Audio BC703 Phono Stage
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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!
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
Crystal Oval 8 (speaker level). Power cords were Shunyata Research
Taipans, fed by a Shunyata Hydra Model-8 power conditioner.
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.
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.
always had a soft spot for Nirvanaís
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
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.
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
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.
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.
-- 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Blue Circle Audio BC703 Phono Stage
Price: $6995 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Blue Circle Audio, Inc.
Innerkip, Ontario N0J 1M0
Phone: (519) 469-3215
Fax: (519) 469-3782