Sugg. Retail: $2150 (US)
Manufacturer: Blue Circle Audio
RR 2, Innerkip, Ontario, Canada
Tel: +1 (519) 469-3215
Fax: +1 (519) 469-3782
Reprinted From the Winter/Spring 2000 Issue
Over the past several years Innerkip Ontario’s Blue Circle Audio has been quietly building a reputation as a manufacturer of top drawer, high-end electronics. Best known for their stylish and exotic tube amps and preamps the company also makes a variety of power conditioning products, a phono stage (which I hope to review soon), and recently introduced a line of audio furniture, which, fittingly, is painted a rich shade of blue.
Thankfully, the BC22 is not, it’s slivery brushed aluminum faceplate and profoundly cool backlit blue eye giving it the slick neo-deco look of other Blue Circle electronics. In almost every other respect, however, the BC22 represents a significant philosophical departure for Blue Circle designer and head honcho Gilbert Yeung. Compared to Blue Circle’s BC2 single-ended, class A, hybrid monoblocs ($8800/pr), amps aimed squarely at a niche market within a niche market, the BC22 has the mass appeal of indoor plumbing (and no, I’m not trying to imply that single ended triode freaks, as committed as they may be, prefer to pee outside). Describe it simply as a solid state, stereo amplifier rated at a 100 watts into 8 ohms which sells for around two grand and the BC22 starts to sound like it’s downright common; pedestrian even. Thankfully, the BC22 is not.
It is what it is
The thing that sets the BC22 apart from the numerous amps at this price point is a product of its very nature. The BC22 is a broad appeal product built by a niche market company in a category where the inverse is generally the rule; a dressed down exotic rather than a gussied up generic. Whether this is better as a rule is impossible to say, but it certainly has some advantages in this case.
Like Blue Circle’s more expensive amps the BC22 is entirely hand built, and it shows. The fit and finish of the aluminum chassis and face plate is what you’d expect from a high-end component and at 36 pounds the heft is substantial. This trend continues on the business end of the amp where both single ended and balanced input terminals are available. Not surprisingly these, as well as the super sturdy Cardas five way binding posts (no plastic nuts on these babies), are well spaced and of very high build quality. Like most serious power amps these days the BC22 also features a detachable power cord, allowing owners obsess over exotic power cables to their heart’s content.
Inside it’s a similar story. A DC coupled, truly balanced, push pull design the BC22 runs in class A/B mode, feeding off an immense 625 watt toroidal transformer; a power supply designer Gilbert Yeung aptly describes as “serious overkill” with “massive filtering.” This allows the amp to produce what Blue Circle calls “a very conservative 100 watts” into an 8 ohm load and about 150 continuous watts into 4 ohms; adequate juice for all but the thirstiest loudspeakers. Although no peak output numbers are specified, the size of the power supply suggests that the BC22 is capable of delivering transient bursts of power well above its rated output. A minimalist circuit, there are no capacitors and only 9 resistors in the Cardas wired signal path.
It is what it is pt II: The Sound
Not only is the BC22 a more mainstream oriented component from a company known for exotics, it’s also the first transistor based amplifier from a manufacturer known for its tube-based products. Fittingly, this fact neatly sums up the BC22’s sound, its sonic character best summarized as that of a high quality solid state amp built by tube lovers.
In terms of functionality and practicality the BC22 is all solid state. I used the amp in my system for around three weeks, leaving it continuously powered for virtually the entire review period. My partially broken-in BC22 sample ran very cool, even when playing at high levels on sticky Toronto summer days, and never, ever acted up in any way whatsoever. The amp happily drove the relatively benign load presented by my Energy Veritas v1.8’s (6 ohm nominal impedance) without ever clipping or audibly hitting the wall of dynamic compression. Speaker cables were Kimber’s excellent KS-3033 Select and associated equipment included an Audio Alchemy DLC preamp, Panasonic DVD-A310 DVD/CD player, and Rotel RP-955 Turntable.
