At £9000 the Bespoke Audio Co passive Preamplifier certainly isn’t cheap, but this is a hand-made in the UK, luxury product that is not meant to be within the reach of the majority of people. Stuart Smith takes a listen. 

The Bespoke Audio Company is a UK based manufacturer with just the one product to their name, but their aim is to build this product without compromise and with the focus being on delivering a truly luxurious experience for the customer from start to finish and saying that the Bespoke Audio Preamplifier will be the “last preamplifier you will ever own”. Bold claims indeed.ba17s

You can choose the configuration of your preamplifier to satisfy your needs and in collaboration with the people at Bespoke. Once you have decided on the configuration, the colour etc, they will then begin work on the preamplifier…a process that will take around five weeks. During this time Bespoke will keep you updated with regards the progress and even send you videos of your transformers being wound, photographs of the build and weekly updates.

You can choose a whole load of options from the colour of the case, the colour of the detailing and the colour of the lid. You can also choose how the inputs and outputs are configured with there being six inputs and two outputs, with any combination of XLR and RCA connections. As standard you get a volume control with 46 steps over a 67.5dB range, WBT -0120 Cu Topline Nextgen RCA sockets, Neutrik NC3F/MD-LX-M3 XLR sockets and Jupiter Condenser Company cotton insulated 4N copper internal wiring. You also get an Apple remote that will control the volume – I’d have liked to have seen a bespoke unit that matched the preamplifier here. I spoke to Harry at Bespoke with regards this and he assures me that it is their plan to have a more “bespoke” remote control built at which time they will replace all the current units already with customers. However, you can request a whole host of options over and above the standard options outlined. I put in a request for a decidedly obscure back panel layout by way of testing the company and they were only too happy to oblige, sending over diagrams and pictures of what this would look like.ba12s

Let’s get one thing out of the way right from the start…this is not your common or garden product. This is a product aimed squarely at the luxury end of the market, a market that wants to feel that they are getting not only the best available sound, but also the best available finish and service. This all carries a premium, so if you are the kind of person who feels that paying nine grand for a preamplifier is outrageous then I suggest you turn away now and read no further. Personally I don’t get the bellyaching “it costs how much?” brigade – basically I think there’s a degree of jealousy involved.  If you are the kind of person that appreciates that hand built, quality products, be they fine watches, bespoke tailoring or whatever, carry a premium then read on, for you are the kind of person for whom The Bespoke Audio Company exist.

Linette and I bang on a good deal about the “Christmas Morning” effect…that feeling when a product arrives on your doorstep, the anticipation you feel and the delight you experience (or not) when you unpack the bit of kit you have spent your hard earned money on. Here Bespoke have got it right in my mind. The unit arrives in a well padded flight-case which you open to reveal the unit wrapped in Bespoke monogrammed paper. I think the industrial and functional nature of the flight-case is a little out of keeping with what is inside, but it does its job well in respect of protecting its precious cargo.ba9s

Lift the unit out the box and it is a weighty master-class in understated elegance – large volume control knob on the right and source selector on the left. Round the back you’ve got all the inputs and outputs and that’s your lot. Well almost. I had an issue with an irritating buzz which through the 104dB sensitive Avantgarde Duos was a bit much and something I wasn’t expecting. I tried everything – changed the cables, changed the source, changed the DAC, working it back and coming to the conclusion that it had to be the fault of the preamplifier. I called Harry at Bespoke and told him I was having issues and that it was definitely the fault of the pre. His response was a “Did you read the manual?” “Well of course not” was my response. A couple of minutes later and a quick fiddle with two ground-lift switches on the underside of the pre and all was well. Not a peep other than a bit of valve whoosh from the DAC.ba3s

Let’s take a look at the manual for a moment for it is little things like this that make owning a product like the Bespoke Audio preamp a bit of an experience. First of all the manual is a series of sheets of heavy-weight paper with the first sheet being in the form of a letter addressed to us by name…nice touch. Also in there is a specification sheet that tells us that this particular pre was built by Lucy Gastall and Harry O’Sullivan between 26th March and 22nd April 2015 and that it was retested on 22nd September 2015 before it was sent out to us… this is obviously a unit that is used for reviews etc. Also in the manual is a test report for the transformers and loads more techy stuff.

This particular unit came with three balanced XLR inputs, three unbalanced RCA inputs, one balanced XLR output and one unbalanced output…all stereo pairs obviously.

It was anodized black with chrome plated knob rings, inserts and trim rings and a black lid. Dimensions are 110 x 305 x 345mm (HWD) and it weighs a not inconsiderable 14Kg. Here the buyer has options too with details being available in Gold, Chrome or Black Nickel plate…you can even choose what to have the engraving around the input selector says, as each surround is engraved to order. You can have a choice of clear, black or champagne case and the lid can be anodized aluminium to match the case, clear Perspex or a variety of burr veneers. Speaking to Harry he suggests that they can do pretty much anything with him telling me the story of an American client who wanted a blue LED building into the volume knob so he could see where it was at from the listening position in his darkened listening room.

