Sometimes Elsa likes to shop. Sometimes I just like to kick back. Luckily, every couple of months we can mutually satisfy these urges by wheeling a day trip to Syracuse, NY, precisely a three hour jaunt from my home in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. They have a pretty good mall in Syracuse to waste a few hours away- The Carousel. While Elsa cranks the stores, I normally begin my official emissarial duties by first popping into Hooters for a brew, then zipping over to Taco Bell for a quick snack, followed by an afternoon of reading and music in Borders.
But sometimes a three hour drive is just too much for a day trip. On these days we trim the journey down and stop in Watertown -- one hour short of Syracuse. Unfortunately, Watertown's mall only has Taco Bell. There is no Hooters and certainly no Borders. So on these days I am usually able to spend my afternoons at the house of Watertown's most famous audiophile - Positive Feedback readers know it well, Stu's Place.
It was another hot-humid July day. After two hours of non-air-conditioned driving towards Syracuse Elsa had had enough. Pants sticking to our legs, sweating, and generally getting grouchy, Elsa made it clear that Syracuse was not on the hit-list today. This was not good news for me, particularly since this change of events was sprung on me only five minutes from Watertown. Relationships mean compromise so I found myself searching for rational-sounding 'gotta see Stu' arguments as we approached the Watertown Mall.
"Ok, we'll stop, but I'm only staying in this city if I find something to do. I can't do this mall today -- lemme phone Stu McCreary and see if he's around. Otherwise we're back in the car for Syracuse."
"Your stereo friend? He won't want you to just stop by! Can't you just quit with your stereo stuff for a day. Shop with me. Shop with meeeeeeeee..." Elsa replied with that usual look of audiophile-spouse disgust.
"Sorry, no-can-do. You gotta quarter for the phone?" I knew I had to maintain my ground to maintain my sanity. There was just no way I was spending three hours looking at shoes, makeup, purses, and you name it.
"Please, please, be home, Stu, I just can't handle this mall today. Please, please," ran through my head as I picked up the receiver and inserted a quarter..
"YES!" was my mental reaction as my call of desperation was answered. "Stu, Doug here, just stopped in Watertown and uh, well, seeing if you're doing anything......... you know, I'm at the mall right now and Elsa's gonna shop and .......What? new amps? Yeah I've got a few hours, be there in a second!"
"YES!!!!" I now blurted aloud, although still through clenched teeth, keeping a close eye on the Els-ter. Elsa again was not impressed playing second fiddle to this audio-fetish of mine.
"Well aren't we Mr. Happy?" I could hear now in the distance as my shoes hit the asphalt parking lot.
"Yeah hun, luv you, see ya at five, right at these doors, have fun, spend lots of.... "
I give full credit to Stu McCreary for making the Blue Circle discovery of 1996. On that fateful July day I heard the best sound yet from Stu's Von Schweikert VR-4 speakers. On my previous visit to Stu's Place, he was powering those beasts with some 35 watt Manley tube monoblocks. That was good sound, but Stu was using the Blue Circle BC-2 monoblocks and the sound was better -- much better. The BC-2 is a tube/solid state single-ended design that produces 75 watts per channel. In Stu's words, he had found his 'Holy Grail' of amplifiers. His Tube-Fest may have reached its end, but this marked just the beginning of my Blue Circle experience.
When it came time for the high end show in Toronto, Blue Circle was first on my list. Upon entering their room I was more than overjoyed to find that Blue Circle Audio is no one-amp-wonder. There are also a series of power conditioning products called Power Line Pillows, a soon to be released single chassis amp called the BC-6, and the main topic today, the BC-3 Linestage Preamplifier. Even more products are in the works.
The BC-2 amps are the Blue Circle crowd draw. However, it was not the amps that caught my eye, instead it was the open chassis of the BC-3 preamp that drew me in. Like all Blue Circle designs, it is distinctive and somewhat unusual in its styling - I call it audiophile-esoterica.
The BC-3 is a two piece unit (see picture right). There is an external power supply called the BCG-3, joined to the main chassis by a cable selected for good performance with a DC power supply. The main preamp chassis is all stainless steel with large wooden control knobs (Corian knobs are an option). Unlike the hybrid design of the BC-2 amps, the BC-3 is all tube. Furthermore, it is a dual mono design down to the selector switches! The preamp chassis is made entirely of stainless steel.
The front panel contains minimal controls. There are two separate volume knobs, flanked on either side by the separate input selectors, plus dual tape monitor switches. At first managing dual volume knobs and dual input selectors was a little 'user clunky.' However, I quickly grasped the concept and did not miss the 'single' controls one bit.
And speaking of those volume controls.... in the case of the BC-3, Blue Circle actually manufactures their own! Resistor after resistor is matched and soldered in place by the Blue Circle team. Left/right tracking is reportedly better than 0.2 dB. "Whew," one dealer gasped as he peered inside at the show, "that is a LOT of work!"
The rest of the inside of the chassis adheres to the Blue Circle ideals of simplicity. Matter of the fact, Gilbert Yeung, the main-brain behind Blue Circle, said it is one of the few preamps that you could "photograph and duplicate." I removed the top cover and peered in many times. I'm no techno-phile, yet I could almost understand the internal workings - almost. The circuits are all point-to-point wiring on a quarter inch acrylic signal board (blue of course). This signal board is unique in that it floats on a suspension. Furthermore, small adjustments can be made to change the height of the system board subtley to alter its mechanical resonant properties -- nifty. Cardas RCA jacks are used on the back for line level inputs and outputs. Jena Labs wiring, Kimber Kaps, and Holco resistors are used internally. Overall, careful attention has been paid to parts quality and construction.
