This cost-effective bundle of five condensers and one ribbon mic make it easy to start—or expand—your collection
$1,099.95 MSRP, $1,000.99 "street" / $599.95 introductory sale price
By Phil O'Keefe
The MXL 800 Series Microphone bundle (Fig.1) is a collection of six microphones. Designed for studio use, this kit includes three different large diaphragm side-address condenser microphone models, a pair of end-address "pencil" condensers, and one side-address ribbon mic. All of the condenser models feature transformerless output circuits, and all of the microphones use Mogami wire for their internal connections. The series also has unified cosmetics, featuring bluish grey "shark skin" colored bodies and brushed nickel accents that gives them a classy, professional appearance across the line.
Another element that each of the models in the bundle have in common is accessories. You'll find a shockmount with an extra elastic band, plus a polishing cloth and manual included with each mic. The shockmounts are easy to use, and quite nice - and most importantly, they're effective at reducing stand-borne vibrations. This can really help keep unwanted sonic gremlins off your tracks, and since shockmounts of this quality are not inexpensive, their inclusion adds noticeably to the overall value of the bundle. This bundle was developed in cooperation with Guitar Center, and is available exclusively in Guitar Center stores, online through Guitar Center's website, as well as through Music 123, The Woodwind & Brasswind, and Musician's Friend. Some of the microphones are based on previous MXL models, while others are all-new designs.
Figure 1: The MXL 800 Series Mic Locker Bundle
The Microphones, By The Numbers
Let's dig right in and have a look at each of the microphones that is included in the bundle. Next to the name of each, you'll notice individual prices are listed. Each mic is available separately, and I've listed their individual prices for those who may be interested in only one or two specific models rather than the entire bundle.
MXL 840 Pair ($199.99 MSRP, $149.99 "street")
The bundle includes a pair of MXL 840 "pencil style" cardioid condenser instrument microphones (Fig.2). They look suspiciously like the very popular MXL 603, and a email to the folks at MXL confirmed they're based on that model. Like the 603, they have a 22mm capsule, require 48V phantom power (+/- 4V) and feature a FET based transformerless output circuit. The MXL 840 has no pad or high pass filter switches. Max SPL is 137dB, which means they're not going to overload when placed in front of a loud sound source. As far as the high pass filter, it would be nice to have, but since many mic preamps offer this, it's not that crucial of an omission.
These microphones are a good choice for use on drum overheads, acoustic guitars, piano, and hand percussion. Since there are two of them, you can use them as a stereo pair. While not marketed as a "matched pair", the sensitivity and frequency response of the two test units were close enough to each other as to not cause any sonic issues in real-world stereo pair use. Off-axis tonal coloration is also reasonably low for a mic of this type, and although the cardioid pattern isn't the tightest I've ever heard, the rejection at the rear of the mic, at the least sensitive spot of the polar pattern, is still significant enough to provide solid results with coincident stereo mic techniques such as XY stereo.
There is a bit of a slope to the overall frequency response, with a slight emphasis on the high frequencies. The lows drop off steeply below 30Hz, and above that, there is a gentle rise in sensitivity as the frequency goes higher. This helps to give the 840 an open and present timbre, with good detail. The lows are well represented, but are not quite as forward as the highs, which helps prevent the 840 from sounding too boomy. These are some of the most well regarded budget-friendly small diaphragm condensers on the market, and with good reason. They sound quite good for such an affordable microphone.
Figure 2: A pair of MXL 840 pencil condenser microphones
MXL 860 Ribbon ($259.99 MSRP, $199.99 "street")
The MXL 860 (Fig.3) is a new model, and it is the only non-condenser mic in this bundle. That kind of makes it a bit of the oddball in this collection, but since many of the people who are most likely to be interested in this package won't have extensive mic collections, the inclusion of a ribbon mic will add considerably to their mic options. How? Ribbons have a decidedly different sonic signature and character than moving coil dynamic microphones, or for that matter, condensers. Like a condenser, they tend to respond well to fast transients, which helps give them a very detailed sound, but unlike condensers, they are usually much lower output devices, and require a good deal of clean gain from your mic preamplifier. The 860 is no exception. With loud sound sources (or quieter ones up close), the MXL 860 will work fine with moderate amounts of gain, but for best results, a high-gain, low noise mic preamp is recommended.
