I’m in love with a new microphone from Earthworks.
The stainless-steel ICON PRO.
I’m in love with her looks, and with the way she attentively listens to me. More importantly, I LOVE the way she manages to reflect back to me what I just said, exactly the way I said it. Without coloration or distortion.
It’s a pure, unfooled-around-with natural sound, the way it should be.
DESIGNED IN THE USA
It’s no surprise that such a microphone came from Earthworks. Earthworks Audio, headquartered in Milford NH, originally designed and manufactured audiophile loudspeakers. Founder David Blackmer was an audio electronics engineer, best known for his invention of the DBX noise reduction system which eventually lost out to Dolby.
Blackmer realized that if he wanted to make the best sounding speakers in the world, he needed the best measurement tools available.
Because all the tools he was using were lacking, he decided to design his own precision instruments. This is how the OM1 was born, an omnidirectional measurement microphone. These days, the M30 and M50 set the standard in this field.
Measurement microphones are still what Earthworks is most known for. You’ll find them in laboratories, in rocket test facilities, and in concert halls. Bands take them on tour to measure the acoustics of the space for an optimal setup of their PA system.
A DIFFERENT DIRECTION
Recently, Earthworks did something they’d never done before: make a new mic for streamers, gamers, content creators, and podcasters. There are two versions of the ICON, as it is called. The plug-and-play USB version ($349) and an XLR Broadcast mic, the ICON PRO ($499).
Both have an identical look and feel. I know taste is a very personal thing, but I think the ICON looks absolutely exquisite. As voice overs we tend to think that the looks of a microphone may not matter much, but when you’re on camera, as many YouTubers and Tic Tokkers are, the ICON will make you look like the coolest kid in class. Way better than those podcasting punks using the ubiquitous Yeti, which looks abominable.
Although it’s pretty small (5.137″ x 1.6″), the ICON comes in at 1.5 pounds (about 700 grams), so you better have a solid boom arm or mic stand to attach it to. I’m telling you: these microphones are built as if they’re the last ones you’ll ever buy. They ooze quality.
The box includes a Triad Orbit M2-R: a ball-and-socket mic attachment that fits on a standard 5/8-inch mic-stand thread, and onto which you screw the Icon Pro. It lets you point the mic at pretty much any angle you might need. I wish every microphone would come with a Triad Orbit. The USB version is shipped with a nice desk stand as well as the M2-R.
It has a sensitivity of 20mV/Pa, a self-noise of 16dB A-weighted, and a maximum SPL of 139dB. You should also know that this is a small diaphragm (12mm) microphone with a pretty wide cardioid polar pattern. This means you’ll have some room to move. The side and rear rejection are better than average to make sure you’re not picking up unwanted noises from the side or back of the microphone. If your room isn’t overly acoustically treated, this is the kind of mic you want.
The microphone’s gorgeous grill doubles as a pop filter, and it works remarkably well. In testing, I found myself getting closer to this mic than I normally would, to get the best result. It reminded me of my days in broadcasting.
Speaking of getting close, of all the mics I have ever tested, the ICON is the one with the least pronounced proximity effect. Bass boost tends to make recordings muddy, and the ICON is the queen of clarity, thanks to a detailed but never sibilant high-end. Let’s have a listen.
You’ll hear three microphones. One in the $250 range, one in the $500 range, and one that costs about $1750. By the way, this is a WAV file, recorded at 24 bit, 48,000 Hz. Nothing was fixed or added in post.
Which sound did you like best? Could you tell which one was the most expensive, or the least expensive microphone? I’ll reveal the answer at the very end of this review.
IS THIS THE STREAMING MIC TO BEAT?
To my ears, the ICON is a bright mic, but not in an unpleasant sort of way. My wife teaches flute and piano over Zoom, and as you know, the Zoom sound quality isn’t always the best. But since she started using the ICON USB mic, her students can hear her much clearer which makes teaching online an even better alternative.
So, if this pandemic has forced you to work from home, and your computer is your connection to the outside world, don’t get the cheapest plastic USB microphone on the market. Get the ICON instead. You’ll look good and sound even better! In fact, I am amazed how close the USB ICON sounds to her XLR brother!
Having said that, in my voice over studio I’d like to plug my mics into the SSL 2+ preamplifier. I know USB microphones have come a long way, but to me, XLR is still the professional choice. As an ex-radio guy, I loved using the ICON PRO. At six inches away from my mouth, the ICON started to sing. The fact that it reveals so much detail does mean that it can be unforgiving in terms of mouth noises and breaths. But only an amateur would find fault with a microphone instead of improving his mic technique.
Before I tell you what I didn’t like so much about the ICON microphones, take a look at how they are made.
What pleased me less, was the level of self-noise (also referred to as “equivalent noise”) which the XLR and PRO version have in common. 16dB-A is pushing it for me. The noisier the mic, the closer it has to be to the source to achieve an acceptable signal-to-noise ratio.
A noisier environment is going to create noisier recordings. If you’re just streaming, or creating content within a musical bed, no one is going to notice the self-noise. It’s mixed in with the ambient noise and music. But when it’s just you, narrating in a semi-soundproof and acoustically treated booth, you don’t need anything that distracts from your voice.
Neumann writes about equivalent noise:
“16-19 dB-A is good enough for most purposes. You may hear some noise when you record relatively quiet instruments, but it’s usually unobtrusive.”
Perhaps I’m overly sensitive, but when you’re used to working with low-noise microphones such as the Gefell M 930 Ts (7dB-A), 16 dB-A is noticeable.
If you’re a recording-on-the-road type of person, you’ll appreciate that the ICON stainless steel body makes it almost indestructible. But because of the weight, the USB ICON is probably not the best travel companion.
LET’S TALK MONEY
And finally, I want to mention the price. At $349 and $499, the ICONs aren’t particularly cheap. For $300 or less you can get the RODE NT1 XLR microphone with an ultra-low self-noise of 4.5 dB-A. The Shure MV51 USB mic usually sells for $149.
At the moment of publication, Sweetwater has a special offer. When you buy the ICON PRO, you’ll get a free Gator Frameworks Deluxe Desk-mounted Broadcast Microphone Boom Arm (a $199.99 value). When you buy the ICON USB, you’ll receive a free Presonus Studio One 5 Artist DAW application (a $99 value). Both are limited time offers, as long as supplies last.
Still, the ICONS are not the cheapest microphones on the face of the earth.
Here’s the thing, though.
When you buy an Earthworks ICON, you’re not buying some plastic recording toy, but a work of art. A precision tool of exceptional quality. It may even be the last microphone you’ll ever need.
A microphone I happen to be head over heels with.
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS The mics I tested were made available by Earthworks, but this did not influence my opinion. Many thanks to VP of sales Mike Dias and the entire Earthworks team for being incredibly responsive and helpful. This is clearly a company that takes pride in what they make, and in going above and beyond for their customers.
PPS Microphone 1 was the Microtech Gefell M930 Ts (most expensive), microphone 2 was the Synco D-2 (least expensive), and microphone 3 was the Earthworks ICON PRO.