DI boxes are a mysterious type of gear with a lot of mythology and seemingly misguided information around them. Doing live sound a lot you often hear things like “All DIs sound the same but I buy Countryman so I can drive over it with a truck and it will still works like this here SM58”
Others swear by the far superior sound quality of more expensive DIs. So, that brings the question then (especially as this is Gearshoot), is it really such a exponential curve of quality vs price or do we start dealing with the ‘law of’ diminishing returns.
So let’s find out...
This is a test of nine of the DIs we currently have sampled into Gearshoot, so it will give you a good understanding of how much, or little DIs can differ. We do understand we have a limited number of DIs currently on our site (including some industry favourites - so if you have any recommendations or there are any bits of gear you want added contact us directly and let us know!). We’ll track them down, and add them as we get time amongst sampling in the huge range of everything else audio. Remember that you can add in other DIs into the shootout as we get them into the Gearshoot library, so feel free to add in any others available as they appear.
In this test we have a mixture of active and passive DIs from a few different brands ranging from ~US$25 to ~US$200. We have also chosen to pass an entire song through them for the test as this allows us to compare the entire frequency spectrum in one go.
The DIs we are going to compare in this test are:
BSS AR 133
Countryman Type 10
Countryman Type 85
In this test to really show off the characteristics that these DIs have we have gone with a 5 pass iterative approach to testing.
Essentially the samples you are listening too have passed through these units 5 times for a more obvious amount of improvement/degradation of signal! There are a number of reasons that we chose to do this. For one, as you will hear, there is, unsurprisingly not a great deal of difference between some of these units on a single pass of a signal. Feeding the signal back through the unit multiple times effectively amplifies up any characteristics of a particular DI and also makes it much easier to spot differences, especially for those of you working on monitoring systems that don’t cost more than a nice car. Of course by the fact that we are capturing the signal each pass and then re-sending it out to be captured again we are introducing an aspect of the converter passes (and iterative degradation). However, there are a number of reasons that this isn’t really a concern to the experiment, primarily as we are using the same converters for all of these DI units the converter factor is a form of constant (so that aspect is standardised across all tests). You’ll notice, if you put the time to listen to the shootouts that the difference between DIs is also much more than the difference between converters and converter aspect could be considered effectively close to or below the ‘noise floor’ of what the DIs are affecting.
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What we think -
Let’s start with the Behringer DI20 because it is the cheapest of the bunch. Hardly surprising to hear that this unit does degrade the sound - and quite a lot. It definitely sounds appropriate to its price range. The stereo field sounds greatly reduced and it is crunching up a fair amount - although at least it is not crunching up in an overly harsh area, and seems more confined to the low mids. Also with the DI20 there is a very noticeable top end roll off. This is still very present even in the single pass test. In saying that though - Yes it is still a DI and yes it does have a ground lift and does work. They definitely do not sound pleasant but if you need a DI for that price. That is your DI for that price.
Let’s say we wanted to splash out a bit more on a DI. We jump up to the Behringer DI 600.
HOORAY THE LACK OF STEREO FIELD AND CRUNCHING IS GONE. Well worth the step up in price. Far cleaner and better than its super cheap counterpart - and at almost double the cost for a single channel of DI you would hope so. We will also say that the build quality on these is a big step up from the DI20. The DI 600 still does have a level of distortion and when listening in comparison to the unprocessed loop however, it does sound a bit darker and has a top end roll off.
Now onto the BSS AR 133. A favorite design of DI - so easily recognised (see the photo)
Lets hope it sounds as cool as it looks. This is a very clean sounding DI that does not impart many characteristics onto the signal. Probably due to a very clean choice of transformer. This DI does have a slight warming mid push. Kind of like a very wide Q EQ Boost. Listen to how the hihats chang compared to the unprocessed sample - more 2.5kHz crunchiness.
The Countryman Type 10 is very clean - much like the BSS but without the slight mid push. Comparatively the Countryman Type 85 is actually a slight bit of a colourful DI - in a very nice way. We’re a big fan of their transformer choice here. Listen to the width in the side signals of these and how it changes some of the placing of the instrumentation because of this width. It gives wide hihats and a smooth top end. You could probably even consider using this DI as a line amp just for the transformers enhancements.
The dbx DB10 and dbx DB12 are again the very open type of DI with good top end - similar to the Proco and BSS. The DB12 has a slight lower mid range push compared to the DB10 and the dbx DJdi. The DJdi seems to have slightly less width, and is less clarity (e.g. on the snare) but it is subtle.
The Proco DB1 sounds very very similar to the BSS AR 133. Listening back and forth between those two the BSS has ever so slightly more of a mid push - listen to the vocals and the slight change there. The Proco has some of the best top end retention out of the DIs we’ve tested.
Radial are a company that have become revered in the forums for their DIs, so it is nice to have one to test. The Radial JDI is very similar sounding to the Countryman Type 85 with a bit of roll off in the top end. It’s a nice warm sounding DI with a solid low end and bit of character to it. Ever so slightly warmer and wider than the Countryman Type 85
So as a general summary the higher end DIs from this could almost be placed into two groups -
Cleaner and wider with more top end: DBX - Proco - BSS
Warmer and more coloured or characterful: Radial - Countryman
This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the others, but each has its characteristics that could be used for different purposes
Maybe if you were tracking Bass you would jump onto a Countryman or Radial, and if you were mixing backing tracks for live you would use a cleaner alternative. Again, on the single passes there is much less difference, and in a live setting we doubt you would hear the differences on the PA at a venue.
All the DIs have similar features or near enough (check links below for the manufacturers websites). And we do find, that from shooting out these DIs - Paying more does get you a better build quality and an increase in quality that it is at least useful to be aware of in those situations where it would be important.
Handy Links - Check out all the links to the gear below
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Extra info for those interested in how we make our calls on what stuff sounds like -
Listening tests and assumptions are determined, double checked or signed off at Gearshoot HQ on ATC110ASL Pro monitors. We reckon that they give us a pretty good chance at getting it pretty well in the ballpark of what it is going to sound like on most other people’s monitors. We also headphone check on Extreme Isolation EX-29’s to hear what is going on in that spectrum and to hear what the world of headphones can show us.
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