Hastings is a town and borough in the county of East Sussex, on the south coast of England. Historically Hastings became well known because of the famous battle in 1066 at Battle Abbey (just a few miles northwest of Hastings) during the Norman conquest of England.
Today Hastings offers a range of attractions for the visitors ranging from Britain’s steepest funicular, to the meandering alleyways of the Old Town and the annual coastal Current Arts Festival which brings a stunning variety of works and performances to this lovely town. Hastings Museum and Art Gallery has amongst its highlights exhibitions dedicated to American Indians and Grey Owl, an early conservationist, who came from Hastings. Born in England as Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, and migrating to Canada in the first decade of the 20th century, he rose to prominence as a notable author, lecturer, and one of the most effective defenders of the wilderness. Together with his numerous articles, books, films and lectures, his views on conservation reached audiences beyond the borders of Canada, challenging people to re-evaluate their relationship with nature. His conservation views largely focused on humans’ negative impact on nature through their commodification of nature’s resources for profits, and a need for humans to develop a respect for the natural world.
Hastings just happens to be the home of one extraordinary audio device: the Bespoke Audio Company passive preamplifier. Why extraordinary, you might ask? Well, for a number of good reasons, as you will see.
The Bespoke Audio Company may be a new name on the high end audio scene, but the founders of the company, Harry O’Sullivan and Lucy Gastall, have had many years of experience developing and building transformer volume control preamplifiers. They are one of the nicest people in this business that I have ever met. Self confident but not pretentious like many other high end audio “celebrities”, they bring up interesting insights into the science and art of building state of the art passive preamplifiers.
Their approach is refined to the ninth degree and the attention to detail, fit and finish of their products is impeccable. Almost every part can be customised according to the customer`s needs and wishes: from the connections and features through to the cosmetics - all this is a sign of very serious commitment to customer`s satisfaction and gives a VERY POSITIVE overall impression.
MEET THE BESPOKE AUDIO COMPANY
The Bespoke Audio Company is a private limited company formed, owned and operated by Lucy Gastall and Harry O’Sullivan.
"We have many years of experience in the design and manufacture of world renowned audio transformers and award winning audio products, having worked together alongside an acclaimed audio designer in our previous roles. This experience was vital, both in terms of an exceptional grounding and insight into our profession, but also in terms of developing a desire to pursue excellence.
Lucy has a deeply held passion for the aesthetic, for excellence in design and for perfection in execution. She enjoys collecting antiques, from furniture and kitchenalia to historical architectural salvage and haberdashery. She is an avid reader and is rarely seen without her Kindle. She enjoys rally driving with her father in the 1959 Austin A35 they refurbished together and has had articles published in Practical Classics magazine about their adventures.
Harry comes from a professional audio background, having spent years working in live sound, engineering countless live music performances, from rock to jazz, classical to electronic, from tiny bars to festival stages. He plays guitar with a local band and as part of an acoustic duo and operates a small, not for profit, rehearsal studio in Hastings. He also has a small home recording studio which he uses to record local bands and singer/ songwriters. He still regularly works as a sound engineer, albeit in a scaled down capacity and welcomes the luxury to pick and choose the more interesting shows!
We share a passion for music and we founded The Bespoke Audio Company on two principles: to hold the experience of the customer as paramount and to accept no compromise in anything we do. We want to raise the standards of what can be expected from a high end audio company. Nothing less would be good enough for our customers, nothing else will do for us.
The Bespoke Audio Company gives us the freedom to set our own high objectives and to succeed or fail on our own merits.
We’ve been involved in the design and manufacture of multiple award winning audio products for the last ten years. We are confident we have the experience, the know-how and the proven track record to supply and support high end audio products and their proud owners.
Right from the start, we wiped the drawing board clean and worked to remove any restrictions. We worked with, and consulted with, other designers. We spent time with a local electronics genius, who is also an enthusiastic audiophile and who has a unique perspective, informed by years of servicing and repairing vintage hi-fi. His input was particularly useful because he has very little experience in transformer design, so was able to help us approach things from a perspective less prejudiced by habit, convention or engrained thinking.
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, to great effect.
We experimented a great deal over many months with different approaches and designs. Transformer design follows basic rules of science, of course, but we wanted to see what would happen if rules were ignored. The luxury of time to experiment like this meant we could try things that would not normally be given consideration. Breaking with convention usually produced predictable test results, but the sonic performance wasn’t always as expected, and this meant the potential existed for progress and spurred us on to keep experimenting.
Over time we narrowed things down to a few different design options and we built basic pre-amplifiers into identical (off the shelf) enclosures. We gave these pre-amplifiers common English male names like Nigel and Roger to try and remove any preconceptions, then sent them out to various listeners whose opinions we value and asked them to try these prototypes in their systems and let us know what they thought.
