Music First Audio Stevens & Billington Limited preamp

01.12.2011..

I want to start the test of the Music First Audio Stevens & Billington Limited passive magnetic preamplifier, by addressing to the less crafty audio enthusiasts. Why? Because the connoisseurs already know what a passive magnetic preamplifier is and because I wish to deal with the topic of magnetic preamplifiers in the simplest way. In fact, it is not easy to find these machines at the common hi-fi dealers.

Let us make some history.

Everything began when the analogue was considered the sole musical source. At that time, the preamplifier was indispensable since the electric levels at stake were very poor, sometimes no more than 0.1 mV (millivolt) and even 5 mV for the MM cartridges. Those levels were, or rather are, the electrical levels generated by a small electromagnetic group like the one present in the pick-ups. Clearly, this feeble electric level needs to be adequately upraised by an appropriate gain chain (see Mardis’ review about gains here).

Whit the coming of the digital, things have changed: CD players and converters have electrical output levels up to 3.2 V, like the Audio Note DAC5. So why do we need a preamplifier? And if we need it, are we sure that this is a good thing? The preamplifier forces the audio signal to take a longer path by crossing gain and attenuation devices, therefore causing its subsequent degradation.

Many people thought that was necessary, at that moment, to connect the digital source directly to the power amp. Moreover, some CD players have an internal volume control, even digital, and do not need a harmful attenuator potentiometer.

Eventually they realised that things were not like that, and the chances to obtain a good match CD player/power amp were very few considering the difficult electrical interface and the impedances at stake. This last issue is so interesting and important that we will deepen it in a future article on ReMusic.

This is the reason why I address myself to the youngest audiophiles, in order to get them curious about some aspects of the passive preamps, which seem to come back into fashion and could improve the sound of a system that uses, as a source, a computer.

Well, let us start then.

First of all, a passive pre amplifier does not require any electric supply. Therefore, the signal has no electronic transformation, except in terms of resistance and induction.

The passive preamplifier offers, to the audio signals coming from the sources, the possibility of being selected in different inputs or of being attenuated through the potentiometer. Hence, a very simple and functional machine that pays serious attention to the quality of the single component present along the signal path: the potentiometer.

The passive preamps can also be of a magnetic type: that means that they have inside one or more transformers crossed by the audio signal. At this point, it should be useful to set apart the typology of the attenuator and the characteristics of the transformers, but we will be develop also this topic in the technical review I was saying above. Is that ok?

Now, the most important thing is to underline the fact that, as happens with the other components of the audio chain, the passive preamp could be unable to interface electronically in a correct way. Consequently it could give the impression of not being a good product whether inserted tout court in the audio system.

After this long but necessary introduction, let us talk about our Music First Stevens & Billington Limited: a passive magnetic preamplifier that has balanced inputs and outputs together with XLR and RCA connections. The Music First has received several awards by the International press and got positive outcomes from the web magazines, although with reference to the previous version without balanced connections.

The two millimetres aluminium cabinet is ordinary. The two front knobs handle the six inputs, four RCA and two XLR, and the volume with a twenty-eight clicks progression, “mute” included. In the rear, even if passive, we find the input for the external 12 V supply, which feeds a service external led and the bulk engine of the potentiometer. The Music First has a small and plastic remote control dedicated to the volume setting only. There is no remote control to select the inputs. Very cleverly, the connections are split both for the balanced and unbalanced mode, so to have a bi-amplified system. There are also two tumbler switches: one to select the balanced or unbalanced circuitry, the other to choose between two gains +6dB or 0dB in order to adapt to the sensitivity of the power amps.

The Music First inside is quite messy with an impressive tangle of silver coated, enamel, point-to-point wired and copper wires that are put together perfunctorily with plastic straps.

Actually, it does not offer a good impression and I wonder why the spaces have not been rationalized in a better way. Anyway, I recover soon by watching a pair of TX102 MKII volume control transformers (TVC): two high quality, hand wound, housed in a Mu-metal shielding transformer made by Stevens & Billington. Excellent are the attenuators with 28 sections. Great quality also in the two ELNA jerkily components and in the bulk engine of the potentiometer. There is also a small electric board to control the potentiometer engine and the service led.

Reassembled all the pieces together, I am ready to start.

I want to stress the fact that this Music First requires a long run-in and that is something that has puzzled me, because I could not see any electric circuitry nor components. Maybe the transformers need to break-in before giving their best. I tell that just to prepare you to a quite disappointing first listening: a gummy, dark and shut-in sound. So, run it in at least for a fortnight!

I started the test by inserting the Music First in my transistor audio chain: DIY CD player, preamp and loudspeakers, AM Audio B80 mono power amps, DIY silver signal cables, White Gold and Systems and Magic Pearl mains and speaker cables.

