Music First Audio Reference V2.1 preamplifier
I’m getting worried about Music First main man Jonathan Billington. Each time I get one of his products it is, like him, modest, understated and goes far beyond what one might expect from such an understated yet finely crafted set of components. The worry is that I keep thinking that he has nailed it this time and then along comes another product which leaves me scratching my head and asking how on earth has he raised the bar yet again? This time with the Reference V2.1 preamplifier.
Purely sporting line level inputs it’s an unassuming black (or silver) box with a pair of large knobs on the front. One selects input (with a nice LCD display to confirm your selection), the other controls volume in 61 steps, again with its own display. These can also be controlled with the supplied Apple remote.
Inside there are two multi-tapped transformers which provide the attenuation but crucially maintain the impedance characteristics of the input as well as the resistive elements. Passive potentiometer volume controls are not quite so even-handed. The other advantage of utilising transformers is that they effectively isolate components from each other, so can be used to break any ground-loop issues and reduce noise.
Each Reference V2.1 is hand-built in Rye, East Sussex, and it’s been conceived as a cost no object exercise. To that end, there are both balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) connections on the rear, with six inputs and four pairs of outputs. There are also ground selector switches and the accompanying manual gives very clear instructions on how these can be used to give maximum performance from the preamp and your sources.
The only clue that the unit is powered on is that the LED displays noting volume level and input selected are discretely illuminated because (spoiler alert) there’s no noise. Ideally no part of the replay chain will introduce noise. In this case there simply was no noise, no hiss or hum to suggest it was on. This preamp is probably the quietest I’ve ever experienced. As there aren’t any powered active components it really shouldn’t add any noise to the system, but we all know the vagaries of high frequency noise which pervades our environment thanks to fluorescent lighting, LED drivers, switched mode power supplies etc.
I need to say at this point that I’ve never really been a fan of totally passive preamps. To my mind they don’t add anything positive to the signal path, and more worryingly have the potential to take something away, simply by virtue of being there. That having been said, I have heard some stonking systems which use a passive one and the results can be spectacular, so I’m in something of a cleft stick here, in theory I don’t like them, but the reality is that I have liked some – a good few in truth.
Anyway, curiosity got the better of me. As with all MFA products I’ve had the joy of playing with, I was really rather keen to get the Reference V2.1 plugged in, connected up and enjoyed. At least that’s what I thought. Plugging it in meant connecting the outboard DC power supply to the mains socket, and the other end in to the rear panel. RCAs connected as required, all at line level.
The Reference V2.1 is probably the quietest preamp I’ve ever come across. I’d even venture to say that, compared with totally passive preamps which now abound, it’s even quieter than any of those I’ve encountered. Perhaps it’s the use of transformers, perhaps it’s the care and attention to eliminating any opportunity for spurious noise to get into the signal leads. It’s probably all those little(and really, not-so-little) things combined.
To that end, any source is a valid contender as far as reviewing is concerned. Whether FM tuner, Sky-box, phono stage or some other line-level device, if this pre was going to cut the mustard it should reveal the differences between different sources. So, switch everything on, and sit back. Wow!
As it was an easy set-up, a pair of FM tuners were used first; a Naim NAT01 and Quad FM4. Immediately it was obvious that the sound quality from both was exceptionally high (particularly as I have line-of-sight to the transmitter, and a good rooftop aerial). Radio 3’s live broadcasts were so very easy to engage with, and there was a real sense that you were actively listening in the concert venue. What is nice about these live broadcasts is that you get a heightened sense of being there due to the noises off, ie all the extraneous sounds which are usually filtered out of recorded events like chairs moving, audience noises, the odd clout of a bow on a stringed instrument between movements, all the little things which make listening to these musical events such a real experience.
The Reference V2.1 also clearly showed the difference in tonal balance between the two tuners. The FM4 provides a slightly warmer take on the proceedings, and is perhaps just a little less revealing compared with the cooler NAT01 whose presentation is more open and which could possibly be termed more detailed though that’s not a phrase I’m entirely comfortable with.
