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I tend to prefer active preamps with tubes. However, there are occasions when the amplifier/speaker interface is so locked in and dialed that you don't want to "season the stew" with any additional spice whatsoever. Now a superior passive preamp becomes necessary, a field in which Music First Audio, the subsidiary of Stevens & Billington, has major experience for their transformer-attenuating solutions.

I ran into MFA's Harry O'Sullivan at the Munich show and just received this followup e-mail now that our show report went live. I'm giving you Harry's e-mail in full because it contains useful feedback on the High End 2008 event from another first-time attendee: Hello Srajan, it was wonderful to finally meet you at the show in Munich. I see from your report that you enjoyed the show and I hope that you had a safe and pleasant journey home. I can only echo your observations of the High End show. My experience of Hi Fi shows is a little limited, just the UK ones so far. I visited Germany for the first time at the beginning of March and I found it to be a wonderful place. I met with some dealers, all of whom seemed so very enthusiastic about what they were doing. They seemed to share a passion for high end equipment but also for music itself, something that seems all too often to be overlooked. In addition to the dealers I met I found everyone, from hotel staff and train ticket vendors to strangers I asked for directions to be incredibly helpful and friendly. The country itself runs like clockwork and (from what I experienced at least) is clean, tidy and safe. Coming home from that first visit really made me feel that we in the UK have a lot to learn from Germany.

Given the size of our little stand (of which we were only a part) and of our company I was surprised and delighted to find that my communication came directly from Mr. Glisovic
[the show organizer - Ed.]. He was, at all times, friendly, helpful and informative. He runs his show like a true master. I have not been to the CES (I hope to go next year) but from my recent experience I find it hard to believe there can be much to touch Munich. Thank you so much for your time and for mentioning our new preamplifier in your show report. I'm amazed that you had this all up so quickly. I think the report really conveys the feeling and atmosphere of the show. Because the show was so busy I didn't have too much time to wander around myself so it's great to see what else was going on.

You asked for some details of our new MKII preamplifier. This is a very new product (it's not even on our website yet) but I'll run through the features. We will continue to make our original preamp in both copper and silver and we'll be renaming the original unit the 'classic'. For those who do not want or need the additional features, it makes perfect sense. The differences between the original and the new MKII version are:
  • 25% larger core. The construction on the transformer in the MKII is identical to that of the classic TX102 but we have used a larger core which increases both low frequency response and headroom.
  • Additional parallel outputs. The MKII preamplifier features dual RCA (unbalanced) and dual XLR (balanced) outputs for bi-amplification.
  • Remote level control. The MKII features remote control of level (via a stepper motor).
  • Larger case. The MKII preamplifier comes in a full width case and we have improved the finish on the front panel (by adding a polished radius to the edges) to give the MKII preamplifier a better overall look and feel.

As with our original pre, this unit is available with either copper or silver-wound transformers and is built by hand here at our workshop in the UK.

Music First also has launched their assault at the state of the art in the sector called, simply, the Reference preamp - or the Nickel Brick informally. Following the success and critical acclaim of our highly regarded, multiple-award-winning Passive Magnetic Preamplifier, Music First Audio is proud to present our brand new reference model. The original Music First Preamplifier holds the following prestigious awards:

Hi Fi News Awards 2004 'Editors Choice' January 2005; Hi Fi News Awards 2005
'Preamplifier of the year' November 2005; Positive Feedback Online 'Writers Choice' Award 2005; 6moons 'Best of 2005' Award; Hi Fi News Awards 2006 'Preamplifier of the year' November 2006 (the first time in the magazine's fifty year history that any product has won twice) and Hi Fi World Awards 2006 'Preamplifier of the year' January 2007.

Our reference model builds on this success. The result of three years of research and development coupled with 30+ years of world-class transformer design, no aspect has been left to chance. Every component and each material has been chosen specifically for its properties and performance in this application. We have listened to the comments of our many satisfied customers and we have listened to every option and component.
  • Introducing the "Nickel Brick" (TX102-mkIV) transformer featuring refined winding geometry, a new 25% bigger core and improved shielding characteristics resulting in unparalleled sonic performance
  • Six transformer configuration to provide:
    • Transformer isolated Record output
    • Transformer isolated Auxiliary output
    • TX102 MkIV Main Output
  • 46 position level control from - 60dB to +6 dB
  • Four unbalanced inputs on 'CMC' gold plated, high quality RCA connectors.
  • Two balanced inputs on Neutrik gold plated nickel XLR sockets
  • Dual main output on Neutrik gold plated nickel XLR sockets
  • Dual main output on 'CMC' gold plated, high quality RCA connectors.
  • Rear panel mounted output ground selector switch.
  • All internal components mounted on a thick, heavy, dual material laminate block for added weight, stability and vibration immunity.
  • Full size 432mm x 85mm x 320 mm case.
  • Seamless + 6dB switching offers gain for lower powered sources
  • Remote control of level
  • Hand-built in the UK

Passive isn't always the best solution. But when it is -- I've had great success especially with superior SETs whose sonics don't ask for additional flavouring -- the transformer-attenuating passive preamp solution can be the hammer and Music First Audio is arguably one of the pioneers in this sector, with now not just sonics but also functionality handled.
Music First Audio website