Hands-On Review:"This is as close to the proverbial magic box as it gets"
By Shep Chaney
The direct box ("DI") is generally treated with only passing respect. Sure, it does an important job, converting high-impedance line-level signals to mixer-friendly mic-level signals. But it just sits there on the floor, with no knobs, flashing lights, or a glowing fluorescent display that says "look at me!" I admit, I was in the camp that didn't give the DI a lot of attention. Then Musician's Friend delivered the DB 900 to my door to review. After playing with some pretty sexy gear lately, my first reaction was "A direct box, how nice." I began to change my mind when I opened the box. This is a fine looking unit, with its deep green metalflake finish and retro-look graphics. And it is a substantial piece of gear in both size and weight. After plugging it in and playing through it for a few hours, I was hooked - I knew that this unit was destined to find a home in my studio!
Being an inveterate tinkerer, it wasn't long before I removed the heavy-duty aluminum cover to see what makes the DB 900 tick. Four screws and a tug on the top, and I was inside - good news when it comes time to change the tube! I was impressed by the attention to detail and the quality apparent. It appeared to be hand wired, with discreet, high-quality components throughout. The bulk of the DB900 comes from the hefty, well-shielded Jensen output transformer, and that warm, fat tone comes from the 12AX7 tube at the heart of the unit.
The DB 900, like good DIs everywhere, has a very simple layout. The front panel consists of nothing more elaborate than three jacks and a switch. The input is a 1/4" phone jack that accepts an unbalanced line-level signal from a bass, guitar, synth, or instrument of your choice. There are two output options - an XLR jack that delivers a balanced mic-level signal to your mixer, and a ¼" phone jack that provides an unbalanced line-level signal to send back to your amp. You can then mic the amp speaker and send an additional signal to the mixer, to blend as you desire. A ground-lift switch - a quick and easy fix for any ground-loop problems you may encounter - completes the front panel appointments. The back panel is simply a power switch and associated LED, the fuse, and the six-foot power cord.
Hookup was, as you might expect, exceedingly easy. I plugged my P-Bass® into the 1/4" input, ran a mic cable from the XLR jack into my Mackie d8b mixer, and was greeted with a rich, well-balanced sound that was a vast improvement over the DI I usually use! The sound was a like solid core of rich tone, with an artist's touch of presence and clarity layered on top.
How Does It Sound?
Just to make sure my ears weren't playing tricks on me, I booted up my DAW - MOTU's Digital Performer - and recorded a few bass lines through the DB 900. I then plugged directly into the board, and played the same lines on another track. Finally, I built a third track playing through my old standby el cheapo passive DI. When I played the tracks back and compared them, the differences were striking. Straight into the board, the sound was flat, a little muddy, and generally lifeless. The track I recorded through the passive DI didn't fare much better. Instead of being muddy, the sound was bland and a little noisy. And while it wasn't exactly lifeless, it lacked the necessary character to really anchor a mix. The DB 900 track, thanks to the subtle compression introduced by the all-tube signal path, had punch, clarity, and warmth that sounded refreshingly natural.
While I was comparing, I ran a line from both the DB 900's hi-z and lo-z outputs directly into two adjacent channels on the Mackie and A/B'd them. I was pleased - but not surprised - to find the two signals were indistinguishable from each other.
Next, I ran my Strat® through the DB 900. Normally, I use the Recording output of a Mesa Boogie MkIV as my DI, and make no mistake: it sounds good - for three times the price of the DB 900! The sound of the DB 900 was different, but not in the sense of "better or worse." The Boogie tone had a bit more of an edge, where the DB 900 was a little warmer and rounder. Both tones are useful in the context of a mix, though for clean solo guitar I preferred the DB 900.
The last item on my list of things to try was a keyboard, and fate was on my side when one of my studio clients brought her Roland A-90 to a recording session. Normally, I take the output from her A-90 directly into the mixing board. This time, I took advantage of the opportunity and first ran the keyboard through the DB 900. The A-90 is a good sounding keyboard by itself, but adding a tube between the synth and the mixer added a natural quality to the tone that brought a whole new and improved dimension to the sound.
As I reviewed the DB 900, it became clear just how much difference this awesome tube DI can make. Bass sounds gain punch and presence; guitar tones ring out clear and true; and synth sounds are transformed from sterile to virile. This is as close to the proverbial magic box as it gets, and if you're serious about your sound, you will not regret buying this box.
What Other's Say
I'm not alone when it comes to heaping praise. Here's what others have to say about the Aguilar DB 900:
"The DB 900 exhibits all of the audiophile qualities one could hope for in a piece of pro-audio gear, delivering a clear, detailed, tightly-focused, and well-balanced sound from deep lows to airy highs." Electronic Musician, September 2001
"The warm, even sound was far superior to any DI box - tube or solid state - that I had tried before." ProAudio Review, May 2001
"...simply the best DI I have ever used." Canadian Musician, December 2000
"Everything I patched through its all-tube audio path sounded big and fat, while retaining clarity and a smooth tone." Keyboard Magazine, January 2001