August 2002Blue Circle Audio CS Integrated Amplifier
by Roger Kanno
Blue Circle products have long been favorites of SoundStage! reviewers, and for good reason. Blue Circle has successfully established itself as a manufacturer of high-end audio gear that is often competitive with even costlier products from other manufacturers. But the company's new CS line finds itself situated in the extremely competitive entry-level high-end market. The CS line consists of an integrated amplifier, the subject of this review, and a preamplifier and power amplifier for those who simply must have separates. The CS integrated amp sells for a reasonable $1150 USD, while the CS preamplifier and power amplifier retail for $795 and $1095 respectively.
The CS integrated amplifier is classic Blue Circle with its folded and brushed stainless-steel faceplate, wooden knobs, and softly glowing circular logo. It looks very similar to Blue Circle's much more expensive preamplifiers, which means that some will admire it for its unique hand-made build quality while others will eschew it for its simple and unpretentious looks. I was not enthralled by the review units appearance because I thought that its golden oak knobs made it look just a little too rustic. But to be fair, I have seen other Blue Circle products equipped with dark-cherry knobs that I thought to be rather attractive. Like all Blue Circle products, this integrated amp is available with your choice of several different colors of wood knobs at no cost, and stainless steel ones can be substituted for an additional $80 each.
Three of these rather large knobs adorn the faceplate and control volume, balance, and input selection. There are also two small toggle switches for power and the tape monitor. Around back there are three sets of very high-quality gold-plated RCA jacks for the line-level inputs and two more for the tape loop. A pair of five-way binding posts, an IEC power receptacle, and socketed fuse round out the very clean and simply laid-out back panel. There are also provisions for an optional preamp output, which is available for an additional $75. Remote control is not an option.
The CS integrated measures 17 1/2"W x 3 5/8"H x 8 5/8"D atop its three wooden feet and weighs 15 pounds. I did not open up the case, but the CS integrated is said to utilize point-to-point wiring like other Blue Circle designs instead of the ubiquitous printed circuit boards that are present in nearly all solid-state products. The CS integrated is indeed a solid-state design and is rated to deliver 50Wpc.
According to Gilbert Yeung, the CS integrated's volume control is of very high quality, but might require some getting used to. Most of its usable range is between the 12:00 and 4:00 positions (the highest setting of the control knob). Although it may be disconcerting to some, this provides a lot of control over the output level because a relatively large amount of travel is required to change the integrated amps volume significantly. This allows for very fine adjustment. I noticed that the CS integrated barely got warm to the touch during normal use, and it was only when driving some larger and more demanding speakers to very high levels that the unit began to heat up at all.
So many speakers, so much sound
I started off by listening to the Blue Circle CS in a modest system with an NAD 502 CD player, Axiom M3Ti SE speakers, Analysis Plus Clear Oval speaker cables, and Audio Magic Xstream interconnects and power cords. With this system, I immediately sensed that the CS was a very capable integrated amplifier as the Axiom speakers sounded as good as I have ever heard them. Although the little Axioms are an easy load and sound good with a wide variety of amplifiers, as with most speakers, they sound their best when driven by a high-quality amplifier with plenty of power. The CS allowed the Axioms to resolve a lot of low-level detail yet play loudly without strain. The bass was tightly controlled, and there was good depth and width to the soundstage. A great example of this was the First Impressions Music Audiophile Reference IV [FIM SACD 029] CD. The various bells and other percussion on Pachelbels Canon in D imaged precisely from left to right, and the bass drum was taut and perceived as well back in the soundstage, even though it is recorded at a very low level. There was a good sense of the resonance of the standup bass on "Georgia On My Mind" and the plucking of its strings was well delineated. The ambience of the jazz club in "High Life" was captured perfectly, and the percussion had a sparkle that really brought this recording to life. With the CS integrated, the Axiom M3Ti SEs sounded bigger, more controlled, and more natural than I was accustomed to.
I also mated the Blue Circle integrated amp with the Athena Point 5 sub/sat speaker system. Because this system features a powered subwoofer, the CS integrated was relieved of the responsibility of reproducing the bass frequencies. This allowed me to concentrate on the midrange and treble performance, which was highly resolving and very refined. The Point 5 system can sound a little lean at times, and the CS integrated did nothing to intensify this or warm up the sound in any way. Instead it let the fundamental characteristics of the speakers shine through. The Point 5 satellite speakers are also imaging champs, and with the CS integrated, everything seemed to snap into focus. The soundstage on "High Life" from Audiophile Reference IV was huge, and subtle directional cues gave the presentation great depth. When one of the players yells out part way through the xylophone solo, his voice is placed precisely to the left and back of the soundstage, while the individual notes of the xylophone imaged distinctly across nearly the entire distance between the speakers.
