May 15, 2008
Blue Circle Audio BC707 Phono Stage
When you think about it, its funny that the closest relative of the phono stage is the digital-to-analog converter (DAC). The two component categories are the matter and antimatter of the audio world, but they perform roughly analogous tasks. And no, thats not a pun. Both DAC and phono stage modify a signal thats not ready for prime time so that its fit for human consumption, right? Oh, sure, they go about it in different ways, but the end result is the same: an analog signal, translated from marks on a plastic disc, that you can feed to your preamp. Perhaps analog and digital diehards arent as far apart as they think.
These musings have been moseying around my brain lately as I try to reconcile my new flame -- 350GB of FLAC-encoded music, a Squeezebox music server, and a Benchmark DAC -- with the full-on analog rig in my main system. Although Ive been having a blast with the Squeezebox-Benchmark system, I dont think the young tart will hold my interest long. Im a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool analog addict, and the addition of a boatload of digital music doesnt even come close to exciting me as much as does the insertion of a featureless black box such as the subject of this review: the Blue Circle Audio BC707 phono stage ($2295 USD).
In keeping with its single-minded purpose, the BC707 is a basic black box; switches and buttons are conspicuous by their absence. Theres no power switch, but Blue Circle claims that the BC707 draws a microscopic 1.8W, which means its not environmentally unacceptable to leave the unit plugged in at all times. The only user-addressable control is a ground-lift switch on the rear panel that I didnt need to use.
One look at the BC707s guts gives little doubt that its the product of the mercurial mind of Gilbert Yeung, who owns Blue Circle Audio and designs its products. The chassis is jam-packed with sausage-like capacitors, to the tune of over half a Farad. In fact, pretty much all of the BC707s internal real estate is taken up by caps, with only a small toroidal transformer at one corner and a small circuit board off to one side left to occupy the remainder.
While conventional wisdom has it that the small signal the BC707 outputs and the infinitesimally smaller signal it takes will most likely never justify this abundance of capacitance and, thus, current reserves, one things for sure: the huge amount of juice the BC707 can call on means that there should be plenty of headroom available. It may be overkill, but isnt that part of the point of high-end audio?
Gilbert Yeung doesnt think its overkill. "I havent reached the limits of the power supply yet," he says. "I keep adding capacitance and it keeps sounding better. In fact, Ive built a prototype preamp that will play for 16 hours on the power stored up in its capacitors. When I take it to demos, I dont even have to plug it in. It works way better than batteries."
The BC707 offers user-adjustable resistance and capacitance loading by way of RCA plugs that contain resistors and caps of different values. Blue Circle provides a set of 1k ohm plugs as standard, but other values and combinations are available. I found my Roksan Shiraz cartridge performed best at 100 ohms, but your mileage may well vary. Gain is switchable between 39dB and 60dB, which should take care of most moving-magnet cartridges, and all but the shyest moving-coils.
My review sample came dressed to kill, with the optional black Plexiglas faceplate. Black textured steel is standard, and based on a photo I saw, the Plexi faceplate is the way to go. The companys trademark backlit blue circle looked especially natty -- bright enough to be seen in a sunlit room, yet not obnoxious when the lights were out. As an aside, when I unplugged the BC707 to re-insert my own AQVOX phono stage for comparison, the Blue Circle emblem remained illuminated for an absurd amount of time -- about three minutes. At first I thought it was some sort of trick, perhaps static electricity or an internal battery, but I eventually realized that the light was drawing power from the capacitors.
Blue Circle offers balanced outputs for the BC707 as a $250 option. The black Plexiglas faceplate adds another $250, for a nice, round $2795 as tested.
I auditioned the BC707 through an uncharacteristically stable system. Working backward, the recently reviewed Verity Rienzi speakers fronted the whole shebang, with umbilicals or Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables leading to my Audio Research VT100 tube amplifier. Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval balanced interconnects led back to my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamplifier (greatly improved with the addition of Tesla gold-grid 6922 tubes), which in turn received signals from either the component under review or my AQVOX Phono 2 CI stage. My Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable squatted at the top of the heap, with the stock interconnect running interference. The RPM 10 held my Roksan Shiraz cartridge at its tip.
All power-supply duties were performed by Shunyata Research Taipan power cords plugged into a Shunyata Hydra Model-6 power conditioner.
Blue Circle gear has sideswiped me in the past. I clearly remember the first time I heard the BC202 amplifier, and the instant, cartoon-like, head-swiveling What the hell it elicited. Gilbert Yeung may be somewhat eccentric in his demeanor, but the dude sure can design audio components. So I approached the BC707 with caution -- the last thing I wanted right now (as I write this, its tax time here in Canada) was to have to purchase another audio component because I just cant live without it.
Insertion of the BC707 was painless and free of incident. The unit sounded just dandy from cold, and little different after it had warmed up. With the gain at its highest setting, there was plenty of juice for my somewhat low-output (0.21mV) Shiraz; the BC707 should mate appropriately with all but the most persnickety moving-coils out there.
My first impressions of the BC707 were somewhat contradictory. First off, it sounded huge. The BC707 increased the size and scale of music, highlighting its swing and scope, accentuating timing and rhythm in a most flattering manner. Side by Side: Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges [LP, Verve/Classic MG VS-6109] thrives on its striding, loping rhythm, and the BC707 accentuated the contrasting interplay between Ellingtons percussive piano, Al Halls striding bass, and Hodges syrupy sax.