A few CDs hit the player after that. Again, the Reference V2.1’s presentation really revealed the tonal colours of the player (in this case a highly modified Pioneer PDS-802). I had to hand a test pressing of a recent recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade where I was present at the actual recording. The reproduction was astonishingly clear, and the presentation really was so good that I could have fooled myself that I was back in the Henry Wood Hall listening to the actual performance again.
It seems there was a common thread emerging; the Reference V2.1 is so very transparent that (accepting that the rest of the system is up to scratch) you could make great strides toward the goal of making the system disappear. Unless they have active devices, elements in the replay chain which are entirely passive can only remove something, whether that is by an electrical characteristic or some physical aspect.
There’s a real tangibility about the presentation. I had thought my own preamp was good, but this has really put it in the shade, and by a country mile. You could almost reach out and touch the singers, feel the air move in the cathedral, or even watch the dust slowly settle through the shafts of sunlight. So far, all it’s managed to remove is volume. The tonal characteristics of the two tuners and the CD player were very readily apparent, and such is the transparency that the emotional energy within a performance also comes across with consummate ease. So far the Reference V2.1 is proving very adept at making the whole system, not just itself, disappear.
I dug out a favourite album on vinyl: Focus 3 (Polydor 2659016). Having been at a couple of the live concerts from which some of the tracks were taken I have good memories of those events, and can remember excitedly joining the queue to buy the album when it was released. Although it’s been played quite a lot over time it’s still a very fine pressing, and is what might be termed a very faithful representation of those concerts. How would the Music First fare with this?
I was not disappointed. Even in the (perhaps most) famous track Sylvia where a soaring but not quite screaming guitar solo is played the V2.1 really did transport me right back to those concerts. I was no longer aware of the system, but fully absorbed by the energy of the music. Turning to less strident material in Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence from their album Wednesday Morning 3AM is a tribute to a friend (Sandy Greenberg) of Art Garfunkel’s who had lost his sight. The orchestration, quietly sung lyrics and general mood of the song are particularly poignant, and again the V2.1 excels in allowing this emotive content to reach out into the listening room and envelope the listener.
Certainly, knowing the background to the lyrics adds immeasurably to how you hear it, but the Reference V2.1 manages to really open the door on what’s going on behind the scenes and makes the song an even more immersive experience. This rather modest box of tricks delivers, and with bells on.
Elgar’s String Quartet is beautiful. The way he writes for the cello is magical, bringing out the oft-overlooked woody sounds it can make. Many cello pieces concentrate on the soaring vocal capabilities of the instrument, but Elgar makes much of its darker side, no less lyrical but earthy, brooding and quite raw. The V2.1 excelled here. There was a fabulous tangibility about the presentation, it was as if the quartet was playing just for me. This preamp managed to make the music up close and personal.
The Beatles album Let It Be, with the marvellous rooftop recording, featuring Charles Hawtrey and the deaf-aids (makes me smile every time I hear that line) sounded as if I was up there with them. When the music has drive the V2.1 responds and conveys every last ounce through to the power amp. When there’s a fluffed note or the wind whipping round you can instantly hear it. It’s as if I’m standing in the middle of the group and it’s all going on around me.
Often reviewers talk about removing layers between the source and the listener. The more transparent the system the more you hear the source. The main issues come when there’s a mismatch of some sort between source, pre and power amp. If the pre can’t drive the power amp, if the preamp’s loading on the source is wrong and so on.
By using transformers MFA has managed to reduce these mismatches to a minimum yet provides control over volume while preserving the oh-so-small nuances in the audio signal passing through. To over simplify for illustration, a transformer is basically two coils of wire so in theory there’s very little to sully that delicate signal. What that doesn’t legislate for is really just how astonishingly good the Reference V2.1 is.
