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"World's best preamp". That and similar conclusions were drawn by our British colleagues when confronted by this passive magnetism. In a hobby where components interact in unpredictable ways, such definitive statements are, of course, bound to be challenged sooner than later. Still, this particular statement does point at a very definitive effect. Insertion of this preamp removes the kind of drag walking through water inflicts on a walker. Or call it that some pipes get unclogged and flushed to let the music signal burst forth unrestrained. That un-veiled transparency is, of course, the very calling card of passives. Alas, detractors insist that this declogging or stripping-away-of-stuff action does more than just remove obstructions. They claim that some of the stuff is thrown-away music. They claim that dynamics get stunted, tone bleached and energy diluted.

Where this passive is concerned, I beg to differ. During my review of AudioZone's PRE-T1, I deliberately switched sources to reach for one with inbuilt volume control: Opera Audio's Consonance CDP 5.0, the so-called Droplet CD player. Comparing signal paths of amp-direct versus passive-in-the-loop, it became clear that not only do these attenuation transformers not subtract any part of the signal, they seem to subtly benefit high-frequency extension and low-volume fullness while producing the faintest sheen of textural sweetness.

The way I see it -- and shy of the kind of $10K+ statement preamps that may be exceptions -- you'll have to face a trade-off. On one side are ultimate transparency, resolution of the most minute of ghost details and lower-than-usual volumes that still satisfy. On the other side of this ledger (active preamps) are enhanced tone and density but a reduction of the other qualities. There are those who value truth über alles. After hearing the Music First piece, they'd have a hard-to-impossible time going back. Then there are those who focus on emotional persuasiveness and deliberately voice or enhance their sonics to produce the desired subjective reaction. This often includes visual elements which, after all, are absent on musical software. Stereo per se recreates a semblance of a three-dimensional sound field with clear localization cues. Those place various performers and acoustic events at various apparent distances to the listener.

What some call spatial effects others call suspension of disbelief and crave - extreme focus, elongated depth, lateral expansion. While the lack of intrusion has the Passive Magnetic reveal the recorded ambient cues, it won't improvise on them to make them larger, deeper or more holographic than that. Strategically employed, tubes can do some of that as can so-called powerline conditioners (Audio Magic's come to mind which are optimized to recreate absolutely vast soundstages).

Other listeners thrive on image density to oppose the immaterial see-thru quality of sonic phantom images. Naturally, as density or corporeality increase, see-thru transparency has to decrease. Most good active preamps will add body, arguably often at the expense of apparent speed or jump factor. Image outlines can be emphasized, transients exaggerated, dynamics -- often not across the board but limited to a particular band -- subjectively accelerated. This is where every listener voices with component selection, resonance redistribution or attenuation and accessory tweaks.

The question then poses itself. Doesn't successful tailoring mean that one must first start with the undiluted and unprocessed truth before one begins to tweak and shift, tune and mold? How else to know how much (of what's actually there as musical substance) is worth trading for something else? A passive preamp of the Music First's caliber can be quite the wake up call. You might realize that there was significantly more "to start out with" than you had accounted for. And you may find that some of your subsequent enhancements were really substitutes. Once that which they substituted for -- either directly or indirectly -- has been re-added (or wasn't removed in the first place), most or all of the substitutes may be viewed as redundant and somewhat fake.

All this by way of saying that data lost in any stage is lost for good and that amplifying devices pass on errors "blown up in size". Whether the price of active preamp enhancements is really worth it -- obscuration of fine detail, possible deceleration of transients -- becomes a relevant question only when you can hear, by direct comparison and perhaps for the first time, how much your current darling preamp removes to be pleasant or pretty. Does the Passive Magnetic act additive in any way? If I knew where neutral was, I'd tell you. Since I don't, I can only talk in relative terms vis-à-vis my ModWright SWL 9.0SE valved preamp. At very low levels of the sort you'd use when your mate was asleep thru an open archway, the ModWright is either subtractive -- by homogenizing earlier -- or the Music First is additive by letting you hear more information at the same level. The valves then congeal and thicken and the musical water spout closes up.

At regular volumes, the ModWright becomes more holographic (i.e. the soundstage layers appear more sculpted) but the Music First extends farther into the distance. The ModWright packs more meat and dynamic micro peaks seem louder but the Passive better separates out tiny events like fingers-on-strings sounds, woodwind key clicks, piano damper pedal action and slight shifts in relative microphone perspectives.

The 5687 valves enhance tone and texture by a small but welcome degree, the Magnetic preamp is a bit drier yet never brittle or chalky. Things get interesting in combination. The superlative 45-based Yamamoto SoundCraft A-08S, as I described in its review, is like a Class D switch-mode amp with a 6SN7 stuck into the circuit - ultra-resolved, exceptionally quiet and with perfectly balanced tone. Any thickening of that signal (or interface) merely induces hooding or veiling. It makes the Music First the only suitable companion.

