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In the flesh, the new Tap condemns the prior Passive Magnetic into the kiddy sand box. It's not just the expanded functionality. Build quality of the Tap is in a wholly different league. What photos don't show off too well is the intricate 'interleaving' of the acrylic base into the overall construction. The black box sits partly atop this base, partly inside it. The berths for the sunken-in transformers show the acrylic layer beneath the black aluminum dividers with their two cap nuts each.

Looking at the Tap's underside gives further clues as to its construction.

Plainly, S&B is and has always been a specialty transformer vendor. That's their core competency. When the time came to package their own parts into a finished product, they dutifully picked a plain box, stuck some connectors on the back, wired up the rat's nest of TVC leads and called it the Passive Magnetic. Great performance, zero sex appeal or convenience. To take things to the next level -- competitive with BAT, Conrad Johnson and other leaders like them -- required outside expertise. That's exactly what John Chapman of Bent Audio brought to the table. That the final product is now offered within a few hundred dollars from the original is the real deal. Your dollar buys a lot more.

The remote works like a dream and phase inversion from the chair is very welcome. Visual confirmation has the green dot of the selected input go orange for invert. The easily legible green display extinguishes after command inputs. Nice. Balance offsets tilt like Quads of yore. As the left channel goes up, the right one goes down. All this from the listening seat again. Same for mute and input switching. Sweet.

Inspecting the innards once you've undone six T8 torx screws reveals a poster child for neatness. This is precision work. Nothing is left to chance and execution bespeaks a high level of integrity.

The supplied power wart is wall-voltage specific and necessary only for the control logic.

The remote is completely intuitive for black-out sessions and while not of the macho metal kind, strangely pleasing in size, feel and concept. Going to a gussied-up alu wand would have invariably driven up costs. This one ain't broke by any stretch so don't fix it.

Some have commented on the parallelogram cosmetics. Because the black box is visible only as a single rack space, its greater height cleverly concealed by the acrylic base, the non-rectangular fascia, though unusual, blends right in to a rack stacked with conventionally shaped boxes.

My host for the Polish Audio Show, Adam Mokrzycki, had sent a brief e-mail update about his own audio adventures: "I just got the Placette RVC and -- to my surprise -- it turned out to be much better than the BAT 51SE I was using. So probably I have already gone over to the dark (passive) side." This is as good a hook as any to segue into the Tap's sonics. Compared to my Supratek Cabernet Dual, the presentation became tauter, drier and somewhat hollow. The airy fluffy and fleshy character which the tube preamp introduces and which I find addictive was stripped away.

At the Supratek level of active performance, we're not dealing with liberties from neutral. The presence of valves thus shouldn't and in fact doesn't trigger the usual preconceptions. Inserting the Tap followed suit. It didn't induce obvious shifts in tonality. From neutral to neutral. Still, the presentation felt clearly more matter of fact. It was more streamlined than the dynamically more vivid Supratek. The inner tension of music flattened out. It felt homogenized. The listener notices this as a change of overall gestalt, not the "little more of this, little less of that" which many hifi comparisons elicit. Gestalt is clearly audible but the language necessary to describe it tends to upset the measurement crowd.

For me, the change telegraphed as a reduction of textures and image density. To suit my taste, temperament and system context, I've settled on a preamp that unapologetically does more than just switch sources and adjust volume. My Supratek review describes this subtle but very tangible action. Substituting the passive Tap consequently implied that the Supratek action or addition would be missing. It was.

Very similar to this change is what happens when I replace my Yamamoto SET with the Bel Canto e.One S300 ICEpower amp. A specific element of dimensionality dries up. It's not that the soundstage shrinks or turns more diffuse. It's the stuff around and between the performer that gets cleaned out. Conceptually, it might really be cleaner. But without having actual people perform in the living room, the way this strip down telegraphs is less involving, less visual. A bit of the song goes out of the song. The sounds are the same but what strings them together is less exciting. It flattens out.

This deposits us squarely at the central hifi conundrum. Playback is fundamentally different from the life performance. Never the twain shall meet close enough to shake hands. Just extracting the audio element from the latter makes for a somewhat pale experience in your own digs. To replace the extrasensory missing bits -- extra meaning, going beyond the purely auditory elements -- requires something more. The joke is that the delivery medium can only add on the sonic level. It can't add sight, smell, touch, temperature. However, certain component combinations do elicit non audio-only responses even though they are delivered solely through the audio medium.

