Many of the low-priced specialty mics hitting the market over the last couple decades seem to originate from just a few manufacturers based in China. North American distributors likely request cosmetic changes or particular combinations of electronics. However, different brands over here frequently end up showing the same inner workings, from capsule to circuits, betraying their common origin.
It’s not a bad thing when it means more mics, and more affordable mics, in the hands of those who could not otherwise afford to have several designs on-hand. There’s also a cottage industry of hobbyists who take the guts of these Chinese mics and upgrade the electronics, resulting in more reliable operation and in some cases a mic performing well beyond its original price point.
The BadAax AR 520 may be one of those mics. There’s very little information online about it, and I found nothing about the BadAax company. The mic itself was not here long, nor could I take it apart to get an idea of build quality beyond an external inspection.
Bottom Line time: If you can gamble a hundred and fifty bucks on a ribbon mic experiment, be my guest. Nothing about this mic made me shiver, however. I’d not recommend it.
It’s a nice touch, the wood box that fits inside of a flight case with a shock mount made for the mic. No surprises with connection. This is an XLR mic, taking a standard XLR cable to connect. As with most ribbon mics, it’s hefty due to the strong magnets needed for ribbon mic construction.
Where the AR 520 differs from most ribbons, particularly low-end versions, is that it has active onboard electronics, so its signal is similar to other styles of mics, and an extra preamp isn’t needed, which can be the case with other ribbon designs.
Adding an extra preamp does boost the signal, but often it also boosts background or electrical noise to noticeable levels. The AR 520 works as billed. Gain settings on a Roland VS-2480 digital audio workstation were similar to both dynamic and condenser mics to produce solid signal strength. Passive ribbon mics require substantially more gain, usually almost maxing out the VS-2480.
This mic is funny-looking, for want of a more technical term. The ribbon enclosure is a tall, narrow rectangle. The wide, flat sides are covered with a metal plate with 72 hexagonal holes punched in it. The narrow sides have more traditional metal mesh. One of the first questions a user may have is, “Where the heck do I sing into it?” From the markings on the mic’s body, the wide, flat sides are the business ends and the metal plate may be part of an integral pop filter. More on that in the Build section.
I found the AR 520 muffled and muddy. Ribbon mics are not, by definition, crisp and detailed in the upper frequencies, and are often used on strings and brass to naturally take the strident edge off those sounds. Only particular voices work with ribbons. In a previous ribbon mic review I suggested thinking of the sound of 1940s and 50s crooners. You don’t listen to Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” with the feeling he’s going to spit on you as he sings. A ribbon mic very likely contributed to that smoothness.
The AR 520, however, seems to take the mellow vibe to an extreme. There’s mellow and there’s dull. This is the latter. It gave passable sounds when used to record fuzzy guitar, but worked best in a rhythm guitar context. That is, where the guitar sound would be in the back of the mix. I doubt I’d use this mic to record guitar solos.
On voice, it was useless, though I should qualify that most ribbons are on my voice, and there wasn’t time to try it on others. Mics that I return to time after time are those that have Swiss Army knife characteristics. These mics have a number of recommended uses, but even outside their comfort zone they can produce something useable. The AR 520 is a one-trick pony, and it’s not really a great trick either.
As mentioned, it’s a sturdy mic, rated at five lbs. (8.2 lbs. shipping weight) by Amazon. That seems high, however Amazon also says that the Apex 210 ribbon mic is 5.5 lbs. The AR 520 is a little lighter than the Apex, but neither of them feel like 5 lb. mics. Maybe I’m just stronger than I thought I was.
Looking at the ribbon head more closely, it appears that the metal mesh surrounds the entire ribbon/magnet assembly and, as thought, the punched metal plates serve as a pop filter, breaking up aggressive plosives before reaching the delicate ribbon.
Traditional ribbon design, also called symmetrical, has a conductive metal ribbon stretched between two magnets. This design is equally sensitive to sound front and back, and the acoustic shadow that the magnets cast means that things are not very sensitive on the sides. Imagine looking at the number 8 from above, with the mic in the middle, and that’s what the mic’s polar pattern looks like.
Those acoustic shadows, called nulls, are often startlingly strong on ribbon mics. Not so much with the AR 520. This could be from the metal pop filters or perhaps it’s something the active circuit contributes. Either way, sound level in the nulls is not a dramatic fall off, though it’s noticeable. The sound from the sides, however, is even more muffled. I can’t imagine a use for off-axis signal from this mic.
As mentioned, there simply aren’t any. Though Amazon lists this mic has been available for over two years, no questions have been asked and no reviews have been offered. Thus, it’s entirely possible that the overwhelming dullness that I experienced is due to the mic I tested.
If any readers have experience with the AR 520, leave a comment below.
I can’t recommend this mic. Too much grey area about the builder, the specs (I didn’t find any) and the experience I had. MXL, Nady and ART all make ribbon mics near the BadAax AR 520’s price point, and each maker is known, unlike BadAax. If you’re looking to play with a ribbon mic, you should buy the Cascade FAT Head. It is a much better microphone, a trusted brand with proven technology. (Read my FAT HEAD microphone review here)
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