I'm not a full-fledged gear junkie, but I am, probably, an esoteric, boutique gear junkie, so the X73i from Vintech Audio certainly piques my interest. The X73i is a Class A, all-discrete, transformer-balanced single-rackspace mic/instrument preamp and semiparametric EQ based on the classic Neve 1073. Constructed of all metal, the preamp has large, well-spaced machined potentiometers and Grayhill rotary switches in brushed aluminum and anodized red set against a dark-teal face. The easy-to-read settings are silk-screened in white.
READING IS FUNDAMENTAL
The X73i's front panel is clear and well-laid-out. The large, easy-to-grip rotary controls comprise a staged input-sensitivity dial that sports 11 fixed settings in intervals of 5 dB ranging from -20 to -70, with one in the center for off. Smooth gain knobs, with detents at zero, are present for the highs, mids and lows. The high gain is fixed-band. Staged semiparametric dials are present for the mids and lows, with the mid-EQ sporting 12 steps ranging from .27 to 7.2 kHz, and one setting for Off. The low EQ has settings for Off, 35, 60, 110, 220 and 300 Hz. A similar staged low-frequency rolloff dial has settings for Off, 50, 80, 160, 220 and 300 Hz. Finally, there is a continuous Output gain knob. All staged knobs are shaped differently from the gain pots, which makes for easy identification in low-light conditions.
To the right of the rotary controls are three toggle switches for 48V phantom power, phase reverse and EQ in/out. Punch in/out switches for impedance matching (a choice of 300 Hz and 1.2 kHz) and mic/line input sit to the right of the input gain. The front panel is completed by a sturdy ¼-inch Instrument input on the far left. The rear panel houses the 4-pin external power supply connector and the rest of the I/O jacks, and this baby is pure analog — quality and understated. There are just two inputs, both on XLR connectors, and they are clearly labeled Line and Microphone. The output section simply contains one XLR and one balanced ¼-inch jack. All XLR connectors are gold-plated Neutriks.
IN A SILENT WAY
I first tested the X73i at a live gig at Jazz Nouveau, a local San Francisco joint. For the first act, the preamp took signal from a standard dynamic mic, a Shure SM57 pointed at a Reverend Hellhound 40/60 guitar amp. Electric guitar played through the Reverend was a nice opening test for the X73i; the tone had a sweet and hot character, like a combination of a Roland Jazz Chorus and a Marshall. I plugged in the SM57 and connected the ¼-inch output to the club's Allen & Heath GL3300 console. Simply put, the amp sounded great through the Vintech. The input gain was comfortably set in the middle at -50. My original settings on all three EQ gains were flat (12 o'clock): The midrange EQ was set to 1.6 kHz, the low frequency was set to 110 Hz, and the output gain was set at about 3 o'clock.
I was able to solo-monitor the guitar while comparing it to the other channels with a good pair of Sennheiser headphones. The guitar was clear, defined and plenty loud, with adequate headroom. It cut through the house mix just fine, and the amp's tone was retained. I tweaked the settings quite a bit during one guitar-heavy tune, raising and cutting the high, mid and low gains and changing the EQ settings. The preamp responded accurately. Turning up the mid and high gains gave the tone gradual sizzle, but when I turned it past about 3 o'clock, it began to distort. This was expected, though, as I was indeed pushing the signal into clipping. I have to admit, I was yearning for a built-in limiter. When the X73i was dialed in, however, it was transparent and made the Reverend amp shine. Modest, midlevel settings produced the best overall sound. It seemed absolutely noise-free even with the gains pushed — a testament to its quality and external power source. I received positive feedback from the guitarist himself, which is always a good sign, especially from a picky jazz musician.
