Review: Black Lion 500 Series Preamps

Black Lion Audio is now a contender in pro audio manufacturing—not just hot rodding. With a nicely improved product line (including its much-heralded word clock), sonic variety and market-leading prices, it appears to be a front-runner in the “vintage gear reimagined with modern features and greater value” sweepstakes.
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Those cagey cats at Black Lion Audio have been modding converters, mic amps and clocks to much acclaim, so it comes as no surprise that they now have a considerable line of their own products. In fact, they’ve released updates on their Auteur and B12A (in both half-rack and 500 Series form factors), and both of these mkII 500s pack considerable value into a single 500 Series slot.

For Black Lion’s B12A mkII, it all starts with a classic preamp design, based on API’s 312A, a simple solid-state favorite that BLA has personalized with a Cinemag CM-1153 transformer at input and an Edcor at output. The Cinemag is an mkII addition, as is more gain (from +26 dB now up to +70 dB) and a lower noise floor. Functions include phantom power, polarity flip, an -18 dB pad and a quarter-inch direct injection.

Only moments after connecting the B12A mkII to a SM57 placed on an electric guitar amp, I realized what it had to offer: low-mid forwardness, grit, saturation and character. Lower gain levels don’t expose all this attitude, but once those transformers are pushed, they respond with chewy, saturated bliss. A 200 ohm input impedance doesn’t hurt either, as such loading accentuates bottom-end and girth.

Bass guitar is a natural pairing; I first used a DI box, but the quarter-inch input does fine job as well, as does electric guitar or anything that might benefit from what sounds like lots of even-order harmonics. Big growly kick drums, slightly compressed snares, chunky tom toms and ever-so-slightly distressed “classic rock” vocals are immediately attainable. Electronics seem to benefit even more from a little B12 fur with synths, drum machines and virtual instruments being much more animated, warm and musical. Here’s a web clip of the B12A mkII warming up and smoothing out a bright condenser mic on acoustic guitar: https://soundcloud.com/pro-audio-review-magazine/black-lion-b12a-mkii-on-acoustic-guitar .

The B12A mkII is not exactly versatile, but that’s really the point. It has undeniable personality that shall not be repressed. Could it be better? Not by much. Metering would be useful; variable impedance would be very nice (to sometimes open up the top end a little more); and an output level attenuator would be the cat’s meow (to overdrive the unit while keeping output levels reasonable).

B12A mkII sibling Auteur mkII is nothing like his brother. Sporting only an Edcor output transformer—albeit with an identical set of features—the Auteur seeks to avoid the saturation and grind that the B12 mkII achieves. +67 dB gain is offered, with a -13 dB pad and a higher input impedance of 6,000 ohms.

I applied the Auteur mkII on snare first and got nicely cracking, if slightly lean, results. The Auteur is quick and captured snare characteristics without restraint; with kick, snare and toms, I found great attack, little woofiness or shell emphasis, tight low-mids, forward upper mids and a lack of hyped high-end boost up top.

Tests with a variety of inputs—guitars, acoustic guitars, vocals, bass guitar, etcetera—yielded consistent results. The Auteur mkII added almost no personality, captured the various lively transients and an un-accentuated bottom end with very little noise (at least until the last 16th of a turn of gain where the noise abruptly appears). I found that my 1073-type and other boutique mic amps offered me more non-linearity, musicality and euphony than the Auteur, so it’s not a natural fit for my toolkit. That said, if you are still amping up inputs with pro-sumer, “stock” or budget gear, then you owe it to yourself to try an Auteur. It will indeed bring more clarity, detail and headroom than any low- or mid-level front-end.

Could the Auteur be improved upon? Yes—just like his brother B12A mkII, some metering and impedance selection would be nice, even if an output level for overdriving isn’t needed here.

The B12A mkII comes in at $599 direct from Black Lion Audio, while the Auteur mkII at $399. These are extremely reasonable prices for such competitive products in a crowded market. Both of these mic pres are available in half-rack/desktop form as well, although the 500 Series models offer a lower price tag and have additional
DI inputs to boot.

All things considered, Black Lion Audio is now a contender in pro audio manufacturing—not just hot rodding. With a nicely improved product line (including its much-heralded word clock), sonic variety and market-leading prices, it appears to be a front-runner in the “vintage gear reimagined with modern features and greater value” sweepstakes.

Black Lion Audio
https://blacklionaudio.com