Blue Circle's Gilbert Yeung delivered the Blue Circle BC26 amplifier to me -- I'm lucky enough to be within driving distance of Blue Circles headquarters. After I had hooked up the amp, I popped in a CD to listen to in the background and let the amp warm up while Gilbert filled me in on the details. I was so struck by the sonics, even with no warm up, that I immediately remarked to Gilbert that this was no "grown-up version of the BC22" that had impressed me a couple of months earlier. He smiled and said that although it was in the same series of products, it indeed was a very different animal. Ill say! I think he needs to put this amp in a whole new category. But Im getting ahead of myself.
The BC26 caught me off guard. Although it falls into the category of the "20" series (along with the BC21 preamp and BC22 amplifier), it is not small or beguiling in any way, shape, or form. Weighing in at a solid 85 pounds, it falls into the heavyweight class, and at 200Wpc into an 8-ohm load, its certainly not short on power. The specs indicate that its able to "double up" its power as the impedance drops, with a whopping 800Wpc available at 2 ohms!
The amplifier continues the Blue Circle tradition of simple, understated cosmetics and functional simplicity, sporting a brushed stainless-steel faceplate with the trademark illuminated Blue Circle logo in the center of the panel. A small toggle switch on the lower right side is not the power switch, as most would think it is, but a switch to turn off the illumination on the front-panel logo. Nice touch, and I found it handy to be able to turn off the glowing blue circle for my late-night listening sessions to avoid the visual distraction. Lit up, however, the logo's soothing blue is quite appealing. The balance of the chassis is finished in a powder-coat black. The dimensions are sizable, but not outrageous, partly due to the lack of any protruding heat sinks or handles. The amp measures in at 17 1/2"W x 9 1/8"H x 20"D.
The BC26 is a class-A/class-AB, pure solid-state, DC-coupled, true-balanced design similar to the BC22, but a bit of a departure for Blue Circle because the company's other major amplifiers are hybrids -- tube input stage, solid-state output. A great deal of the physical weight of the amp can be attributed to the massive 50-pound custom torodial transformer that supports the power supply for this beast. Yeung has chosen to implement a power supply that uses a network of small-value capacitors, as opposed to the large "can" capacitors found in a lot of other designs. The logic to this is that it reduces DC resistance, lowers inductance, and therefore the amp can react faster, leading to improved transient response. Also in true Blue Circle tradition, the circuit design is built from the "less is more" philosophy, using the minimum number of parts and with Cardas wiring used internally.
The back panel is well thought out, with Cardas binding posts (two pairs per channel), as well as a detachable IEC power-cord connector. Two sets of inputs are provided, one balanced, the other non-balanced, both selectable via a small toggle switch. In the middle of the panel is the large toggle switch for the power. Some may find that these switches look rather utilitarian in nature; however, Gilbert let me know that even they were chosen for their particular sonic neutrality over some of the others he tried.
The amplifier is equipped with a "slow-start" circuit to prevent the onrush of current from popping the fuse or your breaker. Although you will hear sound immediately after flipping the switch, it takes about five seconds for the amp to come up to full power. Unlike the BC22, the BC26 runs warm, but not hot to the touch.
The BC26 was auditioned primarily in a system comprising of the Mark Levinson No.31 CD transport feeding a Levinson No.360 D/A converter hooked up via an AES/EBU Transparent Reference digital cable. This fed a Levinson No.380 preamp. Alternating with the Levinson rig was a Sonic Frontiers SFT-1 CD transport, feeding an Aragon D2A Mk 2 D/A converter, hooked up by an MIT digital cable, feeding an Aragon Aurum preamp. Interconnect is the balanced Transparent Music Link Plus to the amps, and Transparent Ultra from the DACs to the preamps. A Krell KSA-200S was used as the comparison amp, and speakers were the B&W Nautilus 804s. Speaker cables were Transparent Music Wave Super in biwire configuration, and power cords used were from Transparent and Gutwire.
Tu-bey, or not tu-bey? This is the question.
As I've stated, right from the start the BC26 amplifier impressed me, not in a whiz-bang sort of way, but from a heart-and-soul perspective. I was captured by the sense of ease and pace that it brought to whatever music was being played. A particularly challenging disc has been Cecilia Bartolis Mozart Portraits [London 443 452-2], and I finally heard it with the BC26 in the system. The amp became a wonderful palette of this divas talents, Bartoli's voice showing fine texture and body, and exhibiting no strain or fatigue.
This amplifier is gifted with an almost tube-like quality through the midrange, which is open, vibrant, and very much alive. As a matter of fact, "tube-like" became the operative descriptor for the BC26, and for all the right reasons. It offers a smooth, articulate midrange coupled with a round, full bottom end and a sweet top end. The bass, although slightly on the full side, was still well focused, with plenty of authority available.
