Jul 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Bruce Borgerson
Today’s offerings are small enough to be heard but not seen.
The lavalier microphone is a shrinking device with a shrunken name. The origin of the term harks back to a type of jewelry pendant popularized by the Duchesse de la Vallière, a favored mistress of Louis XIV. Within the fashion world, this appellation was eventually shortened to “lavaliere,” and by now, most microphone manufacturers have dropped the final “e.” In everyday usage, most of us simply call them “lavs.”
Lavalier microphones were given the name because, in the beginning, they had to be suspended around the neck on a lanyard. Such was the only practical way for suspending the cumbersome dynamic models that rivaled the size and heft of a crystal saltshaker. But, with the advent of workable electret condenser technology in the 1960s, lavalier microphone capsules began a continuing process of shrinkage — first to the size of thimbles, then pencil-end erasers, then match heads. Nevertheless, the name stuck. The alternatives of “lapel” and “clip-on” never took hold.
Today, the category of lavalier microphones generally refers to any small microphone designed to be attached to a musical instrument or to the body — either clipped to clothing, attached with adhesive to the skin, or (as is often the case in theater applications) concealed in natural hair or a wig. The following survey divides lavs into two broad categories (separated by a fuzzy gray area): the stage-and-studio subminiatures and the general-purpose variety.
The subminiatures define a new generation of high-performance and extremely low-profile microphones. Offering exemplary performance, these tiny (and relatively pricey) models dominate as the unseen stars of audio for Broadway shows, location film recording, and TV production. These same qualities have made them increasingly popular for use in high-end corporate presentation and house-of-worship sound applications, as well.
Subminiatures incorporate the latest advancements across a broad range of microphone-related technologies. For example, new materials and better charging techniques provide higher levels of permanent backplate voltage; this, in turn, allows greater spacing between the diaphragm and backplate to accommodate higher SPL input. Several new designs place a slender, elongated diaphragm parallel to the cable (“vertical diaphragm”), thus reducing the capsule diameter close to that of the cable itself. Other advancements include new diaphragm materials for greater stability in changing environmental conditions; improvements in the strength and pliability of the cables; and increased resistance to contamination and corrosion from moisture, perspiration salts, and makeup.
As a group, most share these common characteristics:
- Capsule diameter of less than 6mm
- Relatively flat frequency response of 20Hz or 30Hz to 20kHz
- Choice of colors (black and several flesh tones)
- Choice of capsule “tweaks” for tradeoffs on noise, sensitivity, and maximum SPL
- Base prices in the $250-to-$500 range.
Less common features among the “subs” are the inclusion of switchable caps for acoustic equalization (to boost selected high frequencies), choice of pickup pattern (omni, cardioid, and sometimes super-cardioid), and availability of connectors for all wireless systems. Most, however, will provide at least a “pigtail version” as well as a connector for that particular manufacturer's wireless beltpacks.
The everyday workhorses are designed for applications where some visibility is allowed — though discreet appearance is nevertheless desirable. Common characteristics among this group include:
- Capsule diameter (or width) of more than 5mm
- More restricted frequency response
- Few (if any) choices for colors other than black
- Fewer choices for capsule “tweaks”
- Base prices in the $100-to-$250 range.
The following survey profiles a range of entries in both categories of lavaliers. Frequency response figures are not always given, because they are closely comparable within each category; flatness of response varies, but space restrictions preclude printing the response curves. Noise figures are generally excluded, because manufacturers state them differently. Prices given are MSRP for a “base model,” which normally is either a pigtail version or one with a connector for that manufacturer's own beltpack transmitter. Other connectors or adapters normally cost an additional $20 to $40, and a separate power supply and preamplifier for wired “news desk” applications could add $100 or more.
Manufacturers included below are those that supply microphone products exclusively, or that make a wide variety of microphones alongside their own wireless systems. Companies that primarily market wireless systems but may offer lavalier options (most likely OEM products) are not included. Also excluded are a few manufacturers focused almost exclusively on the very high-end broadcast and film location markets and, at the other end, consumer-oriented products listing for less than $100.
Our assessment kicks off with three microphone manufacturers that boldly approach today's highly competitive marketplace — now dominated by wireless applications — without offering their own wireless systems.
Sennheiser MKE Platinum
The first, Countryman Associates, is a relatively small California concern that has made a big name for itself by producing extremely small microphones. In fact, with an external diameter of 2.5mm (0.1in.), Countryman's B6 omni measures in as the tiniest of all surveyed here. Performance is very good, with a frequency response flat to 20kHz and rolling off at only 30Hz. If you have good eyesight and nimble fingers, you can add brightness boost of 4dB or 8dB at about 12kHz with the tiny acoustic caps. The B6 is available in two sensitivity versions (maximum SPL of 118dB or 128dB) and five colors: black, white, beige, cocoa, and light grey. Connectors are available to mate with wireless systems from 17 manufacturers, all of which make the price sheet finely detailed. Base price is $389.
