You’re invited to read an exclusive, in-depth interview with The Bespoke Audio Company, where you’ll learn how it all began, what makes Bespoke Audio Company so unique, about its utmost quality standards, and what sets it apart from other high-end audio manufacturers.
How and when did it all start?
We met in 2007 when we both worked with an acclaimed high end audio manufacturer. This experience gave us a vital grounding in the industry and exposure to some genuinely outstanding brands and products.
We agreed that the customer was often underserved and believed there was an opportunity to offer a different approach: The Bespoke Audio Company.
We are both self confessed perfectionists, and working together allows us to push each other, although our refusal to compromise or take shortcuts can occasionally challenge our partners and suppliers… The only time we have argued was when custom made fixings for the rear panel took us over budget.
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.
Why the name?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word bespoke as: “made specially, according to the needs of an individual customer” so our name serves as a constant reminder of our values. We produce each pre-amplifier to our customer’s specification and consider every choice and action from the customer’s perspective.
Would you describe yourselves as audiophiles?
We are music lovers who enjoy beautifully made things. We want recorded music to sound as good as it possibly can and we want products to exceed expectations. High end audio allows us to indulge both these passions.
Music is a powerful enough art form that it is beautiful when played through even a tiny transistor loudspeaker, but as anyone who is lucky enough to have enjoyed high end sound knows, music reproduction itself can also be beautiful.
Does it seem that Hastings plays an essential role in the raison d’être of The Bespoke Audio Company?
Hastings is a small town on the south coast of England where William the Conqueror landed nearly a thousand years ago. We are fortunate to work in such a peaceful and picturesque place, surrounded by the sea on one side and rolling countryside on the other.
The town has a particularly strong live music scene and a long history of art and music. In recent years it has risen in profile both as a destination for tourists, keen to enjoy some culture, and for national and international acts who come both to perform, but also to check out the local talent. Our town has a seemingly endless roster of live music events throughout the year, from countless intimate gigs in the Old Town right through to the extraordinary spectacle of Hastings Fat Tuesday.
We can’t say that being based in Hastings specifically contributes The Bespoke Audio Company, but living and working in such a charming place and surrounded by an abundance of live music certainly can’t hurt!
Can you tell us something about your background?
Lucy has a 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 spent time 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. Her refusal to compromise extends to the renovation of old properties and she often finds herself picking up tools or learning new skills in order to make sure that the finished work meets her high standard!
Harry comes from a professional audio background, having spent years working in live sound, engineering countless performances, from rock to jazz, classical to electronic, from tiny bars to festival stages. He still works regularly in several local venues and enjoys occasional tours around larger halls and theatres, with the luxury of being able to pick and choose the more interesting shows. When he’s not working he is usually to be found playing guitar or cycling around the countryside.
Our different backgrounds compliment each other. We each bring our own experience and perspective, but we are entirely aligned on to objectives of our business and the way we best serve our customers. We built our working relationship on the belief that we could do better and strive for excellence. This remains our approach each day.
From a laic point of view, what is the difference between your passive and active amplifier? At its core, is it just the attenuator, a magnetic volume control?
A pre-amplifier is the control centre of a high end audio system, used to select sources and control the volume level. Active and passive pre-amplifiers fulfil the same role, but with fundamentally different approaches. Our Biography and Technical document explains these different designs in more detail and outlines the development of our own solution.
Which approach is suitable for any given listener or system is a matter of personal preferences. No one product is right for every situation, so wherever possible, we suggest comparing options in your own system and with your own music.
Bespoke Audio Company’s preamplifier was designed and envisioned to be the last preamplifier you will ever need!?
Yes. Our aim is to remove the compromises inherent in choosing between different off-the-shelf products, but instead to build the product our customer wants. Our pre-amplifier is designed for to be transparent, which means it will work well with a wide range of sources and power amplifiers. The pre-amplifier will continue to perform the same role to the same high standard regardless of other changes made in a system.