The response from the listeners was very positive. We found an instant, universal and compelling opinion prevailed and we were reassured that after many months of learning and experimentation, we’d found what we were looking for: a design which we feel pushes sonic performance beyond what could have been expected before.
Unfortunately, the transformer 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."
MEET THE PREAMPLIFIER
The preamplifier arrived in an impressive flight case, packed with a personalised manual and a set of white gloves.
In the specification sheet it was written:
“This pre-amplifier was designed and built for Mr. Matej Isak by Lucy Gastall and Harry O`Sullivan between 18th October and 27th November 2014. Its serial number is EIGHT.
It has the following technical specification:
Balanced inputs: three stereo pairs, Neutrik NC3MD-LX-M3 nickel housing, silver contacts
Unbalanced inputs: Three stereo pairs, WBT WBT0210CuMSR Topline nextgen
Balanced Outputs: one stereo pair, Neutrik NC3FD-LX-M3 nickel housing, silver contacts
Unbalanced Output: one stereo pair, WBT WBT0210CuMSR Topline nextgen
Remote Control: Level
Volume steps: 47 (1.5dB increments -67.5dB to 0dB)
Ground arrangement: right hand toggle for output one (balanced), left hand toggle for output two (unbalanced), switch toward front for ground, switch toward rear for lift.
Case: Clear anodised
Knob rings: Gold plated
Knob inserts: Gold plated
Trim rings: Gold plated
Lid: Walnut burr veneer
Every preamplifier unit is measured prior to shipment and the graphs are being put in the personalised manual - neat.
Visually, the Bespoke Audio preamplifier is simply stunning; the Walnut burr veneer lid, the potentiometer and the input selector with the gold plated knob rings, knob inserts and engraved letters are…simply a case of visual perfection.
Internally there are two large multi tapped transformers that occupy almost two thirds of the preamplifier and provide 46 steps of volume control, almost twice the number featured on the majority of other TVC pre amplifiers. The transformers are wound on custom made bobbins, featuring oversized cores enabling huge overload margins (30 volts - well above the level any preamplifier will ever experience) and hence ensuring no saturation will ever occur. The volume control is remote controlled (motorized) and it works smoothly and flawlessly.
During the analog era, audiophiles and music lovers were constantly looking for that perfect preamplification stage - among other things, of course. This was needed since many analog sources are inherently of a (relatively) low output design; however, nowadays majority of sources are digital, high output designs (not all of them though!) and here the quest for the high quality signal pre-amplification turned into the quest for high quality/lossless signal attenuation. With modern power amps being highly sensitive, this makes sense and is desirable - if we want to “mess” with the signal as little as possible.
Active preamplifiers, for all good they do, they also make harm: there is no way to avoid the sonic imprint on the reproduced signal due to all active stages incorporated in a typical active preamp. Technically, an active preamp is a device that uses electronic circuitry that can amplify line level voltages over unity gain and unity gain is the level of the signal when it enters the inputs of a preamplifier. Active preamplifiers can use tubes, discrete transistors, or integrated circuits (op-amps) as their gain devices but passive preamplifiers are the ones with no gain devices. An active preamplifier usually has high input impedance and low output impedance which makes the choice of interconnect cables relatively uncritical.
A passive preamplifier has no active electronics but there are variety of passives, out there, either based on resistors, LDR (light dependent resistor), autoformers or transformers.
Resistor based preamplifiers are highly sensitive in many regards: impedance mismatching and the need to use short output cables to avoid the negative effects of high cable capacitance.
The TVC (transformer volume control) based preamplifier on the other hand has all the benefits of a typical passive preamp (no noise, no distortion and (virtually) no coloration) but without the disadvantages like the impedance mismatch, limited frequency response or loss of dynamics and: longer interconnects can be used.
The task of amplifying the (weak) signal and performing it in a completely “stealth” style is probably nearly impossible but like already mentioned, with high output digital sources what we really need is “merely” a lossless attenuation of the signal…easy to say but difficult to achieve.
I have tried various passives in the past and while I have heard some advantages, at the end of the day I have felt the music simply sounded less real and involving. The main reasons for this impression were degraded dynamics and reduced “energy levels” - not really reminiscent of live events but then one day… the Bespoke Audio preamplifier came along and changed the notion of what a passive preamplifier can do…
Why again 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 it’s optimum pace, we’re simply using gears to adjust it’s 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.
THE BESPOKE AUDIO EXPERIENCE
Let me start by saying this: from the day one I was hooked by the sonic qualities of this beautiful preamplifier! What I have expected was a neutral but somewhat bland and lifeless presentation but these were obviously just my prejudices based on my prior experience with passives; the resultant sound of the Bespoke Audio preamplifier was actually anything but lifeless, quite on the contrary, the things I cherish the most were all presented in a colossal fashion. The music sparkled, the instruments and voices had weight, the micro and macro dynamic shadings were first rate and the energy levels were just superb. This brings up an interesting point: even some active preamps reduce the energy levels inherent in the music/recordings and this is apparently a sign of a not so well thought-out amplification stage which at the end detracts bits and pieces from the original event and here we have a passive preamplifier that does NOT do this in any perceivable form. Now, that`s an achievement!
