A product of Music First Audio’s Jonathan Billington and Longdog Audio’s Nick Gorham, Paul Rigby reviews the Music First Audio Reference Moving Magnet Phono Amplifier
In the same way that the integrated amplifier was conceptually divided into a pre-amp and two monoblocks to minimise noise and improve sound, Music First and Longdog have produced a phono amp consisting of a MM-supporting phono amp, a separate power supply and, to enable Moving Coil use, the option to buy the already established Music First Moving Coil Cartridge Step-Up unit. Billington adopted a football metaphor to emphasise his view of the final layout, “You want the worlds best defence, midfield and attackers. You won’t find one player who is brilliant at all three roles. You perfect each part of the system and the system is the perfect team.”
For the new dual box phono amp, the Music First and Longdog ‘team’ combined a new RIAA module, combining Music First Audio inductors and new electronics from Longdog, “My part includes two wire-wound inductors, large and small,” said Billington. “For the latter, I’ve used an air core inductor. Many inductors need a ferrite or metal core. I managed to squeeze enough turns of copper wire onto a bobbin to achieve the value needed without the use of a metal core. This has the advantage of leaving the value completely constant independent of frequency, giving a non-coloured output.”
A blend of solid state and valves, the dual mono design utilises, for each channel, the d3a pentode, 5687 dual triode and 6072a dual triode valves, “So that, combined with nice resistors (Takman and Charcroft) and top quality capacitors (Mundorf and SCR) and the metalwork company that Music First use to provide non-ferrous casework, gave us the final phono stage,” added Gorham.
Controls are simple. A front-mounted power button triggers a thirty-second calibration routine. Around the back are the usual RCA inputs to take a MM signal, a grounding post plus a pair of RCA outputs while an umbilical 16-pin cable connects the power supply to the phono amp. The power supply accepts an IEC power cable.
Initially, I connected the Music First Step-Up unit to my reference Icon Audio PS3 valve phono amp, before adding the new, two box, phono amp.
I began by testing the MM side of the new Music First Reference Phono Amp, plugging in an Ortofon 2M Black, the best MM cartridge on the market, and comparing that with the MM stage of my Icon Audio PS3 valve phono amp,
spinning the prog rock track, Yes’ Yours Is No Disgrace.
I was initially impressed by the tremendous gain. In fact, I had to knock my pre-amp down a full ten notches to match the previous volume. Sonically, the vocal harmonies were both clean and emotively fascinating. There was a ‘lot going on’ in the upper mids. Steve Howe’s guitar complexities where untangled and laid bare while percussive rim shots were dry and crisp. Within the broadened and epic soundstage, bass was rather more in your face, hefty and punchy. Notable was the jazz-like drumming of Bill Bruford whose convoluted yet delicate drum style was easily articulated by the Music First.
Despite the impressive Moving Magnet performance, you wouldn’t buy this expensive system just to play this rather noisy cartridge technology with its limited dynamic range. So I connected the Music First MC Step-Up (you can use Step-Ups from other manufacturers, though) and replaced the 2M Black with my Benz Glider and played Holst’s Planets, via Karajan, and Saturn – the Bringer of Old Age, an ideal track to highlight dynamic contrasts. Playback removed noise producing a quieter backdrop to the low key introduction.
Adding the new Reference Phono Amp, though, the performance really began. Introductory cellos found a new portentous threat in the lower registers, giving an impressive bass weight, full of potential power while an early string sweep offered a radiant array of violins. As the first crescendo built, the Music First enabled the music to describe both a softness in terms of the strings draped over a fist of steel offered by the brass. A most difficult combination to pull off but performed here with aplomb. It wasn’t until we arrived at the second, magnificent, crescendo, that the Music First pulled out all of the stops. Largely free of distortion, the resident upper mid bloom on the muscular brass was gone to reveal the grandeur of the Berliner Philharmoniker in all its might.
As part of a MC step-up, three box, system, the new Music First Reference Phono Amplifier offers a highly attractive presentation providing both clarity and transparency that frees up a wealth of detail.
MUSIC FIRST AUDIO REFERENCE MOVING MAGNET PHONO AMPLIFIER
Tel: 01424 858260
Good: smooth and detailed sound, clarity, low distortion
Bad: price, no mono/stereo switch
Avid Acutus turntable
SME IV arm
Benz Glider cartridge
Icon PS3 phono amp
Aesthetix Calypso Preamp
Icon Audio CD-X1 CD player