In the late 1990s, phase one of sea change in microphone manufacturing began; an army of Chinese-manufactured models began flooding the American pro audio market. This explosion of imports with overwhelming sales numbers was due largely to a single factor: They were incredibly inexpensive. "I can't believe they're so cheap: a copy of a $10,000 AKG C 12 for $300? Can I buy a dozen?"
Yet unfortunately, the savings euphoria was followed by a disappointing realization for many buyers: "Well, no wonder they're so cheap. They don't sound that great."
Today, we enter phase two of Chinese mic imports, where mic makers from around the world are utilizing the best that China offers while avoiding the problems that became associated with Chinese mics, By using varying percentages of Chinese parts, labor, and design along with other global contributions, some mic makers are offering enhanced products at extremely competitive prices. Below are three examples of companies who are doing that.
One early mic manufacturing innovator, David Royer of Royer Labs, founded Mojave Audio back in 1985. In 2000, David recognized the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese designs and began offering kits for modifying purely Chinese mics. The next logical step was making a mic using Chinese diaphragms and metal work with his electronics design.
According to Dusty Wakeman of Mojave Audio, "The problem with the Chinese mics was the electronics." The solution was using many American parts and Chinese assembly. "Our mics use Jensen tranformers, American NOS tubes, custom military-grade FETs, and resistors." When asked about sourcing parts from China, Dusty says, "Occasionally, we will get some parts from China to check out, but we've never seen a decent transformer come out of China — not one that is to David's specs."
Mojave parts are sent from the U.S. to China, where the mics are assembled, then returned to Mojave for final inspection; listening evaluations are conducted by David Royer for every Mojave mic.
What is the advantage to this manufacturing technique? Pricing. The same mic built in the U.S. would probably cost twice as much. What about the lingering stigmas surrounding Chinese mic manufacturing in regard to sound? According to Dusty, "Once people listen to the microphones, that ends that."
The bargain-priced Cascade Fat Head II ribbon microphone — reviewed in PAR June 2008 — is comprised of Chinese components, yet carefully tested, tweaked, and approved at the company's Olympia, WA-based laboratory.
Cascade is a U.S. company using Chines.e "bones" to build its products. Cascade's early success with the well-accepted Fat Head ribbon microphone encouraged owner Michael Chiriac to "up the ante" and offer a modified ribbon he calls the Gomez-Michael Joly Edition. This mic uses design improvements specified by Michael Joly, a mic "improver" with a lengthy track record. Arriving as a set of Chinese parts, it is assembled in the U.S. incorporating a Swedish Lundahl transformer and a host of American components: PC board, connectors, wire, and solder. Performance testing and certification is all handled in the U.S. These changes result in a mic that outperforms its Chinese brethren. What's the financial premium? It's 2.5 times the price of the Fat Head. Cascade's newest mic, the RCA-looking C77, is also assembled in the US.
Advanced Audio Microphones
This Canadian company takes a different approach. Owner Dave Thomas uses Chinese parts, but the mics feature major modifications to overcome limitations in some Chinese designs. Changes include different tubes, different transformers, different coupling caps, and, in some models, he specifies different diaphragm thicknesses and modifies the gain structure to provide more headroom. Though all the parts are sourced in China, the basic components are tested and approved by him before they are used in the mics. All these modifications net big improvements to the sound while other insignificant cosmetic changes are avoided to keep costs down. Assembling them in China helps keep costs down, too. "The workers in China are faster and do just as good a job of soldering as me — for a lot less money."
PAR technical editor Lynn Fuston is the founder of 3D Audio, Inc.www.3daudioinc.com