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Mic Locker Challenge: Testing Sterling Microphones in The Studio

by RANDY GARCIA
April 18, 2018

Courtesy of Performer Magazine

Let me start this whole thing off by saying: I never win anything on the internet. Sure, I apply for those alluring “win free gear” promotions from prominent distributors and manufacturers all the time, but I’ve never managed to fall into the winner’s bracket for anything. That is, until I was selected to receive this trio of shiny new microphones from Sterling Audio, courtesy of Performer Magazine. The only catch? I had to put them to good use and document my findings. No problem…so here we go!

First Impressions

The three mics included in the kit were the ST155 Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone, the ST169 Multi-Pattern Tube Condenser Microphone, and the ST170 Active Ribbon Microphone. My first impressions after unboxing were that all three mics were built exceptionally well — heavy to the hand, with very robust bodies and mounts. These mics are also gorgeous in appearance, flaunting elegant yet subdued design cues that make them appear much more expensive than they actually are.

Sterling Vocal Mic Tests

Each mic also includes its own padded hard case, owner’s manual, and a few extra rubber bands for the shock mounts. The ST170 features a smaller shock mount, as it’s a much slimmer profile than the others, and the 155 and 169 share a design for their heavy-duty mounts. Additionally, The ST169 includes a large tube power supply box, an IEC cable to plug into your AC source, and a 5-pin XLR cable to connect from the supply to the mic. Please note that no standard XLR cables are included with these mics.

ST155

Of the three mics I tested, the ST155 Large-Diaphragm Condenser is the most “meat and potatoes” of the group. Retailing at $199, it’s also an absolute bargain, considering how great it sounds. The ST155 is quite sensitive and articulate, with a very clean and balanced response through the full frequency spectrum. It features a switchable high-pass filter and attenuation pad which work great in situations where you’re moving a lot of low end, or high SPL’s, respectively.

I found the overall tonality of this mic to be very natural and warm, lacking the typical shrill top-end frequencies and pronounced sibilance that less expensive mics seem to be plagued with. I think that can be attributed to the fact that even at $199 retail, this mic features a hand-assembled capsule and custom-wound transformer. All of the ST155’s features make it the perfect candidate for speech and vocal recording, but it also holds its own quite well as a guitar amp, acoustic instrument or overhead mic.

ST169

The ST169 Multi-Pattern Tube Condenser Microphone is a Class-A device and features the same attenuation and low pass filter switching as the ST155, while also adding a separate 3-way switch for Cardioid, Omni and Figure-8 pickup patterns. Retailing for $499, the ST169 is definitely the flagship of the Sterling line. While I wouldn’t consider it a downside, the ST169 does require a bit more room to set up, as it includes a rather hefty tube pre-amp unit. It also requires AC current, so keep that in mind when you are cable-routing for this bad boy.

The ST169 differs dramatically from the ST155 in that it reproduces midrange brilliantly, which made me want to try it on all sorts of fun sound sources. I really loved the way this mic made fuzzy guitars pop out of a mix with ease. I also really enjoyed using it on gritty, soulful vocals. Sterling claims that this mic can handle very high SPL’s, and I found no evidence to the contrary.

ST170

My first audio test of the ST170 was not entirely good. However, I can attribute most of that to a bit of user error. In my initial testing, I sought to compare it with the ST155 and ST169, but I was wrong to do so. This mic is its own beast. It features the same great build and components with its cousins, but sounds so radically different, it would be unwise to consider it in the same arena. The ST170 is VERY warm sounding and has a much lower output than the 155 and 169 — this is due to the ribbon, which is not meant to cover the same SPL range or frequency set as the large diaphragm mics.

The ST170 seemed to be a great secondary mic to a dynamic mic placed on a low-watt guitar cab. I had great results using it as a center channel “bass” mic on a stereo acoustic guitar recording. It also sounded wonderful tracking a vintage electric bass. Note that I had to keep the amp quieter than usual to avoid overloading the mic. All in all, this is a great mic to add to your locker if you already have most of your bases covered. It might not be a go-to, but I can certainly see myself using it to add a certain flavor to other mics, including the ST155 and ST169.

