It’s interesting to see how hi-fi fits into the world. It’s not an empirical science with a defined set of ‘correct’ answers. At the same time, nor is it entirely an art form (though it has the potential to deliver a representation of artistic events). It sits outside any regulatory authority (save for the generally accepted electrical safety standards), and has no overall governing body. And there’s an interesting ‘tension’ between the manufacturers who provide a range of component parts which many individuals believe can be, I hesitate to use the word ‘improved’, to suit individual tastes, and the suppliers of the ‘improvements’.
Once you’ve waded through that fog-like appraisal of the hi-fi industry, the primary measuring instrument tends to be also highly variable – the humble human being. However, against this very imprecise reproduction and measuring system we still continue to engage in debates which rage variously around specifications, empirical performance, different brands of snake oil and ‘the look of the thing’.
From my perspective, the perceived value of a piece of kit lies solely with the owner/purchaser. As with any (I’ll probably get shot for saying this) non-essential ‘interest’ industry there are always some who simply dream of owning ‘the fastest car’, the ‘most expensive amplifier’, the ‘sleekest yacht’, to name a few examples. BUT, when tempered by real-world constraints (physical room size, budget, WAF, children) musical enjoyment can be had from kit at any price point, and its value to the owner may be many times that of a piece of kit which is too large, too loud or too expensive. All this leads us to a conundrum. Given that we can’t reliably measure system performance (as it varies with venue, system synergy and a whole host of other imponderables) how do we measure how good ‘stuff’ is? My view is that, assuming most kit these days is designed to be (in an overall sense) compatible with its likely partnering equipment, satisfaction has to be a major component in determining whether something is performing well, in the context of that system at that specific time.
So, in this review you will find an absence of technical discussions (except perhaps in a very general sense) but a more semantic (perhaps) argument about this piece of kit. The ‘kit’ in question is Music First Audio’s Reference phono stage, an immaculately finished two-box affair in a brushed aluminium finish that’s absolutely flawless and has a deep lustrous sheen. It comprises a plain-faced phono stage housing the RIAA and gain circuitry, and an equally plain-faced slimmer box housing the power supply, the two being linked by a multi-core umbilical cable.
The technology inside is a mix of valves for amplification, inductors sans metal core (making their performance independent of frequency) for the high frequency, and a mu-metal split-core inductor for the low frequencies (for the same reason) combined with high quality components from Mundorf, SCR and others. It is laid out in an entirely dual-mono configuration with two identical boards for the gain and equalisation, one for each channel. Critical tubes have ring dampers applied to reduce any hint of microphony, and the layout is such that component crosstalk has been reduced to an absolute minimum.
Connection to your chosen record player is via high quality RCA phono sockets, with a neat but substantial earth tag providing a grounding opportunity if it should be needed (from experience, it always is!). Once powered on, those used to instant results will be disappointed. There is a substantial time delay (about thirty seconds or so) while the circuits warm through and stabilize before the relay clicks across and the music can start to flow. As standard the unit comes configured for moving magnet cartridges, so a Shure V15VxMR was pressed into service, as was a humble Ortofon OM40, a Linn Adikt and a Rega Exact. The turntables used comprised an SME Model 20/Series V combination, a Connoisseur BD1 with an SME 3009 and a Garrard 401 with an SME V12.
Initial impressions of the phono stage were of a very open, neutral and transparent performer. So much has been written about ‘removing a veil’, ‘increased clarity’, ‘dynamic performance’ that in some ways they have become over-used to the extent that at this price point you’d expect all that at the very least. What’s more important to me is whether the component achieves that almost indefinable goal of ‘making music’.
If ever you go to a live concert, regardless of music genre, some will continually keep you enthralled while others have periods where it doesn’t quite hit the mark so well, a bit like when a stand-up comic takes a particular direction and all of a sudden the audience’s reaction starts to tail off. What I’m looking for is being able to tell from the recording, or at least gain an impression of what the performance is really like. Almost any music student can sit at an instrument and play the notes in the right order, however, playing the notes is only part of the process; making music is an entirely different matter, and almost transcends the prerequisite of the notes being right. I suppose, looking back at my introduction, that’s the nub of where I’m coming from. When fitted into a system (in this case mine), will Music First Audio succeed where others have fallen short, and ‘make music’? An utterly subjective indefinable aspiration, but one which is the crux of a sound system’s raison d’etre.
Over the course of the review period I used a relatively large number of recordings from a wide variety of genres and eras from the late 1950s through to modern reissues pressed in the past few months. What follows is a very very small sample of the ones that gave particular insight.
Thurston Dart’s recording of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (L'Oiseau-Lyre SOL 60047) is an absolute pearl of its time. A bright recording made in 1962, seemingly relatively close-miked in a vibrant acoustic with a star-studded cast, it’s a favourite of mine, for nothing else if not the opening overture (and of course Belinda’s dying aria). You can almost feel the excitement in the slow opening bars that there’s something magical about to happen. Then, by way of a complete contrast, it’s as if the whole cast is biting their lip as Janet Baker sings the immortal words ‘when I am laid in earth…’. Not a dry eye in the house I’ll bet.
