The Samson VR88 is a relatively affordable, handcrafted velocity ribbon mic that can handle most anything you throw at it.
We've all been taught that applying phantom power to a ribbon mic is a big mistake. Recently, though, R&D has been putting new twists on old designs and combining technologies to throw some of our old notions for a loop. A good example of the innovations hitting the market is Samson's VR88 ($749.95), an accessibly priced active velocity ribbon microphone. It has an active output stage and requires a dose of phantom power to operate. According to Samson Technologies, the VR88 is the result of more than five years of engineering research and product development, and it's a limited production model crafted by hand.
Out of the Box
I received a pair of VR88s, each neatly packaged in its own lightweight aluminum carrying case fitted with form-cut foam to accommodate the microphone, a yokemount, a shockmount, and a right-angle XLR mic cable. That's a nice selection of accessories for such an affordable mic. Ribbon mics of yore could hold down a stack of paper in a hurricane, but at 1.1 pounds, this streamlined newcomer is relatively light. Even with its 2-micron-thick corrugated-aluminum-foil ribbon, the mic is quite hardy, boasting an SPL handling capability of up to 138 dB.
The mic's housing is about 7 inches long and 1.25 inches deep. The flattened design makes it easy to handle, and it won't roll off the table if you put it down for a moment. The XLR connection at the mic's base is threaded on the outside with a knurled collar that can be screwed off, so the mic can be placed in either the yokemount or the shockmount and secured by screwing the collar back on.
Both the specially designed yokemount and shockmount are made of die-cast aluminum with a custom mic holster made of molded plastic lining the inside with insulating foam rubber. The swivel stand adapter features a comfortable ergonomic knob to tighten the mounts to a stand, though the knob is made of plastic. Both mounts were easy to use and held the mic securely.
The VR88 has a bidirectional figure-8 pickup pattern, like most ribbon mics, and its stated frequency response is between 30 Hz and 16 kHz. The phantom-powered output stage was incorporated to give the mic a hotter output. Most ribbon mics have a very low output, making it difficult to get decent gain from preamps not optimized for use with ribbon mics. The output stage makes the mic suitable for use with any mic preamp. The VR88 is touted as good for vocals and acoustic instruments and tough enough to use on drums and electric guitar, so I put the VR88 through its paces to see what it could deliver.
Testing — 1, 2, 3
I used the VR88s as drum overheads and on cello, female vocals, baritone saxophone, percussion, and acoustic and electric guitar. In all applications, the mics performed admirably, and their sonic characteristics were pretty well matched. The active output gave them about 8 dB to 10 dB hotter output than some other ribbon mics I've used, which was a plus. It was nice not to have to crank up the gain and risk added noise.
Compared with the typically crisp and detailed response of a good condenser, the VR88s sounded a bit veiled and dark on drum overheads, but the sound was smooth and had decent definition — definitely usable. It captured plenty of resonance on steel-string acoustic guitar, but it was a bit dark for my taste and lacked sparkle.
Baritone sax sounded warm and smooth through the VR88. The mic's characteristics were also well suited for cello, sounding rich and full. A female vocalist with a smoky voice was well represented by the mic's velvety response. While not as present as a Royer R-121 on an electric guitar cabinet, it still held its own and captured great tone.
The VR88 exhibits the classic ribbon-mic response, sounding warm and smooth. Though it's a bit on the dark side when miking drums from above and on steel-string guitar, it's a real winner on cello, vocals, and saxophone. The new Samson VR88 is worthy of consideration if you want to expand your sonic palette with ribbon technology but you don't want to break the bank.
Value (1 through 5): 4