Pro quality at an affordable price? Hugh Robjohns inspects a preamp with a prestigious name.
Amek's association with the legendary Rupert Neve has led, over recent years, to a range of highly regarded studio desks and related stand‑alone equipment. The System 9098 Dual Mic Amp reviewed here is derived from a highly specified recording desk and has been designed to meet the needs of the most critical professionals. The key to the professional environment, of course, is quality, since any degradation to the microphone signal can never be replaced. However, price is equally, if not more, important because the whole music and recording business is so very competitive.
As you might expect from any mic‑amp design originated by Rupert Neve, the System 9098's sonic purity and excellence can be assumed, but the really impressive thing is that Amek have been able to price it significantly lower than its immediate competition (such as the Focusrite Red 8). Scoring high in the value‑for‑money tables, the 9098 is potentially within the reach of the aspirational home studio owner.
The System 9098 Dual Mic Amp accommodates a pair of microphone or DI inputs and provides up to 72dB of gain through a combination of a switched coarse setting and separate fine‑gain control. The usual collection of mic‑amp facilities is provided, including polarity reversal, high‑pass filter and phantom power, but — somewhat unusually — the unit also incorporates a Mid‑Side (MS) decoder and stereo‑width control. Each channel has its own level metering and the signal output is fully balanced and isolated.
The 9098 is a solid 1U rackmount unit with most input and output connections on the rear. The box weighs in at about 4kg and is 330mm deep (including connectors). The upper and lower surfaces contain a few ventilation slots around the linear power unit, which are necessary as the unit seems to run slightly warm.
Internally it's well built, with a large motherboard covering the whole floor area of the case. The power supply is mounted directly on this PCB within a separate screened case, and two small daughterboards carry the front‑panel metering and some push switches. The integrated circuits are all socketed and the few internal jumpers and test points are labelled clearly. Intriguingly, the circuit board has provision for two additional plug‑in peak‑limiter cards. The manual states that these are not available at present, but may possibly be provided as an option at a later date.
The rear panel carries an IEC mains socket with associated voltage selector and fuse holder. A pair of 4mm binding posts with supplied linking bar bring out the chassis earth and analogue ground connections. Microphone inputs and line‑level outputs are catered for with 3‑pin XLRs; the inputs are electronically balanced but the outputs incorporate substantial transformers.
Without wishing to bore you with detail, I will explain that the microphone amplifiers are of the TLA or 'Transformer‑Like Amplifier' design which has been seen on many other products from Rupert Neve. Active components are used to simulate the operational characteristics of conventional transformer coupling, but with far better performance. In this case, the topology includes a discrete transistor front end feeding an OP275 and a pair of NE5534 ICs (for the tech‑heads out there). All technical specifications are exemplary — particularly the channel crosstalk, which is better than 100dB at all frequencies: these figures translate directly into the kind of sound quality that really does make a difference.
The front panel is neatly separated into three sections, with the two channels separated by the Mid‑Side facility. The operational controls for each channel are completely separate, so the unit really is a dual‑channel design rather than a stereo one, although the provision of a switched input gain control and a centre detent on the fine control will allow accurate gain matching between channels.
On the extreme left of each control section is a 3‑pole quarter‑inch jack socket for DI inputs. The System 9098 will happily accept either a balanced signal or a conventional unbalanced one on a normal 2‑pole plug, and the DI input is activated by pressing the adjacent DI button. This input has a 100kΩ input impedance; when it's active, the gain range is restricted to 30dB.
The next control is a large knob to set the coarse gain in ten 6dB steps (only the first five steps of which are functional on the DI input). To the right is a fine gain‑trim knob which offers ±6dB with a centre detent at unity gain.
Four push buttons provide the essential facilities of phantom power, polarity reversal, 120Hz high‑pass filtering and an output mute (post meter); each has an associated LED to show when it is active.
Above the buttons, a horizontal LED bargraph meter shows the channel output level. The meter is scaled between ‑30 and +14dBu and the topmost LED, labelled Over Load, illuminates at a pre‑defined peak threshold (adjustable on internal jumpers between +18, +20 and +22dBu — the last being the default).
The 9098 Dual Mic Amp is unusual in its provision of a stereo width control and MS matrices, but is all the more versatile for it. The MS facilities comprise a knob and three buttons. Two of the buttons apply the MS matrix converters to the input or output signals; the third activates the stereo width control. If an MS stereo microphone is connected, the input MS decoder may be inserted to convert the signal to conventional LR (Left Right) format. Alternatively, the output of the Dual Mic Amp can be converted to MS format from a conventional LR input signal (although few people would want to, these days...).
When activated, the width control allows the stereo image to be reduced to mono, or increased such that the S component of the signal is 6dB higher than normal. Since this facility increases the amount of 'out‑of‑phase' information in the stereo signal it should be used with care to retain mono compatibility, but the 6dB limit is a sensible one and the control provides an effective range.
The manual for the System 9098 is generally very well written, but it falters when it comes to the section on MS operation. For example, it erroneously suggests that signal processing should not be performed on an MS signal. While I would agree that, in unskilled hands, great damage can be done to an MS stereo signal if it's mistreated (although no more so than when an LR signal is mistreated), much of the advantage of the format comes from the way in which the two legs can be processed independently. Indeed, one of the most commonly used treatments is to apply severe high‑pass filtering to the S signal to reduce inevitable low‑frequency rumbles and image imbalances, yet this is specifically discounted in the manual!
This unit is everything I expected it to be: a very competent performer, and well up to the standards anticipated of a product with Rupert Neve's signature on the front. Although I wasn't able to make a direct head‑to‑head comparison with the top‑flight Focusrite Red 8 mic preamp, I was left with the impression that the Amek unit is very much in the same class and can certainly extract every last bit of information from the microphone.
It's simple to set up and operate, and has masses of headroom and an extremely clean and accurate sound quality. It makes top‑flight mics sound fantastic, and even cheap ones perform far better than they have a right to. The DI input works remarkably well: I recorded a wide variety of guitars without any hint of a buzz or hum. The wide bandwidth and enormous headroom of the System 9098 ensures that every element of even the fastest transient is faithfully captured.
The MS facility is useful — many potential purchasers may doubt it at first, but I'm confident that most will find it indispensable after a short time. The use of MS microphone techniques tends to be confined to broadcasters, but MS has a much broader application and this unit might encourage music studios to experiment and discover the benefits of the format for themselves.
At £1056, the System 9098 is not exactly bargain basement, but this is an attractive price when you consider its superb sound quality, let alone its facilities and design pedigree.
- Well‑designed, classy circuit design from 'the master'.
- Sound quality up with the established leaders, but priced more attractively.
- Stereo width control and MS facilities make this a very flexible tool.
- Quality still doesn't come cheap.
- Manual could be a tad more helpful in the MS department.
Extremely high‑quality 2‑channel microphone pre‑amplifier. Excellent sound, easy to use, and with all the facilities you could need, including proper DI inputs. The addition of MS facilities and stereo‑width control is unusual but very welcome, making this a superbly flexible unit.