I selected the Music First gain at +6 dB considering the 1V sensitivity of my class A transistor monoblocks.

If it is true that every electronic circuitry introduces some noise and colouring, then you need to get used to a sound that is without any noise and coloration. I warn you: it is not going to be easy! The listening sensation is completely new and could turn into a shock. I mean, the impact could be pleasant or not. Hence, a completely new sound with a different volume usage. Turn the volume to thirteen hours and do not be afraid to turn it louder than ever. You can notice that the sound won't reach your face as happened before, but everything occur behind your shoulders with a three-dimensional image that will break down the wall in front of you! The sound has totally changed and maybe you will have the impression of a lack in detail, but it is not like that! What happens is a changing in the frequencies spectrum. Everything seems to be linearized. The bass range is deeper and controlled, the medium is perfectly amalgamated and clean, the high fresh and real. Focus yourselves on a very topic parameter of the sound: the tone of voices and instruments. The tone is what allows you to recognise the nature of the sound, what makes the distinction among instruments, and voices. If the tone is better in the recording of a female voice, higher will be the sensation that this is real and natural. The same happens with the musical instruments. Everything will be more real, less unnaturally enlightened, more harmonic and involving. The absence of the noise floor is something you will realize only when you connect your active preamplifier to your system. In this case, you have to focus on the existence and on the difference of the harmonic qualities. Pump up the volume and you cannot speak with anyone any longer. You have to yell. I am sure that everything has changed and if the Music First inserted in your system gives back something that you like, well, you cannot turn back anymore.

Your favourite music will have a boost of naturalness, harmonic built-up and tone. The image will be wide in all the three dimensions giving back an enjoyable and engrossing soundstage, regardless of the musical choice. I suggest you to spend some time with the Music First or any other magnetic passive preamplifier. You will find new listening sensations that have to mature in your soul and in the way you listen to the reproduced music. While you are waiting for our in-depth review, I suggest reading more on the electrical interface.

The Music First Audio Stevens & Billington Limited is a hi-fi object that can turn into a funny and upsetting toy. As I said in the beginning, also the transformer passive preamp has its own idiosyncrasies. One of this is the sensitiveness of the matched power amp. I think that the Music First loves high sensitiveness power amps, which have a low input voltage, mostly tube amps and, besides, it loves capacitive signal cables like Audio Tekne ARA 250 or ARA 500. I have connected it to my Audio Innovation 500 and to the Trafomatic Experience Two which I have used as power amps using one input of these integrated amps and the results have been very interesting. Another interesting game is to insert the Music First between the preamp and the power amp instead of substituting the preamp. You have only to connect the signal coming from your usual preamp to a line input of the Music First and connect the power amp to the outputs.

Ah, great!

Furthermore, do not get stunned if the analogue and digital signals have different sonic qualities. I remind you that the different impedances could adapt themselves differently.

If our passion is serious it is also true that it can be a beautiful game and the Music First, even if very expensive like all the magnetic preamps, is a magnificent toy to have a great fun with. You have also to consider that the quality of a magnetic passive preamp is directly proportional to the quality of the transformer and transformers of good quality are quite expensive. Well, of course, there are less expensive magnetic passive preamps and more expensive magnetic passive preamps than the Music First: what counts is that you generally obtain a sound commensurate to your purchase.

 

SCHEME SUMMARY

top score ***** ReMusic Sparks

Tone colour ***** | Extremely correct in all frequency ranges.

Dynamics **** | Very realistic, attacks and releases fast and controlled. Wide dynamic range.

Detail **** | Very natural with rich side harmonic built-up.

Clearness **** | Great level thanks to a very low noise floor.

Image ***** | Wide and three-dimensional.

Rise time *** ½ | Fast and realistic transients.

Manufacture *** | The inside to be improvable. Of good level and pleasant the external look.

Price/quality ratio *** | Adequate for its category.

 

Official technical specifications:

Inputs: 4 x RCA unbalanced, 2 x XLR balanced

Outputs: 2 x RCA, 2 x XLR

Internal connections: all internal connections use 0.6mm silver coated solid core copper wire with PTFE insulation, point to point hand wired, silver version features 99.99% pure silver winding an internal wiring

Connectors: Neutrik XLR and Swiss made ELMA silver contact rotary switches

 

A +6db switch means the unit is passive with gain, so low gain amplifiers can be driven to their maximum efficiency by components that otherwise might require active boosting.

 

Official Italian dealer: to Audio Point Italia website

Official current price in Italy: 4,300.00 EUR

Associated equipment: to Roberto "The Rock" Rocchi's system

by Roberto Rocchi
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