IN CLOSING

Sterling seems to know what’s up. They offer exceptional products at reasonable prices. I found that the ST155 and ST169 outperformed mics costing up to 10 times as much in certain situations. The build quality, clarity, and tonal qualities of their mics make them rare jewels in a sea of mass-manufactured and otherwise disappointing mid-level mics. My current goal is to acquire a second ST 169 to see what kind of stereo havoc I can wreak when using them as an overhead pair on a drum set. I’ve also got a long list of projects lined up for these mics that probably won’t end anytime soon!

Electronic Musician Review: Sterling Audio ST155, ST169 and ST170

Three new mics with pro features at an economical price

MIKE LEVINE JAN 2, 2018

Sterling Audio’s latest releases—the ST155 FET condenser, the ST169 multipattern tube condenser, and the ST170 ribbon microphone—were designed to handle common recording tasks while remaining affordable for musicians working in their own studios. Each model includes an aluminum flight-style case with plenty of padding on the inside, as well as a shock mount (which I’ll cover in more detail in a moment).

ST155

The side-address ST155 is a Class A FET condenser with a fixed cardioid pattern, a -10 dB pad and a -12dB/octave highpass filter (see Figure 1). Sterling designed the ST155 as an all-around studio mic that can handle vocals, speech, and acoustic instruments, or get put into service as drum overheads or room mics: This mic will handle pretty much any sound source you might have. One reason the ST155 is so versatile is that it has a maximum SPL rating of 144 dB with the pad in, 134 dB without, in addition to its respectable frequency response and sensitivity specs.

Sterling ST155

I began testing the mic on a recording that included both 5-string banjo and acoustic guitar parts. The mic did a great job of translating the banjo’s metallic tone and sounded better than some of my more expensive condensers in that application.

It also did a solid job on the acoustic guitar. I placed the mic in front of the 12th fret and the ST155 captured a bright and crisp sound. I was particularly impressed with how well it translated low, single-note runs on the acoustic. Those notes can sound a little splatty through some mics, but the ST155’s transient response is quite good, resulting in notes that were clean and distinct. I subsequently tried it on several other acoustic guitar recordings with similar results.

I also used it on dobro, tambourine and mandolin. It recorded clean and accurate signals, and was flattering on all those instruments. On vocals, it was crisp, clear, and full, and its sound was bright but not shrill. Additionally, the mic works well when recording spoken-word material.

ST169

Although it is the same size and shape as the ST155, the side-address ST169 is a tube mic that feels hefty and substantial. You can see its dual 1″ capsules through the rigid mesh screens on the front, back and top of the microphone.

Using a three-way switch, you can choose one of three polar patterns—cardioid, omnidirectional and figure-8. And like the ST155, it includes a -10dB pad and a low-cut filter with a -12dB/octave slope and a corner frequency of 75 Hz. It has an impressive SPL rating of 142 dB with the pad engaged, and 132 dB without.

Sterling ST169

The ST169 comes with an external power supply that connects to the mic with the included 7-pin XLR cable. The power supply has an XLR output that connects to your mic preamp or audio interface.

I tested the ST169 on a variety of suitable sources—a male vocalist, a female vocalist, an acoustic guitar (a 20-year old Taylor 510), a dobro (a Beard square-neck wood-body model), and an Eastman F-style mandolin. In every case, it was connected to my DAW through the mic preamps on my RME Fireface 802 interface. Throughout, the ST169 yielded a sound that was bright and present (particularly on the dobro). Sterling doesn’t publish the frequency diagram for the mic, but I’m pretty sure it would show a distinct presence boost.

The only downside with the ST169 was that it sounded almost a little too “tubey,” with more crunchiness in the top end than I’ve heard in the more expensive tube mics I’ve used. It was also less full and clear in the bottom end. But for a multipattern tube mic at such an affordable price, the ST169 is a capable performer.

ST170

The ST170 is a sleek-looking ribbon mic with a figure-8 pattern and active circuitry that requires +48V phantom power. Consequently, it has a hotter output than a passive ribbon microphone and removes the issue of impedance matching, making the ST170 suitable for use with low-cost audio interfaces.

