In his best-selling book Predictably Irrational, MIT professor Dan Ariely describes an experiment he conducted with college students and beer. (Be patient, this has everything to do with microphones.) He offered two free samples of beer to his students. The same beer was used in both samples, but one of the samples was laced with balsamic vinegar. The typical response to the samples was this: if they had no foreknowledge of the vinegar, they liked that sample better. If they knew about the vinegar, they liked the other sample better, often wrinkling their nose in disgust at the vinegar-beer. Put another way, what you believe is what you perceive; without belief comes real perception.

Having worked on the manufacturing side of Pro Audio for over 15 years, I can tell you that the industry is rife with similar examples. The short story is, truly objective gear comparisons require blind listening. Very experienced engineers have argued, "I know what I am listening to!" If so, then prove it by listening blind. I think the fear is that we'll pick the inexpensive thing and look foolish. Listening and picking the better thing, no matter the price, is not foolish; it's really smart. Think of it this way: in all other areas of technology, products get better and cheaper over time. In Pro Audio, they get older and more expensive - with the "best" stuff no longer being manufactured. With some exceptions, I have found this to be "predictably irrational."

Monoprice sent me a pair of 600800 condenser mics from their recently introduced Pro Audio Series. The 600800 features a 7/8'' diameter, 6 micron diaphragm; a 10 dB pad; and a 150 Hz high-pass filter. It comes with a pressure-clamp, elastic- suspension shockmount and extra elastics. No hard case is included, but the foam in the box is as substantial as what comes in a case. The mic looks beautiful but does not have much heft. Its body makes a pitched ping when struck, but this is completely alleviated by the clamp of the shockmount. The shockmount's finish is not as nice as the mic's; it has a painted finish rather than polished.

I first set up the mics as drum overheads, in a small room with a giant DW custom drum kit, and the results were better than I've ever heard in that room. We compared the 600800 pair to higher-priced Sennheiser e 614 condensers that were already positioned over the kit. The Monoprice mics sounded fuller, with more bass and smoother highs. They had a longer reach than the Sennheisers, but not so long that reflections in the small room were a problem. We tried coincident X-Y and Glyn Johns methods. Though we also close-mic'ed the whole kit for that session, I ended up just using the X-Y Monoprice overheads and a little bit of the kick drum mic. The sweetness of the cymbals was remarkable - very present, but not in the least bit harsh. The e 614 pair sounded thin in comparison. Although the kit was too loud to stand without ear protection, the 10 dB pad on the Monoprice mics was never needed, and the full sound worked better than with the high-pass filter engaged. The drummer eventually ditched the Sennheisers for the Monoprice mics in Glyn Johns configuration.

Next was acoustic guitar, where I had the rare opportunity to stereo-track a brilliant finger-picker playing on a 1950s Martin. I chose to shoot out the Monoprice 600800 against MXL V250 and Audix F15 pairs. All were good in this application, and your preference might depend on surrounding instruments in a mix, but I blindly chose the Monoprice for this solo recording (picking and strumming) because of a sweeter top end, which made for good pick-presence without eardrum-poking highs. The player agreed that the recording sounded great and could not believe how affordable the Monoprice mics are.

I tried male baritone and female alto-soprano vocals in an unfair comparison versus a Shure KSM44, a far more expensive mic. The Monoprice 600800 fared very well. The Monoprice sounded brighter, which led to more sibilance, but the Shure was dull by comparison and needed bass cut (to accentuate treble) in the mix, though it needed no de-esser. Monoprice plus de-esser with no EQ was a better sound in both cases. The Monoprice was really hearing the room though, a potential downside to a mic with a far reach on a relatively quiet source. Curious, I had the female singer sing into the back side of the Monoprice. It hardly needed a level boost on the preamp, and it sounded practically the same, but with more of the room sound in the recording. This can be good and bad. Bad - because not much is being rejected from the rear, suggesting that the 600800 would not be the best choice when high isolation is required. Good - because the sound from the rear is uncolored in an almost omni-like manner. Still, the Monoprice exhibited a nice proximity effect, and in the case of the male singer, it worked well for him to get a little closer than normal for a deep, resonant, throaty sound that still had a lot of air around it.

The most deeply challenging mic'ing task for me is upright bass, which I record a lot. After extensive shootouts some years ago, I landed on the Shure KSM44 in figure-8 mode and had not tried anything else until this review. Much to my surprise, the Monoprice 600800 did well here, maybe because it does not reject a lot from the rear and doesn't have the pinched sound that I find in many cardioids. It worked a lot better than the KSM44 in cardioid mode, and competed even with the KSM44 in figure-8. The Monoprice had the advantage of being brighter, but it also picked up more room sound than the figure-8 Shure, which was problematic; but in a bigger room, I would have chosen the Monoprice. This is the only other mic besides the KSM44 that has ever worked on upright bass for me.

The only time I did not appreciate the Monoprice 600800 was when close-mic'ing a guitar amp, as it tended to add shrillness, like every other condenser I own. But to be fair, the 600800 is marketed as a vocal mic, and the sibling 600700 instrument mic could be better suited for some of these applications, especially because hypercardioid and omnidirectional capsules are offered as options to supplement the standard cardioid capsule that comes with the 600700.

I used FuzzMeasure Pro running on a Mac to shoot some frequency sweeps on a wide variety of mics. The traces when viewed singly say more about my room and speakers than the mics, but this is still a good method to compare relative responses between mics (placed in the same spot). The first thing I noticed is that the pair of Monoprice mics had remarkably similar traces, even though they weren't sold as a matched pair. I also recorded sweeps with the Shure KSM44,

Audix F15, Alesis GT Electronics AM52, and MXL 990. These mics had vastly different traces from the Monoprice, with the exception of the MXL 990, which, while still different overall, shared a similar bump at 10 kHz, which was unique to the MXL and Monoprice. It was then that I shined a flashlight into the grilles of all of them, and noticed that the diaphragms of the 990 and 600800 look alike, which suggests that this 10 kHz bump is the resonant frequency of this type of diaphragm. The bump is wider on the Monoprice, which may explain its sweet sound on cymbals, compared to the MXL 990, which lost previous shootouts on drum kits for being a bit harsh on cymbals. In terms of sensitivity, the mics were in the same pack, except the Alesis and Audix, which were several dB behind.

I did enough blind listening with the Monoprice 600800 that I will say this: this is not just a great mic for the money, this is a great mic. I know that many people will have a hard time believing this, but it's true. I am convinced that if this mic had one of certain brand names on it and came in a heavier-metal package, it would easily fetch $1000. It comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee. It's a great all-around mic and a perfect first condenser for home studios. Given the price and performance, it is practically insane - or maybe "predictably irrational" - for pro studios not to have a pair in the locker. Thanks to Bay Area drummer John Malm and guitarist Dan Newitt for help with this review.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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