Whether you are podcasting with a Rode PodMic, Shure SM7B, or using a passive ribbon mic to capture delicate fingerpicking on a nylon-string guitar, a mic activator is the standard solution to boost a weak signal before it hits the mixing console.
The preamps of yore, that’s the 60s and 70s to be precise, were built to dish out 70 to 80 dB of gain boost without flinching. Fast forward to 2021 and the abundance of high-output capacitor mics has eliminated the demand for them.
Instead, we are left with a glut of entry-level to mid-market audio interfaces, mixers, and mic preamps that offer 50 to 60 dB of gain at best. People who use high-output condenser mics will neither notice nor squirm at this development as these microphones have sufficient gain to produce clean recordings, assuming phantom power is available.
Nevertheless, low output dynamic or ribbon microphone users will sift through forum threads looking for ways to add additional gain to counter low-level signals. This need then spawned a new, and rather recent, category of mic activators in the market.
Since we’ve already looked at the Cloud Microphone Cloudlifter in depth, it’s time to look at other commendable inline preamps and mic boosters. In this post, we’ll look at the pros and cons of four devices to help you find one that suits your needs and budget.
Cathedral Pipes Durham MKII
Cloudlifter CL-1 & CL-2
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The Best Mic Activators & Cloudlifter Alternatives
1. Triton Audio FetHead (Best Value)
After the CL-1, Triton Audio’s FetHead is undoubtedly the most popular low-noise, in-line preamp for dynamic and ribbon mics. Its claim to fame is its simplicity, small footprint, and modest price tag. It plugs directly into the mic, which makes it less obtrusive as it needs one less XLR cable.
The FetHead is made by Triton Audio, a pro audio gear company based in Holland. It is a two-click direct-to-mic booster with an all-metal chassis and a shielded enclosure. It features 4 low-noise Class A JFets and a balanced XLR input and output.
It improves performance in long cable runs and can act as a ‘surge protector’ for ribbon microphones, However, I recommend TA’s dedicated Phantom Blocker for that. One drawback, although subjective, is that the FetHead adds some weight to the mic as it sits on the end.
Performance-wise, it can add up to 27 dB of clean gain to low-impedance signals. FET-based designs have a reputation for sounding remarkably clean. The FetHead too has no issues with noise, assuming that the signal has clean gain at the primary level from the preamp.
The direct-to-mic design might bother content creators who find it visually unappealing for close up videos. That being said, it’s hardly an eyesore and smaller than you might expect.
I haven’t yet had the opportunity to A/B it against the CL-1, but in terms of price, the FetHead is much cheaper at half the cost of a CL-1. I doubt it sounds “half as good” especially considering the number of glowing reviews.
The Triton Audio FetHead is an economical, portable, and easy to use alternative to a Cloudlifter. It does exactly as advertised, and it does that as well, if not better, than the competition at a significantly lower price point. I highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t want to pay extra for bells and whistles and just needs to cleanly boost their mic signal.
I’ve referenced the regular FetHead for this post. However, Triton Audio also offers FetHead Filter that has an extra HPF feature and FetHead Phantom for condenser microphones.
2. sE Electronics Dynamite DM-1 (Highest Gain)
Dynamite DM-1’s ultra-slim design, sleek dimensions, and low-weight make it the most compact one channel booster in the segment. However, despite the size, it packs the biggest punch with +28 db of clean, transparent gain to boost low-output microphone signals.
The scarlet all-metal casing houses class-A FETs with gold-plated XLR connectors that yield a neutral and balanced sound. Being a direct-to-mic activator, the DM-1 plugs directly into the microphone thus eliminating the need for a second XLR cord.
Like the FetHead, this is a simple plug ‘n play device. Audio-wise, the performance is top-notch and the device does not add any noise or coloration. If you are looking for a unit to drive long cable runs, the DM-1 outperforms the competition with the ‘lowest in class’ output impedance.
It also features a dedicated buffer amp to give you a consistent +28 dB gain boost regardless of the connected load. Moreover, it does a great job at rejecting RF and electrical interference, which makes it desirable for on-location use.
sE Electronic Dynamite DM-1 is powerful, compact, and can comfortably handle low-output mics for podcasting and recording. Most mics don’t need the 28 dB of gain, and frankly, 20 dB works fine with an SM7B too. However, if you have mics that need extra gain, the DM-1 is a no-brainer.
3. Radial Engineering McBoost (Best Premium)
Radial McBoost is Canada’s rejoinder to Cloud Microphones’ CL-1. While every other inline mic preamp on this list poses as a ‘cheaper alternative’, McBoost defiantly vindicates its heftier price tag with a boatload of features for flexibility and control.
McBoost is rugged, compact, and almost twice as heavy as others on this list. It features an all-steel case with powder coating that is clearly built to last a lifetime. It also features hand-matched transistors and dual FET class-A circuits for optimal performance.
The no-slip pad on the under panel and book-ends on the casing are clever additions to protect the unit and switches. Overall, the high-quality components and engineering finesse are impressive yet predictable, given Radial’s outstanding reputation.
McBoost provides 26 dB of ‘variable clean gain’, which means it has a rotary knob on the front panel to set the level of gain between 100%, 50%, or variable. The circuit and electrical isolation ensure that it does not add any noise or tone color i.e. transparent operation.
It is the most feature-rich option among this selection. It has a switch to toggle between three high pass settings to tackle proximity build-up and pesky rumble. Moreover, a second switch allows you to toggle between three input impedance options: 600, 2.7 K, and 30 k Ohms.
While you can argue the need for it in the studio, there is no doubt that the output impedance of 220 Ohms outperforms the Cloudlifter’s 3 k output by a significant margin.
The McBoost is particularly suited to people with advanced setups or anyone who wants a multi-faceted alternative to a Cloudlifter.
4. Cathedral Pipes Durham MKII
Based in California, Cathedral Pipes is known for making wicked hand-built tube mics, ribbon mics, and old school microphone preamps. Durham is a serious competitor to the Cloudlifter CL-1 even though it is often called the ‘hurtin’ for cash’ version. Frankly, that’s a tenuous way to look at it.
Durham MKII is made in America. It’s a rock-solid unit featuring an all-steel chassis with a powder-coated finish for longevity. It features Neutrik connectors and low noise dual surface mount transistors.
Cathedral Pipes have adopted the built-in circuit from “Seville” – one of their bestselling active ribbon microphones – to create the Durham MKII. That ought to vouch for the fact that it has enough juice for ribbon mics.
Durham is a no-frills mic activator. You simply plug it in and claim your hassle-free +20 dB of clean gain. Compared to the CL-1, it falls 5 dB short, but the price is a lot lower too. In every other aspect, it is comparable to the CL-1.
It doesn’t add any color and the gain boost on dynamic or ribbon microphones doesn’t have any noticeable noise. The transparent gain and improved impedance loading are ideal for studio use or podcasting with low-output microphones.
The Durham MKII has a small footprint and is a more affordable alternative to CL-1. If 20 dB is enough gain for your needs, it has an excellent value-to-cost ratio and high-quality gain to offer.
P.S. These devices are hand-built so they can be out of stock on occasion.
Ultimately, I omitted them because they are not quite as popular or are much of the same. The only exception to this is the Royer dBooster, which is a pricey but top-shelf unit. That said, it’s safe to say assume we’ve covered every mic booster worth contemplating in 2021.
I’ve spent a fat minute researching the inline preamps recently to find the best mic booster for my podcasting setup. I settled for the Cloudlifter CL-Z even though I would have done fine with a FetHead.
Then again, if making wise financial decisions was my forte, I probably wouldn’t be a musician in the first place.