Sony’s latest microphone makes their C‑series magic more affordable than ever.
Sony have made great studio microphones since the ’50s, but in the West at least, they’ve sometimes been better at designing them than at marketing them. Models such as the C48 and C38 haven’t always been easy to discover or buy, and even the flagship C800G valve mic has been an elusive beast in recent years.
In 2018, the Japanese electronics giant tried to change this, rebooting their studio mic range with three entirely new models. The ECM‑100U and ECM‑100N are small‑diaphragm ‘pencil’ mics, whilst the C100 is a more unusual design that features a second capsule mounted directly above the first, in order to capture ultrasonic frequencies. Intended as a studio all‑rounder, the Sony C100 offers switchable polar patterns, plus a pad and a low‑pass filter. I reviewed it in February 2018 and came away impressed.
However, although the C100 is less costly than the U87s of this world, it’s still quite a bit more expensive than typical project‑studio mics, and probably out of the reach of some potential customers. Enter the new C80: a simplified, cardioid‑only version of the C100 without the ultrasonic capsule, at a much lower price.
With its businesslike, black shell, the new mic looks very similar to the C100, except that it’s about half an inch shorter. Build quality appears equally good, and the C80 comes in a robust padded case. It comes with a fitted shockmount, which seems reasonably heavy‑duty even though it’s made almost entirely of plastic, but unfortunately there’s no room for this in the case. The C80 retains the C100’s low‑cut filter and 10dB pad.
One surprising feature of the C100 was its self‑noise, which is specified at 19dBA in cardioid mode and more in the other polar patterns. This is an unusually high measurement for a modern solid‑state mic, but self‑noise wasn’t at all problematic in use, which made me wonder whether the second capsule was somehow being factored into the noise calculation, even though A‑weighting should see ultrasonic noise largely discounted. The C80’s specs lend some weight to this idea, as the quoted self‑noise is only 12.5dBA. In other respects, its performance is very close to that of the C100 in cardioid, with the same 90Ω impedance and a fairly high sensitivity of ‑30dB referenced to 1V/Pa, which is equivalent to 31.6mV/Pa. The C80 will accept up to 138dB SPL before 1% distortion is reached.
One of the main factors that affects self‑noise is diaphragm size, and this is probably why the C80 doesn’t quite achieve the same inky‑black quietness as, say, the Neumann TLM103 or the Rode NT1. The transducer used here and as the main element in the C100 is a conventional dual‑sided, externally polarised, circular capacitor capsule which is described as being 25mm in diameter — almost exactly one inch. However, this measurement seems to refer to the capsule as a whole rather than just the active membrane area, and it’s clearly smaller than a typical ‘one‑inch’ capsule. A better comparison might be the medium‑sized capsules used in mics like the Neumann TLM107.
You’d expect the C80 to sound very similar to the C100 in cardioid mode, and although I didn’t have a C100 around for side‑by‑side trials, it certainly matched my memory of that mic. No frequency response graph is available, but losing the ultrasonic capsule doesn’t seem to have affected the C80’s ability to capture high‑frequency content in the audio range. I tested it alongside various rivals including an Austrian Audio OC16, which is itself not shy in the highs. In every case, there was measurably more energy above 10kHz in the signal captured by the C80. This was confirmed at Xaudia’s anechoic chamber, where we compared it with older Sony mics including the C48, C36P and C450, which likewise has a medium‑sized capsule. None of the older models showed the same emphasis in the top octave. (This measurement also showed that the C80 high‑pass filter is quite gentle, being only a few dB down at 50Hz.)
Because it’s a very clean‑sounding mic, with no transformer or other potential source of saturation, the additional energy at the very top is heard more as extra detail and not so much as a change to the timbre of vocals or acoustic instruments.
Yet, just like the C100, the C80 pulls off the neat trick of not sounding unbalanced or subjectively bright. This, I think, is because its response is impressively flat and pure through the midrange, especially in the crucial presence region. As it’s a very clean‑sounding mic, with no transformer or other potential source of saturation, the additional energy at the very top is heard more as extra detail and not so much as a change to the timbre of vocals or acoustic instruments. On male vocal, for example, the OC16 came across as the brighter of the two, although its peak is an octave lower, and the C80 actually seems to throw more emphasis on the 1‑2 kHz region. I really liked this character on my own voice, and if you do feel the need for more of a push in the treble, it will respond well to EQ. The flip side of this is that you might need to take care recording anything that already has a lot of energy above 10kHz: cymbals, for example, and some female vocals.
I sometimes wonder how often people really use multi‑pattern mics in patterns other than cardioid. Big studios will have dedicated omni and figure‑8 models available when needed, and in small studios, opening up the pattern risks capturing more of an imperfect room. When your sonic diet mainly comprises close‑miked vocals, acoustic instruments and guitar amps, the C100’s extra polar patterns and ability to capture frequencies above 30kHz perhaps aren’t very relevant. For those who only ever record in cardioid, at standard sample rates, the C80 sounds just as good, has better specifications in some respects, and is less than half the price. This is a very good mic for the money!
The cardioid‑only C80 offers the same classy sound as the much more expensive C100 in a very affordable package.