The build of the Bespoke Audio Preamplifier is without question of a very high standard indeed and is as you would expect.

Now this is a passive preamplifier and has no plug or power supply of any kind and uses transformers in its innards which Harry will explain in his Designer’s Comments that follow this piece. I confess to having no idea and no interest in how things work and concern myself only with the end result and the music that comes out of the speakers. I’ve been using an active valve pre for the last couple of years in the form of the Coffman Labs G-1A, but I have dabbled with a couple of passive designs in the past from NVA and Tisbury…both MUCH less costly than the Bespoke it has to be said. Personally I have found that I preferred the extra drive and oomph that an active design offers up to the final sound, perhaps at the cost of absolute clarity and fidelity, and so it was with a good deal of interest that I agreed to have a play with the Bespoke Audio pre.ba4s

The usual suspects form the reference system that the Bespoke slotted into and were as follows. The signals feeding the pre were from a Lampizator Big 7 DAC (with files from a dedicated laptop or CDs from a Musical Fidelity NuVista 3D) and then the pre outputs to the excellent Merrill Audio Thor monoblocs which in turn powered the Avantgarde Duo XD loudspeakers or Audio Physic Avanti IIIs. Analogue signals came from an Audio Technica OC9 cartridge in a Wand arm into Graham Slee Elevator/Reflex combo. Cables from Merrill Audio, Chord Company, Atlas, Vermouth Audio, Tellurium Q, Graham Slee and Melodika were used throughout.

SOUND

Well, there’s not really a great deal to say about the sound of the Bespoke Audio preamplifier as it seems to offer so little a sonic signature as to be pretty much transparent in my system. What I did notice is that bad recordings were highlighted as such, but feed it with the best signal (The Naxos, DSD release of Jazz At the Pawnshop is a case in point here) and you will be justly rewarded.

At no point did I feel I was missing out on the extra drive that I mentioned getting from active preamplifiers and the music bounded along as it should whatever source I used and whatever speakers (the Duos have active bass modules and hence using the more conventional Audio Physics).

The whole clarity and transparency of the listening experience with the Bespoke in place (and with good sources) leads to you listening to more of the “air” in a recording, particularly with acoustic (real) instruments… which as I have written it sounds a bit daft. What I’m trying to convey, perhaps badly, is that good recordings of real instruments just seem to open up and let you into the soundscape in a fashion I’ve not experienced on my system previously – if you have ever popped a pair of supertweeters into your system it’s a similar kind of experience.ba6s

On rock, techno and more hard hitting music I again found I didn’t feel I was missing out on any of the “drive”of my active pre. Indeed, particularly with well recorded techno, I felt that extra lucidity in the mid and upper registers afforded by the Bespoke, allowed for a better spatial insight … that is, a more three dimensional feeling to the stereo image. Again, I’m not conveying this in the best way, but one way to describe the feeling of this preamplifier is that you are more aware of things that are no longer present – a silence becomes silent. Driving bass notes lose none of their bounce and power on this kind of music … and this is genuinely where I thought I would prefer my current pre.

The Bespoke adds little character of its own to the listening experience and changing source to a lesser DAC (for example) becomes immediately apparent …and here lies one of the issues inherent in a product like the Bespoke. It is just so revealing of what is before it in the chain that you need to ensure that your sources are the very best you can afford…or that you enjoy the most.  ba20s

CONCLUSION

I was a little apprehensive about testing out this preamplifier. First of all it is expensive and something of a luxury product in the truest sense of the word and, secondly, being passive I expected to miss the apparent drive my active pre adds to the game. I also thought that the Bespoke would lay bare my Class D Thor amplifiers as being clinical and lacking that bit of warmth my valve pre apparently adds. However, I was pleasantly (very pleasantly) surprised as to just how much I enjoyed my time with it. It is (cliché alert) an open window to the recording and the electronics you have in the system, allowing you to see and hear further into a recording than with my current reference, but at the same time it is not clinical or fatiguing in any way.ba2s

Inevitably, any review of the Bespoke Audio preamplifier is going to draw comparisons with the Music First Baby Reference (which I also have here for review), and sonically I have to say that it is pretty much impossible to distinguish the two. However, to judge the Bespoke Audio product purely on its sonic merits would be to miss the whole idea somewhat, as I believe prospective buyers of the two products fall into two distinct camps. In the Music First camp you have the audiophile looking for sonic excellence at a relatively affordable price, whilst in the Bespoke Audio glamping arena you have the well to do audiophile looking for sonic excellence, but also looking for that indefinable quality that owning a luxury product brings to the table.

Yes this is a pricey product and as such is never going to represent great value for money in the strictest sense, but people who buy it aren’t going to be overly concerned over splashing the cash to get something that is hand built, beautifully presented and sounds … well it sounds of very little to be honest.

