July 2005Blue Circle Audio BC202 Stereo Amplifier
by Jason Thorpe
Every once in a while I get blindsided by a component. When this happens, it can be due to my own prejudices or preconceptions, which, just as with any audio civilian, can trip me up when first encountering a new product. It can also be a result of superlative performance at something less than superlative pricing. Sometimes its a combination of the two.
As time goes by, and more equipment flows through my house, I have come to relish these sudden, almost explosive revelations, which make me sit up and react with surprise and pleasure as a component performs in a completely unexpected manner. My most recent audio epiphany came when Gilbert Yeung, part-time curmudgeon and full-time owner of Blue Circle Audio, stopped by to deliver his BC202, which, at $5295 USD, is the most affordable product in his penultimate series of amplifiers.
In this corner...
To say that Gilbert Yeung has a penchant for doing things differently would be a significant understatement. You will most likely concur if youve attempted to hold a rational conversation with him at an audio show while hes wearing a big blue foam circle on his head.
Well, hes certainly done things differently this time. The BC202 that I received was finished in bright red, with a buttercup-yellow faceplate. When I first saw the amp, I didnt quite know how to react. The powder-coated red chassis matched my living-room wall almost perfectly (Ralph Laurens barn-red paint), so that was a blessing, but the yellow MDF front panel (which was painted with a roller!) pretty much matched nothing. Gilberts intention, besides creating a bit of a stir, was to show that you can order any of his BC amplifiers (there are three stereo models and one monoblock) in any color you like, to match any décor. All you need to do is supply him with a paint chip and hell do the rest. Should you prefer, Blue Circles signature stainless-steel livery is also available ($400 for the faceplate, $250 for the chassis), as is the hand-rubbed purpleheart-and-walnut wood faceplate ($350) from Blue Circle's AG line.
At 70 pounds and 15 1/2" W x 9 1/2" H x 20 1/2" D, the BC202 is a fairly large and heavy amplifier, especially given its 125Wpc rating into 8 ohms. Part of the reason for this significant heft is the whopping-great 600VA transformers that drive the output stage, and the separate transformer for the tube input stage. You will notice that I mentioned a tube stage -- yes, the BC202 is a hybrid design employing four 6922s at the input stage. Blue Circle calls the BC202 a balanced hybrid design, using Blue Circle truly balanced output technology for the solid-state output stage. According to Blue Circle, the input is wired so that when you use the RCA input jacks, the tube stage will act as a true single-ended circuit; when you use the XLR inputs, the tube stage acts as a true balanced circuit.
All the capacitors, including the film caps for the interstage and power supply, are mounted on what Blue Circle calls a silicone bubble. According to the manufacturer, this technique avoids stressing the capacitor as sometimes happens when using metal capacitor clamps.
With the BC202's top removed, the typical Blue Circle obsessive-compulsive attention to detail comes into view. Much of the amplifier is component-to-component wired, which Blue Circle claims is one step up in efficiency and complexity from point-to-point wiring. You really do need to see the construction of the BC202 in order to believe it. Its a hand-made work of art thats part sculpture and part three-dimensional maze. I would imagine that there are few people -- other than the Blue Circle lunatics -- who would be willing to try their hands at servicing or modifying this amplifier.
Operationally, the BC202 behaved like a true gentleman. The amplifier exhibited no turn-on or -off transients, neither hummed nor hissed, and was dead silent, giving no hint that tubes lurked within.
I employed the BC202s talents in two completely different systems. The first resided on my main floor, where it drove Hales Transcendence Five speakers. The BC202 was itself driven by either a Museatex Bidat or a Benchmark DAC1 digital-to-analog converter, both of which have a built-in volume control. The bits were supplied courtesy of a Pioneer DV-563A universal player. Cabling in this system consisted of Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval speaker cable, Blue Circles own balanced interconnects, and the power cord supplied with the BC202 (the amplifier employs a Neutrik 20A twist-lock connector rather than the more common IEC). Other power cords were GutWire PowerClef 2s, which were plugged into either the GutWire MaxCon Extreme or my own Chang Lightspeed 6400 ISO power conditioner.
