Neumann is arguably the most recognized microphone name in the business, so when I heard about the KMS 104, the company’s newest live vocal microphone, I immediately took notice. And I soon experienced the cardioid KMS 104 ($849), plus its predecessor, in a comprehensive evaluation proving Neumann’s latest for live does not disappoint.
Cardioid pattern; well-built, road-worthy craftsmanship; clip and padded case
My first impression upon opening the package containing the Neumann KMS 104 (and the accompanying supercardioid KMS 105) was the high quality of the microphones. Both microphones are built to handle road rigors and come with a clip plus padded case for protection. Each weighed in at a comfortable 300 g (about 10.5 oz), which is comparable to other popular handheld microphones; each microphone’s weight is evenly distributed.
The KMS 104 and KMS 105, besides their differences in pickup pattern, share the same tech specs: each mic requires 48 V phantom power, offers 20 Hz – 20 kHz frequency response, has a rated impedance of 50 Ohms and provides a maximum output voltage of 12 dBu. Maximum SPL for THD at .5 percent is 150 dB. Other notable design stats include an invariable, built-in high-pass filter with a cutoff frequency of 120 Hz, dynamic range of 132 dB, self-noise level of 18 dBa and a transformerless output circuit.
Handling noise is nominal due to solid shell design and isolated electronics; each microphone has a grommet around where the diaphragm touches the body, and foam inserts on the PCB at the point of contact to absorb handling noise. The PCB for both microphones consist of no user serviceable parts, as the components are surface-mounted and have a layer of clear coating over the components. There is a small green LED indicating phantom power is present, but this is not visible from the outside of the microphone. The only thing that could be repaired is the wiring between the PCB and XLR connector although due to the robust construction, I can’t imagine why this would be an issue.
Another attribute to the KMS Series design is its internal pop filtering. This is accomplished via different means for the KMS 104 and its older sibling, the KMS 105. The KSM105 has three different level of screens designed to protect the diaphragm element and also combat plosives. The first two are equal in strength, but the pattern is smaller as the screens are closer to the element. The third is a small plastic-framed screen that surrounds the diaphragm. The KSM104 uses an outer screen internally lined with 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch foam and a small cap over the actual diaphragm. Both mics have a very thin, screened fabric directly over the diaphragm.
Both microphones were primarily reviewed on male and female vocals in a live, on-stage configuration featuring in-ear monitors; later, another female vocal was used for a second evaluation with a different signal path. The primary signal path for the main live setup was straight into a Soundcraft K2 microphone preamp and some sidechain compression via a Presonus ACP88, which helped manage some of the more piercing high-mid to high frequencies.
The Neumanns’ high-pass filters at 120 Hz eliminated much of the low-end associated with proximity and extraneous noise. I am very used to automatically reaching for the HPF on the EQ and immediately applying a high-pass shelving EQ at 80 HZ; this was not necessary with the Neumann microphones.
The microphones’ sweet spots are within two inches and directly in front of the diaphragm, although minimal off-axis movement does not result in a noticeable loss of signal. SPL handling at full voice was never an issue for the microphones with any vocalist during the evaluations.
Belmont Church occasionally uses a hot-spot monitor, so I did some testing with the hot spot at approximately a 30-degree angle towards both microphones’ diaphragms. There was never a risk of feedback at any frequency, even with the hot spot set at a high level. I had to deliberately place the microphone directly in front of the hot spot to even flirt with feedback. Bleed from other voices, instruments and sound sources were minimal as off-axis rejection worked fine with both models.
A male vocal sounded great on both models: very clear, crisp tones without any hype except for some welcomed openness on the top end. This enhancement was more apparent with the KMS 105 and was a nice addition to the natural timbre of the singer’s voice.
The KMS 104 during the first evaluation was also used on a female vocal singing in mostly the soprano range. It had less high accentuation than its counterpart, and her voice required a bit more EQ to warm up her tone. A second soprano female voice had a signal path featuring a Summit 2Ba-221 tube mic preamp rather than the K2 preamp in the next evaluation. This KMS 104/2Ba-221 combination proved, as expected, to be even more favorable as the right blend of tube helped soften some of the “harsher” frequencies.
I should note that both microphones’ internal pop filtering features proved to be extremely useful. It virtually eliminated plosives, yet allowed sibilance to naturally pass through.
I must give credit to Neumann. You can always bank on the fact that they make leave budget lines to other manufacturers. The introduction of the KMS 104 should make Neumann’s recognizable logo even more popular at the forefront of the stage, and likely spawn a true live standard. The KMS 104 continues the Neumann tradition in high-quality design and performance at a worthwhile price.
The KMS 104 to my ears is slightly brighter on vocals compared to the KMS 105. The KMS 105 got pretty muddy any closer than three inches unless you had a very thin voice. Both the KMS 104 and 105 share that response due to the proximity effect. You should get better results if you take a look at the published frequency response curve of both mics and dial in an EQ curve to counter the proximity effect. I applied a low shelf starting at 500 Hz and found that I could suck out the woofiness.
The stock KMS 105, owing to its supercardioid pattern, has a slightly more focused hot spot than the KMS 104. Most supercardioids pay for this with floor monitor problems if the monitors somehow end up in the rear lobe of the mic. I don’t hear much of a difference off the back of these two mics at vocal frequencies, although I can clearly hear the difference around front.
The KMS 104 is mildly more pop sensitive than the KMS 105. The headgrilles are exchangeable, so I swapped them to see what if it would have any effect on the frequency response of each mic. Putting the KMS 104 headgrille on the KMS 105 took off a bit of top end, making it sound smoother or less peaked. The KMS 105 lost a bit of low frequency response when I put the mechanical filter from the KMS 104 on the KMS 105.
Price Vs. Performance
The KMS 104 is priced beyond what many people think they can afford in a world of basement mics but isn’t that far out of reach for those who have found that they can’t afford to buy cheap. The KMS 104 — at $649 street like the KMS 105 — may not be for you if you’re living out of a van and tossing your gear in and out with little regard for its lifespan or have a crappy PA that kills everything that goes through it. My advice, however, is to try them for yourself, fairly comparing them with what you now use. You may find that the price becomes less important after hearing them.
– Ty Ford