No Ordinary Amps by Richard E. JensonThe Blue Circle BC-2 monoblock amplifiers stand
dramatically apart from other conventional attempts to create the ultimate amplifier.
While they distinguish themselves in many ways, the first indicator of the BC-2s'
originality is their apprearnce. These are large amplifiers whose signature is wood.
The combination of their deep and vertical aspet with the characteristic Blue Circle
"look" of stainless steel and wood hints immediately at the possibility that these
are no ordinary amps.
That look is not a random style choice. Gilbert Yeung, Blue Circle's designer, says
that the materials were chosen for their complementary (low) resonant properties.
The narrow, elegant faceplate is made of smooth stainless steel interrupted only
by a toggle switch and an indicator light; the rest of the chassis is made entirely
of superbly finished wood. Mine was a red cherry; other woods are also available.
While these amplifiers by no means recede visually into the background, they are
at once soft and striking to the eye.
SILENCE, THANK YOU
While I have seen wood in many components (although not often in the past 30 years),
this is the first wooden chassis I have ever noted. Yeung tried other materials but
wood offered the best sound. Indeed, one of the amps' major strengths is their nearly
silent background; whether the wood is at all responsible for this I do not know,
but there is a deep black silence behind the beautiful music that comes from them.
The BC-2s are uncannily quiet. The silence and blackness of the background gave me
the ability to crawl inside and inhabit, as it were, the body of the music. Musical
tones seemed to have more substance than I had perceived before. Not that they were
richer in any conventional sense (although that argument could be made as well),
but I could flesh out the tone itself and imagine the texture of the instrument that
Listening to a superb recording of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto by the little-known
Solistes EuropÈens de Luxembourg (own label, SEL 1991/1), I was struck by the soulful
stateliness of the Adagio. Each note from Olivier Dartevelle's clarient occupied
an extraordinary moment where it filled the air, serious and sad but never losing
the pace of the lightness of the opening movement. Again, the richness of tone never
came at the expense of dynamism or liveliness; it was merely the music as seen from
The silence of the BC-2s is very much akin to Myles Astor's description of the Sonic
Frontiers Line 3 in Issue 4 of Ultimate Audio. As I listened more and more to get
the measure of the BC-2s, the image of "blackness," an absence of background-seemed
less accurate, in that it conveys,. The sense of a real space – a space that is inhabited
but almost dead quiet – is always there when warranted. So, "blackness" does not
quite suffice as a description of this special capability of the BC-2s. Rather a
lowering of the noise floor, as Myles said, creates an impression of silence in comparison
to my normal references.
Even more satisfying a journey to the heart of the musical tone is the sound of the
contrabass on Gary Karr's recording of the Adagio d'Albinoni (King K33Y 236). The
rich, resiny sound of the instrument, full against its nearly silent backdrop, has
an analog-like quality I've rarely if ever heard on CD. In that sense, the ability
of the BC-2s to allow me to see "inside" the string and the body of the contrabass
recovers for CD's a palpable quality which so often seems missing. The Karr disc,
through the BC-2s, has a sad grandeur, which is only promised through other amplifiers
in my system.
A happy by-product of this clear view into the heart of the music is a sense of ease,
which is one of the great stengths of the BC-2s. While I cannot say what component
problems or failings normally cause a lack of ease in presentation, for me the unforced
arrival of the notes is one of the hallmarks of live music. There are probably few
serious listeners who have not wondered why live music in the concert hall, even
when one is seated up front, is so unstrained and "natural" in comparison to even
superb systems in the home. A particularly fine example of the relative strength
of the BC-2s in this area is the "Matilda" cut from the Belafonte at Carnegie Hall
(Classic Records LSO-6006). Part chat with the audience, part sing-along, "Matilda"
is the song I imagine Belafonte might have sung in a small local hall. The utter
lack of excess chestiness or resonance in his voice – speaking or singing, it matters
not – is a joy (not) to hear. The BC-2s communicate a real person singing real music
and, by the way, talking to the crowd, at ease and without apparent effort.
