One common criticism of passive controllers is that they lack the energy and vitality of active pre-amplifiers. However, I suspect that this is more to do with the actual character of the amplification in active devices than limitations in the passives. The Music First can sound less effusive or powerful than an active pre-amp, but only by virtue of not adding anything to the sound. It seemingly delivers all of the power that the source manages to send its way.
It also lets everything else through simultaneously and imaging can fairly be described as holographic with a decent recording, instruments and voices standing solid and bodacious in a soundstage that stretches both wide and deep. It can also be highly analytical, peeling apart the layers of mixes like Coldcut’s sample heavy ‘Sound Mirrors’. It can sometimes be too transparent in this respect, with the music taking second place to the sound. While it can’t be blamed for doing as much there are more obviously ‘musical’ alternatives in the active world. High-fidelity however is the goal and on that front the Music First Silver is nigh on impossible to fault. In practical terms it could be more convenient: there’s no remote control (although such a thing is waiting in the wings) and if you combine a balanced output CD player with a single-ended phonostage you will need to be careful with the attenuation when switching from one to the other because of the high voltage on some balanced outputs. Aside from that, the sonic performance is simply staggering for the price.
The relatively straightforward Zanden makes an interesting comparison with the Music First. Despite its theoretical limitations in the physics department it actually seems to extract a little more low-level information albeit across a bit less bandwidth. It has a silky sound that caresses the ear in a charming fashion, giving a more fluid and graceful sound. This may be because of the “exclusive RF noise absorption material” used or, equally likely, the character of the cabling and socketry. When you go back to the architectural imaging of the Music First, that sweetness and poise can start to sound like flavour, albeit rather appealing flavour.
On the other hand, you’ve got the way in which it pulls out detail right across the mid-band, as well as superior transparency. It excels in the areas of musical delicacy and texture, picking out reverb extremely well. If you want the full power and glory of the musical event the Music First is the clear winner but those after a more intimate and polished sound will find the Zanden Model 300 hard to resist, especially if they pay attention to impedance matching and cable lengths.
If absolute transparency separates these two passive devices, it also divides them from dearer active devices. A Classé CP-700 preamp was made to sound positively grainy in comparison, although it delivered tighter, more controlled bass than the Zanden, making the conventional passive seem midforward in the style of certain valve powered components. The Music First can match the Classé’s bass power and energy, it’s more even top to toe balance and bandwidth, at the expense of less obvious benefits in terms of midrange detail and focus. I guess you pays your money…
I was impressed, very impressed by the level of resolution delivered by both these mains free devices. Those searching for maximum transparency will not be disappointed in the results they deliver. The Zanden is an astonishing performer given its ultra simple topology, but will require careful assessment in the context of the user’s system, simply because its modus operandi offers no protection from the impact of the impedance lottery in an unruly world. That said it worked beautifully with both a Gamut D200 and ATC SCM150ASL actives, both rather different, albeit solid-state devices, so suck it and see.
The Music First is a more universally recommendable and balanced, if ultimately less transparent device. Whilst it’s not a pre-amplifier in the full sense of the term, it nonetheless fulfils that roll more transparently and just as efficiently as most active volume control/selectors. It also offers sufficient balanced and single-ended inputs for most users needs. I’m intrigued to hear if Music First can deliver the same transparency levels from a remote controllable ‘preamp’ with transformer volume control.