Blue Circle Audio BC501
Loudspeakers -- Mirage OM Design OMD-28, PSB Synchrony
One, Magico V2
Integrated amplifiers -- Classé Audio
CAP-2100, Zanden Audio Model 600
Power amplifiers -- Blue Circle Audio BC204,
Axiom Audio A1400-8
Preamplifier-processors -- Blue Circle Audio
BC3000 Mk.II, Benchmark Media DAC1 HDR, Anthem Statement D2v
Digital sources -- Simaudio Moon Evolution
SuperNova CD player, Zanden Audio Systems 2500S CD player, Benchmark Media DAC1 HDR
Speaker cables -- Nirvana Audio S-L, DH Labs
Analog interconnects -- Nirvana Audio S-L,
Nordost Quattro Fil
Digital interconnects -- i2Digital X-60,
Nirvana Transmission Digital
digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, has an interesting history in high-end audio. In
1983, when the Compact Disc arrived, there were no DACs -- at least, no standalone
models. Every CD player had a transport mechanism that read the digital data from the CD,
and it also had a DAC section that converted the digital data to an analog signal that
could be fed to your audio system. At the time, no one saw the need to think outside this
box and, quite literally, create another one.
The mid-80s saw the birth of the external DAC, for
many reasons. The main reason seemed to stem from the fact that although no high-end
company at the time could build an entire CD player on its own -- mainly because the
transport mechanism is so complex -- those firms that built preamplifiers and power
amplifiers could use their electronics expertise to design and build better DAC sections
than the makers of mass-market CD players could or were willing to. Now, almost 25 years
since the birth of the standalone DAC, theyre still relevant; people arent
using them only to play CDs, but in computer-based audio as well.
Enter the BC501, the first standalone DAC from Blue Circle
Audio, a company located in Innerkip, Ontario, about an hour from Toronto and about as far
as you can get from big-city, large-scale, assembly-line manufacturing. Blue Circles
products are all handmade, distinctively so, often by the company president and chief
designer himself, Gilbert Yeung. This sort of construction is something you pay a premium
price for, but for your money you get something different from another me-too box. The
BC501, at $4395 USD in its basic configuration, isnt cheap, but its unique in
ways that only a Blue Circle product can be.
The BC501 measures 17"W x 3.25"H x 14.5"D
and weighs 30 pounds. The basic model comes with a stainless-steel chassis and faceplate
and a black powder-coated top plate. It can be customized for additional cost (contact
Blue Circle for details). A stainless-steel top cover is one option, as is a painted-MDF
faceplate in a wide range of colors, including your own choice. Theres also the
option of a real-wood faceplate, the most popular being the purpleheart/walnut that the
company uses for its higher-end AG-series products.
A wooden faceplate might seem odd, and the overall look of
this handmade product will undoubtedly polarize buyers -- some will think its
beautiful, others not. But Blue Circle has always done things their own way. Plus, this
distinctiveness, as well as the ability to customize a component, is something many people
like, and Im one of them. I own two Blue Circle products, a BC3000 Mk.II
preamplifier and a BC204 stereo amplifier, and I like the fact that they look different
and have various options that I can call my own.
In the middle of the BC501s faceplate is a round Blue
Circle logo; when lit, it tells you that the BC501 is powered up. On the left of the front
panel is a polarity-inversion switch, and above it are two LEDs; one indicates polarity,
the other if deemphasis is engaged. To the far right is a large stainless-steel knob, used
to select the appropriate digital input. The LED alongside it, when lit, tells you that
the BC501 has locked to the signal from the transport.
The power-cord receptacle on the rear panel is different
from what you see on most products -- its a Neutrik Powercon twist-on connector that
securely locks the supplied AC cord in place. The BC501 is not a fully balanced design,
but is said to be partially balanced inside; in the middle of the rear panel are
single-ended and balanced outputs, and on the opposite side of the power-cord connector
are the digital inputs. The base configuration has AES/EBU (XLR), S/PDIF (RCA, but BNC is
an option), and ST fiber-optic digital inputs (replaceable with TosLink). For an extra
$300, a USB connector can be added, although my review sample didnt have this.