Into my AudioSector Patek SEs, the same passive preamp does absolutely nothing to tame the explosive rise times of the opamps. As a result, there are incidents of pungent sharpness or bite which ask to be mellowed out by just a skoch on energetic recordings. Enter the ModWright with its subtle valve action. As you can see, it's all a balancing act and precisely the reason why I can't issue a categorical blanket endorsement for this British champ. I can easily envision amplifier mates that wouldn't cotton completely to its brand of honesty. Though 'brutal' is not at all a word I'd use to describe it. That's because I don't hear any exaggeration or hyping. Rather, I hear a modest infusion of sweetness. Truly. Instead of bland and sterile, this passive leaves the bull's eye center of neutrality just enough to actually be preferable even in scenarios where it's a patently redundant component (such as with attenuator-fitted sources).

Coming from valves, you may miss the bloom. Coming from transistors, you may miss the zing. Coming from the Passive Magnetic, you'll view the same bloom as a bit cloying and the same zing as unnaturally sharp and hyped. It all depends. Where do you take your stand? In which direction are you looking? That's about all I can tell you about this Stevens & Billington piece. Neutrality thrives on brevity.

Now, 2,500 clams are a bundle alright for a few switches, a handful of connectors and two tiny transformers. But when you consider that an equivalently priced active preamp will be nearly impossible to find that offers the same balance of virtues, the pain suddenly becomes a whole lot more palatable. In fact, moonie Les Turoczi just had an encounter of the magnetic kind. Let's just say that his $9,000 Audio Research Reference preamp into the first-class McCormack DNA-500 was handily upstaged. Again, there's no ultimate solution for anything audio. Still, the evidence is mounting that this demure little box from Great Britain regularly brawls it out with the big dogs and comes out the winner.

The fully balanced feed allows signal conversion pre or post transformers so you can enter one way and exit another.
That in itself is truly trick and highly adaptable. Ditto for the number of inputs which should be sufficient for most serious systems. Then factor in that this type of passive is essentially unbreakable. There are no coupling capacitors to age or blow up, no resistors to fail, no circuit board traces to peel. The air-gapped transformers interrupt ground loops. (That's how this type of attenuation differs from autoformers such as are used by David Slagle. Autoformers -- which also appear in McIntosh amplifiers or as the impedance multipliers of Paul Speltz -- are single-winding coils tapped at various points to obtain the required voltage ratio. The S&B units are true isolation transformers with separate primary and secondary windings.) Gain in most preamps is redundant when the majority of amplifiers is driven to full output by the source voltage. Superior amplifiers don't need assistance from preamps except for the bare functionality of attenuation and input switching. Suddenly the entire concept of TVCs makes awful bloody sense. With full bandwidth regardless of setting and -- reputedly -- no impedance problems, this is a passive that doesn't sound flat, boring and bereft of life.

In fact, I'm buying the review sample. It's a match made in heaven with the Yamamoto SET. Additionally, it's a tremendous reviewing tool to assess an amplifier's merit without the sometimes dubious contribution of preceding signal manipulations. And no, I cannot in all honesty say that I heard repeatable differences to the copper-wired Canadian AudioZone PRE-T1 except for a suspicion of somewhat greater sweetness or silken texture with the Brit. But I'm warned that these transformers "take forever" to break in. I'm uncertain how much of that could simply be a function of sufficient hours of playtime. And no, the Passive Magnetic isn't replacing my valve-powered hybrid ModWright preamp. That is just as heavenly matched with my solid-state amps. No universal panacea then, no magic bullet, no preamp for all seasons and all encounters. But in the right circumstance, the Music First is the best preamp I've yet heard. Coming from a low-powered direct-heated triode fiend, this -- if I may say so myself -- is a rather unexpected conclusion. That's why the Music First Audio preamp factors in my "Best of 2005" list of favorite personal discoveries. When you learn a new trick, it's time to stress its relevance to your audience. My new secret weapon? A superior TVC (transformer volume control) plugged into a zero-feedback low-power S.E.T. Whoa baby!
For the speculative among us, it's tantalizing to wonder what would happen were such attenuation transformers wired with amorphous wire, or around amorphous or nano iron, nickel or cobalt cores. As it stands, S&B uses 80% permalloy cores so perhaps some of those experiments have already been conducted? I have come across a buried mention somewhere that another company is about to launch TVCs using in-house designed transformers. I don't recall who and where but unless it was a faux blip in my overheated imagination, we should eventually see that product being announced. If so, the concept is catching on enough to invoke the capitalist reaction of fierce competition. For now, Stevens & Billington enjoys the rep of being the premium supplier of audio-quality attenuation transformers and this is their turnkey product.
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