George Shilling reviews
Universal Audio 2-LA-2
UA have been at it again. Previously, the 2-1176 packed a pair of mono 1176s into the space usually occupied by just one of them. And UA have performed another magician’s trick with the LA-2A. This might seem even more impressive – packing 6U of circuitry into 2U. However, if you’ve ever peered round the back of an LA-2A you’ll know its case is extremely shallow, with just a few larger components sticking out of the rear. Perhaps even more impressive is the pricing – roughly just 25% more than a mono reissue LA-2A.
The original LA-2A “Levelling Amplifier” was introduced in the early 1960’s. It was designed not by Bill Putnam, but by Jim Lawrence of Teletronix in Pasadena, California, before eventually being acquired by Bill Putnam’s company in 1967, which then became UREI. They stopped making originals in 1969, but when Putnam’s sons formed the new Universal Audio company, the LA-2A was one of their first reissues. Perhaps one might have expected the launch of the 2-LA-2 sooner, but it has been lovingly fashioned by original UREI engineer Dennis Fink, who was presumably busy beforehand getting the LA-3A reissue in order. A hold-up occurred with a planned extra Fast/Slow switch to incorporate an optional Fast mode, using another pair of T4 optical cells.
Despite promo photos of units with the extra switches, and a movie including this feature on the DVD that came in the box, the final product omits this feature due to difficulty in obtaining the necessary components from the supplier. I found that the spaces for the extra T4 and tube components were still present on the circuit board, so perhaps an upgrade or mod might be available one day.
Build quality is as high as one expects from this manufacturer. On the rear are quality XLRs for the two inputs and outputs, plus an IEC socket – some internal re-plugging and an alternative fuse is required for operation at 110V.
On the front is a thick panel, on which are mounted are large vintage-style knobs for Gain (output) and Peak Reduction – these are undamped but seem perhaps just very slightly stiffer than those encountered on most mono LA-2As. A large power toggle is accompanied by a lovely old-fashioned purple light. Each channel includes a Limit/Compress toggle, and a toggle for the meter to switch between Gain Reduction and Output. Near the centre is a toggle for Dual/Link modes, and there is an overall Bypass toggle – something not included on original and reissue mono units. Bypass removes the gain reduction circuit, but leaves the valve amplification in circuit, so one can use the unit for a little extra gain and tube colouration. The etched faceplates look built to last. The VU meters glow in a nice aged looking yellow illumination, and although smaller than those found on LA-2As, are big enough - roughly the same width as those on an 1176, if a little shallower.
Cramming all the circuitry into 2U results in the first piece of advice printed on a separate alert sheet: “Your 2-LA-2 Gets Hot!!!” They are not joking, it does get fairly warm, and there are vents in several locations. So naturally, the recommendation is that one must leave 1U free above, and if possible 1U ventilation below; the space saving benefits are almost gone before we’ve started. But apart from space saving, there is the more immediate concern of cost saving. Yes, the circuitry layout is arranged differently from a mono LA-2A, but UA are at pains to point out that this is indeed the same circuitry and the same sound as an original unit. Furthermore, one can stereo link the channels here, so to that end the T4 optical modules are matched for a stable image.
I love LA-2As, they make fantastic general purpose compressors. With no attack or release adjustments, they are wonderfully quick to set up, and work particularly well with bass guitar, vocals, and anything you want tamed without drama. There is a masterful feel to the way they smooth a signal. Things really do seem bigger and warmer, grander and genuine, without any unnatural or fatiguing hype. The only drawback that might be levelled (doh!) at the LA-2A is its lack of ultra high frequency response – it tails off at around 15kHz. In practice, this is rarely a problem, but this rolloff is probably at least partially to blame for the ‘warming’ characteristic credited to the unit. But undoubtedly the compression character is warm – the two-stage release makes recovery relatively invisible, and the very fast attack time keeps most signals in check.
The 2-LA-2 seems to retain the character, size and depth of the sound of the LA-2A, and works as well as expected in all the usual situations. On first listen recording a cheap acoustic guitar with a U87 and my regular unofficial Neve clone mic preamp, the sound was instantly heartening – despite the instrument and player (me!) there was a grandeur to the sound that is rare with modern gear. It warmed bass guitar and tamed “dynamic” performances by lesser musicians. It soothes vocals effortlessly, and contains spiky guitars. But one of the main benefits of this unit is the possibility it gives of stereo linked operation. I was fascinated to try it as a mix buss compressor, and it didn’t disappoint. On a grand alternative rock epic, it was just fantastic, gloriously rich. It doesn’t work on everything, and I’m not sure if it was the slight top-end loss, or perhaps just the deficiencies of going through AD/DA, but on one mix I definitely preferred a couple of dB’s reduction from the UAD-1 Fairchild plugin rather than this box.
On a pop-rock track it really tamed some of the unintended digital hardness and unpleasantness and yet conversely seemed to increase the ‘juiciness’ and excitement. And generally, when compared to the UAD-1 LA-2A plugin, the hardware was markedly different, and far more pleasing to the ear. The compression is very more-ish, and with the needles bouncing beyond about -6dB gain reduction you start feeling like you are listening to the best sounding FM radio, hearing your favourite song – you just want to turn it up! Even when working hard, the 2-LA-2 still sounds luscious and remarkably undistorted.
You might need an aircon upgrade to cope with the extra heat, but the 2-LA-2 pours warmth into your music. This really is magic: two LA-2As in a box.
Pros: Sounds as good as two LA-2As for less money; Matched stereo linking
Cons: Gets hot and requires empty rack space above (and preferably below); Eliminates highest frequencies; No (promised) Fast mode
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