Moving on, the bass was superb in all areas: extension, control, punch, rhythmic abilities and dynamic range. The crucial lower midrange and upper bass had tremendous weight AND control as well. The vocal range was smooth and very open sounding; more so than ever I got the impression “someone” was literally standing in front of me, so vivid and lifelike was the presentation. The sound on the whole was very immediate and convincingly real. High frequency extension, resolution of the most minute details and overal transparency levels were all breathtakingly good.
The Bespoke Audio preamplifier really shined in the 3D holographic imaging department; the instrumental outlines were extremely vivid and sharply defined and the size of the recording venue could be really cavernous at times, depending on the recording. With classical music the front-to-back layering was just phenomenal; the soundstage width could easily stretched beyond the speakers` positions and the reverberation cues were really strongly presented.
The instrumental tonal colour range was generally excellent and the Bespoke Audio preamplifier just presented what went in: it added nothing and it removed nothing - no editorializing on the music material. Great recordings shone through the Bespoke Audio preamplifier; bad recordings were simply revealed as such - no romantic waxing here.
At all times, the sound provided by the Bespoke Audio preamplifier remained extremely transparent, effortlessly natural and delicate. The music sounded very alive and most importantly: highly involving.
Reviewing the audio components presents a great opportunity to discover musical gems from the geographical areas these devices come from..and present them to music lovers around the world. Wiki says: “The historic county of Sussex in southern England has a rich musical heritage that encompasses the genres of folk, classical and rock and popular music amongst others. With the unbroken survival of its indigenous music, Sussex was at the forefront of the English folk music revivals of the 19th and 20th centuries. Many classical composers have found inspiration in Sussex, and the county continues to have a thriving musical scene across the musical genres.“
Hatful of Rain, an acoustic music group from Brighton and Shoreham-by-Sea. They perform original songs that combine English folk sounds with harmony singing and American bluegrass and old time music. Two great examples are here:
John Ireland`s A Downland Suite - 3rd Movement (Minuet) is a beautiful piece inspired by the Sussex countryside, particularly the downland around Chanctonbury Ring:
Brighton-based singer Claire Martin is well known among audiophiles and has won the Best Vocalist award in the British Jazz Awards five times. Here is her beautiful rendition of “When I fall In love”:
From this area comes a jazz wizard, Zoe Rahman who received a Mercury Prize nomination for her 2006 album Melting Pot.
Listening to all this fantastic music through the Bespoke Audio preamplifier was a thrilling experience that I won`t easily forget.
The Bespoke Audio Company’s first product, their TVC based passive preamplifier, shows in a striking manner what can be achieved with this approach - in the ultimate sense. The sound it produces illuminates the depths of every recording that crosses its path, removing all veils and adding no sonic imprint whatsoever. Add to that the extremely elegant visual aesthetics, a variety of available custom finishes, aided by the top notch build quality and a first rate customer support and you get a product that in my opinion deserves to join the elite company of Mono & Stereo Upper Echelon award.
The Bespoke Audio Company Preamplifier fits into the niche market of specific demand. When implemented in the right system it can really show its potential. The Bespoke Audio Company product and services finally felt like high-end audio experience should. From the first moment to the last everything was about quality and personal services. I’ve really felt treated in a similar way like buying an expensive high-end watch. In analogy to haute horology turning the volume knob brought back that familiar mechanical feeling and haptic feedback. Wonderful!
I must not forget about the remote control of volume. The solution is mighty easy and as straightforward as it gets. Top grade ELNA motorised switcher operates the changing of the taps via apple design remote. This remote unit operates on the unique frequency, preventing the possible interaction with the existing Apple gear. Its powered via outboard power supply and have practically zero interaction with the internal passive gain structure. This is as pure and as it gets.
While the review sample came with zero dB gain attenuating if needed one can order + 6dB gain version, that might react better in a certain situations.
Many if not most companies these days are missing the point of high-end audio experience. Way back we moved into the realms of luxury items and branding. At such pace customers should receive the service and feeling of dedicated luxury privilege. There is no half ways here.
The Bespoke Audio Company leads the way and shows vividly and stand out how high-end audio experience should feel like.
I do really hope to add their stand out preamplifier into my reference system at one point. Why? The Bespoke Audio Company preamplifier is not only top tier out music lover and audiophile component, but a transparent via medium, that can act as a refined and state of the art tool for a reviewer on a day to day basis, for both, testing and comparing. It also act as passive balanced to RCA converter and vice versa. A mighty, potent musical box without a signature of its own.
Price: GBP 9000.
The Bespoke Audio Company
T: +44(0)1424 756471
M: +44(0)7410 696583