I have no qualms in heartily recommending this unit.

Build quality: 9.25RECOMMENDED LOGO NEW

Sound quality: 9.0

Value for money: 8.0

Total: 8.75 

Pros:

Beautiful build and presentation

Bespoke to your needs with regards inputs and output configuration

Transparent and revealing 

Cons:

So transparent care needs to be taken with partnering equipment

Current remote is a bit “tagged on”

Price is currently beyond my means

Stuart Smith

 

Designer’s Notes

Why a passive pre-amplifier?

To be clear, our opinion on the merits of a passive pre-amplifier over an active design is only that: our opinion.

Modern sources have output levels which are more than capable of driving amplifiers to their maximum volume. So, a pre-amplifier is almost always used to reduce (or attenuate) the signal level. Since there is no need to increase gain, the active element of a pre-amplifier could be considered to be effectively redundant.

Unfortunately, even though they are redundant, the active electronics can cause problems:

  • Active electronics introduce noise. This is often heard as a hiss when no music is playing, but it’s also there when music is playing.
  • Active electronics rely on the quality of their power supply. This can be a problem because good internal power supplies are expensive and difficult to make and because even the best power supply is reliant on the quality of the mains electricity feeding it, which is often far from perfect!
  • Active electronics can cause distortions. “Distortion” doesn’t always mean the sound of a fuzzy electric guitar. In this instance the term “distortion” is simply defined as changes between the signal going into the pre-amplifier and the signal going out. Unless an active circuit is exceptionally well designed it is likely there will be some distortion, however small. In a good design, this distortion might be so small that it’s nearly inaudible, but it is always there. And of course, not all designs are good!

Of course, in some circumstances, for some listeners, an active pre-amplifier is preferable. It might be that the active pre-amplifier adds something to the sound in a pleasing way. It might be that the active pre-amplifier’s sound, when balanced with a particular sound elsewhere in the system results in a neutrality, or in a performance which the listener enjoys.

Our approach is that the loudspeakers should be suited to the room, the power amplifier should be capable of driving the loudspeakers and the pre-amplifier should be as transparent as possible. Any particular sonic signature the listener prefers should ideally come from the source or from the loudspeakers. The amplification chain should offer neutrality, otherwise there is potential for the system to operate as a kind of “see-saw” where each component’s performance is dictated and affected by the others. This approach can, of course, result in excellent performance, but it can prove a problem when one or other part of the chain is changed. 

Why a transformer passive pre-amplifier?

One option is to simply remove the active element of a pre-amplifier and just use the volume control (either as a potentiometer or as a stepped resistive “ladder” attenuator) – called a resistive passive pre-amplifier.

This partially ameliorates the possible problems associated with active electronics (above), but there are some technical issues. Briefly, relying on only resistive attenuation can result in very poor impedance matching. This can lead to problems with high frequency response and may explain the common perception that passive pre-amplifiers lack “drive”. In order to minimise this effect, it is necessary to use short interconnects, and to pay careful attention to the source and load impedances.

The results with resistive passives can be excellent, but the technical limitations can mean that compromises must be made elsewhere in the system (cable length and the specifications of other components), which might not be ideal.

Another solution is to use a transformer with a multi tapped secondary winding to allow it to step down the level in various increments – a Transformer Volume Control (TVC).

A good analogy here is with a car. Using a resistive passive is a little like putting the brakes on, it’s inefficient. Using a transformer is like changing gears – the engine is always working at its optimum pace, we’re simply using gears to adjust its pace to our own preference.

There are many other benefits to using a transformer, not least of which is the ability to convert balanced and unbalanced signals in either direction. There’s also the ability to completely isolate/decouple the source and load (called Galvanic Isolation), to break ground loops and further minimise noise. 

In simple terms, a transformer is made by forming a wire coil around a core. The wire itself is wound onto a bobbin and the core is inserted into the bobbin (and therefore the coil). In order that our transformer design would not be constrained by commercially available components, we designed our own bobbin. This means we have more space to experiment with winding design and we can use a larger core.

The transformer we finally chose to build had become too large to fit into readily available shielding cans so we had to have a tool made to manufacture our own Mu-Metal cans. Our helpful local electronics engineer explained that in his experience of repairing older equipment he’d found the petroleum wax used to pot transformers was corroding the lacquer on winding wire. Eventually, over an extended period, this caused transformers to fail completely, but he also speculated that before this total failure, there must also be a point where the transformer’s performance will be impacted. For this reason, we chose to pot our transformers in beeswax.

We’ve taken the same care and applied the same meticulous attention to every aspect of our pre-amplifier, from the exquisite casework to the individually printed owner’s manual. Finally, we strive for complete excellence in the supply and support of our product, from the first enquiry to the delivery of the hand made unit itself and beyond. Our products carry a lifetime guarantee, so it’s not unreasonable to say the service lasts forever.

Harry O’Sullivan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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