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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE
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alternate audio

BCAP preamplifier

as reviewed by Dave Clark, Victor Chavira, Francisco Duran,
and Larry Cox

Photo of BCAP Front Panel

 

 

 

DAVE CLARK'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Apogee Caliper Signature.

ELECTRONICS
Muse 150 monoblock amplifiers. Reference Line 1000 Series II passive preamplifier (fully upgraded to a Preeminence 2). E.A.R. 834P phono stage.

SOURCES
EAD 1000 transport and 1000 Series II DAC connected using Theta’s TLC (custom DC power supply) and Audient Technologies’ Tactic and Audit. Digital cable is a 1-meter length of Nordost Moonglo between the Tactic and Audit and a 6" length between the transport and TLC. Linn Axiss turntable, K9 cartridge and Basik Plus arm, Cardas Quadlink 5C tonearm cable.

CABLES
Nordost Blue Heaven interconnects and Hovland bi-wired speaker cables.

ACCESSORIES
API 116 Power Wedge and Coherent System’s Electraclear EAU-1.

 

one.jpg (6551 bytes)Several thoughts came to mind after removing my Reference Line passive preamplifier to insert the Alternate Audio preamplifier. The first was how similar the two units sounded, the second was how different they were in design, and the last was "How the heck does Dan Patten do this for only $1500?" Let me address this point by point. Both units are very detailed and clean, though the Reference Line is slightly more transparent than the BCAP. (After all, the Reference Line is just a few wires, some switches and jacks, two resistors, and a stepped attenuator! Not much to mess up the sound with.) It is amazing just how clean-sounding the BCAP is by comparison, especially when you take into account its numerous parts and elaborate design. Yeah, there's some grain and veiling, but not enough to make me say, "Hey, who pulled the shades!" I hear slightly less air or body than I do with the passive preamplifier, but not enough to draw my attention away from the music.

The BCAP is also very fast and dynamic. What else would you expect from a single-ended class A transistor preamplifier? Compared to the passive/EAD combo, the BCAP/EAD’s presentation was much more dynamic (micro and macro), with starts and stops coming at startling speed. This was very impressive on discs from Bill Laswell, or percussive artists like Scorn and Portishead. The BCAP/EAD combo has more three-dimensional imaging, along with deeper bass and airier treble. The faults of the EAD DAC are mitigated to a much greater degree with an active preamplifier than with a passive one—the passive unit passes on the responsibility of driving the amplifier to your source component, affecting bass drive and dynamics. An active preamplifier such as the BCAP changes the whole story. You'll still hear the intrinsic character of the source component, but (all other things being equal) the active stages in a preamplifier will do a far better job driving an amplifier.

I found the BCAP’s imaging to be pretty much as deep as the Reference Line’s, and more dimensional, but still two-dimensional. If I want three-dimensional imaging, it's all in the tubes! While the BCAP’s images were not quite as tall or as wide as those portrayed through the passive unit, there's still good separation of images, and with the BCAP they are more between than around the speakers. This is not to say that the BCAP doesn’t offer a satisfactory soundstage, just that it is not necessarily better than the passive’s, which I find to be quite credible, though not all that I want it to be. My system falls to the dark and warm side of neutrality, mostly because of the EAD 1000. I like this fatter presentation, and tend to turn away from the lean and analytical. The passive lets the warmth through, adding little if anything to the tonal picture. Is the BCAP as neutral? Well, the BCAP/EAD combo produced pretty much the same warm, dark tonality, with a few minor deviations. The BCAP produced a frequency emphasis in the bass region, providing more whomp or bass slam than the passive, but not necessarily more detail. The bass was never boomy or exaggerated, but was simply more prominent. Treble was still on the soft side, though reasonably detailed, just like that of the passive. No glare or hardness added to offend the listener, regardless of volume level.

