This is the first time I’ve reviewed a piece of equipment that I knew I loved—and had already heard countless times—before it showed up on my doorstep to review. It’s likely you have heard it as well. When NYC went into lockdown and voice actors couldn’t go to studios to do their job, the scramble was on for them to get set up at home. A decent number of them already had home studios, but the vast majority only ever needed a cheap USB mic to record auditions in a pinch. The game changed overnight though, as post facilities and their clients suddenly needed actors to be “broadcast quality from home.” For many facing an uncertain financial future, the idea of dropping thousands on gear was scary. My message via webinars and consults with voice actors has been that you can pull off a truly impressive sound without breaking the bank!
There was such a run on affordable large diaphragm condenser mics across the industry that each time I prepared a presentation, I needed to vet sources to make sure actors could actually buy the mics I was suggesting! It was in one of these moments that I stumbled upon a YouTube video comparing the TZ Audio Stellar X2 to a Neumann U87AI. I found that hard to believe—until I listened. It seemed to be a hidden gem, and cost a mere $199.99. I immediately reached out to TZ Audio via their website to make sure they had inventory and that they were still open for business. In the weeks that followed, I would spend time working with dozens of actors to get them connected so that we could all continue to work together. Once their mic was connected, we’d either go live over Source Connect or they’d send me files to make sure they were sounding solid. Time after time, I was floored by how good the Stellar X2 sounded.
Affordable condenser mics are obviously not a new thing. I recall an actor boasting about a $300 mic in the mid 1990s, saying “It’s an overseas knock-off.” I was pretty dismissive at the time, but there have been some remarkable improvements over the years. What I hadn’t seen or heard, however, is a mic that holds its own against the big boys and which also breaks the $200 price barrier.
Let’s talk for a second about what you get. The mic comes neatly boxed with all of the testing documentation. Inside the box is a solid carrying case that holds the mic, its shock mount, wind screen (not a pop-filter) and pouch. When I finally got my hands on the Stellar X2, it was smaller than I imagined it would be, given its big sound. It was like someone used a shrink ray on a classic large mic and case—but when you lift the mic, you know you’re holding quality. It is solid. All of TZ Audio’s documentation describes the care taken to build the mic, and you can feel it. The shock mount squeezes open, and in the mic goes, safe and secure.
I connected it to my home rig as I was preparing for a session with a well-known actor coming to my home studio for a national TV spot. I had been using a shotgun mic on him and decided to compare it to the Stellar X2 while I was getting things set up. It sounded really close to a ubiquitous studio mic that costs five times as much. Later that night, I ran a webinar to a group of about 90 voice actors, and they all wanted to know what mic I was using. One actor even said “it sounds delicious.”
One of the criticisms from voice actors and engineers of mics in the $200-$300 price range is that they often have a notorious “harsh” bump in the upper-mids. Personally, I think that largely depends on the actor’s voice. Truth be told, when I mix voice actors into spots, I’m always bumping up the upper-mids and highs to cut through anyway, so I don’t see it as an issue. However, the Stellar X2 doesn’t add any exaggerated brightness. Sure, you can see what they’re claiming in the graph they send, but I’ve never been one to trust that stuff. I rely on my ears, and my ears are happy with this mic.
It also doesn’t have an over-the-top proximity effect, which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the actor. Some voice actors working at home with some of the similarly priced competitors are struggling with extra mouth noise, no doubt related to that upper-mid boost. During my webinars, I had been using a different mic that had me cringing at my own mouth noise. Once I switched over to the X2, I noticed pretty quickly that it was gone.
Next, I wanted to do some musical testing with what I had on hand at my home studio. First up was putting it in front of my Hirade Model 5 classical guitar. I recorded it flat into my Pro Tools rig—and it was, in fact, delicious. It didn’t improve my playing, but it made the guitar come alive. It picked up everything from my fingers to the strings, as well as all of the resonance of the instrument. I couldn’t resist putting some concert hall reverb on it, and with no processing at all, I was getting a clean, crisp sound.
The next test was to see how it handled a guitar amp. I fired up my Gibson SG with an old distortion pedal and turned it up to a responsible level because my rock and roll days are long behind me, and I live with my family who doesn’t need to hear that kind of noise. It’s worth noting that the Stellar X2 doesn’t have a pad or a roll-off built in, but it took a solid blast effortlessly, capturing what I was hearing in the room perfectly. I should also note that there is no polar pattern switching on this mic. Keep that in mind if it is something you need.
For a mic priced under $200 (by a penny!), the Stellar X2 is a must have. It competes effortlessly with mics costing five or even ten times the price. It continues to be my strong recommendation for voice actors, and is a worthwhile addition to any mic locker. Whether you’re a voice actor, podcaster or a musician, this mic is well worth a listen!
TZ Audio • www.techzoneaudioproducts.com
Frank Verderosa is a 30-year veteran of the New York audio industry, fighting the good fight for film studios, ad agencies and production companies, but secretly loves mixing music most of all. These days, he plies his trade at Digital Arts in NYC, and is also a noted podcast engineer.