Avantone has a knack for taking something that starts out as a basic and mostly workable design and turning into something that is worth more than the sum of its parts. The Avantone CK-1 is another one of those wonderful little surprises from the "Cabernet" Pro series of microphones.
The microphone arrived in a plain and simple white cardboard box with only a black and white sticker with a logo, inventory of the contents within, and a hand written serial number to tell anyone what might actually be in this little box. Once I opened the cardboard box, I was treated to a basic two and a half page summary of the microphone details. Beneath that was a decently made little wooden jewelry style box. When I opened the box I was pleasantly surprised to see the black velvety lining containing the microphone, stunning against in its Cabernet red color against the black background, heavy shockmount, and two additional capsules.
The microphone itself looks much like its competitors, who may or may not be manufactured in the same factories. The fit and finish were nice overall, but left just a bit to be desired when compared to boutique brands. The Neumann KM 184s I was used to working with definitely had a heavier build, lack of finish flaws, and no excess flash from the molded mic body. But, even when compared to some Austrian made entry level mics, the build is comparable. The Avantone did demonstrate some issues with the plating of the cardioid capsule as well as some excess flash around the vents. Not an issue and may not even be something that happens much. Still, for this price range I felt it was definitely above average.
The shockmount is a heavy device that does well in isolating the microphone from any floor noise or stand handling. The weight of the mount and the omission of a 3/8" European style adapter might be a detraction to some. But, the heavy rubber bands seemed to do a wonderful job keeping the rumbles away from the capsule.
Speaking of capsules, this mic offers three 19mm capsules for different sounds and sound control. These are: cardioid, omnidirectional, and hypercardioid. The default capsule is the cardioid capsule. I found it very useful at controlling the sound and bleed, although it does have heavy proximity effect and also starts to sound a bit weird off axis, as is normal for a SDC. I had to back away from the mic a bit more to get a more balanced tone. Swapping capsules (which is as simple as turning off the mic pre, unscrewing the one installed, and then screwing the one that you want installed in place, then turning the mic pre back on) and using the omni capsule did away with the proximity build-up and gave a much more balanced sound, especially on string instruments such as guitar and ukelele. The hypercardioid didn't have as much of a proximity effect but still controlled the room sound while maintaining a good "in-between" sound.
A quick word about swapping capsules: Apparently the earlier versions of this mic had a different set up for swapping capsules and used the same grill "lid" while only swapping the internal capsules. The newer mics replace the entire head and, to me, seem to be a more viable and safe option for swappable capsules.
The mic also features a -10dB cut as well as a high-pass switch which kicks in around 80Hz. Both are very handy features which worked well.
So, how did it sound? Very nice. It definitely had a much nicer sound quality than most of the other SDC mics in its category. Avantone prides themselves on the upgrades that they have made to these mics, such as high grade polystyrene and metalized polystyrene capacitors. Can you hear the difference? It depends on your experience. To me, yes, it was completely obvious that something had been done to this mic to pull away from the imported SDC pack. I did notice some mid-range build up that could easily be controlled with some light EQ'ing, but that was the worst thing I heard. Depth-wise, the mic does a good job at capturing the space and the depth. Some higher end SDC mics might get more of a 3-D sound, but I never felt the sound was flat.
On some hand percussion it had a nice overall sound and the -10dB pad came in handy. Tambourine, my litmus test of the high end of a mic, came through pretty darn well without any major sound artifacts. Surprising!
In comparison to some of the other SDC mics I have used in the past, the CK-1 seemed fairly balanced with a bit of a bright upper-end, though mostly in the correct places. I felt it wasn't as bright as the KM 184, although I didn't have one to do a side-by-side comparison. But my memory reminded me of that. My memory also reminded me of the fact that the low end seemed a bit smoother on the Neumanns. Just a bit, though. For 1/5th the price of the Neumanns the sound quality really blew me away.
The microphone did demonstrate some mechanical resonance in the 350Hz range, so be aware of that and make sure that it doesn't get knocked or hit. Damping externally didn't seem to take care of it, so it has to be something with the internal mounts of the capsule or the circuit board.
I look forward to trying this mic out as overheads for choir as well purchasing another (which I *will* do) to record some chamber music in a spaced pair, X/Y, ORTF, or Blumlein set up. These little mics are wonders for this level of microphone and, to me, are worth every penny. This little mic has given me enough confidence in Avantone's quality control to consider the CV-12 as an addition to my project studio.
The Avantone CK-1 is a highly useful and flexible microphone that fits into almost anyone's budget and will see years of use. Even with standard studio upgrading, I feel these mics would go a long way in an individual's career and never let you down. And with Avantone's 5 year warranty, you can at least sleep better at night...
The Avantone CK-1 is a small-capsule FET pencil condenser microphone.
Just like many (if not all) low / mid priced microphones, the CK-1 is marketed as being able to punch way above its weight in the sound quality department.
I bought two, and although they were not sold as a matched a pair (they don't offer such an option) the serial numbers were close enough to suggest that they could be used as such.
Included in the purchase is a shock-mount as well as interchangeable cardioid, omni-cardioid and hyper-cardioid capsules. All presented in a functional but sturdy natural wood case.
Aesthetically the mic is very nice. It's slightly larger than your average small diaphragm condenser and comes in a sophisticated wine red finish. If you weren't familiar with this mic you would certainly assume it was more expensive.
So how does it sound? First of all the 10dB pad and 80Hz roll off switch both do exactly what you expect them to do. Handy for high SPL sound sources and for removing unwanted low frequencies. Further than that I feel this mic sits pretty much where the marketing claims it does. While not quite sounding like a high end / boutique microphone, it offers a sheen and clarity which surprised me. Quite full and with possibly more body than you'd expect from a small diaphragm condenser, I'd even be happy to use this mic on vocals if it was called for.
For acoustic guitar I might go for something with a little more air and detail. That's not to say that the CK-1 lacks these attributes, just that its strengths perhaps lie elsewhere. And those strengths are fairly solid. I tried these as a stereo set on piano and got excellent results.
The interchangeable capsules offer further options, depending on your circumstances and needs. Personally I stick with the cardioid capsule for most uses as this offers a decent balance between openness and off-axis rejection.
Not a mic for everything, but a competent and graceful performer when you find the right use.