While at NAB last month, one of the interesting new lavalier microphones I saw was the Sennheiser MKE 2 Digital. They've had an analogue version of the MKE 2 lav for a long time to fill the niche as the higher-end lavalier mic in their lineup. This new digital version is unique in that instead of a 3.5mm plug, it has a Lightning connector to connect to Apple's iOS devices like iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. That means that the signal needs to already be in digital format going into the Apple device. So Sennheiser partnered with Apogee, a well respected company that produces high-end audio gear, to design a very small analog to digital converter in a tiny box inline with the cable of the mic. Apogee is known for very high quality pre-amplifiers and analog to digital converters so this little mic from Sennheiser really piqued my interest.
Why not just put a 3.5mm TRRS plug on the thing? My guess is that with this new mic, they designed an analog to digital converter of much higher quality than is built in to any of the Apple or Android or other mobile devices out on the market. Does it really make a difference? My experience is that it can make a difference, if they did a good job of it.
I had a chance to experiment with it just a little there on the show floor and was impressed with the sound. Granted, one cannot properly evaluate sound quality on a noisy convention floor with over-ear headphones. I recorded a 30 second clip of my voice and played it back. Very balanced, uncolored sound, good strong signal, quite impressive in light of the limiting circumstances.
I did the same with their new Clip Mic Digital, a less expensive "digital" version of their ME 2 lavalier microphone. It sounded a little too harsh in the higher frequencies and especially the sibilance range. But it will retail for about $300 less and might work well concealed under a shirt. But again, hard to make a final evaluation out on the convention floor.
And that brings us to the potential downsides on the MKE 2 Digital. It is priced, at least initially, at $500 USD. That puts this mic in the same price league as many of the pro-level lav mics (think Sanken, Countryman, etc.). Of course you can't record with those directly into your phone, but if you're doing pro-level work, you probably wouldn't consider doing that anyway. I'm not suggesting that pros shouldn't or wouldn't consider using the MKE 2 Digital, just that it seems it will appeal to a rather niche group of recordists.
And one nagging question I can't get out of my head is what if Apple goes and changes all their iOS devices to USB-C connectors? And while that might sound outlandish, it could happen. I sort of get the feeling that they made the Lightning connector because they were horrified with the USB committees first stab at micro and mini USB 3 connectors (they were quite bad and clearly designed by a committee that didn't quite see eye to eye). And yes, they'll probably have Lightning to USB-C adapters but that sort of messes with the convenience of a mic that plugs directly into the phone.
In any case, I applaud Sennheiser and Apogee for trying something different. If the MKE 2 Digital were closer to $200, I'd buy one right away. But since they're $500, I'll probably buy a Countryman instead.