One of the challenges EM editors face is determining, from a steady stream of new products, which are most appropriate for readers' needs (and thus, which products should be reviewed). Personal-studio outfits typically run on tight budgets, so price is a measure of appropriateness. But we also have to take into account quality, utility, and versatility.
Blue Microphones' Kiwi is considerably more expensive than most other solid-state, large-diaphragm condenser mics we have reviewed, and we were hesitant at first to take it on. But the closer we looked, the more it made sense to review the Kiwi. To start with, this is Blue's top-of-the-line solid-state mic, so the quality was there. In addition, the Kiwi has nine polar patterns — more than any other solid-state large-diaphragm condenser mic — so we figured it was also versatile. And when we learned that the Kiwi comes with a first-rate shockmount — an optional item that can set you back some serious dollars elsewhere — the Kiwi seemed increasingly more of a good grab, and one that many readers might consider making. After all, for those who record instruments, the mic is the first and arguably most important part of the signal chain — not a place to skimp.
Nearly a foot long and as thick as a beer bottle, the Kiwi is a formidable-looking microphone with a high-tech yet old-world vibe. The body is a metal canister finished in matte green (the microphone is named after the fruit, not the bird) and topped with a large lollipop-style grille cage. The lollipop — constructed with hand-woven, double-layer mesh — is chrome plated on the forward-diaphragm side (the side active in Cardioid mode) and finished in satin-nickel on the rear. A brass logo plate adorns the canister's front and further helps to identify the mic's address side in cardioid pattern.
On the canister's lower back is a round nine-position Polar-Pattern switch marked with icons for omnidirectional and figure-8 patterns at the extreme settings, cardioid in the center, and three intermediate positions on either side of cardioid. The switch, which is knurled, protrudes just enough from the canister to let you get a grip. The XLR posts at the bottom of the mic are gold-plated.
Complementing the Kiwi's spartan yet classy look is a minimalist circuit design and an emphasis on quality throughout. The modern, transformerless electronics feature Class A discrete circuitry (no integrated circuits) and high-quality components such as metal film resistors and capacitors; by design, the Kiwi has no attenuation pads or highpass filters that could compromise the signal. I follow Blue's argument for not providing pads or filters, and to be honest, I did not miss either feature while testing the Kiwi. Besides, most folks who use a premium microphone will pair it with a high-end preamp, which likely will offer one or both features. Still, I felt compelled to knock off a half point in the Features rating for the Kiwi, if only out of consideration for the companies that traditionally provide pads and filters for their top-of-the-line condenser mics.
The Kiwi's dual-diaphragm, double-backplate capsule (built and tensioned by hand) mounts to the amplifier using a rubber stem that provides excellent internal shock protection. The stem's natural flexibility also allows for a unique Blue feature: three brass screws that secure the capsule by locking it down during shipping. Those must be removed before operating the mic, but they can be reinstalled at any point.
FIT FOR A KING
In keeping with its regal bearing, the Kiwi comes nestled inside a beautiful cherry-wood box lined seamlessly with sumptuous purple velvet over a perfectly cut bed of foam rubber. The box is fitted with big brass hinges and a latch, and the company name and logo are painted artfully on top in blue and gold. An attractive, well-written, and helpful user manual (complete with detailed tips about recording a variety of instruments) is included.
The Kiwi's shockmount (see Fig. 1) is a perfectly crafted near-replica of the classic spider-type shockmount. That comes as no surprise, considering that Blue cut its teeth building quality parts and accessories for other microphone manufacturers. Although the Shock, as Blue calls it, may seem an unoriginal accompaniment to such a distinctive-looking mic, it's a welcome part of the package. This elegant, robust, and time-tested shockmount is easy to position, holds the mic securely (yet not so tightly that you can't turn the mic inside the mount), and provides superior protection against floor rumble and inadvertent bumps. The unit is consummately manufactured from solid brass, and I especially appreciated the beefy stand clamp and extra-large wing nut.
A note about mounting the Kiwi in the Shock: it's best to position the shockmount roughly in the center of the Kiwi canister, with the logo plate visible between the two collars (O-clamps). If you put it so the logo is above the collars, you'll block access to the Polar-Pattern switch on the back of the mic or even force one collar to close around the switch. Conversely, if you position the mic low in the shockmount with the logo plate below the two collars, there won't be room left to mount the Blue pop filter.
The Pop ($199; see Fig. 2), also manufactured by Blue, is based on the pop filters built by EMI engineers during the Beatles' heyday. The simple design employs a felt-lined collar that slips over the grille assembly and around the Kiwi's canister body. The filter, which employs a layer of exceedingly fine stainless-steel mesh, is attached to a post which, though short, allows for a modicum of adjustment using a knurled locking nut. Like the Shock, the Pop is built to exacting standards from solid brass. (Both units also fit vintage Neumann U 47 and U 48 microphones.) My only gripe is that the Pop's collar barely fits over the Kiwi grille assembly, so care must be exercised while attaching it; once on the canister, though, it readily slides and snaps into place.
