This classy valve mic adds a little Manley magic to the C‑37 formula...
One of the longest‑established ‘boutique’ manufacturers in the business, Manley are perhaps best known for their outboard hardware. They take inspiration from vintage designs, and tend to favour valve circuits, but they don’t make clones or copies of older equipment. Original Manley products such as the Massive Passive equaliser and Variable Mu compressor have become bona fide classics, and for good reason.
A similar philosophy is apparent in Manley’s Reference range of microphones. Capsule manufacturing is a highly skilled and specialised art which is not currently part of Manley’s own operation, so they source capsules from third‑party suppliers; but although these capsules are based on classic designs from the likes of Neumann and AKG, the Reference microphones employ them in original configurations. Like Manley’s outboard, all are valve‑based.
Manley’s Reference Cardioid microphone boasts a Neumann‑style centre‑terminated capsule, while the Reference Gold uses a US‑made capsule based on the revered AKG ‘brass ring’ CK12. The Reference Silver is the latest addition to the line‑up, and employs a copy of the C3 capsule that was originally developed for the Sony C‑37 back in the ’50s. The same capsule is used in Mojave’s MA‑37, which I reviewed back in January this year; but whereas that mic is explicitly intended as an homage to the C‑37A, the Reference Silver is its own animal.
Manley have not sought to replicate the diminutive form factor of the C‑37, nor its distinctive grille pattern. Instead, the Silver uses the same body and grille as the other Reference models, and consequently, it’s a large and imposing mic with a very open headbasket. It also has a different and unusual circuit topology. Though it’s described as a “tube mic”, the Reference Silver is actually a hybrid design, which uses a FET as a constant current source in conjunction with a 6870 valve. This arrangement was chosen for its low noise and distortion — and also, presumably, for its headroom. One of the good qualities of the Sony‑style capsule is that it can handle immense sound pressure levels without folding, and Manley’s electronics are evidently able to keep up: the specifications quote a maximum SPL of 150dB, even though there’s no pad switch.
All of Manley’s Reference‑series mics and some of their outboard modules have recently been revised to use a new power supply, designed by Bruno Putzeys and Nand Eeckhout. This is a switch‑mode rather than linear design and can accept any 50 or 60 Hz AC input from 90 to 250 V without the user needing to change any settings. It’s also super‑efficient, drawing just 8 Watts, and Manley say that the design completely eliminates mains‑frequency ripple. A neat feature is the red power light, which illuminates brightly when the PSU is switched on, and glows more dimly when connected but switched off.
On The Case
The Reference Silver is supplied in a good‑quality hard plastic flightcase, with cutouts in the foam housing the power supply, cables and microphone. Cosmetically, it’s a bold design, with the Manley logo superimposed on a strikingly patterned housing. There are details that are arguably a bit crude on a mic at this price, such as the visible locking washers behind the bolts at the base, but the overall look is smart and individual, and should impress ‘the talent’. Its visual prominence is further increased by the shockmount, which is permanently attached to the mic and adds at least two inches to its diameter.
Two inner rings grip the body of the mic, and are connected by elastic hoops to five mounting points on the outer rings. These mounting points are secured by bolts which pass through the ring and into the rigid vertical poles that hold the frame together. A metal plate between the two rearmost poles contains a threaded hole, into which a stand adaptor is screwed.
This system seems effective at suppressing unwanted vibrations, but you could argue that it’s intrinsically unstable, since the mic is secured at a single point some inches behind its centre of gravity. Also, although the shockmount frame is rigid, it’s made of thin aluminium which is easily bent. I found this out to my cost when I removed the mic from its case one day to discover that the upper ring had become egg‑shaped; since it hadn’t been dropped or knocked over, I can only assume that the case had been closed a bit too enthusiastically and something inside had been trapped against the shockmount.
On the plus side, the rearward mounting point makes the mic more manouverable than you might expect. Manley suggest that the Reference Silver should be a good snare drum mic; to look at it, you’d think it would be hard to position in that role, but in practice it isn’t at all.
The Q&A section of Manley’s website says: “In 30+ years of producing microphones we have never provided plots and charts as we do not have an anechoic chamber or empirically correct measuring space that would give you useful charts. So we don’t provide half‑assed ones either.” It’s certainly true that frequency response charts can conceal as much as they reveal, so I have some sympathy with this point of view. That said, there are some world‑class test facilities in California that can be hired at reasonable rates, so my suspicion is that Manley want people to judge with their ears and not with their eyes.
