LaChapell's boutique tube preamps have earned a reputation for being some of the best around, so when they announced their ultra-affordable 500DT preamp earlier this year, my interest was piqued. The 583S 500 Series tube mic pre [mk2: Tape Op #104] received rave reviews, but the 500DT is nearly half the price while offering a similar tube technology. I couldn't pass up the chance to check it out.
The 500DT is a 500 Series preamp that features TrueTube™ technology, which supplies the 12AX7 vacuum tube with a proper 250 volts to unlock its full harmonic potential. That in itself could be the tagline of a product - but wait, there's more. I love flexibility, so when any piece of gear features a blend knob, I add it to my infinitely long list which I've eloquently titled "Want." The 500DT allows you to blend between tube and solid-state circuits. So, if you're that person who can't make up his or her mind as to which type of preamp to purchase, worry no more. You could buy two of these puppies for approximately $1,000 and get the tonal flexibility of four preamps! That's a big deal for those with limited budgets and lofty aspirations.
So how does the 500DT sound? I'm the type of person that wants to hear the tube working, and I don't want to have to think twice about whether or not it's adding something to sound. With the 500DT, there is no mistake. At conservative settings it is warm and sparkly. As you crank up the gain, you'll begin to hear the delicious tube harmonics that we all know and love. Compared to similarly priced tube preamps that I own, I found the 500DT to be on the warmer and fuzzier side at aggressive settings, which is what I want from a product offering a blend knob. Want a driven tube sound but with more clarity? Turn the dial a little to the right. Want clarity but a little more beef in the lo mids or compression in the hi mids? Turn the dial a little to the left. This is tremendously helpful to me when I'm recording with a minimal setup. I don't want to rely solely on plug-ins to achieve a tone that sits in the mix right, and I don't always have enough outboard compressors to provide additional processing options. For instance, if I'm traveling with a single lunchbox unit, I need to be choosy with 500 Series gear I use. The 500DT packs a lot of flexibility into one unit!
In regular use, I found the 500DT to be particularly handy for satisfying the vintage tube style of high end that I'm often looking for. You know, the kind that minimizes vocal sibilance and tambourine jingles and ride cymbal stick sound. I'm engaged in an eternal war with acoustic guitar pick transients, and the 500DT proved its mettle in the heat of battle. Paired with a Shure SM57 on a snare drum, the 500DT wrangled the entire frequency spectrum nicely - so much so that I felt less inclined to EQ and compress. I'm not suggesting that you can or should bypass those steps, but you may be more disposed to, which is nice. One of my favorite applications for the 500DT was clean and dirty-ish electric guitars, where it was able to really clamp down on a sound that can sometimes be tricky, so it sat nicely in the mix. It outperformed all of my other similarly priced preamps in this regard.
Where the 500DT fell a little short were instances when the source was already warm, and in need of some clarity - or at the very least required no additional warmth. Kick drum, bass guitar cabinets, and passive ribbon mics were a tad too dark to my ear, in most scenarios (even at aggressive settings). However, other preamps that I might choose are tonal one-trick ponies, so it's more of a situational preference than a slight against the 500DT and its flexibility. I could have chosen to go with the solid-state sound, but, given the option in the context of a session where I can allocate it elsewhere, I'd prefer to play to the 500DT's strengths (I should also note that the Hi-Z input does a great job of bringing out low mids and can minimize the weak-sounding high end that often accompanies direct bass signals). The only other minor gripe that I have is that the output trim doesn't have a center detent, but that shouldn't stop you from taking this unit for a spin.
The 500DT is an unbelievable value at $499. If you're someone with a bedroom setup or project studio, this is definitely worth checking out, as it covers a lot of tonal landscape while being easy on your wallet. Conversely, if you're running a larger operation and looking for something vintage-y that brings a lot of personality to the table, the 500DT could be a great addition to your rack at a low price.