Our flexible design also means our products can easily be modified if requirements change in the future. Inputs and outputs can be reconfigured between balanced XLR or unbalanced RCA, Home Theatre Bypass or remote source selection can be added and even the engraved labels can be updated.
Would you say that The Bespoke Audio Company preamplifier follows the philosophy of ultimate purism,
A Straight Wire With Gain?
Yes. Our product is designed to avoid imparting any sonic character of its own, but instead to preserve the purity of the original signal. What comes out of our pre-amplifier should be exactly the same as what went in, but at a volume the listener chooses.
The passive nature of our design goes a long way toward achieving this goal, with only the wire, connectors, transformer, source and level switches in the signal path. We use only the finest quality components and hand wind our own transformers, to our own design, to ensure as little impact as possible on the signal itself.
Where is the fine line between transparency, musicality, balance, and natural equilibrium of timbre, tone, and color?
Rather than seeing these as competing values, we want them to compliment each other. It is not about considering what we can do with the signal as much as thinking about how we can minimise any impact on the signal. The customer will have chosen components in their system which reflect the qualities they enjoy. Our approach is that the pre-amplifier should not compromise the customer’s choices.
You offer a copper and a silver version. How would you describe the differences?
We have heard both copper and silver wired versions of our pre-amplifier in countless systems and we concluded that any differences are dependant on other factors in the system. Sometimes it can be extremely hard to hear a difference between the two, other times there is a clear preference for one or the other.
We wind our transformers to the same design and to the same tolerances whether they are silver or copper.
While the silver wired version is more expensive, we do not regard it as a premium product. The difference in price is simply a reflection of the increased cost of working with silver wire; the material itself is expensive and more difficult to work with than copper, much to Lucy’s consternation…
Tell us more about your in-house winding of the transformers. It must be painstaking to calculate all the steps while maintaining the full frequency range and spatiality intact.
Although we are both familiar with every aspect of production, it is Lucy who winds all our transformers. We developed our own transformers and keep production in-house to ensure each one is perfect. We are fanatical about every aspect of the process and it would be unrealistic to expect a third party supplier to put up with our demands!
Our Biography and Technical document explains the design process for the transformers themselves. Transformers are always wound in pairs. During production we have to be sure that every single transformer is absolutely identical so we fully test at every stage, including listening tests along the way.
We work to extremely high tolerances so we are confident that environmental changes day to day or tolerances of test equipment and testing processes have more effect than discrepancies in manufacture.
There is also zero and a 6dB option. How do they differ technically and sonically?
Ours is a passive pre-amplifier so it does not offer active gain, but it can be wired to offer a 6dB boost. If gain is required at the pre-amplifier stage, often an active pre-amplifier is a better option.
However in certain systems and situations a passive design with additional gain available is advantageous. The Mono & Stereo reference system is an excellent example. The system is constantly changing as different products pass through for evaluation, so it is helpful to have this option.
We worked hard on the design of our transformer and the +6dB option does not compromise sonic performance, but there is a technical difference in impedance matching which could cause changes in the system’s presentation. In practice, customers who have the +6dB version have not reported any issues whatsoever – but we are keen to exercise due diligence and it is our responsibility to provide our customers with accurate information so they can make a fully informed decision.
What about the impedance matching of the overall preamplifier?
Impedance matching is a complex subject and unfortunately there can be some misunderstandings. In practice, it is rare to find genuine issues with impedance matching within a modern domestic audio system. Products are designed with a specific task in mind and the nature of the role requires consideration of impedances during design.
Because many user’s experience with passive pre-amplifiers has been with resistive designs – where impedance matching can be extremely poor and problems can be magnified – there is a common misconception that all passive designs suffer similar issues. However, the excellent way in which a transformer matches impedances is one of the reasons transformer passives have such appeal and work so well in such a wide range of systems.
Transformer impedance matching is a function of both source and load (amplifier) impedances, so it is unhelpful to offer blanket advice. Instead, we invite customers with any concerns to contact us directly and we will be happy to offer specific advice.
