This boutique compressor sounds every bit as classy and characterful as it looks.
Electric & Company Audio Devices are a boutique pro‑audio manufacturer based in Austin, Texas, and they produce an intentionally limited selection of hand‑built studio equipment. Previous releases include the valve‑based EC3 preamp, which is based on the classic Ampex 351 amplifier circuit and was favourably reviewed in SOS August 2022. This time, we’ve been invited to assess their EC5B limiter, which is described by Electric & Company as a “deluxe” version of “the classic ’60s West Coast limiting amplifier circuit”, which I take to mean the Universal Audio 175B (a valve precursor to the better‑known 1176 FET).
The EC5B is a tasteful and stylish‑looking unit that gives off an air of being a classic, high‑quality piece of audio equipment — just as you would expect at this price. It features a few extra controls compared with a typical vintage‑style valve compressor, and I’ll discuss these below, but your eyes are immediately drawn to the substantial input and output knobs. That’s fitting, since these are the key controls for deciding how much gain reduction you introduce — as is typical of this style of compressor, there is no user‑adjustable threshold control.
It’s worth discussing the attack and release controls briefly, as I found these to be surprisingly flexible and influential in terms of getting the best results in use. Electric & Company describe the attack options as being potentially twice as fast as on the original 175B model: it’s capable of roughly 2ms at its fastest setting. At its fully anti‑clockwise position, the attack control doubles as a bypass for the compression circuit, allowing the EC5B to be used as a characterful line‑level amplifier. I’ll address the release control in more detail below but for now it’s worth noting that this also offers a relatively fast action, ranging from 527ms when turned fully clockwise down to 27ms at the other extreme. The large, multifunctional VU meter looks great, and the last feature to note for everyday use is an excellent addition: a side‑chain filter, which allows you to filter out low frequencies (rolling off at either 100 or 200 Hz) from the gain reduction circuit.
Electric & Company describe the ECB5 as being a combination of “tone, attitude, function and form”, and with no fewer than six different valves and three audio transformers in the signal path it certainly promises to add personality to any audio passing through it. A 6BC8/4BC8 dual‑triode valve is coupled by an inter‑stage transformer to a 12AX7 dual‑triode, which drives a 12BH7 dual‑triode for the push/pull output stage.
I mentioned above that the unit seemed a little busier in terms of features than you might usually expect, and this is because Electric & Company’s wished to encourage users to embrace the calibration facilities that are sometimes required on valve‑based designs such as this. The front panel features three small calibration pots and a 60Hz test tone switch. There are detailed instructions in the manual, and we’re encouraged to get into the habit of ensuring that the gain reduction circuit remains balanced and that the unit is fully optimised. In days gone by a studio might have had a resident engineer to look after that side of things! Today, most of us have to do a certain amount of maintenance, and while I often tend to shy away from stuff like this, it has to be said that I found the instructions easy to follow — and I would certainly be much more inclined to check things more regularly with these controls so easily accessible.
Electric & Company make no apologies for the EC5B not being a transparent device! In fact, they describe it as a highly “reactive” and “colourful” compressor — which is just how one might describe the 175B which inspired it. In practice, as I soon discovered for myself, this means that despite the main controls being pretty simple, there’s still a learning curve — you need to spend time experimenting and observing how it behaves before you can reliably achieve the best results. I initially found that a little unnerving, since I threw it straight into action on a vocal recording session, and I could clearly hear a ‘rounding‑off’ of the higher frequencies and a thickening of the low mids. At the time, I felt this could quickly become overbearing, so I chickened out on this particular tracking session, deciding that it would be better to get to know the unit in a more sedate, less pressured mixing environment!
In that context, I learnt that the EC5B’s input stage is particularly sensitive: if the gain reduction is being lightly triggered, your ears are greeted with a pleasingly smooth valve‑style sheen to your audio. But things can move very quickly go into ‘heavy colour’ mode, and if the source has strong transients or has more going on in the low frequencies, it can almost feel as if the unit is waving the white flag. As you become accustomed to it, though, and exercise a little more care, you can start to unlock the EC5B’s potential — and the results soon began to reveal themselves as being seriously good!
For the track I was mixing initially, the vocals had some brittleness in the top end that was beautifully smoothed out by the EC5B, and I found that with just 3‑4 dB of gain reduction on the meters, it was in a sweet spot — more than that, and the part started to sound overly squashed and the lower mids became too thick for the track. I was really impressed with the way in which I could gently sculpt a pair of acoustic guitars: naturally I could apply a slight valve sheen, which was pleasing, but I could also subtly change the feel of these parts by playing with the attack and release controls. And for adding vibe and energy to bass guitars or drum room mics the EC5B was very happy to oblige, of course.
I want to come back to that point about the controls, because it’s what impressed me most about the EC5B. Like many engineers, I have some fairly entrenched habits when it comes to using certain compressors, but with this one I found myself adjusting the settings often because I could nearly always hear significant changes. It often felt as if elements of a source could be pulled forward or pushed back, and the release control in particular could be used to tame saturation when it began to feel a bit much.
What we have here is a ‘full fat’ valve compressor with plenty of colour and character, but it’s one with attack and release speeds approaching those of an 1176.
My quest to fully understand the behaviour of the ECB5 felt like a mini history lesson in how the design of this family of ‘limiting amplifiers’ evolved! What we have here is a full‑fat valve compressor with plenty of colour and character, but it’s one with attack and release speeds approaching those of an 1176. Compared with using a classic vari‑mu or FET compressor, the ECB5 can feel a bit unpredictable at times — it’s certainly not a ‘set‑and‑forget’ sort of tool — and in a tracking environment especially it’s pretty easy to overcook the colour and attitude. The valve‑based design inevitably means it costs more to buy and run than a typical FET‑based design too, of course.
But learn to get the best from this device and you gain access not only to a means of controlling the dynamic range, but to a sumptuous, highly flexible compression that really can add life and character to audio passing through it. I often cringe a bit at the term ‘musical’ in descriptions of gear, but it’s absolutely appropriate here: the EC5B is a device that richly rewards the time and effort spent learning how to use it. For many of us, the asking price may prove prohibitive, but it’s not unreasonable for what’s on offer, and if you are in the market for a high‑end character compressor I’d definitely recommend that you put the EC5B up against some of the more well‑known names and see if it can have the same effect on you as it did for me.
Listen to the audio examples accompanying this review here: www.soundonsound.com/reviews/electric-company-ec5b-audio-examples
This boutique ‘deluxe’ limiting amplifier has a bit of a learning curve, but ultimately it’s a great‑sounding, characterful and versatile tool that could undoubtedly offer something new to many engineers.