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Cranborne Audio Camden EC1

Microphone Preamplifier By Matt Houghton
Published February 2021

Cranborne Audio Camden EC1

Though billed as a high‑quality single‑channel mic preamp, the EC1 is a whole lot more.

You’d have to have been living under a rock for the last few years to fail to notice Cranborne’s emergence on the pro audio scene. Their 500R8 and 500ADAT racks and Camden 500 preamp module have since taken the 500‑series world by storm. More recently, their Camden EC2 rackmountable two‑channel preamp improved on the already excellent Camden design. Both of those preamps offer outstanding technical performance for a very reasonable price but as well as ultra‑clean gain, they also feature a Mojo circuit that allows you to dial in one of two different tonal characters to taste. As well as improving slightly on the Camden 500’s specifications, the EC2 added a number of helpful features, including a reference‑quality stereo headphone amp and a couple of inputs for external line‑level sources, such as clicks and backing tracks. For a more detailed exploration of what makes these preamps so special, check out Hugh Robjohns’ reviews in SOS September 2018 (https://sosm.ag/cranborne-camden500) and September 2020 (https://sosm.ag/cranborne-camden-ec2).

EC Does It

The latest addition to the range, the Camden EC1, is at heart another preamp. As the name and half rack‑width form factor imply, it is essentially a single‑channel version of the EC2. And that, it has to be said, makes it far more than a preamp: while the asking price is similar to that of a Camden 500 module paired with a single‑slot 500‑series rack/power supply, the EC1 offers you rather more functionality for that money.

An optional 19‑inch rackmounting kit is available, but my guess is that most people will choose to use the EC1 as a desktop device. Indeed, to that end, the unit ships with four removable rubber feet already fitted to the bottom panel. The power supply is an external ‘line wart’ 24V switch‑mode type with a latching connector. I know that some of our readers prefer internal PSUs but, even setting aside the arguments in favour of keeping mains AC away from the audio circuitry, I think this is the right call here: I hate having thick mains IEC leads trailing from the rear of desktop devices!

As with the EC2, the core of this product is the latest iteration of the Camden preamp, which, technically speaking, is marginally better than in the original Camden 500 module — not that you can hear any difference. As with most quality preamps, you have a mic/line input on the rear and a high‑impedance instrument input on the front. A thoughtful departure is that the front‑panel high‑impedance input can also accept line sources, not just instrument ones, making it handy for patching in not only the usual guitar or bass but also instruments such as synths and keyboards. There’s another external line input on the right. And on the rear is a CAST port (Cranborne’s protocol for sending and receiving two channels of audio over shielded CAT5e, 6 or 7 cable) and a mono/stereo aux input presented on two quarter‑inch jacks.

The Link output allows the Camden EC1 to perform as a DI box, passing the pre‑gain‑stage signal through to an amp or other destination.The Link output allows the Camden EC1 to perform as a DI box, passing the pre‑gain‑stage signal through to an amp or other destination.

In terms of outputs, you also have a few options. There’s an electronically balanced XLR line‑level output, and this is duplicated on an impedance‑balanced TRS jack. Both outputs, as well as the CAST port, can be used simultaneously, so you can route the input signal to multiple destinations. There’s also a pre‑gain quarter‑inch jack Link output, which serves the same function as a thru or amp socket on a typical DI box, with the line‑out feeding your interface and the Link port feeding your amp — but it can perform that function not just with instrument signals but also line‑level ones. As with the EC2, there’s also a headphone out on the front.

Put the EC1 in front of a decent budget interface and you’ll have ample clean gain and better technical performance... since your interface won’t need to provide any gain at all.

An Interface For Your Interface?

So, rather than simply a ‘preamp’, the EC1 could better be considered a high‑quality analogue recording front end and headphone monitoring system. Or, put another way, potentially the perfect partner for any audio interface.

