By Mitch Gallagher
The AKG C 414 has been a studio-standard microphone for more than 30 years. In the course of those years, AKG has released five incarnations of the mic (see sidebar), all of which have been enormously successful. Now the company has created new versions of the last generation C 414: the C 414B-XLS and the C 414B-XL II. According to AKG, the goal was to leave the mics’ well-respected sonics the same, while upgrading the performance to a higher level.
The new models look much like their predecessors, but with smooth rounded edges, which are said to reduce bothersome reflections. They’re also slightly larger than older models, and feel very solid without being so heavy that they unbalance a mic stand.
The XLS has a silver grille, while the XL II has a gold grille. Both models are transformerless and utilize surface-mount electronics. The XL II is said to be identical to the XLS except for a “slight high-frequency peak above 3kHz.” AKG recommends it for solo vocals or instruments, as well as for distant miking.
Taking a look at the frequency response graphs for the cardioid polar pattern, both mics have a slight dip in response (about 2dB) centered around 1,500Hz.
The XLS is fairly flat until around 9,000Hz, where there’s a 2–3dB peak between 10,000 and 15,000Hz. The XL II has a 2dB rise in the mids and highs starting around 2kHz, with an extra 2dB peak between 5,000 and 6,000Hz.
Both versions can be purchased in matched stereo pairs.
The new XLS and XL II offer more sonic control than their predecessors. Each mic has a bass-cut filter with four settings; 0, 40, 80, and 160Hz. The 40 and 80Hz settings have a 12dB/octave slope, while the 160Hz setting has a 6dB/octave slope). The old models had three filter settings: 0, 75, and 150Hz, all with a 12dB/octave slope.
There are four pad settings: 0, –6, –12, –18dB. On the previous models, there were three settings: 0, –10, and –20dB.
On the old C 414s, there were four polar patterns: omnidirectional, cardioid, hypercardioid, and figure 8. The new C414s have five polar patterns: omnidirectional, wide cardioid, cardioid, hypercardioid, and figure 8. Wide cardioid is like a cross between cardioid and omni, with more pickup from the rear and the slightly more from the sides.
Rather than small slider switches, the XLS and XL II have new pushbutton switches for stepping through settings. LEDs indicate which position each switch is in. When the phantom power is turned off, the last settings are remembered. If you grab the mic carelessly, it’s easy to inadvertently press one of these switches and change a setting.
The LEDs serve multiple purposes: The center polar pattern LED, for example, turns red to indicate overload in the microphone’s output stage. The polar pattern selector switch indicator LEDs also help the user to visually maintain on-axis orientation when distance miking.
All switching — filter, pad, and polar pattern — is in low-impedance circuits — this is said to reduce the mics’ sensitivity to humidity, whether from the environment or from moisture from a singer’s mouth.
SO WHAT ELSE IS NEW?
Besides the look of the new models and the control/sound tailoring capabilities, what else has changed? AKG lists a total of 15 differences between the old and the new versions; here are a few improved specs that will be immediately appreciated.
• 6dB increase in sensitivity.
• 8dB lower self-noise.
• The 1" dual diaphragm is suspended in an elastic shockmount, which reduces handling and stand-borne noise.
• Ready for remote operation with the soon-to-be-released R 414 remote control, which operates over regular XLR mic cables.
• The list prices have come down from previous models.
The XLS and XL II come with the PF-80 pop filter, H 85 shockmount, and a foam windscreen. The compact metal mic case has room for the pop filter, which is mounted on a gooseneck with an integrated stand clamp, the shockmount, the windscreen, and the microphone. Everything is held securely in fitted foam except the pop filter, which sits in the lid of the case.
The new H 85 shockmount is smaller than the older H 100 mount. The C 414 solidly locks in place, so you can orient the mic at any angle or upside down. The shockmount is easy to position, and is lightweight enough that it doesn’t overbalance boom stands.
The manual is quite good, with a list of recommended applications for each mic, as well as brief guides to mic placement with common sound sources and instruments.
In broad strokes, AKG recommends the XLS for acoustic instruments and the XL II for vocals. (See the sidebar for more on the recommended applications for each mic.) Of course either mic can be used on whatever source you want to put it in front of. It’s got plenty of SPL-handling capability for even the loudest sound (up to 158dB with the pad at its highest setting).
The XLS has the familiar C414 sound — if you’ve used a C 414B before, you’ll feel right at home. There’s full bottom end, present midrange, smooth top end, and controlled proximity effect. The XL II has a nice high-end boost that gives the sound a little lift; but it’s not overdone or hyped; just a bit of a rise.
Both mics work well in most applications, but when you compare them side-by-side, you’ll start to appreciate the differences and strengths in the two models. As recommended by AKG, the C 414B-XL II is the first choice for vocals. The slight high-end boost brings vocals forward nicely, helping them sit in the mix without making them strident or sibilant. For nylon-string classical guitar, I preferred the C 414B-XLS, which has smoother top end. The guitar sounded real and dynamic, without excess top end noise. On fingerstyle steel-string guitar, however, I liked the C 414B-XL II, for the added top-end detail and openness. I liked both mics on electric guitar, although the XLS was more true to the original, and the XL II could be slightly “fizzy” on heavy distortion tones.
On percussion, both mics work well; if you need more top end to bring out sizzle or impact, the XL II is the way to go. For smoother, natural top, go with the XLS.
The wide cardioid polar pattern is a useful addition. In some cases, a full omnidirectional pattern is too open, but a cardioid pattern doesn’t get enough room. The wide cardioid offers a compromise, with solid pickup from the rear, and slightly more pickup from the sides. If you have a nice-sounding room, you’ll find yourself using this pattern.
The improved self-noise allows you to cleanly capture very quiet sound sources without worry of too much hiss — you’ll probably hear preamp noise before you hear mic noise. On the other end of the scale, you’ll have trouble finding a source loud enough to top out the C 414s; at 158dB with the pad fully on, they can handle pretty much anything you throw at them.
The bass-cut filter is flexible. The 40 and 80Hz settings work well for vocals, etc., and provide tight bottom end. Generally I’m not a fan of low-cut filters that operate over 100Hz. But with its gentle 6dB/octave roll-off, the 160Hz setting on the XLS and XL II is usable on many sources.
NEW AND IMPROVED
The C 414B-XLS and C 414B-XL II represent a nice step forward for the venerable C 414 family. The improved specs will be appreciated in this 24-bit age, as will the new features, such as the more-flexible filter and pad, LED indicators, output stage overload indication, and more. The new wide cardioid polar pattern provides a nice option for when omni is too much and cardioid is too tight. The package is complete, including a shockmount, pop filter, and foam windscreen in a fitted metal case.
But the bottom line is the sound, and the new models deliver the well known C 414 timbre — the XL II adds a nice presence in the mid and high frequencies, which makes it even better for solo voices and instruments.
If you already own a C 414B-ULS or a C 414B-TL II, you’ll want to carefully consider whether the improved performance and new features make it worthwhile to move up. But if you’re buying your first C 414, the new models are the way to go.
Which one should you choose? The XLS, with its smooth, flat response is ideal for general purpose and instrument applications. The XL II, with its high-frequency boost, is great for vocals, solo instruments — anyplace you want a bit more high end flavor without resorting to EQ.
Whichever version you choose, you can’t go too far wrong. You’ll be getting a time-tested mic that performs well in almost any situation, with a complete selection of accessories. And maybe best of all, the price is down from the last generation. A new C 414 with improved features and specs for less money? We’re talking a good deal, folks!