Mineral Sound

Shootout: AEA KU5A vs. Sennheiser MD441

November 11, 2019

I record almost exclusively in live settings, and when AEA announced their new KU5A ribbon mic I was excited to get my hands on it. From the buzz, it seemed designed from the ground up for tracking vocals in live session and concert settings, a demanding application that few mics are well-suited for. Mics with great isolation tend to have poor sound quality, while mics with great sound quality tend to have poor isolation; the KU5A was promising to offer both. To get a sense for its performance, I wanted to compare the KU5A to two mics in a similar niche; the Sennheiser MD441 and the Beyerdynamic M160 (which I'll be comparing in a future post).

First, a little background. The KU5A is a brand-new design that came out less than a year ago (December 2018), but it's based on the RCA BK-5, which came out in the 1950's (VintageKing has a video comparing the two). It's a hypercardioid ribbon that uses an internal baffle (AEA calls it a "labyrinth") to create its polar pattern by delaying sounds from the rear of the microphone. It uses active amplification and 48-volt phantom power, making it well-suited to live situations where you might be stuck using less-than-ideal preamps.

The Sennheiser MD441 came out back in 1971, and its design has remained essentially unchanged over the decades. It's a hypercardioid dynamic mic, famed for having a "condenser-like" extended top end and an even frequency response. I've been using it on vocals in live sessions for the past year, and I'm a huge fan; it's got great isolation, and when you boost the top end with EQ it has a fantastic tone. It's a much different sound than you'd get from a condenser (the transient response is much slower), but it does a great job of taming "sharp" sounds and doesn't capture excessive detail when placed up close on a source.

These two mics are different in many ways, but they're competitors in that very few mics can capture a great sound when used up-close on sources in a live setting. They're also in a similar price bracket; the KU5A is currently retailing for $1,200, while the MD441 sells for $900. I enlisted the help of some talented friends to compare these mics on vocals and guitar cab and get a sense for how each mic interprets its source. For these demos I've added a little boost to the top end of both mics as well as a little reverb, as that's how they'll be used in most real-world applications. But I also wanted to give people the option to listen to the mics without any processing, so here are links to the original 48k WAV files so you can listen to them in full quality:

Male Vocal | Female Vocal | Guitar Amp

I've made two demos videos comparing the microphones, so let's dive in:

Male Vocal

The first difference you'll notice is in the top end; the KU5A captures more detail in the sibilance, rasp, and breath of the performers. I wouldn't call it an "airy" mic as it's still darker than a condenser, but it's brighter than the MD441. You can compensate for the darker tone of the MD441 by boosting the highs further (it takes very well to EQ), but their frequency responses would still be different; the KU5A has peaks around 2k and 6k, while the MD441 has a more even response with a gentle roll-off after 10k. The second big difference is in transient response; ribbons have a very fast response, and it's evident in the tone of the KU5A, which to my ears sounds more natural or relaxed. By contrast, the MD441 has a slower response to transients, which to my ears sounds more thick and fat.

Those are objective observations, but what about the subjective? It's hard for me to pick a favorite between the two; it's more of an aesthetic choice depending on the tone you want. The KU5A is a little closer to what we're expecting to hear on a vocal; especially for pop, it brings out the high end that can help a vocal cut throught the mix. But the MD441 has a ton of vibe and character, and would be a great fit for productions looking for a retro/vintage sound. It's also great for softening voices that sound thin or cutting, and for vocalists with a lot of sibilance or rasp in their tone. Big thanks to Kyle Donovan, Andrew Sturtz, Dave Tamkin, and Taylor Tuke for lending their time and talents to this demo!

Guitar Amp

On guitar, the difference in transient response is more obvious to my ears; the thickening effect of the MD441 is in full force here, and it really fattens up the tone. The KU5A is sounding more relaxed as before, and while the difference in top end is less evident on clean guitar tones, the difference in mids is more apparent; there's more bite and forwardness coming from the KU5A. As before, it's hard to pick a favorite without context; I'd use the KU5A if I was cutting a solo, but I'd grab the 441 if I was looking to cut a thick rhythm track, or if I were putting the guitar against a vocal that needed to stand out.

Big thanks to Jesse Hunter, Brad Huffman, Alex Heffron, and Julian Peterson for taking the time to help out with this! Another big thanks to Mark Venezia & Wind Over the Earth for lending us the KU5A to test, and to Chad Mathis & MakeMusic for letting us use The Woodshed to record our vocal demos.

What did you think of this test? Drop us a message below, I'd love to hear your thoughts on these mics. You can also chime in on the Gearslutz thread or the YouTube comments. And keep an eye out for our writeup of the Beyer M160, which will be coming out in the next couple weeks.