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Boutique Microphones: Adding a touch of personalization to a burgeoning mass-market sector

by Dan Daley • in
  • Features
  • January 2018
• Created: January 29, 2018

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Microphones are big business. NAMM’s sales statistics for 2016 show the overall category is the fifth largest overall in revenue, just behind fretted and wind instruments, pro audio, and the catch-all “general accessories” bucket, with $549 million in sales and climbing.

But much of that goes to the biggest brands in the sector – Shure, Sennheiser, AKG and Audio Technica – that provide the products that have long comprised the foundational elements for musicians’ and vocalists’ microphone collections, such as Shure’s SM57 and SM58 dynamic mics, and Sennheiser’s 414 condensers. Those brands dominate the market at the MI level, with a thin stratosphere at the top occupied by high-end condenser and ribbon microphones – many from that same handful of manufacturers, plus some fabled names like Neumann – aimed at the professional studio business.

Recent Vintages

But boutique microphones are another story, though one with almost as much of a cinematic narrative as the legendary German and Japanese brands, many of which pulled themselves together in basements and windowless factories in bombed-out postwar cities after WWII. The boutique microphone business is of considerably more recent vintage, dating back to the early 1990s, as the bottom was being knocked out of the commercial studio business by rapidly improving and ever-cheaper home-recording technology products. As the big recording studios began to falter, so did the capital to support the high-end mic business, and the values of vintage German and Austrian microphones began to tumble throughout the decade. Collectors scoured the newly freed Baltic states, picking up treasures like Neumann U-47 condenser mics, which once commanded several thousand dollars in almost any condition, for as little as a few hundred bucks.

Around that time, Skipper Wise and some partners were starting up Blue Microphones, one of several new brands, such as Soundelux and Royer, which sought to leverage demand for quality, classically designed transducers but at prices geared to the new populism of music production. “It was literally a movement at the time,” says Wise of the era.

Since then, boutique microphones have become a prolific, if hard to quantify, subcategory. Like the many boutique guitar amps they aspire to be placed in front of, they hold the potential to offer retailers some differentiation at a time when sellers and customers are being bombarded with new mass-market and niche products and brands. But also like those amps, retailers have to pick carefully.

Ready to Take a Chance

No matter how big or small the pro audio department of a typical MI retailer is, it still has to stock the standards: the Shure 57s and 58s that will survive even the punkiest of live stages, and the most affordable core studio mics, such as an E-V RE-20, and one large-diaphragm condenser microphone, such as the Audio-Technica AT2035, as the go-to vocal mic. The list of tried-and-true transducers can be lengthy, but as Anthony Thompson, pro audio specialist at Alto Music in Middletown, New York points out, “When someone is putting together a studio, they don’t want to have to buy their microphones piecemeal, at a bunch of different places. They want one-stop shopping for that.”

But, Thompson continues, a few unique microphones add some spice to that familiar recipe. The trick is choosing ones that will develop followings. “We look very hard at the reputation a microphone or a brand is getting, but we also have to love the way it sounds ourselves,” he says. “You don’t want to sign on to a $7,000 microphone that just sits there; it has to have some traction in the market already.”

At the same time, retailers have to be ready to take a chance. Thompson recalls how the store’s owner encountered the the new Heritage Audio brand at a Musikmesse show in 2012 and was taken by the company’s $2,000-plus remake of the mic-pro from the Neve 1073 console. “We became the first Heritage Audio dealer in the U.S. after that,” he says. Another similar story but on the other end of the price spectrum was U.K.-based Aston Microphones, whose $300 median price for designs that evoke classic condenser looks have made them consistent sellers for Alto. “They sound great and we move a ton of them,” he says.

Another route for boutique microphones and the retailers who might carry them is to appeal to the still ardent desire for classic and vintage microphones, in the form of often remarkably good re-imaginations of them. An example is the Peluso 22 251, which was inspired by the classic Telefunken ELA M 251E, itself a variation of AKG’s even more legendary C12 microphone, both of which approach the $10,000 mark on used sites like While still priced over $1,000, the Peluso 22 251 manages to achieve what Sound On Sound said in its review was “95 percent of the sound character [of an original ELA M 251] for a small fraction of the cost of a vintage model,” thanks to accessories and metalwork for the microphone and capsule from Chinese suppliers, a provenance no longer regarded as suspect in microphone circles. Examples of similar recreations abound, offering a level of implied familiarity that can break the ice on a potential sale.

Going Live

Like indie bands that show up on record labels’ doorsteps with fully formed followings eager to buy their music, boutique microphones that have already etched a clear niche in a market are music to a retailer’s ears. Ear Trumpet Labs founder Philip Graham will be the first to tell you his strategy for doing so wasn’t calculated, but he acknowledges he was fortunate that the focus of his condenser line of microphones intended for live music applications coincided with live music becoming the leading revenue generator for a music industry where recordings had become little more than loss leaders for ticket sales. It also fit well with the six-year-old company’s strategy of focusing its retail efforts – which accounts for about a quarter of its annual sales – on shops that emphasize acoustical instruments.

“We go where musicians buy and play acoustic instruments and who would prefer to use a very good microphone rather than install a pickup,” he explains. His retail outlets include Elderly Instruments, whose Lansing, Michigan location is considered by some to be a folk music megastore; and Morgan Music, a noted vintage banjo dealer in Missouri’s Ozarks region, a bastion of bluegrass. The synergy between the type of musician who prefers to use microphones on stage and Ear Trumpet Labs condenser mics, which cost about $600, that were designed specifically for those applications, creates an affordable attraction for retailers who already thrive in that particular nexus.

“There are so many [microphone] brands out there that if we were to just say we have a great condenser mic that anyone can use on anything, we’d be lost in the crowd,” says Graham. “I know – that’s how we approached out marketing for the first year. We would not be a good fit with a typical music store.”

Alto Music has also discovered that certain boutique microphones sell well for live applications, including mics from DPA and Earthworks. “They tend to be relatively expensive, compared to what you can buy for home recording,” says Anthony Thompson there. “But more people are looking for better quality on stage as live music becomes more important.”

Larger chains have established protocols when it comes to boutique products, be they amplifiers or microphones. Anthony Cardelli, who works in the pro audio department at Guitar Center’s Nashville location, says his store has considerably more microphones, including boutique models like Cascade Microphones’ Fat Head ribbon mic, than the average GC shop, with demand driven by the area’s dense mix of recording studios and tech-savvy houses of worship. The chain has region-specific SKUs that allow some regionalized diversity of products that can be listed as available and ordered by customers. But most boutique products have to follow the same protocol as the mass-market ones, with employee recommendations sent to corporate HQ, where decisions are made about what can be carried in inventory. “We do sell a lot of microphones here, and while boutique mics make up a very small part of that, they are definitely part of the retail mix,” he says.

Boutique microphones now come in enough different flavors – price points, performance types, quality of construction and materials, et cetera – and numbers that they could constitute a conventional MI category of their own. However, compared to the market dominance and ubiquity of the major brands, they’re almost certain to stay a market demi-monde for years to come. But as their quality increases and prices decrease, they’re also becoming a more accessible product type. Blue Microphones veteran Skipper Wise, who started up the Neat Microphones brand for Gibson last year, says a key selling point for both boutique microphone manufacturers and MI retailers is to emphasize the sector’s big increases in quality at lower price points – “When you can spend $500 on a great new condenser instead of $5,000 on a refurbished U-87, you can spend the difference on other things in the store,” he says. And if one-off guitars and amplifiers have taught a lesson in recent years, it’s that novelty combined with quality can make for a potent sales force.

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