Music First Audio is a British company best known for making a range of high-performance passive magnetic preamplifiers. It has recently branched out to make phono stages with active gain stages. The new Classic Headphone Preamplifier shows the company is adding more powered devices to its line.
The name says it all. This is Music First Audio’s popular Classic Preamplifier (which has been in production for the last 14 years) with the addition of a small, externally powered headphone amplifier. In fact, it’s essentially that long-standing Classic with the addition of Music First Audio’s dinky little Phone Box (available in red, just like British phone boxes, only without the smashed-up phone and the interesting set of aromas), all in one box. The way you access the headphone amp section of the Classic Headphone Preamplifier is a simple toggle switch on the back of the preamplifier, to flip between ‘preamp’ and ‘headphone’ use. And that’s about it. There are the two standard dials on the front, one to change inputs, and one for a 23-step level adjustment, and there is a single 6.35mm headphone socket.
It’s supplied in a good ‘pinch and pluck’ foam-filled aluminium flight case (the kind of thing you might use for an electrical tool kit, or a DJ might have used for transporting CDs), complete with a 12V power supply from RS. The concession to active operation is a little blue LED in the lower right corner of the front panel, which glows when the headphone amp is powered. There is also a ground-lift switch on the underside of the preamp, which you might need to operate should you encounter any earthing hum (more likely through a power amplifier than from an input).
The Classic Headphone preamplifier has six line inputs and two outputs (all RCA single-ended), no balance controls, no tone controls, and – 12V power supply for the headphone amp aside – no active electronics inside. Unlike the traditional passive preamplifier (essentially a potentiometer in a box) Music First Audio started from the outset using a passive magnetic design, which uses a screened attenuation transformer. This has made it easy for Music First Audio to create both single-ended and balanced preamplifiers in its line-up, and has the great advantage of combining all the benefits of a passive preamplifier (great linearity and phase performance, an absence of any kind of background noise or hash from the active preamp stages) with none of the downsides (impedance mis-matches, signal loss at high frequencies, and the need for extremely short cables as a result). The Phone Box is simply a pair of RCA inputs and a 12V power input on one side of its box, a 6.5mm phono jack and a blue LED on the other. The Phone Box takes its cues from the output taps from the transformer volume control.
The overall fit and finish of the Music First Audio Classic is very good, and the Classic Headphone is functionally identical, with an extra LED and a 6.35mm headphone socket. Switching from source to source is met by a positive feel as you move from input ‘A’ through to input ‘F’ (screen printed on the front and rear as such), and an equally positive feel from the click-stops on each of the volume settings. The chrome knobs are a good contrast to the brushed aluminium finish of the preamp, although there is an identifier here at last. Aside from the word ‘headphone’ in italic script along the bottom of the front panel, the case itself is more rounded off and has visible Phillips screws front and rear. The classic, er, Classic preamp is in a more squared-off box. Otherwise, they are identical.
Music First Audio is a brand with a strong reputation in the traditional two-channel world, but how well does it cross over into the personal audio space with the Classic Headphone? Actually, pretty well, with one caveat. The caveat is worth getting out the way first: the headphone amp isn’t the thing to drive difficult headphone loads. It’s capable and sounds great with more down-to-earth headphone systems, but if you are looking to drive some of the older, more demanding planar magnetics, the built-in unit lacks oomph.
That aside (and let’s be honest, most of those ‘beast’ headphone loads are squarely in the past now), the Music First Audio gets a very clean bill of health. Granted, unlike many products in this month’s line-up, this is more of a traditional audio product with an added headphone stage than a designed-from-the-ground-up personal audio project, but it’s such an excellent traditional audio product that it doesn’t really need changing. The advantage to the Music First Audio Classic is it sounds as if a whole swathe of electronics has been removed from the space between the music and your ears… because it has. Where an active line stage may have a signal path that passes through several electronically active solid-state or vacuum tube components on its journey through preamplification, the Music First Audio has just wire. It’s difficult to describe just how significant those gain stages are in the sound of a system until you hear a preamp without them, but it feels like you are just closer to being in the studio. And it’s all the more noticeable when going back to active line stages, which in the main subsequently sound like they are just adding noise and distortion to the sound.
This is not a small difference: it’s like the sound of in your room as compared to the sound of someone else in another room is using an electric razor. Or it’s like the difference between someone playing a Gibson Les Paul and a well-balanced Epiphone version of the same guitar: it’s close, but not the real deal. In a way, this doesn’t need some kind of musical example, because all of music is its own example. If you listen to a piece of music through the Music First Audio after listening to another active line stage, that music comes with its own ‘aha’ moment as you realise at once what was being played by the musicians, what most active preamps are doing to the sound, and what the MFA isn’t doing to the sound at that time. And, unless you are lucky enough to own one of the tiny handful of (usually very expensive) preamps that bring gain and nothing else to the game, you’ll find that active line stage wanting. Yes, this places the onus on the makers of sources and power amplifiers to get things fundamentally right, because the Classic won’t forgive crazy impedance expectations on either device. On the other hand, your well-made source component now sounds like it always wanted to. Couple the Classic to a great DAC that doesn’t include a volume control and a headphone amplifier and it suddenly sounds like the DAC just grew a volume control and a headphone amplifier! That’s how good the Classic sounds in situ.
The great thing about that well-sorted source component is that it doesn’t need to be that deluxe in stature. Music First Audio have made captivating sounds in their demonstrations by running the Classic Headphone off an old Philips CD player and an even older Sony Walkman Pro cassette recorder. OK, so these are both deceptively good sources in their own right, but it shows the potential of the Classic to shine given a source component with suitably low output impedance.