When moved down into my reference system, the BC202 drove either Focus Audios FS-888 or Verity Audios Parsifal Ovation loudspeakers. For part of the amp's stay in this system, I used Blue Circles BC3000 Mk II preamplifier, which Gilbert supplied, as he wanted me to hear the BC202 working with a preamp that he knew to be a synergistic match. The BC3000 Mk II shared its duties with my own Sonic Frontiers SFL-2, which was fresh from retubing and overhaul at the Sonic Frontiers/Anthem facility. Phono-preamplification duties were shared by my Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature (also freshly tuned up) and an Ayre P-5xe. The source in this system was a Pro-Ject RPM 9 turntable/tonearm combo, which held the second of two Shelter 501 Mk II cartridges. (Dont ask. I really dont want to talk about it.)
Cables in the big rig were Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables from amp to speaker, and Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval balanced interconnects between preamp and amp as well as phono stage to preamp. Kimber Timbre interconnects were used between the turntable and phono stages, while GutWire PowerClef 2 power cords handled AC duties. Power distribution and filtering were courtesy of either the aforementioned GutWire MaxCon or Chang Lightspeed.
Strike hard, strike fast
I mentioned earlier that the BC202 gave me a figurative whack upside the head. This was in part due to the fact that its auditory performance is at right angles to its appearance. When Gilbert first plunked this unit down in my living room, it looked so garish that I honestly wasnt expecting outstanding sonics. I know that this is exactly the sort of behavior that a reviewer shouldnt indulge in -- letting looks affect the assessment -- but complete objectivity just wasnt possible upon initial delivery of the amp. However, from the moment we connected the BC202 and turned it on, I realized that there was something very special about this amplifier.
Ive listened to and admired Cassandra Wilson since Blue Skies [Polygram 834419], her "standards" album. This unpretentious, beautiful recording always holds my attention. However, Ive had difficulties warming up to later albums as Ms. Wilson generally takes the long, hard route around a melody. This isnt necessarily a bad quality, as a challenge can be refreshing, but Ive often longed for the simpler, more direct approach of Blue Skies. You see, for a large portion of Ms. Wilsons work, I find myself just not getting it.
But when the BC202 entered my house, the first CD into the tray was Blue Light Til Dawn [Blue Note CDP 581357], as I wanted to hear the amplifier play something uncluttered and fairly sparse. Even with an ice-cold amp, I knew that this was going to be one of those audio epiphanies that I mentioned earlier. From the first notes of "Come On In My Kitchen," I found myself suddenly understanding, comprehending -- feeling, even -- the intent of Ms. Wilsons every intake of breath and the exhaust, which propelled her gravy-rich voice.
At first I was unable to distinguish exactly which sonic trait engendered this deep insight into the music, but a closer, more attentive listen unearthed an unusually expressive midrange combined with a butter-smooth lower treble and extended, shimmering highs. Add in a velvety-black feeling of quiet, and youve got what seems like the Blue Circle recipe for musical involvement.
The BC202 also projects an astounding feeling of air and space around instruments. The highs are especially pure, with exceptional extension, and an incredibly alluring dimensionality. Im sure that every audiophile has records in his collection that have moments of brilliance combined with long stretches of boredom. For me the standout example of this is David Byrnes Lead Us Not Into Temptation [Thrill Jockey Records Thrill 133]. Theres only one track on this LP that really appeals to me, and thats "Mnemonic Discordance," which has a spacious, elegant drum line, with the cymbals recorded close and very slightly hot. The BC202 took each strike of those cymbals and rendered every overtone as a distinct event. Via the BC202, the entire drum kit was layered both vertically and horizontally in space, rendered with a subtle, almost holographic feel, encapsulated within a halo of spatial information.
While the BC202s midrange does lean toward the warm side, I dont for a second want to intimate that it does so in a colored manner. In stark contrast to the archetypal fruity, textured tube amp, which often does deviate from neutrality, the BC202 rides between the rails of accuracy, never taking tonal liberties. Even though it doesnt editorialize, the BC202 still leaves an indelible mark on the music and the listener.
