It was with an element of trepidation that I accepted the assignment of reviewing the new Blue Circle BC8 mono amplifiers. After all, Blue Circles products have received fairly extensive coverage in the pages of SoundStage!, and its all been exceptionally positive. What if these new amps were not as musically accomplished as the company's other products? My curiosity won out, and we at SoundStage! were the first publication to receive the BC8s for review.
Whats inside and outside
The $6950 USD BC8 monoblocks are somewhat of a departure for Blue Circle. First, they are all solid state -- no tubes to be found anywhere. Second, they run in class A/B rather than class A like the highly touted BC2 monoblocks. However, though class-A/B amps, the BC8s are obviously biased very highly toward class A -- they run very warm. Third, the BC8s offer very high power and current. The reported 220Wpc into 8 ohms and an almost unbelievable 1600Wpc available for a 1-ohm load (no duration specified) make the BC8s a muscular pair of amps.
According to Blue Circle, the laundry list of goodies found within the BC8 includes HEXFRED ultra-fast, soft-recovery rectifier diodes and a "simple" power supply yielding 120,000uF capacitance per channel with a (whopping!) 2600W power transformer. The BC8 includes thermal and DC-offset protection and a soft-start circuit, which eliminates turn-on thump. All internal wiring is from Cardas, and input options include both XLR and RCA. Pop the top and you will find no wasted real estate within. At the front of the unit is the power transformer, which is the size of the tire from your neighbors wheelbarrow. All wiring is point to point, and layout as well as execution are very neat. I can also tell you that the stainless steel (used in the chassis) is both expensive to buy and fabricate, so Im sure Blue Circle has very specific reasons for its use.
The BC8s are powerful amplifiers, and they look and feel the part. Each amplifier measures 9 1/2" square from the front and are 22" deep; each amp tips the scales at a back-straining 71 pounds. Im not sure if Blue Circle went the monoblock route because it sounds better or because nobody in the factory wanted to hoist around a 140-pound stereo amp. I suspect that both motives are equally valid. Fit and finish are very good, and the amps have a supremely solid feel. The price of admission includes two of Blue Circles own BC62 power cords, which retail at $220 each when purchased separately. The BC62 both inspires confidence and would seem to obviate the need for power-cord experimentation -- at least for a while.
On the back of each amp there are two pairs of Cardas five-way binding posts, which do omit an easily seen reference to positive and negative. Fortunately, the positive post is mounted higher than the negative, and once I realized this I never forgot it, and I found it very easy to track which was which. I also found the diagonal orientation very easy to get at with spade lugs. Also on the rear is the line fuse that, fortunately, I never had to concern myself with. The amps enclosure is peppered with ventilation holes, which also leak a bit of light from the inside of the amp -- the product of the incandescent bulb that illuminates the front-panel pilot light. Though the amp is solid state, with a little imagination you can sit in a darkened room and imagine that the glow originates from vacuum tubes (if you value such things!). And the amp throws off enough heat to aid in the fantasy. One other thing I found interesting (from a cost-to-build perspective) is that the only thing symmetrical between the right and left amps was the face plate. Everything else, including the internal layout, was mirror imaged. I suppose its important to note, too, that all the amps heat was expressed through the top and only through the top. The bottom of the amp stayed completely cool and the sides never got much more than warm.
Speakers and sound
I initially drove JMlab Mini Utopia speakers with the BC8s, but during the review period, Ohm Walsh 300 Mk II and Silverline Sonata II loudspeakers were also used with the Blue Circle amps. While the JMlab Mini Utopias never sounded better than when fed by the BC8s, they are hardly what I would call a full-range loudspeaker, so most of my review-related listening was done with the Silverline speakers. That said, the Mini Utopias, with their limited-to-50Hz bass response, never sounded faster, cleaner, more holographic or more authoritative than with the BC8s. Everything I like about the Mini Utopias was made better by the BC8s, and the two complimented each other extraordinarily well. Perhaps the BC8s' 220Wpc are a bit of overkill for the 90dB-efficient Mini Utopias, but the overall level of refinement offered was not, so my initial listening session with the Mini Utopias was a jaw-dropping and goose-bump-inducing experience.