Another optional accessory is the Kiwi Cable ($54.95), which is intended to work as a system with the Kiwi, the Shock, and the Pop. In this case, it makes sense to keep the system intact — this high-quality, high-definition quad cable is made solely from virgin materials (rather than from recycled, and thus impure, metals).
The Kiwi capsule — basically a multipattern version of Blue's B6 Bottle capsule, which is meant for vocal and general use — is tuned by hand to capture full lows (the bass response doesn't start rolling off until below 30 Hz) and low mids and to accentuate an airy top end. A slight dip in the 500 to 900 Hz range seems to enhance the mic's exceptional clarity, and an equally slight rise in the 1 to 4 kHz region ensures a solid midrange response. Most noticeable is a smoothly rising presence boost starting at about 7 kHz and peaking by 3 dB in the 12 to 15 kHz region. That boost, which extends past 22 kHz, makes for a bright, open, yet silky-smooth high-end response that must be heard to be appreciated.
The Kiwi's sound varies depending on the polar pattern selected. The omni pattern offers the flattest response, thanks to the lack of bass buildup from the proximity effect. As you move the selector counterclockwise (toward the figure-8 icon), bass frequencies increase gradually as the proximity effect intensifies, producing an overall warmer or darker sound. But the tonal changes are slight as compared with those produced by some other multipattern mics, and overall, the Kiwi exhibits minimal bass boosting, even in the tighter directional patterns.
Skipper Wise, cofounder of Blue Microphones, describes the sound he was going for while developing the Kiwi capsule. His primary objective, he says, was a “continuousness” of sound or “absence of disjointedness” throughout the frequency response. “I don't want to hear the top, mid, or bottom end being separate from the rest of the spectrum,” Wise says. “I have found, when this continuousness is achieved, that the whole sound appears to have depth.”
Wise evidently achieved his aims. The Kiwi is a wonderful-sounding mic that is natural and transparent overall, with a pleasingly musical balance of warm, solid lows; well-defined yet mellow mids; and a bright finish that brings subtle detail to the fore. The mic's highs, though clearly bolstered, are smooth and well integrated and never sound brittle, harsh, or spitty. Furthermore, the images captured by the Kiwi have a hard-to-describe solidity and depth (perhaps the “continuousness” that Wise described); by comparison, lesser mics can sound flat or one-dimensional.
In addition to its outstanding clarity and unity of sound throughout the frequency range, the Kiwi is a supremely quiet mic with a big dynamic range. That means it can readily handle the demands of high-end digital-recording environments. The Kiwi also exhibits fast, lifelike transient response, predisposing it not only for vocals, percussion, and plucked, strummed, or hammered strings but also for Foley, voice-over, and room-miking applications.
I compared the Kiwi closely on various instruments with several other high-end solid-state mics, including models from Neumann, AKG, and Microtech Gefell. Of those, a Neumann U 87 from the '70s came closest to matching the Kiwi sonically. The two mics differed mostly in the low mids and extreme highs: the U 87's low mids (between 150 and 300 Hz) were more forward, making for a slightly fuller or sometimes cloudier sound. Overall, the Kiwi produced brighter, better defined, yet equally smooth highs.
In addition, I closely compared two Kiwi mics to each other. Except for subtle differences in the upper high-end response — something that is probably inevitable among hand-built transducers — the two mics sounded nearly identical.
One thing that impresses me the most about the Kiwi is its versatility. I had the opportunity to use this mic for many months in the studio, recording dozens of different instruments — including voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin, Dobro, lap dulcimer, piano, drums, and tons of other percussion — as well as electric-bass and -guitar cabinets and the Kiwi rarely failed to flatter. Seldom did I encounter an instrument (violin comes to mind) that sent me scurrying for a different mic. In short, this is one of the most versatile large-diaphragm mics I have used. If I were required to record an album with one mic, the Kiwi would be my pick.
I tried the Kiwi on half a dozen male and female vocalists in singing and speaking applications, and it almost always proved to be a great, if not excellent, choice. However, the Kiwi is very sensitive to plosives, so some type of pop filter is all but required for recording vocals. The Pop does an exemplary job of stopping air blasts and was sufficient most of the time. In some cases, though, I also had to use a standard nylon-mesh filter positioned between the Pop and the mic capsule. That combination quelled all but the most forceful blasts and also helped smooth out the sound on overly sibilant singers by mildly attenuating the Kiwi's bright, detailed top.
