Great preamps cost a ton of money.
At least that’s what manufacturers of expensive microphone preamps want you to believe.
And there is some truth to it. As usual: you get what you pay for.
If you spring for a professional level model like the Avalon VT-737SP, you get professional level sound quality and complete control over that sound.
But you can pay a lot less and still get great sound. You can even still get the basic controls you need to manipulate that sound.
There are not many choices that give you this at a budget price, but there are a few. And the DXB 286S is one of the best.
In fact, it may very well be the best. That’s what we aim to find out in this review. We want to know if you can do any better at this price range. Let’s find out.
DBX 286S Preamp Review: Overview And Features
The DBX 286S is a microphone and instrument preamp in the form of a channel strip. It is, as I’m sure you can tell from the photo, a rack-mounted unit, but it’s somewhat smaller and doesn’t take that much space. It has a few important onboard tone-shaping features and effects.
It’s important to note that the DBX 286S is a one-channel preamp. However, we can find two inputs on the back panel: a regular balanced XLR for microphones and a classic line input for instruments.
There is also a regular output jack on the back, plus another jack labeled “insert” that gives you the option to add an external effects loop or any kind of effects device. You can also use it to send the direct buffered signal out. For that you need to use a mono 1/4-inch cable and plug it in halfway through, which might be a bit of a nuisance.
On the front panel, the 286S features six separate sections. On the very left is the classic mic preamp with its basic controls. Next is the compressor with its controls and the gain reduction indicator.
Going further, there are also a de-esser, an enhancer, and the noise gate (or expander) effects. At the very right end, is the main output gain knob with its clipping indicator.
- Compact channel strip and preamp
- High-pass switch
- Phantom power for condenser microphones
- Noise gate
- Frequency response from 20 Hz to 20 kHz
The 286S is a fairly simple and straightforward model. This is obvious at first glance. But that’s not a bad thing. This is intended to be a straightforward preamp and a channel strip that fits any rack without taking up too much space.
While the overall design is a bit dull, that is far from a deal-breaker. The functionality and the overall features definitely make up for it. And the low price helps too. This is one of the best values on the market. Period.
Sound And Functionality
The biggest strengths of the DBX’s 286S are all of its features and controls. Together, they’re able to create a pretty impressive sound. Which is really surprising, considering this model’s price range.
Within the preamp section, there are several controls. First, is the input gain knob that goes from 0 to +60 decibels, and from -15 to +45 decibels for the line input. Right next to it, there’s a small LED clipping indicator. Nothing too fancy, but gets the job done, alerting you about any potential problems at the input section.
Next up, is the +48-volt phantom power, as well as the high-pass filter that gets rid of the lowest part of the spectrum—everything below 80 Hz. This comes in handy for those great condenser microphones that don’t have an additional high-pass filter on them.
Right next to the preamp section, we have the bypass switch. This completely overrides the effects and turns the DBX 286S into a simple preamp.
The compressor section is rather simple. To be frank, we would prefer to have more versatility in a compressor. Still, it gets the job done and has drive and intensity (which is essentially compression ratio) controls. There’s also an LED strip indicator that gives some rough info on how much compression is being applied at any given moment.
The de-esser is quite a useful and most definitely a welcome addition. With it, you’re able to smooth out any excessive high-end noise caused by sibilant consonants in vocals.
The de-esser has two controls: one for the frequencies between 800 Hz and 10 kHz, and the other one for the threshold. This way, you can control both the frequencies and the intensity at which they get filtered out. For vocals, the best setting is somewhere between 4 and 8 kHz.
The enhancer is also a noteworthy addition, although it’s not an essential one. While not exactly complex or intricate, you can use it to enhance low-end or high-end frequencies. The low-end knob boosts anything between 80 and 250 Hz, while the high-end control works dynamically, depending on the input.
The expander, or gate, allows some rudimentary excessive noise removal. Aside from the threshold and ratio controls, there are also a couple of LED indicators in this section. Nothing too fancy, but, again, it’s nice to have and gets the job done.
The “insert” jack on the rear of the unit is useful if you need to add external effects units or effects loops. For that, you’ll need a stereo cable. With a regular mono cable, you can just use it as a separate signal out directly from the mic preamp section, bypassing all of the effects.
However, when using the mono cable, you’re not supposed to plug it all the way in. Otherwise, you’ll just stop the signal from going to the main output. It’s a bit of a hassle, but you can still use this output for this purpose as well.
The DBX 286S mostly finds use as a microphone preamp, especially if we’re talking about condenser mics and vocal recording. It’s also used for instruments, but definitely not as often as vocals.
Advantages and Disadvantages
- Simple to use
- Well-worth the price
- Compressor and de-esser could use more controls
DBX 286S Vs Coudlifter
A lot of people ask about the similarities and differences between DBX’s 286S and Cloud’s Cloudlifter CL-1. But they’re actually completely different devices with a different use.
While the 286S is a channel strip and a preamp with an effects processor, the CL-1 is just a simple mic activator. This means that it only finds use with microphones, most notably condenser ones, and helps keep their character and clarity.
You just plug your microphone into the Cloudlifter and then send the signal out to the mixing board or the audio interface. It uses phantom power and turns it into an ultra-clean gain of +25 dB, all without passing it further to the ribbon microphone. It finds use in both studio and live settings.
DBX 286S Vs Behringer MIC2200
On the other hand, the Behringer MIC2200 is totally comparable to DBX’s 286S. What’s more, we would argue that it’s a worthy opponent.
It is a completely tube-driven microphone preamp, featuring two channels with their individual inputs and outputs. Both channels are controlled individually.
The MIC2200 runs with two standard 12AX7 preamp valves. Aside from the XLR mic inputs, there are also line jacks for any electric instruments. What this unit does not have are the same tone-shaping options as the 286S.
There’s no compression or de-essing or noise gates. It is just a simple preamp with some EQ controls on it. The advantages it has are the two channels, an extremely wide frequency range that gives openness to the tone (10 Hz to 200 kHz), and the more affordable price. The downside is that Behringer equipment at this price level might not always be that reliable.
While these two are not exactly the same, they often serve the same function and are both rack-mounted units. They can be used together in the same signal chain, but overall, the 286S is the more useful, reliable, and versatile unit.
DBX 286S Channel Strip Mic Pre: Conclusion And Rating
The most exciting thing about the DBX 286S is that it can be used in both amateur home studio settings and professional settings. It is affordable even for non-pro users who are just seeking a little more versatility in their setup, but it delivers enough quality that professionals will happily use it too.
While it’s not exactly a fully high-end channel strip, the DBX 286S provides the sound quality and great features that any studio setting needs. On top of all this, you get some additional functionality with the option to insert other external effects and effects loops into the equation.
That said, this is not the model you’d want if you’re building a state-of-the-art fully professional studio. It just won’t bring out the full potential of your other gear, and you might want to go with something more advanced in this case, like Avalon’s VT-737SP.
Overall, the DBX 286S is nothing fancy, but it provides all the essentials that a basic studio setup needs. That is why it gets a Musicaroo rating of 4.4 out of 5.