It was the bass reproduction that really caught my attention. On most music the bass emphasis was quite enjoyable, though on some cuts there was a tendency to lose the rhythm a bit. Especially out of sync was the Shelleyan Orphan disc Carol uses to evaluate components. The kick drum on track one is very low and powerful, but through the BCAP it lagged behind the rest of the group. Yeah, there were gobs of oomph and explosive depth, but come on and catch up with the rest of us here! With the passive preamplifier in the system, the bass on this track is right in sync, but not quite as visceral. Mind you, while I never find my system to be lacking in bass extension, it could offer more slam. The BCAP alleviates this to a degree, though still within the limitations inherent to the speaker. I found myself selecting discs that would benefit from the BCAP's bass drive, leading me to listen to old but not-forgotten favorites. One disc that really benefited was Christian McBride's "gettin' to it," which caused Robert, my bass-playing neighbor, to remark that the BCAP's bass portrayal is much more "there" than the passive's, with the timbre being spot on. Perhaps not quite as transparent as with the passive, but oh so tonally correct for a stand-up bass, with plenty of woody resonance and oomph to really make the track come alive. Of course, with the good comes the bad. Certain vocal tracks took on a hollow or honky, less "real" quality. I never found this very objectionable, since most of the music I listen to is instrumental. No doubt this quality is of a very narrow-band nature, and thus does not appear on all tracks, much less all systems. Female vocals were less affected than male vocals, leading to the conclusion that this shift in tonality is also responsible for the bass emphasis and the lack of the rhythmic drive on several discs.

Fit and finish are first rate, with a machined aluminum chassis of considerable heft. Ergonomics of the BCAP are very acceptable, with back lit control knobs, well-spaced Tiffany RCA jacks, and enough inputs to accommodate the most elaborate of systems. Alas, no phono section, but that seems to be the sign of the times in preamplifiers. A remote control version is in the works that ups the performance slightly and the price not so slightly. In several ways the Alternate Audio BCAP was superior to what I had become accustomed to with the Reference Line. If my passive is Clark Kent, the BCAP is Superman—a great, sensitive guy but with an alter ego that is all muscle and brawn. Watch out bad guys! Faster than a speeding passive, more powerful than a source alone…! Dave Clark

 

 

 

LARRY COX'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Spendor SP 7/1.

ELECTRONICS
Audible Illusions Modulus 2D preamplifier. Classe CA100 amplifier.

SOURCES
CAL Icon MkII CD player.
Oracle Delphi MkII turntable, AudioQuest PT7 tone arm, AudioQuest 404i cartridge.

CABLES
AudioQuest Emerald 3x interconnect and Midnight 3x speaker cables.

ACCESSORIES
API Power Pack.

 

two.jpg (6646 bytes)I am a tube fascist. I make no excuses for that, but thought you should know right off the bat that I expect to be using a tube preamplifier on the day they plant me eight feet under. That said, I was impressed with the Alternate Audio solid state line stage.

I was dumbfounded by the bottom end of the BCAP. While I love the body and imaging of tubes and their life like textures, tubes just don't do bass like solid state. Although I haven't missed the bottom end while using tubes for the past seven years, bass is a good thing, and I can understand the attraction of solid state components for passing real and deep bass information. It was a joy to listen to the Alternate reproduce amplified bass guitar, and to have kick drums reproduced with a force that I felt almost as much as heard. However, what really told me that my systems have had less than solid bass these past seven years was to hear the Alternate reproduce acoustic bass. Charlie Haden's plucking on Missouri Sky was practically electric with "liveness." The strings chattered when plucked hard, and had an excellent sense of texture and vibrato.

I was not looking forward to hearing the rest of the frequency spectrum on this preamplifier as, in my experience, solid state usually delivers hard, etched, and unpleasant sound. The Alternate was much better than I expected, but it still lacked the light touch that may be the exclusive domain of tubes. However, unlike a lot of the solid state preamplifiers that I have heard, the BCAP did not have a hardness or glare in the midrange. The treble was quite extended, detailed, and not the least bit hard-sounding. Image specificity was quite good as well, with images having a distinct left to right position. Front to back layering was modestly specific, although that layering was not a challenge to what tubes can do.  The volume pot and input selectors felt very smooth. The four inputs were plenty for my taste and equipment. Aesthetically, the Alternate is understated like the older Threshold designs, with little visual embellishment on the front, save for two handles placed at the far left and right.