The BC-3 is only available in a single-ended design. I asked Gilbert Yeung if long cable lengths were any problem. He replied that, "they drove 450 feet of interconnect wire with it with no problem!" Enough for my three meter preamp to amp connection I would say. I needed to hear this piece for myself, in my own system.
After the show I was elated to receive an e-mail from Gilbert Yeung saying he would like to personally drop off the BC-2 amps and the BC-3 preamp for SoundStage! review. "Gilbert, you don't have to personally bring it here, why not use UPS?" I replied. No amount of coaxing would stop him. The driving time was six hours and he wanted to make sure I had the equipment set up right. Gilbert was on his way.
He arrived sharp from his six hour drive and had the equipment set up lickety-split. The BC-3 preamp replaced the Sonic Frontiers SFL-1 and was wired to the digital front-end Theta Data Basic transport and Prime II DAC. The BC-2 amps drove the Coincident Technology Troubador loudspeakers I had for review at the time. I also used B&W 803 and Von Schweikert VR-3 loudspeakers. Cabling used throughout the system was by Nirvana.
The review BC-2s and BC-3 were finished in red cherry. I feel this finish is their best by far. Despite the unorthodox appearance, the BC-2 and BC-3 received high praise for their styling. One enthusiastic listener called it Audiophile Art. Elsa was overjoyed with the look. Yes, overjoyed! This is only the second equipment brand in the history of my high-end fetish to receive her enthusiastic styling approval. No small feat, lemme tell you.
Gilbert had the music rolling within half an hour. And what music it was. From a cold-amp start, the increase in resolution, detail, and transparency was immediately apparent with a Blue Circle equipped system. Best of all, things only got better. We listened for three hours that afternoon before breaking for supper.
My initial impressions of the BC-3 grew stronger over the remaining three weeks of my review term. After careful audition it came as no surprise to me to learn that one of the Blue Circle team's key design goals is complete neutrality and transparency through simplicity of design. And this exceptional transfer of musical information came without any hint of stridency, brightness, or grain. The reproduction of vocalists struck me first because of the exceptional accuracy. They simply sounded real, almost spooky. It was more than that though. Much of my music collection took a significant leap forward in reproduced realism. This result I attribute not to BC-3 having a sonic character per se, but rather, to the absence of one. The BC-3 slid to the side and let the music shine through.
Performance throughout the frequency range was exceptional. I experienced everything from thunderous bass to infinitely extended treble. More importantly though, no particular area jumped out and forced me to stand up and take notice. To me, this is a sign of well balanced and natural performance that few components achieve. Instrument and vocalist separation and distinction was first rate. The ability to resolve nuances and to hear into the recording was more impressive than I had ever previously experienced. With this heightened sense of recorded detail, pinpoint imaging and the illusion of a vast soundstage was easy to achieve when the recording warranted it.
That fact that this is a tube design had no bearing on the sonic properties I was hearing. If someone asked me, "does it have a tube or solid state sound?" I would not be able to answer. The BC-3 did not sound like anything at all and that is the highest compliment I can pay to a preamplifier. When a component performs exceptionally well, like the BC-3, I find myself somewhat at a loss for words. The BC-3 presents the music in such a pleasing way that it was too easy to forget that I was reviewing this component. Instead, recording after recording, I found myself simply listening.
Is there any fault with this preamp? First let's talk about the style and function. I am taken by the rather unique design, but others may not be as satisfied with its simplicity. If you need a whiz-bang, million and one inputs control center, this will not be your ride. And despite the sonic benefits, having dual volume controls is not everyone's fancy. Furthermore, remote controls are becoming more commonplace in high-end designs, but as of yet none is available for the BC-3. Ditto for a phono stage (one is in the works, however). And although most of my listening room attendees "ooooohed" and "ahhhhhhhed" at the shiny chassis and large knobs, there were a few whose cranks were not turned. Ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And to these eyes, the Blue Circle gear has a distinctive style that most of the other metal monsters cannot match. And in my system, its basic functionality works just fine.
Is the BC-3 the sonic ticket to paradise for everyone? It certainly is for me, but I can imagine that there are probably some people who would prefer something different. Something more lush and warm sounding perhaps. More tooby if you will. Then there are those that may like a tad more visceral whallop. A little more jump and edge perhaps. There are other very good preamps that lean in those directions. Are they better than the BC-3? I would say they are simply different..
To me, the end result and the judgment of relative worth is in the listening. To my ears, the BC-3 accomplishes sonically what an 'ideal' preamplifier should accomplish, near invisibility in the signal path. The result is realism of performance that I could not live without for long, so I bought one. No, I did not 'buy the review sample.' I sent that back to Blue Circle on time. This is, after all, no small purchase. But I sorely missed the BC-3 from the moment it left my door. And even more shocking, Elsa missed it too! My system did not communicate the same musical magic to either of us.
The Blue Circle equipment belongs to a group of few components that has rattled and excited my jaded audiophile bones. Even if you are not in the market to spend this amount of money, I encourage you to listen to the BC-3 to obtain a sonic reference at this performance level. It is a pleasing eye-opener. Is the BC-3 the best preamplifier in the world? How can I really say? It is certainly one of the best preamplifiers I have ever heard. I would not own it otherwise. If there is a preamp out there that can outperform the BC-3, I want to hear it. Until I find such a beast, the BC-3 is my reference.
|Blue Circle BC-3 Preamplifier
Price: $3,350 USD
Blue Circle Audio, Inc.