise performance is 3dB better (see 'Valves Versus Solid State' box).
Dirk Brauner Röhrengerätemanufaktur was founded in 1995, although the roots of the business were planted two years earlier when Brauner, himself an experienced sound engineer, decided to design his own microphone. The early prototypes proved very successful and many other engineers expressed interest in the microphone, persuading Brauner to set up a manufacturing business. That first microphone became the VM1, and the initial batch of 20 were constructed entirely by hand in a barn near Hamminkeln in the Northwest Germany countryside, close to the border with the Netherlands. Half a decade later the company is still based in the same area and a new facility is currently under construction to expand the production capabilities.
The VM1 was born out of an almost fanatical drive to produce the best possible valve microphone regardless of cost, and although there are several candidates for that particular designation from both sides of the Atlantic, many engineers believe that Brauner achieved his goal. As the company has grown, some component manufacturing is outsourced and CNC-machined prior to final hand assembly. However, the very first units were literally and entirely hand-built, including the turning, milling, welding and engraving of the brass mic bodies. Even the satin sand-brushed nickel surfaces were finished by hand.
It took 18 months to sell the first 20 microphones, but those sales funded investment in test equipment and some essential manufacturing tools, which led on to the first serious production batch of 100 microphones. The company hasn't looked back since.
Like its bigger brothers, the Phantom has a larger-than-life character. This might sound like a sentence from a hi-fi magazine, but the output from this mic actually sounds large, with a warm, rich, full sound. It provides a wonderfully detailed and clear picture of the source, yet seems to be very musical, rather than analytical. The mic seems to have a very natural transparency of sound, and the nature of the electronics — solid state rather than valve — seems utterly irrelevant.
The mic has a strong proximity effect — again, like its siblings — and consequently tends to sound rather less impressive when used for distant miking than when used close or in the middle distance. I found that miking classical strings or a piano from about two metres was fine, but much further than that and it started to sound a little thin. In closer-miking applications the mic performed fantastically well, and I couldn't find anything it didn't suit, although I didn't feel I could subject it to the rigours of close-miked drums. Not because it wouldn't have coped — although the 10dB pad would have been a necessity — but because it seemed a cruel thing to inflict on such a beautiful microphone! However, since the Phantom possesses a good transient response, percussion and drum overhead applications are accommodated well. I also found that the Phantom captured the wood of acoustic guitars well, and seemed able to present the sound of the strings as a distinct, but integral element of the overall instrument.
Although the Phantom is 3dB quieter than Brauner's Valvet, using the same capsule, this is not quite the strong indication of solid-state superiority that it might first appear to be. Interestingly, the Phantom is only 1dB quieter than the original VM1, which also uses both the same capsule and the same EF732 valve as the Valvet.
The performance difference between the Valvet and the VM1 lies in the latter's use of point-to-point wiring instead of a PCB; a custom-made twin-core output transformer rather than a standard Lundahl unit; and a slightly different power supply design. It just goes to show that no matter what the active devices, there is just as much to be gained from careful component selection, circuit design and layout.
I guess the most likely application of this mic would be vocal recording, and I found it sounded phenomenal on both sexes. The sound, once again, is expansive and detailed, but without emphasis on mechanical noises. A decent pop-shield is required, as the proximity effect makes plosives quite dramatic, and also helps to keep the vocalist at a constant distance from the mic, which ensures a uniform bass lift.
The polar response switch is useful, although it produces quite big 'splats', so remember to turn down the monitoring when changing patterns. Like any large-diaphragm mic, the notional pattern has to be taken with a pinch of salt, as it varies considerably with frequency. At high frequencies, the omni pattern shows marked 'waists', for example, and the cardioid develops the usual rear tail. However, the figure-of-eight pattern provides a good degree of broad-band rejection to the sides, and overall the change in frequency response as you move off-axis around the mic in any pattern is smooth and progressive — meaning that it is usable in a creative way, and won't catch you out.
Brauner make very special microphones, and the Phantom is a welcome addition to the range. It manages to combine the best characteristics of the hand-built capsule with high-performance solid-state electronics. It's a very smooth-sounding mic, with a little more musicality than some of its rivals, which would include BLUE's Mouse, DPA's 4011 and the Neumann TLM170R — a quality field indeed!
- Rich, detailed and very musical sound.
- Excellent build quality.
- Ingenious shock mount.
- Most affordable of the Brauner range.
- Mics this good are always expensive.
A fabulously rich, sonorous, high-performance mic, with typically Germanic build quality and a larger-than-life sound quality.