Just in August of 2014, Doug Schroeder wrote a three-page rave review of this passive, transformer-based line stage. At the California Audio Show one of the most popular rooms and one of my top five, maybe the top, was the one with Music First, TriangleART, and Audio Note UK. This room was set up by Warren Jarrett, the dealer for Music First Audio in California, and for Audio Note UK in the Los Angeles and Orange county area. In the smaller rooms that most people struggle to get to sound even acceptable, Warren had an exceptional sounding system, that truly made music.
Ever since I started using the Soundsmith SG-220 Strain-gauge cartridge I have wanted to hear how this unit would work in my system. I had tried the strain gauge with a couple of great active preamps, but found it sounded best just using the volume control on the Soundsmith cartridge power unit. Then after the RMAF last year I got a chance to use Dave Slagle’s Emia Remote Autoformer with special silver wound autoformers. I’ll be honest, this unit has been a real revelation to me.
Still, I wanted to hear the Music First Audio Baby Reference in my system. Jonathan Billington at Music First prefers transformers to autoformers. Jonathan states that only transformers isolate input signal from output signal. With the ground switch, even the input and output grounds can be isolated. He says autoformers do not accomplish this, and this complete isolation is a known benefit from transformers in the signal path. I don’t understand all the technical stuff, but I wanted to see if I could hear the differences.
The Baby Reference is surely a beautiful little line stage. Mine was the Red one they had at the show. It is also very heavy for its size. The build quality is first class and it even has ground lift switches. They use microprocessor controlled machines in the general manufacturing process, but it also takes a lot of human labor to build quality transformers. You can read more about their build in Doug’s review.
I have used several passive line stages over the years and until the Emia I had not found one I thought could compete with a really world class tube preamp. I had heard some I thought were incredible for the money or bested most transistor preamps. Like the Emia the Baby Reference is a world class line stage that will compete with any line stage, tube or transistor, at any price.
The Baby Reference sounds nothing like what I think most audiophile would expect from a passive line stage. It sounded powerful, big, and robust. It still retained the purity of sound that only a passive line stage has. The system I used it in was my reference system with the 104 dB efficient Teresonics Ingenium XR Silver speakers and both the Wavac EC-300B and the Pass Labs XA30.8 amps. The volume control had to be used nearly wide open with the EC-300B and around midway with the Pass Labs. I understand if you’re purchasing one that the transformers can be set to match your amp. Still, I would be happier with more steps on the volume control.
With both amps the sound was simply superb. I would agree with Doug’s statement, “The Baby Reference was markedly purer sounding than nearly all active preamps I have used.” I would say than any active line stage I have heard. It is tonally pure and natural sounding. It also let my system sound incredibly dynamic and powerful. I have not had any other line stage in house at any price that was more dynamic or had better micro-dynamics.
How does it compare to the Emia Remote Autoformer? Well, first off I should mention you can easily buy a Baby Reference, while the Emia takes some effort to obtain. Secondly, I should tell you that my Emia is a one-off made with all silver autoformers and is not at this time a real world product which is why I haven’t reviewed it. Matt at Pitch Perfect Audio once told me that a lot of audio products seemed to sound like they look and I have been surprised at how often this is true. In this case it is just the opposite. The Emia looks heavy and is a very dull black, very plain looking. The Baby Reference looks bright and light; it is in fact much heavier, but it looks smaller and lighter. The sound of the Baby Reference is more powerful, darker, and bolder than the Emia. The Emia is quicker, has more finesse, delicacy and is smoother sounding. They are both better than any active line stage I have heard. I could live with either one and be happy for the long term.
This is not a full review. I encourage you to read Doug’s full review. I just want to follow up on his review and say if you are looking for the best line stage available you should hear the Music First Audio Baby Reference. What an incredible bargain compared to the many $10,000 plus line stages out there.
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