That first impression led me to believe that the BC707 might stomp on the small stuff. Bombast is fine, but its not a diet I could live on for the long term. However, after listening to a couple of albums via the BC707, I realized that it wasnt a big bully and began to relax. On a return visit to Ellington and Hodges, I noticed that the BC707 made it easy to pick out subtle musical details, such as the delicate guitar and the sparkling, tube-miked ride cymbal in "Stompy Jones."
The BC707s strongest trait was its overall musical coherence. Sure, it imaged well. Yeah, the frequency extremes were extended -- tight at the bottom, silky at the top. But it was the way the Blue Circle pulled it all together that stood out. When a component sounds just plain good and makes you want to listen, its often hard to pin down exactly what is eliciting that response. More often than not, its an organic wholeness to the sound that satisfies over the long haul.
The BC707 had this quality in spades. Cat Powers Jukebox [LP, Matador OLE 793-1] elaborates on the huge theme I mentioned earlier. This collection of covers by the enigmatic Chan Marshall is a massively recorded album of sparse swing and pop tracks, the deep reverb on many of the instruments adding to the sense of the ambience of a monstrous hall. On "New York, New York," the BC707 just plain drew me in. Rather than emerging from a plane level with the speakers, the Blue Circle threw a large envelope of sound outward and toward the sides, enhancing that studio ambience, turning it into a pretty darn convincing facsimile of an actual room. This wasnt a depth trick, wherein a sucked-out midrange projects the illusion of depth. No sir. Were back to that scale thing: a firm grip on the dynamics, on the size and shadings of the music.
There was no mistaking the BC707s overall signature: The highs were silky, edge-free, and extended, which made listening loud and long a real treat. My dalliance with the alt-country music genre began with Son Volt, made a brief detour toward Wilco territory, and has lately made a stop at Uncle Tupelo, the band that spawned them both. Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology [LP, Sundazed LP 5153] is a "greatest hits" collection of sorts, although only side three really appeals to me -- its neither too thrashy and nor does it overtly twang. These young boys sound far older than their years, and tracks such as "Sauget Wind" gained a large dollop of majesty and -- I keep coming back to this word -- scale. At times this track does get a bit busy, but the BC707 kept it all distinct. Good stuff indeed.
The BC707 had a killer bottom end -- I found I had to move the speakers out into the room by 6" in order to ameliorate the additional bass it generated. The Blue Circle added a serious helping of low-end power to music that might be a bit much for some systems. If youve optimized your entire system for its bass characteristics and youre using a phono stage such as the AQVOX or the Ayre P-5xe, which I reviewed last year, youll likely be in for a bit of a shock should you rotate the BC707 into your system. Things may get a bit messy as you discover you have to rearrange everything to suit the newcomer. Ideally, Id like to be able to keep the Verity Rienzis right where they are -- they image best from this position -- but then the bass would be too high in level. Such troubles everyone should have . . .
But the BC707 isnt at fault here. In fact, its to be commended for its ability to generate boatloads of tight, deep, enveloping bass. Its my own poor ability to deal with the end result of this surplus that caused me a slight amount of grief. The right move would be to take the Fritzian approach: demolish my listening room and build up a big, honking bunker to house the entire new system that Id design around the BC707. Unfortunately, I cant quite swing that level of commitment to my stereo, so Ill just have to suck it up and deal with a bit more bass than might be absolutely ideal.
For a solid-state component, the BC707 had an unbelievably lush midrange. While I hesitate to use the word because of its negative connotations, I have to say that the BC707 was almost fat through the mids. This is good, people. Although it was rich through the midband, it wasnt thick, nor was it congested. Instead, it was harmonically complete and incredibly musically satisfying.
If a component adds any congestion, a quick spin of Massive Attacks Protection [LP, Wild Bunch 8 39883 1] will instantly reveal it. Via the BC707, the title track was almost edible. The vocals gained a tiny helping of richness that did not overpower the innate delicacy of this luscious recording. While my system is all-tube and already fairly lush, the BC707 did not push the overall character over the edge into syrupy-sweet territory. On the contrary, the Blue Circle complemented my systems tonal balance, making it sound even more organic and non-stereo-like than it already did. In an all-silicon system, the BC707 would probably be just the ticket. Hey -- if youve never heard Protection, buy the LP and give a listen to the kindest, most romantic, humane trip-hop music youll ever find. And while youre at it, you could do a whole lot worse than play it through the BC707 phono stage.
I really like the BC707 from Blue Circle Audio. At $2295 for the base model, it isnt exactly cheap, but it delivers performance thats more than commensurate with its price. While I cant profess to say that its the best phono stage in the world, I know for a fact that its the best one Ive heard in my system. As I write this, Ive returned the BC707 to Gilbert Yeung. I sorely, intensely want it back. That doesnt happen very often. The tax man calls, so theres no way I can scrape up the cash for one of my own right now, but as soon as I can, I will be giving the amiable Mr. Yeung a call.
Blue Circle Audio BC707 Phono Stage
Blue Circle Audio, Inc.
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