A long, long time ago I had a teenage urge to become a DJ and built myself a mixing console. Unable to work with electronics I made a passive version with some sliding pots, I was too young to understand that a passive preamp or console changes more than the volume when moving the sliders. I didn’t care in those days, I had a pile of old hi-fi leftovers supplied by family members and a lot of fun. In the 45 years since then I’ve learned to understand how electronics work and to the way equipment behaves. In the past I sometimes came across passive preamps, the ones with resistor networks inside, the ones that always failed to deliver. So I was not waiting for a passive Music First Audio preamp, but the Dutch distributor was eager to lend me his own device when he went on holiday, wishing me a nice time. “Enjoy some music” he said. Well, he was right, I had a nice time and enjoyed music.
The MFA Baby Reference Pre has no resistors inside but a high quality attenuation transformer with enough taps to comfortably control the volume level. This makes all the difference, but we’ll get to the technical part later on. Instead I’d like to start with the listening results since they are far more important. On my return from a holiday in France I had to play a CD from the French singer Isabelle Boulay, singing songs composed by Serge Reggiani. This is a simple recording of voice and acoustic instruments and from the first note to the last the MFA lets the music flow. The midrange cries out for attention with a naturalness that is only to be found on true high end preamps, most of which cost a lot more than the MFA. It brings detail and delicacy, and has enough power to be utterly convincing. The fact that absolutely no background noise exists, partly due to my recently installed PS Audio P5 Power Plant but mostly because the MFA has no electronics, adds to the excellent performance. The midrange may be important but the high notes have the same delicacy and detail, which are sometimes as soft as a whisper and remain clear and distortion free at higher volumes. Bass is fundamental to building a soundstage and it is only in this frequency range that it falls short, the bass is a little soft and slightly muddled compared to my own preamp. But not in a way that gets in the way, it’s a fact that you soon forget during listening because of the way the MFA realises the complete picture. Play some Patricia Barber which is full of heavy and low bass notes and you soon learn that the MFA does not lack low end, on the contrary the bass goes deep enough for the capabilities of most loudspeakers. This may come in handy with modern class D amplifiers, my class A could do without it.
Playing A Taste Of Honey from Café Blue the coherence between instruments, especially between guitar and percussion is fabulous, adding new life to an old piece of music. The next track called Nardis starts with Patricia playing piano and leaves me gasping for air, shivers run down my back and I get lost into the richness of the grand piano. When cymbals join in and the composition goes into overdrive I can only marvel at the exemplary way the MFA handles the music. Turning up the volume on the drum solo does not make my neighbours very happy, but it shows that the lack of dynamics often found on passive preamps is not part of the Baby Reference’s character. I have heard better dynamics with tube preamps in the system, but they are not capable of delivering such undistorted purity. No matter what equipment is used you always have to compromise, whatever they may say no one produces the ultimate amplifier although the MFA comes close.
Since piano is great on Patricia Barber it should be even better with François Chaplin on a high resolution file. His Chopin Nocturnes are are among my favourite pieces and they do not fail me with the MFA at the heart of the system. Weight, character, subtleness and power, it’s all available in overwhelming quality and quantity. The piano has a very rich sound; these are not just reproduced music notes, this is almost a real instrument playing in front of you. Closing my eyes I get visions of crystal clear rivers flowing through a beautiful valley as seen from the top of a mountain. There is a lot of tenderness in the way François plays, each and every note attracts attention and lets you feel the power of the instrument. The ease of the MFA is fully exposed on the solo piano. I would not expect to get different results with orchestral works and that is indeed the case with compositions from Pablo de Sarasate with Giovanni Angeleri on solo violin. A tambourine, way back in the right corner of the soundstage, shows how well behaved the MFA is with stereo image and supporting detail. Violin sounds exceptional on this very fine recording, originally a hybrid SACD from which I ripped the CD layer. Not a single note is lost, no matter how soft the violin is played, yet when it comes to the full orchestra banging it out not a trace of strain is present either. Do not play this music on such an exceptional preamp if you do not have enough time to listen, it demands attention and makes it impossible to walk away.
I was afraid that the low output of my phono cartridge and the near 70 dB amplification factor of the phono stage would not be sufficient to drive the power amplifier via the MFA, but it was no problem at all. I own a collection of Tacet recordings mainly bought at shows, Tacet uses tube equipment from microphone to cutting lathe and presses only on first class 180 gram vinyl. The results are exemplary although the orchestras are not well known. I picked Beethoven’s Symphony No.1 in C Major played by the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra and was rewarded with analogue pleasure from start to finish. Analogue only adds to the smoothness of the MFA. But don’t take smoothness to mean a lack of dynamics, it is just the total absence of strain that the MFA shows time and time again. Add to that observation an excellent soundstage with enough depth, width and height, the absence of midrange colouring, the finely detailed treble notes and the weight the MFA is capable of and you have a winner on your hands. But take care, a passive preamp does not suit every system that well. Not all high end systems will work with it as well as mine, and in those that don’t it’s the bass that’s the problem. Indeed, bass is the only area I would like a tighter, more controlled sound.
