A microphone pre-amp is meant to amplify your mic’s signal, not to introduce its own noise and artefacts into the recorded results. You need a mic pre because your microphone has a signal that’s too weak to be captured by a recorder. A preamplifier boosts the signal to a standard line level, which all recorders can capture. The IK Multimedia iRig Pre HD is such a pre-amp. It costs around €100, which is really very, very cheap. But is it any good?
I tested the iRig Pre HD by comparing its results with those of my trusted Apogee Duet iPad/Mac. For my tests I made voice recordings only, so everything you read here refers to vocal sound, nothing else.
But first the hardware. As with all IK Multimedia hardware, the iRig Pre HD is made of one of the strongest types of plastic. As a result it weighs next to nothing, even with the two AA batteries installed. The device itself fits in the palm of your hand and has only two input controls. The first control is a 48V phantom power switch that you turn on for microphones that need it. The second one is a gain control wheel that goes up to 40dB. Two large LEDs on the top show power levels and gain levels. The iRig Pre HD connects to your iOS or macOS recording app through a micro-USB plug instead of the familiar round IK Multimedia plug. You can’t power the iRig Pre HD through an external power unit.
The iRig Pre HD is a 96kHz / 24bits device that records signal from 20Hz to 20kHz with an input noise level of -97dB RMS at -105 dB(A). The box contains all the cables you need to hook up the iRig Pre HD to an iPad or Mac. The Neutrik XLR socket accepts standard XLR cables but there’s no locking mechanism.
IK Multimedia equipped the iRig Pre HD with a Class A pre-amp. This means the pre-amp will supply electrical current all the time, drawing more power from your iOS device and running hotter than other pre-amps. However, I did not notice my iPad Air 2’s battery draining much faster than with other IK Multimedia iRigs, so it’s not a big deal. The advantage of a Class A pre-amp is that it sounds noticeably more detailed than, for example, the iRig Pro I/O.
What do you want from a pre-amp besides boosting the signal so you can record it? My wish list includes clear sound, no introduction of noise and a pleasant sound colouration (there’s always going to be some distortion, e.g. warmer or harsher or metallic…).
I get all of that with my Apogee Duet, but could I get that from a device that’s about five times less expensive (not entirely true, as the Duet also has one of the best DACs inside and a fantastic headphones amp, more input and output channels, etc)? And the answer is — drum roll, please — yes. In fact, the iRig Pre HD really got me excited when I compared a recording of the same audio source made with the same microphone in the same room.
The iRig Pre HD delivers. You do end up with a bit more noise than with the Duet , but it’s only a bit. The sound is clear, although a little bit less full — there’s less to enjoy in the lows — but it’s not unpleasant. The colouration might be the thing that you don’t like, but whether you enjoy a specific sound colour is entirely subjective. I love the Apogee sound, which is warm without exaggerating, but there’s something to be said for a slightly cooler sound. That’s what you’ll get from the iRig Pre HD.
What’s not to like about the iRig Pre HD? Well, the recording app for the iOS platform could be better. On my iPad Air 2, the Apogee MetaRecorder app succeeds in recording at sample rates of up to 92kHz. IK Multimedia’s iRig Recorder — which you get as a free download with the iRig Pre HD — stops at 48kHz.
The 40dB maximum gain is on the low side. My sE Electronics sE2200a needs more gain to be driven as it should. The Apogee app lets me go up to 75dB, just like the Sound Devices MixPre-6 I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.
But if you can live with these two lesser “features”, then the iRig Pre HD will give you much pleasure and allow you to create professional-grade recordings.