Logically, one should be able to compare the recorded signal and the one exiting the loudspeakers and find what the mysterious added elements are that make one playback system more compelling than another. However, we measure with external computers. They're not hardwired to the human brain to track how our complex perception mechanism processes what's input. Hence the oft lamented discrepancy between subjective audio reviews and associated measurements. It often appears that listeners favor measurable distortion of the kind that doesn't occur in real life. This shows up the shortcomings of conventional measurements. It's simply not convincing that increased distortion should be preferable to hordes of experienced listeners - unless our brains process such apparent distortion to become less in the brain than the playback which shows lower distortion on the bench computers. Until we understand more about psychoacoustics, audio is bound to remain the never-ending story. Each committed listener is condemned to grope in the dark, hoping to chance upon a combination of components that add, subtract, multiply or divide in such ways as to make for an emotionally more persuasive facsimile of real music rather than being patently canned and fake.

That admitted, the arrival of the Supratek Cabernet Dual in my system seems to have somewhat inured me to the charms of passives to which I've subscribed earlier with much enthusiasm. While passives in fact may help a system to sound more real -- bit for bit accuracy to borrow from digital speak -- I want more than just sound. Just the facts don't seem quite enough when you've chanced upon a superior active preamp that conditions the signal in just the right way to add color, microdynamic expression and drive. That's where this passive and the one it replaces, the Passive Magnetic, fall short for me. Had I not discovered the Supratek, my verdict would be rather different.

So it must remain a relative verdict. More relevant is the fact that the Tap is sonically indistinguishable from the Passive Magnetic. For many listeners who've introduced the X Factor of extrasensory bits elsewhere (perhaps with the source, perhaps with the amp/speaker interface) and who now require the utmost not-thereness from their preamp, the Passive Magnetic has proven the ultimate interface. Especially in high-sensitivity speaker contexts where noise and redundant gain are the enemies, it can become the perfect remedy. Many will simply have shied away from this particular remedy because it didn't include remote control. That's the gap the Tap fills. It's the fully leathered up Passive Magnetic with alloy rims, GPS and fog lights - on permanent discount to sell for nearly what the stripped base model sold for. The discrete volume steps did not park me slightly too low or a skoch too high, something certain listeners worry about when confronted with stepped attenuators vs. the continuous kind. Your mileage may vary. I considered it a non issue. Doubling up on the outputs for two pairs each of RCAs and XLRs is a welcome advance over the Passive Magnetic. Being able to enter and exit the Tap via any combination of RCA and XLR is massively useful. To see where the volume is set at and to be able to repeat it by number via infrared rather than by hand and hair line marker finally enters the 21st century. It leaves hair shirt audio to the dinosaurs.

Les Turoczi on staff replaced his ARC Reference 1 tube preamp with the Tap. He listens to and records much live music. With the Tap in his playback chain, our man is all smiles. The aforementioned Adam Mokrzycki moved from a BAT VK51SE to the passive Placette. Many tube preamps by comparison to a superior passive will sound fuzzy, slow, veiled and colored - a bit like a portly old man with a ruddy complexion and shortness of breath. Having acclimated to such a middle-aged sound only to encounter a beast like the Tap surfer will seem like a breath of fresh air then, an infusion of energy and elan. That this didn't happen versus my Supratek isn't an indictment of the Tap. It's testament to Mick Maloney in Oz being a very mean preamp designer who is at the very top of that particular game. My Cabernet Dual, in its current incarnation, sells for $5,000. That's significantly more than the Tap.

An overview of the market makes one thing pretty clear. In the category of the full-function passive in this price segment, the Music First Audio Tap is without competition. Whether it'll be your silver bullet or not I can't predict. But if you're shopping in this category, the Tap appears to be the current go-to piece. John Chapman produced a very trick winner and his British compatriots are to be commended for hitching the Tap to their wagon and putting the prior Passive Magnetic out to pasture. While the latter sounded the same -- or not as it were; these passives are essentially absentee in that department and don't 'sound' at all -- it was really packaged too pedestrian to be exciting and competitive enough for sophisticated and demanding shoppers. That's been fixed with a vengeance. The Tap has all the functionality, sex appeal and interface options one could possibly wish for. That's a very rare achievement in the TVC arena. It's why the Tap deserves an award. While many listeners like your scribe will want an active preamp, others will be better served by a passive. It's to them that this award is dedicated. It signals that the Music First Audio Tap rightfully belongs on their shopping list as a very serious contender that does it all.
P.S. 3/30/07:
Harry Sullivan of Music First Audio has informed us that he decided to end the arrangement with Bent Audio described above and will no longer sell the raw TVC part to them. John Chapman tells us that he is committed to relaunching the TAP with different transformers as soon as he can find or specify suitable replacements. In either case, the TAP as reviewed is herewith discontinued except for fulfillments of a few outstanding orders for which Bent Audio still retains the requisite S&B parts in inventory. Whenever the TAP relaunches, 6moons will be pleased to revisit it with a formal review to update our readership - Ed.
Bent Audio website
Music First Audio website