JASON KENNEDY VISITS THE HASTINGS HOME OF MUSIC FIRST AUDIO AND FINDS A SMALL BUT PERFECTLY FORMED COMPANY THAT HAS BEEN AROUND LONGER THAN YOU THINK.
Stevens & Billington made a cult name for itself when people started using its products to build TVC or transformer volume controls with its products in the late nineties. When it launched its own TVC’s under the MFA brand the audio world realised that there was more to passive preamps than a pot in a box. Nowadays MFA preamps are regarded by many as the best in the field, I went to meet Mr Billington himself at the company’s factory in Hastings on the south coast of England. He runs a small and efficient operation building transformers and TVCs to order while listening to BBC Radio Four on the best workshop system in the business.
JB has penchant for tape recorders, the Nagra T on the right is his pride and joy
Jonathan Billington was born into transformer winding, it’s what his parents did on the kitchen table in the early days and he’s still doing it today. Stevens and Billington was founded in 1963 by Jonathan’s father and Christopher St John-Stevens, who built organs, harpsichords and the like in his spare time. They were based in East Grinstead, Sussex and made transformers until 1971 when Mr Stevens left to follow his dreams in the church organ world. Stepping into the breech came Jonathan’s mother Audrey, who had been at Decca in 1949, she worked with John Billington until his death in 1978. To keep things going Audrey formed a partnership with Stevens, maintaining the names if not the personnel of the original company.
This winding machine is the centre of S&B's transformer building activities
Jonathan Billington left school in 1978 and went to work with the company but took time out to complete a City and Guilds course in radio and TV servicing which lead to a job at Feedback Instruments in Crawley, an S&B customer then and now. Around this time he became an avid fan of the British band the Jam and recalls seeing them at the Croydon Greyhound, a gig where the entry price was one pound. This enthusiasm for the band resulted in him coordinating his holidays to coincide with the Jam tours so that he could follow them around the country, he seems to be over it now.
I like the shelf numbering system here
The next step was a degree in electronics and communication at North London Polytechnic where he studied acoustics in the final year, the result was a job in the Poly’s theatre doing sound and eventually the offer of an interview with a Danish microphone company. Jonathan had the choice at that point between “going back to the kitchen table or moving to Denmark, marrying a beautiful Danish woman and being happy ever after”, he took the first option and remains married to his work.
All the connecting wires for S&B's multi-tapped volume controllers need preparation
Back with S&B the turnover in 1987/88 was £3,500, a state of affairs that started to improve when Jonathan got to know Tim de Paravicini (EAR/Yoshino) who introduced him to Anthony Michaelson at Musical Fidelity, which resulted in an order for 100 step-up transformers for the A1 integrated amplifier. The company’s first order from a hi-fi manufacturer resulted in production being moved from the kitchen to the garage and eventually to a farm near Uckfield where four employees were taken on in the early nineties. Things changed again when the internet came along later in that decade, a shop in Italy ordered model 103 step-up transformers for DIYers and word began to filter out about the quality of these devices. What really changed things was London Hi-Fi Club member and avid blogger Thorsten Loesch (AMR, ifi) who asked for transformers with 24 tapped outputs in order to build a transformer passive controller (TVC) or preamp. When he wrote about this online it sparked worldwide demand and resulted in companies like AudioZone in Canada using S&B transformers in their TVC products.
Control knobs and volume switches
It became apparent to Jonathan that he was missing a trick by not doing the same himself and in 2001/2 he started Music First Audio (MFA), albeit not before considering the name Hip Hop Audio, he made the right choice that time! The first MFA Classic preamplifier was sold to Matthew Jameson at Real Hi-Fi who lent it to David Price then with Hi-Fi World, he liked it, a lot, commenting in a readers letter reply that it was “the best preamplifier ever made”, a statement that has come back to haunt him on more than one occasion. The company still makes the Copper Classic preamp in two variants alongside the Reference and Baby Reference that René got quite carried away with recently https://ear-drupal.papazetis.com/review-hardware/music-first-audio-baby-reference-pre-amplifier-passive-preamplifier. The Baby Reference came about because the Reference has a number of expensive features that most people don’t need, things like aux and tape outputs and a 48 position volume control, extras that require a total of eight transformers. The Baby Reference has the same quality of components with a 24 position controller and marginally less flexibility.
Anodised Baby Reference face plates
The factory system shown below consists of an Audio Note AN TT1 turntable with RB250 arm and Zyx cartridge, Stevens & Billington step-up transformer, MFA Reference MM Phono Amplifier, MFA Classic preamplifier, QUAD 405.2 power amp and Howes Acoustic Quarter Wave horns with Voxativ drivers. The tuner is a Denon and mains power is sorted by an Isotek EVO3 Aquarius conditioner. An effortlessly revealing system that puts musical enjoyment first as you might expect from this company. The Reference MM Phono Amplifier is the latest MFA product, it was designed by Nick Gorham of Longdog Audio (whose DAC blew me away not so long ago) and incorporates S&B inductors in the RIAA stage. So it looks very promising indeed, I have asked Chris Beeching to give us the lowdown in a review as soon as Jonathan can spare a unit.
The reference system, not a bad workshop radio
Stevens & Billington has had its ups and downs but has remained in business for over fifty years now, more than you can say of the majority in this field. It has done so by putting quality of engineering in front of more conventional business goals. It’s very heartening to see that this approach not only results in commercial longevity but also a great reputation for sound quality, as long as guys like Jonathan are doing their bit this pursuit will have something to be proud of.
Jonathan is also rather fond of QUAD