Still tiny at twice the size (5.8mm diameter), Countryman's B3 is similar in most other respects. It offers the same connector options, colors, and acoustic EQ caps. However, low-frequency response extends to 20Hz, and the hardwired 48V phantom version can handle up to 150dB SPL. Base price drops to $224. Finally, on the borderline of the general-purpose group, Countryman offers the flat-and-square EMW ($198), primarily designed to mount on or behind clothing.
DPA of Denmark adopted a simple philosophy with its Miniature series: Make one premium omni capsule, and then tweak it for any conceivable application. The capsule in question is gold anodized with a 5.4mm vertical diaphragm and 400V backplate. Though the 14 microphones in the series may appear identical on the outside (except for the four color options), the basic capsule comes in three different sensitivities, a low-power version (only 3V needed), and a presence boost version (5dB at 4kHz-6kHz). The star of the series on stage is the 4061 ($425) with response tailored to the vocal range and replaceable grip caps for a 3dB soft boost at 8kHz-20kHz or a harder peak of 10dB at 12kHz. The 4061 takes up to 123dB SPL at less than 1 percent THD, while the extra-low sensitivity 4062 takes up to 154dB before clipping. (DPA claims this model is popular for placing under the hood on broadcasts of Nascar races.) As for connectors, DPA simplifies its price sheets by offering one Red Dot connector, which mates to a range of adapters for most wireless systems, thus allowing the same microphone to be used with various systems.
Known primarily for its studio condensers, Sanken of Japan has found growing acceptance in the theater market with its COS-11 ($400). The 4mm capsule is equipped with a vertical PPS (polyphenylene sulfide) diaphragm for stable response with varying temperature and humidity. When mated to the unusually robust 2.1mm cable, the slender housing resists snagging in clothing and hair. Two sensitivities are offered: standard (120dB-127dB SPL depending on version) and the low-sensitivity “red mark” which handles up to 136dB. Frequency response is 20Hz-20kHz, with a presence boost at about 8kHz. Currently only XLR, battery-powered and pigtail-connector versions are available.
INHOUSE WIRELESS OPTIONS
The remaining seven players in this market offer both a separate line of microphones and their own wireless systems. Across the board, their products are comparable (in most respects) to those made by the “specialists” above, though with one important exception: connectors. Except as noted, your choice may be limited to the connector compatible with that company's own transmitters, a standard XLR, and a bare pigtail.
The CK 77 takes the spotlight in the lavalier line from AKG of Austria. The miniature (5.5mm diameter) omni has dual vertical diaphragms for immunity to cable noise and redundancy in extreme-use conditions. The capsule is highly moisture resistant, and easy disassembly allows for cleaning out makeup and quick cable replacement. The sensitivity (maximum SPL 133dB) is tuned for a variety of typical voice and instrumental applications. The CK 77 WR wireless version (1.5VDC-12VDC, $387) is available in black or flesh tone; the C 577 (9VDC-52VDC, $462) version for phantom powering is offered in black only.
Targeted at more general-purpose uses, AKG's C 417 omni ($212) is a bit larger (7.5mm diameter), gives a presence boost at 10kHz, handles up to 118dB SPL, and is available in black only. For applications requiring a cardioid response, AKG offers the CK 97-C ($331) Blue Line capsule, with a low-frequency rolloff for 150Hz-20kHz response. An omni version is available as well, with bayonet connector or pigtail on either. Color is dark gray only.
Although the company markets its own wireless systems, Audio-Technica accommodates others in the field by offering off-the-shelf versions of most models with connectors for Shure, Sennheiser, and Lectrosonics transmitters, as well as its own. A-T's premier entry is the AT898/899 capsule design, available as either cardioid (AT898) or omni (AT899). Both list for $179 as a base model, and $299 with the power/preamp module included. Designed for discreet theater and TV/film production use, these capsules are a mere 5mm in diameter, and the package comes with a full complement of clips and windscreens. Response of the omni version is given as 28Hz-20kHz, with the cardioid version claiming 200Hz-15kHz. Both are available in black, but only the theater-oriented omni is also available in beige.
In the general-purpose category, Audio-Technica offers the cardioid AT831c design ($105) and the flat-profile MT830c omni ($95). Still relatively discreet at 10.5mm, the AT831c handles a maximum input of 141dB SPL and 40Hz-16kHz response. The flattened MT830c (5mm thick and 15.8mm long) omni claims an extended response of 30Hz-20kHz with 131dB maximum SPL. Again, only the omni MT830c is available in beige.
A keeper of European traditions, Beyerdynamic holds to the “lavaliere” spelling in its marketing materials. For virtual disappearance in theater applications, Beyerdynamic offers the MCE 55 ($179), a 5.2mm diameter omni with a water-resistant capsule. A full-bandwidth response and maximum SPL of 130dB also make it suitable for use on instruments. The MCE 55 is offered in either black or beige. The company's MCE 5 ($229) omni is only slightly larger at 7mm, and it offers a smooth response that is well-suited to instruments such as flutes and violins. The MCE 60 ($169) is also a black-only omni with a higher sensitivity to pick up more subtle sounds, or sounds at greater distances. Beyerdynamic's MCE 10 ($299) uses a high-sensitivity hypercardioid capsule for applications where positioning is controllable and off-axis rejection is desired. Frequency response is listed as 40Hz-20kHz with maximum SPL of 120dB. All Beyerdynamic models are available as standard versions, with either mini-XLR connector or bare pigtails.