This side address ribbon mic has a brushed nickel finish similar to the trim on the other 800 Series microphones, but lacks any of the shark skin coloring. While the grille uses a fine mesh layer to help protect the ribbon element, I'd recommend you play it safe and use a good pop filter whenever using the MXL 860 on vocals or other "windy" sources to protect the ribbon element from damage. For similar reasons, MXL recommends not using phantom power with this microphone. If your audio interface or mixer only offers "all or nothing" phantom power, and you want to use the 860 and one or more of the condensers at the same time, just make sure you have the phantom power turned off whenever you connect or disconnect the 860's mic cable, and you should be okay.
The frequency response of ribbon microphones tends to be much softer in the top octave of the frequency range, which can give them a darker, mellower, and less edgy sound than condensers. The 860 has the fast transient response that helps keep the sound nice and detailed, but with a characteristically "ribbon sounding" frequency response curve, with a subdued top end and forward low midrange. The 860 is a good choice for instruments such as guitar amps, brass, saxophones, vocals, and anything you want to fatten up. And because of its bi-directional polar pattern, it can also be used in tandem with any one of the other microphones from this bundle to experiment with M-S (Mid-Side) stereo techniques.
Figure 3: The MXL 860 ribbon microphone
MXL 870 ($259.99 MSRP, $199.99 "street")
This is a new design from MXL, and it is the smallest-bodied mic of the three large diaphragm condensers, which makes it a bit easier to use in tight spaces. It uses a 32mm center terminated capsule, and is designed as a "utility player" - and generally succeeds in being a good general purpose condenser mic that is suitable for use on a variety of sound sources. While not quite as refined sounding as the 890, it nevertheless holds its own well, with a fairly neutral sound across much of the audible frequency spectrum, with the lows rolling off gradually below about 30Hz. At about 5kHz, the response starts to ramp up, resulting in about a 4-5dB presence peak centered in the 8-10kHz range. The highs above that remain slightly accentuated, extending out to 20kHz.
The overall construction seems better than average for microphones in this price range.There are no dented grilles or other visible cosmetic imperfections that I could find, and nothing feels cheap or flimsy. As with the rest of its partners in this bundle, many of the internal components are surface mount devices, and there are no user serviceable parts inside. Like the other microphones in this collection, the 870 does not have any pad or highpass filter switches.
Able to withstand levels of up to 133dB SPL, the MXL 870 (Fig.4) can deal with moderately loud sound sources just fine, and whether it is sitting outside of a double-headed kick drum, next to a loud guitar or bass amp, in front of a trombone, or a loud singer, it will hang in there just fine, and with good mic placement technique, it will reward you with clean, present sounding results that outshine what you'd probably expect from it; especially given its very modest price tag.
Figure 4: The MXL 870 large diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone
MXL 880 ($329.99 MSRP, $249.99 "street")
According to the folks at MXL, the MXL 880 (Fig. 5) is also an all-new model, and isn't based on any previous MXL mic. Physically, it is the longest mic of the bunch, although it weighs less than the MXL 890. As with the 870 and 890, it uses a 32mm center terminated condenser capsule, mounted behind a rugged looking head grille. As with the other condensers, it is also a transformerless design. Although the capsules are the same, the electronics in each of the three large diaphragm condenser microphones are not, and while there is definitely a MXL family resemblance in their sound, each has a distinct sonic personality and tonality due to their different body and head grille sizes and shapes, the corresponding internal acoustic resonances, along with the electronics that are specifically tailored for each mic.
The sound of the 880 is definitely different than the other two large diaphragm condensers in this bundle, with a slightly more "scooped" midrange and abundant lows and highs. It's slightly quieter than the 870 (17dB vs the MXL 870's 20dB A-weighted self-noise), and a touch silkier and smoother sounding too, although the 890 still takes the prize there.
