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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 3
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blue circle

BC21 preamplifier

as reviewed by Victor Chavira, Pat Brady, and Carlo Flores

 

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VICTOR CHAVIRA'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Magneplanar 1.6 and B&W DM 302.

ELECTRONICS
Magnum Dynalab 208 receiver, Kora Explorer integrated, and the Anthem Amp 1 amplifier.

SOURCE
NAD T541 CD/DVD player.

CABLES
Nordost Quattro-Fil interconnects, Blue Heaven speaker cables, and El Dorado power cords.

ACCESSORIES
Monster Cables HTS 1000 AC center. Vibrapods, Lovan Trisolator, and Echo Busters.

 

one.jpg (6551 bytes)Blue Circle products are unique in their design and and their chunky stainless steel construction. The BC21 features blue acrylic tube platforms, ceramic sockets, a Plitron transformer, point to point wiring, and liberal amounts of silicon glue to damp specific areas. The signal passes through a pair of Phillips JAN 6SNTs for 20 dB of gain.

Starting at the bottom of the frequency range, the 21 provided plenty of bass and drive. When Skies are Grey, the latest recording by Ron Carter, showcased the BC21’s bass performance. Without the 21, the recording sounded slow and dull. With the 21, the music came alive, led by Carter’s pulsating bass lines.

That the midrange was also favorably reproduced by the BC21 was vividly illustrated while listening to Canto, the latest offering from Los Super Seven. This disc is a musical collage of Latin American musical styles, as interpreted by members of Los Lobos, The Mavericks, and others. The disc begins with a bass drum wallop and the creamy texture of Raul Malo’s tenor voice singing the Ernesto Lecuona classic, "Siboney. Another track features the lovely voice of Peruvian singer Susana Baca. All of the music on Canto was superbly realized through the BC21.

Soundstage and upper frequency extension were also better with the BC21 than without it. Any of my fears of added graininess or veiling were unfounded. In every case, music sounded richer, fuller, more alive and detailed. Having the BC21 as the centerpiece of my system was a pleasure. Had it not been for the fine sounding (and less expensive) Kora Explorer 90 integrated amp, the BC21 would have become a much-needed partner for my Anthem Amp 1. Victor Chavira

 

 

 

CARLO FLORES' SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
PSB Stratus Bronze and Sennheiser HD580, Grado SR225, and SR60 headphones.

ELECTRONICS
Conrad-Johnson Sonographe SA-250 amplifier. DIY headphone amp and an Anthem Pre1L (w/Mullard tubes).

SOURCES
H! Njoe Tjoeb CD player (w/Amprex tubes), Arcam Apha 9 CD player, Rega Planar 3/Origin Live RB250/Grado Gold. Vintage Phillips receiver (phono and tuner)

CABLES
TEK-Line power cords, Tara Labs, and Kimber interconnects, and DIY speaker cables.

ACCESSORIES
Vibrapods, BDR cones, and DIY rollerblocks.

 

two.jpg (6646 bytes)Anthem versus Blue Circle, or as Victor suggested, the "Canadian Preamp Shoot Out." Considering the upgrades I've made to my Anthem unit, the two have similar price tags, both are tubed, and both are from respected brands in the audio community. I knew I wasn't going to go easy on the BC21? I've been reading about the greatness of their products from internet newsgroups and from Dave Clark for ages. What I didn't know is that this preamp would bring my system to a new level of performance.

Musicality is the name of the game, and the Blue Circle masters it. If I were to summarize the sound of the BC21, it would be "sexy." There is an inherent sweetness and romance to the sound that made me listen for hours, and made me get drawn into the music. That's right, MADE me. I had several occasions where I only planned to listen to my stereo for a few minutes and get on with my life, but the next thing I new half the day had passed by. This is not reviewer's exaggeration, but the result of a great product, well designed and very well voiced.

After a one-hour warm-up, I let loose with P.J. Harvey's Stories From The City, Stories From the Sea. Five minutes into the recording I had to close my eyes. Her voice was so vibrant I got lost in it. On "The Whore's Hustle and the Hustler's Whore," I heard the hall for the first time, and the slight echo gave a haunting tone to her words. This is one of my favorite recordings of the past year, and with the BC21 I heard a dimension I'd never heard before. One of the characteristics of this preamp is a slight delay in the decay of vocals and strings that, while not exactly accurate, is very pleasing. "One Line" gave me goosebumps, with fantastic drive on guitars and exceptional attack. However, while the cymbal work didn't sound tizzy at all, a slight slowness was apparent.