My first session with the ST170 involved using it to record an electric-guitar cabinet, one of the applications for which ribbon mics are typically chosen. Sure enough, the ST170 delivered a warm, round image of the sound of the guitar amp, which sat well in the track.

Sterling ST170

Sterling also suggests using the ST170 to record vocals and acoustic guitars, and as an overhead drum mic. On an acoustic guitar, it gave the recording a lot of body, making it useful for heavy strumming parts. And as you would expect from a ribbon, it didn’t capture the sparkly high-end that you get with a condenser mic. So, for fingerpicked or flat-picked single-note parts, it probably wouldn’t be my first choice.

I also tried it on the dobro, an instrument with a lot of midrange, and the ST170 excelled in the application. Later, I recorded a dobro part using both the ST170 and the ST155, sending each microphone to its own track. When mixed, the combined result sounded massive. And when I tried the ST170 on male vocals, I was pleased with how rich and full the recording was.

The ST155 and ST169 include Sterling Audio’s SM8 shock mount, which is large and feels well-built. The mic slides between suspended elastic elements and screws into a fastener at the bottom.

Sterling even includes spare elastic pieces in case yours loosen up over time. (And unlike some shock mounts that require extreme dexterity to restring, the SM8 looks as if it would be relatively easy to repair.) The only issue I had with the SM8 is that it can be difficult to unplug certain cables from it, because the metal ring that tightens the mic into the mount obstructs part of the cable’s release tab.

Because the ST170 is considerably smaller in diameter than the other two mics, it comes with a different shock mount, the SM5. Rather than screwing into the mount like the SM8, this mic is held in place strictly from the pressure of its elastic bands. Nonetheless, the SM5 holds the ST170 (and similarly sized mics) snugly.

A STERLING EXAMPLE

In my opinion, all of these mics are a good value for the money. Of the three, the ST155 and ST170 were my favorites.

The ST155 is exceptionally versatile and can handle almost any type of source, sounding excellent on some and very good on everything else. I was particularly impressed with its transient response. If you’re looking for an affordable, all-around studio mic, The ST155 a solid choice.

With its modern design and active electronics, the ST170 is much more durable and usable in the personal studio than low-cost ribbon mics. While it can’t sonically compare to transducers costing twice as much (or more), it is an affordable way to get that characteristically round tone that ribbon mics provide. And depending on the sound source and mic placement, the ST170 will give you impressive results.

The ST169 provides plenty of distinctive tubemic warmth, though a little too much in some cases. But with three polar patterns available, as well as its pad and low-cut filter, the ST169 is a versatile mic and an affordable entry point into the world of tube microphones.

STRENGTHS

ST155 cleanly handles transients and is versatile. ST170 has active circuitry, high output and greater preamp compatibility. ST169 offers tube-mic sound at a budget price. Cases and shock mounts included

LIMITATIONS

ST169 can sound a little crunchy. Detaching mic cables from the SM8 shock mount is sometimes difficult.

ST155 $199
ST169 $499
ST170 $299

Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from the New York area. Check out his website at michaelwilliamlevine.com.

Sterling Audio MX5 Studio Monitors – Performer Magazine Review

The Sterling MX5 (and MX3) Studio Monitors sound great, offer a small footprint and are ultra-affordable for home studios and commercial spaces on a budget.

By Chris Devine on September 2, 2016

The gap between commercial studios and home recording spaces used to be huge, both in price and in sound quality. Thankfully these days, there are some great choices in studio monitors; Sterling’s MX5’s won’t beat up your bank account, and they’ll deliver quality sound for your tracking and mixing sessions.

Inside the polished MDF enclosure is a 5” low frequency driver as well as a 1” silk domed tweeter that uses a Neodymium magnet, which in the speaker world delivers plenty of clarity. Vocals and timbrally-complex instruments came through clearly, without any loss of subtle nuance. The rear panel has the usual RCA, XLR and 1/4” TRS connections, as well as 3-position high frequency and low frequency filters. A rear bass port is also located here, so be sure to place these a few inches away from walls.

