The Bespoke Audio Co. (passive) Preamplifier REVIEW
This is a review written by Terry Ellis February 2023.
For my video review please see my YouTube channel link here
One Of a Kind
I’ll start with a few questions. When was the last time you thought about the importance of a preamplifier to your HiFi systems sound quality? Maybe never if you’ve always been an integrated amplifier user, as the preamplifier is built in you probably just take it for granted. However, if you have thought about the preamplifier in your system, have you ever considered what type it is? You have probably deeply considered the difference between solid state or tube, which is the age-old debate. What about passive vs active? no, not speakers, passive v active preamplificaton. I had never thought about it but, conducting this review has shown me that I have been living with my head in the sand all these years, without even knowing.
About a year ago I was approached by the Bespoke Audio Company, who are a British HiFi manufacturer, to review their preamplifier – which is simply called Preamplifier because it’s the only HiFi product that they make. They described it to me as a passive preamplifier that has no sound of its own. At the time, I had no idea what a passive preamplifier was and I thought how the hell am I am going to review a product that has no sound of its own, how do I describe that for the reader. I Googled the name and instantly fell in love. What a stunning looking piece of HiFi equipment. It has some really nice touches of class and quality. Bespoke Audio Co. make each preamplifier bespoke to the buyer’s taste. The idea of crafting my own HiFi product has massive appeal to me.
What is a Passive Preamplifier?
But that is getting ahead of ourselves, because we need to look at what a passive preamplifier is and, most importantly, does it sound good, before we even think about the bespoke aspect. Passive preamplifiers are not a new concept. I am sure there will be many audiophiles reading this review who have owned one but, I bet there will be ten times as many that haven’t, because passives are definitely not common, and I don’t know why. I assume they must be hard to do well and probably very expensive to manufacturer in large quantities.
A normal preamplifier is plugged into the mains and there is a circuit that accepts an analogue signal coming in from a DAC or phono stage, which is amplified or reduced using either solid state devices or tubes to control the amplifiers volume. A passive preamplifier controls the amplifiers volume the same but it has no electrical power going to it at all and, in the case of the Bespoke Audio Company Preamplifier, taking the lid off, you see there are no circuit boards, just two transformers a lot of wires and connections.
On the face of it the passive preamplifier looks like a very simple device. However, it can’t be because we would see a lot more of them on the market. On the Bespoke audio website there are some very interesting stats, such as the preamplifier has 442 components to it, 1.6km of winding wire, 55 meters of hook up wire and 200g of beeswax, I haven’t worked out what the beeswax is for yet.
I also haven’t quite comprehended how this design works. It was weird at first connecting it into my HiFi system and not plugging in a power cable of any sort, pressing play and hearing music. Now there is a power supply included with the preamplifier but that is purely to power an internal mechanical mechanism for changing the volume with the remote control.
I decided to save myself the brain ache, I don’t need to know how this design works, what I need to know is does it sound good, what are the benefits, the negatives and trade-offs if any.
Passive v Active – Which Is Best?
My initial listening impression after installing the preamplifier was that my system sounded softer in its presentation compared to what I am used to. I wasn’t sure if I liked the sound. I quickly realised that I needed to turn the volume up more than I thought I would need to in order to provide the same musical impact as the preamp it was replacing.
This is the first thing to mention that is different, the volume control is not a smoothly rotating mechanism. As you turn it you can feel lots of individual clicks. They are tiny and, in fact, there are forty-six positions of adjustment above 0db, covering 67.5db worth or volume range. In practice this gives a lot of control over the volume. The knob feel is first rate, especially the input selector, its heavy and solid in your hand and there is a reassuring resistance. This is a big positive for me
Turning back to the sound, with the volume raised it didn’t take me long to realise something important. Often, when evaluating the sound quality of a HiFi system we are often focusing on more is better – more detail, more dynamics, and more resolution, all being. common indicators of better sound. We rarely think that less is better. Something struck me here pretty much immediately as being less is very much more. Using the Bespoke Audio Preamplifier all the tension and edge hardness that I associate with digital music was gone, totally gone, and it was gone for all music sources such as streaming from Tidal or playing CD RIPs from an SSD drive. Instead I was enjoying a smooth, relaxed, organic sounding musical delivery with a really graceful flow. For me, digital music sounded much more analogue like, even though I hate this over used analogy sometimes its the right one to use.
What is crazy to me is that I have always known the tension and hardness was there, for me it forms part of the digital presentation, maybe there is some musical excitement in it, that I part enjoyed, the other part I think we tolerate. To me it has been an intrinsic part of digital music playback for my whole life and so I expect to always hear it to some degree, but I have never known the cause of it. I thought it could be in the music. Audiophiles always blame the recording and, of course, recording quality does vary. A great example could be anything from Adele, especially Rolling In The Deep on 21, this track can get you clenching your teeth at times with its tension. This is not the case with the Bespoke Audio Preamplifier, yes there is still a lot of energy in the music, but the tension in it is gone. The Bespoke Audio Preamplifier is like Sade – a smooooth operator.
This was especially impressive as I wasn’t hearing any obvious trade-offs. The sound stage was still excellent, very three dimensional and holographic, which is also a huge strength of the Audio Physic Spark speakers I was reviewing at the time. The depth perception was better than I was getting from the McIntosh MA9500 integrated with the exact same setup with the only difference being I was using the NAD M23 amplifier. There was better resolution of the subtle details in music, the decays, the trails, the small things that make you go WOW! I haven’t heard music presented like that before. All of this is was very easy on the ear. I found that I could play the system even louder than usual with no fatigue, even listening to Adele turned up to eleven. All very impressive.