I cannot speak of the unforced transparency of the BC-2s without citing my pleasant
surprise at the Keith Jarrett recording Live at the Blue Note (ECM 1575-1580). As
an analogophile, I must admit that this great six-CD set starts off for me with two
"demerits": (1) they're CDs, and (2) they're ECM CDs, meaning they might tend toward
the cool, analytical and precise, No flaws, No spurious artifacts. No soul. But,
surprise – listen to "On Green Dolphin Street" from disc 5, which is the cut of choice
in recent months for me; at about 12:00 it shifts into overdrive, becoming a driving
and joyous celebration of the song's melodic line. The sense of ease, of a Lexus
quiet, combines with the timbral truth to create not just the warmth, but the heat,
of the real thing. On ECM, no less!
THE NOTES YOU WANT TO HEAR
I shuld underline that the just-right timbral quality that one can reach out and
touch is for me the BC-2's signature. There is a consistency to the sound throughout
the musical spectrum: From the upper bass through the highs, the BC-2s (as was said
of George Harrison, another understated performer) "play the notes you want to hear."
I cannot accurately comment on the deepest bass, as my Genesis VIs cross over to
their dedicated subwoofer amp for the lowest notes. However, the BC-2s exhibited
a consistency and coherency of timbre well down into the bass. They never hinted
at any wooliness or softness, and never began to run out of steam.
The amps are rated – conservatively, according to Gilbert Yeung – at 75 watts per
channel. My Genesis VIs are fairly efficient speakers, at about 89-90 db/1w at 1
meter, and all the more so without requiring the region below 50 Hz of the main amp.
I might hesitate to sue the BC-2s with grossly power-hungry speakers in a large room,
but I never even got them to breathe hard in my modest room, even at ear-splitting
volumes for Nirvana and Chumbawmba.
TECHNICAL HIGHLIGHTSGilbert Yeung's design for the Blue Circle BC-2s evolved over
a long period of time. At the age of 10, distressed by the sound of his Sony cassette
player, he wondered what could make better sound. Not long after, he chanced to see
and hear a David Berning preamp. The contrast between the cassette player and the
high-end preamp gave Yeung the impetus to try his hand at designing audio components.
The approach started with something close to the proverbial "clean sheet of paper,"
with simplicity a major design criterion. The BC-2 is pure single-ended Class A.
Single-ended because the signal is handled by only one component in each stage; Class
A because, among other things, of the constant load presented to the input stage.
In each case, Yeung concluded simpler is better.
The amplifier is a hybrid, with a tubed input (one 6SN7) and a transistor output.
Blue Circle's engineering white paper (easy to read even for the technically challenged)
outlines the reasons for selecting transistor outputs – among them wide response,
speed and lack of phase error. An advantage for tinkerers is that one can experiment
with tubes for the input without spending a fortune. An NOS Philips is used, but
Yeung has also had good results with the Sylvania Chrome Dome, and less positive
outcomes with the Sovtek.
While the amplifiers get very hot during operating (single-ended being here less
efficient than push-pull), the heat sinks draw off the heat very quickly from the
output transistors. Yeung states that the orientation of the heat sinks and the space
for air "intake" allows for air to be drawn in through the bottom to cool the transistors.
The transistors' casings will often be cooler than the heat sinks, with the resulting
constant temperature ensuring stability and long life.
I asked Yeung why he thought the amplifier is so quiet. He replied, "Background noise
or mechanical quiet? The reasons are different." For the former, he claims it is
the high input sensitivity. Again, a simple answer, although if that were the sole
reason, all one would need to do to design a quiet amp is to ratchet up the sensitivity.
Mechanically, the BC-2s have a tuned spring support for the tube and predriver subsystems,
but Yeung says that the transformer, which has three layers of insulation (padding,
a resin/epoxy that expands with temperature, and a metallic inner layer), is largely
responsible for the silent operation. It might just be that rich red cherry chassis,
ON A HIGH
On the other end of the spectrum, high-frequency performance is often cited as a
weakness of amplifiers with transistor outputs. It is clear form the start that the
BC-2s do not have either the stridency or the dullness afflict other amplifiers of
the type. The sound of the Scottish whistle on the "Whistle Theme" from the Local
Hero soundtrack LP (British Vertigo 811038) was delicate and airy. At the same time,
the whistle had a body and heft to its tone that sounded entirely natural. The "Whistle
Theme" can sound somewhat cool and clinical with certain solid-state amplifiers,
especially through speakers with very extended high-frequency response. The BC-2s'
rendering is both more euphonic and closer to a real whistle.
Longer-term listening produced a vague impression of roundness – a characteristic
I would use to describe the entire sound of the BC-2s and one not inconsistent with
live music – which caused me to wonder if some of the top-end sparkle is missing.