With 70 watts of power, there is plenty of nice clear headroom, even at high volumes. The hi and lo filters really allow for the ability to tune the speakers to the room, regardless of the music being tracked through them. The low-end is very present and tight, so dubstep bass drops should not be an issue with these. One frequency range that did pop out a lot was the lower mid-range, which is great for most music in that area, but might require some additional adjustment for lighter acoustic music to sit better in a mix.

Mixing at lower volumes wasn’t a hindrance, either. In most cases being able to mix or track for a long time, and not have to strain to hear, or even worse cope with high volumes means less ear fatigue. The MX5s also have a great field of dispersion, meaning the listener doesn’t need to be right in the middle or “sweet spot” to hear everything. This is great, especially for project studios that aren’t located in an optimal physical space.

The street price is currently $149 each, which should be well within any home studio’s budget. A commercial studio could certainly use a set of these during long tracking sessions, as well as for a second set of reference monitors to test various mixes. Size-wise, they don’t take up too much space, and it’s tough to find fault in a set of speakers that deliver this much for such a reasonable price.

We were also able to test out the 3-inch version, the MX3s (street price $99 per pair), which offered front-end headphone monitoring as well as a main front volume knob. Sound wise, you lose a little with the smaller drivers and enclosure, but honestly, bang-for-buck, we can’t help but recommend the MX3s to any studio where not only is budget a concern, but space is at an ultra, ultra premium. An even better use for these would be “road monitors,” especially if your band likes to engage in mobile recording while on tour. A laptop, a USB interface and a small pair of MX3s would make up a pretty potent portable recording rig for just about anyone (and not take up a ton of room in the van). As with the big brother MX5, the MX3 excels in bass frequencies, where other monitors of its size simply pump out a lot of muddled low-end. We were pleasantly surprised with the clarity of the bass coming from our DAW’s demo tracks, and also the stereo imaging from such a small unit.

All in all, the new MX line (which also includes a third model, the larger MX8s) from Sterling is quite a bargain, and comes highly recommended.

Sterling MX5 Studio Monitors

PROS:

• Great sound
• Excellent sound field dispersion
• Great price

 

CONS:

Lower mid frequencies tend to be a bit more present.

 

PRICE:

$149 each

Sterling MX5 Features

• 5” Low frequency driver with proprietary cone design
• 4-Layer voice coil provides greater motor force for outstanding low-frequency performance
• 1” Silk dome tweeter features lightweight neodymium magnets
• 70 Watts of high-efficiency, low-distortion Class A/B amplification
• Bi-amp Class A/B design ensures superior transient response and natural bass presence
• Unique dual-axis WaveGuidanceVH technology and rear panel port
• High and low filters to custom tune monitors to your listening preference and environment
• Polished ebony front baffle with Sterling LED iconography
• Studio grade internal components with protective electrical design
• Professional balanced XLR, 1/4” TRS inputs and unbalanced RCA inputs

Review of Sterling Audio MX8 Active Monitor by DJ Booth

Review by DJ Booth – April 6, 2016

Setup and First Impressions

Sterling Audio, an audio company that is presenting three new studio reference monitors; the MX8, the MX5 and the MX3. They all pack a new technology that is Sterling proprietary, dual-axis WaveGuidanceVH. What this technology does is give the monitors a nice “sweet spot” with wide and high dispersion, as they put it. This helps with listening when off-axis both horizontally and vertically. The material that is used to put these monitors together promises to give a very clear and true sound without diminishing the accuracy that you expect from a studio monitor. The MX8 will comes at a retail of $249.99, the MX5 at $149.99 and the MX3 at $99.99.

Pros

  • Good Build Quality (MDF enclosure) & Good Looks
  • Three Separate Inputs XLR, TRS, & RCA
  • Good quality sound for Making Music (Overall Flat response)

 

Cons

  • Sound Not Completely Flat
  • Rear facing Bass Air Port
  • Non Selectable inputs

Original review appears online at http://djbooth.net/dj-equipment/review/sterling-audio-mx8-active-monitor.