Blue Circle is guarded about naming the parts that go into
the BC501, and theyre happy to tell you why. One reason, they say, has to do with
audiophiles getting hung up on the brand names of certain parts when theres so much
more to a products overall design than the individual components. The ingredients
are one thing, the end result another. Another is that Blue Circle feels that some of the
brand-name parts favored by audiophiles either arent good, or arent good for
every purpose. So instead of naming names or name-calling, theyd rather not say what
goes inside at all. Instead of brand names, I was supplied with a list of specifications.
The D/A converter chipset is said to have 24-bit resolution
and be capable of 44.1, 48.0, 88.2, and 96kHz sampling rates. Most companies use stock
digital chips, whether or not they disclose the chips names, so its hard to
distinguish a product based on that. What Blue Circle does to electrically differentiate
the BC501 has mostly to do with the power supply. There are three separate stages of
power-supply regulation, for the digital, digital/analog, and analog sections, and
separate transformers for the analog and digital sections. Theres also said to be
more than 110,000µF of capacitance filtering, which, according to Blue Circle, makes the
BC501 "brownout-proof." Why do you want something to be brownout-proof? I
suspect that its to overcome variations in the power that emerges from your wall,
which is sort of like having a line conditioner built inside. A super-duper version of the
BC501, the BC501ob (ob = "oh boy"), retails for $7845 and has a separate power
supply with a whopping 880,000µF of capacitance. Presumably, the BC501ob can survive a
blackout, at least for a while. As its handmade heritage mandates, the BC501 is
meticulously wired point to point.
I used Simaudios Moon Evolution SuperNova CD player
as a disc transport only, via its RCA-based S/PDIF output. The SuperNova cost $5900 when I
reviewed it almost two years ago. I also used it as a comparison model because its a
reference-level, all-in-one CD player; not only is its transport good, its DAC section is
as well. If theres going to be a reason for a pricey standalone DAC to exist, it
must at least equal or better the SuperNova.
One of my first listening tests was with Marizas Transparente
(CD, Times Square TSQ-CD-9047). Its a great-sounding recording -- natural-sounding
acoustic instruments, a real sense of recorded space, and a splendid capturing of a
womans voice. The BC501 revealed a deep, rich bottom end; superbly extended highs
that were infinitely airy, yet never tizzy or edgy as some digital sources can be; and a
smooth midrange with a hint of bloom that made Marizas voice come alive.
The sense of space re-created by the BC501 was first-rate,
and the performers were easy to place in that space, from left to right and from front to
back. The soundscape seemed almost tangible, with presence and dimensionality. This
wasnt the flat-as-a-pancake presentation that a lot of old-school digital sound was
about -- the BC501 had a bit of "heft." Mostly, though, I was taken with how
Marizas voice was conveyed with slippery smoothness while remaining detailed and
resolving. Coupled with the sense of presence the BC501 helped create, her centrally
placed voice simply hung there in space, better than Id ever heard it in my room.
The smoothness through the mids wasnt enough to add a
layer of syrup that I couldnt hear through. I played some not-so-well-recorded discs
that sound inherently coarse, particularly in the midrange and highs. This was early
digital sound, recorded before most engineers knew how to make CDs sound good. Example:
Bruce Springsteens 1987 album, Tunnel of Love (Columbia COL0040999). Not only
was this album released on CD, it was recorded digitally. The BC501 didnt gloss over
its grainy midband and splashy, metallic highs, nor should it have. No high-end component
should cover up a recordings flaws -- if the recording has problems, they should be
Unlike many digital products, what the BC501 didnt
do was exacerbate those problems -- another good thing. For example, if a source component
has a hard, coarse midrange or top end of its own, Tunnel of Love can sound too
metallic, to the point of being annoying. Two wrongs dont make a right, but the
BC501 is a high-resolution design; it pointed out errors while never adding any
objectionable character of its own. It was as transparent and clean as it was resolving.
But listening to the BC501 in isolation could tell me only
so much. I learned more by comparing it with the DAC section of the Simaudio Moon
Evolution SuperNova, while still using the SuperNova as a transport for both. I was able
to match the levels of the BC501s and SuperNovas analog outputs at the
preamplifier stage, as both my Classé Audio CAP-2100 integrated amplifier and Anthem
Statement D2v preamplifier-processor let me adjust the input level. Then I could do an A/B
comparison by using a remote control to switch back and forth between the Blue Circle and
Most DACs wont measure up to the SuperNovas DAC
section, but the BC501 did. In fact, with some music I found them indistinguishable. With
typical pop-rock that wasnt that well recorded to begin with and sounds heavily
processed, it was always a draw -- I couldnt tell the two apart. Even with Blue
Rodeos Five Days in July (CD, WEA CD 93846), a well-made recording that
Ive used for years to evaluate all kinds of equipment, I found nothing on which to
hang my reviewers hat. When I thought I heard a difference between the two
components, it was usually very small. In those instances, to make the comparisons
"blind," I had someone else connect the inputs for me and not tell me which was
which. In every case, either the differences I thought I was hearing with this music went
away, or I was so inconsistent in my choices that I realized I was guessing.
