An analog-playback system seems to harken back to the good old days when things
were simple. I mean, what could be easier? Slap a record onto the platter, get it
spinning, drag a needle through the groove, amplify and equalize the signal, sit back and
enjoy. But, as those analog mavens who are chuckling right now already know, things are
not that simple. Turntables are subject to all sorts of things that can damage the
resultant sound if not addressed. Setting up a cartridge properly takes time and patience
and usually a helping hand the first time around, and phono stages are required to perform
a Herculean task from the outset: take the tiny phono-cartridge output and increase it by
many times. At the same time, phono stages need to equalize that same signal to preserve
the natural spectrum of the music.
Its no easy task for a manufacturer to
achieve all this while engineering a quiet and musical component. Ive heard several
very high-priced phono stages that are simply marvelous, as they should be, given their
cost-no-object build quality and prices. Fortunately for those of us with more mainstream
means, there is a lot of gear out there that gives a darn good facsimile of the really
high-end stuff but at a fraction of the price. Enter an exemplar of this trend -- the Blue
Circle BC709 phono stage. The solid-state BC709 retails for $1295 USD, and it is slotted
into the company's range under the upgraded BC707, which shares the same aesthetics as the
BC709 but adds almost 700,000uF, or nearly 1 Farad, of filter capacitance, and the
no-holds-barred $6995 BC703, whose aesthetics harken back to the look of the
now-discontinued AG3000 preamplifier.
The BC709's gain is adjustable internally for 39
or 60dB. The review unit came configured for 60dB, which should be enough for most
moving-coil cartridges and certainly proved more than adequate for my 0.34mV Ortofon
Jubilee. What was especially nice to hear -- or rather not hear -- was that the
60dB of gain was delivered quietly and with a nice velvety-black background that allowed
music to really pour forth.
For loading, there are phono plugs with an
internal resistor that sets the value. You simply plug them into the lower two RCA jacks
and the cartridge is properly loaded down. As you can imagine, switching various values
takes a matter of seconds and is a darn sight easier than with my reference phono stage,
which has to be partially dissected to get to the minute DIP switches inside. Although
some audiophiles are of the opinion that such plugs can sometimes invoke sonic penalties,
I find them a much more convenient option than futzing with multiple tiny little screws to
expose tiny switches in the guts of various pieces of equipment. Blue Circle normally
includes 1000-ohm plugs, but the buyer can request other values.
For those audiophiles still blowing hot air
through pursed lips, the supplied plugs all seemed of very decent quality, and Im
sure the resistors utilized here have been fully scrutinized as to quality. I have to say
that I think it is an appropriate solution at this price point, and the ability to play
with loading values at will is something that I find useful and, in a thick-glasses nerdy
way, enjoyable. Never be afraid to move away from the manufacturer's stated loading value,
as things can often change for the better with a little experimentation.
The BC709 is not of the massive variety,
measuring a rack-friendly 19"W x 2"H x 13 1/2"D and weighing in at
approximately 12 pounds. The chassis is solid metal, very sturdy and nicely presented in a
black crackle finish. The handsome optional black Plexiglas fascia ($250) with its
glowing, centrally located Blue Circle logo looks great -- even sexy in the old hi-fi
rack. Inside the case everything is laid out neatly and cleanly, and the component quality
is good considering the price. Gilbert Yeung, the man behind Blue Circle, points out on
his website that components are chosen for their sound quality rather than their
audiophile appeal, and I really cant argue with that kind of thinking. There is, of
course, an abundance of untapped space in the BC709 to make room for the extra capacitance
of the BC707, which shares the same chassis.
The back of the unit sports an IEC receptacle for
an aftermarket power cord; the BC709 does come complete with a power cord that I used for
the majority of my listening time. There is no power switch, so the unit is on when it is
plugged in. I am a firm believer in keeping both analog and digital front-ends powered
continuously, and because the BC709 draws only 1.8 watts at idle (or less than an LED
flashlight) I wasnt kept up at night with environmental angst.
At nearly dead center of the back panel are two
RCA plugs for signal output, while at slightly right of center is a grounding lug with a
finger-friendly butterfly nut for tightening and four sets of RCA output jacks. The two at
the top are for signal input while the two at the bottom accommodate the loading plugs. To
the far left is a ground-lift switch. Balanced output is a $250 option.
