REVIEWS: from SLAMM Magazine

Taking The Direct Route

U5 Direct Box


by Sven-Erik Seaholm: Artist/Producer - Kitsch & Sync Production; Gearing Up Columnist - SLAMM Magazine

Direct or DI

Musical instruments, effects and other musical tools can be odd beasts to describe, both in terms of use, design aesthetics and the daunting task of illustrating what something actually sounds like. For myself, the hardest thing is justifying an item's expense to a readership that is arguably comprised at least in part, by baloney-sandwich-eating-best-friend's-couch-sleeping-girlfriend's-car-driving-day-job-avoiding-dirty-jeans-wearing artistic types like myself (well sort of, I'm married and my best friend knows better than to have a couch, but I digress). Regardless, price can be a difficult thing to quantify, particularly when it comes to something like a $600 direct box.

(Direct Injection) boxes are used to take a signal, usually from a bass, keyboard or guitar, and deliver it (directly) to a PA, recording console or multi-track recorder, bypassing the need for amplifiers and microphones. The benefit of this is a clean signal with no external noises, either from you or the outside world. The drawback can be in having no precise control over volume, tone, and other characteristics that make your instrument's sound so unique.

The U5

This is where the Avalon Design U5 Direct Box ($595) comes in. The U5 is a Class A DI & preamp that provides a variety of interfacing solutions for virtually any situation. It's stylish cheekbones are inherited from the rest of the handsome Avalon product line, with a brushed stainless steel faceplate featuring solid and chunky Boost and Tone knobs, and a recessed black oval providing easy access to it's 1/4 inch Input and Thru jacks. The small blue Signal & Power LEDs are a nice touch, and buttons for High Cut, Speaker to Input, Active to Thru and Tone all take on a satisfying orange glow when engaged. The back of the unit features space for the power cord (no wall warts here!), a ground lift switch and a 1/4 inch Speaker In jack, as well as XLR outputs for both Mic and Line levels. There's even a headphone jack for those 3 am moments of inspiration. The housing of the unit is 2 rack spaces high, a half rack wide and about a foot deep, weighing in at a hefty 12 pounds, providing an awesome body to go with those good looks.

Of course beauty is in the ear and not the eye when it comes to audio gear, and the U5 has a lot to prove to the skeptics of it's financial worth. My first experience with the unit was in recording a less-than-stellar sounding electric bass, due to it's cheap pickups. Plugging into the input, I turned the Boost knob (and an additional 30dB can be added in 3dB increments) to an appropriate level and was met with the sound of the bass, all the bass, and nothing but the bass. This was obviously a mixed blessing considering the instrument's shortcomings, so I then engaged the Tone function and began to flip through the six different EQ preset curves. Voila! A zero was magically added to the end of the bassā price tag, and the subjective value of the U5 became increasingly apparent. The bottom end was full and tight without any of the sluggish muddiness and nasal sounding midrange previous encounters with the bass had yielded. In fact, there was an amazing clarity in the low end that I had never experienced in prior recordings.

Electric guitar

Moving over to electric guitar produced a similarly rewarding experience in capturing that instrument's full tonal range, including excellent harmonic content that I found was usually dampened by previous signal paths. However, I'm not much for the sound of direct guitar, so I ran the guitar track through an amp simulation plug-in with killer sounding results. Exploring further, I connected the guitar to an amp, running a cable from it's external speaker jack to the Speaker In jack of the U5, and engaging the U5's Speaker Signal button and disengaged the tone button. Damn if it didn't sound remarkably like my amp! Of course speakers are a big part of the amp sound equation, so I turned the tone back on and was able to find an eq setting that made for a very suitable amp simulator.

Acoustic guitar

Acoustic guitar pickups can be very problematic, with a typically plastic-sounding tone, but I was again able to make a bad situation considerably better with the U5. I also checked it out on keyboards, samples and a drum machine, and found that a whole new palette of tones could be achieved just by selecting various eq settings. These findings made me feel a lot more comfortable with the U5's price, considering it's ability to adapt to studio and live performance situations quickly and easily, with always impeccable sounding results.

U5 Specifications

Circuit Topology 100% discrete, high-voltage Class A
Gain Switched 3dB steps, maximum gain +30dB
Input Impedance 3,000,000 ohm unbalanced (single ended)
Maximum Input Level +24dBu unbalanced, 400w speaker input
Output Connectors (2) XLR type, pin 2 hot electronic balanced
Maximum Output Level (Class A) +30dBu DC coupled, balanced 600 ohms (mic and line out)
Headphone Output 0.5w into 600 ohms
Noise 20kHz Unweighted -100dBu minimum gain position
Distortion THD, IMD 0.1% at +10dB
Frequency Response, -/+0.5dB 5Hz to 100kHz
Frequency Response, -3dB 1Hz to 500kHz (input band limited)
High Cut Filter -3dB at 8kHz minimum phase design
Tone Selector Six position rotary switch, all passive filters
AC Power Internal toroidal AC supply
Dimensions 8.5 x 3.5 x 12 in (216 x 88 x 305mm)
Weight 7 lbs (3.2kg)
Rack mount kit (1) RM-1 Single U5 19 inch rack mount kit (holds one half rack unit)
Rack mount kit (2) RM-2 Dual U5 19 inch

2 U5's with RM-2 rackmount kit

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