The CAD Special: The Equitek E100s and The M179
When Ghostdad first told me that Pro Audio Star was going to start carrying CAD microphones, I knew right off the bat that I wanted to get in on the action. Over the years, CAD has built their reputation on price-performance ratio, and a CAD mic is often my first recommendation for the aspiring home studio owner. In fact, the CAD Trion 7000 was the first ribbon mic I ever owned. Now, the m179 is a mic that’s been near and dear to my heart for a while. As far as I’m concerned, if you have $200 to spend, and you need one mic that can do it all, you go and buy an m179. It’s really that simple. Yes, there are a lot of versatile microphones in the mid hundred dollar range, and a lot of them are quite good. Yes, you could probably do better with something like the Blue Spark or CAD’s own Trion 8000 if you were looking specifically for a vocal mic. For everything else, the m179 would be my first reach, and frankly, cost being no object, it almost always is my first reach for toms, and a strong contendor for overheads, acoustic guitar and smaller jazz kicks. Sorry for ruining the suspense in the first paragraph, but point blank, it’s a fantastic microphone.
The E100s is a little different though. At $500, it’s the flagship (price wise) of the CAD lineup, and its concept and sound signature are fairly unique. Unlike most other CAD mics (and most other mics in the price bracket period), the E100s is hand-made in the U.S. It also features a super-cardiod pickup pattern and solid nickel diaphragm (as opposed to the cardiod pickup pattern and gold-sputtered mylar foil diaphragms most commonly found in condenser microphones). Most strikingly, it has the lowest self-noise of any microphone on the planet (3.7dba!) and extremely good off-axis rejection. The real question though is, how does it sound? Well, quite unlike any other microphone in my locker frankly. And in a really cool way.
Design and Build Quality
Let’s start with the m179. It was an incredibly cool design when it came out, and it’s still a cool design today. For starters, it’s a lot smaller than you think it is. When you first open up the box you’ll think you got the miniature version. Especially given it’s strengths, this is a fantastic thing. Because it’s a side address design, and because of the flexibility of placement its shock mount enables, it’s a very easy mic to slip into tight spots on a drum kit (where it almost always excels) or right on the sweet-spot for an acoustic guitar without getting in the talent’s way. It’s a Chinese built microphone, but it’s a very well executed one: I’ve had my pair for the better part of half a decade now (though I picked up a new one for this review just to make sure the samples came from a recently produced iteration), and they look and sound just as good today as they did straight out of the box.
In my mind, however, the defining feature of the m179 is the infinitely variable pickup pattern. Yes, infinitely variable. There’s a rotary dial on the front of the capsule that you can freely swing from figure-of-eight to cardiod to omni, and every possible incarnation of super-cardiod or hyper-cardiod in between (with clearly marked indicators along the way for all of the primary pickup patterns). This is, frankly, awesome. For sound quality reasons I’ll get into in a bit, the m179 is not usually a go-to mic for me on vocals, but it certainly doesn’t sound bad, and the ability to dial in presence or add a bit of air and room at any increment you want is invaluable. For toms and kicks, just set to hyper-cardiod and go; you’ll get a fat, complete sound and really great sounding bleed. The m179s even work well as overheads. There’s almost nothing you can’t make an m179 sound good on; pound for pound it’s one of the best workhorse mics on the market before you even consider its staggeringly low asking price.
The E100s is something special though. Before anything else, it’s worth mentioning that the Made in the USA tag shows; it’s built like an M1 tank. It’s a beautiful microphone frankly, with styling reminiscent of the classic RCA designs, replete with a unique take on the classic yoke shocks. The shock mount is compact and effective, the case is designed to accommodate the mic with the shock still on so you never have to worry about wasting time on setup, and its sleek design takes up minimal space for close micing (and I highly recommend giving it a try on a snare in that vein). There’s a 10db pad and a high pass filter on the front thrown in for good measure, and the pickup pattern is fixed in super-cardiod (a tighter front pattern than cardiod, with a little bit of backside pickup, almost like a shrunken figure-of-eight). Combined with its vanishingly low self-noise, this makes it a fantastic choice for a room mic, picking up just a touch of the room itself while maintaining a tight focus on the direct source.
Sound Quality, Tone and Versatility
The m179 is not the most neutral mic in my cabinet, but it’s pretty close. There’s a little peakiness in the upper mids and trebles, and you’ll definitely get a touch of sparkle, but all in all it’s just a very even keel, natural sounding microphone – one of the least hyped signatures I can think of. If you place it well and set the pickup pattern appropriately it will give you a natural, realistic sound on nearly anything you put it up on. For sources that need that hype, it can sound a little flat, because it’s not your typical shiny, sparkly mic the way a lot of lower-priced condensers are these days. For me though, that’s a really good thing – I’d rather be EQing in a touch of top-end hype in post than trying to EQ hype I don’t want out. And the variable pickup pattern really lets you tailor the focus exactly the way you want for the given setting. It’ll give you an airy, roomy sound in omni, a tight, focused sound in cardiod and everything in between, just as you’d expect it to. For a pickup pattern that truly is infinitely variable, it’s surprisingly precise, and you can massage it into giving you a very full sound out of a somewhat thin source if you tinker with it a bit. It’s also a very quiet mic in it’s own right – 11 dba self-noise is nothing to scoff at, and certainly nothing you’re going to pick up in most applications. If I like the sound I’m hearing in the room more or less the way it is, I can always count on the m179 to capture it.
