As an audiophile and expatriate Canadian, Im proud of the contribution to high-end audio made by companies north of the 49th parallel. It continues to amaze me that a country with fewer people than the state of California can have such a significant impact on what has become a multi-national industry. While some Canadian high-end companies have grown sizeable by high-end standards (Bryston, Classé, API, and Paradigm, spring to mind), complete with professional marketing teams and top-flight industrial designers, others have maintained their mom'n'pop roots, relying primarily on word-of-mouth advertising, the design acumen of a single visionary, and a dollop of idiosyncrasy in an effort to get noticed.
One such company is Blue Circle Audio of Innerkip, Ontario, which is located about 90 minutes outside of Toronto, a relatively small, grass-rootsy audio establishment headed by enigmatic designer Gilbert Yeung. Founded in 1990, Blue Circle Audio is not a company in its infancy, at least not by high-end-audio industry standards. Over the past 13 years, Blue Circle has expanded its product line from the BC3 preamplifier and BC2 monoblock amplifiers to a full line of tube, solid-state, and hybrid preamplifiers and power amplifiers; cables; power-line conditioners; a phono stage; and the beginnings of a multichannel lineup. All Blue Circle products are designed by Yeung and hand-assembled by a small team of technicians.
The heart of the $3995 USD BC28 power amplifier reviewed here was born out of the hybrid tube/solid-state circuit Yeung developed for the wallet-busting four-chassis class-A single-ended AG8000 monoblock power amplifiers, which cost $14,500 per pair. The BC28 shares its more expensive siblings basic topology, which is centered around a single 6922 per channel "running in single-ended high-bias class A mode" coupled to a solid-state, class-AB output stage, but it packs all of the necessary bits and pieces into a single stereo chassis and offers 120Wpc into 8 ohms. While more labor intensive and hence costly to employ, point-to-point wiring is used judiciously throughout the BC28 because designer Yeung believes his amplifier simply sounds better that way. While Blue Circle doesnt say much about the parts employed in the BC28, a casual look inside reveals several custom-made components and good layout and construction. The BC28 appears fairly easy to service, should the need ever arrive.
Those requiring less output power than the BC28 offers (or who dont have the space to accommodate a beefy 17"W x 8 1/4"H x 20"D, 65-pound amp) can opt for the smaller BC24, which offers the same hybrid circuit as the BC28, but trims the output to 80Wpc and the chassis height roughly in half.
The BC28 is a utilitarian-looking box that shares its bland cosmetics with the rest of Blue Circles current product line. (It seems that the appearance of Blue Circles products have taken a turn for the worse. The long-discontinued hybrid BC6 and BC2 monoblocks had a "coolness factor" missing from the BC28.) The center of the thin stainless-steel faceplate contains the companys signature illuminated circular logo, beneath which is a toggle switch that can be used to turn the logos backlight on and off. The faceplate is held in place by four large hex-head screws that are visible from the front. Around back are two more toggle switches -- one is for power, the other a ground lift that can be used to help eliminate grounding problems, should they occur in a customers installation. None of the BC28s toggle switches are labeled, however, so I had to refer to the owners manual to determine each switchs function. The back panel also contains an IEC power-cord receptacle, a fuse and two pairs of five-way speaker binding posts to enable biwiring (I single-wire my loudspeakers, so I used only one pair). The rest of the chassis is black powder-coated steel containing slots for ventilation. The amplifiers cooling ability seemed more than adequate, as the BC28 never ran particularly hot.
Although the look and feel of the BC28 are decidedly in the garage-built category, the optimist in me assumed that the bulk of the BC28s asking price was funneled into the sound of the amp, rather than its outward appearance.
I auditioned the BC28 in my usual review system consisting of a VPI Aries/SDS/Graham 2.0/Transfiguration Spirit analog front-end, a Hovland HP-100 preamplifier with moving-coil step-up transformer, and ProAc Response One SC loudspeakers. The One SCs were mounted on a pair of Target R4 stands. All electronics were supported by a Finite Elemente Master Reference HD rack, and all cabling was by Harmonic Technology (Pro-AC11 power cords, Pro-Silway Mk.II interconnects and Pro-9 Plus speaker cables).
Operationally, the BC28 was nearly flawless. The only minor glitch I encountered was an audible turn-off transient that proved a bit bothersome. Perhaps this was a sample fault, but it was out of place on an otherwise well-behaved product.
Right from the start I knew the BC28 was something special. It had a musical "rightness" that was obvious to me and everyone who passed through my listening room while I had the amplifier in my possession. On disc after disc, I was impressed with amplifiers natural, unforced presentation, which made long-term listening possible without the fatigue induced by lesser amplifiers. Although Ive never been a real fan of hybrid technologies, particularly hybrid loudspeakers, which can often sound less coherent than those that employ a single driver type, the BC28 seemed to weave the best of both solid-state and tube sound into a single intoxicating whole that drew my focus to the music rather than the hardware making it. This is the hallmark of a great audio product.
The BC28s solid-state output stage was most identifiable at musics low end, which sounded deep, punchy and rhythmic. Bass notes via the BC28 started and stopped on a dime, the amplifier always exhibiting terrific control over the Response One SC's midrange/bass driver. The kick drum on "The Last Mall" from Steely Dans Everything Must Go [Reprise 9362-48435-1, German import LP] had terrific impact with no signs of overhang. Ditto the subterranean bass notes on the title track from Enyas Watermark [WEA 22924-38751], a favorite torture test of mine, which had the requisite power without the boominess that can be heard with amplifiers lacking sufficient damping. Although Yeung may have alienated some tube purists with his choice to employ a solid-state output stage in the BC28, the amplifiers superb bass performance is proof positive that this approach has its merits.