My other top recording of the past year is Radiohead's Kid A, quite simply a masterpiece. This album is the extreme of what electronica (in its broadest sense) can achieve-a sound so natural that you forget that it almost all synthetic. The Blue Circle delivers its ambience in spades, giving a rich sound without being too thick. The soundstage wasn't as wide as with my Anthem Pre1L, but was more specific within its limits. Details of Phil Selway's drum work were excellent, showcasing how he, not Thom Yorke, is the star of this record. Microdynamics are almost as good as I've heard, with no sense of grain or upper frequency hardness. Since it came out, I've been telling friends that Kid A has to be listened to with tube electronics. it's possible I should say it as to be listened to with the BC21.

The BC21 deserves ecstatic praise, but it isn't prefect. While it does a lot of things very, very well, there is a slight slowness to the sound. With NIN's "Where is Everybody" (from The Fragile), bass lines were musical and there was a texture to the presentation I hadn't heard from my system. The guitar sounded vibrant, but once again, Trent Reznor's voice lacked a touch of aggression. He didn't sound nearly as pissed off as he should. On "Please," from the same recording, there was a nice hard foundation, but the preamp can't help being too "happy" for such somber music, sounding too sweet and lush.

I got the same impression with the Deftones' Around The Fur, even though for the first time Chino Moreno's words were actually discernible. I've owned this album for years, and until now I couldn't understand what he was saying on "Lhabia." However, for some reason I couldn't get lost in it. "My Own Summer (Shove It)" had a rich sound, with a nice soundstage and detail, but it still wasn't quite right. My head wasn't banging, and while the BC21 did all the audiophile things well, it didn't have that "bite." I listened to "Dai the Flu," the slowest song on the album, and was impressed by the taut bass lines this tubed component could produce, but came away thinking "This is way too slow to be the Deftones." We're talking about speed guitar here, and if the decay isn't as fast as possible, the magic of the recording is lost.

I had to think very long and hard about whether or not the Blue Circle bettered the Anthem, and I still don't know. When I spent time listening to Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco, Joni Mitchell, and other guitar-based folk, I found the sound more involving than my NOS-tubed Anthem. It did justice to Louis Armstrong's The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings. Even electronica, such as Moby's Play or Underworld's Pearl's Girl, had a sense of subtlety that enveloped me.

Details just floated in space. This is one of the rare components that frequently had me grinning ear to ear, but my problem is that I look to music to satisfy all of my emotions, including anger. The Deftones, Fear Factory, NIN, The Smashing Pumpkins, et al., aren't regulars in my listening regimen, but there are times that I need to have them validate what I feel, and unfortunately the BC21 is incapable of portraying a pissed-off attitude. I recommend this product, but only to the mentally stable. Carlo Flores

 

 

 

PAT BRADY'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Magneplanar 1.6 QR and an Audio Pro DP40 subwoofer (modified).

ELECTRONICS
VTL Super Deluxe preamp with built in phono stage (MM/MC) and 60s-vintage matched RCA tube set. Electron Kinetics Eagle 400 monoblock amplifiers.

SOURCES
Cal Audio Delta CD transport and Alpha DAC with 50s-vintage matched Telefunken tube set. VPI HW 19 Mark IV turntable with SAMA (stand alone motor assembly), Audioquest PT-8 tonearm, and Benz Glider and van den Hul MC One moving coil cartridges.

CABLES
Transparent Audio Power Link Ultra power strip and Power Link Plus power cords and MIT 330 CVT and 330 interconnects and 750 Plus speaker cables. Audio Works Datalink digital cable.

ACCESSORIES
Vantage Point sand-filled audio racks and various isolation devices. Dedicated 20 amp AC circuit. A bottle of BV Merlot.

 

three.jpg (8484 bytes)As a reviewer, I would like to share a bit about my musical background. I have been an audiophile since age 14. I was blessed (some would say cursed) by being exposed to a then-high-end stereo setup that consisted of Marantz tube equipment, a Garrard turntable, and big Wharfdale loudspeakers when I was 11 or 12. The guy that owned this rig was a tall, bald-headed body builder that could have passed for Mr. Clean. I used to baby-sit his kids on bowling nights. He knew I loved music, and more importantly he trusted me, so he was willing to teach me the do's and don'ts of playing his stereo. He also introduced me to jazz and what we now call "lounge" or "exotica." After the kids went to bed, I would explore his record collection for hours.

