The Best Channel Strips - All Prices

The Highest Rated Channel Strips

Disclosure

We recommend all products independently of 3rd parties including advertisers. We earn advertising fees from:
• • • • •
Sweetwater
• • • • •

Amazon

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
• • • • •

Large console sound used to require a great amount of studio space and budget. For smaller project studios, this might not be an option. However, having a channel strip can greatly improve your recording quality by running your mics' sound through better preamps, and have EQ and dynamics going into your DAW.

Some channel strips also include other useful tools like toggles for saturation and other features that color your sound in beneficial ways. It is the most economical way to improve your sound, especially for vocals.

Having a channel strip before your audio interface adds a lot of big studio character without the big studio cost.

For this 2021 Edition, we decided to remove the budget price limitation. Doing so allowed us to bring in more products on more price ranges that rate highly according to market sentiment. Buying a channel strip without testing the units or having experience with them is tough so we did the research and analyzed what the community thinks of the products. We outline the pros and cons of each channel strip so you can choose the best unit for your studio.

The Best Channel Strips

Author & Contributors

Raphael PulgarRaphael Pulgar

An audio engineer of 20 years who specializes in rock and metal recordings, he also plays guitar and produces original music for his band and other content creators.

The Best Budget Channel Strips under $500

DBX 286s

93
GEARANK

93 out of 100. Incorporating 1250+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$239
DBX 286s Channel Strip & Mic Preamp

At publication time this was the Highest Rated Channel Strip Under $500.

The feature packed DBX 286s is the best value channel strip under $500 considering the combination of features and low price, and has been amazingly well received by owners who's most common positive comment is about how easy it is to use to improve your vocal recording quality.

Although many musicians and home studios happily use the DBX 286s, it is also extremely popular with podcasters and voice over artists as well.

Features

  • Channels: 1 (some people mistake the Insert for a second channel)
  • Inputs: XLR (mic), 1/4" TRS (line), 1/4" TRS (insert)
  • Outputs: 1/4" TRS - 100Ω balanced / 200Ω unbalanced
  • Preamp: 0dB to +60dB gain with phantom power on XLR pins 2 and 3
  • Compressor: ratio 4:1 with a threshold range of -40dBu to +20dBu
  • De-Esser: frequency range 800Hz to 10kHz High Pass, 12dB/octave
  • Enhancer: with high frequency program-controlled shelving equalizer, approximately 15dB maximum HF boos, and low frequency bell-shaped boost @ 80Hz, bell-shaped cut @250Hz, ratio is approximately 2:1
  • Expander/Gate: with an adjustable expansion ratio from 1.5:1 to 10:1
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 1U

Pros

It's well liked by people using both dynamic and condenser mics. We couldn't find any consistent negatives reported by people who own it. Many reviewers state the unit to be amazing on vocals and for broadcasts.

It has also consistently been the most popular channel strip with Gearank readers since we first published a channel strip guide back in January 2016.

Cons

No dB pad.

Overall

A community favorite with not much competition, the DBX 286s is the perfect augmentation to your recording or broadcast rig.

The following video provides a good overview of the DBX 286s:

PreSonus Studio Channel

89
GEARANK

89 out of 100. Incorporating 325+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$350
PreSonus Studio Channel Strip / Preamp

The PreSonus Studio Channel is used in many home recording studios for music production.

One handy feature for those who are new to channel strips is that the manual contains a range of suggested settings for different applications - this came up positively in many reviews.

The preamp, EQ, and compressor have all been very well received by owners - only a few report replacing the standard tube it comes with to improve the sound. The vast majority say it provides an improved warmer sound over the built-in preamps of their audio interfaces.

Features

  • Channels: 1
  • Inputs: XLR (mic), 1/4" TRS (line)
  • Outputs: XLR and 1/4" TRS Balanced/Unbalanced
  • Preamp: Class A vacuum tube (12AX7) with -6 to +66 dB gain with 48v phantom power
  • Compressor: ratio 1:1 to 10:1 with a threshold range of -40 dBu to +2- dBu
  • Equalizer: 3-band Parametric with +/-10 dB on each band
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 1U

Pros

Most of the people who reviewed the PreSonus Studio Channel were using it for music production in home studios, although a few were also using it live - particularly bass players. Reviews state the channel strip adds a vintage vibe to some of their tracks when pushed. Tracks run through the unit are noted to be "harmonically enriched" by the preamp.

