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best 500 series preamps

Best 500 Series preamps: The best preamps in API’s format

API is known as one of the most legendary companies in music technology history, but during music’s golden age of the mid-1960s they were just another startup.

The company innovated an idea of smaller, modular units that could be swapped in and out of their large frame consoles. This made repairs easier to perform as the channels could be broken down by section, but also allowed engineers to integrate units from other companies into their consoles for tonal variation.

Though API was out of business by the late 70s (don’t worry, they came back with a vengeance!) other companies proudly took the baton and soldiered on with the idea and even took it a step further.

Enter the “lunchbox”. Over the next few years, multiple companies created their own versions – all based on the same “interchangeable parts” approach. A while after API was resurrected by a change of ownership, it created the VPR Alliance which established regulations and standards to approve the creation of 500 series units by different manufacturers.

500 series units are amazing because you can build out your dream signal chain easily without needing a cumbersome console and integrate it into your interface-based digital audio ecosystem.

A number of companies are represented here, each with their own take on a 500 series preamp. While some are not exactly inexpensive, they all fall in the under $1000 range.

Best 500 series preamp overall: Black Lion Audio B173 500

black lion audio b173 500 series preamp
Best 500 series preamp overall
Black Lion Audio B173 500
Black Lion Audio are kings of mods, but they have many great models of their own. This is a great take on the Neve 1073.
Pros
Excellent Neve 1073 sound
High quality input/output transformers
Stepped gain makes recall easy
Cons
1073 sound isn’t for everyone

Black Lion’s take on the venerable Neve 1073 design offers all of the necessities without adding anything unnecessary. The sophisticated CineMag input transformer and Edcor output transformer ensure that the signal remains pristine at all times. And the stepped gain allows for easy recall of settings from session to session.

Best high end 500 series preamp: Chandler Limited Little Devil

Chandler Limited Little Devil 500 series preamp
Best high end 500 series preamp
Chandler Limited Little Devil 500 series preamp
This Class A preamp works well with all kinds of microphones and offers multiple ways to shape the signal.
Pros
Three input types
High and low input impedance
Open and clear tone
Versatile range of sounds
Cons
Class A gain stage only
Somewhat pricey for a 500 series preamp

Chandler makes some of the best preamps in the business. The Little Devil 500 is a Class A with a wide open sound that works well with all kinds of microphones.

It offers a lot of ways to change up the sound, including the bias and feedback of the amplifier. The beauty of the feedback control is that it changes the harmonic content, and the control has a wide range. You can go from really clean to really colored and everything in between.

Whether you need a full-fledged preamp or want to run the signal through something for color this is one of the best high end options. It’s compatible with all brands of lunchboxes, so powering it won’t be an issue.

Best transparent 500 series preamp: DBX 580

dbx 580 500 series preamp
Best transparent 500 series preamp
DBX 580
Some compressors are meant to add a little something to the sound, and some are intended to be as transparent as possible. This is a good option for the latter.
Pros
A good, transparent compression character
Low and high detail shelves let you EQ with it
Accurate VU meter
Cons
Not the best choice if you’re looking for a compressor with character

DBX’s take on a 500 series preamp offers transparency with 60dB of gain so you can focus on capturing the true sound of the source without too much coloration from the preamp.

The Low and High Detail shelves are unique for a preamp and allow you to shape the sound going out of the unit. A VU meter allows for precise leveling, working in concert with the pad and low cut options.

Most versatile 500 series preamp: Warm Audio Tone Beast TB12-500

warm audio tone beast tb12 500 series preamp
Most versatile 500 series preamp
Warm Audio Tone Beast TB12-500
This might be the only preamp you need. With different compression sounds, switchable capacitors and transformers you’ll have a blast playing with it.
Pros
Multiple tonal options
High quality output transformer
Two op amp styles
Cons
Takes up two lunchbox slots
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Appropriately named, the Tone Beast from Warm Audio provides a variety of preamps in one two-space unit. There are a number of ways to shape the signal. A switch offers selection of two options for the CineMag output transformers with steel and nickel that provide distinctly different character.

What’s more, you can also take the output transformer out of the signal altogether. Choose between two styles of op-amps for clean or more saturated sounds, and two types of capacitors (tantalum or electrolytic). Additionally, there is an insert point for routing it with other gear.

No matter if your source needs a mic, line, or DI input this preamp offers versatile, beastly tone. If you’re looking for versatility, this is one of the best 500 series preamps to get you there.