The Kiwi is a fantastic pick for all percussion. I used it on snare drum, drum sets (in both overhead and room-mic configurations), tambourines, bongos, congas, timbales, dumbek, cajon, pressure drum, claves, guiro, reco-reco, pandeiro, cabasa, shakers, cowbells, agogo bells, woodblocks, and several odds and ends (including an album cover played with brushes), and I loved the results in almost every instance. The Kiwi is especially flattering on hand drums or similar sources for which you want to accentuate high-end detail for added realism (hand sounds on conga heads, for example). But even on difficult, high-pitched sources such as zils and triangles, which vex many large-diaphragm condensers, the Kiwi faithfully transduced each piercing hit, exhibiting no distortion, harmonic imbalance, or other weirdness. Although it wouldn't be my first pick for a triangle track, the Kiwi did manage to capture a usable nongrating sound from that hard-to-record instrument.
I also loved the Kiwi on all the stringed instruments (unbowed) that I miked with it. In the heat of recording sessions, you often don't have time to conduct mic-comparison tests, so trying out new or unfamiliar microphones is risky business — it can waste not only time and money but also your talent's best takes. Fortunately, the Kiwi didn't let me down. For a country “slamgrass” project I've been working on with guitarist and songwriter Buddy Craig, I had only one night to record Nashville Dobro star Rob Ickes, who was on tour at the time. Naturally, I hoped to get Ickes on as many tracks as possible, and I wanted his tracks to sound great — after all, this is a man who is used to recording in the best studios Nashville has to offer.
Although I had been using the Kiwi for only a couple of weeks, I was already feeling pretty confident in its abilities, so I took a chance and put it up (in cardioid pattern), hoping for the best (see Fig. 3). Neither Craig nor Ickes had ever heard of the Kiwi, but as soon as they heard playback of the first take, everyone was sold. “Sounds great to me,” said Ickes. And that was that.
A similar thing happened the following month when I recorded Joe Craven (percussionist, violinist, and second mandolinist with the Dave Grisman Quintet) on mandolin. I typically opt for a small-diaphragm condenser when recording mandolin, but the Kiwi sounded so good (in cardioid pattern) right off the bat that I went with it and never looked back. A few weeks later, I trained the Kiwi (this time in omni) on Craig's acoustic guitar for an overdub session, and again I was stunned by the richness, realism, and clarity of the signal. “Those are the best-sounding guitar tracks we've gotten so far,” Craig said. I have used the Kiwi exclusively on Craig's guitars ever since. Indeed, the Kiwi has become so indispensable to my production efforts that I have gone into hock to buy one.
The Blue Kiwi is a premium large-diaphragm condenser microphone that sets new standards for excellence in its class. Stunning to behold, a delight to use, and delicious-sounding on a broad range of sources, this brilliant performer demonstrates what can be achieved when manufacturers take a no-compromise approach to engineering and design. By combining the best of old-world know-how and modern technology, Blue has fashioned a distinctive transducer that bridges the gap between the legendary handcrafted mics of yesteryear and the stringent demands (greater bandwidth, bigger dynamic range, and so on) of digital recording.
Although the Kiwi will likely remain out of reach for many readers due to its relatively steep price, it is actually a good deal by professional standards (not to mention a lasting investment). Those seeking a studio condenser mic that can cover a lot of ground while maintaining the most pristine signal path should give the Kiwi serious consideration. I can all but guarantee you won't be disappointed.
Brian Knave is an associate editor at EM.
large-diaphragm condenser microphone
|FEATURES ||4.5 |
|EASE OF USE ||5.0 |
|AUDIO QUALITY ||5.0 |
|VALUE ||5.0 |
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Dual-diaphragm, hand-built, hand-tuned capsule. Class A, transformerless electronics. Beautiful, natural sound with solid lows and silky highs. Versatile. Quiet. Big dynamic range. Outstanding transient response. Nine polar patterns. Solid, uncompromising design and construction. Attractive, distinctive styling. Comes with wood jeweler's box and classic spider-type shockmount.
CONS: Large size can make it difficult to position in tight spaces.
tel. (805) 370-1599
|Element ||externally polarized, DC bias capacitor (“true” condenser) |
|Diaphragm ||1", 6-micron, gold- and aluminum-vapor-deposited Mylar |
|Polar Patterns ||9 |
|Frequency Response ||20 Hz-20 kHz (±2 dB) |
|Dynamic Range (amplifier) ||95 dB |
|Sensitivity ||19 mV/Pa (@1 kHz into 1 kΩ) |
|Signal-to-Noise Ratio ||87 dBA |
|Self-Noise ||8 dBA |
|Power ||48V phantom (±4V) |
|Maximum SPL ||133 dB (for 0.5% THD) |
|Dimensions ||11.13" (H) × 2.50" (D) |
|Weight ||2 lb. |