Reach for the MXL 880 as a tonal alternative to the MXL 890. Their tonality is such that they are complementary, and no matter what type of singer walks into your studio, one of the two is bound to provide you with good results, while the second can be used for other tasks. For example, the 880 is also a quite competent performer on acoustic guitars too. Or you may find yourself wanting to record two singers at once, or multiple horn players. The MXL 800 Series Mic Locker bundle opens up those possibilities, offers a variety of different sounding options, and lots of new possibilities to explore.
Figure 5: The MXL 880 large diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone
MXL 890 ($399.99 MSRP, $299.99 "street")
Roughly based on MXL's well-regarded V89, the MXL 890 (Fig. 6) is the flagship of this bundle. Designed for "critical vocals", this is the mic that most owners will tend to grab first for the lead vocal parts. Like the MXL 870 and MXL 880, it has a fixed cardioid pattern. The frequency response of the 890 is truly full-range, from 20Hz-20Khz. It can take considerable levels, with a 138dB SPL rating @ 0.5\\% THD.
Overall, the 890 has a pleasantly neutral sound quality, without any large and spiky character inducing bumps in the frequency response. Fuller and flatter in the low-midrange than the 880, with less boost in the 10kHz presence range, it is a less forward and more neutral sounding microphone, but it still has a nice sense of detail, presence, and "air". However, this isn't a criticism of the sound of either the 880 or 890, and having both microphones offers the user a choice of tonalities. You may find that one or the other works better with a particular singer or sound source. In addition, these tonal differences can also be useful when overdubbing a single vocalist. By using microphones with different response curves and sounds it helps differentiate and separate the tracks a bit in the mix, even when the same person sang both parts.
The proximity effect of the 890 is fairly subdued compared to many cardioid condensers, which makes it great for up-close use. This also can be very useful when dealing with a singer who likes to move around a lot since it minimizes tonal differences as the singer moves closer to or further away from the mic. The MXL 890 is the quietest mic in the collection in terms of self-noise, and the most detailed and natural sounding mic of the bundle, as is fitting for the flagship mic. The 890 is a very substantial microphone, and it uses a screw-in style shock mount that attaches to the base of the mic instead of the spring loaded type that grips the sides of the mic body like the other microphones in this package use. This helps assure it stays secure and doesn't slip out of the mount, despite the considerable weight. A good heavy duty mic stand is definitely recommended for use with this microphone.
Figure 6: The MXL 890 large diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone
I feel this bundle will appeal first and foremost to people who are really starting to get into recording, but who have a limited mic collection - maybe just a few dynamic microphones on hand that they use with their band. In light of that, I think the mic selections make a lot of sense. While some may feel the bundle is lacking in moving-coil dynamic mic models, it really isn't intended as a drum mic kit, although you can certainly mic up a kit with it. For that task, I'd recommend trying the 880 on the snare, 870 for kick (outside of the drum) and the 840 pair as overheads in a Glyn Johns style spaced stereo pair configuration. The 890 can also work well as a room mic, giving you additional sonic options at mixdown.
This bundle offers an assortment of microphones of different tonalities, which makes it very well suited for starting off, or expanding your personal mic locker, as well as increasing your mic collection's range of capabilities. Since many people who would be looking to expand their collections with a bundle like this probably don't have many (if any) ribbon microphones at their disposal, the inclusion of the 860 is bound to help introduce this very useful microphone type to a lot of people. Additionally, the condensers provide a nice variety of different sonic options that will cover several different bases that the typical dynamic microphones you probably have sitting around really aren't capable of - at least not with the same extended frequency response, transient response, detail and sheen.
While the 800 Series Mic Locker bundle doesn't have every mic in it that you might want for a well-rounded collection, it does cover a lot of useful ground. Some may lament the lack of a kick mic such as MXL's A-55 Kicker, but to be fair, this isn't a "drum mic" package, although the 840 pair and other mics in this collection can definitely be used on drums to good effect. For those who already own a few moving coil dynamic microphones, the 800 Series Mic bundle covers all the condenser mic essentials at a very attractive price - and throws in a ribbon mic, plus shock mounts for each mic too. This makes the collection a great way to vastly expand the capabilities of your current mic locker - or to get it started.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Associate Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.