Balanced or unbalanced does not seem to be an issue for The Bespoke Audio Company preamps.
Our pre-amplifier is a truly transformer balanced device. It will take any unbalanced source and transformer balance it so that the output is always fully balanced but with the option of an unbalanced RCA output which simply discards the negative phase signal.
The Bespoke Audio Company’s preamplifier is a purely mechanical device. How important is that and why? In this context, there is something very tactically pleasing about turning the knobs. Like winding or turning the bezel of a mechanical watch.
Audio performance is always critical in any Hi Fi product, but it is not the only consideration. We want to make a product which is as appealing to look at and touch as it is to listen to – these things all contribute to the customer’s experience!
We are drawn to simple solutions which we then work to refine. It can be tempting to over- complicate matters in the pursuit of improvement, but too often this simply brings additional compromise.
A mechanical switch is perfectly suited to the simple role of switching transformer taps to control volume or select sources. We use finest quality, Swiss made, ELMA switches, coupled with the solid, heavy chassis and machined knobs which feel silky smooth to the touch – although of course our pre-amplifier includes remote control for those who prefer their tactile engagement that way!
What is the importance of the built-in parts, exotic materials, etc.?
The choice of parts and materials in our pre-amplifier is lead by the customer. They may specify anything from particular sockets, switches, feet or finishes to more elaborate technical requirements. We then work together with our partners and suppliers to realise our customer’s wishes.
We believe the design of our pre-amplifier offers a timeless foundation on which the client can apply their own unique specification Our job is to ensure faultless execution of their design.
What is the process from ordering to receiving The Bespoke Audio Company preamplifier?
We see the ordering and production of our products as a collaboration between us and the customer.
Often the customer’s initial enquiry will include some basic specifications so the first stage is usually a draft drawing to make sure everything is clear before we look at any special requests. We then work with the customer to refine their design, sometimes exploring options or even prototypes until everything meets the customer’s approval, at which point we take payment to confirm the order.
The production process itself varies from order to order, and we provide regular updates so the customer always knows what is happening. These updates include photos and videos of production and it is always exciting to see things develop! There is an example on our website HERE.
During production we work with our machine shop for engraving and any custom modifications before we deliver the casework parts to our platers and anodisers for finishing. There is a lead time on these processes, so while this work is underway we begin winding the transformers and making the internal wiring. We use a 3D printed model of our pre-amplifier during this stage to ensure everything fits perfectly.
When they are ready, we collect the finished casework parts in person so that we can inspect and then safely transport them. Once everything is back at our workshop we assemble the chassis using a jig so that the parts are perfectly aligned, then transfer the completed internal parts into the new case and begin final testing. If the customer has specified a wooden lid, we will bond their choice of veneer onto the aluminium base of the lid, then clamp it in our press while the adhesive hardens.
Once the pre-amplifier is complete and passes its tests, we listen to it using two different systems on two separate days so we can be certain it is absolutely perfect. We are then ready to complete the test data in the Owner’s Manual before everything is carefully packed into a custom flight case, ready for the delivery.
Much like Haute Horlogerie, you pay close attention to detail and quality at every step. Even inside the preamp.
We took inspiration from other industries while developing our products and of course Haute Horologie is particularly relevant. Beautiful timepieces are as exquisitely made on the inside as they are on the outside and we adopt the same approach – what cannot be seen is as important as what can.
The same goes for customer service and experience…
There is nothing more important to our business than the customer’s experience. Enjoying music is a pleasure and the process of choosing and ordering the equipment used for playing it should be a part of that pleasure too.
The nature of our products means that we spend comparatively more time with our customers while we work with them on the their choices and configuration. This is one of the best parts of our job and it is a pleasure getting to know our clients, so that we can make sure they get exactly what they want – customer service is always easiest with satisfied customers!