It is possible that the BC-2s are just on the soft side of complete and utter neutrality
in the high frequencies. My impressions of this varied somewhat by recording. I listened
to the London Super Analogue recording of the "Spring" concerto of Vivaldi's Four
Seasons (Marriner, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields): The strings were light as
a feather, yet they maintained the body and resonance so characteristic of these
amps. The harpsichord came through the strings without any heaviness and was able
to occupy its own space in the overall sonic picture. At the same time, I was not
fully won over by Joni Mitchell's voice in "A Case of You" from Blue (Reprise M 2038),
or "Refuge of the Roads" from Hejira (Asylum 7E-1087). My listening notes read "smooth
on top, curved rather than sharp." Still, it was only at the edges of her voice,
where the voice ends and silence beings, that I could perceive any possible softening.
One other characteristic of the BC-2s is their very focused presentation of the soundstage.
They consistently depicted a soundstage that had great (and not exaggerated) depth,
with space for each of the instruments occupying the stage. In my small listening
room, the sense of depth and focus, combined with the palpable tonal quality, produced
a synergy that was altogether pleasing. On the other hand, compared to my reference,
the width of the stage was somewhat narrower. Not once did it extend much beyond
the middle of the speakers. That may be a function of room interactions; I would
cite is as less important to the overall quality of the amps than the depth, which
is a real strength. Referring once more to Blue, Mitchell is properly placed in both
depth and width; in general, the BC-2s did a fine job in this regard.
Interestingly, I also had the chance to listen briefly to the BC-3 line stage preamp.
While the BC-3 is not the subject of this review and merits much more extended listening,
it exhibits the same general sonic qualities of the BC-2s. Like the BC-2s, the BC-3
is built like a tank. Like the amplifiers, it is a hybrid design in stainless steel
and wood. And likewise, the BC-3 has a very low noise floor and a rich presentation
of the source material. I also found that the soundstage was similar – deep and precise
in its ability to locate instruments and voices, with ample space for the instruments,
but a bit narrower than what I am accustomed to.
My initial reaction is that the BC-3 would mate very well with a digital source that
tends to the analytical, since the fullness of the sound tends to tame some of the
digititis one often hears from CDs. In that respect as well as others, it sounds
like the BC-2s, but perhaps more so. By a small margin I preferred the sound of my
system with either of the Blue Circle units to that with both of them. The window
upon the music that the amps delivered is marvelous; I felt closer to that elusive
sense of musical truth with the BC-2 alone.
The low noise floor of the BC-2s became all the more obvious after they departed
my house. Upon reconnecting my RM-9 II, I was surprised at the audibility of the
noise in the amp, whose sound I thought I knew well. While the Music Reference yields
little to the best amplifiers in terms of transparency and articulation, I found
myself wishing also to have the silent backgrounds of the BC-2s. Playing "one Green
Dolphin Street" anew confirmed the higher noise floor. I might easily have ascribed
the background noise to the live setting in the club (the Blue Note), complete with
ambient rustling and Jarrett's singing, had I not listened to the cut 10 times with
the BC-2s. The Blue Circle amps gave me all the low-level club noise and a window
into Jarrett's voice (which I had not wished for), but against a very dark (if not
completely black!) background. The distinctions are fine, but the small advantage
here contributes to the overall quality of the amps.
The Blue Circle BC-2s are more than the sum of their strengths. The "ledger" approach
to evaluation – "this is good, that is not as good" – fails to account for the essence
or the excellence of these units. They may have heated my listening room on cold
December days and, yes, the sonic image may be a hair short of perfect, but the Blue
Circles capture the heart and soul of the music. Whether they very tangible, almost
physical tonal honesty is due to the unique design (i.e. single-ended hybrid in wood)
or to the careful execution and bombproof build matters little. It is almost a cliché
to say that a fine component lets you forget it is there and allows you to just enjoy
the music, but the cliché holds for the BC-2s. I could live happily (and warmly!)
with the Blue Circle amplifiers for a long time and easily forget about new toys;
they play exactly the notes I want to hear.
REFERENCE EQUIPMENTFront End: Linn Lingo / Cirkus / Trampolin, Ittok arm, Monster
Sigma 2000 II cartridge, Proceed PCD3 II (modified a la francaise);