The Best Channel Strips - All Prices

The Highest Rated Channel Strips

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There will come a time when you start to feel the limitations of your recording setup and the first thing that is usually slated for an upgrade is getting outboard gear. For many, it might be daunting to choose what to get for your first. Others that have an already well-built studio might want a piece of gear specifically to process vocals without piling on another set of rackmount gear.

That's where channel strips come in. Usually, you'd see multiple channel strips on a large format console. For individual recordings, however, one or two will suffice, especially for those looking to improve their vocal recordings as many rackmount channel strips are vocal-focused.

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.

For people who record podcasts or voice-overs, having a channel strip before your audio interface adds a lot of big studio character without the big studio cost. It also lets you fire up your DAW and record right away with consistent quality.

Ready to make the next step in furnishing your studio? Read on.

The Best Channel Strips - 2022.10

Author & Contributors

Raphael PulgarRaphael Pulgar

I've been an audio engineer for 20 years specializing in rock and metal recordings, and also I play guitar and produce original music for my band and other content creators.

The Best Budget Channel Strips under $500

dbx 286s

93
GEARANK

93 out of 100. Incorporating 1400+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$275
DBX 286s Channel Strip & Mic Preamp
At publication time this was the Highest Rated Channel Strip Under $500.

Cons

  • Simplified controls limit tweakability

Pros

  • Great sounding preamp
  • Gate/expander one of the best I've tried
  • Dynamics and EQ well thought out

Rackmount channel strips are usually more of a "medium" type of studio gear for a lot of people. I've always done software monitoring during recording but sometimes the latency builds up especially when the tracks and plugins start piling up. I also wanted to have some processing going into the audio interface for general communication, so I started looking into channel strips for my project studio.

Starting off, your signal gets put through the Preamp section. While I don't think dbx based the circuitry on API gear, to my ears, it reminds me of what API preamps sound like. It smooths out the high frequencies with harmonics without muffling the input. Other features of the preamp include a standard 48V phantom power and 80Hz high pass filter at 18dB/octave. The roll-off on the filter is enough to deal with wind and vibration transfer from the mic stand without affecting the overall tone of the mics I use. The input levels are visible thanks to 4 LEDs that indicate the amount of signal passing through the preamp.

dbx 286s compressor section
The dbx 286s compressor section works well even with just 2 controls.

The compressor section looks basic at first glance. The controls are a bit different from what most would expect. Drive is basically your threshold control, and the compression ratio is fixed at 4:1. The density knob is a release time knob with fully counterclockwise giving the slowest release and fully clockwise giving the fastest.

Equalization is also simple on the outside. Labeled "Enhancer" on the unit, the low frequencies are a combination of a boost at 80Hz while simultaneously cutting out 250Hz as you go higher with it at a ratio of 2:1. The high frequency control employs a dynamic shelving EQ. I noticed that with higher speaking levels, the high frequencies don't get proportionally louder but retain clarity throughout the entire voice's dynamic range.

The gating is very natural at ratios lower than 2:1 and filters out my A/C in the background well enough for general recording.

Tweakers that rely on minute adjustments of various parameters might find the controls a bit too limited. Even so, I actually preferred this simplicity because it didn't keep me fixated on getting everything right.

The great price point and feature set make it great value for any studio. Even comparing it with more expensive channel strips, it packs enough of a punch to hang with the big boys, especially with how well the dynamics are handled.

Voiceover example recorded with the dbx 286s*


*Audio recorded with a Lewitt LCT 440 Pure condenser microphone.

The dbx 286s is a great addition to any studio, big or small. As a vocal chain, it adds a professional sheen to singing and great dynamic control for spoken word and voice overs. While the simplified controls may not be to everyone's liking, each module is cleverly engineered to have a useful setting no matter what the input. If you're looking for your first channel strip or preamp, the dbx 286s is a great choice at a great price.

If you'd like a detailed explanation of all its functionality, then take a look at my extended dbx 286s review.

