Jonathan Billington is the person behind Music First Audio who make TVC preamplifiers, phonostages, step up transformers, headphone amplifiers and have just opened a dedicated listening listening space called the Music First Studio. Hifi Pig gets Behind The Brands with Jonathan.
How did you get into/what was your first job in the industry?
My First job after leaving school in 1978 was winding transformers for Stevens & Billington Ltd.
Who or what was the biggest influence on your career?
I was very lucky. My parents introduced me to music at a young age. Full orchestral performances before I was 10 years old. I loved music from such a young age. And the family firm made audio transformers.
Proudest moment/product you’re most proud of?
What product do you wish you had never conceived/launched?
Nothing springs to mind.
Tell Hifi Pig readers about your next project and what they can expect in the future from you and your company.
I started making moving coil step up transformers in 1988. Line control transformers in 1998. And Phono Amps in 2015. So it has to be power amps and loudspeakers next. Keep your eyes on the our news page on the Music First Audio website
You and your system
What was your very first system?
In the 60’s my grandmother gave me a transistor radio. Radio Luxembourg was way better than homework. Not quite a system but I was now hooked on recorded music.
Tell us about your system history and the way it has developed to the system you have today.
In the 70’s my parents bought me a mono turntable with the speaker in the lid. My first good system turned up in around 1988. Cambridge Audio CD3 into Musical Fidelity A100 integrated power amp and onto Musical Fidelity MC2 speakers. By the late 1980’s I was making transformers for many UK companies. Getting hold of components was not a problem. Here is a chronological list of the components that have been used in my home system and have made me smile.
Audio Note K’s. I still have a pair. EAR valve integrated power amp sounded very nice. Audion silver knights (I think) sounded good. The Audio Note K’s were replaced with J’s and later E’s. I used the Cambridge Audio CD3 as a source at home for many years. Then I reintroduced myself back into vinyl. I sourced a Nottingham Analogue Spacedeck with a Rega arm. Cartridge by Ortofon. Now I wire up some of my own transformers for MC step up and run into an Audio Note (UK) Phono stage. Speakers are still Audio Note (UK) and power is by EAR integrated. Now I introduce my first Transformer Volume Control into the system. By now its 1999. These TVC’s really do a very good job. Since then I have played with an SME V arm, Quad ESL 63, Bel Canto, Quad 405-2 that I am still using.
I have used Howes Acoustics Quad11 power amps, and Howes Acoustics ¼ wave speakers. Then I get into reel to reel tape machines. My first one was a Revox A77. Making recordings from a Firestone Audio DAC from the Cute range. It’s still being used at work. Then I used a B77 machine. And today I use a Nagra machine. So today (25 August 2016) I will go home and listen to:
Audio Note (UK) TT2, Ortofon mc15 super 11, Audio Note arm.
Music First Audio Classic SUT
Music First Audio Reference Phono Amplifier
Nagra IV-SJ real to reel
Music First Audio Classic QSE Pre-Amplifier
Cables by Melodika
What component/product do you miss the most/wish you had never got rid of?
Rogers LS3/5A (don’t ask!)
How often do you listen to music?
Best system (or single component) you have ever heard (no brands you represent please…!)
MSB Select 11 DAC, SME 30. The best system I have heard this year was thanks to Mr. Williams in Leicestershire. Some lovely modified Quad ESL 57’s and a rather nice Pre-Amplifier. Icon Audio power amps and phono amp (I think). Good power conditioning and very good positioning of components.
The state of the industry
What’s your view on the valve renaissance of the past 20 years or so?
For many, valve amps never went away. As a transformer manufacturer I have been pleased with the renaissance. As a show exhibitor you need to keep a few spare valves not far away and have a good transistor back up. I have heard some great systems over the years. Some valve and some not.
Vinyl resurgence… what are your thoughts?
I put on my 1977 vinyl copy of The Jam’s “This is The Modern World” a few days ago. On the inner sleeve was a message from my first girlfriend. “Lots of love Christina x” No more needed.
Is CD a dying format?
What are you views on the state of the industry/where is it going/what will it look like in 5 years/what will typical systems look like?/What will happen to prices?/What will happen to the high end – will it carry on regardless?
I sit at work and listen to my demonstration system. It all ways makes me smile and sometimes I cry with joy. Well perhaps a small tear. The British HiFi industry has a magnificent past and will continue, at its best, to produce magnificent components that will make many more listeners smile and feel joy. As engineers and manufacturers, we must all ways make sure we all ways move things forward. A small step forwards does take a lot of research and development. The overall effect of these small steps produces exceptional results. I hope the industry moves forward through engineering and design improvements. Let’s not rely on marketing and focus groups. I dread to think what they could come up with. When was the last time a pretty box made you smile or produce a tear of joy?
Digital downloads, what do you think their impact has been on the way people listen to music?
I love them. If you are on the move your phone or similar will be a great way to hear your choice of music. Last Saturday evening I downloaded Christine and the Queens “Tilted” and I loved it. So I then downloaded the complete album. Then I transferred to my Nagra TA-TC reel to reel on 7.5” tapes at 7.5 ips. I had to do some editing. Now I have the tape at home and the digital at work. As far as analogue / digital goes I am a firm believer in putting music first.
How do we engage young people, the audiophiles of the future?
Buy them a transistor radio. Then a TT with perhaps 2 speakers. Hope they hear a full orchestra or Jazz trio, perhaps a beautiful African choir. And then just hope that they get the opportunity to hear a great system. Perhaps a parent or relative. Or a system set up in a wonderful demonstration studio. We have to work at it and keep our fingers crossed. And remember the harder you work the luckier you get.
Online shopping’s effect on the retail industry?
It is good for sausages.
What are the industry’s biggest con(s)?
What’s the deadline for this piece?
The way you work
Presuming the measurements are fine, what do you listen for when assessing products?
Take it home and have a listen or use it for a few days in the demonstration studio.
Your sound preference -‘Smooth, listenable musicality’, ‘forward, driving, ‘foot-tapping’, involving sound’ or ‘detailed neutrality and transparency’?
Detailed neutrality and transparency is a good start.
Turntable preferences…direct drive, belts, Idlers or what?
All mine use belts and sound good to me.
Your preference – Full-range floorstanders or freestanding mini monitors with a sub?
A well-built BBC designed monitor speaker sounds pretty good to me.
It’s all about the music, man…
What is your favourite recording?
Are you joking? It is a bit like asking George Best “what’s your favourite beer? “
Tell us about your 3 most trusted test recordings.
Lou Reed-Transformer. Lou Reed-Transformer and Lou Reed-Transformer. I guess that is a three phase transformer.
What are your most embarrassing recordings/guilty musical pleasures.
Am I aloud to say Gary Glitter?
Having safely ushered your loved ones out of the house as it is burning down to the ground, you ignore all standard safety advice and dash back inside to grab just one recording – what is it?
It would have to be my original vinyl copy of This Is The Modern World by The Jam.
Thanks for speaking with with Hifi Pig, Jonathan