Can You Tell a $100 Preamp From a $4000 Preamp?

Do you hear with your eyes?

In marketing programs, there is talk about the Coca-Cola paradox. In blind taste tests, people prefer Pepsi over Coke. However, in taste tests where the participants know what they are drinking, they choose Coke. Why?

The feelings that the Coke brand elicits from drinkers make the difference. The ads, the design of the can, the classic logo, all of them contribute to override your taste buds, making your think that you like their soda more than the Pepsi.

There is a lot of this in audio. We all have the idea that a certain classic album was recorded with a certain microphone or preamp, and in turn, start to believe that a recording sounds better because that piece of equipment was used.

The Sound on Sound Preamp Shootout

In October of 2012, Sound on Sound did a preamp shootout. The idea was to use a player piano that played the exact same performance every time, with the same microphones, but different preamps. The preamps were:

  • API 3124+
  • ART Pro MPA II
  • GP Electronics PML 200E
  • Maselec MMA 4XR
  • AMS Neve 1073LB
  • SSL XLogic VHD
  • Mackie VLZ Pro

Participant Impressions vs. Reader Impressions

One of the most interesting aspects of the article was about how they thought that certain units sounded better than others while they were doing the shootout. In essence, some of the more inexpensive units sounded “cheap” while some of the more expensive ones sounded “fuller”—all impressions by presumably experienced audio engineers. None of these impressions held up once the readers of the magazine got hold of the files used for the article. Unmarked files were made available for readers to rate, and the staff posted the results at the end of the month.

Results

For the tests done with the condenser mic, most highly-rated preamp out of the bunch was the $299 ART Pro MPA II, a unit that readers preferred over units costing 8x more. What is most remarkable about this was the similarity between preamps costing very little (one can get 8 channels of the Mackie VLZ Pro preamps for $100 on eBay) and famous preamps such as the AP! 2124+. What is even more remarkable is that the staff “heard” the preamps differently based on what unit was actually being used.

  • A – ART Pro MPA II
  • B – AMS Neve 1073LB
  • C – API 3124+
  • D – Mackie VLZ Pro
  • E – SSL XLogic VHD
  • F – GP Electronics PML200E
  • G – Maselec MMX-4XR
  • H – Prism Sound Orpheus

Try It Yourself

Sound on Sound has the files available for download here. Give them a listen and tell us what you hear. Before checking out which file is which, do you hear the difference? Is it still worth dropping thousands on a new preamp?

Final results

Curious about which preamp was which?  You can find the results here.

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