Specifications

  • 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 boost, 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

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
Gearank Raphael Pulgar 95/100
YouTube Podcastage 98/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

The Best Budget Channel Strips under $1000

ART Voice Channel

91
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$620
ART Voice Channel - Channel Strip & Mic Preamp
At publication time this was the Highest Rated Channel Strip from $500 to $1000.

Cons

  • Multiple options might be overwhelming at first
  • Better sounding (but less versatile) options at this price

Pros

  • Extremely versatile with a multitude of controls
  • Tube preamp tone warms up even the brightest condenser mics
  • Tone shaping options abound with a parametric EQ

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

While the front panel looks overwhelming at first glance, seasoned engineers will feel right at home with the controls. It includes a semi-parametric EQ that can be patched pre- or post- dynamics section, multiple insert points, an expander/gate section (one of my biggest requirements in an outboard channel strip), and a special impedance control to fine tune different mics to the preamp.

Switching the tube voltage changes the response of the preamp mild tube tone to harmonically rich. Cheap microphones can benefit from the warmth and saturation of the tube section.

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.

While a blessing for experienced engineers, the complex layout and various controls might be overwhelming for someone still learning the craft, but don't let that stop you from adding it to your rack.

The ART Voice Channel is a versatile piece of gear at a great price. It's an amalgamation of many important pieces in a signal chain and works well with both vocal and instrument recordings. That being said, it's not the most transparent preamp so if that's what you're after, look elsewhere.

Specifications

  • 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

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
Sound On Sound Mike Senior 90/100
Gearspace PMoshay 97/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Black Lion Audio Eighteen

90
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$899
Black Lion Audio Eighteen Channel Strip

Cons

  • Inadequate as a standalone preamp; synergizes best with other outboard gear

Pros

  • Classic solid state preamp tones inspired by landmark designs
  • Pultec-style EQ brings familiar sheen
  • High quality components

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.

The controls of the EQ will be familiar to those who have used Pultec-style equalization. It's a great sounding circuit that adds brilliance without becoming harsh. This trait is carried over to the Eighteen and improved upon with custom componentry and tweaks.

Even with copious amount of harmonic saturation from the 1831 op-amp it was named after, the Black Lion Audio Eighteen has great control over the amount of distortion and does not introduce unmusical audio clipping.

However, as a channel strip, it lacks a compressor and other processing that could have pushed the functionality a little bit. That being said, it's best used in a studio that has the outboard gear necessary to synergize with it.

All in all, the Black Lion Eighteen is a refinement of classic, time-tested designs that fits very well into a well-equipped studio. Do note that I do not recommend it as a first purchase for a studio just starting out because of the lack of other features like compression.

Specifications

  • 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

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
Sound On Sound Neil Rogers 94/100
MusicTech John Pickford 90/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

The Best Channel Strips under $1500

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 from $1000 to $1500 along with the Vintech X73i.

Cons

  • Needs more options for tone shaping

Pros

  • Big Neve console sound in a compact package
  • Sweetens various sound sources like vocals and instruments
  • Onboard compressor provides light transient smoothing

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.

The sound is unmistakably "Neve". For vocals, this results in a sweet-sounding high end especially for female vocals. Strident singers get tamed by the Neve's richness without sacrificing sparkle. On bass, the Portico 5017 clears up any muddiness on the lower range while adding a nice sheen to the top end without sounding brittle. For miked up electric guitars, fat tones get streamlined to fit in mixes better.

What it lacks to me though are additional equalization and dynamics options. The optical compressor has a variable threshold but a fixed 2:1 ratio. This limits the versatility of the unit but is adequate for a gentle squeeze on bass and vocals.

The basic Neve tone is adequate for great sounding sources, but additional tone shaping options would have made it even more versatile.

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.

Specifications

  • 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

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
Vintage Guitar Pete Prown 92/100
Audiofanzine fabamarie 100/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

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 from $1000 to $1500 along with the RND Portico 5017.

Cons

  • Not the pick if you're looking for a 1:1 vintage reproduction (warts and all)

Pros

  • Modernized 1073 look and feel
  • Smooth, harmonically rich top end
  • Modern components with tight tolerances perfect for stereo matching
  • More affordable and reliable than vintage units

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.

