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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: 27" iMac with 5K Retina display, 4GHz quad-core engine with 4.4GHz turbo boost, 3TB Fusion Drive, 16GB SDRAM, OSX Yosemite, PureMusic 3.01, Tidal & Qobuz lossless streaming, COS Engineering D1 & H1, AURALiC Vega, Aqua Hifi Formula, Fore Audio DAISy 1, Apple iPod Classic 160GB (AIFF), Astell& Kern AK100 modified by Red Wine Audio, Cambridge Audio iD100, Pro-Ject Dock Box S Digital, Pure i20, Questyle QP1R]
Preamplifier: Nagra Jazz, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVC module), COS Engineering D1, Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1, F5, F6, F7; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Goldmund Job 225; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; Nord Acoustics One SE Up NC500MB monos; Linnenberg Allego monos
Loudspeakers: Audio Physic Codex; Albedo Audio Aptica; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Druid V & Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence
Cables: Complete loom of Zu Event; Ocellia OCC loom: KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Black Cat Cable redlevel Lupo
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra and Three 11R
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: Rectangular 5.5 x 15m open floor plan with two-storey gabled ceiling, wood-sleeved steel trusses and stone-over-concrete flooring
Review component retail: ~ €10'500 depending on configuration


Bespoke!


So God thundered. And behold, the wheel was born.


Really? You god to be slippin', dog.


So, replace the small bars radiating from a wheel's hub with a verbal conjugation. Now we arrive at a state of being which itself was arrived at after a process of much speaking: be-spoke. And today at least, that arrives us at The Bespoke Audio Company. This entails plenty of exchanges, between proprietors Harry O'Sullivan & Lucy Gastall and their clients. It's because after their tenure at Music First Audio, the pair opted to go fully custom. With Harry from County Cork, expect the Irish gift of gab, too. With MFA's mention, hifi insiders have already flashed on transformer volume controls aka TVC aka passive magnetic preamps. It's what BAC do as well. Except now everything is up for gab or grab: the transformer make-up (silver or copper), the number and type of i/o, the lettering, the trim, the finishing. The versions shown are just a smattering of possibilities. Common to all are 46 discrete 1.5dB volume steps across 67.5dB; and a belly-mounted ground lift switch. Most likely common to all is remote control; unless a punter strangely opted out.


For the rest, it's finishing touches from LED indicators set into the control knobs to a chassis-colour match with the client's loudspeakers, from oversize protruding transformer cowls to veneers, even custom casework integrating the client's own DAC or phono stage - whatever evolves as a result of lotsa bespeakin'. There's also a configurator on their website to get the wheels spinning. At right, sundry bits 'n' bobs going into a unit. The total count is 442 parts, 55m of hook-up wiring, 1.6km of windings, 1.5m of heat shrink, 7.5kg of case work and 200g of bee's wax. Bespooky for a passive volume control.*
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* To keep things in perspective, as developed under Volkswagen Group ownership, the new $150'000 Bentley Continental with its twin turbo W12 petrol engine uses 93 processors feeding more than 100 million lines of code through eight kilometres of wiring to control performance.


That level of customization breaks not the poor camel's back but our spoked wheel. In a review, to document any made-to-order process implies that the writer spec out a unit, discuss the interactions every step of the way, then report on the final execution vis-à-vis personal expectations and satisfaction. Yet the very nature of the bespoke process guarantees that this creates an unsellable unit. The writer's particular choices would never match a paying customer's; not to the 't'. Unless a reviewer ordered and paid for a unit, s/he could never expect to obtain a loaner spec'd out to suit. Which obviously misses the bespoke bit of the deal But, reviewers—at least ours—don't buy units to then review them. Instead, Harry & Lucy would have to bring a traveling loaner, then explain the rest during a brief personal visit. They'd fly into Knock airport, rent a car, drive the 70 minutes to Lecanvey, stay in a local B&B and lay it all out during a bespoke delivery.


At left we see two output bays, six inputs bays, one which can be assigned as either in- or output and any bay can be XLR or RCA, then be labeled in accord with the client's wishes. It could be numbered, lettered or sport specific words like tuner, dac, phono, server, milk, sugar etc.

As a true passive, there are no impedance-stabilizing buffers pre or post volume. Output impedance will thus vary with setting. Depending on interactions with the amp's input impedance, this could incur mild response changes. Unlike the attenuation magnetics and the switches for their secondary tabs and the source inputs, motorized volume and LEDs rely on power. Voilà, the DC socket for a small wall wart to the left of the left-most outputs. In general, one doesn't expect passives to drive very long interconnects because they lack an active output stage. If placement makes long cables necessary—perhaps the source stack is on one wall, the amp bracketed by the speakers on another—it would usually be preferable to drive the long leash with a source, then position the passive preamp close to the amp/s. This differs from the 'activated passive' concept as embodied in Wyred4Sound's STP platform. Though there is no voltage gain until unity gain is reached to act passive in the classic sense of gain, there are active i/o buffers. Those create invariable impedance and make for superior low-Ω drive across long cables.


BAC's attenuation transformers—here one expects some Stevens & Billington DNA given the Music First Audio connection—allow the free mixing of i/o without the usual summing/symmetrizing circuits. Going in RCA and out XLR or vice versa is an integral part of this passive concept. So is the ratio thing. Because transformers work in winding ratios, reducing the input voltage results in increased output current. It's why this breed is known for excellent low-level resolution or transparency. On the other hand, it's not really known for the audible drive of actives which might be called forward momentum, pressurization, musical urgency or slam. Owning a Wyred STP SE Stage II, Vinnie Rossi Lio with autoformer volume control** and Nagra Jazz tube preamp, I had three relevant competitors for contrast. How would bespoke build and cost relate to sonics?
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** As a collaboration between Vinnie Rossie and John Chapman, the Lio uses David Slagle attenuation magnetics. For his brand Bent Audio, Chapman had been an early Stevens & Billington OEM. When that license expired, he worked with Slagle to replace the S&B transformers with autoformers, eliminate excess wiring and incorporate remote control and balance. Showing up in various preamps, this very neat Chapman/Slagle solution is also a modular option for the Vinnie Rossi platform. And that makes for a historical connection with today's review subject and a conceptually most direct competitor. Even the bespoke angle factors for Lio's à-la-carte menu though there it eclipses The Bespoke Audio Company on raw functionality by a country mile.
... to be continued...

The Bespoke Audio Company website