The appearance of the handles is awkward and a bit ugly—they seem to project a little too far out from the front of the face plate. However, when it came time to use them, they were the perfect size for my fingers. I guess I'll defer to form following function, if it is agreed that having handles is a necessity. Personally, I don't think handles on a preamplifier are necessary.

I don't have any important objections to the Alternate Audio BCAP. After living with it for awhile I thought to myself, this is a pretty darn good preamplifier, and came to appreciate the fact that its clarity and detail was by no means harsh or hard. I even started to think to myself that I could live with it. But after reinserting my own tube preamplifier, I realized that while I had learned to live with the Alternate's sound, I was not a contended puppy. I'm still a tube fascist. The liquidity, warmth, textures, and delicate touch that tubes have just reinforced my tube-aholicism. Palpability and front-to-back soundstaging are more important to me than I suspected.

Despite my criticism, I think that the Alternate Audio preamplifier is a successful design. Its attractions were like a confirmed bachelor meeting a woman that wants to get married. I can appreciate the possibilities, but it’s just not for me. If you have not been seduced by tubes, you could probably be very happy with the Alternate Audio preamplifier. I have been seduced by tubes, and didn't hear what I needed to change my preferences.
Larry Cox

 

 

 

VICTOR CHAVIRA'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Magneplanar .5.

ELECTRONICS
Sonic Frontiers Anthem 1 amplifier.

SOURCE
Audio Electronics CD1 player.

CABLES
Kimber PBJ interconnects and Tara Labs RSC Prime Bi-wire speaker cable.

 

three.jpg (8484 bytes)I am not a preamp user. The last preamp I had, in my primitive system of years ago, was an Adcom GTP400. I haven’t been using a preamp because I didn’t see the logic of having a control device in the signal path when all I listen to is CDs. My motive for reviewing the Alternate Audio BCAP was pure curiosity. I am deeply familiar with the sound of my system, and knew that if the BCAP did anything bad to the sound, I would know it in an instant. What I heard surprised me.

Before I comment on the BCAP, I must report upon a cable upgrade to my system. In the last issue I described the speed and transparency accomplished in my system by the Nordost SPM cables and interconnects. Because of this, I found it difficult to return to my Tara Labs RSC Prime 1000 biwire and Kimber PBJ. Nordost Super Flatline yielded little improvement over the RSC Prime, so I tried Nordost’s Blue Heavens, which are of similar composition to the top-of-the-line SPMs, but more affordable. When I first installed the Blue Heavens, the sound was dry and hard.

At least 70 hours of break-in time are recommended by Nordost. To speed up the process, I left the system playing the busy theme music from the Men in Black soundtrack while I was at work. After several days of this, the cables began to sound fresh and alive. Sound seemed to flow unimpeded from the CD player to the amp to the speakers and finally to my ears, as if part of a grand harmonious cycle. All listening to the BCAP was done with the Blue Heavens in the system.

Aesthetically, the BCAP is an illustration of simplicity of design. The 1 3/4"-high unit sports a thick, wide, aluminum faceplate. On the left are three grey, smooth-turning, machined aluminum controls for volume, balance, and input selection. These controls are backlit by a pale red light. On the right are two small switches for mute and power. Actually, power is turned on from the rear with a rocker switch, and the front switch functions as standby. The preamp was placed atop the CD player and connected to the wall socket with the detachable power cord provided. I connected it to my CD player with an additional pair of .5 meter Blue Heaven interconnect. Although by adding an active component and another set of interconnects to my system, I added to the potential for sonic degradation, the system paradoxically benefited by allowing the CD player to function at full throttle, thereby avoiding the degradations of the digital volume control.

