Originally published on January.20, 2016 and updated on August 16, 2017
A channel strip or a microphone preamp is often the first piece of outboard gear, other than a simple mic preamp, that many home recording enthusiasts buy. That's because channel strips provide a high degree of control over the input signal before it reaches your audio interface.
This is the 2017 updated version of this guide, and while there were minor fluctuations in Gearank scores, our set of recommendations remains the same as it was back in January 2016.
What is a Channel Strip?
They are basically a single 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.
Sub-$500 Channel Strips Sorted by Price - Low to High
The feature packed DBX 286s is probably 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.
DBX 286s 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
It's well liked by people using both dynamic and condenser mics. I couldn't find any consistent negatives reported by people who own it.
The following video provides a good overview of the DBX 286s:
The Joemeek threeQ preamp is generally well liked by most reviewers who report it generates very little noise. It has been positively mentioned when used with condenser, dynamic, and even ribbon mics - whether using phantom power or not.
The EQ is generally well received and reported as being easy to use.
The compression with its fixed 5:1 ratio really tends to divide opinions. It colors the sound and is quite noticeable when driven hard, but much less so at low levels.
Joemeek threeQ Features
- Channels: 1
- Inputs: XLR (mic), 1/4" TRS (line), 1/4" TRS (insert), 1/4" TRS (Mix)
- Outputs: 2x 1/4" TRS - 75Ω
- Preamp: 0dB to +60dB with 48v phantom power
- Compressor: ratio 5:1 with a threshold range of -6dBu to +20dBu
- Equalizer: shelf and single band semi-parametric
- Rackmountable: Yes - half rack
Many reviewers say that this is a nice little unit for such a low price, but that if you have a few extra dollars then consider getting something with a more flexible compressor.
ART Pro Channel II
Many owners say the EQ on the ART Pro Channel II is transparent and sounds very good - it has a bypass switch as does the compressor.
Although it uses an optical compressor, most reviewers quite liked it with the only complaint being the minimum 2:1 ratio, but most weren't worried about that.
One negative comment that did come up many times was about the sound of the cheap Chinese made 12AX7 tubes it ships with - several people report replacing them with higher quality tubes and were impressed with the sound after doing that, although some say the original tubes are fine once you let them warm up.
It's primary use is for music production in home studios, although I did see one review from a HAM radio operator who had bought it and gave it 4/5 stars.
ART Pro Channel II Features
- Channels: 1
- Inputs: XLR (mic), 1/4" TRS (Instrument), 1/4" TRS (preamp insert)
- Outputs: XLR, 1/4" TRS, 600Ω balanced / 300Ω unbalanced
- Preamp: Mic +70dB gain class "A" Tube, with 48v phantom power, Instrument +64dB
- Compressor / Limiter: ratio from 2:1 to 30:1 with a threshold range of -20 dB to +20 dB
- Equalizer: +/- 12 dB on each band, Low Freq. Tuning: 40 / 120 Hz Selectable, MID 1 Freq. Tuning: 20 Hz to 2 KHz continuously variable, MID 2 Freq. Tuning: 200 Hz to 20 KHz continuously variable, High Freq. Tuning: 6 KHz / 18 KHz Selectable
- Rackmountable: Yes - 2U
A nice added feature is that the VU meter is assignable to the output, input, or the compressor.
PreSonus Studio Channel
The PreSonus Studio Channel is used in many home recording studios for music production and is the most widely reviewed channel strip, by both owners and experts, in this gear guide.
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 reviews.
The preamp, EQ, and compressor have all been very well received by reviewers - 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.
PreSonus Studio Channel 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
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.
There were no consistent issues that came up in negative comments other than to suggest this is best suited to home studios rather than professional studios - actually a couple of people complained that the XLR mic input is on the back instead of the front.
ART Voice Channel
The ART Voice Channel is a big step up in terms of features, not only over the ART Pro Channel II, but all the channel strips presented above.
Although it costs more than others, It has the advantage that it provides more input and output options, including digital, and has more signal processing options than any other channel strip in this price range - something which attracted a great deal of positive comments in reviews.
It also attracted consistent compliments by owners for the crispness and clarity of its sound - particularly the mic preamp.
ART Voice Channel Features
- Channels: 1
- Inputs: XLR / 1/4" TRS combo on the rear with an XLR / 1/4" TS on the back, TOSLink optical ADAT, and 1/4" inserts for A/D Main & A/D CH-2 & EQ/dynamics
- Outputs: XLR & 1/4" TRS main outs, 1/4" TS Mic preamp direct out, XLR AES/EBU, RCA coaxial S/PDIF, and TOSLink optical ADAT
- Wordclock: both In and Thru with rates from 30kHz to 204kHz
- Preamp: +60dB gain for the Mic input with 48v phantom power, and +37dB for instrument input
- Compressor: ratio from 1:1 to 20:1 with a threshold range of -40dB to +20dB
- Equalizer: 4 band semi-parametric
- De-Esser: frequency range 2.5kHz to 15kHz, continuously variable with a threshold range from off to -20dB
- Gate: fixed with a threshold range from off to +20dB
- Rackmountable: Yes - 2U
Reviewers liked the variable input voltage and impedance which means you can use it to great effect with all kinds of microphones including ribbons. In fact the mic preamp was consistently reviewed as being very good for this price range.
On the downside there were a few beginners who found the complexity of the ART Voice Channel a bit challenging - if you don't have a lot of studio production experience then this may not be the best option for you.
The first of the following videos is an overview of the ART Voice Channel's features, and the second one is a detailed review:
Based on all the reviews and discussions I analyzed, the DBX 286s is the clear standout option for podcasters and voice-over artists.
For musicians, all of the options above are good although the Joemeek threeQ is the one you're likely to outgrow the quickest before moving up to high-end gear.
If you're looking to upgrade your 12AX7 tubes then the most popular replacements were from JJ Electronics.
We looked at all the rackmount and 500 series channel strips selling for less than $500 at major online American retailers and added all of them to the Music Gear Database - you can see most of them here. We then collected ratings and reviews from forum posts, magazine articles, videos and retailers which incorporated over 800 sources. We processed those data with the Gearank Algorithm to produce the scores out of 100 for each channel strip, and used them in our reports above. Note that the 500 series modules didn't have sufficient ratings sources for us to publish Gearank scores for them. The Gearank scores were used to select the highest rated options to recommend above. For more information about this process see How Gearank Works.