The JMlab Mini Utopia speakers have an incredibly solid soundstage presentation. They have more reach-out-and-touch-it realism than Ive encountered from any speaker in recent memory. Well, the BC8s improved upon this quality -- images were more solid, more specific and more sharply defined. And whats more, the presentations solidity was maintained all the way out to the soundstages extreme right and left. For instance, on "Look Out For My Love" from Neil Youngs Unplugged CD [Reprise 9 45310-2], Youngs acoustic guitar is placed solidly on center-stage. His guitar sounds as vivid and focused as you would expect, but off to the left side of the stage are two accompanying guitars that perfectly extend an imaginary line drawn parallel to the front of the stage. These guitars are no less lucid and focused than the one in the center, even though one was placed outside the left speaker and the other just to the inside of the same. Spatial rendering was spectacular as well, with the soundstage extending high above the performers' heads and far behind them. The Blue Circle/JMlab combo brought the music and venue to life better than Ive experienced before. It was much the same no matter what I played over this system, but I had the feeling that there was more to be discovered about the BC8s with a more full-range speaker.
With the BC8s driving the Silverline Sonata IIs, the midrange balance was just a touch on the forward side of absolute neutral, though not anywhere even close enough to sounding bright or aggressive in any way. Rather, the sound was incredibly vivid and alive. Bass was absolutely rock-solid: clean, powerful and extended. Upper-midrange and treble performance were beyond reproach. The only thing that I thought the BC8 lacked was the intimacy and completely hear-through qualities found in single-ended tube amplifiers such as the Audiopax Model 3. Of course, this is like complaining that your snowplow doesnt do 0 to 60 in less than five seconds. But we are talking here about a seriously muscular pair of amplifiers with both the fortitude to drive just about any pair of speakers out there and the finesse to coax a very musical performance out of them. Combining this kind of fortitude and finesse is not an easy thing to do -- or every manufacturer would be doing it.
As impressed as I was with these brawny amps, as it turns out I had yet to hear what really set the Blue Circles apart from the pack: their ability to drive a difficult load. Eventually it was time to introduce the BC8s to the toughest-to-drive pair of speakers Ive encountered in a first-hand way: the Ohm Walsh 300 Mk IIs. A full-range speaker utilizing a 12" Walsh driver with a super tweeter that doesnt kick in until 10kHz, the 300 Mk II is basically a one-way dynamic speaker. Its lowish 87dB sensitivity only hints at this speakers need for power. To be honest, I had my doubts about the ultimate resolution of this speaker, as it has in the past maintained a rather distant perspective on the music and with a commensurately limited resolution. But that was before the Walsh 300 Mk IIs met the Blue Circle BC8s.
After a brief warm-up period for the amps, the Ohms absolutely exploded to life. The bass was transformed. The speakers have never been bass-shy and their 12" drivers can really pound. But never before, with any amplifier, did they sound like they did with the BC8s. It was as if a very high-quality active subwoofer now supplemented the speakers. Visceral punch went through the roof as did speed and articulation. The pounding bass pedal from "Countdown" off the GRP All-Stars Live From The Record Plant DVD was beyond anything Id heard from the speakers before in terms of power and detail. No other speaker/amp combo Ive owned can match it. And while this performance alone may justify the existence of the BC8s, it wasnt close to being the whole story.
Midrange detail improved by leaps and bounds. Again, it sounded as if the Walsh driver in the speaker had been replaced by a new driver -- one at least two rungs up the ladder in terms of quality. Resolution, as compared to what Ive heard from these speakers before, was nothing short of flabbergasting. Microdynamic capability, something basically foreign to the Ohms before, was now stunning. Rostropovich Returns To Russia [Sony Classical SK 45836] is a wonderfully stirring recording that documents the celebratory concert upon the return to the Motherland of Mstislav Rostropovich after his long exile. "Tybalts Death," from the ballet Romeo and Juliet, is a difficult track where microdynamics are concerned. Among other things, what we have is a series of drum whacks from one side of the stage that are supposed to be reproduced (both the rise and the fall) well before the reverberated reflections from the other side of the stage are heard. When reproduced well, you can hear the completion of the original event before you hear the reflection from the opposite side of the stage. What you hear when done poorly is a drum whack that does not fall silent before it runs into an amorphous echo. The Ohms, for the very first time, performed this feat marvelously. Miraculously even! I have never heard these speakers in possession of so much speed and control. While the speakers have always been superb at soundstaging, for the first time I could pinpoint the different sections of the orchestra. Image delineation was superb and well beyond what I had previously thought possible with these speakers.
