Thursday, June 30, 2011

B&H Review: HDSLR Microphones

I’ll make the disclaimer up front here that I’m not a videographer and don’t have much interest in becoming one. However, like many people I do have DSLR’s that can record HD video so there are occasions (like for this blog) where I use that feature. When I do the most common problem I face is very horrible quality sound. There is feedback from the internals of the camera and the volume is so low that it drives people crazy. As a result I thought I’d try a couple products from B&H to see if they really made much difference.

For all of my tests in this article I use a Canon 5D Mark II with the Sound Recording option set to Auto (under Live View settings).

Sennheiser MKE 400 Compact Video Camera Shotgun Microphone

Sennheiser MKE 400 Compact Video Camera Shotgun Microphone

One of the first DSLR microphones I’ve seen in action in real life is the Sennheiser MKE 400 Compact Video Camera Shotgun Microphone. It’s German made and at first has that solid German construction and design that you’d expect. In the photo above you can see its size in relation to the size of a Canon 5D Mark II with a 16-35mm lens. This mic fits nicely on this camera and works much better than the built-in mic. Here’s a super lame video that I did which shows how it works exactly as it is configured in the photo above:

Play in HD

As you can tell in the video there is a bit of a hum that is noticeable. I’ve seen a few references to this issue on the web and opinions vary on how to correct it (see my choice below). While the hum is a little annoying, it’s not annoying to the point that it really bothers me as there are trade offs when you try to reduce the hum. This mic is such a huge improvement over the built-in mic that I can totally live with what I’m hearing in this video.

For this test I used the low-cut filter (looks like a windsock) setting (as shown in the photo above the video) which is supposed to suppress noise caused by crosswinds blowing past the mic. I also chose the vol + (high sensitivity) setting which provides an audio boost for quiet or distant sound sources. While not included on the web, I also tested using the regular setting and the +/- db settings. All worked as described in the manual, but for the outdoor conditions I was in I found the settings I chose were the best option. Some may prefer the vol – (minus) setting as it does mostly eliminate the hum but I felt the audio was more flat than I prefer. In all cases I prefer the low-cut filter on as it doesn’t destroy the sound and it seems to help with hum and normal wind noise.

On the web you get mixed reviews about the build quality of this product. Some praise its solid build quality an German design, whereas others chastise it as being too fragile at the base. My 2 cents on the matter is that it is well designed and fairly solid, but the mount appears to be designed for shock absorption purposes so by its nature it can’t be rock solid (or you’d get feedback through the mic on small impacts when moving around). As a result this isn’t a device you want to just toss in your pocket or leave mounted to your camera when you stuff it into your backpack. Just like many Bluetooth headsets, if you toss them in your pocket they won’t last long and I suspect this is no different. However, with reasonable and sensible care I believe it would be perfectly fine. It would have been nice if Sennheiser had included a protective case. Since they didn’t, I’d probably keep the shipping box around and just keep it in its plastic casing to ensure its safety in my camera bag. I didn’t have any damage with my test unit during normal usage scenarios so it certainly isn’t as fragile as some have claimed on web reviews.

My primary gripe with this device is the lack of clear feedback that the device is on (my unit only flashed a power light for a second). Like many I wish the base mechanism was more confidence inspiring in its build quality, but I can accept the realty that it may be a necessary evil – especially at this price point. My usage was very minimal outdoors, but the consensus I had from people I talked to was that the foam cover is insufficient for real outdoor use. As a result nearly everyone suggests getting the Sennheiser MZW400 Wind-muff and XLR Adapter Kit for the MKE400 as shown above. 

I would recommend this device to a friend and feel that it is decent for basic non-pro applications.

Rode VideoMic Pro Compact Shotgun Microphone

Rode VideoMic Pro Compact Shotgun Microphone

In doing research for this review I found that Rode is a trusted name among prosumer videographers. The Rode VideoMic Pro Compact Shotgun Microphone (the replacement for the original VideoMic which seemed to have major issues) was generally praised as being a good product for this price point. It certainly looks the part so I was interested to see how it performed. As you can see in the photo above its quite a bit larger than the MKE 400, but it is still a reasonably manageable size.

While labeled differently the VideoMic is functionally equivalent to the MKE 400 with the addition of a wider range of db settings. I found the 0db setting to be about the same as the vol + on the MKE 400. The switch to the far right is the High Pass Filter (HPF) setting which is like the low cut filter on the MKE 400.

Play in HD

As you can tell in this video the sound is a bit more muffled than the MKE 400 due to the larger foam windsock and High Pass Filter (HPF) setting I used. I found its performance to still be acceptable, although it seems to be a better choice for wind right out of the box without any accessories. The hum level to audio quality setting that seemed the best was 0db with HPF on (top switch al the way to the right) as I did in the video. In short, I suspect the hum is a factor of the DSLR and not either of these devices. As was the case with the MKE 400, I found the sound quality to be perfectly acceptable for my needs. I did find that this shotgun mic had a better directional effect which can be very advantageous outdoors.

For this test I used the HPFs setting and the 0 db setting (as shown in the photo above). In my additional testing I tried the + & - settings as well as being in normal mode. I’d probably choose to not use the HPF mode unless absolutely necessary if possible, but for the purposes of being fair in this review (i.e., comparing apples with apples) I chose to approximate the same settings as the MKE 400. During my testing, I found that the -10 db setting got rid of the hum but it also made my voice sound too muffled so I’d only use it for extreme wind conditions.

Just as I saw with the MKE 400, the web feedback varied on the build quality of the Rode VideoMic Pro. In my personal opinion I found the VideoMic Pro to be more fragile and worrisome, but just as was the case with the MKE 400 I had no issues that validated my concern. I did feel very concerned about the likelihood of damage so I was afraid to put it in my camera bag, so I would carry it in my hand when I was doing my testing. I’d recommend some type of protective storage container (could be a sandwich Tupperware type of plastic box) as I don’t see how the base of this device would survive typical field use. If you’ll only be using it in a studio this won’t matter, but my assumption is that all readers here will typically do their audio outside of their house or office.

I found this unit to be a little more flexible in terms of features and sound quality than the MKE 400, but not enough to make me think it is significantly better. From a sound quality standpoint I’d call them “close enough” when they are both set to the same setting functionally equivalent settings. I really, really, really hate the build quality of the base mount, but beyond that this is fine device. I also feel that the built-in wind sock is sufficient so the extra $30 premium for this device over the MKE 400 is a non-issue once you get the required wind sock for the MKE 400.

I would recommend this device to a friend and feel that it is decent for basic non-pro applications.  However, I would caution them to take great care with it as they should be concerned about the potential to damage the base mount.


Home Theater is one of my many hobbies so I am a bit of an audiophile when you get me in a movie viewing scenario. However I find that when testing these microphones my bar is a bit lower. From what I can tell from videographers I’ve talked to, the VideoMic Pro is the preferred device, but when I talk to photographers who use video on a casual basis like myself the MKE 400 is the product of choice. My primary purpose for looking at these two devices is to see which group was correct and to ultimately get one for myself. Based on my experience and anticipated usage (in a studio), I’d prefer the MKE 400. I like its smaller size and mostly solid build quality.

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1 comment:

Explorer said...

Nice post.. great audio setup you have going..