Hamptone HJFP2 JFET Preamp by prontold
The Hamptone HJFP2 is a wonderful sounding dual mic preamp/di that you can build yourself from a kit for $720, buy preassembled from Hamptone for $1030, or get lucky like me and find used on the Gearslutz classifieds for $650. This preamp is my first very high quality piece, and the sound does not disappoint on any level, though it would be ideal to have an output trim, a clipping indicator, and a bass rolloff.
This is a discrete Jfet design with nice transformers on the input and output. The sound, when you have it dialed right, is appealing in ways that are hard to describe objectively. It's very clear, but also has an element of smoothness to it, perhaps from a strong second harmonic. My first test with this preamp was recording a layered vocal using an SM58, and there was something intangibly cohesive about the way those vocal tracks came together. It is also changeable, with the ability to keep the gain in the lower ranges for a clearer sound, or let things get gooey, or even fuzzed-out overdriven when the gain gets cranked. As a DI or instrument amp, the HJFP2 is big and clear, with the ability to dial in some harmonic distortion or crazy, sagging fuzz. When I did a brief comparison running a Korg Microkorg through the HJFP2 or the stock pres on my Roland Octa-Capture (which don't suck), the signal through the HJFP2 was noticeably more present and detailed. One more thing: The HJFP2 also provides about 72 db of gain with essentially no noticeable noise (to me anyway) at any point in the gain range.
Ease of Use
This is a preamp with one big knob per channel that you turn clockwise to increase the volume of a signal, or oversaturate it. There's not too much that you could get confused about. The one thing, and the reason I docked a couple of points here, is that it can be hard to set levels so that a dynamic performance does not at any point clip the amplifier in a way that doesn't work for the context. The limited headroom of the pre allows you to do some very cool things, but it can lead to more headaches in some situations. A clipping indicator might help quite a bit here, especially one that graded through different colors as the signal came closer to being a square wave.
Like i said above, there is one big volume knob per channel. A trim would have been nice, but it's not necessary. I use a passive attenuator (m-patch nano) to keep hot signals from the Hamptone from clipping my converters when it's called for (pretty much when you want to drive the amplifier circuit).
Each channel also features push-switches to toggle a pad for a bit more headroom (and a slightly different sound), +48 phantom power, and phase inverse. When you are using the instrument input, the pad switch also switches input impedances between 2.2 megaohms (pad out) and 200 kOhms (pad in).
One "hidden feature" that Scott Hampton mentions, and that is fun to mess around with, is daisy chaining the output of one channel into the input of another. This lets you play with how much transistor distortion or input transformer saturation you are hearing, or just create an insanely noisy, fuzzed out, sagging mess.
Bang for Buck
I don't think you can get much better than this for the price, especially if you pay the 600-700 bucks or so that used ones go for. While this pre does have its quirks and limitations, the base sound that it produces is just so golden, creamy without being cloudy, that on a purely sonic basis I am sure it competes with preamps many times the price! Definitely makes me curious to build the HTVP2 tube preamp when I get the funds.