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Offline Pete_w  
#1 Posted : 15 August 2016 17:15:19(UTC)
Pete_w


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I don't think I've mentioned the Baby Reference, so....

It was probably about 18 months ago, after a bout of upgrade-itis that saw our old home-made power amps - which were starting to physically fail - replaced by some commercial monoblocks, that we realised that our pre-amp was probably the weak link in our system. We'd had some cash from a legacy which was ear-marked for hifi, so a replacement was possible.

Like most audiophiles, I'd experimented in the past with passive pre-amps; my experiments with the resistive variety ultimately ending with a home-built arrangement with rather more Vishay bulk-foils than would comfortably fit around the host switch. Sonically, it embodied all the cliches of resistive passives - the good and the bad - but I think that, ultimately, what it *did* do was good enough to put us off any sort of electronic pre-amp for life. We were hooked on passives, we just wanted some sort of dynamics and drive...

So when Jonathan Billington first produced his MFA pre-amp, perhaps 10 years ago, and Andrew Harrison gave it rave reviews in the press, we bought one. It was a revelation - everything we liked in a passive, but with timing and clout too. Oh, and it was in a neat box, not a series of switches and resistors attached to a plywood construction; that had a certain domestic appeal too.

So, 9 years on, was it time for an upgrade? Balanced operation was a necessity, as was Remote Control. 10 years older, a larger living room, and a habit of watching movies using the hifi for the sound pretty much necessitated a remote.

Jon B was kind enough to supply a Baby Reference on Sale or Return. Almost new, straight from the courier, chilled to its bones, it was clear that this was something special. It delivered a somewhat bright and spotlit, but very tactile, rendition of a solo piano. Fantastic. So piano as recorded by Tony Faulkner was great, but subsequent listening revealed it was too bright for most rock, and timing was iffy to say the least. So, let the running-in commence... Jonathan suggests that 100 hours should do the trick. It was a lot, lot, longer than that. 3-4 months at least. But anyway, I get ahead of myself...

I chatted to Martin at Whittlebury last year, and he suggested that he - perhaps marginally - preferred his Townsend Allegri on raw sound quality grounds. But of course it's single-ended and with no remote. So I chatted to Max, he said it was the sort of thing he was thinking of doing anyway, so would I listen to a lash-up? I agreed, but sadly nothing ultimately came of it.

We thought we'd better brave our wiring system and plug the remote control in (it's a separate PSU) and, oh dear, that wasn't helpful. The sound quality, which up til that point had been slowly improving, fell to pieces. The SMPS PSU simply provides 12V for an Elma Stepper Motor remote kit, so in theory it isn't connected to the audio at all. Apparently no-one else has complained about this, so either we happened to have a broken (ie very noisy) PSU, or everyone else is deaf :-). Anyway, all credit to Jonathan, he took the problem seriously and - eventually - a dedicated 12V linear PSU was supplied and all is eventually well.

So, anyway, we got to the end of the sale-or-return month, and - with Jonathan's promise that he would eventually fix the remote PSU problem - had to make a decision. It wasn't easy, it was still a bit bright and timing was still not quite right. So I should have sent it back. However, I stumbled across some emails that I'd sent to a friend 10 years ago when running in our original passive pre, and a lot of what I wrote then still seemed to be true of this new one - tight and bright - and I knew that, eventually, the old one had settled down. So, we took the expensive gamble, more or less on faith, that the brightness and timing would settle. Detail was there aplenty from day 1, it was the "organic coherent whole" that was missing.

The organic coherence finally started to put in an appearance around Christmas, so that was perhaps 5 months from the original arrival. That's the sort of run-in period that Naim would be proud of! It's now a great combination of - or perhaps compromise between - musical coherence and micro-detail.

I have no idea whether the timing is, ultimately, of the best or not. We don't have the luxury of a variety of expensive source equipment. I *can* say that it's been incredibly transparent to changes upstream in the system, all the business about USB noise and isolation has been incredibly easy to diagnose and to differentiate. But ultimately what comes out can be no better than what's going in from our (now obsolete) DAC or our aged LP12. I could answer that by going to borrow something like a Chord DAVE, but I'm scared I might not be able to give it back :-)

If you've never seen the inside of one of Music First's pre-amps, I recommend googling for an image. They're, errr, very busy inside. Very mandraulic. I can possibly believe that no two sound quite the same; I can certainly believe that the manual and remote models sound slightly different, the internal layout is quite different - the manual ones have the two transformers side by side, the remote ones like ours have them one behind the other in a longer case, to allow room for the stepper motor assembly down one side of the case.

There's one occasional gremlin with the remote. Very occasionally, after the power cuts which rather plague our rural area nowadays, the Elma switch occasionally forgets the remote. So there's a pre-amp out, lid off, lights out, teaching cycle to go through. Based on my previous commercial engineering experience, I suspect that Elma has a race hazard in their PIC implementation, so that as the power ramps down, there's a window in which the EEPROM can get corrupted. Damn nuisance. I may contact Elma and see if they have a known fix.