What I heard from my system with the BCAP installed was much more than could be accounted for by eliminating the digital volume control. To begin with, the soundstage became much wider and deeper. Most of the finer speakers I have heard accomplish this trick by projecting the sounds of cowbells and other small percussion instruments far beyond what an experienced listener might expect, as if the sounds were emanating from midair. Sure, Maggie’s do imaging well, but I have never perceived images so acutely, so detached from the transducer as I did with the BCAP in the system.

Bass was another revelation. I was astounded by how much better bass sounded with the BCAP. Acoustic and electric bass sounded vibrant yet balanced with all the other harmonic elements in the music. This was observed while listening to "Sunflower" by Tito Puente and the Latin Jazz Golden All Stars, Volume 1. I had always perceived this live CD to be poorly recorded, as bassist Andy Gonzalez could barely be heard under the driving percussion and lead flute. Now, however, I could practically see Andy plucking away at his baby bass, playing against the steady meters of conga and timbale. His notes were more legato than the muted staccato I hear without the BCAP. Bass drums were also more realistically displayed. At times I felt as if drummers were dancing on their bass drums rather than just stepping in the pedals to keep time. Music sounded much more dynamic with the BCAP. This was not only true of large orchestral music and rock, but of gentle sounds such as strums on a guitar.

A few words are in order here about component interaction and compatibility. My Audio Electronics CD1 has an output of about three volts at 410 ohms. The BCAP has a maximum output of 15 volts at 10 ohms. The input impedance for the BCAP is 18k ohms versus 100k ohms for my Anthem Amp 1. I’ll leave it up to technically minded readers to interpret these numbers and how they may have contributed to what I was hearing.

Next I decided to do some comparison listening with and without the BCAP in place. The first tune I listened to—with the BCAP—was Atardecer by Ensamble Gurrufio on Dorian Discovery. The flute had a nice silvery sheen. I could discern the shape of the Venezuelan cuatro. I could differentiate between fingernails or fingertips on a string, and between slaps and strums. I could hear a string buzzing if it wasn’t perfectly fretted. Bass sounded more legato. Without the BCAP, the flute sounded almost woody in character, as if made of bamboo. Bass was not as defined. However, room ambiance was rendered better without the BCAP.

The next disc I listened to was McCoy Tyner’s The Music of Burt Bacharach, Trio with Symphony. The second track is a lovely rendition of What the World Needs Now Is Love. Anyone who appreciates the art of arranging and orchestrating will enjoy John Clayton’s marvelous scoring of this timeless music. At the introduction to the theme, a French horn plays a long muted note for several measures that is followed by clarinet, cello, the string section, and finally the trio. It is a sublime musical moment. With the preamp in the system, I noticed how quiet the background became. Bass sounded firm and tall. Piano resounded truly. The string section, however, sounded as if the musicians were all playing in a straight line. With the preamp removed, the clarinet resonated with woodiness. Room noise was noticeable. On the other hand, bass images were not as defined, and notes on the left-hand chords of the piano blended a bit. Changes in loudness were not as dynamic. Nevertheless, the string section stepped out of its straight line, and spread out within the soundstage.

This trend was repeated when I listened to Paco de Lucia’s interpretation of Joauqin Rodrigo's Concerto de Aranjuez. With the BCAP, there was little hall noise and ambiance. Strings tended to sound as if they were arranged in a straight line. Oboe sounded less reedy. Without the BCAP, there was noticeable hall noise and ambiance. Music and musicians sounded more layered.

