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Music First Audio Baby Reference Preamplifier Review

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Physical Characteristics

Before I discuss these matters a brief description of the unit’s construction and operations is in order. As has become a hallmark of serious component manufacturers who ship product worldwide, the Baby Reference arrived in a robust metal flight case with generous foam padding cradling the unit. Several colors are available; the typical appearance is of a brushed silver case with an anodized aluminum front plate. The review unit sported a red wine front plate, and silver, light blue or black are also available. Two oversized round chrome rotary switches allow the user to select from four unbalanced (RCA) inputs and two balanced (XLR) inputs, while the other controls volume. There is no infinite control of the volume; the 24 detents on the attenuation switch range from -20dB to +6dB. (Per Warren Jarrett, U.S. representative of Music First Audio, the company provides custom volume contour at no extra charge. -Pub.)

If, say, one has very high efficiency speakers the lowest volume settings will possibly ramp up the level too quickly and within three or four clicks of the volume control take one to a moderately high level, or adjustment downward bring a rapid reduction in level.

I found this to affect use of the 98dB sensitivity Daedalus Audio Ulysses floor standing speakers. Paired with the Wells Audio Innamorata stereo amplifieror the Pass Labs X600.5 monoblock amps the system was past whisper quiet already at the first detent and quite loud by the fifth notch, which meant only five level settings for all listening experiences. Had I wanted softer background music I would have had two setting choices before reaching a moderate listening level.

It should also be noted that my custom room is abnormally quiet, approximately 8dB quieter than the average “quiet” room in a home. I was using powerful solid state amplification, and I suspect that far more range on the volume control would be available had I set up the Baby Reference with a lower powered SET amp. Consequently, I cannot conclude that in all systems the leaps in listening level I experienced with the Ulysses would be everyone’s experience. In fact, with the Kingsound King III electrostatic this issue nearly reversed itself! In that instance at times I pegged the Baby Reference at its highest output setting and still would have had room for the speakers to run to another step up in level. The lesson here is that careful matching of the Baby Reference with the amplifier is warranted, not on the grounds of the caliber of sound but the capacity of it to have enough options for listening level.

If the owner knows the amplifier used with the Baby Reference, then this problem could perhaps be ameliorated by modification of the transformer taps. This is an option, among other Options listed such as casework color, choice of connectors, Home Theater bypass, tape outputs and monitor loops, among others found at the company’s website.

At the rear, the robust gold plated input jacks were laid out logically with easily identifiable positive and negative markings. The toggle switches for lifting the ground, one each for balanced and unbalanced output, are rather small but positioned next to the outputs with arrows to remove any doubt about which outputs they serve. These are more complicated in use than appears, and the Owner’s Manual provides a page of instruction on how the positions of the switches affect the grounding (down position) or lifting (up position) for both outputs. I had used both the unbalanced and balanced outputs, with unbalanced going to the mains amp(s) and balanced going to the subwoofers. I simply lifted all grounding and heard no noise at any time during the use of the Baby Reference. I detected no improvement or detriment to the sound quality relative to the position of the switches.

The combination of RCA/XLR outputs can be specified by the purchaser at the time of ordering. As the review unit had one of each I found myself returning to a trick I have used many times successfully in the past – employing a pair of RCA “splitters”, each of which is placed onto the respective left or right RCA output of the preamp, effectively adding a set of RCA outputs. I often use a set of stereo amps to power speakers and this is an elegant solution for those who wish to have the flexibility of both balanced and unbalanced outputs but may wish to employ more than one stereo amp. Before ordering a particular configuration of outputs give thorough thought to the potential for system configurations over time.

Remote Control Feature

Remote volume control is available for the Baby Reference; it is quite literally only a volume control, as it does no other functions. A 12V wall wart type power supply, which is not in the signal path, enables a small stepper motor inside the Baby Reference to physically move the ELMA switch, which Jonathan describes as, “… a remote hand on back of the switch.” He emphasized that the motor is completely removed from the signal path. The remote itself is an odd black plastic squashed egg-shape with a curious name, “Magic Remote.” It was chosen because it is inexpensive. A hefty aluminum remote would perform the identical function and would lighten the owner’s pocket for nothing, according to Jonathan. This decision is in keeping with the music first philosophy.

The Magic Remote was affected by the amount of ambient light in my room, and at times when all the lighting was on the remote was all but useless. I thought initially that the AAAA batteries were to blame but the problem persisted. Had I not remote lighting with presets to control the lumens, I would have had a choice of bringing in a floor lamp or listening in the dark. I suggest another brand and or IR sensor in the unit be explored for the remote control. (Music First Audio offered this remote for the first five units, and has switched to using Apple remote since then. -Pub.)

Sound, Glorious Sound!

The Music First Audio Baby Reference exhibited exceptional sound quality, chiefly in terms of cleanness. I had one other positive experience with a transformer-based preamp, that being the Purity Audio Silver Statement. I found the Baby Reference to mirror many of the same attributes including a sense of quickness, lightness and lack of syrupy coloration.

The Baby Reference was markedly purer sounding than nearly all active preamps I have used. One axiom I have learned from building numerous systems is that even passive devices in the signal path can degrade the signal, and the more employed the more the odds increase that the signal will suffer. The simplicity of the transformer volume control avoids much of the molestation of the signal that occurs in active preamps.

The nature of a TVC’s sound can be so different from an active preamp that I am tempted to place it in an entirely different class of component. Just as dynamic or horn speakers are considered distinct genres so also it is not an unwarranted thought to consider a TVC as distinctly different from an active preamp – after all, it is quite different technology! In this respect the Baby Reference had less “electronic overburden,” as I call it, as well as less overall dynamic impact. Well regarded active preamps like the Pass Labs XP-20 and VAC Signature Preamplifier MkII have a heavier weighting of instruments, so selection of the preamp becomes a question of whether one prefers stronger density of images or purity of those same images.


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