But, all in all, a very nice piece of kit and one that should last, pretty much, forever. And sounds much better (in our opinion at least) than any electronic pre-amp at anything like the same price... Can't see why we'd ever rush to change it again. It's not for everyone - even for as basic a reason as there being no gain, obviously - but if it suits the system then it does what you'd hope it would - selects the input, adjusts the volume, and otherwise stays out of the way.

Edited by user 15 August 2016 17:20:11(UTC)  | Reason: Typo. It's Elma. Elna make sewing machines.

Offline Martin Colloms  
#2 Posted : 16 August 2016 07:01:23(UTC)
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Thanks for a great story, helpful and informative.

Yes the Allegri suits me, notwithstanding no remote, but I have not heard the more recent Music Firsts and thus cannot be fairly quoted on this.

MF certainly came out very well in our current issue hificritic vol 9 no 2 group test.

Martin Colloms
Offline frank23  
#3 Posted : 16 August 2016 10:52:33(UTC)
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Nice writeup! I have been using a Music First Audio Classic V2 (with the bigger cored transformers) for a few years and I love it. I find its timing is sensitive to what you use for support, probably due to vibrations. I now have a very ugly three layer setup under it which gives it a sound I like.

The sound falling to pieces with the SMPS could also very well be due to other devices being influenced through their power supplies by the SMPS provided. I let no SMPS come near my audio, or if possible my home... Or electric toothbrush chargers for that matter (mine resonates at 25kHz).

Offline Pete_w  
#4 Posted : 17 August 2016 08:39:58(UTC)
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Thanks, both.

SMPS: Frank, I tend to agree with you on the joys of cheap SMPSs, but in this case it was quite easy to prove that the noise was coming in via the pre-amp - because the pre-amp doesn't need the PSU in order to do its job, you can run it without the SMPS powered, or with it powered but not plugged into the pre-amp. (BTW, for SMPSes that you've just got to live with, the Tacima filtered mains blocks are quite handy...)

Vibration control is a good point. In my current setup, I have everything "up" high on a 25mm MDF shelving system, to keep it away from small hands (my son has a very severe learning difficulty). So I have very limited room for manoeuvre as regards isolation, I have almost no height over the pre-amp. (We're now past that development "phase" and into the next phase of care, hence the question elsewhere on this forum about building a new listening room, 'cos we gotta move house, but that's another story...). Within those height limitations, my old MFA "classic" pre-amp sounded best on some soft sorbothane feet. The Baby Reference, as best I've found so far, works best on the feet it came with. That doesn't mean that the fitted feet are "best", it just means that everything I've tried so far has been worse. Will try again in a couple of years when we've moved; it sounds like your "solution" is quite tall...?

Offline frank23  
#5 Posted : 17 August 2016 08:59:06(UTC)
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My 'solution' is just 4 pads of 5mm neoprene under 18mm MDF with a solid wood plank on top of top on which the MFA sits. But it is just 'a' solution. I once put even more rubber inbetween the two planks, but my timing went to pieces so I reverted to what worked, although it looks quite ugly. I don't know whether it is the feet (very simple stick on black rubber thingies on my MFA) or the casing which seems quite microphonic also. The whole audio setup is situated in a 3-wide Creaktiv Audio 1 rack: http://www.creaktiv-hifi.com/audio-1/
Offline Simon Briggs  
#6 Posted : 25 October 2020 13:37:22(UTC)
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Originally Posted by: Pete_w Go to Quoted Post
I don't think I've mentioned the Baby Reference, so....

It was probably about 18 months ago, after a bout of upgrade-itis that saw our old home-made power amps - which were starting to physically fail - replaced by some commercial monoblocks, that we realised that our pre-amp was probably the weak link in our system. We'd had some cash from a legacy which was ear-marked for hifi, so a replacement was possible.

Like most audiophiles, I'd experimented in the past with passive pre-amps; my experiments with the resistive variety ultimately ending with a home-built arrangement with rather more Vishay bulk-foils than would comfortably fit around the host switch. Sonically, it embodied all the cliches of resistive passives - the good and the bad - but I think that, ultimately, what it *did* do was good enough to put us off any sort of electronic pre-amp for life. We were hooked on passives, we just wanted some sort of dynamics and drive...

So when Jonathan Billington first produced his MFA pre-amp, perhaps 10 years ago, and Andrew Harrison gave it rave reviews in the press, we bought one. It was a revelation - everything we liked in a passive, but with timing and clout too. Oh, and it was in a neat box, not a series of switches and resistors attached to a plywood construction; that had a certain domestic appeal too.

So, 9 years on, was it time for an upgrade? Balanced operation was a necessity, as was Remote Control. 10 years older, a larger living room, and a habit of watching movies using the hifi for the sound pretty much necessitated a remote.

Jon B was kind enough to supply a Baby Reference on Sale or Return. Almost new, straight from the courier, chilled to its bones, it was clear that this was something special. It delivered a somewhat bright and spotlit, but very tactile, rendition of a solo piano. Fantastic. So piano as recorded by Tony Faulkner was great, but subsequent listening revealed it was too bright for most rock, and timing was iffy to say the least. So, let the running-in commence... Jonathan suggests that 100 hours should do the trick. It was a lot, lot, longer than that. 3-4 months at least. But anyway, I get ahead of myself...

