Marshall Plan: A Quality Condenser - Radio World

Marshall Plan: A Quality Condenser

Consistent Sound, Inexpensive Price Make Marshall's MXL 990 Suitable for Stations on a Budget
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Consistent Sound, Inexpensive Price Make Marshall's MXL 990 Suitable for Stations on a Budget

Can you really get a high-quality studio condenser mic with shock mount and a rugged travel case for what seems to be less than the cost of the case and shock mount? In the past few years, a flood of Chinese-made condenser mics have made such bargains possible.
Product CapsuleTHUMBS UP:

High intelligibility

Low cost

Includes case and shock mount

Minimal proximity effect and popping plosives

THUMBS DOWN:

Lacks warmth

Hard, unforgiving audio quality

PRICE: $200 retail, street price substantially less

CONTACT: Marshall Electronics in California at (800) 800-6608 or visit www.mxlmics.com
There's an inevitable skepticism about the outrageous price/performance ratio these represent due to the vast difference in prices compared to their European and American competitors. But after chasing down rumors about the Marshall Electronics MXL 990 online, I decided to have a listen to find out for myself.

As I made contact with the manufacturer, I explained one common theory about these products. I've heard the problem with them is lack of quality control. If you get a "good" cheap mic, you're fine; but that is a hit-or-miss proposition.

Marshall's claim is that, in fact, the MXL 990 is one of the most consistent products around. To prove this, they sent me two MXL 990s to see how they match up.

Sound comparison

The MXL 990 is a phantom-powered cardioid condenser mic with 20 mm gold diaphragm capsule. Company specs claim 30 Hz-20 kHz frequency range, a 80 dB S/N ratio and 20 dB equivalent noise level. Maximum SPLs are high at 130 dB.

In terms of features, this mic does not offer any bells and whistles; no switchable low-frequency filters, pad for high SPLs or other controls. From the outside, the metal construction and champagne finish look substantial. Unscrewing the top, the soldering for the electronics inside looks to be clean. Inside the protective grill into the capsule, there's a protective cloth to cut plosives. Though there aren't any extras save the case and shock mount, the basics seem well attended to.

I plugged the MXL 990 into an inexpensive Behringer MX602A mixer for phantom power to record a voiceover to produce a spot for a client. The mic covered the basics well. The sound was clean, crisp and highly intelligible. The proximity effect wasn't pronounced and it handled plosives well, too.

To my ear, there's low-frequency roll-off and a slight rise in the mid to high frequencies. This corresponds to the company specs showing increased response from 5-15 kHz.

On the subjective side, the sound was a bit too bright for my taste. There isn't much warmth. Instead, it has a hard, unforgiving quality. It picked up and accentuated brittle sounds like the inevitable and inadvertent click of the lips. But with a soundbed mixed under, it seemed fine and I didn't feel it was necessary to rerecord using a more expensive mic before delivering the spot.

Attaching the second mic for a side-by-side comparison showed them to be a close match. Panning them left and right and playing an A 440 tone and pink noise, they were indistinguishable to my ear. Having them lined up side-by-side created a nice stereo sound for speech, with depth that made up for the lack of warmth in mono.

The analysis utility in Adobe Audition showed minor variations that could be due to any number of factors in the signal chain. It may not be a perfect match, but it's not a mismatch either. I'm sure that an occasional bad unit makes its way through, but that's what warranties are for.

Remembering the days when I was scrambling to get a few hundred dollars together to get a decent voice mic, I can well appreciate the large audience for the inexpensive MXL 990s. For a student or community station with a limited budget, this is a good way to get started or to have a few extra mics around. It won't cut it for voiceover artists that rely on exceptional mics to bring forth their singular talent. But for the meat-and-potatoes of rip-n-read recording, the MXL 990 gets by in a budget pinch.

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