Cranborne Audio Camden EC2 by Arthur Stone
Introducing...the Camden EC2 from Cranborne Audio, a dual-channel preamp with in-built discrete line mixer. In addition to regular preamp features – high-pass filter, polarity reverse, phantom-power, and input type – the EC2 features a 'Mojo' dial with 2 variable modes: Cream and Thump and these change the colour, dynamics, and texture of the audio with the character of tube/valve, and transformer circuitry..
The line mixer section can be used to set up 2 independent headphone mixes with dials to control each channel and an Aux In source e.g. a backing track for a vocalist. Alternatively the CAST I/O can be used to transmit and receive analogue audio (via analogue CAT cable) and connect to other EC-series preamps or other Cranborne Audio products.
The EC2 is very well thought out: the control layout and feature set is well-implemented and there are additional features beyond what one would expect from a 2-channel preamp. Most importantly the EC2 sounds perfect and brings out the best of whatever is connected. A great all-round preamp with a modern sound (clear/bright/unharsh/balanced low frequencies), for a variety of sources and studio roles, but with more-than-enough star potential to be a main preamp for vocals.
Price: $ 1,349 US - Euro 1,114 - £945 UK
There's also a half-rack, single-channel version – the Camden EC1 – with the same features and reasonable price; also a highly-regarded 500-series version, along with the 500R8 and 500ADAT 500-series rack mixer/converters.
Tech Specs: Cranborne Audio offer full and detailed tech specs, for example, mic input impedance with and without 48V phantom-power applied. Rather than cut-and-paste the specs, I re-wrote them as this gave me the opportunity to (try to) understand them and make comparisons with other gear I'm familiar with. For example, the EC2's EIN is similar to my ultra-clean Sound Devices 702 recorder, yet the EC2 sounds more 'musical' and euphonic.
There's more EC2 specs on the Cranborne website – for example, phase modulation and slew rate. This info is important in that the technicals are what costs the money and its worth recognising that Cranborne publish fully and in detail and given the audio quality, its clear that the specs are not just a measurement but a set of design goals achieved.
The power requirements are 100V – 240V AC, 50-60 Hz from mains to the adapter; then 24V 1A DC power from the adapter to unit. The EC2 also has a grounding post and Ground Lift switches per channel.
The rack ears can be extended outward by around 2cm/0.8” and this recesses the whole unit and offers some protection of the dials and switches when racked. A 2mm Allen key is supplied for the purpose. Neat!
First Impressions: The EC2 is amongst the finest preamps I've used; I have a coloured Neve-style BAE preamp here, and cleaner Sound Devices pre's (plus a variety of others); the EC2 with the Mojo on, covered a range of sounds whereas many preamps are more limited in sonic style or fainter. Clean to dirty, the EC2 is a multi-trick pony.
Additionally, although the EC2 might look like other preamps in photos, in actuality it has a solid engineered physical presence that is often lacking in similar-looking inferior gear. The build-quality is superb and invokes a feeling of trust in the craftsmanship of the design and hardware components. Robust professional tool with quality I/O and sturdy dials/buttons/switches. The EC2 feels good to use and equally sounds good to use.
I started with bass guitar into the DI and immediately had a great sound (with no other processing such as compression or EQ). Easy peasy. Adding Mojo gave me a range of additional tonal options from smooth bright unharsh presence to gritty weight and heft with a pleasing distortion. James Jamerson to funk slap; Thump to Cream.
For tracking, several features come into play. The channel level LED changes colour blue (-20dBu)>green (-12dBu)>amber (+21dBu)>red (+24dBu) and is enough for tracking – not too distracting – but enough information in the space of a single LED. Again, for tracking, there is a healthy amount of gain, and this isn't bunched on the dial – the taper is well-judged to get easy results without clipping.
The monitor section: Prior to the review I'd always been a bit sceptical about preamps with additional auxes or headphone amps...but I was wrong.
Even if you 'don't need' a monitor/mixer section, one day you will, because it is there; the advantage over preamps without it is the capability to route the source from one or both preamps to multiple destinations in as high-quality as the preamp source – a split (e.g. one source dry and the split to fx, or as a wide-panned chorus effect for background vox); or for reamping (either as from the preamp source or from an external source); as a mini-mixer to combine sources and/or external audio as a single stem; or to facilitate moderately-complex monitor outputs for artist headphones or PA/monitors...and this can be easily level-controlled and panned from the front-panel matrix rather than scrabbling around the back to re-route cables. On the rear are also two buffered outputs that act as a Thru; and additional balanced line-level outputs post-preamp.
For the budding audio engineer this is a great front end (in combination with almost any converter): an instant improvement in input path and monitoring, and enough functionality to accommodate new roles as your studio expands. For more seasoned engineers. the extra monitor/split/mini-mix utilities are of obvious benefit – especially the ability to operate the unit close to the source via the CAST network (described below).
Tracking: As a vocalist keen to develop my technique I've realised that great monitoring is essential for a great performance: in part this is down to the preamp creating a strong defined vocal signal but also the monitor signal itself. My usual technique is to send the audio from the preamp and conversion, into the DAW where it is muted post fx send; the wet signal is then mixed with the dry source signal for monitoring. Any system latency acts as a pre-delay on the fx.
Whilst this is all achievable in software, the EC2 is optimised for this purpose in high-quality – for me, this high-quality monitoring is a performance booster: analogue routing with simple dedicated controls. The I/O makes connecting hardware fx a doddle too so I was able to connect a Lexicon MPX110 multi-fx as a 'comfort reverb' independent of the dry source recording (plus I could record the wet signal from the Lexicon independently too).
