I have to confess some personal concerns about passive preamps, based on old prejudices. I thought that a passive is a wonderful-sounding, but bass-restricted, device. Judging by the performance of the Baby Reference that was pure prejudice, because this preamp delivers a full-fat, full-range, deep and dark bass sound to any decent amp and speaker system.
And what a sound! Or rather, what an absence of sound. This preamp doesn’t have a sound, it has a complete absence of character. In the way you always wanted from good audio, but lost somewhere in the process of getting into ‘hi-fi’. It’s like getting your ears syringed, or listening to a piece of music for the first time. Nothing is getting in the way between you and the music it seems and the result is a lack of artificiality that is as addictive as it is beguiling.
This makes it hard to pin down, sonically. You keep finding elements of the sound and then thinking to yourself “Oh wait, that was the streamer”, or “no, that’s in the mix”. Moreover, those hackneyed clichés about ‘good for classical’ or ‘great for rock’… you begin to discover that a lot of that has to do with the preamplifier itself. If I had to limit the scope of the Baby Reference to a genre, I’d have to say it’s good at reproducing ‘sound’. It works refined classical music sound and thrash metal alike with absolute ease of delivery.
The Baby Reference suggests we got the whole active gain stage thing wrong. They get in the way. The best active preamps are those that try to limit the effect of a gain stage in the chain, but the best way of doing that is not to have a gain stage in the first place. When it comes to preamps, that whole ‘straight wire with gain’ goal of amplification is best done without the gain part, it seems. The Baby Reference proves that from almost the first bar you hear. It parades the iniquities of lesser preamps before your ears, and it makes you wonder if even the best active preamps are actively damaging the sound quality.
It’s a great leveller, too. Because, it transpires, a lot of what makes a good front-end ‘good’ is its ability to keep a lot of power-line nasties from enfeebling the feed to the preamplifier. By taking the ground loop out of the equation altogether, you seem not to need to spend so much on the front end to get good digital performance. My trusty, now-discontinued Lyngdorf CD-1 is already pretty good, but through the Baby Reference showed just what it’s capable of. And it’s one heck of a lot. You didn’t waste your money on that exotic CD player or streamer, but some of the reasons why it’s so exotic are surplus to requirements with the Baby Reference.
Audio enthusiasts sometimes tread a thin line between ‘purist’ and ‘puritanical’. This is one of the few products that straddles that divide. OK, so there are puritanical elements to the MFA design (no balance control, no remote, no mono switch, no tone controls and no bright shining blue LED), but this is true to the music through and through. This does hint at the‘downside’ (I’d prefer to call it ‘limit’) to the MFA’s use in the wider audiophile world. It’s not a preamp for the audiophile everyman; there will be systems where extra gain from the preamplifier is both expected and required. There will be systems where MIA features like a balance control are important. And, despite all but nailing the cable attenuation problem that beset ‘pot in a box’ passives, it’s not the kind of preamplifier that should be first choice for those with long runs of unbalanced cables. A few who have learned to love the sound of active gain stages will never quite come to terms with the disappearance of that coloration. I’d contend the MFA is the right way to go if they really want ‘high fidelity’, but personal taste plays its part.
Music First Audio took a bold step with the Baby Reference. It took all the good stuff from its Reference preamp, put it in the box of the standard MFA preamp and shaved £2,500 from the price tag. In essence, it became its own competition in order to make a product more readily accessible to a wider audiophile market. I’ve never had the full-blown Reference, but reports from the field suggest the difference between the two in sonic terms is relatively slight in most systems. The difference between the two seems to come down to yet more transformer isolation (record, auxiliary input and main output each have their own transformers), looks and the extra fortnight it takes to build the flagship. On the other hand, those same reports say the jump between the Baby Reference and the Classic v2 is more than substantial enough to justify the £2,800 price differential.
I started this review with the notion that digital can spell the end of the preamplifier. The Music First Audio Baby Reference exposes this as abject nonsense. It’s a fantastic device, a no-nonsense design that just might be the best preamplifier I’ve ever (not) heard in my system.
Inputs: 4x unbalanced RCA, 2x balanced XLR
Outputs: 2x unbalanced RCA, 2x balanced XLR; 2x ground
selector toggle switches (one per channel); 24 position
level control; “Nickel Brick” (TX102-mkIV) transformers
Dimensions (WxHxD): 25x8.8x26cm
Manufactured by: Music First Audio
Tel: +44 (0) 1424 858260