Not that the whole story was about power and imaging -- no sir! Violins from Paganinis "Moto Peretuo," also from the Rostropovich disc, were fluid, exciting and vital; the Blue Circle amps aided the Ohm speakers in keeping the instruments individual rather than keeping it all a mass of nebulous wash. And the somewhat lumbering performance of Gershwins "Walking the Dog" from the same disc was rhythmic and fun -- something that I dont often hear and have never really enjoyed as much. I couldnt believe the textures and the kaleidoscope of colors that the BC8s brought out of the Ohms.
At the conclusion of the listening session, I had to believe that the Ohm speakers enjoyed their encounter with the BC8s as much as I did, and I realized that the failings I had previously ascribed to the speakers were at least partially the fault of the previously mated amplifiers. None had been up to the task as much as the Blue Circle BC8s were.
Over the Silverline Sonatas, the Blue Circle BC8s sound so much like Herron Audio MC150 monoblocks that it took repeated listening to the same home-burned compilation CD to finally distinguish a few differences -- and these could only be termed subtle at best. These amps are definitely cut from the same cloth, and if someone told me that they came from the same designer, physical differences of the amps aside, I would believe it.
The least subtle of the differences was that of bass presentation. Neither amps push bass and neither amp could be said to be at all reticent in this area. But the BC8s did provide an increased level of detail. Weight and punch, at least into the easy-to-drive Sonata IIs, was very good with both amplifiers, but the BC8 provided a little more texture to well-recorded stringed bass instruments, a little more edge, and a little more transient snap to the bass or kick drum. This additional clarity also had the effect, at times, of providing added clarity to other parts of the spectrum as well. Take, for instance, Joe Jacksons "Loisilida" from his Body and Soul CD [A&M CD-5000]. Throughout the song, completely separate from the drum kit, there is a series of subdued tom-tom strikes from the back of the stage, and they move laterally across. These strikes are not loud or powerful, and they don't really plumb the depths. But the BC8 had the ability to clarify those strikes and give them a sharpened presence that the M150s didnt. The BC8 presented the fundamental in a more succinct manner that didnt obscure the drums harmonic overtones.
The other difference that I found was that of presentation of microdynamic detail. In this area, the Herron M150s reign supreme. They unravel the all-important minutiae of the midrange like no other high-powered amp Ive heard, tube or solid state. It is, to my ears, the M150s' single most defining characteristic. And they did better the Blue Circle BC8s in this area. Jesse Cooks' "Gipsy" from his Gravity CD [Narada Equinox ND-63037] is a fairly simple arrangement of Spanish guitar played in a quasi-flamingo style with crisp percussion and bass. But the Herrons unraveled the flurry of guitar notes and preserved them in isolation from the rest of the mix in a way that the BC8s didnt quite manage. Like a good triode amplifier, the M150s, in a manner of speaking, "make a hole" in the music for the guitar, thus preventing any of its harmonics or overtones from being obscured by other goings-on. To be fair, the BC8s didnt miss the Herrons' mark by much. As a matter of fact, they also excel in this area, and with the exception of the Audiopax Model 3 (a 7Wpc SET amp and a horse of a completely different color), they trounced every other amplifier I have in the house, including my Conrad-Johnson MV100, which is no slouch in the midrange-detail category.
This is one of those reviews that shouldnt require a conclusion except for those who skip to the bottom first. It is for the benefit of these people that Ill reiterate what is by now very obvious to everybody else: the Blue Circle BC8s are superb amplifiers. For those of us with power-hungry speakers, I cant recommend highly enough giving a listen to the BC8 amplifiers. In fact, the more difficult your speakers, the more you need to hear these amps -- otherwise you may have no idea of what your speakers are truly capable.
Are the BC8s perfect? Are they state of the art? I cant say, having never explored the realm of super amps, many of which still cost much more than these do. What I can say is that while the BC8s have a definable character, nothing in that definition gave me reason for pause. I liked everything I heard, and I bet they will exceed the expectations of the vast majority of serious listeners. They exceeded mine.
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