I recently had the opportunity to test one of the Superlux R102 ribbon mics that was released last year. This mic was my first experience with a ribbon microphone. As many readers, I had looked at ribbons with a bit of mystique as far as their sound reputation. Likewise, my head had been full of the issues of using a ribbon; the need for lots of gain, the high cost and the fragility. Frankly, at a cost of only around $150 (street), I was more than a little skeptical.
From a technical perspective, the mic is surprising. It comes packaged in a very sturdy, well padded case. It includes a metal yoke mount and a cable. My understanding is that the cable is only foil shielded, but as it is a standard XLR, you are free to use you own higher quality cable, if desired. The mic itself is a solidly built metal body and grill, and was surprisingly heavy. You definitely want to use a stand that has a wide enough and/or heavy enough base to avoid tipping. There is a spider mount available, but it was not included in my evaluation unit.
There are two issues that deserve special mention in the design of this mic. First, the ribbon is in a field serviceable module. This means that all you have to do to replace a ribbon is order the replacement, open the mic and swap the part. You won’t have to send it out for re-ribboning. The second point to note is that this ribbon requires phantom power. This is the exact opposite of a typical ribbon mic. Normally, phantom power is the death of a ribbon mic, but in this case it is required to power the active electronics in the mic. Also note that as a result, the is no external power or amplifier with this mic.
In use, the mic was no more difficult than a normal condenser The yoke mount included allow easy and secure placement. Due to the weight, I did make sure that I had a bit of extra weight on the stands – just in case. I found that it did want a bit more gain than most of the large diaphragm condensers I compared it against, but I still set the gain lower than I would have had for a dynamic mic. As with all ribbon mics, the R102 is a figure eight pattern. I didn’t notice a significant difference between the front and back lobes.
I was able to test the mic in a variety of environments and against a variety of mics. I’ll note the specific configurations for each test. My evaluations are not against other ribbons – most of us (myself included) don’t have access to a suite of Coles or RCA’s or AEA’s – but hopefully this will make the comparisons a bit more realistic and less “theoretical.”
My first test was using a male bass voice with spoken word. This voice was has worked professionally radio and voiceover. It was tested using Yamaha MG series preamps and compared to an AKG C414. The AKG captured all the richness and detail of his voice. It was very clean and accurate. I figured it would be no contest. Surprise! True, it did not have quite as much detail, but there was a warmth and smoothness that blew away both me and the artist. The R102 outdid a studio mic that was nearly 10x the price. We thought it was a fluke, but a second recording was just as superior.
I next tried it on a soprano – also a trained voice. I also tried this test against the C414. I also compared it to the Superlux Pro238mkII. This time I used it on my Tascam board, which has nice pre’s. We recorded “Love In Any Language” which pushes the full range of the vocalist (and yes, my wife *can* hit the high C). While recording, I was listening in the headphones, and heard the same smoothness and warmth as before. Against the Pro238mkII it was warmer, smoother and richer, as I expected. It did share that pleasant darkness that seems to be a trademark of the Superlux mics I’ve tested lately. In saying this, remember the Pro238 is a great mic – the one we tested against is my wife’s personal vocal mic. Against the AKG C414, my wife’s comment sums it up, “That dishonest. I don’t sound that good.” Again, the R102 beat the C414 for warmth and smoothness. In this test, I made another interesting discovery about the R102: it’s not quite as responsive as the C414. This did not mean that I didn’t capture the full sound, rather it meant that the mic was more forgiving. One downside of the C414 is its extreme accuracy. If there is the slightest variation in your intonation, it goes to tape. The Superlux did not have this behavior. It recorded faithfully, but without the irritating “oopses” you get when sight reading a difficult song.
Overall, I was *extremely* impressed by the R102 on voice. I plan to get one of my own for vocals, not because of price, but because it sounds so darn good.
Next, still on the Tascam board, I tested it on the bassoon against the AKG C414. Now, for those who don’t know, the bassoon is a duecedy tricky instrument to mic. It is long, dark and throws harmonics all over the place. Here, the R102 pretty much fell apart. The slower response and “thickness” that is part of the ribbon’s nature simply couldn’t handle the all the harmonics that a bassoon puts out and the result was a very muddy, cluttered recording By contrast, the C414 caught the full sound of the bassoon, included the darkness and “ring” of a top-end instrument without the slightest trace of mud. To do a bit of extrapolation, my wife double on sax and generally I find that if I like a mic on bassoon, I like it on sax. If I don’t like it on bassoon, I generally don’t like it on sax. So, I would probably not even try the R102 on sax. I have since heard a demo recording on a tenor sax and found that it did seem a bit muddier than my ear cares for. The one woodwind that I would be curious about its sound is the clarinet. I suspect the R102 may do well on the clarinet, particularly in a solo jazz or blue setting. If I get the opportunity to test a clarinet. I will pass along my thoughts.
The last test was on acoustic guitar. This test was done with Presonus preamps on a Mac. I A-B tested against the AKG C414, a Rode NTK and the Superlux S241. The Guitar was a Taylor Concert Grand. We did not use the built-in pre of the guitar. Let’s rule out the Rode right now. The sound was harsh and one-dimensional. It did not suit guitar at all. The AKG C414 was simply amazing, which was to be expected. It caught the full sound of the instrument with a near perfect balance between attack, swell and decay. The R102 by contrast was incredibly smooth. It gave the guitar an almost “Les Paul”-ish sound. It was a very mellow, nice sound. There was little to no bite in the attack and the chords just flowed from one to another. Compared to the S241, the R102 had a richer, thicker (but not muddy) sound. It had a better sustain and decay, and was (of course) much smoother. The S241 did capture the attack much better. While I did like the C414 better, I would certainly not reject the R102 by any means! Just one more note. A common technique when recording guitar is to simultaneously record the line out, if you have a built-in pre-amp or even to use a second mic. In the case of the R102, when combined with the S241 the results were jaw dropping. The clarity and attack of the instrument mic combined perfectly with the rich smoothness of the ribbon mic to give a sound that was simply beautiful I would fully expect the same results if I had used the guitar’s own pre. I still liked the C414 better, but the combo was good enough to make even a picky guitarist quite happy. Happy enough that the R102 ended up with her. She additionally reports that she has had excellent results with it in recording her gospel trio.
To summarize, the Superlux R102 ribbon mic is an excellent sounding and well built mic. It excels in recording vocals doing a consistently superior job to my AKG C414. It also did an outstanding job on guitar alone and with a secondary mic, depending on the particular sound you are trying to get. On winds, however, it sounded too muddy for me to want to use. If you want to experience the unique pleasures of a ribbon mic without breaking your bank account, or if you want a good vocal or guitar recording mic at an amazing price, you really want to give this mic a close look. And as always, don’t let this or any review replace your own ears.