DACS Clarity MicAmp
Reviewed by Dan Richards
I recently ran across the DACS Clarity MicAmp, and in doing so have found a gem. Rather than waiting to the end of this review, I want to state here that the Clarity is hands down one of the best and most unique mic pres on the market today.
DACS, Digital Audio & Computer Systems, is based in Newcastle, England and headed by Dr. Douglas Doherty. The Clarity MicAmp is one of several hand-built offerings from DACS. When the Clarity arrived a few months ago, I was struck in a not particularly postive way by its unorthodox appearance. But whether you like the "styling" or not, this pre stands out from the pack. The Clarity is styled in the manner of a sporty economy car: red knobs on a light purple body with black trim and meters that look like round BMW 2002 tail lights. I do think that the styling of the Clarity could stand to be addressed by DACS, as it looks more like it would appeal to a high school girl than a recording engineer. I think if they'd lose the light-purple coloring and either go for gray, dark gray or black, DACS would have a sexy, stylish winner on their hands. I think the Clarity is such a killer mic pre I wouldn't care if it was green with pink polka dots.
Style-bashing aside, the Clarity MicAmp, which lists in the US for $2150, is a two-channel discrete microphone preamplifier in a single-rackspace chassis. Each channel features three red control knobs: input gain, trim control and high-pass filter. The gain steps in 6 dB increments from +20 dB to +62 dB, the trim control adjusts from 0 dB to 10 dB, and the high-pass filter offers bass roll-off from 80Hz or 30Hz in a 12dB/octave slope. Additionally, there's a phase-reverse switch. Continuing with the minimalist approach is the somewhat futuristic-looking three-light meters arranged in a small circle. Green indicates signal, yellow indicates signal above +5dBm and red shows peaking above +13dBm the red light also has a brighter mode if the signal is peaking past +25dBm. The metering section on the Clarity, while initially appearing unusual, is easily used and in actual recording sessions proved itself to be superior to many other meter systems.
Continuing with the minimalist approach, DACS eschews the need for a 48V phantom power switch on the front panel by not having a switch at all. Instead, on the rear panel are a pair of XLR inputs without phantom power and a pair of XLR inputs with phantom power. The non-phantom inputs can offer greater LF response due to the elimination of DC blocking capacitors. On the phantom-powered inputs, the frequency extends down to 20Hz and rolls off at 6dB/octave. The high frequency extends flat to 45kHz, down 3 dB to 65kHz and down 6dB at 100kHz. Anyone running systems at higher sampling rates will benefit from these figures.
I've been using the Clarity MicAmp for several months in real-world and listening sessions, and this is where it excels: In the spectrum of "flavors" of mic pres, the Clarity would certainly be transparent. But what the Clarity offers that I've only found on more "colored" mic pres is "punch." In my excited conversations with people about the Clarity, I have described it as having the transparency of Millennia with the punch of API.
In one informal session of The Listening Sessions, we set up a pair AKG 451Bs in an X-Y array on drum overheads. We then recorded the 451s through several mic pres, including the Millennia M-2B, the Millennia HV-3D, the Phoenix Audio DRS-2, vintage API 528's, the Great River MP-2 and the API 3124. All of these mic pres are favorites and get used regularly in sessions. Not surprisingly, they all scored well. Some of the engineers gave the most "natural" sound to the Millennia's, but there was an overwhelming surprise with the DACS Clarity MicAmps. The Clarity offered a "presence" and detail captured by none of the other mic pres. At one point on listening back to the drum tracks recorded to RADAR through the Clarity MicAmp, I could even make out the sound of individual snares on the snare drum! Stereo recordings are also an area where the design of the Clarity reveals itself. We've been monitoring on a pair of Dynaudio Air 15s, and through them the imagery and depth of detail of the Clarity shines. The Clarity also rose to the top of the pack in acoustic guitar sessions with Schoeps CMC6-MK4, and on vocals it provides a sound that is at once transparent and yet in your face.
In working on a graph in an attempt to characterise the sound of microphone preamplifiers, transparent is the far-left parameter. The Clarity is the only mic preamp that is literally off the scale. It is past transparent and has been given its own category we're describing as "hyperreal". The Clarity is the HDTV of mic pres.
I'd read somewhere that someone described the Clarity by saying that is sounded as though a sock, or cloth, had been removed from all their mics. One thing I can say is that while there are certainly many truly great mic pres on the market, the Clarity has a sound and characteristic that is all its own and not produced with any other mic pre. It's not just me saying this. Everyone I've talked to who has used the DACS Clarity MicAmp has been floored, including engineers at Peter Gabriel's Real World.
I want to thank the DACS US distributor, Fraser Jones of Independent Audio, for sending the DACS Clarity evaluation unit.
For more information about the DAC Clarity MicAmp, please visit the DACS Audio website.