A couple of weeks of casual listening not only ensured that the BC22 was fully broken in but revealed a very musical and satisfying amplifier indeed. Its somewhat forward sonic perspective combined with a tonal presentation on the warm side of neutral resulted in very immediate and involving music. The authoritative low end and punchy mid bass certainly helped too, giving the BC22 enough rhythmic drive to boogie till dawn, should you want it to. Although it was a little short of air and liquidity on the top end the treble was also very well represented. Gobs of detail were on offer on the top of the frequency range, but not so much detail as to be fatiguing; no mean feat in any amplifier, especially solid state.
Critical listening and comparisons with Bryston’s 3B ST and MDG’s Allegrio (both Canadian solid state amps in the same price range) helped confirm many of my early impressions. Brawny and generous the BC22′ s deep bass, like that of many tube amps, is definitely a little on the rich side. Although extended and tuneful the Blue Circle has quite a bit more bloom in the lower extremes than the MDG or the Bryston. I should note here, however, that the Veritas, and other reflex speaker designs with lots of output right down to 30hz and below, react very well to amps with well damped bottom-end like the Brystons. When talking bass the 3B ST is best described as a vice, exerting truly fascist control over woofer cones, resulting in extremely taut and precise low frequency reproduction. Many, however, might find this sound over-damped or too lean, especially with sealed box loudspeakers or in big rooms where there’s lots of space between speakers and walls. If your speaker/room combination is already a little lean for your liking than the BC22 might be just the thing to richen up the fuel mixture.
Even though it might have been a little softer and fuzzier than I’m used to, the BC22’s big bottom was lots of fun on pop/rock recordings and Jazz. Pavement’s new Terror Twilight CD, which has some of the best recorded electric bass I’ve ever heard, sounded really outstanding through the Blue Circle. When you can’t resist repeatedly turning up the volume something is definitely right. Chances are it’s at least partly dynamics, both micro and macro. Not only did the Blue Circle handle the big volume swings with aplomb, it did an excellent job of revealing low level detail and of keeping the most subtle transient events intact. Jazz and rock really benefited from the punchy mid bass, the BC22 doing an excellent job conveying the impact of drums and rhythm sections in general.
The influence of Blue Circle’s love of tube based electronics carries through to the BC22’s midrange too. Critical listening and comparison helped me get a handle on the BC22’s warmth and up-front perspective in the midband. Although definitely slightly coloured in comparison to the Bryston or MDG, the Blue Circle had an immediacy and presence which the other amps lacked, characteristics most apparent on close miked instruments and, especially, vocals. The amp also had lovely timbral characteristics, rendering acoustic instruments, and especially brass, with convincing bite. I remember being particularly impressed by the palpable sound of Art Pepper’s sax on the Smack Up LP, one of the very first recordings I played through the BC22.
The amp’s strong bottom-end and great mid-bass combined with its very involving, timbrally articulate, midrange made it really cook on jazz records in general. When the going got tough, and the music busy and complex, the Blue Circle kept a strong hand on the helm and navigated very nicely indeed, clearly differentiating between competing instruments and voices, never descending into compressed and confused sonic mush. Although slightly coloured tonally the BC22 is remarkably free of any sort of electronic glare or haze, something that can be said of few amps at this price point.
Throughout critical listening the amp’s top end continued to impress with its ability to convey lots of detail without becoming edgy or shrill. Again, the perspective is close, the BC22 sacrificing a certain amount of breathing space for immediacy and inner detail. This is not to say the soundstage was small or even constricted, because with a great recording it could be realistically huge, it just wasn’t as open and airy as that of the Bryston or MDG. What the Blue Circle lost in air, however, it gained in imaging, the amp delivering very specific cues about where performers were located within the acoustic space.
Consistently musical the BC22 is possessed of a little more character than most of the amps it’s competing with, both sonically and aesthetically. I don’t mean that as a euphemism for unpleasant or seriously flawed because the amp is neither. There is a definite sonic philosophy at work here though, one which will mesh with that of many listeners and leave others searching for something else. If you prize immediacy, detail, timbre, a rich bottom end, and like the feeling of sitting up close at a performance than you should definitely hear this amp, as these are its strongest suits. If you find the other amps at the price point too cool and distant for your taste or your system, than you may very well find that the BC22 ends your search for the perfect amp, without the added commitment of getting into tubes. Conversely, if razor sharp bass performance and utter neutrality top your list of priorities, an ST amp from Bryston is still your best bet this side of the stratosphere.