A change of scene took me towards some opera: Coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi (CHAN 3172(2). Unusually this was sung in English, and the orchestration is perhaps rather lush (this is a BBC Radio 3 recording from 1972). With Dame Janet Baker and conducted by Raymond Leppard, this reissue has been particularly well produced. It was also a live performance from the London Coliseum. The Reference V2.1 makes no bones about it being an older recording, but it’s none the worse for that. What you enjoy is the preamp’s ability to let you hear everything that’s going on. There’s that feeling that there’s an audience, and it’s active in that the audience’s responses and reactions to events on the stage are met with an almost unsaid repartee by the performers on the stage. It’s not a one-way-street, and many performances are influenced (to the good) by audience involvement.
So it is here, and while the orchestration might be now thought slightly heavy or thick, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen. The spatial elements are well presented, the depth of the stage is quite astonishingly well portrayed and the solo vocal parts are very easily identified and located within the context of the overall performance.
As I said above, I keep thinking Jonathan at MFA has cracked it. Then he comes up with something which surpasses what I thought was rather good in the first place. I’d thought about trying to define or describe the sound quality but the reality is it’s very, very difficult to pin down. The thing about it is that you’re really unaware you’re listening to a recording (assuming the recording in question is half-decent in the first place). I could wax eloquent about the soaring highs, the depth and weight of the bass, the ability to present a believable soundstage etc. But what makes it so good, so damn good is that you’re really not aware of it at all. You simply hear the source, the music, the performance and engage with the emotional content of what’s going on. It favours no particular style of music, it’ll reveal everything that’s going on. It’s so very even-handed that you can rest assured, whatever you decide to put through it, will come out in full effect.
As for transparency, it’s the next best thing to being there at the live event. Your system will all but disappear. It has the uncanny ability (as I found out with my venerable Quad system) to significantly transcend the sum of the system’s parts. No, it won’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but given sensible partnering, well, a warning: be prepared to be astonished. I’m not prone to saying you’ll struggle to beat this, but in all seriousness, you’ll struggle to beat this.
The first is almost; if your system’s not transparent enough you won’t hear the difference. But then I connected it up to my old Quad 22/II/II and ESL57s, and ran the CD player into the Reference V2.1 and thence into the Quad gear. And you definitely can hear the difference, and yes, it is audibly better. So the reality is that even a system of modest performance will benefit from the V2.1. Quite how it does that I don’t know, but it most definitely lifts the performance of that revered combo and puts it into a different league.
The second, perhaps more of a bitter pill for some, is that it is not cheap. For what it can do, for the immeasurable increase in listening delight it’s an absolute bargain, but nevertheless engineering as finely crafted as this comes at a price. Even the transformers on their own cost more than some entire systems.
Is it worth it?
You know, I could keep going on about the influence of the Reference V2.1 but the bottom line is, to date it’s the most revealing preamp that I’ve yet had the pleasure to audition in my system. It seems to let through such a huge amount of aural information, and present elements of recordings I thought I knew well with a greater degree of clarity, emotion and sheer ease that, having now taken it out of my system and reinserted my original (reference) preamp, I find the latter’s presentation rather lacking.
Music First’s products are always extremely well researched, designed and produced. Their gestation periods are quite long – they’re determined to get each product as right as it can be – so there isn’t a stream of new products coming out each year. But this time I really am not sure how it could be improved upon.
As for listening enjoyment: well, it hits the top of my list with considerable ease. It conveys detail, emotion, dynamics (yes, absolutely no hint of any compression at all) and deals with all the oh-so-subtle small nuances so very easily that even though you don’t notice them, somehow they inform the overall experience just that little bit more.
Recommended? Resoundingly, and without qualification, yes. If I could afford one (I rarely say this) I would buy it. Sadly my circumstances are such that it’s beyond my reach. However, having had the sheer pleasure using it I’m not looking forward to the day Jonathan comes to collect it. I think the Reference V2.1 will become a benchmark product, and I’d encourage you to give serious thought to auditioning it. Even if you can’t afford one it will let you hear what a great preamplifier can do and give you some idea of what to aim for.