I chatted to Martin at Whittlebury last year, and he suggested that he - perhaps marginally - preferred his Townsend Allegri on raw sound quality grounds. But of course it's single-ended and with no remote. So I chatted to Max, he said it was the sort of thing he was thinking of doing anyway, so would I listen to a lash-up? I agreed, but sadly nothing ultimately came of it.

We thought we'd better brave our wiring system and plug the remote control in (it's a separate PSU) and, oh dear, that wasn't helpful. The sound quality, which up til that point had been slowly improving, fell to pieces. The SMPS PSU simply provides 12V for an Elma Stepper Motor remote kit, so in theory it isn't connected to the audio at all. Apparently no-one else has complained about this, so either we happened to have a broken (ie very noisy) PSU, or everyone else is deaf :-). Anyway, all credit to Jonathan, he took the problem seriously and - eventually - a dedicated 12V linear PSU was supplied and all is eventually well.

So, anyway, we got to the end of the sale-or-return month, and - with Jonathan's promise that he would eventually fix the remote PSU problem - had to make a decision. It wasn't easy, it was still a bit bright and timing was still not quite right. So I should have sent it back. However, I stumbled across some emails that I'd sent to a friend 10 years ago when running in our original passive pre, and a lot of what I wrote then still seemed to be true of this new one - tight and bright - and I knew that, eventually, the old one had settled down. So, we took the expensive gamble, more or less on faith, that the brightness and timing would settle. Detail was there aplenty from day 1, it was the "organic coherent whole" that was missing.

The organic coherence finally started to put in an appearance around Christmas, so that was perhaps 5 months from the original arrival. That's the sort of run-in period that Naim would be proud of! It's now a great combination of - or perhaps compromise between - musical coherence and micro-detail.

I have no idea whether the timing is, ultimately, of the best or not. We don't have the luxury of a variety of expensive source equipment. I *can* say that it's been incredibly transparent to changes upstream in the system, all the business about USB noise and isolation has been incredibly easy to diagnose and to differentiate. But ultimately what comes out can be no better than what's going in from our (now obsolete) DAC or our aged LP12. I could answer that by going to borrow something like a Chord DAVE, but I'm scared I might not be able to give it back :-)

If you've never seen the inside of one of Music First's pre-amps, I recommend googling for an image. They're, errr, very busy inside. Very mandraulic. I can possibly believe that no two sound quite the same; I can certainly believe that the manual and remote models sound slightly different, the internal layout is quite different - the manual ones have the two transformers side by side, the remote ones like ours have them one behind the other in a longer case, to allow room for the stepper motor assembly down one side of the case.

There's one occasional gremlin with the remote. Very occasionally, after the power cuts which rather plague our rural area nowadays, the Elma switch occasionally forgets the remote. So there's a pre-amp out, lid off, lights out, teaching cycle to go through. Based on my previous commercial engineering experience, I suspect that Elma has a race hazard in their PIC implementation, so that as the power ramps down, there's a window in which the EEPROM can get corrupted. Damn nuisance. I may contact Elma and see if they have a known fix.

But, all in all, a very nice piece of kit and one that should last, pretty much, forever. And sounds much better (in our opinion at least) than any electronic pre-amp at anything like the same price... Can't see why we'd ever rush to change it again. It's not for everyone - even for as basic a reason as there being no gain, obviously - but if it suits the system then it does what you'd hope it would - selects the input, adjusts the volume, and otherwise stays out of the way.


Pete are you still using the Tacima filtered mains blocks?

Thanks

Simon
Offline Pete_w  
#7 Posted : 25 October 2020 19:31:16(UTC)
Pete_w


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Joined: 28/07/2010(UTC)
Posts: 1,041
Location: Cambs, UK

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Gosh, I barely remember writing that, how time flies. It reads as if it was written by someone else.

I see that, 4 years ago, I was hoping to move house in 2 years' time. Hmmm. 4 years have gone past, and still 'ere. The timescalkes have moved from 2 years to 2 months though, which I guess is progress...

I still stand by everything I wrote - I can't imagine being in a hurry to ever own another pre-amp. My only system changes since I wrote all that have been to a pair of BIG Martin Logans, and they have really enjoyed the pre-amp. System timing has been further revealed as excellent...

Anyway, you didn't ask about all that....

The Tacima Mains blocks. Still using them dotted around the house. Not really as a conscious decision any more, but simply because they're there, and (until I move house) why would I unplug them? They did good then, they're probably doing good stuff now.

The new house will be a bit of a voyage of experimentation for electrical noise. On the plus side, I've built a couple of dedicated spurs in; on the no-idea-what'll happen side I have 3-phase, PV, inverters and batteries, and heat pumps. I have no idea at all how all this is going to pan out.LOL

How're the springs going?

Pete

Edited by user 25 October 2020 19:31:56(UTC)  | Reason: Not specified

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