The BC709 arrived in a sturdy cardboard box. The
insides were heavily buttressed with foam, and everything was nicely organized and in fine
fettle. You may think this a strange thing to point out, but I can tell you that some
review gear has arrived at my house rolling around like a marble in a shoebox. As a
consumer, I value the care and attention that some builders take to make sure their gear
arrives safe and sound. It just gives me the impression that their attention to detail is
up to snuff generally. Blue Circle's care alleviated any concerns.
As with all the gear I set up for review, I read
the BC709's somewhat concise manual before doing anything. If the manual isnt
exactly a horn of info aplenty, then the BC709 isnt exactly hard to setup either. I
plugged in the supplied power cord, and though I did use an aftermarket power cord, the
stock cord stayed in for most of the review. I then hooked up the ground (no hum
thankfully) and played with my loading options until I settled on 100 ohms and stayed put.
As I mentioned, I kept the unit powered up at all times, and it sounded best after about
two days on and 20 hours of use. After about 50 hours of accumulated listening time I
placed a set of Final Labs ball-bearing footers (one middle front and one in each back
corner) underneath, and the changes wrought were definitely for the better. I am, as a
rule, not a big fan of the stock squishy rubber footings. They seem to rob the sound of
some dynamic punch and a little clarity. I find that a lot of equipment in the
BC709s price range benefits immensely from such simple and relatively cost-effective
I listened to the BC709 through my Red Rose
Reference Rosebuds 2 minimonitors in conjunction with PS Audio Extreme Reference speaker
cables, and turntabled with a Nottingham Analogue Spacedeck that currently sports a
Nottingham Heavy Kit platter and a Wave Mechanic power supply. My Cary SLI80 amplifier sat
on Stillpoint footers and risers, and I used Harmonic Technology Magic interconnects from
the BC709 to the amp. As always, I used a Living Voice Mystic Mat while spinning vinyl,
and all components went into a Shunyata Research Guardian 4 power conditioner through
Harmonic Technology Fantasy power cords.
I had the unit for over a month and listened to
it a lot during that time, never having any problems. From what Ive heard from
several Blue Circle owners, you can expect that kind of reliability over the life of the
After I first plugged the unit in, I let it sit
for a day, and then spun a few hours worth of vinyl through it. Right from the word go I
could tell that the BC709 was a competent performer. The soundstage was very well
organized, and images were rock solid, if a little murky. The whole presentation seemed a
little constrained and dynamically compressed, with soundstage width narrower than I was
used to, though depth was more than adequate.
However, after several listening sessions and
being on for a week, the BC709 definitely began to breathe a little easier. In particular,
the soundstage expanded and became a little more open and airy, and that murkiness
vanished. Now images appeared near the outer edge of the speakers and even depth was
improved, if not by a great degree. Where William Waltons Fašade (Classic
Records LSC-2285) had sounded a little lackluster before, it now sounded appropriately
panoramic, with great space between the players and good drive. If the top end stayed
slightly subdued and the sound lacked the last bit of air and detail at the very top end,
there was a fairly sumptuous and nicely detailed midrange that delivered the emotional
impact and tonal colors of the music.
Listening to Coltrane Plays the Blues (Atlantic
1382) really brought home the strength of the midrange, where nice detail retrieval and
deeply saturated images held sway. Often richness and warmth in this region can overpower
instrumental detail and make everything a little hazy and lazy, but the BC709 managed to
keep things rich and dense without a resultant loss of too much detail and with a certain
dynamic snap. If not the last word in terms of ultimate resolution, the BC709 is at least
very adept at preserving organic textural detail and a sense of good, if not great,
dynamic pace. This is the kind of phono stage that will hang you up on how beautiful all
those varied instrumental colors can be. Coltranes sax on Plays the Blues was
deep and ripe, while Miles Daviss trumpet on Kind of Blue (Classic
Records/Columbia CS 8163) was as plaintive and beautiful as Ive ever heard it. The
BC709 made everything I listened to sound lush and warm, and it put the focus firmly on
the players and their instruments. The sound of the brass on Kind of Blue was so
rich and inviting that if I didnt know better Id swear I was listening to
Steve Tibbets Big Map Idea (ECM
1380) is an absolute sonic gem and offers some fabulous music to boot. Tibbets plays
guitars along with Marc Anderson on percussion, Marcus Wise on tabla and Michelle Kinney
on cello. The production is wide open; this album can sound absolutely huge if
everything gels and represents something of a sonic Everest for analog gear to get to that
point of rightness. This album is no easy task, and it was here that the BC709 showed some
of its limitations. It has loads of fast-paced and voluminous percussion that comes at the
listener rapid fire with tons of transient energy. The BC709 tended to round off the
transient energy and slow the pace somewhat, favoring a certain graceful liquidity over a
fleet-footed rush. The tonal signatures of all the instruments were wonderful, and images
across the slightly narrow, although admirably deep, soundstage were dense and clearly
defined. The harmonic overtones and decay trails were simply stellar for a piece of gear
at this price.