Clockaudio of the United Kingdom (North American offices in Canada) is making a bid for greater market presence with entries at two price points. The firm's premier offering is the CL5 miniature omni ($315), which claims a full 20Hz-20kHz response and 120dB maximum SPL, and works on transmitter power voltages from 1.5V to 10V. The CL5's round capsule measures 14mm in diameter, and is available in black or beige. Termination is stripped pigtail or TA4F. The value-oriented CL4 omni ($99), also in black or beige, has a 50Hz-16kHz response. Both models include tie clips and foam windscreens.
Despite new and aggressive competition, Sennheiser (Germany) is holding tenaciously to a large chunk of the high-end market with its MKE 2 series of subminiatures. The latest addition is the MKE Platinum ($455), a 4mm diameter subminiature omni featuring a proprietary “Umbrella Diaphragm” to keep out soaking sweat. Frequency response is basically flat from 20Hz to 20kHz, but can be tailored for high-end boost with end caps. Peak SPL at 1kHz is 142dB. The thin (1mm) cable is Kevlar-reinforced for strength and pliability. Sennheiser's MKE 2 Gold (also $455) is the successor to the MKE 2 Red Dot version, incorporating a dual low-mass diaphragm design to guard against sweat-outs. Affectionately dubbed “Mickey Two” by a generation of theater sound designers, the original MKE 2 ($375) is still available, offering its trademark flat frequency response (20Hz-20kHz) and low handling noise. The MKE 2 Gold and MKE Platinum are available in black and beige, the MKE 2 in matte black only.
Sennheiser also offers the modular ME 100 Series with interchangeable omni, cardioid, and super-cardioid capsules ($294 each). These can be mated with straight or right-angle cables terminated by various connectors, allowing use of the same capsules for different wired and wireless applications.
LAST OF THE DYNAMICS?
Illinois-based Shure offers its premier subminiature (5.8mm diameter) in a variety of wired and wireless configurations. The preferred version for most theater applications is the WL50 omni ($316) which offers a flat response (20Hz-20kHz) that can be tailored by high-end boost caps. The regular version has a maximum SPL of 133dB, while the otherwise identical WL50-LO ($353) takes up to 142dB. Both are available in black, beige, or white. The same capsule is reconfigured for cardioid response in the WL51 ($355), with maximum SPL pegged at 138dB. This version is offered in white and black only. All above models are intended for wireless use (5VDC required), and are available with Shure's TA4F connector or stripped and tinned leads. For those who require a hardwired solution, the omni variant is the MC50B ($501), and the cardioid is the MC51B ($525).
Shure's WL93 ($108) is a very popular and cost-effective flat-body miniature lavalier, with a rectangular face of about 6mm×9mm and less than 4mm thick. Frequency response is 50Hz-20kHz, with a boost between 5kHz and 10kHz. Black and tan colors are offered; a TA4F connector for wireless applications is the sole termination. The SM93 version ($248) includes a phantom-powered preamplifier module.
Finally, Shure enjoys the distinction of being the last manufacturer (to our knowledge) offering a dynamic lavalier: the venerable SM11. By today's subminiature standards, it is hefty at 14mm in diameter and 7.9 grams (0.28oz.), but it's tiny compared to its forebears. It provides a rugged, good-performing, and reasonably discreet alternative for hardwired applications where phantom powering is not available or desired.
Rounding out our survey is Sony of Japan, a company that set the pace for high-quality, reasonably priced electret condenser lavaliers with its storied ECM-50.It was considered a miniature when it hit the market in the 1970s, though its successor (the $375 ECM-55) ranks as a middleweight at best, with its black-only capsule measuring 10.6mm in diameter. Sony's bid to stay at the forefront in 2006 comes in form of the ECM-88FPT ($380), which takes the tape at a svelte 3.5mm for its flat-sided tubular capsule. Inside is a vertical dual-diaphragm housed in a rectangular “tray” to maintain capsule rigidity for uniform response. Response is almost ruler-flat, from 20Hz to 20kHz, with only a very slight on-axis HF boost and off-axis attenuation above 15kHz. The ECM-88 also touts moisture resistance and low susceptibility to handling noise. Black and beige versions are available with pigtails, and black only with Sony SMC9-4P connector or two-way power supply unit.
With its huge customer base in broadcast and video production, it's hardly surprising that Sony makes lavaliers for every conceivable need in this market — as long as you want them in black. Other offerings in the Sony line include the ECM-77BPT omni ($330), the ECM-66BC cardioid ($304), and the ECM-44BC ($134). All prices are for capsule with bare pigtail only. All are available with connectors for Sony transmitters and with in-line power supplies.
For More Information
Bruce Borgersonis sole proprietor of Wavelength Communications, an audio-oriented enterprise nestled at the foot of the Siskiyou Mountains in Ashland, Ore.