That raises an interesting question: why did Cranborne not simply add stereo USB conversion and call this thing an audio interface? Actually, I’m almost certain that Cranborne have plans in mind to create a high‑quality desktop interface at some point (they’d be mad not to, given the success of their larger interfaces and the size of the desktop interface market).

The thing is, the converters in Cranborne’s 500‑series racks are seriously good, and not just for the price. Adding stereo conversion of the same quality would push the price of the EC1 up considerably. Opting for cheaper converters, on the other hand, would risk damaging the company’s reputation and, in any case, plenty of manufacturers already offer affordable interfaces. In the meantime, then, Cranborne’s focus here is on offering their existing high‑quality preamp and monitoring facilities to users of third‑party interfaces. And to make it more useful than some professional outboard is with a wide range of interfaces, they’ve thoughtfully included a ‑10dB output pad: interfaces that haven’t the headroom to handle full professional‑level outputs will pair nicely with the EC1.

It makes good sense to me. There aren’t many reasons to add external preamps to an interface that already has them, since neutral gain isn’t a huge technical challenge these days. But some will struggle to provide enough clean gain, particularly for passive dynamic mics. Indeed, a reason that Cloudlifter‑type inline ‘booster’ preamps have proven so popular is that many people using ribbons and moving‑coils like the Shure SM7b and the Electro‑Voice RE20 have found that their interface’s preamps have struggled to perform well when their gain is cranked up. Put the EC1 in front of a decent budget interface and you’ll have ample clean gain and better technical performance than with a booster preamp, since your interface won’t need to provide any gain at all. And when the time comes to upgrade your interface, the EC1 can, if you wish, remain part of your setup.

The other main reason people tend to look to external preamps, of course, is a quest for musically appealing tonal character. Again, the EC1 offers far more tonal options than most preamps do, courtesy of the Mojo circuit’s Thump and Cream settings. I’ve discussed this feature in these pages before, so won’t dwell on it here, suffice to say that it offers the choice of a thicker bottom end or more edge higher up the spectrum, and in both cases you can dial in as much or as little as you want.

Then there’s the headphone amp, which boasts more impressive specifications than those you’ll find on most interfaces. More importantly, it sounds clean and capable in practice, and has more than enough ‘welly’ to drive high‑impedance cans. The headphone monitoring signal comes from a summing bus: you can balance the contribution of the main mic/line/instrument input signal being amplified by the EC1 against the rear and front‑panel aux inputs. This means you could, for example, place this ‘preamp’ where you want to be when performing (eg. the other side of the room from a noisy computer!), and both tweak the mic input gain and balance a backing track, click‑track and the input signal from there.

Hit Single?

I used the Camden EC1 on a range of mic, line and instrument‑level sources and was always impressed. Without any Mojo processing, it is delightfully unobtrusive: clean and quiet at all gain settings, leaving you free to focus on the performance.

A great test is spoken word, as you might record for audiobooks or podcasts, since the source is exposed and levels of backround noise are important. Noise from the preamp was never an issue, even with passive ribbons and moving‑coil dynamics used at a greater distance than I typically would. I could EQ and compress the resulting signal fairly assertively and the only audible nasties were where it revealed sounds in the room or in my voice: the electronics always stayed well out of the way.

Comparing the sound with a Camden 500 module I had here at the same time, I really couldn’t discern any audible difference. I mean I’m obviously happy that they improved the spec, as that inspires confidence, but the circuit was already that good. The Mojo processor was everything I expected, a real pleasure. And that you can use this not just as a mic/instrument preamp but also as a line‑level processor when mixing really increases the EC1’s appeal and value for money. In short, I’m smitten all over again.

Summary

A quality analogue front/back end and signal processor for those who already have their A‑D/D‑A needs covered, and for a good price.

Information

£549 including VAT.

Cranborne Audio +44 (0)1707 656500

info@soundtech.co.uk

www.soundtech.co.uk

www.cranborne-audio.com

Published February 2021