The next test that I conducted was also live, this time with a different band and in a more experimental way. I used a Shure KSM32 large-diaphragm condenser, set about six feet in front of center stage with the hot side facing the band (a drums, bass and alto sax trio), as an ambient room mic. The KSM32 is a full-range beast, so I set its three-position bass rolloff at its steepest setting. This time, I had the added bonus of recording the set to CD-R to really examine the results later. All in all, it was one of the better recordings I've done there. The X73i's input gain was again set to -50, and the impedance was set at 300 (though I tried both settings and didn't hear much difference). The EQ gains were flat, the mid EQ was dialed to 1.6, and the low was at 60. The low cut was dialed to 50 Hz. Even with the low bass settings and the mic picking up the whole stage, the audience and the room, it didn't get boomy or mushy. I could hear the band clearly, including the contrabassist's tiny 10-inch G.K. amp, which was sitting on the floor. I again slowly switched between EQ settings, and even though I was only sculpting ambient sound, I could hear the differences, which were subtle unless I pushed up a few notches. I was again able to push it into clipping, but dialing this thing in was a breeze. I found myself returning to my original soundcheck settings, which had the Vintech basically flat. The one thing I found was that when I dropped the mid EQ below .7, the change was almost unnoticeable.
For the next test, I recorded a bit of spoken word and varied guitar direct to Emagic Logic Audio in my studio. I recorded in 24-bit through an M-Audio Delta 1010 ADC and monitored through active 2.1 Tannoy monitors. I recorded several guitars with radically different tones, including a Yamaha classical, an old Ovation acoustic steel-string with piezo pickups and a '60s Kay semihollow with a pickup. For both tests, I used the KSM32 and a Marshall Electronics MXL 1000 hand-held condenser. In a more controlled listening environment, I could closely scrutinize the Vintech, and it performed beautifully. With each guitar, I recorded two takes, altering settings on the Vintech. I recorded the Yamaha with the MXL. Both the Ovation and the Kay took turns plugging into the instrument input, and then I miked both with the KSM32. The Ovation was full, resonant and bass-rich. The Kay was a twangy, Dobro-like affair, and the Yamaha was softer and somewhere in between.
The recordings echoed the guitars' tones while adding some desirable qualities here and there. The Yamaha on the first take sounded a tad twangy, but the natural sound of the nylon strings came through nicely. The overall sound with the MXL was good and in some places too good: Fret buzz shone through, as did some breathing. For the second take, I lowered the mid and low EQs and the bass rolloff one notch, and the recording retained the high-mid twang while gaining just the right amount of low mids. Moving on to the Ovation, I plugged into the Instrument input, which produced noise-free, clear full-range sound. I appreciated having the jack on the front panel. The presence of the guitar in the room through the monitors was amazing, particularly with the direct/mic recording.
SPOKEN LIKE A TRUE, UM, ENGINEER
I had no real singer onboard for the final test, so I concentrated on spoken word. I am no vocalist, but my speaking voice is good for testing, as it is normally midrange-y, but it can go fairly low or high. By now, I expected only good things from the X73i, and that's what I got. My voice sounded precise, whispers were clear and detailed, and dynamics were good. I recorded myself calling my cats, then opened the studio doors and played the recording. The cats promptly came rambling in. I cranked the gains and spoke softly. A noise-free recording resulted with little, if any, distortion.
When reviewing pieces of gear, I try to be as unbiased as possible, but I have to admit, I couldn't find anything sonically that I didn't like about the X73i. I did yearn for a few things — such as level meters, a limiter, a digital output and a manual — but all in all, this is a great unit. I wish I had more criticism, but I honestly don't have much. It may be a tad steep in price for extremely budget-minded small-studio owners, but even the cost is a bargain for the quality. Whether you are a bedroom-studio owner looking to get a slice of that classic, big-studio sound or you are seeking to supplement your rack in a professional facility, the Vintech X73i comes highly recommended.
X73i > $1,595 (PREAMP); $225 (POWER SUPPLY)
Pros: Pristine audio quality. Classic, big-studio quality for reasonable price. Versatile EQ section. Rock-solid construction. Separate power supply to keep signal path clean.
Cons: No operation manual. No digital I/O. Heavy, bulky for the road. No limiter, level or clipping indicators.