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.