Holophone PortaMic 5.1 Surround Microphone Review

Futuristic Mic with Surround Sound Abilities

Have you ever dreamed of recording full surround sound on your stereo-only video camera? Impossible, you say? With the Holophone PortaMic 5.1, the dream is now reality. Using their expertise in the surround recording arena, shrinking the size and price and using some serious audio math, Holophone has created a one-of-a-kind solution for the common man. Now, the dedicated surround recorder can capture true 5.1 surround on gear they already own, and play it back on any modern surround-equipped home theater.

Form Follows Function

If you haven’t heard of Holophone, that’s alright. Started in 1994, their products are a standard feature in motion pictures and television. If you watch TV at all, you’ve heard their microphones in action at sports and other live events. Until recently, Holophone’s mics were something of a secret weapon for audio professionals. But now, with the introduction of the PortaMic 5.1, consumers have access to this amazing technology.

The PortaMic 5.1 is an odd-shaped little thing. It’s basically a black egg mounted on a control box. My kids said it looked like a space ship. The egg sports five microphones – one for each of the standard five surround channels. Using boundary mic principles, the egg shape becomes part of the pickup pattern for each microphone element. The five channels go through a Dolby Pro Logic II encoder built into the base. This blends the five mics in a way that allows delivery through just two channels – perfect for plugging into your camcorder.

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With the PortaMic 5.1, you receive the mic, a short 1/8″ stereo cable and a user’s manual. The manual is complete if small, but you probably won’t need it anyway. Setup is easy and intuitive. The PortaMic 5.1 is built from sturdy plastics with a metal shoe mount on the bottom – perfect for sliding into the accessory shoe of your camcorder. If you prefer to use the mic off-camera, the bottom of the shoe includes a standard 1/4″ threaded socket for mounting on a tripod or light stand. The microphone is powered by a single 9V battery, which is easily accessed on the bottom. Just plug one end of the 1/8″ stereo cable into the port on the mic and the other end into the jack on your camera, turn everything on and away you go.

Setting Up

Operation of the PortaMic 5.1 is straightforward. After securing the mic to your accessory shoe and plugging in, turn on the power switch located on the left side of the control section at the back of the microphone body. In the middle of the controls, you’ll find some LEDs with a volume control. To the right, there is a pad button and indicator light. With the mic on, adjust the volume control until you see some flickering of the signal-present lights. The knob below acts as a sensitivity control and, if you have too much output volume, you will want to engage the pad by pushing the button on the right. While the PortaMic 5.1 isn’t shock mounted in the traditional way, the five microphone elements are mounted in a rubbery compound that seems to isolate them from most mechanical noises. But don’t get too comfortable – this is a very sensitive microphone and it will pick up any thumps or bumps to your camera or tripod.

Sound and Fury

If this were a normal stereo microphone, we would rate its sound quality as top-shelf. Individual sounds are well defined and clear without being harsh and there is very little self-noise. The output is strong, and with the sensitivity control and pad it should be a good match for most camcorders. But this isn’t a run-of-the-mill stereo mic. The PortaMic 5.1 is made for surround sound and it delivers that in spades. Listening to our test recordings on a Dolby Pro Logic II equipped home theater, the surround spread was impressive for such a small microphone. Our walk-around test of the microphone revealed good separation between each of the five surround channels. By chance, we also had opportunity to record a thunderstorm, and the bottom end captured by the PortaMic 5.1 was impressive. Thunderclaps wrapped clearly across the front three channels with a nice echo in the rear speakers.
Our test unit was provided with two essential accessories: a custom foam windscreen and a Rycote Fuzzy windjammer. If you’re recording indoors, a windscreen is unnecessary. However, if you plan to take the PortaMic 5.1 outdoors, you will fight wind noise like any other unprotected microphone. In fact, in a 10 mph breeze, the PortaMic 5.1 was almost unusable. The foam windscreen was useful to a point, and adding the Rycote Fuzzy eliminated all but the strongest gusts. Both windscreens are an excellent investment, but pricey. Plan on additional $300 for the pair.


Surround From Stereo?

If this were a normal stereo microphone, we would rate its sound quality as top-shelf. Individual sounds are well defined and clear without being harsh and there is very little self-noise. The output is strong, and with the sensitivity control and pad it should be a good match for most camcorders. But this isn’t a run-of-the-mill stereo mic. The PortaMic 5.1 is made for surround sound and it delivers that in spades. Listening to our test recordings on a Dolby Pro Logic II equipped home theater, the surround spread was impressive for such a small microphone. Our walk-around test of the microphone revealed good separation between each of the five surround channels. By chance, we also had opportunity to record a thunderstorm, and the bottom end captured by the PortaMic 5.1 was impressive. Thunderclaps wrapped clearly across the front three channels with a nice echo in the rear speakers.

Our test unit was provided with two essential accessories: a custom foam windscreen and a Rycote Fuzzy windjammer. If you’re recording indoors, a windscreen is unnecessary. However, if you plan to take the PortaMic 5.1 outdoors, you will fight wind noise like any other unprotected microphone. In fact, in a 10 mph breeze, the PortaMic 5.1 was almost unusable. The foam windscreen was useful to a point, and adding the Rycote Fuzzy eliminated all but the strongest gusts. Both windscreens are an excellent investment, but pricey. Plan on additional $300 for the pair.

Summing Up

Surround recording used to be reserved for major movie studios and television networks. The Holophone PortaMic 5.1 represents the first viable surround microphone aimed directly at consumers. It’s built to professional grade standards and works as advertised. Just imagine concerts or weddings with full surround. The independent moviemaker also benefits with entry-level surround for micro-budget projects. If you’ve considered offering surround sound in your productions but couldn’t handle the price or complexity, the Holophone PortaMic 5.1 surround microphone is the simplest solution available today.

Tech Specs

Power source: 9V battery
Audio encoding: Dolby Pro Logic II
Output: 1/8″, XLR

Strengths

  • Easy to use
  • Self-contained
  • Minimal Adjustments
  • Post-Production is a snap

Weaknesses

  • Expensive
  • Pricey Accessories
  • Discrete 5.1 channels requires additional hardware/software

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.

Holophone
14430 Highway 27, RR 1
Schomberg, ON L0G 1T0
Canada
www.holophone.com
$599

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