The monitor control section offers level for channels 1 and 2 and Aux in. Great for vocal and acoustic guitar monitoring. Channels 1 and 2 can be panned left and right or positioned centre/mono.
The high-pass filter at 80 Hz works well on many sources; I liked it on everything except bass and djembe (naturally) and this made the mix easier with space for those instruments, with others smoothly hi-passed on a shelf above the bass.
Positioning for visibility is important as the switches and dial legends are quite condensed on the 1u fascia, so care would need to be taken against accidentallly engaging the 48V phantom-power switch (which looks the same as the others) although this is a common preamp issue and the LED warning system will help by indicating activation. Arms length in good light is fine especially when familiar with the controls.
Mixbus: This is a real test of a preamp; in this case adding make-up gain after a passive DAV mixbus. Normally the BAE1073mpf sits there but I found the EC2 gave a wider range of sonic possibility and flexibility for genre-specific mixes. I could get close to the Neve-style sound(s) plus an infinite range of new ones. The low noise floor is another useful feature for mixbus, for example, allowing heavy coherent mixbuss compression without bringing up unwanted system noise under heavier gain. In general, the EC2 preserved the dynamics and soundstage without holes or spikes in the frequency bandwidth. Good honest gain with tonal options.
Mobile Applications: Whereas with most 1u preamps I like to put them in a rack, with the EC2 and it's extra features, it felt naturally more suited to mobility. In fact, I'd feel more inclined to leave the studio with it and record on location: the monitor and range of I/O options are great for capturing a range of sources in a variety of situations. At 2.8kg (6.2lb) the EC2 is not too heavy either and the physical balance (in one hand) feels good making it easy to manoeuver or swap in/out of racks.
The in-built dual headphone amps and line mixer are a great asset near to the tracking station as is the CAST system which allows operation at longer cable lengths from the A/D conversion device.g. in the amp room.
I wouldn't hesitate to use this for remote/guerilla/temporary sessions, and as the only preamp.
The C.A.S.T. Network: This analogue system allows audio to be routed between Cranborne Audio devices via a Ethernet-style Cat cable (5e/6/7) into two independent RJ45 connectors (In and Out). In addition to saving money on audio cables CAST allows efficiency and flexibility over longer cable runs, saving space in the studio and enabling perfect uninterrupted audio between rooms e.g. audio output on one CAT cable and incoming audio on the other.
Rear panel toggle switches select whether the preamp 'sees' the XLR input or the CAST input (great for reamping or adding Mojo to external sources or sterile ITB tracks).
Currently CAST is specific to Cranborne Audio devices; a typical application would be to connect the EC2 (or EC1) to the 500R8 or 500ADAT CAST-enabled mixer/converters to which the EC2 outputs are sent and monitor input received via the CAT cables.
Obviously the CAST feature is of more value alongside other CAST-enabled gear but as it passes audio only and there is no digital conversion, there are no expensive components sitting unused if the EC2 is destined to be used solo.
Audio examples: Usual disclaimer that it is myself performing music – not an internationally-recognised, golden-voiced superstar – but I do stand by the audio engineering and the quality of the sound.
Electric Bass DI Funk: 50% Gain/ 50% Thump
Electric Bass DI RockPop: 100% Thump/ 100% Cream/ 50% Thump
Electro-acoustic guitar DI: Clean/ Cream/ Thump
Vocal mic'd w/Sennheiser MD445:
Acoustic guitar mic'd:
Percussion mic'd: Clean/ Cream/ Thump
Inside Djembe: Cream/ Thump
Section of mix using EC2 on everything:
Finale: The real testament to the EC2 is that after carefully re-packing it for return after the review, I needed a 2-channel preamp for a very important client session and decided to unpack it again – despite having the BAE1073mpf and Sound Devices (and other pre's) available and more easily accessible. Not so much a decision based on sonic quality (the BAE is fine) but rather the flexibility of the EC2 – the ability to tweak for a range of mics and instruments - making the tracking easier and more effective.
To their credit, Cranborne Audio allowed an extended review period, 2-3 months, and this enabled a deep insight through daily studio use (as if I owned the EC2) rather than a quick in-and-out which might have missed something – positive or negative. I needed the extra time too: there is so much functionality and possibility inherent in the EC2 that it takes a while to get your head around...which is a good thing.
Again, a privilege and honour to be reviewing such high-quality gear on behalf of the Gearslutz forum. A beautiful-sounding, dual-channel preamp+ with a solid build and solid tech specs supporting the signal path. Thoroughly recommended for a range of studio uses.
Sound quality 5/5: The Cranborne Audio Camden EC2 preamp is one of the best products I've used or reviewed. Pure class. Sonically, always relevant across a range of timbre and colour. A healthy modern sound; not flabby or indistinct. Great dynamics. Tracking, re-amping, or mixbus.
Ease of use 5/5: Good ergonomics on the user interface. Brings the best out of whatever is plugged in. Sits comfortably alongside entry-level and high-end gear; also good level-matching with analogue and digital conversion and metering conventions.
Moderate learning curve to fully-understand all the functions and routing capability; also, as the Mojo can't be undone once recorded, a little goes a long way, to start.
Features 5/5: Extensive; not just quality preamps but also a range of expression via the Mojo, filter, and impedances. The mixer section is more useful than I first thought. DI sounds awesome. Softly-lit power button on front. More than just a dual-preamp – a great analogue front-end for home-studio or remote tracking.
Bang-for buck 5/5: Very good per channel plus the headphone amp/line mixer/CAST system extras. A great investment for any studio needing an accurate and flexible preamp.