Friday, September 21, 2012

Not Your Father's AKG C 414 XLS and XL II



For the last ten years, established microphone companies have had to find a way to fill the product lines with low cost mics to meet lowball trigger prices. 

Something has to get lost when you're forced to make mics that cost 1/2 to 1/4 of the standard line. It's not all bad though. 

That challenge teaches you how to economize and streamline manufacturing procedures. But in the end, you're making hamburgers and hotdogs instead of steakI'd like to think we're coming out of that dark period and that the lessons we learned will result in better microphones. 

I see these two new AKG C 414B mics as evidence that this is true. Technically, this new breed of C414B is more sensitive, has less selfnoise, has better capsule isolation and has more features.


Application: Studio and live recordings or PA.
Key Features: Five patterns, multiple roll-offs and pads, low selfnoise, high sensitivity, includes suspensionmount, pop filters and hard case.
Price: $999 for the XLS, $1,099 for the XLII

Even better, the price ($999 for the XLS, $1,099 for the XLII) has actually gone down rather than up, especially if you consider the total package. The hard case comes with a compartment for the PF 80; a 16 inch long flex arm with circular pantyhose type pop filter and boom arm mounting bracket. A standard, low profile W 414X slip on pop filter is also included as is the H 85 suspension mount. Bottom line; you don't need to pay extra for these functional accessories. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Headgrille of both the XLS and XL II (silver front grille and gold front grille, respectively) are slightly wider and taller than the older models to accommodate the new capsule suspension mount. AKG has made major advancements in acoustical isolation of the capsule. That was made alarmingly apparent by tapping on my older B-ULS. The stunning difference points to the absolute necessity of the suspension mount when using the older model.

The Headgrille of both the XLS and XL II (silver front grille and gold front grille, respectively) are slightly wider and taller than the older models to accommodate the new capsule suspension mount. AKG has made major advancements in acoustical isolation of the capsule. That was made alarmingly apparent by tapping on my older B-ULS. The stunning difference points to the absolute necessity of the suspension mount when using the older model.


UNDER THE HOOD
Dismantling the mics reveals that AKG has come up with some new tricks. In addition to SMT (surface mount technology) for the three circuit boards, the pattern, high-pass and pad buttons on the case are mechanical tabs that clip on to the inner assembly. The real controls are soldered onto one of the three internal circuit boards. You press the tab and it moves to press the switching controls. These new controls also mean you'll never rip another fingernail while changing pattern, pad or EQ positions on a C 414. The three printed circuit boards are interconnected by gold-plated multipin connectors.


A SENSITIVE NEW AGE MIC
Both new models use the same circuit boards; only the capsules differ. According to AKG, both mics have the AKG response dimple (about a 2 dB dip between 1500 - 2000 Hz). 

The XLS has a mostly linear response. The XL II has a broad rise in the upper midrange. Instruments miced at a distance can also benefit from this "acoustical EQ" since it restores frequencies lost in propagation. Both models are about 5 dB more sensitive than my older C-414 B-ULS; a -38dBv versus -33dBV open circuit sensitivity. 

When trimming two channels of GML mic pre to equal levels, the newer mics exhibited noticeablyless selfnoise. That difference falls into line with the published 6 dB-A selfnoise figure. That makes the new mics both quieter and more sensitive than their predecessors.

The new C 414B have five patterns instead of four. The extra pattern is a wide cardioid that's wider than the standard cardioid. The new pattern switching circuitry takes about ten seconds to change patterns. There is a click heard when switching from cardioid to hypercardioid and from cardioid to wide cardioid, but it's much less offensive than the relatively loud THUMP in the older model.

The new mics offer more pad choices. Whereas the older C 414s only employed a -10 dB and -20 dB pad, the new mics provide -6 dB, -12 dB and -18 dB. Padding is achieved, not by adding resistance before or after the FET, but by lowering the voltage on the capsule. 

Whereas the older models' high pass filters were set at 75 Hz and 150 Hz, the XLS offers more usable 40 Hz (with a knee at 50 Hz), 80 Hz (with a knee at 100 Hz) and 160 Hz (with a knee at 200 Hz). In omni, the frequency response plots of both mics are very similar.


On the way from omni to figure of eight the XL II steadily increases in high frequency response until it shows a broad plateau with a +5 dB peak at 6 kHz. Proximity effect for both mics, while in directional patterns, starts at about seven inches in cardioid, a bit further out in figure of eight. 

At a foot, while the increased brightness of the XL II is not so apparent in wide a cardioid, it becomes increasingly apparent though cardioid, hypercardioid and figure of eight. 


Move out to about three feet and the air attenuates the high frequencies. The XLS remains flatter through its pattern shifts.

LED PEAK FLASHER
A thoughtful added function of these mics is that the polar pattern LEDs will blink red for .3 seconds if the sound level exceeds 2 dB below clipping. Of course, the position of the mic might not make that LED visible. 

The LEDs won't light if phantom power isn't present, which is a good way to let you know if there's a problem with your phantom supply. If phantom power is removed, the mic will remember all of it's settings and return tothem when phantom power is restored. You can "lock" all three mic switch settings so they can't be changed by holding down the pattern switch for about 3 seconds. 

The display will blink red once and you're locked. The only disconcerting part of that operation is that the pattern appears to change from the one you wanted when you push the pattern switch and hold it. While the display does move to the next pattern, after three seconds the red LED lights under the pattern you started with and it is replaced by a green LED.

THE MATING GAME
Some engineers don't like the C 414 because it sounds too bright, too zippy, too edgey. In an effort to get to the bottom of these comments, I've found that the C 414 mates remarkably better with some preamps than with others. Extended experiments with my GML, Aphex 1100 and Millennia Media STT-1 preamps recording acoustic guitar and vocals proved the right preamp makes a big difference. 

Even with the brighter XL II in its brightest figure of eight pattern, the GML and Aphex were both very smooth and thick sounding. The Millennia Media STT-1 was smooth with just a hint of edge. A Focusrite Red 2 (transformer) and Yamaha 02R (no transformer) preamp sounded harsh by comparison. Go figure. It would be really nice if these mics could be tweaked in a future version to be more accommodating to a wider selection of preamps.

IN CONCLUSION
Less noise, more sensitivity, much better isolated capsule, more patterns and high pass options, peak LED, lockable switches, two pop filters and a suspension mount. Sounds like AKG has been listening intently to the market and is back to making steak. I'm not chucking my B-ULS, but the new C 414B XLS and XL II are no-brainers. If you're in a small space doing a lot of close micing, I'd suggest you try the XLS due to its flatter top end. 

Contact: AKG at www.akg.com

Product Points
Plus: More open sounding, quieter, more sensitive, better acoustic isolation, more patterns, peak flasher, accessories included.
Minus: Doesn't mate well with all preamps.
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