Listening to Janet Jacksons The Velvet Rope [Virgin 7243 8 44762 29] was a total romp through an artificial soundscape. This disc contains some deep, tight, punchy bass, particularly on "Go Deep," which came across with full measure, tracking the synthetic punch of the notes with plenty of authority. While listening to Diana Kralls "You Call It Madness" from All for You [Justin Time JTR8458-2], I found that the natural perspective, fine retrieval of studio ambience as well as the tonal balance of the piano were all well presented. Throughout the entire review process, I kept finding it very easy to forget about the hi-fi aspect of things and focus in on whatever I was listening to. My notes keep pointing toward an almost organic quality, where everything was kept in fine balance and no one area called attention to itself for the wrong reasons.
Back to the music, which is what the BC26 was built to make. Holly Cole's "I Dont Wanna Grow Up" from Temptation [ALERT Z2-81026] exhibited a wonderful acoustic space that seemed to bring me into the venue, with the stand-up bass displaying good articulation and weight. The BC26 seemed very adept at capturing ambient cues within a recording and presenting them as being a very natural extension of the performance. Along with this I noticed the BC26 had a rather curious tendency to be very critical of the absolute phase of various recordings, highlighting the big differences that would sometimes take place when the polarity switch was flipped on the preamp.
I sometimes found myself listening late at night, and as is often the case, what a component can do at less than regular volume levels says a lot about it. In this respect the big BC26 scored a couple of extra gold stars. It remained composed and totally intact at late-night-approved volumes. I suspect that this may have to do with the fact that although the BC26 is a class-AB design, Gilbert Yeung has generously biased the BC26 to about 30% class-A operation.
And while on the subject of being quiet, I should point out that in either single ended or balanced operation the BC26 was exceptionally quiet. It exhibited no strange behavior in either start up or shut down, it never blew a fuse, and it exhibited no mechanical hum from the transformer whatsoever.
Late in the review process some Gutwire power cords arrived -- review forthcoming -- so I took the opportunity to try them with the BC26 as well. Without spoiling the plot too much I will say that overall gains were obtainable by experimenting with different power cords on the BC26. Substituting out the Transparent power cord that I had been using for the Gutwire Power Clef allowed the BC26 to open up through the midrange even more, while giving the bass an extra level of perceived control. I would suspect that perhaps one of Blue Circle's own power cords might be worth pursuing for the BC26.
In this corner weighing in at
Anyone for Wrestlemania? Swapping two bruising amplifiers in and out of your audio system is kind of like refereeing a wrestling match. Both amps want to be in control.
In many ways the BC26 was the perfect challenger to the Krell KSA-200S: both are of similar power, size, and functional flexibility. The BC26 certainly met the challenge, and in many ways, left my KSA-200S nursing its wounds in the corner. How so? The BC26 was very capable of whipping up a credible soundstage that stretched well beyond the boundaries of the room. Side walls were pushed back to yield an open window into the performance. The BC26's depth perspective is particularly captivating, with well-rendered front-to-back layering. The Krell amp, although well focused within the stage, didnt have quite the same expansiveness.
Both amps dished out solid bass performance. The Krell amp's bass was a little tighter and quicker; however, the BC26 was enormously tuneful and full bodied down low. The critical midrange was where the Blue Circle amp strutted its stuff. I was struck by the grace it displayed in the midrange, giving true shape and form to voices and instruments. Comparatively, the Krell amp was somewhat drier. The BC26 was also the equal of the KSA-200S at unraveling hidden details in complex mixes. The BC26 was sweet in the upper registers, displaying a wide range of shading and definition to the treble; however, the Krell amp seemed slightly more extended and focused, albeit with a touch more grain evident in the upper midrange. Both amps can swing with the dynamics, but I felt that the BC26 presented dynamics in a very natural unforced way, retaining fine levels of microdynamics within the larger presentation.
These two could really slug it out, and I would be hard-pressed to call one clearly superior to the other. But the BC26 turned in a striking performance considering that the discontinued KSA-200S had a list price ($7500 USD) that was considerably more than what the BC26 sells for now.
An amplifier for all seasons
Throughout my time with the BC26, I never felt like anything was missing from the performance, and in many cases, it helped me get more in touch with the music. It is an amplifier possessed with some very persuasive sonic skills. Its huge amount of available power and ability to drive virtually any load with ease make it a welcome addition to its sector of the market.
Just as Marc Mickelson was highly impressed with the Simaudio Moon W-5 amplifier for its ability to take control of whatever speaker was connected to it, I am taken by the brutish BC26s ability to get out of the way and let the music flow in a wholly natural and never-tiring way. And just as the Simaudio W-5 is a Reviewers' Choice, so is the BC26.
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