Featured sE Electronics X1 S Studio Bundle by Arthur Stone
sE Electronics are knocking them out of the ground like Sir Garfield Sobers at the moment; a sextet of good-sounding, hand-manufactured mics at a modest cost and built to last. I first tried (and Gearslutz-reviewed) the X1 in 2012 and due to its long high-pass filter roll-off and smooth high-end it works well in the right situation; the weak spot IMO is a tendency to emphasise tubbiness/boxiness in the low-mids on 'tubby' sources or in a 'boxy' room.
Five years later sE Electronics have expanded and upgraded the X1 range whilst maintaining the familiar form, quality and hand-built manufacturing – also, keeping the cost low. The range now includes the: X1 A (budget); X1 R (ribbon); X1 D (Titanium) and X1 S (cardioid LDC) tested in this review. The X1 S sounds good for the money with not a hint of tubbiness or mud. The newer sE mics have a much more polished sound with a more balanced character; even so, my older X1 still comes out once in awhile and it's good to have in the locker.
This review is of the X1 S Studio bundle: mic, filter, pop-shield, and XLR cable.
I tested the X1 S with BAE1073mpf, Sound Devices 702 and Focusrite Saffire preamps: they all worked well with a more comfortable range of gain when used with the more expensive pre's – but in the pocket the X1 S sounded good with them all.
In addition to brightening tone, the high-pass filter (HPF) affects headroom (by filtering out the costly high-energy bass frequencies) and I think this will benefit users of budget pre's. The HPF cut-off points are 80 and 160Hz and with the -10 and -20dB pads that creates a small but effective tonal palette despite the fixed cardioid mode. The cardioid pattern is comfortably wide (maybe 40 degrees) and the capture rolls off gently to the side; this allows for a little movement and proximity for the vocalist which, when learnt, can add nuance to a performance.
The X1 S frequency (vs dB) chart shows a remarkably smooth response; flat from 50Hz to 1.5kHz and then a gentle lift to 5kHz increasing to a peak around 13kHz with a quite pronounced roll-off to 20kHz. It does actually sound like that too. No bumpiness in the low end; presence without too much emphasis on sibilance and clear highs.
The chart also shows the cut-off points for the high-pass filter at around 110 and 220Hz with no resonant peaks at the cut-off points.
The polar chart shows some rear capture across the 4, 8, and 16 kHz frequencies (which is normal for mics of this type) and, if this is undesirable, the RF-X filter would work well in attenuating that. The forward-facing pattern is remarkably tight through the spectrum and perhaps that's why the mic sounds smooth. I'm not sure why the 16 kHz pattern moves in a quarter (there is an accompanying 2-3dB boost in the frequency plot) although I didn't notice anything adverse in the air region. Maybe that could be a useful feature when the operator is familiar with the X1 S's character.
The video displayed above is an overview of the sE X1 S bundle hardware and some typical home-studio audio tests: acoustic (Martin D15) and amp'ed electric guitar (Tele/Blackstar), lapsteel, hand drums and vocals.
The attached audio clips are of acoustic guitar: the 'dry' clips are with no processing; the fx clips are passed through Softube's Console 1 (British Class A for sample 1 and the Summit channel for sample 2...in case anyone's interested!). The audio signal path in the video and audio clips is: X1 S mic>BAE 1073mpf preamp>RADAR Studio>Propellerhead Reason DAW.
Ac Gtr 1 dry
Ac Gtr 1 fx
Ac Gtr 2 dry
Ac Gtr 2 fx
I enjoyed using the X1 S; it was stress-free and easy to use. I was surprised at how good the recorded files sounded for a mic in this price range. The filter seemed to help add depth and mid-range resolution in the recording – which was quite a hasty session with lots of distractions.
It's a busy world sometimes, not always as much time as we'd like to spend paying attention to detail or dwelling with something. In a way, the X1 S is made for that busy world. It's instant. Put it on a stand and you're good to go. It doesn't warrant any fuss; it just does it's thing – and it does that thing very well, sounding smooth and expensive. It'll possibly save a little studio time.
Every diamond has it's flaw (even expensive vintage ones) and I didn't find anything notable in the review period; it does have a slight signature sound but I did like what I recorded with X1 S especially at the price. It was effortless and I felt it would sit in the mix well without too much EQ or compression. The source remained firm even with heavy ITB reverb.
I wasn't sure what advantages hand-building had over automated machine assembly; surely the robots are more reliable? I did some research. There are pros and cons of both production methods.
I worked with primitive robots in the 1980's; the robots then had a very basic repertoire of capability and generally could not do fine tolerance tasks unless the tools were set by a human. The industrial robotic process replaced mundane, repetitive tasks like spot-welding, paint spraying or moving components: think 'Thomann warehouse' but much, much bigger.
So given the revolution in robotics/automation systems and AI (since the 80's), why not automate mic manufacture? One reason I guess is the costs of setting up a clean-room environment and filling that with costly machines that need to be custom-designed and built; for example, electronic chip-manufacturing plants can take a decade to plan/build and cost $billions; there is a scale-of-economy with chips that mic manufacture cannot afford if it is to avoid becoming generic.
