September 2008Blue Circle Audio DAR Integrated Amplifier
by Philip Beaudette
Those are the ugliest knobs Ive ever seen!
That was my first thought as I unboxed the Blue Circle DAR integrated amplifier, removed its protective plastic bag and looked at it for the first time. Gazing at those brown wooden dials, I couldnt help but think they would have looked out of place on an integrated amplifier built in the 1970s, let alone one in 2008. I decided to e-mail Gilbert Yeung, the man behind Blue Circle, to offer my criticism.
If youve ever had the opportunity to meet Gilbert, then you know what a character he is. Not one to mince words, Gilbert can be outspoken -- he will tell you flat out what he thinks. Hes got a sense of humor, though, so I was pretty sure he wouldnt be offended by my critique. He told me that when he started Blue Circle in 1992 most people didnt like wooden knobs, but within three to four years things turned around 180 degrees and they were more popular than ever. As he points out to his customers, the fact that the knobs are made of wood means they wont give you a static shock during the winter. Hmmm, I thought. The man makes a good point.
That little story pretty much sums up Gilberts pragmatism. I doubt he loses much sleep over the cosmetics of his designs, but I have no doubt he obsesses over details pertaining to their sound. And because Ive heard and was impressed by his SDB DAC last year, I was very interested in hearing the DAR, the first integrated amplifier I've heard that's made in Innerkip, Ontario -- and with wooden knobs.
The DAR ($2995 USD) is a medium-power hybrid stereo integrated amplifier capable of producing 100wpc into 8 ohms and 150Wpc into 4 ohms. It features three line-level inputs, a tape or processor loop, and a preamp output. Like the Bryston B100 SST I reviewed last year the DAR uses discrete circuitry that utilizes a pair of high-power bipolar transistors per channel. A pancake-style toroidal transformer enables high current delivery. This transformer has the same donut shape as a normal toroidal transformer except it is thinner and wider. As Gilbert explained to me, this shape provides quieter electrical and mechanical operation, with the added advantage of faster initial impulse current capability than its thicker, narrower counterpart.
One of the more notable features of the DAR is its use of a single 6SN7 tube at the input stage, set at unity gain to realize fully its inherent sonic signature. As suggested on Blue Circles website, experienced audiophiles are encouraged to experiment with tubes to customize the sound of the DAR to their liking. Although I never did this I was intrigued by the design nonetheless, because this is the first integrated amplifier Ive ever reviewed to use tubes at either the input or output stage. I asked Gilbert why he decided on a hybrid circuit and he said that although such designs arent that common in audio the concept has been around for a long time. He told me he wanted a tube at the input stage to add a little warmth and richness while at the same time taking advantage of solid-state output.
On the front panel there are two control knobs, one for the volume and the other for input selection. Although the review sample came equipped with brown wooden knobs, Ive seen a picture on the company website showing the DAR with these same knobs painted red. In combination with the blue casework and stainless-steel faceplate, the red knobs actually looked pretty good. There is also the option of stainless-steel control knobs if you want to stay away from the wooden ones. The front panel features the power switch, the loop switch, and the trademark Blue Circle logo at the very center. The review unit wasnt fitted with remote volume control, although you can request this when you order. It adds $350 to the price. If, like me, you dont enjoy getting up out of your listening chair to adjust the volume every time you want to play a song a little louder, Id say adding this option is money well spent.
The DAR measures 17 1/2"W x 4"H x 14 1/2"D. I didnt have a scale to measure the weight, but its a pretty hefty box and felt extremely solid and well built as I set it up. Because the DAR runs so cool you can put it in a tight space, leaving as little as five inches around it on all sides. It has multiple protection circuits, including DC offset, thermal overload, and short circuit at the output to help prevent damage to either it or your speakers when playing music at high volumes.