Moving on to my collection of female singers that seem to grow faster than weeds, I pick Eva Cassidy’s Songbird. I cannot and will not state that analogue sounds better than digital with the MFA in my system, which surprises me as up till now analogue was always my favourite way to show the capabilities of the system. It would be a lie to say that Cassidy on LP is more enjoyable than she is on CD. This preamp is surprisingly easy on the ear because of its pureness, lack of electronic noise, hum, hiss, or whatever rubbish gets between the recording and your ear. It keeps you playing music for hour after hour, I even forgot to eat, but sore throat and a rumbling stomach will eventually remind you that your body needs more than sound to survive. Meanwhile Eva Cassidy tells us that Autumn Leaves Start To Fall so convincingly that you start to visualise autumn yourself. The beauty of the song, the voice and the system brings tears to my eye, gets into my heart, streams though my veins and makes me warmer than a summer day ever could. To get me back on my feet I play the last song for the moment, Just A Little Lovin’ from Shelby Lynn who was inspired by good old Dusty Springfield. This doesn’t help, I am strapped to the listening chair once again. This happened over and over, the MFA Baby Reference Pre amplifier is overwhelming.
Let’s have a look what’s in the box and try to understand why the MFA is so capable. On the outside all we have is metal case with a fascia that’s available in red, baby blue, white or black, with a source selector on the left and a volume control on the right. Turning to the back there are four RCA inputs plus two XLR inputs with the two outputs, one RCA (unbalanced) and one XLR (balanced) in line. A pair of switches will either ground the inputs to the chassis or lift the ground. With XLR pin one is grounded. These switches will help you if hum is an issue, in my case they were not needed, floating (ungrounded) made the system dead quiet. Inside the box the front selectors are made by ELMA, the 24 step switch controls the volume in conjunction with the two Stevens & Billington transformers that are covered with metal caps. A whole lot of wire comes out of the transformers, so much that during the soldering process some solder has spilt on the wire, unavoidable I guess since every unit is fully handmade and it must be difficult to get every wire in the correct place. The TX102-mkIV 'Nickel Brick' attenuation transformers are wound by hand with copper wire. On request they can be made with silver wire, adding substantial cost, which is why MFA suggests you always try copper version first. These transformers do not add any gain, they only reduce output in 24 steps. The way MFA winds the transformers lets you use balanced and unbalanced inputs or outputs without any restriction. So you can have any combination of XLR and RCA connectors on request. The standard version I tried lacks special options and already cost £5,000 plus VAT, a not inconsiderable sum to pay for so few parts, none of them even active. But take a look at all the wire coming from the transformer and it will give you an idea how much effort it takes to produce them, not to mention the way they handle your music.
For the listening sessions I mainly used my NAD M50/M52 digital music player, filled with ripped CDs next to a lot of high resolution files in different formats. The digital signal is converted into analogue using an Aqua La Scala converter and the MFA was connected to my trusty Audia Flight 50 amplifier driving a pair of PMC fact.12 loudspeakers. Connections to and from the MFA were made with Van den Hul D-102 Hybrid Mk III balanced cables, performing extremely well in this setup despite being homemade and thus very cheap. The analogue source was my Transrotor Super Seven record player with SME 5009 arm and Transfiguration Axia cartridge. This combination feeds a Dutch made phono amplifier based on MC transformers and tubes. A very expensive Crystal Cable Connect Ultra interlink runs to the RCA connectors on the MFA. All equipment is powered from a PS Audio P5 Power Plant, except for the power amp that runs directly from the mains and of course the MFA does not need any power at all. The Baby Reference was directly compared to my Audia Flight Strumento No.1 active preamp from time to time.
Starting with music and ending with the technical issues is proof that this preamp really made an impression. Normally I write my reviews the other way round. However, it is hard to give the MFA an unreserved recommendation, for reasons that need to be explained since they seem the direct opposite of the results in the listening sessions. Listening to the Music First Audio Baby Reference Pre amplifier was one of the most enjoyable experiences in my audio filled life, it has the ability to hold your attention as long as music is being played. It is pure, free from any form of audible distortion and dead quiet, even quieter than my own far more expensive active preamp. The MFA can handle the most subtle and soft details with an ease that will surprise every listener and if the music gets loud it will still be without any strain, distortion or other nastiness. I rank the MFA among the best preamps I have ever had the chance to listen to, in some ways it even seems to be the best.
So why no absolute recommendation with these results? Well, I for one need inputs that can be levelled for comparison using different music sources. I want a remote control and finer volume steps. I need an amp that is able to drive any power amplifier, tube or solid state. Results may never be influenced by matching, or should not, at least not for me as a reviewer. One of the main problems with passive preamps is matching source and power amplifier, although in my case I got a match made in heaven. Plus I need not only signal attenuation but active gain as well for certain low output sources. That’s enough reasons why the MFA is not be my choice. But should all of this be of no concern the Baby Reference would be high on my list of favourites. Maybe someday when I stop reviewing I might turn to Hastings and order one. A final note, I am not the sort of person who thinks £6,000 is a bargain for a preamplifier, I consider it an awful lot of money, yet the MFA has to be ranked among even more expensive products for sound quality reasons and therefor in my humble opinion it deserves a best buy award.
"Nickel Brick" TX102-mkIV transformers
24 position level control from - 60dB to 0 dB (custom steps available)
Inputs: 4x RCA unbalanced, 2x XLR balanced
Outputs: 2x either XLR or RCA, or both
2x output ground selector switches
Dimensions (H x W x D): 88 x 250 x 260mm
Music First Audio
T +44 (0) 1424 858260
Hear Everything Audio Import
T +31 (0) 624 613 402