The German Sennheiser company is renowned for the innovative design and distinctive styling of its products, and its comprehensive range of stage and studio microphones is particularly well respected. The models selected for review, covering a fairly wide range of applications, are the MD 429 dynamic super-cardioid vocal mic, the studio quality MD 441U dynamic cardioid, and the K3U series of electret condensers, which feature a replaceable capsule system.
The MD 429 is an attractively styled, handheld vocal mic which, despite its rugged construction, manages to remain both remarkably light in weight and well balanced. The body is finished in a non-reflective anodised black, contrasting with the silver coloured end-cap which incorporates a blast filter, and uses two layers of light-gauge wire with a fairly open mesh to provide strength without weight. Handling and impact noise is kept to a minimum by a particularly well engineered shockmount system, which allows the diaphragm assembly a resilient, but well damped three dimensional movement.
The output is balanced, low impedance (200 ohms), via the normal three pin male XLR connector, with a nominal frequency response of 50 Hz to 16 kHz. The directional characteristic of the MD 429 is described as super-cardioid, which indicates that the normal side area sensitivity of the true cardioid response has been significantly reduced, thereby both improving resistance to feedback and minimising 'spill' from backline amplification in PA applications.
An unusual aspect of the MD 429 is that it displays very little of the 'proximity effect' normally exhibited by cardioid mics, in which bass response is considerably boosted by close-up use. Most microphones that are intended for hand-held vocal use feature some degree of proximity effect as singers often prefer the artificial depth and warmth that this can contribute to a voice, but the effect can also sound rather 'muddy', and a considerably boosted presence, region is usually required to achieve a balanced response and maintain intelligibility.
In the MD 429, the bass-rise effect is particularly well controlled, resulting in an attractively bright and well articulated sound. The response of this model certainly seems to assist a vocal to cut through a loud PA mix, without requiring large amounts of EQ, but in a recording context I felt that the sound tended to be a little thin, especially when compressed, and that a warmer, more rounded quality was often preferable.
Sensitivity was slightly lower than my reference vocal mic (Shure SM58), but this is not a problem in a mic that is intended solely for close-up use. As is to be expected of a Sennheiser product, the standard of finish and manufacture is very high, and the MD 429 seems to offer some attractive qualities at a competitive price.
The MD 441U is a high quality moving-coil, or dynamic mic, with a super-cardioid pick-up pattern and an extended frequency response that is comparable to the performance of a condenser mic. It is a visually impressive microphone, over 10" long, with the distinctively unconventional styling that is characteristic of many Sennheiser models. Unusually, the tapered body is rectangular in section, and although it is very heavily constructed, the mic is finished in a rather appealing combination of 'satin chrome' and black vinyl. A special locking stand adaptor is provided, which I would have preferred to have seen made from something more substantial than just the usual, brittle transparent plastic, bearing in mind that the unusual shape of the 441 would prevent it from being used with any other type of adaptor if its own were to be damaged.
Just above the balanced XLR output connector, located at the base of the body, is a five position rotary switch which offers varying degrees of low frequency attenuation. This can be used in conjunction with the recessed presence lift switch, to generate ten different response curves.
The specified frequency response of the MD 441U is 30 Hz to 20 kHz, making the mic well suited to many general recording applications, but the inclusion also of an effective blast filter and the very good resistance to impact and handling noise, adds considerably to the versatility of this model.
PA use and close-up vocal recording is possible, with proximity effect able to be precisely controlled by the bass roll-off facility, and with the presence switch proving particularly effective in the enhancement of vocal sounds. The presence lift facility of the 441 seems subjectively to tilt the whole of the upper frequency response, rather than introduce the commonly used 'hump' in the upper midrange, thus producing definition and clarity without causing the mic to sound too coloured or harsh.
The MD 441U exhibits the rather low sensitivity (0-18mV for 74dB SPL) that is typical of many high quality moving-coil mics, and cannot, therefore, be particularly favoured for the recording of quieter instruments. But with louder acoustic sources, such as close-miked brass and particularly drums, it performs to a very high standard.
With the on-board presence lift in operation, and some lower middle cut applied with the desk EQ, the 441 makes one of the finest snare drum mics that I have used; the dynamic characteristics combining with the well extended, high frequency response to produce the exciting, 'crisp but deep' snare sound that many rock drummers seem to prefer.
The tightly controlled sound pick-up pattern assists in achieving superior separation in close-miked balances, as well as increasing resistance to feedback in PA use, with all types of unwanted noise being minimised by the inclusion of a hum-cancelling coil in addition to the effective shockmount system.
Vocal quality is particularly clean and 'open', and the low colouration and wide frequency range, combined with the effective on-board response control, make the MD 441U a most versatile model that can be used with confidence in a wide variety of demanding situations.
