It's no secret that there’s no shortage of low-cost condenser microphones being manufactured in China. Most Chinese-built condensers sell for far less than microphones manufactured in other countries, although the build quality and tone sometimes fall short for demanding users, and added features and extra accessories usually aren’t included.
Many of these mics share similar characteristics — primarily due to the fact that most are being built by a handful of factories and then “re-branded” with the name of the import company. SE Electronics mics are different in that regard. SE and their distributor, Sonic Distribution, have stated that they will limit production in their Shanghai factory to only SE Electronics-badged microphones, and that they intend to offer mics that are up-market in terms of quality and features. To that end, SE has completely redesigned their entire mic line. We had a chance to check out three of their latest offerings.
Small. . . .
First up is the SE2-A, a small-diaphragm true condenser. This mic comes in a sharp-looking foam-lined, cherry-colored wood box. I was surprised to find a lot of extra goodies inside the box. In addition to the mic body and the expected cardioid capsule, there was a shockmount and a set of additional capsules — an omni and a hypercardioid. Very nice. There was no stand clip, nor was there a user’s manual; just a warranty card.
The shockmount was quite a surprise. Unlike many shockmounts for inexpensive mics, the one included with the SE2-A is a classy unit. It’s really easy to insert or remove the mic, and the mount does a good job of isolating the microphone from stand-borne vibrations. Now I understand why they didn’t bother with a stand clip: with a shockmount this nice, who needs one?
The SE2-A did well in all of the usual small-diaphragm condenser mic applications, such as acoustic guitar and drum overhead. I especially liked it on hi-hats. With a cardioid capsule presence peak that starts at around 5kHz and is centered around 9kHz, and low-frequency response below about 200 Hz down a dB or two, the tonal vibe of the SE2-A is somewhat bright, but the sound is detailed and clear without being harsh. It handles loud sources just fine, which is a good thing, since there’s no onboard pad.
A nice surprise is the off-axis response. When the SE2-A was used close-in on hi-hats, bleed from the snare was never a huge problem, and never sounded overly colored. I really liked this microphone.
Large. . . .
Next up is the Z3300-A, a large-diaphragm multi-pattern FET condenser mic with Class A electronics. This one came in a foam-lined, camera-style flight case, with a shockmount and, what’s this? An extra elastic band for the shockmount? That’s one of those “why doesn’t everyone do this” type of features. It can’t cost very much for the manufacturer to include an extra, but if you ever snap an elastic band at 3 AM while working on a recording, you’ll certainly appreciate that SE Electronics included a spare. There was, however, no manual included.
The Z3300-A has a 100Hz, –6dB/octave low-cut filter, which is useful for taming low-frequency rumble. In combination with the shockmount, it did a good job of keeping one singer’s heavy toe-tapping out of the recording. The mic also has a –10dB pad switch, as well as a 3-position switch for selecting the polar pattern. All three switches feel solid, with a reassuring “click” when repositioned. The Z3300-A has a nice solid build, and looks and feels like a well-built microphone should.
How did it sound? While the Z3300-A didn’t have any overt “character,” neither did it have any objectionable sonic issues. The bi-directional pattern was evenly balanced insofar as front and back side response, and side rejection was very good. Recording background vocals with two singers was no problem with this mic. Omni response was open and clear. Cardioid has, of course, proximity effect, but nothing excessively pronounced.
The Z3300-A did well on most everything I put it in front of . . . drum overhead, acoustic and electric guitars, male and female vocals, hand percussion, and more — it always handled the task in a pleasing and unobtrusive way, with good balance and detail. The highs are present, but not excessively so. I would go so far as to say that this mic compares very favorably with other well-known utility mics that cost up to twice as much, and is certainly one of the better-sounding Chinese-built mics I’ve heard. Well done!
Huge. . . .
Finally, we get to the big boy. And I do mean big. The Gemini is one of the biggest large-diaphragm tube condenser mics you’ll find. Weighing in at a stand-toppling 3 lbs, you’re going to need a heavy-duty stand with a good counterweight to handle this mic. Like the Z3300-A, the Gemini comes in a camera-style, foam-lined flight case. Inside you’ll find the power supply, shockmount, and mic and power supply cables. Once again, a spare shockmount elastic band was included, and the microphone itself is enclosed in a nice wooden box that fits inside the main case. Cool. With the Gemini, there was a manual included — a short, single-page affair lacking any specific frequency response plots or other performance-related details.
The shockmount is similar to the one included with the Z3300-A. The heavy mic has a tendency to cause the shockmount to droop, no matter how hard you torque down the set-screw. (SE Electronics tells us very early units had this problem, which has been fixed on newer shockmounts. All defective mounts were replaced.) The mic attaches to the power supply via tuchnel connectors, which I prefer over the multi-pin XLR connectors used on some other tube mics.
While the Gemini lacks a pad, highpass filter, or polar pattern selection (it’s cardioid-only), it does have features that are worth special note. Most notably, its considerable size is due to the fact that it houses not one, but two tubes. The first tube is a 12AX7 that functions as a traditional preamp, while the second (a 12AU7) functions as an output impedance converter. This is an interesting alternative to traditional designs, which SE says was intended to overcome the high-end roll-off common with tube products. Their goal with the Gemini wasn’t to produce a “retro” or “vintage” design, but to create a mic with the lows and mids of a tube mic, combined with the highs normally associated with an FET design.
Sonically, the Gemini has a present, “in your face” tone, with nice warmth down low. I found it too bright and sibilant for most female vocalists, although it performed well on male vocals. It worked very well on upright bass and acoustic guitar, but its sheer size made placement an issue. While it may be too bright for some singers, the Gemini can help a singer cut through a dense mix with abundant and detailed top end, which may prove useful for some musical styles and vocalists.
There you have it; three very different mics at a range of price points, and suited to different applications. But why take my word for it? Sonic Distribution offers a 7-day trial period: If you aren’t happy, you can send the mics back. You can’t ask for more than that. And considering the range of mics SE offers, and their overall quality, rest assured something in the lineup will fit your needs and preferences.