Contrast that with the pounding beat of Muti’s Montagues and Capulets in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Here I was fortunate enough to have two versions available to compare (and contrast). The first was a ‘digital’ version on His Master’s Voice (ASD4068), and the other the same recording on Angel, DS-37776. The recording was made at the Old Met in Philadelphia in around 1981/2, but the ‘feel’ of the two records is markedly different. The digital copy is very sharply etched, but with a little distance between the listener and the performance while the Angel version is considerably warmer, perhaps a little less well defined at the leading edges of things, but generally hangs together better as a ‘homogenous’ whole. I’d never go so far as to say the digital was harsh; far from it, but there were noticeable but subtle differences between the two. However, if you heard either in isolation you’d not find much, if anything to criticise. Playing both the above on my usual system did not provide such insight or musical clarity in its presentation, and good though my own benchmark is (not earth-shattering, but certainly better than run-of-the-mill) the Music First phono stage was very revealing of many aspects that other phono stages are not.
Marty Paich’s recordings of East Coast jazz have always delighted me. They may be a little ‘middle-of-the-road’ for some with more eclectic tastes, but they provide a wealth of different styles, paces, and orchestral colours, and are usually slightly on the brash side of things. A particular favourite is The New York Scene (DS844 on Trend/Discovery Records), featuring Art Pepper, Victor Feldman, Jimmy Guiffre and Bill Perkins. The clarity of the recording is quite stunning. It’s not clinical, and the overall presentation doesn’t have that oft-striven for (but rather synthetic) pinpoint sharpness so beloved of some. Instead there’s a real sense of the recording space, and a good impression of the fun the musicians are having playing for this session. Not that you can hear them smile, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were. Again, the Music First offered an even-handed presentation, somehow unspectacular in that while nothing got in the way there was never the feeling that anything was missing either. This was probably the closest I’ve come to hearing live music with a hi-fi system rather than having actual musicians in front of me.
Substituting moving coil cartridges produced similar results, but as you’d expect, there was a little lightening in the upper frequencies, due to the (generally) rising treble output of MC generators. One invaluable addition to the kit was Music First’s 632 MC-MM step-up, a small but substantial unit containing a pair of transformers housed in mu-metal shielding cans and a user-specific impedance setting for your chosen cartridge. This too has a grounding post, but also a ground-lift switch in case that dreaded hum decides to make an appearance. It’s slightly unfair, then, to inflict a couple of very different MCs on this hapless piece of kit, namely an Audio Note IO (Kondo version), and an Audio Technica AT-OC9.
However, the end result was again an astonishing amount of music. The IO was some way ahead of the OC9 in that it has a lower noise floor, deeper bass and a smoother seemingly more extended top end, but the OC9 certainly had the ‘grunt’ that I’d normally expect from an MM. Bottom end for both was very well controlled, and even on the Prokofiev you could really appreciate the effort the double-bass players were putting in to drive the music forward.
Switching to a 12-inch arm, again differences were far more apparent than I’d imagined. The arm doesn’t sound slower or lazy per se, but the presentation was more… relaxed. It never seemed to lack urgency, was ‘up there’ with the pace and speed, but there was a definite increase in the ease with which the music was presented. Again switching turntables made me very aware of their different characters. I used three very different turntables with three very different sonic signatures, but the thing which remained consistent was the musical presentation. The Garrard was slightly on the brash side, the SME more refined and the Connoisseur a tad ‘lightweight’. However, the overall enjoyment of listening to the music was unaffected by the turntable being used even though the presentations were markedly different. Cartridge differences were abundantly evident, too, with changes in tonal balance quite obvious; never detrimental, but very easy to hear. If you need a phono stage to ‘fine-tune’ your record player, this is the one to have as it reveals everything with genuinely faithful integrity.
Conclusions for a piece of kit so carefully designed as this has been (a collaborative effort between Jonathan Billington and Nick Gorham of Longdog Audio) are difficult to draw. Output from the unit is decidedly on the healthy side, even with the paltry output from the IO (via the 632 step-up). The noise floor is beyond-belief quiet. The shock of hearing ‘so much’ vinyl roar on the lead-in and –out grooves was quite a surprise, but the level of detail retrieval was astonishingly good. It’s not that I was aware of ‘so much more’ detail, but that when I went back to what I had before I was acutely aware of what was (now) missing.
Vinyl brings with it its own vagaries, one of which is the occasional pop and click. Rather disarmingly these seemed to diminish with hardly any upset of the music being played. They were over in an instant which has not always been the case with lesser phono stages I’ve listened to in the past.
Bass weight (bearing in mind that vinyl’s performance is often criticized in this department) was deft, deep, weighty, articulate and disarmingly believable. Presentation overall was enviably even-handed, with no spotlight shining too brightly on any particular area. Vocals, especially female were very eloquently expressed while the gritty side (Jerry Ricks’ Empty Bottle Blues) was presented, warts, spittle and all. Exuberance was there in just the right amount when required, while the softer side of things was still cleanly and clearly presented without syrupiness or any hint of a rose-coloured tint.
I really can’t fault this piece of kit. In my view the Reference Phono Stage from Music First Audio deserves the highest accolade possible for this type of unit. Had I the funding available I would unhesitatingly buy one. It has given me the biggest and most welcome surprise of my reviewing career. While I can appreciate that in some respects it’s a huge amount of money to spend, it is absolutely worth every penny. In a more modest system the ‘gains’ might not be quite so great, but if it’s music you’re after, look no further.