Best Neve 1073 500 series preamp: BAE 1073MPL 500 Series 

BAE 1073MPL 500 Series preamp
Best Neve 1073 500 series preamp
BAE 1073MPL 500 Series 
A well-made take on classic Neve compression. Transformer-coupled circuit that uses great circuits.
Pros
High quality Neve 1073 sound
True to original compressor design
Carnhill-Ives transformers
Handwired
Cons
More expensive than other options
Not the best choice if you’re looking for a transparent compressor

The Neve 1073 is one of the most popular preamps of all time, and for good reason. They have the thick, mid-focused tone heard on countless popular recordings and can go from clean to significant saturation.

The 1073MPL pays homage to the Class A, transformer-coupled original design. It uses the exact Carnhill St. Ives transformers found in the 1073 and 1084. To top it off, every unit is hand-wired.

Best tube 500 series preamp: Fredenstein F609 Tube Preamp

fredenstein audio f609 500 series preamp
Best tube 500 series preamp
Fredenstein F609 Tube Preamp
An affordable tube compressor with a high quality circuitry design and American transformers.
Pros
Tube design
American transformers
Easy to set controls
Cons
Tube compressors are not the best sound for certain sources
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Fredenstein has made quite a name for themselves by offering quality gear at working musician prices. Tube preamps are renowned for offering fat vintage tone, but most are expensive and delicate. The F609 gives you the classic sound of yesterday with the reliability and innovation of tomorrow.

The design includes dual triodes and a pair of American made transformers. It’s easy to dial in and offers all of the appointments required for today’s sessions including: -20dB pad, phantom power, high-pass filter, and polarity switches.

Best budget model 500 series preamp: Lindell Audio 6X-500

lindell audio 6x-500 preamp
Best budget model 500 series preamp
Lindell Audio 6X-500
An affordable preamp and EQ combo with an EQ circuit based on a Pultec.
Pros
Preamp and EQ
EQ inspired by the Pultec
Controls on circuit board to adjust bandwidth
Cons
None
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The budget-friendly 6X-500 is unique in that it is a combined preamp and EQ. The discrete preamp is built on a one-channel transformer design with input and output controls. The EQ is a passive two-band design with three selectable frequencies for each band with gain knobs capabale of boosting up to 15dB.

The coolest part?  They are based on the venerable Pultec. For further adjustment, the high frequencies bandwidth can be shifted via a control on the circuit board. It’s very unique and very affordable, making it one of the best 500 series preamps.

Best API style 500 series preamp: Warm Audio WA12-500 MKII

warm audio wa12 500 series preamp
Best API style 500 series preamp
Warm Audio WA12-500 MKII
API invented the 500 series concept, and if you’re looking to add one to your rack but can’t afford one from them – this is the ticket.
Pros
API style compression
Fully discrete circuit
CineMag transformers
Cons
Not the best choice if you’re not looking an API style

API created some of the most definitive preamps in recording history, and while their quality is worth the price tag not every musician can afford them. Warm Audio’s WA-12 fills that need.

The fully discrete design is built on the 1731-style op-amp and CineMag input/output transformers. It provides up to 71dB of gain that can power any type of microphone. If you want the classic API sound in the best 500 series preamps but don’t want to break the bank, the WA12 has you covered.

Best SSL style 500 series preamp: Solid State Logic VHD+

ssl vhd+
Best SSL style 500 series preamp
Solid State Logic VHD+
Good things can’t be said enough about SSL gear. This unit puts their signature preamp sound in your 500 series rack.
Pros
Blendable 2nd and 3rd harmonic distortion
Very clean preamp sound
Very versatile
Cons
Might be too clean for some
Custom made so often on backorder

SSL is one of the most popular styles of mixing desk. But you can add their signature sound to your 500 rack with the VHD+.

It’s really clean, lets you blend in 2nd and 3rd harmonic distortion. There’s a switchable high-pass filter that ranges from 15Hz up to 500Hz. This makes it great on any source.

At $600 it’s not exactly cheap, but neither is its sound.

FAQ

How do you use a 500 series preamp?

Dialing them in is the same as other preamps. The biggest factor is that you need a lunchbox to connect them to. Lunchboxes come in all sizes, from just a few slots to as many as you need.

What is 500 series preamps?

The 500 series is a build format/standard. They’re more compact than rackmount preamps. They usually feature the same controls and sonic options. The only “downside” is you need a special piece of gear to use them, referred to as a lunchbox.

Lunchboxes come in different slot variations, which is where the 500 series units connect to. They’re great for building your perfect signal chain.

Do expensive mic preamps make a difference?

Yes. They offer a better sonic quality and are better made. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of affordable options that still sound great. Even interfaces these days come with built-in preamps that sound good.

But if you’re looking to upgrade, an external preamp is one of the best investments you can make.

How much difference does a good preamp make?

Good preamps provide a cleaner, more articulate sound and usually offer tone shaping options that standard preamps on audio interfaces and mixers don’t.

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