The Music First Audio transformer-based passive preamplifiers seem to receive universal praise, and well-respected reviewers around the globe have declared them to be among the very best. And yet, when I have tried them in the past they have not had the same effect on me. They were always very clean, open and devoid of the grunge that powered preamps have so much difficulty suppressing, but still... close, but no cigar. That is until now. There may only be two letters in the suffix to this latest model, but it has turned the Baby Reference into a fully-fledged giant slayer in my system.
Music First Audio is, basically, Jonathan Billington, whose father and his partner Christopher Stevens started Stevens & Billington Transformers in 1963. Jonathan started making TVCs (transformer volume controls) in the early 2000s, after a certain Thorsten Loesch (now of AMR and iFi) started buying transformers to use instead of passive pots. Nowadays, MFA makes a small range of compact preamplifiers in a workshop in Hastings, East Sussex.
Until the arrival of this preamp, the Baby Reference was second from top dog in MFA’s catalogue, but the V2 version has put its best full-length design out to pasture. V2 differs in two significant ways from the standard Baby Reference. First, it is essentially custom made; the features and finish are down to the end user. You can choose how many in- and outputs it has and whether they are RCA phono or XLR connections, you can have remote control and one or two volume controls, and you can have any finish that Jonathan can source, including chrome plating. Another nice touch is the option to choose input names, or limit the inputs to one and avoid a switch altogether. The review sample that MFA supplied had two inputs and a switch on the back plus two volume controls, which gives you balance adjustment, but is not something I would want to live with. But this bespoke unit was not made for me!
The real difference between this and a regular Baby Reference is to be found in the transformers that are used to attenuate the signal, the heart of the preamplifier in this case. These have been changed in several ways. There is now an air gap between the transformer and the shielding pot that surrounds it. This reduces the ability of the transformer to ‘talk’ to the pot and thus reduces leakage from one channel to the other. This gap is achieved with rubber pads top and bottom, that also have the effect of isolating the transformer from vibration. The transformers themselves also have a different winding structure; the symmetry has been changed and a network has been added to the output to reduce ringing. The final touch is thinner 0.2mm µ-metal laminations in the transformer core. This new transformer is called ‘RX63’, which derives from the Hastings fishing fleet’s registration letters and that significant founding year.