Monday, October 20, 2008

Review: Telefunken USA's New ELA M 80 Dynamic Microphone

During the past twenty years I've tried most of the popular stage vocal mics including offerings from Shure, Beyer, AKG, and Neumann. In every case I found myself giving up the "better" mic and returning to my old standby the Shure SM57 with the optional windscreen. When you're singing in bars, hotels, and cafes the Shure mic gets you through the four set nights. It's presence peak cuts through the ambient noise and lets you get across without singing yourself hoarse. However, it's a compromise. The low end is soft and you don't get the clarity and detail that you hear on good recordings made with large diaphragm condenser mics.

Recently I was reading at mic guru Klaus Heyne's microphone forum and I noticed an ad for the new ELA M 80 stage microphone from Telefunken USA. Despite my loyalty to the venerable SM57 I'm always interested in trying something new. The ELA M 80 is advertised as a dynamic mic which features the clarity and mid-range resolution of a high quality condenser microphone. So I contacted the good folks at Telefunken USA and a week later I received my review sample of the M 80.

I won't keep you in suspense... the M 80 is a wonderful mic. It's new and it's unique in my experience. It has a lovely clear, sweet midrange which has a bit of that 3D quality that one finds in only the very best microphones. The proximity effect is toned down compared to my SM57, but the bass extends lower and is solid and tight. It handles my bass-baritone low notes just fine. It's pickup pattern is a tight cardioid pattern which eliminates feedback without introducing the nasty off axis coloration that I've experienced with super-cardioid mics. As you go off axis with the M 80 the sound stays consistent until you reach the null point. Achieving this kind of performance is a delicate balancing act and the folks at Telefunken deserve kudos for their success.

I thought it would be interesting to get some other opinions on the ELA M 80 so I took it down to my local music store on a Saturday afternoon and let a couple of local musicians try it out through the store's PA. For comparison we used a Shure Beta 58. We auditioned the Beta 58 first and I could tell by their attitudes that the guys didn't expect to be impressed by the newcomer. When we plugged the M 80 and demoed it you could see eyebrows going up and eyes bugging out. The M 80 was the favorite. It wasn't even close.

Now let's look at the build quality of the M 80. In short, it's built like the proverbial tank. It's solid, weighty and feels like it will take anything you can dish out. This is obviously a mic that is designed to withstand the rigors of the road. Judging by the advertising, Telefunken USA is targeting this mic at young rock bands who want a mic that cuts through in a dense mix and is as sturdy and roadworthy as the classic mics. The mic comes standard with a silver grill and there is an optional package available which includes a black grill which some folks will prefer for video use. Personally, I like the silver grill. Also worth noting is that the body of the mic has a rubber coating which ensures that it won't slip out of your hands. If you've ever dropped a mic, you'll appreciate this feature. The M 80 looks like it could probably survive a drop, but chances are that you won't put it through that test. 

How did the designers achieve this level of performance in a dynamic mic? First they designed a capsule which features a low mass diaphragm. Then they had transformer maven Oliver Archut design a custom output transformer. The result is a mic which gives you a generous helping of high resolution sound without the harshness and artificial presence of most of the condenser mics designed for stage use. In fact, I found that the M 80 sounds great with minimal eq. Fitting it into a mix couldn't be easier.

It's not a perfect world and live sound always involves compromises. My only criticism of the M 80 is that it exhibits a slight sensitivity to handling noise. Since I play guitar and sing with my mic on a stand that's not an issue for me, but if you are a singer who hand holds your mic you may have to use a little care to avoid unwanted noise. It's a small trade-off when you consider the mic's sensitivity and tone. My only other criticism of the mic is the packaging. The M 80 comes in a colorful red and yellow tube picturing a firecracker (scroll down to my previous post to see this in a photo). I understand that this mic is targeted at rock and rollers. The packaging is aimed at that group. I'm a middle aged folkie singer-songwriter. So my taste in packaging and graphics is a bit more traditional. In the photo above I put the M80 next to an old Telefunken vacuum tube box. The packaging for the ELA M 80 has a bit of the retro flavor of the original Telefunken graphics. Let me just say that this mic is not only for rockers. It's a great all around mic.

The M 80 retails for $239.  While that's considerably more than the SM57 and SM58 it's about half the price of a Beyer M88. Considering it's quality, the M 80 is an excellent value. I feel that no one should buy a mic based on a review or recommendation. The only reason to buy a mic is because you have tried it yourself and you love it. That said, I bought the review sample and it's now my vocal mic of choice for live performance. I expect it will also be put to use in my project studio. You can use this mic anywhere you would use an SM58 or SM57 and where you want clarity and well defined bass. That includes guitar amps and snare drums. The ELA M 80 can be purchased directly from Telefunken USA or from one of their dealers.

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