Extensive compressor reviews and FAQ

dbx 160A: This one is an "industry standard", one of the units most widely used in professional PA racks. It's a one-channel, one-rack-space unit. It operates only at line level, it will not work well with your guitar/bass plugged straight in.
 
Controls include threshold, ratio, output level, and a button to toggle between hard-knee and soft-knee operation. Hard knee means the ratio you set is applied as soon as the signal crosses the threshold. Soft knee means the stronger your signal peaks, the higher the ratio that's applied in response. The ratio progresses smoothly from 1:1, to higher, and higher again up to the maximum you set with the knob; and it follows this progression across a range of your input signal levels, rather than just crossing a specific threshold. The controls are quite easy to use, while still offering a decent range of comp action. The fixed attack may be too slow for hard peak limiting.
 
To my ears, honestly, it sounds a lot like the older/cheaper 163X. The noise level is low, and the compression is quite smooth and free of unpleasant artifacts. It's got a very punchy action, great for rock and any sort of high-energy music. But during heavy compression the lowest lows and the high end can sound choked or even rolled off. This "swallowing" of the highs is common to all dbx models. Some other models like the old 160XT have fuller-sounding low end, just due to their response to big peaks. See this article for an explanation of dbx's product-numbering system.
 
The bypass button is not a "true bypass", but it sounds clean and has no problems. There is also a button marked "slave", which goes with a jack on the back marked "link"; these allow you to make a stereo pair with another 160A, where the knobs of one control the functions of the other. It also has a jack labeled "detector input", which is for sidechain control. There is a wide row of LEDs for monitoring both the input level and the amount of compression, which helps make up for the simplicity of the controls.
 
I can totally understand why this model is so widely used: it sounds good enough for general purposes, it's built tough, and even a monkey could find decent settings on it. I would recommend it to anybody who wants a rackmount that is very simple, clean, and reliable. But the flip side is that it's not as versatile as many other rack comps, and it doesn't sound great when it has to squeeze the signal very strongly.
 
Price in USD: new $430, used $150-$260
 
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