SE’s partnership with Rupert Neve has yielded this impressive new transformer-equipped microphone. We put it to the test.
The SE RN17 came about as a collaboration between SE Electronics and British analogue design legend Rupert Neve, in which SE worked on the capsule and housing and Rupert Neve on the circuitry. This pairing has worked well before, most notably with the RNR1 ribbon microphone. Anyone familiar with Rupert Neve’s history will appreciate that high-quality audio transformers play a large part in his design ethos, and that accounts for the ‘bulge’ in the RN17 body. In fact SE claim that the SE RN17 is the world’s first pencil microphone to include such a large, hand-wound, audio transformer. In addition to adding to the sonic signature of the microphone, the transformer also allows the circuitry to have bags of headroom, making it useful in close proximity to loud instruments such as brass and drum kits.
We were sent the full stereo kit for review (though the microphones are also available individually), and as soon as you open the large camera case, everything within indicates quality. The included accessories comprise a stereo bar, custom shockmounts and a rather nice wooden box with foam lining for the two microphones (which are further protected by their own soft fabric bags). There’s also space in the case for two full sets of the optional interchangeable capsules, which come in tubular, chromed storage containers with the polar pattern engraved on the lid. (The capsules simply screw into place, with the thread providing the common connection, and a spring-loaded gold-plated pin in the centre of the mic body mating with a central conductor at the rear of the capsule.)
Measuring 44mm in diameter at its widest point and 200mm long (the capsule diameter is around 18mm), the mic body is finished in a matte black, slightly textured finish that has a rubbery feel — a common feature of all the Rupert Neve signature mics so far. The shockmount, which features a non-slip swivel joint, traps the microphone between a grid of elastic hoops, and while this method provides a useful degree of isolation, you really need to mount the mics slung beneath the mount rather than above, otherwise the weight of the mic can cause the mic body to touch the metal support of the mount. With mics of this calibre, though, you might want to think about treating yourself to some Rycote shockmounts.
The mic runs from standard 48V phantom power, and the frequency response of the cardioid capsule covers the expected 20Hz to 20kHz range. Its response is nominally flat, to produce a subjectively smooth and natural sound, but with a hint of sonic flattery courtesy of a very gentle bump high up in the response curve at around 10kHz. The sensitivity is 6mV/Pa. Individual response plots are included for both capsules, and these show a high degree of matching. An EIN (Equivalent Input Noise) level figure is quoted as 18dB A-weighted, and the maximum SPL handling is a massive 150dB. The A-weighted dynamic range is 131dB. While there are quieter pencil microphones, an EIN of 18dB is not untypical for a capsule of this size, and is certainly low enough to be insignificant for the majority of studio work. The high SPL rating may account for why the mics don’t have a pad switch, though the lack of a low-cut switch is harder to justify. Apparently there is an optional cardioid capsule with built-in low-cut, but I can’t help thinking that a general low-cut switch on the mic itself would have further added to its flexibility.
The cardioid capsule maintains a surprisingly even response almost as far as 90 degrees off-axis and also has very good rear rejection. These attributes help maintain separation in difficult situations where the consistent off-axis performance also contributes towards precise stereo imaging when the mics are used in pairs. We only had the cardioid capsules for review, but the specs for the other patterns look equally impressive.
A characteristic of all the capsules is that while they may start to roll off above 18kHz, there’s still useful sensitivity available up to 25kHz and beyond, which SE say helps maintain an open and natural sound quality.
On a subjective level, the RN17s do have something of a signature Neve sound, where the presence of a high-quality transformer seems to add a sense of weight and solidity to the sound without actually changing the tonal balance in any obvious way — rather like running a signal through a good analogue console. Lows remain deep and controlled while the highs are smooth yet don’t in any way lack detail or definition. In contrast with mics that have a hyped high end, the RN17s might at first seem a little tame, but as you continue to work with them you realise that they are giving you just what you need.
On spoken word the cardioid-pattern capsule provides a well-rounded clean sound that lacks any high-end scratchiness, while on instruments such as acoustic guitar it captures the sound pretty much as the player hears it without the boxy or phasey characteristics some mics tend to bring out. Again the string articulation sounds smooth and clean, but there’s still great clarity — you might say the mic has an excellent sense of focus. This holds up when the RN17s are used as stereo pairs, though with only the cardioid capsules to try, my tests were limited to X-Y and ORTF spaced cardioid configurations.
Of equal importance is the fact that if you do need to EQ the sound to make it fit your mix, the highs still stay smooth in rather the same way as you might expect when applying top boost to a good ribbon mic. This can’t always be said for mics that have a deliberately forward voicing, as the highs can easily become aggressive and fatiguing when you apply EQ. Similarly, the large transformer gives these mics plenty of headroom so you’re very unlikely to overload them.
As with the other SE Rupert Neve signature microphones, the RN17s bring something new to the table offering high-end performance combined with solid build quality. They are not cheap by any means but are still competitively priced against other serious microphones. If you find yourself in need of a versatile microphone for recording acoustic instruments, from acoustic guitars to drum overheads, the RN17s will do nicely.
If you only need a cardioid pattern then the Neumann KM184 is still the go-to pencil mic for many professionals (also look at the Sennheiser MKH series), but if you want interchangeable capsules plus the sound of a full-scale audio transformer, then the RN17s have little or no competition.
- Elegantly engineered.
- Smooth and classy sound.
- The price may be on the high side for many private studio owners.
Once again the SE/Rupert Neve partnership has produced a quality product that challenges existing ideas. The large audio transformer seems to have paid off, providing a solid sound and a silky high end.
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