Coil Audio CA-286s by fromthepuggle
(I am in no way associated with this company.)
The 286 is beyond good, it's stellar. Kinda don't know how I've ever lived without it.
Based on demos I figured this was the more 'high-focused' or even the 'thinner' of their two preamps with less low end, there is nothing at all lacking with this pre, on the contrary, it blows me away. In fact, it seems super balanced to me. I only have a mono unit at the moment, but I've put mono versions of full mixes and drum buses through it, and WOW, wow, wow. Euphonic bliss.
It's hard for me to imagine that the 70 sounds thicker or deeper, but I guess it must, but this one is not missing a thing in terms of bass or heft, thickness or warmth, it's got it all.
I'm not sure how I ever lived without a negative feedback control. Unlike many types of gear where getting it all to work is difficult and you get lost in tweaking, that single knob does SO much, and so easily, but combined with the boost/cut and gainstaging, so many tones so quickly.
I tried reproducing what the NF knob does with my Hendyamps MA eq, and while it got closer than I figured, even moving multiple knobs at a time on the MA, couldn't quite reproduce what the NF control does, it shifts saturation as much as eq profile, but likely also balance of 2nd/3rd order harmonics, and who knows what else, so the EQ shift on the MA was only like 75 percent there. What's also amazing is that it seems to interact with the bass boost/cut, more than just in that low NF makes the eq diffs tiny. With NF, the eq seems to make the bass shift forward and back in the mix, and that's super useful. While at first I worried about not having the high freq adjustment from the other units, I didn't feel at all that any tone shaping was missing, in fact, I was kinda blown away at the sheer range of tones I could get out of it.
My music is vintage synths, virtual drums (put through outboard processing), and bass guitar, so I didn't get to use it on vocals or guitar. On synth, it was amazing to be able to move the synth back and forth in the soundstage, and the NF sorta eq tone control just works wonders. Moving things around in the soundstage on all buses and instruments is going to be SUPER useful with this device.
Having NF with eq controls, not to mention input/output gainstaging, it just felt like how things were supposed to be. The NF control will be an essential part of my workflow going forward, like an EQ that always sounds good and isn't too eq-ish, more like a shift in tonal balance than eq in a traditional sense.
I compare the 286 a/b with several other pieces of gear I have here. Compared the Summit TPA-200a triode tube/jensen 990 amp (tube input stage, jensen output), the Summit sounds just as good on standard settings, whether relatively clean/jensen emphasis, or overdriven tube emphasis. But it lacked the NF/boost capabilities which expand the palette sooooo much, so I'm selling the Summit, great as it is (and it's really great, serious). Compare it to Culture Vulture, and similar experience, very similar in 'standard tube' modes, and CV has pentode modes and the bias control, and bias does some very cool things (makes snare drum transients pop!, great for parallel mixing). But the CV has nothing like the 286: keeping the CV to complement the 286. Compared to Overstayer MAS. Overstayer has more of a solid-state, slightly brighter sound on a lot of mixbus settings. For most things the 286 just sounded richer, so, selling the Overstayer. Compared to Hendyamps MA, both tube, and let me just say, they work very, very nicely together. I already sold the Black Box HG-2, great for raising RMS levels, but didn't provide the warmth I crave. I have and have sold many solid state preamps (capi, Aurora, stam, Phoenix, great river, heritage, Zod), and while some of those are great, this wins.
So basically, I'm selling a TON of stuff to get more Coil. Once the 70s arrives, I can decide from there. One of the Coil guys said the 70 on mixbus is 'something special' beyond the 286, and while I find it hard to believe, definitely want to hear it. I may end up with two of one for buses and a single of the other for tracking, or if I can't decide, even two of each. That's a lot of cash, but it's worth liquidating a bunch of other gear to make it work. Coil stuff is simply THAT good. So few controls, so many tones, and NONE of them bad, it's ALL sweet spot.
In some odd way, it's not that the 286 sounds like perfection incarnate: rather, it just sounds 'as things should', how the audio in my head is supposed to sound, and that NF/boost control is just how things should be, as in, why don't all amps have that from now one? Something about it just seems so normal and natural, like, of course this is how I'm supposed to record stuff. Covers so many bases in terms of getting 'that' sound that I can sell a bunch of other stuff I was using to get 'warmth' and 'vibe' cause this is the real deal, all the color but none of the mud, complete clarity AND tone. After this, it's not that I'm getting rid of solid state. I still love my AML 54f50 and capi-vp28 for some transformer thickness that is upfront and meaty. But 90 percent of my 'vibe' needs are going to be taken care of by Coil from here on in.
(Btw, I ran the 286 into the Kush Tweaker on 'tape sim' mode, and holy crap, the splat of the snare drum was glorious. For those looking for tape sim, don't sleep on the Tweaker, I'm using it with Zulu, Zulu for crunch and Tweaker for splat, and what a combo).
So I'd call this a glowing review of the 286, probably most glowing review I've written of any product. I know it's super expensive, but wow, it sounds the way things are supposed to sound, and that NF control is just the audio 'handle' I feel like I've always needed for mixing. Go buy this stuff. Just leave enough for me to buy some more!
Yes, it's expensive. But for those with limited budgets, buy only one, use it for tracking, and if need be, bounce bus through it left then right and play back summed, less than ideal, but it works, and you'll get this glorious tone and be able to sell a lot of other gear because of it.