May 2010

Blue Circle Audio BC703 Phono Stage

Reviewers' Choice LogoEveryone wants you to buy their products. If they sell amplifiers, theyíll tell you that the amp is the most important component in your system. If they make speakers, thatís what counts most. And cable manufacturers . . . well, you get the idea.

Thereís some truth to each of these claims of sonic importance, to each of these delusions of grandeur. Of course, each component in a system adds its own flavor and character to the sound, and -- hereís the crux -- an analog front-end is the most crucial part of any system itís part of. The source is always first and foremost, and analog is incredibly persnickety about component choice. Change your DAC and youíll likely hear a difference; change your cartridge and itíll sound as if youíre listening to a completely different system. And there you have it -- you donít have to sift through the claims of all those shills, or worry any longer about where to spend your money. Listen to Jason and everythingíll be OK.

So letís just say you actually take my advice and blow your inheritance on a record-playing device. Now you gotcher high-end turntable and a tiny little cartridge that together cost you more than a Honda Civic, but you still canít listen to it without one more item -- a confusing little box called a phono stage thatíll make or break your system.

The Blue Circle Audio BC703 phono stage that Iím listening to right now retails for $6995 USD, and so would be right at home in that new-car-class system Iíve just mentioned. Itís Blue Circleís assault on the state of the phono-stage art. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Blue Circle knows to be wary when approaching one of the companyís products. Iíve reviewed the Blue Circle BC202 amplifier and the BC707 phono stage, and in both instances Iíve ended up redefining my concept of whatís possible from an unassuming box. And in both instances, Iíve considered every method short of fraud and armed robbery to scrape up the cash in order to keep both components in my system. So this time I was ready. My guard was up.

What it is

The BC703 delivered to Thorpe Manor was smartly bedecked in Blue Circleís trademark stainless-steel livery, with the ubiquitous and eponymous illuminated blue circle front and center. The heavy-gauge steel covers are powder-coated in a nice, rich, matching blue. The separate power supply is housed in a narrow chassis shaped somewhat like a shoebox. Unlike the power supplies of many other components Iíve reviewed, the BC703ís is built to the same cosmetic standard as the main module.

Other than the illuminated blue circle and a toggle switch for the Mute control (it also shuts off the front light, which makes it suspiciously similar in function to a power switch), the BC703ís front panel is completely empty. I really dig the whole Blue Circle look, but for those who find stainless-steel a bit too appliance-like, the BC703 -- like all Blue Circle products -- is also available with a faceplate of hand-rubbed wood. This option adds anywhere from $650 to $950 to the price, depending on the wood(s) chosen (see Blue Circleís website for photos of a BC703 finished in purpleheart and walnut).

Around back, the BC703 accepts both moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges, though I canít imagine that this phono stage would see much use matched with an MM, or even a high-output MC. Itís nice to have the option, though, I guess. There are both single-ended and balanced outputs; I used only the balanced. Also íround back is a ground-lift switch (nice to have in case of hum, especially with so much gain available), and a switch that changes the orientation of the hot pin on the balanced outputs.

Loading is controlled by internal jumpers, as is gain -- and man, this unassuming box provides a whole boatload of gain. With 87dB available, Iím unaware of any cartridge that would give the BC703 any trouble. When Gilbert Yeung, founder-designer of Blue Circle, delivered the BC703, the gain was at its highest setting, and with my Roksan Shiraz squeaking out a measly 0.21mV, I couldnít raise the volume above the first detent. Even with the gain set at such a ridiculously high level, the BC703 was dead silent.

Yeung opened up the BC703 and changed the gain to something more sensible, and while he was in there I took a gander at the guts of the thing. Thereís a ton of capacitance in there -- well over half a Farad. The bulk of the power-supply storage is made up of good-quality capacitors, but where they join up there are four juicy high-end caps fronting things. All caps are glued to the chassis with copious amounts of silicone. In fact, thereís silicone everywhere -- holding in the blue light at the front of the chassis, securing wires to the chassis, atop various internal components. Yeung likes his silicone, and, when you think about it, for good reason. It works well to attach stuff, and itís a decent damper, protecting sensitive components from vibration. And itís cheap. Inexpensive and effective -- makes you wonder why more manufacturers donít use the stuff.