In the event that an issue does arise during the production process, our job is to keep the customer fully informed about the problem, our proposed solution and any timescale involved. By being open and honest, we can best minimise any impact to the customer’s experience.
You’re offering a lifetime warranty!?
Our customers make a significant investment and it is a matter of professional pride for us to honour that investment. Of course, a passive device is inherently reliable, but we take nothing for granted and build our products with the greatest possible care and attention.
We offer a lifetime warranty because we are confident that our products will give flawless performance almost indefinitely and because we believe that if they don’t, we have a duty to resolve any problem.
Do you also offer a service and extended warranty for second-hand preamplifiers?
While we are confident in our product and the original owner, if a second hand pre-amplifier develops an issue, we can’t rule out misuse and it can be impossible to determine responsibility.
In the unlikely event of a problem with a pre-owned pre-amplifier, we will offer full support to diagnose and issue remotely and hopefully provide a solution. If the problem is such that the pre- amplifier needs to be returned to us for investigation we work on a case by case basis, but always with a mind to be flexible and accommodating – we want people to be enjoying their pre-amplifiers!
In some cases, a customer might have a pre-loved pre-amplifier, but would like to change the features or even the finish. Again, we’re happy to look at these enquiries and be as accommodating as we can.
You operate as a small, boutique artisan manufacturer. This seems to be something that is very close to your heart and that you have no intention of changing.
The nature of our approach guides the way we operate our business. Craftsmanship itself is absolutely central to our work, but we also value the opportunity to offer a truly personal service and work directly with our customers.
For many businesses, growth and expansion are critical strategies, but for us it is more important to be directly involved in every aspect of our business in order to best serve our customers.
The made-to-order nature of our work is best served by working closely with local suppliers and we can take advantage of being in this area of England where we have found outstanding partners. The CNC machine shop we use is less than a mile from our own workshop giving us almost instant access and a direct relationship with the engineers on the shop floor. By working this way, we can remain a small and specialist business, but with access to industrial facilities.
The high-end audio already reached the luxury market? What is your opinion about it?
The nature of high end audio is the pursuit of excellence and this same value is held in the luxury market. This isn’t to say that more budget focussed audio systems cannot sound good, but that the “state of the art” can be achieved where some of the economic restrictions are lifted.
High end audio belongs in the luxury market, but our industry should be clear about the expectation and motivations. It is not an excuse for hyperbolic slogans or unjustified prices, it is an opportunity to demonstrate excellence. It is an area where budgets exist to explore options and choices that might usually be discarded, with the potential that new techniques and approaches can transfer to the more mainstream market.
The luxury market is by its nature extremely demanding, which perfectly suits our approach. Our job affords us the extraordinary privilege to come in to work each day with the goal to do our very best, unrestricted by the traditional economic or business constraints.
How would you describe the customers of The Bespoke Audio Company?
Discerning, exacting, patient, proud.
There is no one type of customer for The Bespoke Audio Company. Often they already have excellent systems and are keen to try our pre-amplifier because of a recommendation, but we also have clients who come to us at the very start of their audio journey.
Some will have a clear idea of what they would like and may have used our online Configurator to select their choices, others might have different options they would like to discuss and consider. Our job is the same in every case: we do whatever best serves the customer.
What can we expect from The Bespoke Audio Company in the future?
Our business will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year and we have had an incredible journey. It was challenging to come into this market as a new company (albeit one where the principals had significant experience), but we are proud of the reception we have received and deeply honoured that our products now sit in many beautiful systems around the world, bringing their owners the same pleasure we had making them.
Now that our brand is more established, we are in the lucky position to look at other opportunities. We have recently had enquiries from customers exploring more elaborate customisation and this has lead us to investigate fresh ideas and directions. Whatever happens, we deliberately set ourselves a high bar, so anything we do in the future will be held to the same exacting standards.
Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
High end audio is a world where the faithful reproduction of music is valued above all else and we are grateful to spend our time working on something that brings so much joy. •