The sonic characteristics I have described in no way detracted from the many hours of musical enjoyment I derived from the BCAP. This product changed my understanding about what a preamp is supposed to do. From an amplifier’s point of view, there is just no substitute for a good clean signal to work with. Of all the components I have had the pleasure of listening to thus far, the BCAP interacted the most synergistically with my system, improving dynamics and imaging, and adding versatility. The only things that may detract from the BCAP’s appeal for some buyers are: it has no phono stage, no headphone jack, no tape loop, and no phase inversion. If you are looking for set-and-play simplicity and hours of musical enjoyment, the BCAP may be just the thing for you. It should give many years of satisfaction.
Victor Chavira

 

 

 

FRANCISCO DURAN'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
ProAc Response 2s.

ELECTRONICS
Classe CP60 preamplifier. Classe CA200 amplifier.

SOURCE
EAD DSP 1000 III DAC.
Pioneer DP 54 as a transport.

CABLES
Acrotec 2050 interconnects, 1050 speaker cables, and digital cable.

 

four.jpg (6893 bytes)These days it seems a lot of people question the necessity of a preamplifier in one's stereo system. Due to the availability of digital processors and CD players with volume controls, the question seems valid. If you only listen to CDs, your system can be made much simpler, less expensive, and sometimes better sounding by the removal of the preamp. For those who would find this too limiting, the BCAP preamplifier from Alternate Audio is good enough to prevent you from becoming a one-source pony, without regretting the extra complexity and expense. Like its counterpart amp, the CA35, which I recently had in my system (regrettably not at the same time as the preamp), the BCAP is well built, good-looking, and very good-sounding.

The BCAP fit into my system immediately, and was stiff competition for my own preamp. Two of the first discs I played were ones I got for Christmas: Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and The Wall. The original LPs I had of these albums have long since disappeared, and for some reason I hadn't replaced them until now. Perhaps the sticker on the jewel case proclaiming that the CDs were digitally remastered under the supervision of the original band members, and at Doug Sax's mastering lab, had something to do with it, but whatever the reason, these discs sound great. And running them through the BCAP didn't hinder the review proceedings one bit. Well, this slimline little preamp can really crank.

Dynamics are very good. The bass and drums that open track five, disc one, "Another Brick In The Wall Part 2," from The Wall, rang out quickly and clearly. Although the bass did seem slightly more rounded than my Classe CP60’s, it was still very articulate, and very good in both quantity and quality. Cymbals were realistic, not bright or splashy. On vocals, I did notice a slight emphasis on s's and t's, along with a slight wispiness, although this might be due to my transport. The BCAP's top end is a tad more extended than my reference preamp’s, the Classe being slightly darker on top. With the Phenomenon soundtrack disc, the Iguana's track had good detail and three dimensionality, but there was less body to the voices than what I usually hear. Altogether though, a very clean top end and midrange.

The soundstage is well-proportioned and layered. Again on track five, disc one of The Wall, the kid's chorus had a natural ambiance and was well spread out. It lacked the openness and spaciousness of my CP60, but was very competent indeed. Here again I point to my EAD DSP 1000 III, which reproduces the soundstage very well, bringing out ambient cues that help form a picture of the music in the mind's eye. Although the BCAP had no problem conveying what the front end was doing, it didn't reproduce dynamic peaks with the effortlessness and ease of my reference. I guess the low price of the BCAP comes into play here. The Classe, after all, has a very substantial separate power supply to handle even the most demanding crescendos. Nevertheless, while the BCAP may not equal the best there is in dynamics, this in no way interfered with my musical enjoyment.

What struck me about the BCAP above all else was that after casually listening to it for awhile, it started working its magic, and I forgot about critical listening. Whether this is due to the preamp’s single-ended design or its class A operating mode, I can't say, but the same thing happened when I had Alternate Audio's CA35 amp in my system. After awhile, I was too busy enjoying music to bother with any kind of critique. I think that says a lot for these products. The BCAP, though inexpensive, is a very good all-around performer, and gave my twice-as-expensive Classe CP60 a run for its money.
Francisco Duran

Alternate Audio BCAP preamplifier
Retail $1500

Alternate Audio L.C.
801 - 434 - 7226
www.alternate-audio.com

 

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