My rather playful description of Gilbert Yeungís penchant for silicone shouldnít lead you to think that thereís anything haphazard or sloppy about the build quality of the BC703. On the contrary, the circuit board is well thought out, the chassis is rock solid, and the connectors are top-notch. Late in the review period, when I popped the hood myself to take another look at the BC703ís innards, I flipped the lid over and noted the damping compound applied to the underside. On close examination, I saw that the puttylike material had been smoothed down, not into some random feathering pattern from a putty knife, but into an almost paisley-like relief. Someone had gone to a heap of trouble to make that damping compound look pretty, and I think I know who that person is . . .

It seems that Blue Circle is preparing a battery power supply for the BC703, and perhaps just because thatís not an entirely new idea, youíll also be able to order a solar charging option. An environmentally conscious stereo component -- imagine that!

Context

For quite a while, the BC703 saw service chez Thorpe with speakers that were commensurate in price. The Crystal Cable Arabesques ($65,000/pair) were in da house for a period, followed closely by Verity Audioís Amadis ($30,000/pair). My core system consisted of the Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable and my darling Roksan Shiraz cartridge. Signal cables were all Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval (low level) and Solo Crystal Oval 8 (speaker level). Power cords were Shunyata Research Taipans, fed by a Shunyata Hydra Model-8 power conditioner.

The BC703 didnít like the cold. Just hooked up, the Blue Circle phono stage sounded most unimpressive: cool and sterile, with a flat soundstage and a generally metallic sheen. But, my stars, did things ever turn around after it had been connected to the mains for a day. About the time the BC703 arrived, I was transitioning from the Crystal speakers to the Veritys, which meant I had plenty of stereo equipment with which to play -- the Pro-Ject was spinning 23 hours a day. After its arrival and inauspicious debut, the BC703 just sorta snuck up on me.

What it does

One minute I was just sitting there, reading and not paying much attention to the music. The next minute, I was captivated. I recall the transition well. I was listening to Chet Bakerís Chet (LP, Riverside/Analogue Productions APJ 016), and suddenly I was drawn in. While Chet is one of the richest, most atmospheric small-group jazz recordings available, once the BC703 had come on song, the music gained a huge additional level of dimensionality. Admittedly, this album would make even the cheesiest system sound fabulous, but the BC703 took Bakerís trumpet to another level, building more body and flesh atop an already juicy image. The front wall of my room expanded outward into an extension of the listening acoustic. Now I was paying attention.

Iíve always had a soft spot for Nirvanaís MTV Unplugged in New York (LP, DGC 24727), but for me to really get into this music, everything in my system needs to be spot-on. Thatís audio sacrilege, right? Iím supposed to be able to listen through the equipment and the quality of the recording, and intuitively love a good performance. So sue me. The domestic pressing of Unplugged isnít that bad, but I find that itís still got a layer of metallic grit overlaying the music that I find particularly annoying. But when all engines are humming along smoothly, I can get past that minor sonic blemish and really get into this album. The BC703 gave my system that last nudge. From top to bottom, ďOh Me,Ē for example, just popped into focus. That deep acoustic Iíd noticed with Chet was very evident with this evocative song as well, but beyond that, the BC703 showed a number of extremely endearing traits.

Perhaps Gilbert Yeung is on to something with his obsession about power supplies. The BC703 exhibited a scale and expansiveness that verged on the revelatory, and my guess is that this had to do with the huge reserves of voltage lurking inside its unassuming box. Or maybe it was all that silicone. Whatever the reason, ďWhere Did You Sleep Last Night,Ē my favorite track on Unplugged, builds in a manner almost symphonic, and the BC703 just nailed it.

Toward the end of the review period I swapped back into the system my Aqvox Phono 2 CI -- a damn fine phono stage, and worth well more than its $2000 price -- in order to be sure I wasnít overstating to myself the BC703ís charms. In comparison, the Aqvox rendered this track as an image pressed flat as cardboard. Swapping the Blue Circle back in restored the depth and power that make Unplugged so dramatically emotional.

Along with that feeling of scale, the BC703 also provided a big chunk of dynamic swagger that was particularly noticeable in the bass. Rather than deliver more bass, it fleshed out the images of bass instruments. My all-time favorite bassist is Percy Jones, most notably when he played in the 1980s prog-rock band Brand X. Since I was 15 Iíve been listening to Moroccan Roll (LP, Charisma 921-1126), the album that sold me on his playing. On his own ďMalaga VirgenĒ Jones plays lead and rhythm bass at the same time, and itís beautifully tasteful stuff. He plays in the upper registers of the instrument, which can rob the bottom end of some of its power, but the BC703, with its dynamic grunt, prowess in shading, and bass rightness, retained the balance. Heck, the BC703 reproduced Moroccan Roll with more snap and realism than Iíd ever heard -- and Iíve heard this album through many systems.

