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Is it time for the $5 preamp to make a comeback?

Is it really possible to get a state-of-the-art mic preamp for just $5. Possibly it is. So why would anyone pay $1000 or more?

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audiomasterclass.com has been going for quite some time now. And certain articles from the archive keep on raising interest and questions. And none more so than the ones about the famous $5 preamp. A giant-killer in miniature.

You can read about it here, here and here...

One story I didn't tell at the time was about the 'boutique' 8-channel preamp I once owned. The reason I owned it is because I had it for review, it worked fine and I needed an 8-channel preamp, so I made an offer.

That preamp normally sold for somewhere around a thousand UK pounds. That's around 1500 Euros or $2000 US dollars. Not cheap therefore.

Unfortunately it eventually developed a fault. I'm not recommending you do this yourself, but I thought it might be a good idea to take the lid off and see if there was something simple and obvious that was wrong.

I was astonished...

There was hardly anything inside. In fact the 'boutique' preamp was nothing more than a few integrated circuits, resistors and capacitors. And the main integrated circuit for each channel was the SSM2017 chip which you could shortly before that time buy for around $3 in small quantities.

It was in fact this chip that had failed on seven of the eight channels. This happened after several months of only using one channel, and then suddenly having the need to use all eight.

Since this chip had by that time gone out of production, I replaced it with the INA217, which is the successor to the SSM2017 and is the same chip as used in the $5 preamp. It worked fine.

Shortly after that, the unit received a 'drop test' and sustained some damage, so I scrapped it.

Always ready to learn lessons, I noted two things from this...

Firstly, an expensive preamp might be nothing more than inexpensive components in a fancy box.

Secondly, the SSM2017 and INA217 sound damn good!

Oh and thirdly, don't drop a $2000 preamp.

So, over to you. Everyone is entitled to their opinion on preamps and there are no rights nor wrongs.

What do you think about preamps based on cheap chips? And are expensive 'boutique' preamps really all that much better?

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By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006
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