Music First Audio Baby Reference passive preamplifier Page 2

I've also tried various so-called passive preamps—including those that use transformers. These are usually called transformer volume controls (TVC), or magnetic passive preamplifiers. Generally speaking, they use an auto-transformer designed so that the user can tap in to different sections of its windings via a switch. As each section is engaged, the voltage level swings up or down, as does the output impedance.

There are several advantages to this. A transformer acts to isolate your power amp from whatever radio-frequency interference (RFI) your source components are trying to send it. Also, compared to a simple, conventional, less-expensive potentiometer, a transformer passes along more of the incoming voltage from those source components. Less power is lost.

A key point is that a passive preamp's output impedance drops the more you attenuate the signal, which means that the sound actually improves at lower volume settings. This has a very practical benefit: You don't have to crank up the volume to get more detail and better dynamics.

Of all the TVCs or magnetic preamps I've tried, the one I've liked best, until now, has been Music First Audio's Classic Magnetic Preamplifier, now the Classic v2. I reviewed the original in the January 2006 Stereophile, Vol.29 No.1, and the v2 this June, after Mike Glicksman, of distributor High Value AV, sent me his demo sample—which, of course, I returned right away.

And right away, I missed it.

I e-mailed Harry O'Sullivan, at Stevens and Billington, parent company of Music First Audio, in Hastings, East Sussex, site of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. I was all set to order my own Classic v2.

Harry suggested I might like to bespeak the Baby Reference instead. This was not a trivial decision. Music First prices its products in pounds sterling. The Classic v2 is £2200, while the Baby Reference is £5000 (respectively, $2500 and $7800 at time of writing). There are various options available; each unit ordered from the factory is built to order.

If ordering direct from the factory, you wire funds from your bank (footnote 2). Prices include DHL air shipping, but not customs duty or VAT. Each unit comes in a sturdy aluminum flight case of the type photographers use for expensive cameras. Keep this in the event the unit must be shipped back (only for updates, presumably).

The Baby Reference comes with a black, clear anodized, blue, or red faceplate (I chose red). Standard fittings include two balanced XLR inputs, four unbalanced RCA inputs, and one pair each of balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs. (Customers can order different configurations, such as three balanced XLR inputs and three unbalanced RCA inputs.) This preamp converts single-ended sources to balanced when you use the XLR outputs.

You could do as I originally set out to do: Buy a Classic v2 for less than half the price of the Baby Reference. But the Baby Reference is easily worth more than twice the money, even if its sound is maybe only a tad better. Where preamps are concerned, a little means a lot. Anyway, it's easy for me to wire your pounds sterling.

Manufacturers of conventional preamps like to say that a preamp can make your system come to life, allowing all your other gear, especially your source components, to perform at their best, blah blah blah. The converse is also true: No other component can screw up a system as a conventional preamp can, robbing resolution, imparting electronic grunge, wreaking havoc with instrumental timbres.

Enough shit already—I'm turning 70 and am finally going to say it flat out: I don't like preamps. All those bloody power supplies. Tubes. Switches. Features. Displays. Remotes.

The Baby Reference pushed me over the edge. It's the best preamp I've had in my system, probably because (snort, snort from JA in Brooklyn) it's not a preamp at all.

The Baby Reference is 9.75" (250mm) wide by 3.4" (88mm) high by 10.1" (260mm) deep—slightly larger than the Classic v2. Figure a wait time of at least two weeks after you wire your money, possibly longer. It works best with trick cables, and a power cord that costs at least $1000. You can ask some other Stereophile writers for recommendations. The Baby Reference works with all mains voltages, from 100V to 240V.

Got you, didn't I? You don't need a power cord. You can't plug it in. The Baby Reference uses no electricity. So you need no power-line conditioner, either. You need not feed it tubes—a constant hassle with certain active line stages, especially those that require twitchy 6922 tubes, aka ECC88 or 6DJ8. NOS, schmoss.

No electricity. (I'll take up that matter soon.) Batteries. If I could wind up my CD player and play discs mechanically, I would. Nearest thing: a transformer volume control (TVC), or magnetic preamp, as Music First calls it. A magnetic preamp puts a passive barrier between your active components and your power amp. It's as if the signal coming into your power amp has been liberated from the mains. You can only imagine what this does for digital grunge—or analog grunge. It's as if the only component plugged in to the power grid is your power amp. This is true of all transformer preamps I have tried.

