Valve mics have become a 'must have' for many serious project studios, and just as the influx of Russian, East German and Chinese capacitor mics brought down the cost of owning a good solid-state studio microphone by a factor of around 10, the same thing is now happening with valve mics. Already we have affordable valve models from most of the major European manufacturers, as well as from companies like Rode, Red5 Audio, and Studio Projects, but SE Electronics have also now entered this market with guns blazing. Their new Z5600 tube model has the benefits of multi-pattern operation, yet it costs just under £400 in the UK!
The Z5600 is a large-diaphragm model with a 1.07-inch gold-sputtered diaphragm, and it offers a choice of nine polar patterns from omni to figure-of-eight, via all the cardioid permutations. There are no switches at all on the mic --there are no pad or roll-off switches anywhere in fact -- and the rotary pattern switch is on the power-supply box.
A standard and easily replaceable 12AX7 valve is used to amplify the signal from the capsule before feeding it out via a balancing transformer, and access to the valve is simply a case of unscrewing the base of the microphone body. The microphone comes in a rather nice foam-lined aluminium camera case, with a reassuringly hefty shockmount and the necessary multi-pin XLR lead to connect the mic to the included power supply.
According to the manufacturers, the choice of a slightly larger diaphragm provides fatter bottom-end response and increased sensitivity. They also claim that the use of a 12AX7 valve in this specific circuit configuration provides a very low self-noise rating for a valve microphone, specified as 16dBA.
On paper, the Z5600 has a fairly typical sensitivity for a mic of this type (12mV/Pa) and a nominal frequency response extending from 20Hz to 20kHz. This isn't flat, as there's a definite presence peak which changes magnitude slightly depending on what pattern is chosen. Although there's no pad switch, the total harmonic distortion at 130dB is only 0.5 percent, so there are few natural sound sources that will overwhelm it.
Mechanically, the mic seems to be very well put together and is neatly finished with a plated, machined metal body and a machined end cap protecting the innards. The XLR pins are gold plated, and the capsule is protected from damage and RF interference by a tough steel grille with a finer grille inside that can help prevent popping. Internally, the circuitry is mounted on a double-sided, glass-fibre circuit board secured to a folded metal chassis. The components look like good-quality, non-esoteric types and the style of construction suggests that some or all of the microphone is made in China.
The PSU is built into a steel box with a mains socket and power switch at one end, and XLRs for the mic input and balanced three-pin XLR output at the other, along with the rotary pattern switch. Because tube mics have their own power supplies (apart from a very small number that use miniature hearing-aid tubes capable of working from regular phantom power), no 48V powering is required.
One thing I have noticed about this valve mic and other models of a similar construction is that you have to be pretty careful when plugging in the special mic cable, as the pins are much thinner and more numerous than on a three-pin XLR. I haven't had any disasters yet, but it pays to line up the connectors visually before pushing them home.
The shockmount has a threaded base into which the bottom of the mic can be screwed, and the suspension uses fabric-covered elastic hoops, two spares of which are included with the kit. A simple wing nut clamps the swivelling stand adaptor, and, though this seems both tough and secure, longer wings would have made effective tightening a little easier.
Like most reasonably well-designed valve mics, the Z5600 is pretty quiet when used for close sound sources, but it is, not surprisingly, noticeably noisier than the best solid-state mics. For the best results, the mic needs to warm up for at least half an hour before use, and ideally for an hour, something common to all valve mics. The intended application for this type of microphone is studio vocal and instrument recording, and in that application the noise performance is absolutely fine.
Compared to my Rode NTK, the Z5600 seems just a hint more sensitive, and it has a more pronounced presence, which is not surprising as a deliberate presence peak is built into its response curve. This presence improves articulation in some situations, but the other side of the coin is that it can detract slightly from the smoothness of tone, and the density of the sound seems slightly less than I get from the NTK. Neither is right or wrong -- as ever you have to pick the character of mic that best suits your needs, and I found nothing to dislike in the overall tonality of the Z5600. If anything, the manufacturers have erred on the side of caution in not hyping the valve sound too much, which is a good thing, as there's nothing worse than a 'forced' valve sound.
Checking out the different patterns showed a decently consistent tonality provided that you work at a great enough distance to avoid the proximity effect which affects the cardioid and figure-of-eight patterns, so if you try to make a judgement when working very close to the mic, the omni pattern will always seem bass light in comparison to the cardioid. Also, as expected, the omni pattern is less perfect than you'd expect from a small-diaphragm mic or a fixed-pattern omni, something that shows up as a slight dulling of the high end when you're 90 degrees off axis. The response returns to normal at 180 degrees off axis.
My overall impression is of a well-built, workhorse of a mic that has a versatile, fairly neutral tonality with just a hint of added presence. This lack of a specific sound makes it more versatile in those situations where you have to deal with different singers, but the possible downside is that it might sound less 'valve-like' than a valve mic with a more obvious character.
On balance I liked this mic, as it combines a good standard of build quality and finish with a musically believable, solid sound. It should also not be overlooked that the Z5600 is a very classy-looking mic, something that might be relevant if you have clients to impress! On top of that, it's pretty affordable and comes with a very substantial case and a fine shockmount. If you're looking for a multi-pattern valve mic, this is probably the least expensive around right now. However, if you only need a mic with a cardioid pattern then you could pick up something cheaper that will do that job.