SE Electronics have this to say about hand-manufacture: “...meticulously constructed and tuned in sE’s capsule room by technicians with decades of experience....This results in a capsule built like the world’s finest musical instruments - and a capsule truly up to the challenge of recording them.” Nice. I didn't expect that.
So let's check out the Capsule Room.
“Building and tuning a capsule is a subtle, artistic process, and given the scale of the vibrations which they must perceive, this is the most vital element of the mic...Whether your sE mic costs $2,000 or $200, we're hand-building it for you.” So there's a trickle-down of manufacturing techniques and expertise from the more expensive sE mics to the X range.
The RF-X Reflexion Filter is a 4-layer, semi-circular mass that attaches to a mic stand; it's purpose is to attenuate sound reflections from the room so that the mic’s direct sound capture is clearer.
The RF-X's 4 layers are: the composite plastic on the outside; a wool fabric layer; an air gap; and an inner smoothly-ridged foam layer. The plastic will obviously reflect a lot of sound coming from the rear (apart from the slots) but also trap sound from the front. The wool layer should be useful and I made a comparison to pulling a wool hat over my ears although I'm sure sE's approach is a lot more nuanced than that. The air gap is probably a lot more useful than it sounds.
I tested the RF-X's sound-blocking capability by positioning it near an open window and listening to whether the neighbourhood/traffic sounds were attenuated as I moved my head into the arc of the filter. It didn't seem to do much, maybe a dB or two, but it didn't stick out in any particular frequency region and had good, balanced broadband attenuation albeit subtle.
When used for recording a source within a (meh) room the RF-X's utility was a little more apparent: I could still hear room sound but it was nicely separated from the direct signal. I think I'd need to do a lot more recording to understand the subtlety but something positive was happening. I heard very little attenuation of any frequencies when listening within the radius but it did seem to help in important areas in the recording (approx. 700Hz -3.5kHz).
For a novice or for a producer/artist who doesn't want to think too much about technical specifics, the RF-X is a good choice. Just set-up and focus on creating. I think someone more advanced in engineering and studio use will recognise the limitations and potential uses of this type of filter and even if it's not used every day then it's a good robust standby when needed for a specific task. It should last a lifetime with perhaps a foam change once a decade and the wool every 20 years.
The RF-X is light, well-balanced and easy to move on the stand – but it does feel solid too. If it fell off a cliff it would probably have only a couple of scratches. The hardware was pretty good at the price too. Nice machining and no burrs, weak points or faults. It isn't bulky and has a small footprint; best located on top of a mic stand (without boom attached).
The RF-X Reflexion Filter also was quite pleasing aesthetically...kinda hi-tech; plastic-looking but not too cheap. Same type of material as the portable rack cases. It didn't feel claustrophobic in use and didn't interfere with normal studio operations.
SE also make a more advanced RF-X Reflexion Filter which has a different design and materials upgrade as does the RF-Space and RF-Pro; there's also a guitaRF reflection filter for mic'ing guitar amps. The different reflection filters are also available as bundles with a range of sE microphones.
Ease of use: 5/5
I found the cardioid pattern to be quite forgiving of position; not too focussed but not too wide. In a busy room or an acoustically-compromised room the (optional/bundle) RF-X Reflexion Filter will help keep the recording free of unwanted noise particularly in the 700Hz-3.5 kHz range (in which human hearing has the greatest resolution); also the assembled rig was reasonably stable in use.
Bang-for buck: 5/5
Excellent value for the price given the sonic capability and build-quality. Around £240 for the X1 S bundle reviewed; or £125 for the mic alone. The mic casing and filter rig is durable enough to last decades with care and the bundle components work well together. There is also a 'Vocal Pack' bundle consisting of: the X1 S mic (reviewed here), the suspension, pop-shield, and XLR cable (around £150). It'll pay to shop around for latest prices but if it's the X1 S you want then make sure you don't order the budget X1 instead!
Sound quality: 5/5
Again, for the price bracket, a really clean, polished sound that responded well to many sources. It sounded great in the recording without EQ or compression. There's no real up-front character, more of a refined neutrality like a butler; but this encourages a reliance on the source for character rather than the mic. The generous cardioid pattern picks up a complimentary amount of room sound which keeps the source sounding natural. The RF-X filter helps keep the focus on the source.
Fixed cardioid but three filter positions and three pad positions add flexibility for a variety of sources and situations. I considered 4/5 due to fixed cardioid but I just think it works well with this mic and makes it easier to use. The HPF and pad switches are rudimentary but do the job; it can be difficult to see the exact positions in low-light.
It's good to know that hand-made instruments still have a role in an increasingly automated world. As usual sE's marketing is factual and makes no false claims. sE's informative website shows that they manufacture a range of mics from the budget X1 A to the Rupert Neve-designed high-end ribbons and lot's of good stuff in-between. A proportion of that high-end instrument-maker expertise has filtered down to the X1 S.
sE Electronics have created a well-designed, well-engineered and stylish mic, hand-made from good quality components, and even if the look is not for you, the X1 S still has a capable and classy sound. It sounds more expensive than the cost.
Credits and references:
Graphs and photos with permission of sE Electronics.
Additional photos with permission – Arthur Stone.