RODE NT1-A, sE X1, Neumann TLM 102, AKG Perception P220

Tuesday 6th December 2011

sE Electronics X1, Rode NT1-A, AKG Perception P220 and Neumann TLM 102 in blind listening comparison tests at Sphere Studios, London (Nov 2011)

The sE X1 condenser microphone beats RØDE, AKG and Neumann in blind listening comparison tests conducted at Sphere Studios in London, proving that hand crafted microphones really do deliver the best build quality and performance ... please don’t mention the fact that the sE X1 is also the least expensive of these market leading brands.

  • Impartial Engineers: Francesco Cameli (Chief Engineer at Sphere Studios), Ronan Phelan (Senior Assistant Engineer at Sphere Studios). Test Participants: 11 of the participants below voted in each round.
  • Producers / Engineers: Chris Porter, Dean Ross, Ofer Shabi (Soho Sonic Studios), Arie Van Der Poel, Charlie Thomas, Dave Bascombe
  • Media: Paul White (Sound on Sound), Zenon Schoepe (Resolution), Mike Hillier (Music Tech Magazine), Jules Standen (Gearslutz)
  • Performers / Artists: Roachie (male vocals), Roxy Yarnold (female vocals), Chris Sheehan, Ofer Shabi (acoustic guitar)

Microphones Under Review: Rode NT1-A, AKG Perception P220, Neumann TLM 102, sE Electronics X1

Overall Result:                        

  • 1st  - sE Electronics X1 
  • 2nd - AKG Perception P220 
  • 3rd - Neumann TLM 102
  • 4th - Rode NT1a

On Thursday 24th November 2011 a group of producers, artists, engineers and press from all over the UK attended blind listening tests of four of the biggest condenser mic brands in the world … the aim, to strip away consumer preconceptions created with decades of brand marketing, and compare mics based solely on their performance, their build quality and their feature set.

James Ishmaev-Young (sE Electronics, sE Munro, sE Rupert Neve): "At sE Electronics, we have long maintained that the heart of a microphone, the capsule, is not just a bunch of electronics to be mass produced, but a musical instrument. As such it is our belief that every capsule in every mic should be hand crafted individually, just like any really good instrument.

It costs a lot more to do it this way than mass production, and so at every price point you find an sE microphone, you can be sure that our cost of build is far higher than our mass-automated competitors at the same price points. But that is our simple message; we build better for less money by simply putting the money into the mic itself, and not into huge marketing budgets, cheap accessories and fancy packaging.

When stripped of all marketing, packaging and preconceptions, what happens in real life blind listening tests is a remarkable testimony to the sheer quality of product you get with a sE Electronics microphone."

Conducted at the infamous Sphere Studios in Battersea, London, with the participation of UK pro audio press, artists, engineers and producers, and under the supervision of one of Sphere’s top resident engineers / producers, Franc Cameli (who’s worked with Westlife, Ronan Keating, Gary Moore, New Model Army, Nine Inch Nails, Tesseract, Rooster and Nadine Coyle to name but a few…) and Sphere Studio’s Assistant Engineer, Ronan Phelan, the sE Electronics X1, Rode NT1a, AKG Perception P220 and Neumann TLM 102 were put through their paces on both male and female vocals, and acoustic guitar, during a 4 hours recording and listening session in Studio 1.

Each mic was placed in an identical set up by Franc Cameli, on an sE Stand 1, with a Reflexion Filter Pro and a metal pop shield (for vocal takes only). Getting the perfect position for one vocal take, or guitar take, with 4 different mics simultaneously, is impossible, since they can’t all be in the sweet spot at the same time. So, in order to best get consistent results, each mic used the same Prism pre-amp ADA8-XR converters lined up to -16 direct into an Avid Pro Tools session. The performers were extremely consistent, so were able to deliver very similar takes with each mic; first male vocals, then female vocals and finally acoustic guitar. Franc Cameli then comp’d the takes and made sure volume levels were normalised, so there was no bias created by people’s natural leaning towards slightly louder sources. The whole recording process was scrutinised by the test participants to ensure that everything was set up as identically as possible, and no microphone was favoured over any other.

Each of the four tracks was then randomly assigned to one of four identical channels on a Neve 88R console by either Franc or Ronan, such that ONLY they knew which mic was which, and each participant in the listening tests then spent several minutes listening critically to the recorded pieces via a pair of Barefoot MicroMain 27’s, switching between channels themselves, and making notes on the ‘sound’ of each track, and ranking the sonic performance of each mic from 1-4 (1 being the best).

The listening tests were even done in three parts, such that every participant would listen only to the male vocals, make their comments and rankings, and then the engineer would randomise the tracks again and move onto the next source material, so that any preference in each round could not affect the listeners prejudice to a preferred ‘channel’ (i.e. mic) for the following tests. So, if someone’s preferred mic (channel) was, say, No.1 on male vocals, they would not know which channel this mic would appear on for female vocals etc. Everyone present was canvassed for their input to make the tests as impartial and fair as possible, and all agreed on the final format as fair and without any potential for bias.

Once each round of listening was completed, each participant entered their comments and ranking into a shared spread-sheet (but were not allowed to see each other’s choices until the tests were completed, again to avoid bias). Once the data from each round was all entered, the engineer overseeing each session then revealed which channel corresponded to which mic. All three rounds were complete in this way before results were read out. The lowest scores indicate the best average ranking (1 being the highest, 4 being the lowest). 

Rode NT1A, sE X1, Neumann TLM 102, AKG P220 Review

In the final analysis, the sE Electronics X1 came top for male and female vocals, and second place for acoustic guitar behind the AKG Perception P220, and was therefore the clear winner in the ‘sonic performance’ test category; AKG P220 came second overall, with the RODE NT1-A in third place and the Neumann TLM102 last in this category. The sE X1 also came top for build quality and looks, with the Neumann TLM 102 second, AKG Perception P220 third, and Rode NT1-A last.

The overall clear winner was the sE X1, with the AKG P220 in second place, Neumann TLM102 third, and the Rode NT1a placed last. Each participant was shown the data on the day of the test, and each has been sent a full version with names against results to corroborate their own notes on the day.

So, how does sE do it? James Ishmaev-Young (sE Electronics, sE Rupert Neve, sE Munro):

"Simple, we build more expensive product and sell at cheaper prices because we simply make less money! We believe that our customers are our marketing, and that word of mouth will eventually make sE the brand leader in every country, not just the UK’s No.1 … because it doesn’t matter how much you spend on marketing, if your customers think your product is the best in real test conditions, then it IS the best!"