I was surfing the net some months ago in search of a valve preamp for my ProTools-based studio. I was looking for a good sounding but not too expensive unit which, I know, is rather difficult to find… the old equation “the more you pay the more you save” is (almost) always correct.
Much to my surprise, I stumbled upon the website of a young Ukrainian company, Hand Crafetd Labs, which produces very interesting products at incredible prices. I had a quick look at their catalogue and I read the reviews published by some users of theirs. Great satisfaction was what I found all over the place. Well, a nice start. A few emails with Mr. Albert Scherbina from HCL convinced me to get one of these preamps. It was a bet, of course, but I thought it might prove a winning one… I was right.
The Affinity a2 is a classic valve microphone/instrument preamplifier. Very straightforward: two channels, each offering a 10-step attenuator switch for the Input Gain, low-cut filter (80Hz), +48V Phantom Pwer and Master Level output. The unit looks really sober, which is encouraging (no flickering LEDs around to mesmerize the user…). Together with the controls, the front panel offers a 1/4 TRS Hi-Z instrument Input; rather interestingly, it can be used simultaneously with and independently of the Mic/Line Low-Z input as an active mixer, as it uses a separate tube cascade. Two old-style back-lit input level VU-meters sit proudly at the right end of the front panel, together with the power switch. The VU-meters measure the input signal level, i.e. the level up to the Master Level pot. The rear panel houses 2 balanced Mic XLR inputs, 2 balanced XLR outputs (or dual outputs), “+4dBu/-10dBv” selector to switch between pro/consumer output levels (1/4 TRS symmetrical outputs next to XLR are optional), “Ground/ Lift” switch, IEC power socket/ fuse.
Now for some technical specs: the preamp is built on 4 Soviet military tubes – 2 dual triodes 6N3P (full analogue 6CC42/5670/6385/2C51 tubes) in the first cascade and 2 dual triodes 6N23P (full analogue ECC88/ E88CC/6D8J/CCa/6922 tubes) in the second/third cascades. Russian (Soviet) military tubes made at the Svetlana plant have high quality long-life cathodes and demonstrate outstanding linear characteristics. All tube cascades are pure Class A with no feedbacks and cathode followers. The signal path is pure tube. There are no electrolytic capacitors – only high-quality film capacitors. Electrolytic capacitors are only used in the power chain. High quality passive components – such as WIMA, Siemens, Neutrik – are used throughout. All audio chains are built with high-quality shielded oxygen-free wire. To eliminate ground loop hum, the housing is not connected to the ground of the circuit. However there is a ground/lift switch on the rear panel, which connects or disconnects the housing with the internal ground whenever necessary.
The Affinity boasts a transformer-based symmetrical Low-Z mic/line input, unbalanced Hi-Z instrumental input and balanced symmetrical output. TESLA input rare toroidal shielded transformers have an impeccable reputation acquired after many years of service. The preamp output is outfitted with powerful toroidal transformers, which can be subjected to any active load with no harm to the sound or matching with other devices. These are proprietary transformers with a Hi-Mu core made of rare materials allowing for a minimum number of windings in transformer coils, which favourably affects the sound. As a power transformer the Affinity uses either a toroidal transformer or a conventional laminated military transformer – TAN or toroidal transformer (USA variant). In order to minimize power net hum, the preamp power circuit uses stabilized anode voltage and the cathod heater uses filtered DC current.
Here is Hand Crafted Labs’ Affinity a2 at Janes Bighes Studio, Italy.
I tested the unit with very different materials. When I received the Affinity a2, I was doing a recording session with a soprano who was rehearsing for a concert. I decided to go for an “all-tube” setup: an sE Electronics Z-5600A multi-pattern valve microphone and my new Affinity. Wow! The sound is huge, detailed and smooth at the same time, very classy, I don’t need to eq anything. That’s a good start. I had never been able to get so much details on vocals with that mic and my other preamps (the internal preamps of my Digi002 and a M-Audio Octane). Let’s try with pop music: I recorded the singer of a semi-pro group; the singer was rather good, but had some harsh harmonics in the upper register. I tried the same mic-preamp combination and the results were quite satisfying, although the harshness was still there, even if strongly reduced. Therefore, I tried with a Røde NT-2000. The vocals were a little smoother in the upper register, but lacked the bass response of the Z-5600A. In both cases, the preamp was able to capture the characteristics of both the singer and the microphone. So, results of test 1 (vocals): very good.
The next test was a bass guitar directly plugged into the unit: just one word, “Huge”. That was the best bass I recorded in my studio. The only thing I had to do was finding the right input level, as the bass player had two very different instruments (a “Gary Willis” Ibanez and a vintage Fender Jazz Bass) with very different output levels. In both cases, I was able to get very defined and musical sounds, that perfectly sat in the mix, with no eq at all.
Test number three: guitars. First of all, an acoustic guitar. Again, I used the sE-Electronics-Affinity combination and I got the same very good results. The sound was well balanced, with clear high frequencies and mellow mids and lows. I only had to “reduce” a bit the sound in the mix, as again it was really huge! The electric guitar proved good as well. The guitar player used a classic Fender Stratocaster going to the preamp and processed with Amplitube 2. Well, the plug-in is great, but the addition of the Affinity gave the final touch, adding real tubes to the emulation. The sound was good even cranking up the input pot; the Affinity creates a rather musical distortion, which can be useful in some situations.
Last but not least: the saxophone. I had to record a Selmer tenor saxophone (aged 1960). For this test I used both the Røde NT-2000 and an Electro-Voice N/D-967 dynamic microphone. I got the best result with the latter combination, probably because the EV mic is “faster” than the large diaphragm by Røde. I was able to get a very detailed and pleasant sound, even though it lacked some drive (but maybe because of the “quiet” style of the player).
Let’s sum up: the Affinity a2 has passed all the test with honours, always offering a very well balanced and musical sound. My first thought after the tests was: “I have to buy another one!”; just to be even more motivated, write an email to Albert and ask for the price of this little wonder…
FEATURES & SPECIFICATIONS:
Microphone, Guitar Input level, balanced/unbalanced: fr.7,75mv/-40dBu, fr.12mv/-36dBu
Line Input level, balanced/unbalanced: 250mv/-10dBu max.
Output level, balanced: 775mv/0 dBu 4,9V/+16dBu max.
Gain, typ/order: 40dB/60dB
Noise Mic Input: -82dB
Noise Line Input: -84dB
Mic/Line Input Impendance: 600 ohms
Guitar Input Impendance: 1 Moms
Output Impendace: 600 ohms
Frequency response (+/-0,5dB): 20Hz-20Khz
THD+N (1Khz&+6dBm): less than 1,0%,0,5% typ.
Power: (230-240V or 110V, 50-60Hz), 15/30WA
Dimensions (WxHxD): 19″x3,5″x12″ (occupies 2U)
Weight: 6,5 kg/14,33 lbs.
For further information: Hand Crafted Labs