One night I sat transfixed right through all four sides of Keith Jarretts Köln Concert [ECM 1064/65 ST]. The piano in this momentous album is recorded very close, which imbues it with a clanging tonality thats rich in overtones high above the fundamental. Via the BC202, each and every keystroke flew, not from the speakers but directly from Jarretts fingertips, each note rising and falling with rhythmic precision. The BC202 shone a spotlight all the way through the midrange and into the lower treble, with Jarretts busy, almost percussive left hand gaining depth and a delightful feeling of attack, while the melody danced through the room. As much as I love music -- I listen to it constantly, both at home and at work -- I rarely give it my full and undivided attention for four record sides. Theres usually a book or a magazine in my hand while Im listening, and although I often put it down for periods in order to listen with my attention undivided, its not often that I do so for this long.
Along with the rich, tubelike delicacy and the slicing, almost percussive attack through the midrange comes a degree of control and authority in the bass thats most satisfying in two important ways. First off, the tightness and grip in the nether regions are immediately identifiable as solid-state-like. No tube amp of my experience can navigate its way around kickdrum and electric bass in as authoritative a manner as the BC202. Take Massive Attacks 100th Window [Virgin 724358123913 V25967] for example. Ive owned this LP since it first came out, but I was unable to understand what all the fuss was about until I discovered that it was recorded at 45 RPM. Perhaps thats why I found this record dull and boring! Not surprisingly, when the album is played at the proper speed, things pick up a fair bit, revealing butt-kicking bass and crisp, well-delineated images. The BC202 was able to drive my Hales Transcendence Fives to raucous heights, never showing the slightest strain at any reasonable level, and even when cranked up to very high volumes the bass remained tight and distinct. This is quite an accomplishment, as the Hales speakers present a somewhat difficult load, what with a 10" woofer in a sealed box.
The second reason why the BC202s bass is so satisfying is due to how incredibly well it integrates into the midbass and midrange. Although the bass is crisp and articulate and the midrange leans towards the rich side, the combination works wonderfully, giving forth lush images underpinned by the kind of solid foundation that few tube amps can equal.
The above explanation does help to explain why I was so enamored of this amplifier, but theres an even more important characteristic that lies at the heart of the BC202s essence. Beyond the traits of each frequency range -- not considering the superb imaging, the lack of noise, grit or edge -- theres the far more impressive manner in which the BC202 draws musical performances together into a coherent, cohesive whole. Its almost as if its processing electrons in a different manner from other amplifiers, somewhat similar to how a laser beam is still light but a distant cousin of that emitted by a fluorescent bulb.
Ill go out on a limb here and suggest that anyone who doesnt like Argentinean tango does not have a soul. When Julien Pelchat and Bruno Bouchard from Verity Audio dropped by to set up a pair of speakers, we listened to quite a bit of music in the process. By far the standout piece of the day was Astor Piazzollas Zero Hour [Pangaea PAN-42138]. This rich, sad, beautiful album had the three of us sitting there dummied up for both sides, and not a word was spoken, even when I got up to flip the record. When the piece was over, none of us seemed willing to look at each other -- I know that my eyes were a bit on the misty side. The BC202 had a large part to do with the way in which the system portrayed this music. The incisive bite on the upper reach of the bandoneon combined with the pianos percussive attack and the rich moan of the cello -- all were beautifully, clearly, emotionally presented, with a feeling of depth that belied all considerations of imaging or soundstaging. This is brilliant stuff -- both the music and the amplifier.
So is there anything worth criticizing about the BC202? There has to be a fly in the ointment, doesnt there -- or else wed all own BC202s and every other amp manufacturer would be out of business. Well, to tell the truth, in four months of daily use, I was unable to find anything worth grumbling about sonically or operationally, and much to praise. The BC202 isnt quite as lush as some all-tube amplifiers, and its not as crisp as some all-transistor designs, but I see both of these traits as big-time features. I have to admit, though, that Im not sold on the concept of a $5295 amplifier with a painted MDF faceplate, but, hey, thats easily remedied with one of Blue Circles optional stainless-steel or walnut-and-purpleheart options.
