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Warm Audio WA-87

Large-diaphragm Capacitor Microphone
Published December 2017
By Sam Inglis

Warm Audio WA‑87

Warm Audio’s new mic is claimed to offer the sound of an original Neumann U87 at a fraction of the price. Does it succeed?

Demand for items of classic studio hardware is high and supplies are low, meaning that the originals are out of reach to many home and project-studio owners. This situation has created a niche for companies like Warm Audio and Golden Age, who use low-cost Far Eastern manufacturing to bring replicas of this gear to market at much more affordable prices. Thus far, Warm Audio have focused mainly on studio outboard, but the WA‑87 is their first foray into the world of microphones.

There are no prizes for guessing which classic item of studio hardware the WA‑87 recreates. Introduced in 1967 as a solid-state successor to the equally classic U67, the Neumann U87 is a microphone that properly deserves the term ‘iconic’. It is still a market-leading product 50 years later, but today’s U87Ai is the result of a 1986 design revision, and differs from the original in various respects that some people think are significant.

The original U87 used the 48V phantom power supply to polarise the capsule directly, and as a consequence, the electrical design of the capsule had to be modified slightly compared with that of the U67, to isolate the front and rear backplates. This revised capsule was called the K87. However, in the U87Ai a DC-to-DC converter was added, which allowed Neumann to revert to using the original K67 capsule found in the U67 (which was redesignated the K870), and also to raise the polarisation voltage to 60V, delivering a 3dB improvement in signal-to-noise ratio and a hotter output.

Some feel that in making these modifications, Neumann compromised the sound of the original U87, and there are those who say that the Ai version is slightly harsh or brittle in comparison. This point of view is by no means universally held, but Warm Audio have used it to justify their decision to copy what is, arguably, a current product from another manufacturer’s catalogue. In short, Warm Audio say that the WA‑87 recreates the special qualities of the original, no-longer-made U87.

Diet Of Warms

Like the U87 and the U87Ai, the WA‑87 is a large-bodied, large-diaphragm capacitor microphone with three switchable polar patterns — cardioid, omni and figure-8 — plus a 10dB pad and a low-cut filter turning over at 80Hz. With its characteristic wedge-shaped headbasket, the microphone’s physical design is obviously indebted to the Neumann original, but you don’t have to inspect it very closely to see that it’s not a U87. The most obvious difference is the finish, which is much shinier than that of any Neumann I’ve seen, and, if I’m honest, looks a bit cheap. Warm Audio have also used a conventional three-way toggle switch in place of the sliding polar pattern selector on the original. For situations where phantom power wasn’t available, the pre-1986 version of the U87 had a battery compartment. This required specialist batteries that are now hard to find, so it’s not surprising that Warm Audio have left it out.

Warm Audio are hardly the first to copy the one-inch, centre-terminated, dual-backplate capsule Neumann developed for the U67 and related microphones: the design has been a staple of Far Eastern mic manufacture ever since companies like Rode first brought affordable capacitor mics to market in the ’90s. However, what some manufacturers failed to account for was that the frequency response of the capsule itself shows a strong high-frequency pre-emphasis. In Neumann’s own mics, this is tamed electrically to deliver a broadly flat overall frequency response, but many early Chinese-made mics used simpler electronics that failed to equalise the HF lift, and thus gained a reputation for sounding harsh and over-bright.

Although there are plenty of cheap K67 and K87 replicas available off the shelf, Warm Audio have chosen to produce their own recreation. It too is made in China, but under the important-sounding Germanic brand name of Lens Kondensator, and it apparently features a diaphragm made from “new old stock Japanese mylar”. Naturally, they have also closely recreated the original U87 circuit, using a Cinemag USA transformer and what are described as “all discrete, premium components” (since the U87 itself has never used any integrated circuits, it’s hard to see how else you could do it!). There is, though, a noticeable difference in sensitivity between the WA‑87 and the U87, with the Warm mic’s output being several dB hotter.

87 Varieties

Until last year, I was the proud owner of a very nice-sounding original Neumann U87. However, pride comes before a fall, and owning vintage mics can be an expensive business. As is not unusual in a 40-year-old mic that has seen plenty of use, the capsule failed, and on the advice of Funky Junk’s mic repair team, I opted not to have it replaced with a new K87 from Neumann, but with an older K87 re-skinned by Thiersch Elektroakustik in Germany. This was a significantly less expensive option, but has undeniably changed the sound of the microphone: it’s brighter and perhaps superficially more exciting than it used to be, but I’m not convinced I like it as much.

For comparison, I also had available an unmolested U87 and a Neumann U77. The latter is a much less common solid-state derivative of the U67 which works on 12V T-power rather than phantom power; employing the K67 capsule and 60V polarisation through a DC-to-DC converter, it arguably has more in common with the current U87Ai than with the U87, the main difference being that the U77 is transformerless. Nevertheless, I’ve always found that it sounds extremely similar to a good U87.