The specs also omit a conventional self‑noise measurement, quoting only the (impressive) noise and distortion performance of the electronics. What we do learn is that the Reference Silver has an unusually low output impedance of 30Ω, and that the ‑3dB point for the 6dB/octave high‑pass filter is likewise unusually low, at 55Hz. There is a good reason for this, which I’ll come to shortly. Sensitivity is specified at 7mV/Pa, which is odd, as the review sample was clearly much hotter than this.
As on other C‑37‑derived mics, the capsule is mechanically switchable between cardioid and omni pickup patterns. Poking a key into the back of the headbasket to turn an internal shutter always feels a bit nerve‑wracking, and the more so in the case of the Reference Silver because the capsule has its own shockmount which wobbles around during the process. In general, though, the capsule mounting arrangement looks well thought‑out, with plenty of space around the capsule and a plastic dome beneath it to disperse reflections.
The Sound Of Silver
Although Manley don’t provide frequency response plots, they do say that the overall character of the Reference Silver is “on the rich and warm side”, and also that you might want to use it in situations where you’d naturally reach for a ribbon mic. As a point of reference, I dug out some recordings I had made with the Mojave MA‑37, which uses the same capsule and which undoubtedly has a warm sound with a soft midrange and a subdued top end. I also compared the Reference Silver directly with a variety of other capacitor mics, as well as doing some more controlled tests in a small anechoic chamber.
In use, the most striking thing about the sound of the Reference Silver is its bass response, which is not only prominent but also seems to extend practically to DC. Even when used at a distance in cardioid mode, where you might expect low frequencies to be attenuated, its sub‑100Hz response is absolutely thunderous. As a room mic on drums, for example, it may leave you feeling there’s no need to close‑mic the kick drum. The unusual high‑pass filter setting thus makes sense because without it, the Reference Silver picks up all sorts of subsonic thuds and rumbles. When the input meter on a DAW track reports significant activity even in an apparently quiet room, it’s not because the mic is noisy: it’s because it’s exposing the shortcomings of your studio soundproofing!
On vocals, the Reference Silver and the MA‑37 share a common quality in the low midrange which could fairly be described as warm, and can tip over into sounding woolly or bloated with some singers. Neither mic really suited my own voice, but both were good on female singers with a tendency to harshess.
It often shines on sources where you might not expect to use a premium valve mic at all...
A distinctive softness in the upper midrange seems to be another hallmark of the Sony capsule, and that is apparent here too. There’s smoothness in abundance, with none of the 2‑3 kHz ‘bite’ that you get from a U87 or similar mic. For this reason I particularly liked it on strummed acoustic guitar, where it produces a lovely rounded tone without any aggravating brassiness. And if you can conquer the fear factor involved in setting up a £4k mic next to a snare drum, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic snare sound (and a pretty good kick drum sound as a bonus, courtesy of that low end). It’s hard to describe such things in words, but if you prefer your snares to go ‘doosh’ rather than ‘donk’, you’ll be in heaven.
Where the Reference Silver seems to differ from the Mojave MA‑37 and many other Sony‑derived designs is further up the frequency spectrum. There is more going on from perhaps 5 or 6 kHz upwards, and especially above 10kHz. In fact, although I would describe the MA‑37 as a dark mic, the Reference Silver didn’t always strike me that way. On female voices, for example, sibilance was more obvious than it was on a U87, and there’s plenty of sparkle on offer on cymbals. I suspect that the much more open headbasket plays a role here, along with the different circuit topology and transformer.
Most studios are better off with a small number of high‑quality mics than with lots of cheap ones. Some people would go further and say that a mic locker should be built around one flagship, statement model. The Reference Silver is undoubtedly a high‑quality mic and it certainly makes a visual statement, but I suspect that Manley’s Reference Gold and Cardioid models are perhaps closer to most people’s idea of a ‘statement mic’. The Reference Silver can be a very good performer on vocals, but won’t necessarily give voices that larger‑than‑life quality you get from some valve mics. The flip side of that is that, like the MA‑37, it often shines on sources where you might not expect to use a premium valve mic at all: snare drums, electric guitars and so on. Whether you’d want it as your flagship might depend on how well it suits your own voice — but as a complement to a flagship Neumann‑ or AKG‑style valve mic I think it’d be an excellent choice.
- Combines the smoothness of the Sony C‑37A with a brighter, airier top end.
- Unusually deep low‑frequency response.
- Can accept huge sound pressure levels without a pad.
- A great close mic for snare drums, guitar amps and the like.
- Perhaps not the most versatile vocal mic.
- Shockmount is vulnerable to damage from clumsy reviewers!
Manley have adapted the classic Sony C‑37‑style capsule as the basis of a modern low‑noise, open‑sounding valve mic, with impressive results.
£4389 including VAT.
SX Pro +44 (0)800 6522 320.
Manley +1 909 627 4256.