A TVC or passive magnetic preamp is the best of all suppressors of noise and passers-along of music. This is what Al Gore calls "an inconvenient truth"—inconvenient for those who make and sell preamps. Not only that, a transformer preamp seems to lessen the need for exotic and outrageously expensive interconnects. I'm not sure about this, but I think it's so.

But how would I know, if I haven't tried any outrageously expensive interconnects—or outrageously expensive conventional preamps, for that matter? I haven't, so I don't. If I did know, how would you know that I knew? Socrates said he knew nothing.

"The Classic was our original product," Jonathan Billington explained in an e-mail. "In the five years since its launch we found ways we could improve performance, but only if we ignored the usual constraints of manufacturing—ie, time and cost. The result was the TX102 Mk.IV transformer used in the Baby Reference."

Jonathan said that this transformer's core is 25% larger than the one used in the original Classic. "The transformer is a labyrinth of layers of winding wire and paper, using a construction so complex that it pushes towards the limits of manufacturing possibilities. It is a significantly more complicated device to make than the original. As with our Classic Preamplifier, there are 23 separate taps for a total of 24 discrete volume steps, including mute."

Unlike the Classic, the Baby Reference deletes the +6dB gain switch. Harry O'Sullivan explained that most customers weren't using it. Deleting a switch removes a part from the signal path. "In practice," Harry told me, "the gain feature only applies to the top part of the scale, where 0dB becomes 6dB of gain, –2dB becomes +4dB, and –6dB is 0dB. After that, there's no real benefit [to engaging the +6dB switch]."

The Music First preamps—all the ones I've heard—do not "squash" the signals, as purely passive devices sometimes can. Surprisingly, they appear to do the opposite, expanding dynamics of the macro sort while sorting out those of the micro kind. While allowing bass performance from hell, if your power amp(s) allow. My Musical Fidelity M6PRX did.

Alas, I didn't have the Classic v2 and Baby Reference both on hand for a side-by-side comparison. More than a month passed between the Classic's exit and Baby's arrival.

Sound Quality
I used my Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista DAC. Power amps were my Quicksilver Silver 88 tubed monoblocks and newly acquired Musical Fidelity M6PRX solid-state stereo power amp. Speakers were my Triangle Comète Anniversaires and the visiting Penaudio Cenyas. I used balanced interconnects into the Musical Fidelity M6PRX—a trusty pair of Hero XLRs from Kimber Kable—and Audio Art interconnects and cables elsewhere.

I was prepared to hear an incremental improvement over the Classic v2, but nothing dramatic. I didn't expect to be blown away, or to have my preamp conundrum of 25 years decisively solved.

But I was. And it was.

Like a great active preamp, the Baby Reference made its presence felt. It was unmistakably there. Smooth, sweet, extended—pick your superlatives. Brass had real bite. Transients were rendered with extraordinary speed and crystalline clarity. Bass was from the depths—from a passive preamp.

The Baby Reference lacks every feature imaginable. No balance control. No mono switch. Has Sam gone mad? Has he finally lost all his marbles, as the British like to say?

Just for fun, I tried analog. I used my Musical Fidelity M1 turntable with Ortofon Kontrapunkt B cartridge into an AcousTech PH-1 phono stage (designed by Ron Sutherland). All digital sources were turned off. So were all computers, cell phones, and WiFi. We live in the middle of the woods. I rampaged through my collection of jazz LPs. I kept right on listening. Dynamics were phenomenal. I had the feeling that all the sound from the grooves was getting through, that the analog signal was being pristinely preserved.

I had plenty of gain. It's possible that you might encounter "gain issues" in the rest of your system. If you listen loud in a big room to low-sensitivity speakers, you might want to audition the Baby Reference before you buy. Alas, this is difficult. Solutions might be to borrow a friend's passive preamp or to buy an inexpensive model, such as a George Hi-Fi Lightspeed Attenuator (see my review in the February 2010 issue, Vol.33 No.2). And Music First Audio sometimes exhibits at shows, including here in North America.

If you're intrigued and you have the money, just buy one. I have not heard a better preamp, and I've been looking for more than 30 years. If you have gain issues, solve them by dumping your low-sensitivity speakers. Take up nearfield listening in a smaller room.



Footnote 2: Most bank branches are staffed by underpaid idiots who have no idea how to do this, or even what you want. You need to find the person at your nearest big-city branch who daily does this for businesses. Do not expect a favorable exchange rate.
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