Operation was very straightforward: plug it in, wait 45 seconds for the turn-on muting to finish, select the input and set the volume. There is no mute switch or provision for adjusting the channel balance. This is a classic Blue Circle design through and through, the very essence of simplicity and minimalism. Im fairly certain that an ape would have no problem getting the DAR to play music.
I connected the DAR to my PSB Platinum M2 speakers using Nirvana Audio Royale speaker cable terminated in gold-plated spades. The DAR replaced a Bryston B100 SST integrated amp. The DAR's binding posts dont allow for cables terminated in banana plugs, so youll need to use either spades or bare wire. I played CDs with an NAD C542 CD player, which was connected to the DAR with Kimber Kable Tonik interconnects. My turntable is a Thorens TD160HD with a Rega RB250 tonearm (it's actually called a Thorens TP250, but it's just an RB250 that was modified by Thorens to allow for height adjustment). My phono cartridge is a Dynavector DV10x5, and I used the moving-magnet phono stage built in to the Bryston B100 SST. Both the DAR and the C542 were plugged into a Blue Circle BC6000 power conditioner.
Much like the SBD digital-to-analog converter I reviewed last year, the DAR integrated was very natural-sounding, making it extremely easy to listen to. Based on the time Ive spent with both the SBD and DAR, it seems to me that ease and musicality are the hallmarks of Blue Circles "house sound," and they lend themselves to a highly involving yet very relaxing listening experience. The DAR is interesting in that it combines what I love most about the sound of vinyl with what I love most about the sound of CD. Much like listening to records, music was unforced and just seemed to flow effortlessly through the speakers. I had no problem sitting for several hours at a time without fatigue setting in. Like CD, the quiet background and see-through transparency of the DAR meant that it could extract plenty of detail from the music. In fact, the DAR did so little to call attention to itself that most of the time I couldn't hear its contribution to the sound of my system.
One thing that became apparent early in my audition was that the DAR's sound is ultra smooth. On Live at Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise CDW 43327) Neil Youngs voice sounded exquisite. Although piano and guitar were well recorded, it was the detailed, natural sound of Young's vocals that drew most of my attention, which, through the DAR, were placed dead center on the stage and behind the plane of the speakers. Coughs from the audience emerged as short bursts of noise in front of, above and below the speakers as the DAR did a fine job conveying the atmosphere and ambience of Torontos Massey Hall. Clear soundstage delineation was another of the DARs strengths. Its ability to conjure up a convincing sense of space contributed greatly to the impression of having a window into the actual event.
The DARs transparency not only made it easy to hear into the soundstage, but, combined with the clarity of the midrange, it let me hear the air around voices and instruments, further imparting a very "real" feel to the performance. As Elliott Smith sang "Twilight" (From a Basement on the Hill, Anti 86741), I could clearly hear the resonance of the wood of his acoustic guitar as he gently coaxed the notes from the instrument. The stillness and tranquility of this tune were tangible and, despite its melancholic content, managed to evoke a feeling of calm through the DAR. Treble was crisp and clear and remained so even at high volumes.
The DAR sounded laid-back, causing images to be placed further back on the stage than Im used to hearing. This played a big part in the sense of ease it brought to listening. Ive heard some integrated amplifiers that offer a more up-front, you-are-there perspective on music. These tend to sound very detailed, but they can become analytical, as though the music is being dissected. If I were a sound engineer I imagine this would be highly desirable, but as a listener at home I find that such a sound tends to draw me into minutiae at the expense of the musical whole. The DAR doesnt suffer from being analytical. Rather, it manages a wonderful balance between uncovering low-level detail without sounding cold or clinical. So the metallic shimmer of Phil Selways cymbals on "Lucky" and "The Tourist" from Radioheads opus OK Computer (Parlophone 7243 8 55229 2 5) sounded immediate without being bright. Although OK Computer is widely regarded as one of the seminal pop albums of the 1990s, its not one of Radioheads best-sounding discs. Yet, through the DAR, I found this album to be easier on the ears than I remember. I played it several times.