Cons

A few complained about the placement of the XLR ins being at the back. This is usually the case for studio equipment vs home recording/prosumer gear where you have the inputs in front for ease of access. Not the best choice for absolute transparent sound due to the use of a vacuum tube.

Overall

If you're looking for character and harmonics in a rack mount channel strip, the PreSonus Studio Channel may be just what you need for that big studio vibe.

The Best Channel Strips under $1500

ART Voice Channel

90
GEARANK

90 out of 100. Incorporating 150+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$550
ART Voice Channel - Channel Strip & Mic Preamp

ART is known for their affordable outboard gear, especially their mic preamps. The ART Voice channel is a full-featured channel strip with all the tools you need to get an amazing sounding tracks onto recording.

It features a Class A Tube Preamp with up to +60dB Mic gain and +40 dB Line gain.

Despite the name, It is versatile enough to work with other single source tracks like keyboards and synthesizers to warm them up.

Additional I/O makes it versatile enough to integrate into an already busy rig while USB out lets it function as a direct recording solution for smaller setups.

Features

  • Channels: 1
  • Inputs: 2 x Combo (XLR/TRS), 1 x ADAT (Optical)
  • Outputs:1 x AES/EBU (XLR), 1 x S/PDIF (Coax), 1 x S/PDIF (Optical)
  • Preamp: Class A vacuum tube (12AX7), up to +60 dB (Mic) +3 dB to +40 dB (Line) with 48v phantom power
  • Compressor: 1:1 to 20:1
  • Equalizer: Low Frequency: 50/150 Hz Selectable, MID 1 Frequency: 100 Hz to 3kHz continuously variable, MID 2 Frequency: 500 Hz to 15kHz continuously variable, High Frequency: 5K/15kHz Selectable
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 2U

Pros

Long term reviews from users owning the unit for several years note that it is an integral part of their vocal recording chain. It is definitely a piece of gear that "grows" with you as one reviewer mentioned. The versatility in both hardware I/O and actual usage kept the ART Voice Channel a staple piece of gear on many studios.

Cons

No major cons. Some note that while it is a great choice for first time channel strip users and can be used for a long time, it's not "great" in comparison to more classic, high end designs.

Overall

For the price, the ART Voice Channel is a channel strip that can kickstart your way to great vocal recordings.

Black Lion Audio Eighteen

90
GEARANK

90 out of 100. Incorporating 5+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$899
Black Lion Audio Eighteen Channel Strip

Nothing beats the great crunch of a pushed channel as an effect on vocals. Even in more subtle flavors, a nice amount of saturation on vocals and other instruments adds to the "glue" effect during a mix.

The Black Lion Audio Eighteen was designed with character in mind. Featuring a Solid State, CineMag transformer-based induction EQ/Preamp, It puts mojo and vibe at the forefront.

Even with copious amount of harmonic saturation, the Black Lion Audio Eighteen has great control over the amount of distortion and does not introduce unmusical audio clipping into your tracks.

Features

  • Channels: 1
  • Inputs: 1 x XLR)
  • Outputs: 1 x XLR
  • Preamp: Solid State Induction EQ Preamp. OpAmp circuitry with CineMag Transformers
  • Compressor: none
  • Equalizer: 2-band EQ, Lowpass Shelving, 80Hz Highpass, 10kHz Lowpass
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 2U

Pros

Reviewers call it a "tone shaping monster", able to bring out the best from even the most affordable mic. Where it shines however, is its ability to give musical character to more neutral sounding microphones. Vintage microphones with a warmer, more relaxed top end get additional detail on higher frequencies while harsher, cheap condensers warm up and become more balanced. The Pultec-style inductor EQ welcomes more extreme settings while staying musical and smooth.

Cons

Some people wish it included a compressor.

Overall

The Black Lion Audio Eighteen is a powerhouse of a preamp/eq that imbues your tracks with vintage flair and character.

Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5017

95
GEARANK

95 out of 100. Incorporating 50+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$1299
Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5017 Channel Strip

At publication time this was the Equal Highest Rated Channel Strip Under $1500 along with the Vintech X73i.

Rupert Neve and his name have been one of the most recognizable trademarks in the audio engineering industry. He has done designs for both his own brands and others like Focusrite. His designs have a trademark "sheen" and polish and what he calls a "sweet" sound.

The Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5017 is unlike other channel strips. For starters, it is in a desktop format rather than a rackmount or modular unit. This form factor makes it ideal for project studios without rack space but still want the "big console sound" the Neve name is known for.

It features a solid state preamp with up to +66dB in gain, as well as phase and high pass switches. The Silk switch engages a vintage-styled character reminiscent of early Neve console designs. The compressor offers light dynamic range augmentation with just the right ratio for dynamic singing and leaves room for further processing down the line.

Features

  • Channels: 1
  • Inputs: 1 x XLR (Mic), 1 x 1/4" (Hi-Z)
  • Outputs: 1 x XLR, 1 x 1/4" (Mic Out)
  • Preamp: Solid State with up to +66 dB gain with 48v phantom power
  • Compressor: 2:1 ratio with a 10dB to -20dB threshiold
  • Equalizer: Highpass filter: 12dB/octave @ 80Hz
  • Rackmountable: no

Pros

Positive market sentiments include praise for the unit's unmistakably "Neve" sound with its smooth extended top end and clear midrange. This goes for both vocals and instruments. On stringed instruments like bass, the unit was noted to clear up some muddiness and add an upper midrange sheen to modern bass sounds. For miked up electric, fatter tones get streamlined to fit in mixes better.

Cons

Some wish there were more equalization options.

Overall

For big studio polish in a portable desk format, the Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5017 is the perfect companion for the small to medium studio as well as more mobile setups.

Vintech X73i

95
GEARANK

95 out of 100. Incorporating 50+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$1375
Vintech X73i Channel Strip w/ Mic Pre & EQ

At publication time this was the Equal Highest Rated Channel Strip Under $1500 along with the RND Portico 5017.

The 1073 style preamp/eq has always been a community favorite. The design lends itself well to warm and polished sounding vocals with a focused and clear midrange and a shimmering top end.

The Vintech X73i is based on the legendary 1073 design build with production techniques that allow Vintech to make it more accessible to a greater majority of studios and engineers.

It features a Class A solid state preamp with a familiar EQ section that allows for various cuts and boosts.

The analog circuitry makes even the most extreme settings sound musical in many contexts.

Features

  • Channels: 1
  • Inputs: 1 x XLR (Mic), 1 x XLR (Line), 1 x 1/4" (Line)
  • Outputs: 1 x XLR, 1 x 1/4"
  • Preamp: Class A solid state with up to +70db gain with 48v phantom power
  • Compressor:none
  • Equalizer: Low shelving, Fixed Hi EQ, Variable Low EQ, Variable Mid EQ frequencies
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 1U

Pros

One reviewer that uses classic 1073 modules and other boutique incarnations of the circuit bought the Vintech to replace one of their failing units - they noted that the Vintech X73i performed similarly with the more expensive units in their studio. For vocals, many users say there is no competition at this price.

Cons

Those looking for a 1 to 1 accurate vintage representation of a 1073 were slightly disappointed at the X73i's more modern and polished sound.

Overall

If you're a fan of the 1073 preamp/eq and have a limited budget to outfit your studio with a channel strip, the Vintech X73i is your best bet to get that N style polish.

The Best Channel Strips over $1500

Empirical Labs EL-9 Mike-E

95
GEARANK

95 out of 100. Incorporating 20+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$1699
Empirical Labs EL-9 Mike-E Mic Preamp / Channel Strip

The Empirical Labs EL-9 Mike-E is a digitally-controlled channel strip with Lundahl transformer-coupled preamp for an absolutely low noise floor.

The "CompSat" circuitry effectively combines both compression and saturation that ranges from subtle character to fully emphasized harmonics. A mix knob enables easy parallel compression.

