California luthier and pickup guru
Carey Nordstrand is a smart and thoughtful guy.
The relevance of this personal assessment to this
review is purely that readers might need a little extra
push to get interested in an onboard preamp. It’s
a saturated market, there are only so many ways
to skin a cat, and many of us with active basses
are at peace with what’s already in there. Yet the
ability to quickly upgrade an instrument’s sound
is too tempting a proposition to ignore the huge
benefits that aftermarket preamps offer to the
intrepid. Plus, I’ve long been a fan of Nordstrand’s
handsome, sweet-sounding instruments and innovative
pickups, so he’s earned a ton of credibility
when it comes to tone.
Nordstrand says that when he finally sat down
to design his preamp, he kept returning to the
fabled Sadowsky Guitars design as inspiration, especially
digging its well-voiced frequency centers. But
Nordstrand wanted a little less available gain on
the EQ, plus the ability to cut as well as boost (the
Sadowsky onboard is a boost-only affair). After much
trial and a significant amount of error, the informally
trained Nordstrand emerged with his basic
design. It uses operational amplifiers (op amps)
for gain and EQ voicing, can provide an additional
10dB of gain courtesy of a trim-pot, and can be run
on 18 volts, for improved headroom.
I was fortunate to have an excellent platform for
the 2b, one that could potentially exhibit the benefits
of an electronics upgrade: an Ibanez Soundgear
SR506 that I bought from fellow BP editor Elton
Bradman for $200, which was my upper limit on
6-string expenditure, given I never play it out but
always have a good time when one’s around. It also
felt like it was yearning to be a good-sounding bass, with its mahogany body, five-piece neck, and overall
remarkably luxurious vibe. But, the stock Bartolini
MK1 system was doing it no favors, so in went the
2b and a pair of Nordstrand’s Dual-Coil pickups.
The installation was relatively painless, although
more thorough instructions that account for a variety
of configurations wouldn’t hurt. I had a bit of
a tough time finding a spot in the Ibanez’ tight
control cavity to mount the circuit board without
the risk of conductive parts touching some other
exposed piece of metal, like the backs of the pots.
(This challenge will soon be moot, however, as
Nordstrand is working on a surface-mounted, epoxy-potted
version that would isolate the circuit from
any undue contact.)
Once I got around to finishing my upgrade and
plugged in the bass for the first time, I was genuinely
excited, expecting a Lazarus-like moment—the
miraculous rehabilitation of a previously anemic bass.
And in what is likely an uncommon occurrence, my
expectation of life after death completely bore out!
The bass sounded incalculably better than before.
While I know the inclusion of the Nordstrand pickups
is a substantial part of the transformation (and
also a reason why this test wasn’t entirely scientific),
the preamp undoubtedly played a large role.
I loved the mellow character of its EQ—it proved
musical and genuinely useful for adding a touch of
beef or cutting off a slice of sizzle. As ever, I was
also stoked that Nordstrand offers a configuration
with a passive tone control.
The 2b is a stellar performer; it’s clearly the
result of a smart guy doing great work. Mated with
Nordstrand’s awesome pickups, the 2b did what
good preamps should do: It adds a little extra
flexibility over a passive design, and it’s not so
colorful that the bass ends up sounding like the
preamp. Rather, it’s the other way around.
Nordstrand 2b Preamp
Street Starts at approx. $166, goes up
depending on configuration
Pros Excellent tone; thoughtfully designed
Cons Instructions could be a smidge
Bottom Line A fantastic preamp that
would represent an upgrade to many
Design Op-amp-based onboard preamp
Configuration Volume, bass, treble, blend,
tone (as tested)
Frequency centers Bass, ±12dB @ 50Hz;
treble, ±12dB @ 4kHz
Power 9–18 volts
Made in U.S.A.