I don’t mind admitting when I’m wrong. Back when the HB-52 mic from Hohner and sE Electronics was announced I effectively dismissed it sight unseen and sound unheard. To be fair, I think my scepticism was warranted, and I stand by my opinion that “Harp Blaster” is a horrible, tacky, marketing nonsense name for it.
Buuuut… (you knew there was a big BUT coming, right?) As the reviews and video clips started coming in I became much more curious and couldn’t resist getting one for myself.
Quick review in case you don’t want to read all the way through, the mic is fantastic. It very quickly became my first choice for most situations and I recommend it highly.
Now, let’s dig a little deeper.
This thing feels great. It’s very solid and the weight is just right. Much lighter than a big old Green Bullet, but still has a satisfying heft to it.
It’s very well constructed out of metal with no plastic parts. Even the volume control is made of knurled chrome and feels very smooth and sturdy. I’m confident I could kick this thing around on a dirty pub floor and it wouldn’t come to any major harm.
The diameter of the grill (50mm) is a touch bigger than that of its most obvious alternative, the Blows Me Away Bulletini. This is a good thing. The Bulletini is too small for me to hold comfortably. I find the HB-52 a more comfortable fit.
That said, I wouldn’t mind if it was a bit bigger still. I have quite small hands and it took me about three years to get comfortable with larger JT-30 and Green Bullet shells. It’s a matter of familiarity for sure but even now I sometimes struggle to maintain a proper grip on the diminutive HB-52.
The flat grill is a bonus. There’s none of the weird bulges and protrusions that give the JT-30 its cool art-deco style. It does help with getting a properly closed cup.
The colour is classy too. They’ve gone for the classic JT-30 hammertone green look, which I’m very fond of. I’m not so fond of the bright red cap on the volume control though. It doesn’t match the rest of the aesthetic and it looks plain goofy. Easy fix though, I just slapped a small circle of gaffa tape on it.
Hohner will tell you they’ve worked with sE Electronics and several high profile players to hone the sound of the dynamic element in this mic, using a good vintage crystal element for reference.
Whatever they’ve done, it works. I don’t trust myself with expensive and fragile vintage crystal elements so I can’t say how close to the “real thing” it is, but it sounds good. Very, very good.
It’s not the hottest of mics. You may find you need to add a little more gain than you’re used to if you play high-output vintage elements.
It doesn’t have the most naturally distorted sound either, nor the most bassy. Certainly less so than the Bulletini which is rightly renowned for its low-end response. Trying to describe sounds is a bit futile, but I’d say clear and creamy, not particularly aggressive until you drive it hard.
Don’t be mistaken though, the dirtier sounds are there, accessible through good cupping technique. In fact, by varying your cup you can go from dirty grit to smooth and clean anytime you like.
That responsiveness to your hand articulation makes the mic very versatile. It’s no one-trick-pony. I’ve used it extensively for dirty blues as well as much prettier melodic playing. In fact, the only thing I wouldn’t use it for is mounting on a mic stand for purely acoustic playing. A good vocal mic would still be the best choice there.
These days most of my playing is through a Lone Wolf Harp Attack (what is it with these stupid names?) pre-amp pedal into a Bose S1 Pro powered speaker. Sounds absolutely great in this application, as well as through my more traditional harmonica amp (a modded VHT Special 6).
Others may prefer the bigger bass of the Bulletini or the harder break up of a Shure controlled reluctance/controlled magnetic element, and that’s fine. For me though, the HB-52 is right in the Goldilocks zone.
I was puzzled at first why Hohner went with the XLR connector. We most commonly associate XLR cables with low impedance vocal mics. The HB-52 outputs at a high impedance and requires a cable with a female XLR connector at one end and a regular 1/4 inch jack at the other.
These cables are not exactly hard to come by, but they are not that common either, and you don’t get one with the mic. I would bet that a few people are using this with an improper cable and getting poor results because of it.
That said, XLR connections are very strong, sturdy and reliable.
You probably wouldn’t expect a modern mic to use the old Switchcraft screw-on connectors you find on JT-30s. Cables with those connections are rare, and you’ll probably need to have one custom made, or more likely use an adaptor and a standard guitar lead.
Speaking of standard guitar leads, I don’t think a regular 1/4 inch connector would be a good idea either. These can work loose pretty easily, and you risk it popping right out if you happen to stand on your cable mid solo.
Another option would be a captive cable, but these are a complete pain. You’re stuck with the one you get and if it fails your mic is a paperweight until you can get a new one soldered in.
Suddenly an XLR connection sounds like the best idea. I’m glad it’s what they went with.
So, is the HB-52 better than my vintage JT-30 mics?
For me, in most situations, yes. But it doesn’t replace them.
I love my pair of JT-30’s. They both sound completely different. The green one is hot, ratty and aggressive with a lot of natural breakup. The brown one is much more smooth, warm and round. It still gets gnarly though with good hand technique. They both house Shure controlled magnetic elements, but one is about fifteen years senior to the other.
Due to being hand made (to lax quality control tolerances), each vintage element has its own character. No two sound exactly the same. This is great because it gives you a wide tonal pallet to experiment with. On the other hand, it’s easy to end up constantly chasing “the one”. That’s time-consuming and expensive.
In addition, if you get attached to one shell/element and it breaks or gets stolen, you’ve suddenly lost your tone, and you can’t replace it exactly. That’s a big deal for me. If the HB-52 breaks (seems unlikely) or I’m daft enough to lose it (much more likely) I can just buy a new one and carry on as if nothing happened.
I don’t much want to take my vintage mics to unpredictable gigs or busking, but I’m more than happy to take the HB-52. For recording, I’ve got the choice of two contrasting vintage mics or the HB-52. Whatever works best for the job, and the best of all worlds.
The HB-52 is the mic that sits plugged in next to my desk to grab and wail on when the mood takes me. It’s the one I take to practice sessions and it’s my first choice for gigging or busking.
I wouldn’t want to be without it. Love this thing.
Here’s a quick video I put together where I play the HB-52 back to back with my two JT-30s.
NOTE: If some of the techno-babble above goes over your head, or if you just want to know a bit more about harmonica mics in general check out my Harp Mic Primer.