It was all the way back in January, when Blue Microphones made its CES announcements, that the Spark Digital first broke cover alongside two other mobile recording devices. Our interest was immediately piqued thanks to the mic's USB 2.0 and iOS connectivity, which allows it to support the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch via the 30-pin jack. After a grueling wait that lasted until just a few weeks ago, Blue's latest offering finally arrived. Was the long wait worth it? Does the Spark Digital do its part to bolster Blue Microphones' reputation for stellar recording wares? Join us past the break as we put the peripheral through its paces and give you answers to those very queries.
iOS and USB connectivitySolid, all-metal frameAdequate on-board controlsGreat sound quality
Mute / volume button pops off easilyLightning adapter needed for newer devices
Blue's Spark Digital offers stellar sound quality on top of a solid build, despite the need for an extra adapter for connecting to Apple's Lightning port.
Back in Vegas when we grabbed a quick hands-on with the Spark Digital, we noted the solid build quality, which has been a mainstay across Blue's microphone lineup. This unit is another metal-clad affair with a quite dapper blue-and-silver color scheme. Despite its claims to a studio-quality experience, the device remains comparable in size to a SM57 or SM58, measuring a hair less than 7.5 inches tall and an inch and a half in both width and depth. Of course, the size increases quite a bit once you attach the peripheral to the metal stand that's included in the box. Don't let those figures fool you, though, the Spark Digital has quite a bit of heft to it. Let's put it this way: you'll know when you've added it your daily carry.
All of those controls are great, but the plastic button / dial comes off way too easily.
Taking a tour around the rig, a combination volume and gain control rests on the front with four LED lights above it that serve as a level indicator. Turning that knob left or right makes this adjustment while pushing it in mutes the mic. There's another, larger LED on the dial itself that lets you know when you're on mute and when the mic is hot. All of those controls are great, but the plastic button / dial comes off way too easily. It's not attached with any sort of pin to hold it in place and it occasionally popped off while we were traveling. The only other on-board switch is an on / off toggle for the Focus Control around back (more on that feature in a bit). Last but not least, a jack is located on the bottom of the unit that accepts both the 30-pin cable for iOS devices and a USB option for connecting to a laptop or desktop.
As we mentioned briefly before, the Spark Digital comes with some essential accessories in the box. First, a metal desktop stand -- similar to the one that cradles the Yeti -- is included to handle the peripheral during recording sessions. The holder swivels 180 degrees and can be locked into place once it's positioned just so. Our only complaint with the stand is that the platform that the mic attaches to is held in place by mini bungee cord / rubber band-type ropes, serving as a shockmount to keep the microphone safe from vibrations. This makes for a less-than-solid base when positioned at an angle due to the weight of the microphone despite the shockmount's intent, even if you won't be moving it mid-session. If you keep things vertical, though, you won't have any issues.
In order to use this beast with the latest iPhone, iPad and iPad mini, you'll have to snag a Lightning adapter to get up and running.
In addition to the stand, the requisite cables are included as well. Again, you can connect via a 30-pin connector or USB port. The Spark Digital doesn't have a built-in headphone jack for zero-latency monitoring like its bigger brother, the Yeti, but it does offer said connection along the cable that connects to your laptop or mobile device -- a pretty nice touch as far as we're concerned. A soft bag for carrying the mobile recording unit comes standard as well, complete with a second compartment on the inside to keep that duo of cables tidy. You may be asking: "30-pin connector?" Yes, unfortunately you read that correctly. In order to use this beast with the latest iPhone, iPad and iPad mini, you'll have to snag an extra adapter to get things up and running. Perhaps a third cable will be introduced soon for the Lightning connection, but for now, be sure you pick up that $30 adapter before you plan to record.
Software and setup
Continuing its pattern of churning out plug-and-play devices, Blue Microphones made the Spark Digital's setup process super simple. If you've already installed a bit of recording software -- such as GarageBand, StudioMini and the like -- you're a plug-in and a few clicks in the Settings menu away from being able to record. The entire process takes less than a minute, which keeps the focus on actually recording, and not getting the equipment set up and connected. Throughout our time with it, we didn't encounter any hiccups going through the process each time we relocated and the fact that GarageBand automatically detected the accessory made the chore even easier.
