The bar is set fairly high for new products from Universal Audio, the company run by the offspring of Bill Putnam, perhaps the best-known American gear
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Universal Audio''s entry-level Solo/110 is compact, versatile, and of the company''s typical high quality.

The bar is set fairly high for new products from Universal Audio, the company run by the offspring of Bill Putnam, perhaps the best-known American gear designer in the history of the recording industry. Most Universal Audio products are analog or digital replicas of vintage designs by Putnam and others. The newly designed 110 Precision series of ultrafidelity preamps is an exception.

Until recently, the only way to get your hands on one of these Class A, discrete, solid-state microphone preamps was as part of the 4110 and 8110 4- and 8-channel preamps, which sell for $3,000 and $5,000, respectively. At $799.99, the Solo/110 gives engineers and musicians on a lower budget a chance to get in on the action.

I'll Take That to Go

One advantage the Solo/110 has over the 4110 and 8110 is its portability. The shoe box — size 5.25 × 5 × 14 — inch unit has a comfy rubber handle and is surprisingly light (5.4 lbs.). A direct injection (DI) input with a Thru jack, a Ground Lift switch, and a switch for determining whether the XLR output jack is at mic or line level are other advantages of the Solo/110. Furthermore, its small footprint and sturdy rubber feet make it ideal for placing in the music room next to an amplifier.

The controls on the Solo/110 are labeled clearly and laid out simply. You can use the oversize Gain and Level knobs to drive the input stage without overloading the input of the next device downstream. Illuminated blue buttons activate phantom power, polarity flip, a 100 Hz highpass filter, mic or DI input, and low or high input impedance (500 to 2 k for mic and 47 k to 2.2 M for DI).

For starters, I set up the Solo/110 as a DI unit between a Rickenbacker guitar and a Fender Twin amp. I first tried running it directly to tape at line level, but found myself constantly running back and forth between the control room and the music room to reset the levels. To avoid that, I chose a level that didn't distort at the guitarist's highest volume, switched it to mic-level output, and ran it into another preamp so as to have a level control within easy reach in the control room. Both setups produced pleasant and highly usable direct guitar sounds. Blending the guitar with a miked-amp signal added necessary clarity and presence to the parts.

To the Bridge

Next, I tried the Solo/110 on both nylon- and steel-stringed acoustic guitars. I used the Solo/110 for my body mic, a Royer R-121 pointed at the bridge, and set up another mic and preamp on the neck. The Solo/110 performed extremely well, providing the fullness of sound I've come to expect from this particular mic and placement. The Solo/110 has more than enough noise-free gain to readily handle a ribbon mic recording a medium-volume source.

I also used the Solo/110 to record a male vocalist singing loudly into a vintage U 87. In that situation, I found that the amount of gain drastically changed the quality of the sound, more so than in my guitar tests. At higher gain settings, with the tricolored signal-indicator LED getting into the orange and red zones, the voice acquired a huskiness in the low midrange that it didn't have when I used my reference preamps. Information on the UA Web site indicates that the Solo/110's gain structuring allows for some of the tonal variety that you get from the 4110 and 8110's Switched Shape feature. I definitely felt that the Solo/110 emulated the Saturation setting of the 4110 and 8110 units in a warm, fuzzy way.

A similar phenomenon occurred with a Fender P-bass plugged directly in and the Gain knob pushed toward the max — the high midrange dulled a bit, giving a woofier sound. However, when the gain was pulled back, the clarity and air of the bass shone through nicely. I preferred the Lo-Z setting for picked bass and the Hi-Z setting for finger-plucked bass. That preference highlights the usefulness of the Lo-Z/Hi-Z button.

With some really nice extra features, overall solid construction, and excellent sound, the Solo/110 does everything it's supposed to do quite well. Does it live up to the Putnam legacy? That's a tough one. The Solo/110 won't change your life the way a UREI silver-face 1176 might, but it is definitely worth the price.

Value (1 through 5): 4
Universal Audio