The only area that might draw some criticism from those so inclined is in terms of the dollars-to-watts ratio, as at first glance the BC202 seems to be priced rather stiffly for a 125Wpc amp. So how does it compare to something lower-priced and yet more powerful? Glad you asked.
Scalpel vs. saber
My comparison amplifier for this exercise is the Anthem P2 Statement, which recently garnered a Reviewers Choice nod and in some ways is an apt contrast. Both amps are of roughly the same physical size and close to the same weight, although the P2 edges out the BC202 in both of these parameters. Where they diverge is in the price and power categories. The P2 retails for $2500, which is less than half of the cost of the BC202. The power difference is even larger -- the P2 is rated at 325Wpc into 8 ohms, while the BC202 puts out 125Wpc. Thats almost three times the power for less than half the money, and the P2 is a darn good-sounding amp to boot.
Please keep in mind that power-to-price ratios tell only part of the tale. More important in my book are ease of listening, midrange liquidity, treble purity and bass cohesiveness. In all of these areas of consideration the BC202 gained the upper hand. On its own, the P2 is a stellar amplifier, one that doles out bucketloads of musical satisfaction, but the BC202s midrange richness and grain-free treble unearthed some attendant coarseness in the Anthem that could otherwise pass unnoticed. When driving the Hales speakers, it was a fairly close battle, with the BC202s startling portrayal of space firing a salvo over the bow of the P2, but failing to breach hull integrity. Both amplifiers seemed to have ample power, with no dynamic limits, even at very high volumes. Musically, the BC202 was the more satisfying amplifier, with its rich midrange and smooth, extended treble providing benefits during extended listening. While not a total rout, the Blue Circle BC202 came out ahead, which is to be expected given its significantly higher price.
The differences between these two excellent amplifiers became much more clear when driving the Verity Parsifal Ovation speakers. The newest Parsifals are a much more refined speaker than the Hales Transcendence Fives, and as such they act as a microscope and enhance the audibility of the differences between the Blue Circle and Anthem amps. Through the Parsifal Ovations, I was keenly aware that the Anthem amp contributed a slight glare in the upper midrange, resulting in a hint of shoutiness in this critical frequency range. Image depth was slightly compressed, presenting a more two-dimensional soundstage. The Anthem did strut its superior power though, giving an additional dose of bass control. The Parsifal Ovations are capable of very low bass in my room (youll read all about these speakers in a forthcoming review), and the Anthem amp dug in and manipulated the rear-firing woofers in a manner that the BC202 couldnt match. The BC202 isnt soft in the bass though. Its just that each amp has its own strengths, and even if you cant isolate much in the way of shortcomings via dedicated listening, the comparison shows that one can do things the other cant, and vice versa.
While the Blue Circle amp is capable of a higher level of refinement and richness, if all I could afford was the Anthem (it is), I wouldnt feel short-changed in having to listen to it day in and day out. However, if I could spring the extra coin for the BC202 (I cant), I most certainly would do so, as its clearly in a higher sonic class.
Champion or contender?
In all, I spent a very pleasant time with the Blue Circle BC202. Its rare in my experience for a component to provide unadulterated listening pleasure in all respects, and this is what the BC202 did. Not only was it a delight to listen to, for its entire stay in the Thorpe household it performed flawlessly, without a hint of quirkiness to indicate its hand-built origins.
While not inexpensive for a 125Wpc amplifier, the BC202 rose to the challenge and belted out music in the engaging, thoroughly human manner that only seems possible when there are tubes buried somewhere in the chassis. Yet in combination with this rich, deeply dimensional performance, the BC202 was still able to slam out some serious low end that would keep just about any bass addict happy. By doing all of this, the BC202 proved itself worthy of its asking price -- and my highest recommendation.
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