Vocals such as the a cappella voices on "Full Force Gale" from the Van Morrison tribute album No Prima Donna [Exile/Polydor 314 523368-2] sounded fantastic with the Blue Circle CS, which conveyed, for instance, all of the nuance of Elvis Costellos expressive voice in the mix. While Costellos vocals precisely occupied the center image, the backup singers filled the rest of the acoustic space with a continuous wall of sound that was slightly diffuse, but sweet and melodic and placed firmly behind Costello. Choral recordings such as Postcards [Reference Recordings RR-61CD] with the Turtle Creek Choir were holographic in their imaging with a great sense of the recorded space on tracks like "NKosi Sikelel i Afrika" and "Cindy."
While the Blue Circle CS integrated was able to wring an amazing amount of performance out of the budget-priced Axiom M3Ti SEs and the Athena Point 5 speaker system, its combination with a pair of Omnipolar Mirage OM-9s was even more impressive. The CS integrated effectively took charge of these relatively large speakers and provided an immense soundstage. The imaging characteristics of Mirages Omnipolar speakers, which are said to radiate sound in a 360-degree pattern, may not be as precise as with many direct-radiating speakers, but the CS integrated could produce a realistic and stable soundstage with them. Again, the midrange and treble of this amplifier proved to be clean and powerful, which allowed vocals to soar. Roy Orbisons falsetto crooning and k.d. langs voice seemed to be free from the speakers, and acoustic guitar filled the entire room with its richly textured chords on "Crying" from The Very Best Of Roy Orbison [Virgin 42350].
The OM-9s are slightly on the dark side of neutral, and the CS integrated did nothing to conceal this. There was very little sibilance on "Dont Know Why" from Norah Jones Come Away With Me [Blue Note 7243 5 32088 2 0], which features some very closely miked and stark-sounding vocals. Even Shakiras Laundry Service [Sony 63900] could be played back at high levels with very little of the harshness that many overproduced pop albums exhibit.
This is not to say that the Blue Circle/Mirage combination lacked detail or dulled the sound. There was still plenty of body and detail in these recordings, but the images were very smooth and round. And although the imaging of the OM-9s might not have been razor sharp, the CS integrated managed to place objects firmly within the soundstage and with reassuring authority. For example, the saxophone on "High Life" from the aforementioned Audiophile Reference IV was a little diffuse, but it was placed accurately within the soundstage and seemed to track sax player Arne Domnerus as he moved across the stage.
Judging the competition
The $2500 Krell KAV-300i has been my reference integrated amplifier for some time, and even though it has been replaced by a newer model, it is still a formidable unit. The Blue Circle CS integrated is not quite the equal of the Krell, but it came remarkably close to it in sound quality and at a much lower price.
The Krell had more solid imaging overall and more precise image outlines -- as if everything in the soundstage had been clamped down. This gave added presence and weight to Norah Jones vocals on Come Away With Me and made the overdubbing on "Dont Know Why" more distinct from the main vocal. The CS integrated exhibited more bloom with the vocals on "Full Force Gale" from No Prima Donna, making for a more inviting sound that seemed smoother and abundant with natural decay. Both of these integrated amps excelled with the OM-9 speakers, with the Krell providing a presentation that was slightly more precise and the Blue Circle giving a sound that was richer and more organic. Both of these amps were neutral-sounding. It was just that the Krell was a little bit more detailed than the Blue Circle, which was in turn just a tad warmer.
As expected, the low frequencies of the Krell integrated were superior to those of the Blue Circle, but the differences were only apparent on certain bass-heavy recordings. For instance, the bass and drums on Jack Johnsons Brushfire Fairytales [Universal 860994] were dynamic and well controlled with the Blue Circle CS, but the Krell was able to tighten things up further with the OM-9s, if only slightly. However, taken on its own, I did not think that the Blue Circle was lacking in bass control -- or any other area. It was only in direct comparison with the Krell that these differences became apparent.
I used the Blue Circle CS integrated amp with a very wide array of components, and it was invaluable for reviewing all types of equipment. However, the CS integrated was not just a competent reviewers tool; it was also a lot of fun to listen to -- and I listened to it a lot, both for review purposes and pleasure.
If you are contemplating purchasing an integrated amp in the $1000 price range, you would do well with the Blue Circle CS. If you have ever dreamed of owning amplification from Blue Circle and couldnt afford it, or you dont mind the lack of remote control and unique hand-built finish, you will love this integrated amp. If, on the other hand, these things do matter to you, you might consider an integrated amp from any one of an array of manufacturers. But I bet you will still admire the Blue Circle CS for its simplicity and purity of sound.
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