A sidechain input allows the compressor to press down on your track from a different source, making it perfect as both a standalone channel strip and as an insert.

Features

  • Channels: 1
  • Inputs: 1 x XLR. 1 x 1/4", 1 x 1/4" (Hi-Z)
  • Outputs: 1 x XLR, 1 x 1/4"
  • Preamp:Solid State with up to +74dB dB gain with 48v phantom power
  • Compressor: ratio 1:1 to 8:1 with 'nuke' feature for additional saturation
  • Equalizer: 80Hz highpass filter
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 1U

Pros

Many users talk about the EL-9 Mike-E as their "secret sauce" for recordings. It livens up aggressive vocals, beefs up clean and distorted guitar tones and adds a layer of harmonic depth to bass guitar. One often mentioned genre-specific use for the Mike-E is for hip-hop vocals and spoken word; the CompSat circuit was noted to give these vocals a vintage vibe that blends well with old-school rap and hip-hop.

Cons

Not the most transparent choice for some users so If you're looking for clean versatility, this might not be the choice.

Overall

The EL-9 Mike-E is a channel strip full of character that can be as subtle or as edgy as you want it to be. Add the capability of sidechaining and effortless parallel compression and you have a winning formula.

Manley Core Reference

96
GEARANK

96 out of 100. Incorporating 50+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$2499
Manley Core Reference Tube Channel Strip

The Manley Core Reference is a channel strip based on Manley's award winning VOXBOX.

With a Class A tube mic preamp (1 x 12AX7 for gain and 1 x 6922 White Follower) and custom Manley transformers, the Core Reference was designed to be as it's named: the core of your project studio.

The Core Reference brings together Manley's most popular modules and technology into an "essentials" package channel strip.

Aside from the tube preamp, the Core Reference has a baxandall eq, ELOP compressor and Brickwall limiter.

Features

  • Channels: 1
  • Inputs: 1 x 1/4", 2 x XLR
  • Outputs: 2 x XLR
  • Preamp: Class A tube mic preamplifier (1 x 12AX7 for gain and 1 x 6922 White Follower), Manley hand-wound transformers, Mic Pre Selectable Gain 40dB or 60dB, Line Amp Selectable Gain 20dB or 40dB
  • Compressor: ratio 3:1, variable Attack, Release, and Threshold controls,
  • Equalizer: Low and High Baxandall Shelves (80Hz and 12kHz) with ±12dB range, Sweepable Midrange Bell EQ (100Hz – 1kHz) or (1kHz – 10kHz) with ±10dB range, 120Hz High Pass Filter switch
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 2U

Pros

Aside from compliments on its full-featured nature, users liked how crisp the tube preamp sounded with their condenser mics without thinning out the overall sound. Long-term users also note that years after their initial purchase, the Core Reference is still front and center in their project studios. The character is described to be transparent and crisp without imposing too much tube character.

Cons

The price brings it to the range of higher end rack units that many users say do a better job at individual parts of the Core Reference.

Overall

The Manley Core Reference is a great entry to high end gear. It allows a generous taste of what boutique gear can do for your sound without the collective cost of owning multiple modules.

Universal Audio 6176

95
GEARANK

95 out of 100. Incorporating 125+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$2899
Universal Audio 6176 Tube Channel Strip

The Universal Audio 6176 brings together two well loved circuit designs: the Putnam 610 preamp and the famous 1176 FET compressor.

The Putnam 610 console design was developed by Bill Putnam during the 50's and 60s. Famous recordings done with this design include Van Halen, Frank Sinatra and Coldplay.

The 1176 is famous for its characterful sound and supremely fast attack.

The infamous "all buttons" mode is also included in this iteration for great mojo on tracks.

