The Grace Design m101 is one of the best microphone preamps available that still sells for a reasonable price.
Is it cheap?
Definitely not. It is pretty expensive, actually.
But it delivers such great sound and is so simple to use, that it is a great value, despite the high price.
Finding the right microphone for your needs and to satisfy your tastes is difficult. Things get even more complicated the moment you realize you will also need a microphone preamp.
With all the options, it can be impossible to know which one is right for you and which one works with your type of microphone. That is why we do these preamp reviews. And naturally, the m101 had to be one of the models we review.
So let’s take a closer look.
Grace Design m101: Overview And Features
The first thing we need to mention is that this is a single-channel device. While it’s mostly intended for microphones, it is also an instrument preamp.
Its overall design, layout, and functionality are pretty straightforward. The front panel has the standard 1/4-inch input for instruments: the so-called “Hi-Z.”
The preamp features a high-performance amplifier and a high-performance output. It also has a gold-plated gain switch with 12 positions, giving anything up to 65 decibels of boost.
In addition, there is a simple trim knob for fine-tuning the output. The whole signal path is enhanced with the addition of precision metal film resistors.
Up next is the ribbon mode, giving more gain and an additional special feature that deactivates phantom power. This way, if you use it with a ribbon mic, you won’t need to worry about any potential harm. What’s more, it will enhance the tone.
Finally, we need to mention the rugged design. It is obvious that this is a very durable piece, even compared to some of the best-constructed preamps on the market.
- One channel preamp for microphones and instruments
- Rotary gain switch with 12 positions
- Trim control for fine-tuning
- HPF feature
- Ribbon mic feature
- Balanced and unbalanced 1/4-inch outputs
First of all, this is a very simple device to use. This was Grace Design’s whole intention for the m101 preamp.
On the front panel, you have the Hi-Z input for instruments, giving anything from -10 to -45 dB in gain. In some way, this is the same functionality you’d get with a DI box, except here it is integrated into a preamp. This makes it suitable for some electric instruments.
On the backside, you have the standard XLR input for microphones. Next to it, are two different balanced outputs: one standard 1/4-inch and the other one for XLR cables.
Right next to these, you have the classic 1/4-inch unbalanced output. This is a very simple formation, but it makes the device versatile enough to be used in a variety of different settings.
As far as the controls go, there’s the 12-position gain switch that serves as the standard gain pot, giving anything from +10 to +65 dB. To further fine-tune the gain output, there’s a +10 dB trim knob, so the maximum gain boost here is +75 dB. Tone quality is ensured with a circuit path featuring 0.5% metal film resistors.
Aside from the mandatory 48-volt phantom power for condenser mics, there’s also a ribbon mic mode. This mode is intended to give stable and safe operation with ribbon microphones, ultimately giving them a spot to shine by enhancing their capture quality.
Design And Build Quality
The idea behind the m101 was to fuse an aesthetically pleasing design with functionality and features. Ultimately, it’s not about having just a nice-looking preamp, but something that’s easy to use in any setting.
Design might not seem like a big deal but the way Grace Design made the m101 so functional and simple to use is actually one of the best features. You won’t have any problems finding the exact knob or switch you need for any given task.
In addition to all this, the device is fairly compact. It’s as small as any standard audio interface for home recording.
It’s needless to say that this is a professional device. Taking a look at its specifications and the overall frequency response, it’s pretty clear that the m101 delivers professional level sound.
But it is mainly useful for microphones, despite both instrument and microphone functionality. Yes, you can use it with anything, but don’t expect any magic with electric guitars. Basses, acoustic guitar with piezo pickups, and keyboards will do just fine. It’s also really handy for those who need a preamp for their analog synth keyboards.
But the best thing about it is that it actually sounds like a real amp. Although relatively flat with its response, it does add a little character to the tone.
Advantages And Disadvantages
- Very simple to use
- Great sound quality and frequency response
- Rugged construction
- Simple and intuitive design
- Just one channel
- Could be a bit more versatile
Grace Design m101 Vs Focusrite ISA One
When considering the m101 as your new microphone preamp, you naturally have to compare it to other similar preamps. One of the first that comes to mind is Focusrite’s ISA One.
This noticeably bigger piece is also a single-channel preamp, but despite the larger size, it is actually designed to be a portable device, with a carrying handle on the top.
The main difference is in the sound. The ISA One is intended to replicate the overall tone, feel, and even functionalities and features of the old Forte analog console. In some ways, it’s a channel strip with a few more controls.
Aside from the input gain and fine-tune controls, there are a few other great additions. There’s an input mode switch that toggles between instrument, line, and microphone modes. We also have another control for different input impedance levels.
As for instruments, you can choose between the DI and regular amplifier input. This opens up new possibilities for different electric instruments and signal chains. The whole thing is rounded up with more detailed level meters and a VU meter in the middle.
Although cheaper, the Focusrite ISA One is in the same quality range as Grace Design’s m101. But there are not many other similarities: we have two fairly different devices here.
The m101 is intended for more modern tones and features simplified operation with its rudimentary controls. The ISA One is a more suitable option for those who are into vintage tones and vintage-inspired designs.
Grace Design m101 vs Avalon VT-737sp
One preamp you can’t avoid is Avalon’s great VT-737sp. You’re going to have to compare any other high-quality vocal mic preamp to Avalon’s and the m101 is no exception.
That said, these two models are not similar types of preamps at all. In fact, the only thing that bonds them is the preamp label and the quality. The results you get with each are completely different.
The VT-737sp is a high-end single-channel strip with a preamp, a very detailed EQ, and an optical compressor. And, of course, it’s a tube-driven device, which means that the tones and dynamic response you get are unlike anything you’d hear from the m101. There’s a significant amount of saturation and “organic” clipping.
While personal preference dictates the type of tone you prefer, if you put the different tones aside and look at only the quality, the Avalon preamp is clearly superior. The detailed controls, tube-driven operation, and the overall sound quality are simply better.
Expectedly, this comes at a significantly higher price. We could go on for days explaining what exactly is behind its great tone. But even without getting too technical, the differences are pretty obvious.
And this is why it’s kind of hard to compare the two. The M101 works for mid to high-level studios and offers great operation operation and tone. It is an excellent preamp.
The Avalon, on the other hand, is on a whole different level. It is arguably the best vocal mic preamp in existence and it has the price tag to match.
Grace Design m101 Review: Conclusion And Rating
With the standards are getting higher and higher, it’s hard to get by without a proper mic preamp, even if you’re only recording at home. If you want more than just a decent preamplifier, the Grace Design m101 is worth a look.
This preamp lies somewhere between the advanced amateur-tier preamp and a fully professional one. The tonal qualities are all there, and the device also offers great compatibility with many electric instruments.
It might not be the best option for electric guitars, but it will still do the trick in some settings. Other than that, it’s a pretty suitable solution for many different digital keyboards, analog synths, electric basses, and acoustic instruments with piezo pickups.
Its biggest strengths come out with condenser and ribbon mics. It is able to pronounce all of their great characteristics and give them a spot to shine.
As a downside, there is the lack of some potentially useful functions and parameter controls. For instance, the addition of a high-pass filter would be great, especially for condenser mics. Despite that, you can’t really go wrong m101 and you’d have to pay a lot more to get something better.
That’s why we give it a Musicaroo rating of 4.9 out of 5.