Further Listening Tests
In order to check that what I was hearing was not a trick of my own mind, I did a very simple test. If the Bespoke Audio Preamplifier has no sound, I wanted to know what would happen if I took it out of the chain and used the Chord Hugo TT 2 as the DAC and preamplifier, instead of just the DAC. Would the sound change and, if so, how would it change.
Interestingly, firing up Adele again, the sound was more purposeful and solid with more meat to it, which made vocals sound more full and tonally saturated, this I did prefer. There was more immediacy to the music too, with increased bass fullness. Some may think this is a more exciting listen, which is how I was hearing it, but the digital tension had returned. To me, everything sounded a little forced and the graceful smoothness was gone. This is a dilemma – in ways the sound was more impressive but less pleasing. I think it’s the tension in digital sound that makes it tiring to listen to as your brain must listen through it to get to the music.
Another difference was in the soundstage. Using the Chord as the preamplifier felt a little more two dimensional and direct from the speakers, rather than more expansive from beyond them in all directions. Listening exclusively to modern music, this may not be such a big deal, but firing up Beat by the Tingvall Trio, which has this big piano over to the right beyond the speakers, the edges of the piano notes were very specific sounding with the Chord as the pre whilst using the Bespoke Audio Pre the character of the piano and the image of it had a wonderful rounded 3D presence. I think it sounded more organic by being presented in a smoother way. The details of the music are all there, but they are not being forced on you quite so much.
Overall this test was ideal as it showed to me there is a very noticeable difference. The Bespoke Audio Pre is doing something, whether it has it sound or not but, as I liked bits of both, I wanted to try and get the best of both. To achieve this I changed the Chord Hugo TT2 from DAC mode into its high-gain preamplifier mode which, I think increases the output voltage. That worked great for solidifying the sound through Bespoke pre, ticking that box. I had to be careful here as there was now a little bit of digital tension creeping in if I had the TT2 volume set too high, and the sound lost some solidity with it too low, Exploring further I found a sweet spot volume on the TT2 combined with a sweet spot volume range on the Bespoke pre and then voila! the best of both, and what a sound now!
The systems sound was now bold, rich, massively dynamic and lively, whilst retaining the openness of the soundstage and smoothness. This was a sound that I was enjoying more in nearly every regard than the McIntosh MA9500 I had just reviewed with the same system.
My take away from this testing was that the signal coming from your sources to the Bespoke Preamplifier is of paramount importance, maybe even more important than usual. However I also listened to vinyl through my modest turntable setup and that sounded fantastic as well showing me some wonderful character while also gently reminding me of the limits of the arm, cartridge etc that I am very aware of. So I think a better conclusion is that the Bespoke Audio passive preamplifier design does not limit anything by the fact there are no active circuits or ingredients happening inside . Instead it seems to take the signal that it is given and then through some process I don’t fully understand smooth and enhance it in ways that are addictive, enhancing the musicality aspect of the sound and this will be priceless for a lot of audiophiles systems.
Negatives and trade-offs
Sonically, I don’t think there are any negatives other than potentially the increase in the importance of your source quality and your amplifier tonality as this pre is not adding colour or much character to the music, if that is what your used to from certain other designs of preamplifier, something to consider,
One bigger trade-off I can think of is you that don’t have any sound tailoring options like tone controls, or an equaliser, such as with the McIntosh, or the ability to change tubes or power cables or anything like that to tweak the sound. The Bespoke Pre is a bit more raw, or maybe more purist in that sense which will have instant appeal to some. There is not even a mute button on the front, but where there is a will there is a way. You can mute the sound simply by changing the input to an unused one. You can use some good isolation products to tune the sound, which is one thing I did using Tungsten Groves W70 with great results and, of course, DSP in your source would provide the best overall system sound tuning you can get.
Bespoke in Name and Nature
Let’s talk about the bespoke aspect of the preamplifier, the clue is in the name. The Bespoke Audio Company make every product themselves, in house, to custom order. They are sold through some retailers here in the UK, but for the rest of the world they are sold direct from the manufacturer to the customer. They deal directly with you for home demo trials too.
What I have been listening to is a demo unit they made a few years ago, there have been some minor changes since, not to improve the sound, but to other things that make the owner’s life better, such as a better remote control system. I didn’t have the remote system for the review.
On the website there is a configurator page that allows the buyer to choose the case colour, the colour of the trims, the top plate design plus other even more custom options. These include what s want written as your input indicators – numbers, names or roman numerals, the type of inputs (balanced or RCA) and how many inputs and outputs you want. In addition, you can also choose to have all copper or all silver wiring. This unit I reviewed is the silver wire version.
Once your configuration is saved you are given a reference number in order to speak to Bespoke Audio who will quote a price. As soon as you have made your purchase they start your build, which is a 6-10 week process. What you are getting here is something that has been created just for you which is very rare, and is what makes this preamp that little bit extra-special.
The price depends on what customisation options you choose, but the general prices range from £12,000 to about £18,000 not including VAT.
Make no mistake, this is a very expensive preamplifier but I see it as a one-off lifetime purchase. I also see it as a core product around which you would build your HiFi system. It has phenomenal build quality and I wish I could afford to have one made for me. I will certainly hold on to this one for as long as I can.
Maybe it is time to rethink preamplification for your system. I you are shopping at this price level I suggest you try one out and experience the product for yourself especially if you are a purity-of-signal type of audiophile, it’s hard to think how this type of design can be bettered for achieving that goal.
My head is definitely out of the sand regarding the importance of preamplifiers, that’s for sure. This product is certainly one of a kind.
A Special Performer Award is Pursuit Perfect Systems highest accolade and is in recognition of exceptional product performance regardless of price
For the full specification of the Bespoke Audio Company Preamplifier please see their website linked here