Features

  • Channels: 1
  • Inputs: 1 x XLR (Preamp, Mic), 1 x XLR (Preamp, Line), 1 x XLR (Compressor, Line) 1 x 1/4" (Hi-Z)
  • Outputs: 1 x XLR (Preamp), 1 x XLR (Compressor)
  • Preamp: Putnam 610 console mic/line preamplifier with +65 dB gain with 48v phantom power
  • Compressor: ratio 1:1 to 20:1 with "all buttons" mode
  • Equalizer: High- and low-frequency shelving EQ, each with 3 selectable hinge frequencies
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 1U

Pros

For many users, the 6176 is a permanent installation and essential piece of gear. Many have achieved their unique sound through the 6176 to the point that they ended up leaving it on their own settings as a set-and-forget unit. It works well with nearly any microphone and any use case from vocals, to distorted electric guitar to room mics. Some studios have multiple units for stereo and multitrack operation.

Cons

Expensive to purchase multiple units as many wish to do.

Overall

If budget allows, the Universal Audio 6176 is a modern studio classic with units gracing high-end studios all over the world. Countless hit records have been made with the namesake circuits.

Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channel

97
GEARANK

97 out of 100. Incorporating 60+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$3999
Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channel

At publication time this was the Highest Rated Channel Strip.

The Rupert Neve Designs is the closest you can get to a large format channel strip, refined for the modern studio. It features the classic Inductor EQ from the Shelford 5052.

The preamp was designed with a direct-coupled transformer input and gain is provided by the custom transformer.

The equalizer bass section is based on the 1064, known for its smooth sounding and resonant bass harmonics. The midrange is based on the famous 1073 and is best for sweetening vocals and instruments.

Lastly, the compressor is based on a Neve-designed 2254. All this is rounded off with toggles for the "Silk" setting and as well as a texture knob for more character.

Features

  • Channels: 1
  • Inputs: 1 x XLR (mic), 1 x XLR (line), 1 x 1/4" (Hi-Z)
  • Outputs: 1 x XLR (line), 1 x XLR (-6dB out), 1 x 1/4" (thru)
  • Preamp: Solid state with up to +66 dB gain with 48v phantom power
  • Compressor: ratio 1.5:1 to 8:1 with a threshold range of -25dBu to +20 dBu
  • Equalizer: 3-band Parametric with selectable peak/shelf modes
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 1U

Pros

Many applaud the Shelford Channel for providing the famed Neve sound in a more accessible format. By having a winning combination of Rupert Neve's best designs, audio engineers state in reviews that this is the best single channel strip they've ever used.

Cons

No master output control. Careful gain staging is a requirement to get the best out of the channel strip. The unit itself needs proper ventilation as some users noted it to get quite hot.

Overall

If you're after the "Neve Sound", that is, a sparkly top end with a lot of midrange clarity and smooth dynamics, then this is the channel strip for you.

Manley SLAM!

95
GEARANK

95 out of 100. Incorporating 10+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$8499
Manley SLAM! Stereo Channel Strip

The Manley SLAM! (Stereo Limiter And Mic preamp) is a 2 channel strip with two independent preamp, compressor and limiter circuits.

With 60dB of gain with an additional 20dB from the limiters, the Manley SLAM! has a whopping 80dB of usable gain. Great for ribbon mics and soft singers.

Two distinct limiters: ELOP and FET circuits give you greater control over your dynamics.

Features

  • Channels: 2
  • Inputs: 2 x Combo (XLR/TRS), 1 x 1/4" (Hi-Z)
  • Outputs: 1 x XLR, 1 x 1/4", 1 x 1/4" (DAC Out)
  • Other I/O: 2 x Bantam (Opto Send/Return), 2 x Bantam (FET Send/Return), 2 x Bantam (Ext Link)
  • Preamp: 2 x 12AT7A NOS GE preamp with up to +60dB gain with 48v phantom power
  • Compressor/Limiter (FET): Attack: approx. 100S; Release: 10mS to 2Sec; Ratio: better than 20:1
  • Compressor/Limiter (ELOP): Attack: approx. 10mS for 6dB GR; Release: 2.5 Sec; Ratio: 10:1
  • Equalizer: none
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 2U

Pros

Users love it for the two limiters. The ELOP limiter allows for transparent compression while the FET limiter imbues tracks with saturation and character. Stereo room mics and overheads running through the channel strip make them bring life and realism to a drum sound. Vocals benefit from the dual limiters with one working a subtle compression and the other squeezing hard to help vocals sit properly in very busy modern mixes. Instruments like keyboards also benefit from the analog warmth of the tubes and compression character of the FET limiter.

