Friday, January 19, 2018


by Mark King for
ISK is a brand of microphones I had not heard of until very recently. Kris from ISK sent me a pair of their Pearl models for review and testing. I was very excited until I saw the price, only $30 each? How could this be any good, right? "It must be just another cheap mic from China" was just one of many initial thoughts I had but I was curious about how they perform. 

The whole ISK brand has a very interesting story, it's on their web site so I won't repeat it here but it's worth a read. The short version is that there is a new owner of ISK distribution in North America and they're only selling direct to users over the internet. This means the prices for these products are much lower than they would be if the items were sold in stores. In the case of the Pearl models the prices are silly low at only $30 each. 


What is it?
The Pearl is an outstanding and interesting design in a world of me-too pencil shaped microphones. On the high end of this body style is the Neumann KM-184 for $1600/pair. There are lots of other choices as you head down down down in price, all the way down to $19 each for no-name small body  pencil microphones that don't sound very good. 

The Pearl features an unusually large diaphragm for a pencil style mic, it's so big they had to increase the head size of the microphone. The swollen pickup capsule-edn looks a bit odd at first but when you consider the diaphragm in the Pearl is as big as that used in competitors large-diaphragm designs the whole thing becomes a lot more interesting. There are a pair of slide switches on the side of the Pearl, one engages a pad and the other turns on or off the bass roll-off feature. 

The Pearl is a transformerless design, it uses solid state output technology to drive the balanced output. The body of the microphone has a nice solid feel and the output connector works well with my Switchcraft-Mogami studio microphone cables. The microphone requires phantom power to operate, I supplied it with 48-volts and had no problems. 

On first listen I felt the background noise was a bit high. After I calibrated the source with my ML-1 Minalyzer I found it to be about average in background noise compared to many other models I use regularly. 
My voice is always the first test on a new microphone, I did not care for the way this one sounded at all on my voice. It was flat sounding and did not have a lot of proximity effect. I had just put new strings on my Martin D-35 acoustic guitar so that was my next test for the Pearl. Acoustic guitar is a strange beast when it comes to microphones, my D-35 has a big booming bass sound and lots of crisp highs, especially with new strings on it. I located the Pearl about 12" away from the body/neck joint of the guitar, this location usually offers the best balance of bass and treble. The sound from the Pearl was excellent, it was full and very natural sounding with excellent balance in the high frequencies but not exaggerated or shrill in any way. Score a big one for the Pearl on acoustic guitar. If you look at the frequency response graph it's basically flat from 50 to over 5kHz which covers the range of guitar perfectly.

Next was over to the drum room. Cymbal mic'ing in my latest setup has featured an X-Y stereo pair up over the drum set and a cardioid condenser tucked in underneath each of the right and left ride cymbals. I don't normally keep the ride cymbal microphones up in a mix, instead I bring them up to accent the ride when it's being used in a song. Most of the sound comes from the custom built pair of overhead condenser microphones in the drum room, these feature true edge-terminated large diaphragms which are similar to the type used in the vintage AKG C-12. I'm very accustomed to the sound of these two microphones so it was an interesting test to replace them with the pair of ISK Pearl models. 

The frequency response graphs for the Pearl microphones indicate a rise of around 2-4 dB in the vicinity of 8 kHz so I was expecting some boost in the upper midrange. I was very pleasantly surprised how good the Pearl microphones sounded in the overhead application, if I did not already have my custom-built overhead condenser microphones I'd definitely consider putting a pair of Pearls up there. The sound was full, natural, and smooth, nothing peaky or strident about it at all. I was very impressed.

Next up, I switched out my two Ride cymbal microphones which are much more expensive AKG models with the Pearls. This is where the Pearls really came into their own, they were close enough to the cymbal that there was a hint of proximity effect to add some weight to the sound, this balanced against the high frequency response perfectly and delivered smooth sounding ride cymbal tones. The cymbals still have a brilliant balanced high frequency timbre along with more midrange and even a little low-end body to the sound, the inexpensive little Pearl microphones have found a home in my drum kit. I was actually quite blown away by the definition and tone the ride cymbals delivered in my test recordings using the Pearls, the AKG microphones that were previously in these positions have returned to the mic locker.

I position the ISK cardioid microphones under the ride cymbals with the off-axis pointed at the kick/snare area so these tones are minimized by the directional pattern. The Pearls provided excellent directional control and rejection from the rear. Did I mention these are only $30 each? The sound of bell-ride sticking was bright and in your face without any nastiness, not possible with other cheapy Chinese pencil microphones I've tried. Nobody who listens to these cymbal recordings is going to know they were made using microphones that actually cost less than $30 each. 

So far all I've done is gush about how impressive the sound is from this inexpensive pair of Chinese microphones, there are a few dark points but no deal breakers.
First, the internal switches for the pad and roll-off are very low quality, they are actually loose in the body of the mic and if you shake it you can hear them rattle slightly. At first I thought I had a broken microphone but after inserting tooth picks to hold the switches solidly in place I was able to confirm it's the sound of the cheesy switches rattling. They rattled on both of my Pearl mic's. 

Activating the pad and roll off switches was difficult, I felt like I was going to damage the microphone when I operated the switches because they are so difficult to actuate or move. It is also difficult to see the switch position indicator and know whether they are on or off. 

Next up was handling noise, it is up there in OMG level if you use the stock mounting clip that came with the Pearl. All that larger-diaphragm bass reproduction works against itself when the body is this sensitive to mechanical noise pickup, an effective shock-mount is definitely required to use the Pearl microphones. They don't come with shock-mounts so that is extra cost for the owner to consider. I switched to mini-Mogami low-mass microphone cables for connecting the Pearls and that helped reduce induced mechanical noise pickup to even lower levels. 

ISK does not list the max SPL for the Pearl on their web site so I was a little worried about using it around the drum set. My fears were unfounded, the microphone provided great sound, even without the internal pad engaged. I did not use the microphone in a tight position on the snare drum so I can't comment about loud close mic sources. I should also point out our drum room has extensive acoustic treatment and a nice smooth sound to start with, this provides a great platform for microphone evaluation. Microphones always sound worse in bad acoustic spaces so your mileage could vary. 

The Pearl microphones come in a plain white box that simply says Pearl on the outside. Inside, the microphone comes in a little zippered pouch with a wind screen and the aforementioned dysfunctional mounting clip (it actually works but transmits a lot of mechanical noise).

The finish on the microphones is quite beautiful, sporting a fine brushed nickel color and a nice solid feel in your hand. Just looking at it the microphone could easily justify a $200-$400 retail price based on the slick finish and appearance. The unique head shape is a standout among small microphones and will make it easy to spot in the mic locker, except this pair is not going back, it's staying on the drum kit ride cymbals for now. After I log more serious recording projects using the Pearls I'll come back and add an update at the end of this review. 

The ISK Pearl microphones seriously rock and deliver a stunning amount of excellent performance for less than a dinner at Texas Roadhouse. They are bare bones and not without faults but the sound quality is excellent if you use them with appropriate shock-mounts. 
I'm a bit stunned by the value on offer here, the price is silly low, the sonic reproduction is not only useful, it's outstanding and overall the microphone delivers performance way above it's cost. 

If ISK upgraded the switches and improved the handling noise the microphone could easily justify a much higher price. As it is, it's a deal and that's all there is to it. I'm keeping this pair and using them, that's the best compliment I can give. 

Good music to all!