From a distance, The X73i would pass as an actual Neve unit with the color scheme. The X73i injects the Neve mojo with a more polished, modern twist. With compression, the high end never gets overemphasized as sibilance gets smoothed out across a broader spectrum thanks to the harmonic content -- just as the unit the X73i was based on. The modern construction and componentry definitely give it a "brand new" sound compared to vintage units with aged components and lower tolerances.

This, however, means that the X73i is not a 1 to 1 reproduction. It favors consistency over vintage accuracy so having a stereo preamp pair would be more consistent (and affordable!) than getting two vintage units.

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.

Specifications

  • 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

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
TapeOp Allen Farmelo 95/100
Gearspace ToneJones 95/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

The Best Channel Strips over $1500

Manley Core Reference

96
GEARANK

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

Street Price: 

$2499
Manley Core Reference Tube Channel Strip

Cons

  • Limited tweakability compared to individual units from Manley
  • No noise gate

Pros

  • Adds richness and complexity to brighter, detailed mics
  • Distilled versions of Manley's best circuits in one unit
  • Custom high-end componentry
  • Great entry into boutique gear

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.

Going into the preamp, the overall tone is crisp and clear without making bright condenser mics thin or brittle. This is a big plus for bright mics like the Sony C800g or C100 to have a richer top end without totally sacrificing the tonality they are known for. Manley's own Reference series condenser mics have an extended top end. With that in mind, if your mic collection consists of bright mics, this unit's preamp is a godsend in keeping harshness at bay.

That said, the Core Reference has its own compromises. Its modules are not as fully fleshed out as the main units Manley offers such as their individual dynamics and EQ lines. The lack of a noise gate/expander (which is important to me) is also something to look out for.

The Manley Core Reference is a great entry point 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.

Specifications

  • 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

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
Sound On Sound Bob Thomas 97/100
Bonedo Felix Klostermann 90/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channel

97
GEARANK

97 out of 100. Incorporating 70+ ratings and reviews.

Street Price: 

$3999
Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channel
At publication time this was the Highest Rated Channel Strip.

Cons

  • No master output control

Pros

  • Developed and refined by Rupert Neve
  • Takes the best of classic Neve designs into a channel strip
  • Unmistakable Neve character that can be dialed in or out

The Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channel 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. 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.

The one thing missing for me is a master output control. Some of us might be a bit gain-happy when it comes to recording so without a master output, it might hit your interface too hard, even with the gain turned down all the way. An unlikely scenario but still something to watch out for.

The Shelford Channel provides the classic sound associated with the name in a more accessible format. It preserves the tone shaping and character of the best of Rupert Neve's circuit designs over the years while making it more accessible to those who can't fit a large format console in their bedroom (hey, we can all dream, right?).

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 it. It's designed by the legend himself with a lot of refinements over the original units he helped create.

Specifications

  • 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

Rating Source Highlights

Website Source *Rating Value
TapeOp Geoff Stanfield 98/100
Pro Sound Rov Tavaglione 95/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

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 October 11, 2022.

For this 2022 edition we looked at all the rackmount, desktop and 500 series channel strips available at major online American retailers and ended up with 29 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 3,400 of these sources into our data set - an increase of more than 10% over the previous edition. 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

I've been an audio engineer for 20 years specializing in rock and metal recordings, and also I play guitar and produce original music for my band and other content creators.

Some of the recording gear I use in my studio includes the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20, Focusrite Scarlett Solo, Samson QH4 Headphone Amp and Cloudlifter CL-1. My mics include Aston Origin, Aston Element, Shure SM57, Rode NT1, Rode PodMic and MXL V67G.

Contributors

Jason Horton: Editing and Illustrating.

Media

Main/Top Image: By Gearank.com using photographs of the RND Portico 5017, DBX 286s, Vintech X73i, RND Shelford Channel and Manley Core Reference.

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 except for the dbx 286s Compressor Section which was photographed by the author.

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.