Let's chat a bit about that Focus Control, shall we? On the surface, the feature is said to enhance recordings for greater clarity and detail over the "Normal" mode, but there's more to it than that. Toggling the Focus Control on alters the voltage of the mic's internals (specifically the capsule) and thus tweaks the dynamic frequency response. This offers a much more in-depth change -- than say, a filter would -- that doesn't adjust the unit's signal output. Instead, the input driver gets all of the changes. All of that boils down to this: the Focus Control offers two unique options for recording with the same sound quality for each. It's not really a matter of one working better than the other, but rather selecting which of the two works best in a given tracking scenario.
General use and sound quality
A painless setup routine goes a long way in making the Spark Digital a pleasure to use. The fact that it's iOS-compatible and that it takes up less space than the Yeti makes it more likely you'll take it on the road for capturing a new instrumental or doing some podcasting from a hotel room (a likely use case for Engadget editors, anyway). Thanks to the built-in mute control, we never had to worry about keystrokes, coughs or other noises creeping in mid-broadcast while we weren't speaking. The Spark Digital did pick up a bit of room noise while we were recording acoustic guitars, but it's nothing that can't be cured in postproduction.
A painless setup routine goes a long way in making the Spark Digital a pleasure to use.
During the course of our comparison tests, Blue's Spark Digital ultimately lived up to our expectations. The unit provided a depth of sound (read: range of tones) and overall clarity in the tracks that places it a notch above the Apogee MiC in this regard. Captures from the Spark weren't weighted to one end of the sound spectrum or the other and highs, mids and lows were all consistently represented. However, low-end and mids get most of the attention with the MiC -- on par with what we had seen in previous recordings for other reviews. The new Spark handled both instruments and vocals (read: speaking and podcasting) with the same gusto each time out.
Blue Microphones Spark Digital sample
Apogee MiC sample
The clarity and depth were especially apparent when we recorded with a 1962 Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar. The higher pitched strings in particular were much more pronounced with the Spark Digital at the helm, lending a hand with the end result. Both of the audio samples were recorded with the same Gibson acoustic and GarageBand on a MacBook Pro with no EQ or production tweaks made after the fact. We did, however, adjust the volume of the tracks to make things nice and level for playback and we were careful to place both mics the same distance from the J-45 for each recording.
The other dual-connection mic we've already mentioned, the Apogee MiC, is one of the Spark Digital's more obvious adversaries: it, too, offers USB and 30-pin compatibility, and costs $199. What you lose here is an ultra-sturdy desktop stand in favor of a smaller, lighter setup. There's also no onboard mute switch. On the bright side, the unit is much more compact and doesn't carry nearly the heft that the Spark Digital does. As you can hear in the audio samples above, the MiC doesn't exhibit the overall range of sound that Blue's offering does, but it's definitely worth considering.
In terms of other mics that offer a double dose of connectivity, Blue's own Snowball fits that bill -- so long as one of Apple's camera connection kits for the iPad follows close behind. The Snowball has long been a popular choice for podcasters and remains rather compact with three color options. You would also be saving some coin, as the mic is priced at $99 and the requisite adapter tacks on another $29, but you can expect a dip in sound quality here as well. While the Snowball does an admirable job handling both acoustic guitars and vocals, shelling out 70 extra bucks would net a significant jump in audio quality.
While there are other mobile recording mics that play nice with both computers and the iPad, the Spark Digital is the best choice of the ones we've tested. Sure, Blue Microphones' latest effort is a bit heavy compared to the Apogee MiC, but the added features and boost in sound quality quickly made us forget the extra heft once we started tracking. And the price is the same, too, even though you get all those nice extras.
Yes, we'd like to see a bit more stable platform in the desktop stand that supports the unit's weight better and a mute / volume control that's attached with... well, anything. A third cable that allows us to connect to our shiny new iPad mini's Lightning port immediately would be nice too, but the truth is, at this point many of you may have already bought Apple's Lightning adapter out of necessity. For us, these are all minor flaws: the truth is that the unit works as advertised and provides great sound quality with a peripheral that's easy to setup on-the-go. You can't ask for much more than that.
Thanks to Nick Wiley for providing the guitar licks used in the audio samples for this review.