The process of reviewing audio equipment is well documented. In some respects, it’s all about the bit before the review, which could be likened to a dating agency. As the reviewer is going to live with the component for several weeks or even months, it’s important to make sure the two are compatible with one another. That said, some of us are more flexible and learn how to get into the ears of the typical listener who would like the device under test.
All of this goes out of the window when dealing with a product like the Bespoke Audio preamplifier, because there is no typical listener. The clue is in the name: each Bespoke Audio preamplifier is made for the customer to their individual requirements.
Bespoke Audio builds preamplifiers using custom in-house wound multi-tapped and shielded attenuation transformers, built to your specifications to match the gain structure of your system, should you so wish. The same applies to the number and type of inputs and outputs, the choice of wiring (Jupiter Condenser Company case wire as standard) whether you want a remote control, and, of course, colour scheme. A notional specification sheet exists, but is subject to a major amount of negotiation. As is, understandably, the price: if you want your preamplifier made from platinum, unicorn eyelashes, and the ground-up skulls of your vanquished enemies, it’s going to cost more than the standard product price.
There really is something of the Savile Row suit about the process. The first consultation is a discussion of your needs and wants, a design is agreed upon and then the Bespoke Audio people begin the process of construction. From first concept to final product typically takes about five weeks, but Bespoke keeps the customer in the loop with weekly email bulletins, complete with photographs of your preamplifier in its various stages of build. These build-up images give you an idea of just how seriously Bespoke Audio takes its job – there is a lot of wiring in a preamp like the Bespoke, because you are taking individual taps from each set of resistors on each step of the attenuator. Opening up such a design can look like you happened upon an abandoned bird’s nest. Not in the Bespoke Audio, though; cables are carefully dressed, wrapped and laid out with the precision of a military parade. This is not necessarily something that in any way changes the sound of the product and in most cases is not something the end user will ever actually see, but that doesn’t matter. It’s done because it’s the right way to do it. It’s the Rolls-Royce ethos.
A couple of weeks before your product arrives, you receive the Bespoke key, a fine-chromed round tool matching the brightwork you chose arrives in the post, in a little velvet bag. Your name and your product’s serial number are etched into the key. This really is your preamplifier.
Finally, a flight case arrives, complete with your product in a velvet drawstring bag and the inevitable white gloves. If you opted for a remote, your remote sits under the preamplifier. At the time of receiving our sample, the remote was a humble Apple device, which is surprisingly effective, but not really ‘bespoke’ in the sense of the rest of the product. That is set to change soon, and get the handbuilt treatment. This will possibly have to be slightly less bespoke in nature, because people can come up with fairly wild ideas when it comes to remote handsets, and there will be a lot of Star Trek Phasers and oddly contoured products if left to people’s imagination. I suspect instead the Bespoke Audio remote will have a similarly solid, squared off design.
Accompanying the preamplifier is the most comprehensive set of materials I’ve seen supplied with a product. Yes, there’s the instructions of course, but there’s also basically a welcome pack of details about the preamplifier, including its specific measurements, who in the company built your preamplifier (although as that currently means Lucy Gastall and Harry O’Sullivan, because they represent the complete Bespoke Audio team, there aren’t many alternatives), and so on.
We always try to handle our products with care, because you don’t want to be the first in the country with a product only to break it in the first hour and have to fess up that you just put the review back an issue or two. But here, the need to handle the product with kid gloves was off the charts. This wasn’t loan stock, it wasn’t a review sample… it was someone’s pride and joy, graciously loaned to us for the duration of the listening test. This person’s pride and joy was matt black all over, with chrome plated rings around the source selection and volume level knobs, and the two trim rings on the top plate. And the lucky sod had specified model number ‘007’. The inputs and outputs (a mix of Neutrik balanced and WBT single-ended for both) had legends etched into the black anodised aluminium rear panel – not the easiest thing to read, but 11/10 for understated elegance. There was a little ground lift switch, should you get hum (it happens with passive products).
You know you are in the presence of something made for you at the first turn of a knob. The level of resistance to your touch, the feeling of absolute solidity, the way things just move in a purposeful way all adds up to the kind of experience most people never get. There are no blemishes in the finish (you don’t expect them in good products), but I’ve seen made-for-photography mock-ups built at phenomenal expense that aren’t as well finished as this. Once again, it’s back to the stitch-perfect suits from Savile Row, or – perhaps more appropriate given the engineering angle – the absolute perfection of a brace of Purdey shotguns. The only problem with this is it makes almost every other product in the rack look a little shabby. This is probably not as big an issue because the price of admission to the Bespoke Audio club means the products it is likely to partner are of similarly high standard, but this kind of build is significantly better than a lot of good audio components that cost considerably more.
Sound quality here is actually well-documented; just read any review of a really good passive preamplifier. It’s extremely transparent to source because there is nothing active between source and power amplifier. There are no additions, commissions, omissions, or transgressions – it simply gets out of the way. This is not a subtle thing, however; if you’ve heard what a preamp that doesn’t colour the sound on the way through, it’s hard to go back to active line stages because it makes the vast majority of them sound a little ‘shut in’ and uneven in the higher frequencies.
Passive preamplifiers have seen something of a minor renaissance because the best ones don’t suffer signal attenuation over cable length, and the Bespoke Audio is one of the best ones. You can run this with sensible lengths of interconnect cable and not experience any high frequency roll off. Instead, you just get the sonic goods.
here’s a sub-set of audio owners who seem to object to their luxury goods being luxurious. They seem to resent the idea that a product that might cost £1,000 in a tin box can cost 10x as much because it’s built to an unparalleled level. We should all make do with the tin box goes the logic, because everything else is frivolous. And if that’s the case then the Bespoke Audio should make them boil over with angst. Or maybe jealousy. But, here’s the thing: alongside that vocal group, there are people who think in a diametrically opposite way: “What’s wrong with a little luxury? I’ve earned it. I deserve it. And a preamplifier made exclusively for me is still a hell of a lot cheaper than a Porsche 911, and has the advantage of not making me look like a complete bell-end when trying to use it.”
Personally, I love the idea of having a preamplifier made for me, even if it’s something I cannot afford at this time. It’s the ultimate in audio self-expression, a statement of audiophile intent up there with getting your turntable tattooed on your chest (but not as painful, or as insane). If you are looking for a bargain, keep looking. But if you are looking for the last preamplifier you’ll ever buy, the Bespoke Audio has got your name on it… literally!
Type: Custom made transformer passive line preamplifier
All specifications subject to client’s demands and wishes. As tested:
Inputs: 3× XLR stereo pair, 3× RCA stereo pair
Outputs: 1× XLR stereo pair, 3× RCA stereo pair
Auxiliary Input/Output: One
Signal attenuation: 46 discrete steps over a 67.5dB range in 1.5dB increments
Optional remote control
Extensive range of finish options and colours
Dimensions (H×W×D): 11×30.5×34.5cm