Someone called the other day and said what’s your favourite valve amplifier in quick fire, fingers on the buzzer style. The first one that came to mind was the Ongaku, as made by Audio Note Japan in the eighties and nineties, I mean what else is there! I don’t use valve amps because decent ones are too expensive and all of them require high sensitivity speakers, which tend to be big even by enthusiast standards. But I do like the valve/tube sound, the better examples have a musicality that evades the majority of solid state alternatives, but from a reviewing POV they are not the easiest things to work with. Music First’s Jonathan Billington like valves too, he put them in their top of the line Reference phono stage, and they have given this their smaller model something of a valve sound as well. It’s devoid of glassware but has many of the good characteristics of the breed.
For a start it only has enough gain for a moving magnet cartridge, a typical valve trait, so you have to use a step-up transformer to bring the output of your moving coil up to a sufficient level. It has an external power supply as well, not a very pretty one at that but it’s small enough to sit behind the system on the floor and keep out of the way. This has a captive mains lead and a connection for the 632 that holds fast with a threaded lock ring, it delivers +/– 18 volts to a bridge rectifier and a bank of Elna Silmic capacitors which feed regulator circuits prior to two identical circuit boards. This is a dual mono phono stage where each amplifier is biased into class A and each channel has a balanced line driver prior to output transformers. Transformers are uncommon outside of valve electronics but they are also Music Firsts speciality so it’s no surprise to find them here.
The back panel features high quality CMC RCA inputs allied to outputs in both XLR and RCA form, XLR inputs can be provided on request. As every Music First product is effectively built to order they can accommodate most requirements. The 632 Step-Up transformer is a neat box with in- and outputs at opposite ends – which is typical of the breed but can be difficult to accommodate in a equipment rack. The standard step-up ratio is 1:10 but again you can have more or less gain on request, that ratio gives an impedance load of 470 Ohms and resistors can be used internally to provide alternative loadings.
A switch allows ground to be lifted at one end while an earthing post is provided at the input end, this connects to the tonearm cables and if necessary can be used to link step-up to phono stage. I found this link to be essential in the quest to keep hum at bay, I have always had difficulties getting a step-up to work quietly and this one was no different. Often the optimal position is up in the air as far from the rest of the electronics as possible, I have been known to hang them from picture rails in the past! On this occasion it was possible to find a place on the rack by moving the components that were emitting the strongest fields, in this case the power supply for my Rega RP10 turntable was the worst culprit. One key was realising that it needs shielded cable between step-up and phono stage, the signal is still very small at this point. The Classic Phono is a bit sensitive to stray fields as well so it can be a juggling act getting a hum free result with this combination, but no one ever said that getting to vinyl nirvana would be easy!
Fortunately all the effort was rewarded with fantastic musical entertainment, the Music First 632 pairing is one of the finest phono amps I have had the pleasure of using, it really opens up the recording and lets the music envelope the room. This is achieved because transparency is very high, transparency that is to detail, to bandwidth and to timing; all the important stuff. It’s a real open window experience that leaves very little of its own fingerprint on the sound. It sounds like a valve component because this transparency is extremely musical, instruments and voices sound realistic and musicians play together in a cohesive and enthralling fashion. Most of my listening was done with the Rega RP10 and Aphelion MC cartridge which for anyone’s money is a very hard record player to beat, the problem is that it’s considerably easier to listen to records with this system than it is to make notes about it. Character is very low and can only really be nailed by comparison with other stages, and all of those that I tried sounded wrong when contrasted with the Music First. Some sound quieter and have greater precision, so have sharper focus, but they don’t reveal as much of the expression in the music nor are they as enjoyable. The 632s have greater three dimensional solidity, are more open and have better timing, ultimately the music sounds more inspiring. Another stage had a warmer treble that ultimately veiled the music, while a third was again less open and thicker which meant that instruments like flute failed to soar. To be fair none of the alternatives I could muster were quite as expensive as the Music First pairing, but they were in the same ballpark as the Classic Phono Amp alone.
What I like most about these pieces is that they make it so easy to escape into the music, you can play all sorts of stuff from Zappa to Stravinsky and it makes musical sense. A lot of components sound great with great recordings but fall down when you want to listen to your grungy records, not everything we love has been beautifully recorded but that doesn’t stop it being powerful and affecting. An even balance and good timing are more critical to listening pleasure than absolute transparency and pinpoint imaging, pretty well all audio components are a balance of compromises and with this one Jonathan Billington has chosen well. I’ve no doubt that the Reference Phono Amp is better in most respects but it costs approximately three times as much, money that might be better spent on the record player and cartridge. Or more vinyl for that matter.
Vinyl like Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord), the 2016 release that would have made it onto my best of year list had I discovered it a bit earlier. This is a commercial recording with all of the sound quality compromises that entails, but the music transcends the production and with this stage you can hear through the compression and enjoy the brilliance of the compositions. The bass playing is particularly chewy and tuneful, solid without being thick and as funky as you like. With a distinctly audiophile slab of vinyl like Chasing the Dragon’s Four Seasons you get all the drama of the work alongside the glorious tone of the instruments and the scale of the venue. The strings really do soar on this and you get all of their harmonics too.
It took me an awful long time to get around to writing about this phono stage simply because I put it in the system and used it without taking notes or makes comparisons. It sounded good and continued to do so, which is not always the case, quite often I’ll play some music that just doesn’t sound as thrilling or emotionally powerful as it used to and swap out the component that is undermining that. This pairing never did, it just let the music flow in totally enthralling fashion. Its two box inconvenience factor can apparently be surmounted by getting MFA to put the step-up inside the phono stage, which would probably save cost as well. The only drawback is flexibility should your next cartridge need a different load, but I suspect that this could be remedied with a return to the maker. I should mention that I used it with both the Rega Aphelion and Transfiguration Proteus MC cartridges and got superb results with both, that 470 Ohm impedance may seem a little high but transformers seem to be more forgiving than active gain stages. If you are looking to get more life, energy and musical entertainment out of your vinyl this is a great place to start.