December 2008

Blue Circle Audio BC709 Phono Stage

 

 

Review Summary
Sound "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 didn’t know better I’d swear I was listening to tubes." But "the BC709 tended to round off the transient energy and slow the pace somewhat, favoring a certain graceful liquidity over a fleet-footed rush." Still, "the harmonic overtones and decay trails were simply stellar for a piece of gear at this price" and "acoustic bass in particular sounded harmonically complex -- if not thumping deep then articulate and resonant."
Features "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."The BC709's gain is adjustable internally for 39 or 60dB." "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."
Use "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 wasn’t kept up at night with environmental angst." "I had the unit for over a month and listened to it a lot during that time, never having any problems. From what I’ve heard from several Blue Circle owners, you can expect that kind of reliability over the life of the product."
Value "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."

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.

It’s no easy task for a manufacturer to achieve all this while engineering a quiet and musical component. I’ve 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 I’m 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 can’t 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 wasn’t 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.

Setup

As with all the gear I set up for review, I read the BC709's somewhat concise manual before doing anything. If the manual isn’t exactly a horn of info aplenty, then the BC709 isn’t 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 BC709’s price range benefits immensely from such simple and relatively cost-effective tweaks.

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 I’ve heard from several Blue Circle owners, you can expect that kind of reliability over the life of the product.

The sound

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 Walton’s 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. Coltrane’s sax on Plays the Blues was deep and ripe, while Miles Davis’s trumpet on Kind of Blue (Classic Records/Columbia CS 8163) was as plaintive and beautiful as I’ve 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 didn’t know better I’d swear I was listening to tubes.

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 didn’t have that sense of inky blackness that I hear with my reference phono stage. This recording didn’t 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 Lafaro’s bass. The fact that it sounds this delicious through a $1295 phono stage is pretty amazing.

Comparison

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 BC709’s 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.

Conclusion

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 today’s 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.

...Graham Abbott
grahama@soundstage.com

Blue Circle Audio BC709 Phono Stage
Price:
$1295 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Blue Circle Audio, Inc.
RR2
Innerkip, Ontario, Canada N0J 1M0
Phone: (519) 469-3215
Fax: (519) 469-3782

E-mail: bcircle@bluecircle.com
Website: www.bluecircle.com