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 EQ voicing
Cons Instructions could be a smidge clearer
Bottom Line A fantastic preamp that would represent an upgrade to many active basses.
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.