Cons

Since you're getting 2 channels with three different modules per channel, the Manley SLAM! is priced at the top of our selection. Some users that tested the unit or worked with it in other studios note that this barrier to entry kept them from getting this otherwise versatile piece of gear.

Overall

If your high-end studio needs that last bit of gear to top it off, the Manley SLAM! is versatile enough for stereo sources and vocals.

Things to Consider When Buying a Channel Strip

What is a Channel Strip and What Does it Do?

They are basically a single or double channel of a mixing console providing signal processing functions. These may include things such as a preamp, compressor, limiter, equalizer, exciter, de-esser, and even auto tuning. Various channel strips provide different combinations of signal processing.

Modules

Some channel strips offer different combinations of modules. Some have a complete suite of circuits that include preamp, eq, compressor and limiter. Others are more streamlined and only include a mic preamp and one or two other modules. Some channel strips have options for saturation and character. It's important to know whether you want a channel strip that does everything before your DAW or leaves enough for you to work with inside the box.

Transparency vs Character

This will depend on whether you want a channel strip that was designed to be as clean as possible or a strip with a lot of character. Transparent channel strips only subtly alter the tone going into your interface while Character based designs usually imbue your tracks with analog warmth and saturation, reminiscent of the analog gear of yesterday.

Enclosure Format

Channel strips come in a variety of formats ranging from 1U rackmount units, to 500 series and desktop form factors. What you choose will depend on whether you have an existing rack to use and won't be moving around or prefer having a more mobile setup. We have included rack size in the features of each product for you to know which fits your existing space the best or how to budget your eventual rackmount setup.

Best Channel Strip Selection Methodology

The first edition was published in 2016 and the current edition was published on December 24, 2021.

For this 2021 edition we looked at all the rackmount, desktop and 500 series channel strips available at major online American retailers and ended up with 30 options on our short-list which you can see in the Music Gear Database. We then collected ratings and reviews from forum posts, magazine articles, videos and retailers which incorporated over 3,100 of these sources into our data set. We processed those data with the Gearank Algorithm to produce the rating scores out of 100 for each channel strip. These rating scores were used to select the highest rated options to recommend above in each price range. For more information about out methods see How Gearank Works.

About the Author and Contributors

Here are the key people and sources involved in this guide's production - click on linked names for information about their music industry backgrounds.

Lead Author & Researcher

Raphael PulgarRaphael Pulgar

An audio engineer of 20 years who specializes in rock and metal recordings, he also plays guitar and produces original music for his band and other content creators.

Aside from endlessly window shopping and watching hours of gear reviews for leisure, he enjoys playing competitive FPS games, MMORPGs and caring for his 5 cats. He is primarily influenced by guitarists like Kurt Ballou and Paul Gilbert. His favorite pieces of gear are his Ibanez RG550RFR, Orange Brent Hinds Terror amplifier and EQD Acapulco Gold fuzz.

Contributors

Jason Horton: Supplemental writing, Product research, Editing and Illustrating.

Media

Main/Top Image: By Gearank.com using photographs of the RND Portico 5017, DBX 286s, Empirical Labs EL-9 Mike-E, RND Shelford Channel and Manley SLAM!.

The videos have been embedded in accordance with YouTube's Terms of Service.

The individual product images were sourced from websites, promotional materials or supporting documentation provided by their respective manufacturers.

Comments

I've just completed a review

I've just completed a review of the category and there were no eligible 2 channel options available under $500 to include in this guide.

hello and sorry for maybe

Hello and sorry for maybe silly question but i am kinda a newbie in this field. I recently wanted to build a small home studio and wanted to ask if any of the above are good tools for mastering. All of the strip channels showed are "mono", this means that I need a pair if I want to master a whole song, one for each channel? Or i can simply bounce all the tracks in a single track and then master/eq on the strip? Thank you in advance for your support!!!

Once you mix the stereo

Once you mix the stereo tracks into mono you can't separate them back to stereo. It sounds like you haven't had the chance to do much mastering yet so I suggest you look at some guides on the topic - here's one to start with.