But, again, this recording is a monster, and the
BC709, along with many a piece of gear, has offered up its limitations while playing it.
As I stated, transient energy seemed blunted and pace was a little slackened in comparison
to more expensive alternatives. This record sounded a little fuzzier than with other more
costly gear, and the spaces in between notes just didnt have that sense of inky
blackness that I hear with my reference phono stage. This recording didnt sound as
vast as it usually does, being confined to a more intimate space. I heard this, too, on Kind
of Blue, where the overall space of the venue was diminished somewhat.
Finally, I must mention the bass performance on
offer here, which is not the deepest I have heard. However, the BC709 may surprise many
listeners with the amount of detail on offer here. Acoustic bass in particular sounded
harmonically complex -- if not thumping deep then articulate and resonant. Just give the
Acoustic Sounds 45rpm pressing of the Bill Evans classics Waltz for Debby or Sunday
at the Village Vanguard (Acoustic Sounds AJAZ 9399 and AJAZ 9376 respectively) a go
and listen to the amount of pure harmonically rich and detailed sound coming off Scott
Lafaros bass. The fact that it sounds this delicious through a $1295 phono stage is
My current daily-driver phono stage is a Holfi
Battria SE, a battery-powered, current-source unit that hailed from Denmark. Although it
is little known in North America, it was in the same price range as the BC709
(approximately $1400) when new.
The Battria SE has a bigger sound than that of
the BC709, more wallop on the bottom end, and its overall retrieval of detail is better.
But, and this is a big but, it lacks the BC709s overall richness, tonal lushness and
coherence. Just because I love it, I played the reissue of the Mercury Living Presence Hi-Fi
La Espanola (Speakers Corner/Mercury SR 90144), particularly the Percy Faith
"Brazilian Sleigh Bells." Through the Holfi phono stage, it was big and
brash, just chock-full of pomp and circumstance. Through the BC709 it was organic, smooth
and rich, and I ended up listening to the whole side.
Perhaps the best way to describe the difference
between the two is that the Holfi phono stage tends to sound more overtly like a good
piece of hi-fi equipment, while the BC709 hits a more characteristically musical stride.
If you are constantly searching for an emotional connection to the music, then the Blue
Circle BC709 will almost always deliver across a wide range of recordings, and the Holfi
Battria SE will have you pulling out your more purist recordings more of the time.
According to the Blue Circle website, the BC709
will deliver the "smooth, rich round full presentation that only vinyl can
supply." I think this is spot on. Rather than strive for a greater degree of
resolution or exactitude, as a great many analog products seem to be doing nowadays, the
BC709 literally revels in presenting what many remember as that analog sound, albeit an
altogether more sophisticated and modern version.
Perhaps the BC707, at a thousand dollars more,
will provide more of the air and top-end energy that the BC709 ultimately lacks. Like the
venerable Honda Accord, the BC709 may not be truly great in any one area, but it's good
enough in most to stand out as an overall winner. I could see the BC709 bringing great
things to a good turntable-and-cartridge combination and being a godsend paired with some
of todays class-D switching amps, where an injection of its inherently liquid and
warm sound would be the icing on the cake.
Whatever the system context, the Blue Circle
BC709 phono stage is good enough to stand on its own merits, delivering satisfying analog
sound at a more-than-fair asking price. It never failed to connect me to the music, and
for this reason I enjoyed my time with it.