Although Grace Design has been building audio equipment for a decade now, the company has made a name for itself in recent years as a builder of high-performance (and high-dollar) mic preamps. Hoping to spread the magic into the three-digit price range, Grace recently introduced the Model 101 mic preamp.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, broadcast, live sound
Key Features: Front-panel instrument input; high-pass filter; stepped gain and continuous trim knobs; wide bandwidth and low distortion.
Contact: Grace Design at 303-443-7454 Web Site
+ Open, detailed sound
+ Front panel high-impedance instrument input
+ Compact chassis and cool chrome vibe
– No pad
The Score: A single-channel, affordable preamp that delivers world-class sound to home and project studios.
A single-channel preamp in a half-rack-space chassis, the Grace Model 101 ($699) is clearly targeted at home and project studio owners who have the budget for at least one channel of high-quality mic preamplification.
The transformerless Grace Model 101 offers up to 60 dB of gain from what the manual describes as a “high-resolution transimpedance gain stage.” The Model 101 has the usual microphone input on the back panel, as well as rear-mounted XLR and 1/4-inch TRS outputs. Both actively balanced outputs can be used at the same time.
The Model 101’s feature set does not stray far from the mic preamp basics, but it does add a few nice touches. The first is a high-impedance (1 M-ohm) instrument input mounted on the front panel, which is unique in that it will accept balanced sources as well as unbalanced. Instead of using a standard internal switch to engage this instrument input, the Model 101 uses a gold-contact relay.
When using the instrument input, the preamp’s gain shifts from the mic range (+10 dB to +60 dB) to one more suitable for instruments (-10 dB to +40 dB). A high-gain version of the Model 101 (same price) is available for users who need even more gain. Designed primarily with ribbon microphone users in mind, this version offers an additional 10 dB of gain.
The Model 101’s main gain knob is the stepped variety (5 dB increments), which makes it easy to return exactly to a previous gain setting. To the right of the gain knob is a two-color signal level LED that lights green when the output signal reaches -20 dBu and flashes red when the output hits +16 dBu. When this fast-acting LED turns red, there is still 10 dB of headroom left.
Downstream of the level LED is the preamp’s output trim knob, which attenuates the output signal by up to 10 dB. This knob does not have detents, and is not exactly linear in its travel. At its halfway point (straight up), the knob is already knocking the output signal down by 8 dB.
The Model 101 has a wallwart power supply. Although wallwarts often can mean no actual power switch, Grace Design did include one on the Model 101 – always a welcome addition. Other switches include a high-pass filter at 75 Hz (12 dB/octave) and phantom power.
The front panel of the Model 101 bears a striking chrome finish, right down to the knobs and switches. To keep the knobs from being slippery and hard to operate, each knob is ringed with a thin band of rubber (like a grommet). This makes the knobs easy to turn and complements the chrome and black theme of the faceplate.
While it is an added bonus when a mic preamp looks and feels wonderful, obviously it’s how the preamp sounds that really matters; turns out that in sonics as well as looks, the Model 101 shines.
The Model 101 has a detailed, open sound that brings the best out of a microphone. Its sound has a bit of an edge to it, thanks to a forward and somewhat aggressive upper-mid response. I loved what it did to open up certain sounds, such as male pop vocals, finger-picked acoustic guitar and percussion. These tracks really jumped out of the mix, and required less EQ than usual.
Only in a few cases (aggressively strummed acoustic guitar being one) did I wish the sound were a little smoother. On one spoken word recording, for example, the Model 101 did not quite capture the smooth, full sound that I was after.
Sonically, the Grace Design Model 101 reminds me of one of my favorite solid state preamps, the Earthworks LAB series (although the Model 101’s sound has a little more edge). The Model 101’s specs are similarly stellar, with extremely low noise and distortion figures, single-digit phase shift and a flat frequency response out into the 300 kHz range. The Model 101 offers the advantage of the front panel instrument input, which also sounds great.
My only complaint with the Model 101 is that it does not have a pad. Even at the lowest microphone gain setting (10 dB), with the trim rolled all the way back, a hot condenser microphone on a drum kit or loud guitar amp can overdrive the preamp.
In the sonics department, the openness and clarity of the Model 101 put it on par with some of the best solid state microphone preamps money can buy. It has transparency and detail, but is in no way clinical or boring. With its up-front sound and hint of edge, this preamp would nicely balance the mellow sound of a ribbon microphone or “vintage” condenser.
At $700 per channel of preamplification, the Grace Design Model 101 is not exactly inexpensive. But if home or project studio owners can dig a little deeper to invest in the most important gain stage in their studio, the Grace 101 would be an excellent choice.