Don't look now, folks, there's another new preamp manufacturer, bringing to the table a new design utilizing, what else--tubes and transformers. This pre is a dual mono, fully balanced, vacuum-tube design called the 992 from LaChapell Audio. It's big, it's red and it's based on the well-known NOS 6072 tube (used in the C12 and ELAM 251 mics) for the input stage and the NOS 12AU7 for the output stage. That's four tubes per channel, for a total of eight tubes in three rack spaces. The 992 deploys separate input and output gain sections for a total of over 50 dB of gain. The individual control of the input gain and output gain varies the sonic flavor depending on how much of each is used.
The 992 uses balanced circuitry throughout, with tube balancing on the inputs, and a Jensen JT-11 transformer on the output side. The front panel also includes some of the nicest switches I've seen on a piece of gear--toggle switches with red LEDs in the ends of them that illuminate to easily show their status. Even with the large components inside, it weighs in at only 26 lbs. thanks to some large amounts of aluminum in the chassis, with no shielding issues thanks to the balanced audio path throughout the unit.
As always, the important part is how it sounds and its ease of use. On several different sessions the unit was put through its paces, on a variety of different instruments--first up, stereo acoustic guitar with session ace, John Willis. This was probably the most satisfying sound on acoustics I've heard to date. Beautiful top-end detail, and good bottom with a harmonic richness one would expect from a great tube pre. Other instruments met with similar findings. On bass, the 992's performance must be heard in order to fully appreciate the creamy thunder that emanates from this box while using more of the input gain to saturate the 6072. Vocals were another strong area for the 992, with my favorite results came from using non-tube mics (sometimes there is only so much tube character needed).
Vocals went down with a really nice character, and little need for EQ. With certain gain settings, there seems to be a slight amount of compression going on inside this box as well, helping keep the vocal under control. This pre on vocals reminded me of the great Telefunken V-76. I also used this pre on stereo strings with room mics, with Neumann 582 omnis. The 992 added that elusive silkiness to my string sound. It seems to have the ability to make a lesser mic sound really good, hence a good mic really great. The instrument inputs (also featuring a Jensen transformer to balance the signal) were used as well, going direct from a highly restored vintage Wurly played by Jon Nicholson. The sound was faithful to the famous sound of the Wurly's speaker output (typically, this speaker has to be miked as the direct sound doesn't seem to match it).
With this much praise going on over the sound of this pre you're probably wondering, OK what's the downside? Just a few minor issues, really. First, the wonderful toggle switches are arranged in a mirror format. For instance, whatever toggle switch is on the far left, on left pre, is on the far right, for the right pre, etc. While aesthetically pleasing, I found the layout somewhat confusing.
The second issue I came across is due to the unique balancing design used on the input. This issue only occurs when using a condenser mic, and a phase-reversed mic cable. A fairly drastic EQ change happens when using this combination, causing the mic to sound very thin. Flipping the phase rev switch however corrected the EQ/phase problem. Lastly, don't expect to have the kind of gain needed for non-powered ribbon mics, unless, of course, your ribbons are miking a drum kit or guitar cabinet.
In wrapup, this is one amazing-sounding pre, the price is a not light ($2,995 direct from the manufacturer), but in my opinion well worth it--competing well in comparison to other premium-priced preamps the DW Fearn, or Mercury Audio pieces. To play in this league, it's going to take a few dollars more to achieve the high level of results you'd expect. The kind of results where you say, "Yeah, that's exactly what I was going for."
P.S.--After talking to the manufacturer, they mentioned a forthcoming option for more gain (>70 dB) without changing the sound of the 992. No word on pricing for the option yet.
Model 992 2-channel tube preamplifier: $3,495