I listened to a lot of female vocal music while the BC28 was in my system, as the amplifiers midrange reproduction was enticingly smooth and silky. The late Eva Cassidys cover of Stings "Fields of Gold" from Songbird [Blix Street Records ABLX 10045] was haunting in its beauty via the BC28. The amplifier delivered a goosebump-inducing performance of this work by a truly superb talent that was taken prematurely from us in 1996. While the sound quality of this recording varies from track to track, the BC28 never failed to communicate Cassidys magnificent musicianship, as well as her ability to traverse a wide variety of musical styles with aplomb.
Lest you think that the BC28 was all syrup and sweetness at the expense of transparency, it clearly revealed the thin, edgy vocal texture heard throughout Norah Jones wildly popular debut Come Away with Me [Classic Records/Blue Note JP5004]. While I applaud Classic Records for continuing to issue recordings of good music on vinyl, their catalog does contain its fair share of clunkers. (My recent listen to the Classic reissue of Peter Gabriels 3 [Classic/RealWorld PGLP03, LP] indicates that the Peter Gabriel series may be a winner.) Although perhaps a pressing fault, the inconsistent pitch of the piano throughout the Norah Jones recording was also clearly audible over the BC28. While not what I would consider a ruthlessly revealing amplifier, the BC28 will not sugarcoat less-than-stellar recordings. For better or worse, youre going to hear whatever is in those pits or grooves, warts and all.
Pace, rhythm and timing, so integral to the delivery of the musical message, were exceptionally well served by the BC28. The Blue Circle amplifiers terrific sense of rhythmic drive and liveliness was a real boon on "Godwhacker" from Steely Dans Everything Must Go, whose intricately woven kick drum, bass and guitar lines inspired some spontaneous toe-tapping and head-bobbing. On "Intruder" from the Classic Records reissue of Peter Gabriels 3, the BC28s faithful reproduction of the plodding drums and eerie electronic effects literally sent chills up my spine as I pictured Gabriels mythical burglar "slipping the clippers through the telephone wires" and creeping "across squeaky wooden floors." This is certainly one of Gabriels most inspired solo works, and it's given excellent treatment by the Classic reissue team -- and the BC28.
Aside from its excellent bass reproduction and seductive treble, the BC28 had the other primary hallmarks of a well-designed tube amplifier -- beautiful tonal color and a delicate, extended treble. Stringed instruments and woodwinds had bloom and body, with a warm, natural quality that proved enticing, and trumpets, flutes, and piccolos were surrounded with columns of air, their highest registers extending into the stratosphere without becoming glassy or glaring.
The highs, lows, and middles aside, the BC28 was one of only a handful of audio products Ive come across that has the ability to keep me riveted to its sound regardless of what was going on around me. Even when I intended to simply put on some background music while I worked, the BC28s superb musicality would reel me in and capture my attention -- a truly impressive achievement.
Comparisons and further listening impressions
I was fortunate enough to have three other power amplifiers on hand while the review sample of the BC28 was here: the Simaudio Moon W-5 ($4995), a 175Wpc dual-mono solid-state amplifier that has been my long-term reference; the 100Wpc Coda 12.0 ($6550) that I reviewed recently; and the 50W all-tube Audio Electronic Supply SixPac monoblocks ($2495 per pair) designed by Cary Audios Dennis Had.
If you read my review of the Coda 12.0, you already know that I felt this well-made solid-state brute failed to gel its many strengths into a musically satisfying whole. Not surprisingly, the BC28 bettered the Coda in the areas of accurate tonal color, midrange smoothness, treble purity, and overall musicality. As I suggested in my review, the Coda 12.0 might be best utilized as a bass amplifier in a biamped configuration, partnered on top with a more cohesive amplifier such as the BC28.
In comparison to the Simaudio amp, the BC28 again showed its superior tonal color and midband neutrality -- the W-5, an excellent amplifier in its own right, sounded almost bleached out next to the Technicolor BC28. The BC28 also exhibited more in the way of soundstage depth and lent images a level of dimensionality missing from the W-5. In fairness to Simaudio, there have been a handful of revisions to the Moon W-5 since my sample was manufactured, so perhaps current-production units would give the BC28 a run for its money.
Comparing the over-achieving SixPacs (full review forthcoming) to the BC28 was most interesting. The diminutive monoblocks held their own in terms of image dimensionality and tonal color, besting both solid-state amplifiers in these areas. While the bass of the SixPacs is astoundingly good for a relatively small pair of all-tube monoblocks (in my system, the SixPacs have better bass reproduction than the far more powerful solid-state W-5), the BC28 edged them out in terms of depth and impact.
Although more difficult to quantify than most subjective listening impressions, the BC28 seemed to present a more consistently wide soundstage than the SixPacs, the Blue Circle amplifier giving me the impression that more sonic information was arriving from further outside the edges of the loudspeakers. The SixPacs, however, showed the BC28 to have a very slight veiling in the upper midrange and lower treble that only became apparent in direct comparison to the Had-designed monos.
The Blue Circle BC28 is one of the best amplifiers Ive had the pleasure of listening to at home. Its hybrid design melds the best qualities of both solid state (bass performance, speaker driveability) and tubes (superb tonal color, seductive midrange, silky highs), and does so at a relatively affordable asking price. Although not much to look at, when the lights go down and the music comes up, the BC28 is pure magic.
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