I was always amazed at how wonderful everything sounded. That chapter of my life continues to have a profound influence on me. I assembled my first system when I was 14, and since then it has been a mostly satisfying road to musical bliss. My wife is a musician and professional singer, and I'm fortunate to get to hear her sing fairly often, in both solo and group settings. This exposure to both amplified and un-amplified music has been an obvious plus, as it has given me benchmarks for judging audio equipment. My current system, while not perfect (what system is?), gets most things right, at least to my ears. I've had my preamp for about eight years, and have long been curious about what effect other preamps would have on the sound of my system, so I welcomed the opportunity to review the Blue Circle BC21.

This linestage-only preamp utilizes two 6SNT tubes and Cardas wiring throughout. With the exception of the large, funky, wooden volume control knob, I was impressed by its design and build quality. From the big, beefy power supply to the beautifully handcrafted point-to-point wiring, it's a joy to behold. I enjoy the blue glow emanating from the front of Blue Circle products, but I just can't get into their trademark wooden knobs. There are certainly many people who like them. I can't explain this, any more than I can explain the past and present popularity of Nash and Rambler automobiles. Since other reviewers had broken in the BC21, I was able to begin my listening sessions within an hour or so of ignition. As I became accustomed to the sound of this preamp, I was struck by how musical it was. It had a very pure tone that accurately captured the tonal characteristics of a great variety of instruments and voices. I began by listening to a relatively obscure French CD called L'Argot du Bruit, by Pascal Comelade. This is a relatively well-recorded disc that contains a lot of acoustic piano and acoustic guitar, supported by a predominantly woodwind and percussion ensemble. The piano and guitar passages were reproduced as crisply and accurately as I could hope for. The guitar had that pure liquid sound that I really enjoy, without any distracting artifacts that cause muddiness in the attack and decay of the notes. The piano sounded like a real piano, and it too was presented with proper attack and decay. Several tracks feature pennywhistle and high-pitched flute solos that can be unbearable on some equipment. Through the BC21, everything remained smooth, serene, and listenable. P.J. Harvey sings on two tracks, and her voice is projected with all the texture and sultry earthiness she's capable of. However, for all that I liked, something was missing, something that makes music more real to me. I decided to move on to other recordings.

The next disc I listened to was Soak, by singer Mimi Goese. This decidedly dark and brooding CD leans heavily on electric and electronic instrumentation for its musical backdrop. Although it is a very complex recording (studio wizard and musician Hector Zazou had a key role), there is much for both music lovers and audiophiles to enjoy. If you can get into Mimi 's wonderful, emotionally-charged voice, this recording will delight your ears. This girl means everything she sings, and she sings it with power, passion, and conviction. The recording is full, lush, and filled with lots of high- and low-level information. The recording has excellent voice and instrumental focus throughout, and on some songs the soundstage is truly 3D. On the better-produced songs, Mimi's voice literally floats in front, above, and around the instrumentation. With this CD, I knew for sure what was missing from the musical experience. Through the BC21, the recording was flat, with practically no sense of space or soundstage. Instruments and voices were squeezed together, with very little air between them. The soundstage was somewhat forward, which contributed to the lack of perceived depth. The almost unreal illusion of sound coming at you and then receding that is so prevalent at the beginning of "Believer" and "The Watch" just wasn't there. With my VTL in place, this effect is almost spooky, and certainly gets your attention.

I listened to a variety of other recordings, some recorded in the studio and others recorded in the "you are there" mode. At this point, it's worth mentioning that the Maggies are blessed with an uncanny ability to disappear, leaving only the sound to contend with. As a result, they are very revealing of whatever they're fed. Regardless of the recording, the differences between the VTL and the Blue Circle showed up consistently. Whereas both preamps had very similar sonic signatures, the difference in their abilities to project a realistic and palpable soundstage was like day and night.

I place a lot of value on equipment that is capable of portraying the subtle nuances that exist in many recordings. You know-the sound of breathing, the soft, sympathetic buzzing of strings, or the barely perceived valve action of a horn. The list is endless, but I think you get the idea. These details tend to enhance my listening experience, and are more readily perceived within the context of a big, wide-open and airy soundstage. I realize that there are audiophiles that do not put a premium on this. They seem to be perfectly content living in what I perceive to be a two-dimensional world. If your personal leanings are in this direction, you may just like the BC21. It is a very energetic and spirited preamp, one that conveys in a very musical way most of the primary components present in recorded music. This alone will appeal to many, but if you're like me, and the finer details and nuances that emanate from the spaces between notes convey much of what the artists (and engineers) are attempting to communicate, the Blue Circle BC21 might not make the grade. Pat Brady

 

 

 

BC21 preamplifier
Retail $1500

Blue Circle
TEL: 519. 469. 3215
web address: www.bluecircle.com
e-mail: bcircle@bluecircle.com

 

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