I usually write these reviews on my laptop while listening to my system. So when I say that Iím listening to, say, Neil Youngís Greatest Hits (LP, Reprise 48935-1), Iím really listening to that album right now. Though there may be something self-referentially and temporally strange about this practice, my point is that this review took much longer to write than most because, whenever I tried to focus on what the BC703 was doing, I ended up getting sucked into the music and glazing off into the distance. Itís what I wish all audio components would sound like -- it would make my job even more fun than it already is.

Oh yes -- Neil Young. The appeal of his older electric stuff has generally eluded me, but the combination of Classic Recordsí wonderful pressing and the BC703ís crisp yet grain-free highs let me get right inside ďDown by the River.Ē This and the next track, ďCowgirl in the Sand,Ē can sound too crisp through some gear. While the BC703 hid none of the warts thrown off by Youngís excessively raw guitar playing, it didnít draw my attention to them either. All of the electric crackle that I generally find so off-putting was present and accounted for, but, much to my enjoyment, the BC703 rendered it not only listenable but genuinely enjoyable. The BC703 didnít have much of a character of its own in the upper registers -- neither crisp nor laid-back, it was essentially neutral -- but still it dredged up detail while reducing the listening fatigue that bright recordings can cause. The BC703 seemed to make the best of whatever signal it was given to amplify.

From me, those are big words -- but the music Iím now listening to backs them up. Simple Mindsí New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) (LP, A&M SP06-4928B) is anything but an audiophile chestnut -- especially my copy, a colored-vinyl US pressing. But I returned to this album several times during the review period -- mostly for the songwriting, which I feel is absolutely brilliant, but also for how the BC703 rendered Jim Kerrís voice. The infectious groove on ďColours Fly and Catherine WheelĒ is perfectly set off by Kerrís muted, murmuring voice, and the BC703 poured it out with incredible liquidity. There was an almost tube-like smoothness to the BC703ís midrange, but leaving it at that would do the Blue Circle a disservice. There was none of the glossing-over that tubes can sometimes inflict on the sound (much as I love that kind of thing, Iím aware that itís an artifact and not to everyoneís taste). Quite the contrary: the sound of the BC703 was lithe, supple, and detailed through the middle -- three characteristics that can be difficult to reconcile. Would it be trite to say that the BC703 combined the best of solid-state and tubes? But even thatís not quite right. The BC703 combined the best of solid-state with the best qualities that tubes aspire to.

Too bad, so sad

Throughout this entire review, Iíve raved about how good the BC703 is. Unlike essentially every other piece of stereo gear in my experience, there wasnít one area of its performance that dissatisfied me. I have but one sticking point before I blindly recommend it to everyone I know, even friends and relatives who donít have turntables: This thing retails for Seven Thousand Dollars. Thatís one heck of a lot of corn, people.

Me, Iím fairly level-headed and sensible, right? Financially, I do OK -- not rich, not poor, Iím a one-man show running a one-man household. I have to budget and allocate funds. My microwaveís on the way out, my house could use new windows, and the car definitely needs new tires. I fix or replace one thing a month, and thereís never quite enough money to go around.

Far be it from me to say that the BC703 isnít worth $6995 -- Iíve had more expensive components in my system that havenít given me anywhere near as much listening pleasure. Still, it damn well better be good for that price. And it is, it is.

So here I sit, trying to figure out how to pull $6995 out of my butt so I can buy this new phono stage. How much sense does that make? How to rationalize an idea so utterly ludicrous?

Woe is me. I have been smitten by an excellent stereo component, and now I have to give it back. Learn from my misery -- if youíre going to listen to the BC703, be sure you can afford it.

. . . Jason Thorpe
jasont@soundstagenetwork.com

Blue Circle Audio BC703 Phono Stage
Price: $6995 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Blue Circle Audio, Inc.
RR2
Innerkip, Ontario N0J 1M0
Canada
Phone: (519) 469-3215
Fax: (519) 469-3782

E-mail: bcircle@bluecircle.com
Website: www.bluecircle.com