The E100s is a different beast altogether. First off, it’s absurdly quiet: throw it up 10 feet away from a kit or a string section, and it just sits in this inky blackness, completely disappearing from the room. Combined with its inherently bright signature, it lends a sense of air and detail that’s wonderful. The super-cardiod pattern is very tight too; off-axis rejection is excellent. Bass response is defined and solid; great extension and transient impact. It lacks that same pristine detail retrieval in the mids and trebles, but it’s so quiet that you end up with a signature that’s utterly perfect strings or woodwind, as well as many vocals and darker guitars. And of course, it’s the ideal mic for anything you need to distance mic. It’s so quiet, and so tight in terms of its pattern, that you can get a real sense of space without picking up too much room or having to dredge up too much floor. In most setups, you’ll pickup pre or converter noise before you hear the mic.
It’s definitely a bright mic, with a classic 10-15k rise, and in the wrong setup it can be painfully so. In trying to give it a reach on a slide guitarist, for example, it brought up way too much fret squeel, and sounded obtrusively harsh. On other setups, however, the hype is perfect. I went back to it for the same guitarist doing finger-picked blues on a fairly dark Martin, and it sounded fantastic; detailed and present. I’ve actually posted a little session I did with the same guitarist using the M179 on the guitar body, and the E100s on the vocals (the only mic he’ll let me use now, and he tried out all my favorite tube mics too), so you’ll get a chance to hear a complete session done with just these two microphones.
My tastes for singers generally pull me to one of the tube mics in my cabinet, usually the Peluso 2247se for male singers and the MXL Genesis or Lauten Oceanus for female singers. I was not envisioning using the E100s as a vocal mic, but it really works wonders on a lot of male voices. Its presence, low end detail and incredible capacity to absorb abuse really make it a fantastic reach for country and indie-rock singers.
The m179 is the bargain of the century. It’s a mic I want within reach at all times, and I have mics that cost thousands of dollars more in my cabinet. I’ve used in countless situations, for dozens of applications, even on big-budget recordings where far more expensive microphones are available to me. Truly and honestly, if I could only have one mic for everything I do, and I couldn’t spend more than $200, the m179 would undoubtedly be it. If I had $400 to spend I might just buy two. Pound for pound I think this is the most versatile mic you can buy for the price, which might just make it the best mic you can buy for the price too.
The E100s, on the other hand, represents a different kind of value. There’s very little else out there like this anywhere close to its price range, so it’s sort of comparing apples and oranges. Frankly, if I needed a single mic to do everything, I’d rather have the m179. That said, it’s an utterly invaluable addition to my locker. There are things the E100s can do that no other mic I’ve tried can, and its sound signature is quite unlike any other microphone in my locker. It manages to sound bright and present and round and full all at the same time, and I can’t help but keep coming back to how damn quiet it is. Put simply, there’s half a dozen singers I work with at this point who have threatened to throw tantrums when I try out different mics. It’s not all things to all sources, but it’s unlike any other mic in my locker, and it excels in areas that many of my other mics fall flat, which makes it utterly invaluable to me.
The Final Verdict
These two mics really represent the two faces of what CAD does, and can do. For me, the m179 is the quintessential CAD mic: an inexpensive, rugged workhorse that always does its job well. I’ve loved my m179s for years, and doing this review has only reinforced in my mind just how I often I still use them. The E100s, on the other hand, represents a different (and incredibly positive) kind of vision for CAD. It’s not all things to all people, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a truly unique concept, and it’s incredibly well executed. Frankly, I wish there were more microphones out there with this kind of design vision and purpose. The E100s is a mic I’ve been intrigued by for a very long time, and everything I was hoping it would do, it does. It’s an invaluable addition to my stable that solves a huge number of problems for me, and I’m incredibly glad to have it. There have been CAD mics I’ve worked with in the past that weren’t for me, but these two are both big winners in their own ways.
But don’t take my word for it. My good friend Tom Larsen, a phenomenal young guitarist and singer I regularly work with (you can learn more about him at www.tuckerandlarsenjazz.com), was generous enough to let me post one of the raw takes we did in a recent session featuring these two microphones exclusively. The song, “Three Hours Past Midnite” is an original blues composition of his, and features the m179 on the guitar, and the E100s on vocals. I’ve panned the m179 hard to the left, and the E100s hard to the right to help differentiate the signatures a little bit, but apart from that, the take is raw and unedited. The gain staging and peakiness on the vox aside (which is largely a function of the fact that it still needs some compression), I think you’ll agree that it sounds mighty close to a finished product as is.
Dev is a professional jazz-fusion composer, singer, sound engineer and front man for the band Wire Spoke Wheels, living and operating in beautiful Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s also co-founder and co-chairman of Frost Audio, a small Michigan based audio company specializing in high performance cables and loudspeakers, all hand-made in the USA. He’ll be releasing his next studio album, Tears of Men, in early 2011. To learn more or hear his work, check out www.devavidon.com