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REVIEW: Cranborne Audio EC1 preamplifier

Is Cranborne Audio’s EC1 microphone preamplifier the best of all possible sonic worlds? Music technology author and lecturer Stephen Bennett finds out…

What is it?
The EC 1 is Cranborne Audio‘s stand-alone desktop microphone preamplifier with some unique features.

Whats great?
Excellent sound quality. C.A.S.T connectivity. In-built mixer with latency-free monitoring. Mojo feature is genuinely useful as is the in-built headphone amplifier. Stepped gain control.

Whats not?
External PSU. I would have preferred more extensive metering. Controls on mixer section are necessarily a bit cramped.

The bottom line:
Even if you already have some high-quality microphone preamplifiers in your rack, the EC 1 will bring some useful extra sonic options to the table. If you’re using with an inexpensive audio interface, it’ll improve your recordings no end.

The EC1 is part of Cranborne Audio’s growing range of audio processing and studio tools. It’s a single channel transformerless microphone preamplifier that offers up to 68.5db of input gain on a stepped potentiometer. The EC1 also features 48v phantom powering, a polarity switch, an 80Hz high-pass filter and a front-panel HiZ/Line input. Probably the most ‘newsworthy’ feature of the EC1 is something Cranborne Audio call Mojo. Adding analog saturation to your ‘in the box’ recordings is becoming an increasing (and useful) trend and Cranborne’s version offers two distinct options, Cream and Thump, controlled by a knob which bypasses the processing when turned fully anti-clockwise. The EC 1 also sports Cranborne’s networked audio system, C.A.S.T (Cat5 Analogue Snake Transport), which can deliver audio over 100 meters to and from the preamplifier to Cranborne’s other C.A.S.T. enabled products. Metering is by a single multi-colored LED, which is pretty basic, but proved adequate in showing if the preamplifier was clipping or not. The preamp also has two ¼ inch Aux inputs on the rear which can be routed to the headphone amplifier for latency free monitoring when using a DAW, and a mono EXT input which can also be sent to the monitor/C.A.S.T. signal path. The Link output delivers an unaffected signal derived directly from the line/HiZ inputs for re-amping duties, while a rear panel 10dB Pad sits alongside the balanced XLR and TRS outputs.

Cranborne Audio EC1: Build quality
The EC 1 as a desktop-type unit housed in a sturdy grey metal half-rack case that is weighty enough not to be pulled off the desk by cables. The front panel controls are smooth in use, though the mixer section knobs do stick out a way and are quite fiddly to adjust for my podgy fingers. The front panel also sports a power switch which, though useful, does take up quite a bit of front-panel space. The preamplifier can also be fitted into a jig to enable it to be loaded into a ‘traditional’ 19” equipment rack. The XLR Microphone input is on the rear and, while I understand that panel space is at a premium in a such a compact device, I would have much preferred a front panel input.

Cranborne Audio EC1: Sound
Whenever I review a microphone preamplifier, I always subject it to what I call the SM57 test. I find that the higher quality the preamplifier is, the better this venerable microphone sounds. I can report that the EC 1 passed this test with flying colours, letting the quality of the transducer shine without adding its own ‘sound’. The EC 1 worked well with my vintage U87 and AKG 414 microphones and compared favourably with the acclaimed transformerless preamplifiers in my Metric Halo ULN-2 interface, capturing clean recordings of vocals, snare drums and trumpet without fuss. It even had enough gain for my low-output Chinese Ribbon. I also tried using it with a very inexpensive audio interface and was surprised at the quality of the recordings I could obtain in conjunction with the EC 1. Sometimes though, you might need to add some ‘colour’ to your recordings and this is where Mojo comes in. Trying to describe the two saturation options is, of course, like dancing about architecture, but the range of sounds you can obtain here is quite wide and sensitive to the material being processed and the setting of the Mojo amount dial. Cream, Cranborne say, is a ‘valve/tape’ emulation and appears to add a dose of musically useful harmonics right across the spectrum, while Thump—a ‘transformer’ emulation—enhances the lower frequency range and proved especially nice on bass guitar and bass drums.

Cranborne Audio EC1: daily use
Once it’s all set up, the EC 1 performed without fuss. The internal mixer is very useful, the metering adequate and the headphone amplifier drove my range of headphones without strain or artifact. Being able to change the sonic characteristics of the preamplifier meant I was spoilt for choice for at times. The EC 1 also worked well as an external processor on mixdown and I particularly liked what Mojo’s Cream did to snare drums—two of these would make very nice drum bus processors.

Cranborne Audio EC1: The Verdict
The EC 1 is a useful little tool that will enhance the recordings of anyone who uses a low-cost audio interface, but also continue to hold its own as the quality of their studio equipment improves. It can deliver excellent transparent low noise recordings, but also offers some really useful analog ‘mojo’ if required. If you add up the cost of a high-quality microphone and instrument preamp, a beefy headphone amplifier and a couple of analog saturation processors, the EC 1 appears to be something of a bargain. But don’t let that put you off—it’s also serious piece of quality equipment that won’t get in the way of getting a great recorded sound.