Where I did hear consistent differences was with simpler
recordings, usually of acoustic instruments and with few instruments and voices,
preferably spaced out on the stage. Marizas Transparente was one of them. I
needed to hear these sounds clearly and be able to focus on them. This time the
differences were there, though still quite small.
But there werent any across-the-board differences.
The high-frequency extension of both components was equally clean, clear, and extended,
with absolutely none of the steely or edgy quality that some digital gear still produces.
In this area, call it a draw.
When it came to resolution -- the ability to squeak out the
final bit of "air" from a recording, or to find out how deeply one can
"see" into a recorded space -- the Sim got the nod, though not by much. I had to
dig deep into my collection to find recordings that have air around the instruments and in
which the rear wall of the recording venue is audibly well defined -- the sort of stuff
you have to hear into in order to hear everything. If a flys burp was buried
somewhere low, the SuperNova seemed to be the one that could more consistently dig it out.
Most telling was the midrange, particularly with voices. In
Transparente, Marizas voice is so dominant in the mix that any change stands
out. The BC501 sounded a touch fuller in the midrange, making a pronounced voice such as
hers slightly more so. The same went for Rebecca Pidgeons performance of
"Spanish Harlem," on Chesky Records The Worlds Greatest
Audiophile Vocal Recordings sampler (SACD, Chesky SACD323). The SuperNova and the
BC501 sounded equally smooth, but the BC501 was a touch fuller overall, with a bit more
bloom in the midrange. Those who fixate on voices will probably like the Blue Circle more
-- it presented the midrange with a touch more presence. This was the main thing that
defined the BC501 and, in my mind, made it special. Whereas a lot of digital gear can
sound cold and unforgiving in the mids, the BC501 had a touch of analog richness and
warmth without sacrificing detail.
The SuperNova countered with slightly tighter bass, making
it the more visceral-sounding of the two. The BC501s bass was just as deep but a
touch rounder, with not quite as much impact, which was actually in keeping with the
character of its mids. Again, the difference was very slight, but noticeable with
specific, simple recordings that let me track the bass region in isolation.
Because its been about 25 years since the first
standalone DAC appeared, its not surprising that, these days, most such products are
run-of-the-mill affairs with little to differentiate them. This is especially true of the
costlier models, among which are some that can be considered the state of the art. Most of
what needed to be done has been done, so theres not that much thats new. Blue
Circle Audio has been around almost as long as DACs have, but theyve taken their
sweet time in getting their first DAC to market -- no doubt they wanted to get it right.
All told, the BC501 is a neutral-sounding DAC thats
faithful to what its fed, but isnt neutral to the point of being boring or
sterile -- it has a few traits of its own that help it stand out from the crowd. These are
deep, rounded bass, coupled with a midrange smoothness and fullness that gives this DAC a
hint of analog warmth. Through the BC501, voices really come alive, and the overall
presentation has a weight and heft that give music presence. Moreover, it sounds good;
while it wont cover up flaws in recordings, it adds no objectionable character of
its own -- precisely what youd expect from one of todays topflight DACs.
Notable, too, are its appearance and customization options.
Even in the base model, theres nothing, if anything, that looks quite like the BC501
except another BC501. And even then, because Blue Circle products are handmade, no two
will be exactly alike -- theres always variation, however subtle.
The BC501 is a topnotch performer that bears the hallmarks
of the Blue Circle Audio name, and is strongly recommended for those who dont mind
paying a premium for something that looks and sounds distinctive, and comes with the sort
of personal touch thats possible only with handmade manufacturing and customization.
The BC501 is expensive, but theres nothing else quite like it.
. . . Doug Schneider
|Blue Circle Audio BC501 Digital-to-Analog
Price: $4395 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Innerkip, Ontario N0J 1M0
Phone: (519) 469-3215
Fax: (519) 469-3782