The Sennheiser K3U series is a modular electret condenser system, which utilises a common body/power supply unit, with a series of interchangeable capsules with different frequency response characteristics; the units reviewed being the ME20 'omni' capsule, the ME40 cardioid, and the ME80 super-cardioid/'shotgun' capsule.
The K3U module is a slim but substantial unit, hardly wider than the XLR connector at its base, with a three position response control, and a recessed power on/off switch, which operates in conjunction with a tiny LED to offer a battery check facility. At the top of the module is the battery compartment and the threaded area onto which the capsules locate with a very positive feel, suggesting no danger of cross-threading.
The unit can be powered either by an internal 5-6V battery, which has an operating life in excess of 600 hours, or from an external phantom source of anywhere between 12 and 48 volts. This is an excellent system, offering all the convenience of phantom powering, but also facilitating easy use with budget equipment that may not have phantom capability.
The output is low impedance, balanced, although, of course, when the battery supply is used, the output can easily be unbalanced if necessary, simply by arranging the wiring of the lead to include the connecting of Pin 1 to either Pin 2 or Pin 3 according to phase requirement.
Variable bass roll-off is also provided, offering 7 or 20dB of attenuation of frequencies below 50 Hz; the system operates satisfactorily, but the switch should perhaps have some better identification than just its rather obscure I, II, III markings.
Electret condensers have had a generally poor reputation in professional circles, a prejudice arising largely from the inferior dynamic capabilities of early examples. However the Sennheiser K3U system seems to offer a performance that is comparable to a true condenser in many respects, but at a lower cost.
The capsules have a distinctive common styling, with a functional dull metallic finish that matches the power unit, and a series of longitudinal slots around the head. The ME40 cardioid capsule exhibits a well controlled polar pattern, combined with a very smooth 50 Hz to 16 kHz frequency response.
In use, the K3U/ME40 combination is characterised by a transparency and transient response that typifies the condenser sound, and the overall subjective impression is very pleasing with most sources. A slight lack of extension at both frequency extremes was felt to be evident on some material, but only in comparison to the condenser mic used for reference (Neumann KM84).
The mic has a high sensitivity, easily generating a healthy output level from a quiet source, such as acoustic guitar, with output noise (often a problem in electrets) proving to be satisfactorily low. The dynamic range capability of the system seems to be good, with drum overhead use producing some fine results, although with no internal pad facility to protect the integral pre-amp, close-miked rock snare drum use is not advisable.
It is pleasing to see such a reasonably priced omnidirectional capsule included in the range. The ME20 is suited to many applications where the characteristics of a directional mic are not wanted or needed.
For the multitracking musician, often recording one instrument at a time, an omnidirectional mic can be a most useful asset; mic placement being much less critical, and a natural sound being achieved more easily with many sources. In any reasonable acoustic environment, an 'omni' will give a superior sense of depth and ambience to the sound with an open quality that is invariably preferable to an equivalent cardioid. Directional discrimination is obviously essential under some circumstances, but of course, the great asset of a modular system is that it allows one microphone body and a series of different capsules to cover a variety of characteristics in the most cost-effective way.
Like most 'omnis', the ME20 exhibits a slight directionality at high frequencies, but the overall standard of performance is very high, with the anticipated lack of colouration being evident.
The seven inch long ME80 capsule combines the basic pick-up pattern of a super-cardioid with 'shotgun' mic characteristics at frequencies above 2 kHz. High sensitivity allows relatively quiet or distant on-axis sounds to be reproduced at reasonable level, whilst providing superior rejection of any off-axis source.
The main applications of the ME80 are intended to be in film and video work, where it offers some of the advantages of considerably more expensive systems, but it can certainly also be put to good use in music recording or PA applications. The significant reduction in the upper middle and high frequency content of 'spill' that it provides, can be a great asset when attempting to maintain control of both quality and balance in 'live' recording, especially when working with acoustic instruments in close proximity to drums.
Although such a specialised microphone characteristic is perhaps only rarely required in most general recording applications, once again, the modular system does allow the K3U owner to cover the facility very economically if necessary.
Sennheiser microphones enjoy an enviable reputation for quality of performance and manufacture, and each of the review models has something worthwhile to offer.
The clean, bright vocal sound of the MD 429 should find favour in PA usage, where optimum presence is usually required, whilst the many qualities of the MD 441 must make it one of the most versatile dynamic mics currently available, with a vast range of potential applications.
I feel that the K3U electret condensers are of particular merit, in offering the sound quality of a true condenser mic, but with the option of unbalanced, battery-powered operation with budget equipment. The inherent flexibility of the modular format is a further asset, and the system must be considered to be most competitively priced, and a worthwhile addition to any microphone collection.
The Sennheiser mics retail at the following VAT-inclusive prices: MD429 £99.93; MD441U £166.75; K3U £59.68; ME20 £33.46; ME40 £46.57; ME80 £65.32.
Further details from UK distributors: Hayden Laboratories Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Dave Lockwood
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