Low frequencies were full and warm, the DAR managing to coax smooth, even bass from the M2's 6 1/2" midrange/woofer. Even though the M2 is a bookshelf speaker, the DAR had no problem creating room-filling bass with it. But it wasnt really the quantity of bass that impressed me (although I wouldnt have wanted more) but rather its quality. The DAR struck a remarkable balance between producing full-bodied, tangible bass extension while still exerting control over the woofers. Changes in pitch and the texture were so readily apparent that it was as though the music was taking place in front of me.
The more I listened the more I realized that I dont think I could ever grow tired of listening to this integrated amplifier. It just does nothing to offend the ears and much to please them. It might not be the best-looking integrated on the market, but as long as you dont buy audio to stare at it, I can tell you that this is one of the best-sounding integrateds Ive heard, and over the past couple of years Ive reviewed several.
DAR vs. B100 SST
Anyone who thinks all integrated amplifiers sound the same should listen to the DAR alongside Brystons B100 SST ($2995). While both perform to a very high standard and exhibit the effortlessness that I associate with high-end sound, they each provide a unique perspective on music. Canada's hi-fi industry is known for its speakers, but these two integrated amps may help change that.
The first thing I noticed has nothing to do with sound: The DAR runs a lot cooler than the B100 SST, something I appreciated during the hot summer days because I dont have air conditioning. The second difference is that the DAR sounds more easygoing than the forward-sounding B100 SST, which projects images out into the room, giving music a sense of immediacy and presence. The third difference was the Brystons bass, which had greater impact and power. I heard this on the opening two tracks from Great Lake Swimmers third CD Ongiara (Nettwerk 0 6700 30691 2 0) where, through the B100 SST, Tony Dekkers vocals sounded closer to my listening chair and Colin Hueberts percussion had more "whack." In contrast, the DAR sounded warmer and fuller than the B100 SST, and as a result the bass seemed to fill out the room better. The Blue Circle integrated didnt have the Brystons rock-solid grip on the bass (although Ive yet to encounter an integrated amplifier that produces bass with the B100s solidity and impact), but it certainly wasnt wooly or loose either. It just sounded a bit fatter yet somehow portrayed all of the texture and detail at the same time. Perhaps this was a function of the DARs hybrid design.
Both the Blue Circle and the Bryston integrateds sounded great at high volumes. The DAR is the first integrated amplifier Ive reviewed since the B100 SST where I constantly found myself turning the volume up because it sounded so clean. Each is wonderfully transparent and therefore highly revealing of ancillary equipment and what's happening on the recording. The low noise floor made it easy for me to hear into the music during late-night listening sessions, when Im forced to turn the volume down. But as good as they both sounded when played quietly, I found that the B100 SST and the DAR really came into their own at volumes more closely resembling live music, where they helped to transport me to the venue, be it a studio, hall or cathedral.
In the end, it was apparent to me that the DAR and the B100 SST will appeal to two different types of listeners. If you like music that sounds immediate, the Bryston integrated might be to your liking. If you prefer sound that places you a little further from the stage but still allows you to hear everything happening in the music, the Blue Circle will be for you. I own the B100 SST, but that purchase would have been harder to make had I heard the DAR too.
When Gilbert Yeung designed the DAR, one of his goals was to achieve a similar sonic signature to the original BC2 mono amps but in an integrated design. Hence, DAR is an acronym for "death and resurrection," a name Gilbert told me refers to the death of the original BC2 amps and their rebirth as the DAR integrated. I never heard the original BC2, but if the DAR sounds anything like it, I understand why Doug Schneider used a pair as his reference for close to a decade.
In my experience the DAR is a special piece of equipment; its cost pays for its superior sonic performance, not frills. Ive never heard an integrated amp that combined the strengths of CD with those of vinyl, and with the DAR I was able to enjoy what I love about the sound of both mediums. I found it struck a perfect balance between warmth and transparency, a mix I've not heard done better before. Ive even grown used to those awful-looking knobs.
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