Black Lion’s designers set out to bring versatility and lower noise to a classic preamp without sacrificing character — have they succeeded?
Black Lion Audio first made a name for themselves through their popular ‘modding’ service — the idea being that they’d apply their analogue electronics know-how to upgrade the performance of other companies’ products. Starting in 2006, they were probably most well known for ‘hot-rodding’ the old Digidesign 002 and 003 audio interfaces — this was back in the pre-Avid days when you could only use the Pro Tools software with the same company’s hardware, and these were the most affordable multitrack interfaces that were compatible. The hot-rodding typically entailed upgrading the analogue input and output stages, the power supply and the internal clocking — small individual improvements that collectively added up to a significant improvement.
Black Lion still offer a series of ‘mods’ for several products (mainly audio interfaces) but they’ve also developed an impressive range of their own gear, ranging from mic preamps, compressors and channel strips to summing mixers, and 500-series racks to external master clocks. It’s their latest preamp that I’m reviewing here: the B173 Quad. As the name implies, this offers four channels of broadly 1073-style preamplification, and it’s all packed into a 2U rackmount chassis.
Now, anyone who has conducted even a little research into their preamp purchases will know that the world isn’t short of 1073s! Neve still make various products that employ the 1073 preamp and/or EQ circuits, and there are clones and homages a-plenty from other manufacturers, to suit almost any budget. So it’s important to point out that Black Lion intend the B173 Quad as a development of the 1073 rather than a clone: the company’s website explains that they aim to “seamlessly combine vintage character with modern sensibilities, with a revamped gain stage offering a reduced noise floor with a cleaner sound and lower distortion”. So while various components, including Cinemag input and output transformers, should ensure it delivers enough of the characteristics that make the classic British preamp design so revered (warm, smooth, full-bodied — insert your preferred audio superlative here), the circuit doesn’t behave entirely like a 1073. But as we’ll see, that’s not necessarily a bad thing!