Is It Warm Yet?

As I tested the WA‑87 against these three Neumanns, a consistent pattern emerged. The original U87 and the U77 sounded very similar to one another, and both had the character I’d hope and expect to find in a classic Neumann large-diaphragm mic. By this I mean that although the top end is full and present and can be brought out with EQ if needs be, it’s the mid-range that really strikes the ear. What’s special about these mics is the richness and command with which they present the 100Hz-3kHz region: voices sound detailed and authoritative, drums sound punchy and powerful, and electric guitars snap and snarl.

By contrast, both the WA‑87 and the re-skinned U87 had a subtly different tonality. Although both were good, versatile microphones that worked well on a lot of different sources, both were also noticeably brighter than the ’70s Neumann originals. You wouldn’t call them overbearing or harsh, or even particularly bright compared with lots of other capacitor mics, but they hovered on the tipping point where high-frequency sparkle began to dominate over mid-range heft. When I added an exaggerated high-frequency shelving boost at mixdown, the WA‑87 started to sound gritty before the genuine Neumanns, but no such artifacts were noticeable within the bounds of normal use.

The difference was more audible on some sources than others. In some cases they were pretty much interchangeable, while on acoustic guitar, for example, I might actually prefer the added gloss of the WA‑87 over the bite of an original U87. However, there are plenty of other bright and sparkly mics available for recording acoustic guitars, whereas in my experience there are very few capacitor mics that offer the same mid-range beef as the U87. The differences in this department were most obvious when I tried the mics on drums and percussion. Used as an overhead, the original U87 delivered a chunky, powerful snare drum sound, while the WA‑87 sounded thin in comparison; and on hand percussion it sounded a little tizzy while the U87 remained smooth.

All of these comparisons were subjective rather than scientific, but they suggest a couple of interesting conclusions. One is that the transformer perhaps doesn’t always have as much influence on the sound of a microphone as it is sometimes credited with; at any rate, the transformerless U77 sounded more similar to the original U87 than either the re-skinned U87 or the WA‑87 did. The other is that for all the work rival manufacturers have put into copying and re-skinning Neumann’s capsule designs, they still haven’t quite managed to recreate the special qualities of a 40-year-old original. Are those qualities just the result of ageing, or are there still aspects of Neumann’s own manufacturing process that no-one has yet successfully replicated? My money’s on the latter, but it would be fascinating to hear how the WA‑87 would sound if it could be fitted with a new Neumann K87.

I should also point out that there is some variability even within the sound of new U87s. The frequency response of the K870 capsule is specified within a tolerance of ±2dB, so in theory, two Neumann capsules could differ by as much as ±4dB across the frequency range and still be within factory specs.

Does It Matter?

Everything about the WA‑87’s marketing demands that it be judged primarily on how well it mimics the Neumann U87. You could argue that this just sets the WA‑87 up to fail, because it challenges everyone to pit it against the original in exactly the way I’ve done. Anyone who compares the two on enough sources will surely hear a difference sooner or later, and the WA‑87’s positioning as a U87 clone means that any difference we do hear will be experienced as a negative. This positioning also makes me a little uncomfortable from an ethical point of view. It’s one thing to clone a Pultec or Fairchild, where the original manufacturers are long gone and the designs are more or less in the public domain, but quite another to ride on the coat-tails of something that remains a market-leading product with only minor variations.

However, if you can free yourself from the mindset that sees the WA‑87 as good or bad only inasmuch as it matches or doesn’t match the U87, I think it has the potential to be a useful, versatile studio mic in its own right. A good audio engineer doesn’t choose mics because of the name on the badge but because they are well suited to the voice or instrument being recorded, and there are lots of situations where the WA‑87 will prove a good choice. Although it lacks some of that special Neumann authority in the mid-range, it nevertheless works well on a wide range of sources. The original U87 was designed as a studio all-rounder, and even though the WA‑87 might not always sound exactly the same, it can certainly fulfil the same role. It’s also a great deal cheaper!  

The Real Thing

There is plenty of demand for original U87s, to the point where second-hand prices are noticeably higher than those commanded by the current U87Ai version. Depending on condition you can expect, at the time of writing, to pay anywhere from £1500 to £2000 or more for a U87 in good working order. The mic is relatively easy to work on and all components are available as spare parts, but they are not cheap, so buying a broken one in order to have it fixed up is not always an economic alternative. The inclusion of non-original parts, especially a third-party or re-skinned capsule, will have a significant impact on value.

If you are comparing the relative costs of the WA‑87 and the U87, one factor that needs to be taken into account is the supplied accessories. Warm Audio’s version includes a very nice wooden box, plus equivalents of the Neumann EA87 elastic shockmount and SG287 swivel mount too. Most of the U87s you see on the second-hand market don’t come with the Neumann originals, which are notoriously pricey to buy separately, and are only included with a new U87Ai if you buy the more expensive Studio Set package.

Published December 2017