In many ways, the Blue Circle BC-8 may represent something of a departure or a detour for this Canadian manufacturer. The amplifiers (they are monoblocks) are completely solid-state and they are clad in fairly industrial-look stainless steel. There are other products from Blue Circle that have the same characteristics and "look", but the BC-8 until recently was the top of the Blue Circle line. Given the nature of Blue Circle's earlier top-of-the-line designs, about which more below, one might have expected something different from the BC-8.
However, it is a Quixotic exercise at best to attempt to predict what may come from Blue Circle, beyond an effort to deliver unvarnished and accurate sound in the most direct method possible. The BC-8 amplifier delivers not only great sound as one might expect, but does it with prodigious power and great ease. It does the job of reproducing music in the home extraordinarily well, without even breathing hard.
The amps do not look like anything else. They are square in the front but are very deep, at 9.5" x 9.5" x 22". They are moderately heavy, at 71 lbs. each, but seem a little heavier due to the dimensions and the distribution of the weight (2,600 watt power transformers for each unit). The BC-8s arrived very securely packed and are, in spite of their size, not too hard to unpack. The first impression one has is of strength, solidity, and very high-quality workmanship without regard for frills. (The signature blue circle is of course on the front panel, and, while it may not be the equal of the Hovland products in absolute elegance, it looks very nice in the dark).
Setup is straightforward, with one caveat. Fortunately, the caveat is prominently featured on the packaging and in the manual. The BC-8 allows for either balanced or single-ended operation (as my system is single-ended, this review addresses the BC-8s operating in that mode). However, if the single-ended mode is used, the balanced inputs must be plugged with the shorting plugs, or disaster will strike in the form of a meltdown. Follow the very clear directions - you can't miss the admonitions to use the plugs -- and you will be fine. All connecting hardware, such as input jacks and speaker terminals, is of high quality and would support event he stiffest cables with ease.
Blue Circle, as a company with Gilbert Yeung (president and head designer), aim for the maximum in simplicity in the design. From the beginning, Blue Circle has been just a little bit different from other amplifier manufacturers in matters of design. Some companies use tubes. Some use solid state. Some do both, although you generally know which one they favor. More specifically, there are companies who favor tetrodes or pentodes, SET's or FET's.
On the other hand, when I reviewed the original BC-2 monoblocks in 1998, Gilbert Yeung told me that if he could put a wire in an empty box and get the sound he wanted, that would be the design he favored. So the BC-2's (gorgeous amps with a beautifully musical sound) were a hybrid tube input/transistor output design. However, some of the subsequent designs have been transistor only. And the most recent and most expensive amplifier (the AG-8000) is a slightly different hybrid.
So why solid state for the BC-8's, which, if not a statement design, certainly compete with some of the world's best amplifiers? According to Gilbert there are two drivers for his decision. First, the BC-2's, as good as they were and are, ran out of steam with lower impedance, inefficient speakers. The "special solid-state device" works better than most transistor devices and particularly when running in balanced mode. When Yeung designed the BC-8 he looked to avoid the limitations of the tubes (bass response and ultimate power). The low impedance and high damping factor of the high-bias class AB design, in themselves nothing new, allow the BC-8 to virtually "drive any speaker out there".
The absence of the trademark wood elements was another change for this model. In the BC-2, the wood was found to yield better sound than a metal chassis. (The BC-3 pre-amplifier, however, was all stainless steel except for the large wooden knobs). The BC-8 dispenses with all of that and is fairly industrial, in that it is all stainless steel. Part of the reason is that the use of an internal heatsink (there are no external fins etc. on the BC-8) allows only the use of a stainless steel chassis. In that respect, it matches and is often paired with the BC-3000 preamp, a tube design that (in a sense) allows a listener to stay with the tube in / transistor out paradigm.
There are other good reasons for Blue Circle to favor transistor outputs. From the web site, which contains an overview of the thoughts behind some of the designs: "most tube amplifiers require a transformer at the output stage. A transformer is a huge piece of metal with hundreds sometimes thousands of feet of wire inside the case to turn the voltage into current so that it can drive a speaker. A poorly designed transformer can distort the system. Until now, the best transformer is no transformer at all. In other words, why use a transformer if you don't need one?"
That said, Yeung still favors the tube in, transistor out model. While it should yield good results with its stablemates or other solid state units, Gilbert feels that it might be best paired with a fine tube pre-amplifier": "with the tube gain preamp to do the voltage gain and solid-state for the current gain, you can achieve a hybrid system."
What all of the above - and Yeung's choice of a hybrid design for the AG-8000, the current flagship of the Blue Circle range - says is that Blue Circle is as far from 'dogmatic' as a firm can be. They believe that there are tradeoffs to the execution of any theory, and the tradeoffs may manifest themselves differently as a function of price point and the system in which the amplifier is to be used. The overriding guideline, though, is to keep it as simple as possible while remaining true to the music.
From the outset, the BC-8 rewards the listener. I suppose that I heard some evolution of the sound during the break-in period, but I can not state firmly that it wasn't an evolution of my own perception of the amplifiers as I became more familiar with the sound. In any case, there are no great revelations to be had after a week or a month of listening: the amplifiers are excellent from the get-go.
In contrast to the earlier BC-2 hybrid that I reviewed several years ago, the first impression of the BC-8 sound is not that of rich liquid smoothness. The BC-8s are very much alive - they are vibrant. One might wonder if the "aliveness" means that they are too forward -- I did. One of the first records I played through the BC-8 was Taj Mahal's The Real Thing (Columbia G30619), a live recording from 1972 with some good songs and a lot of brass (there are four tubas!). On "Ain't Gwine to Whistle Dixie (Any Mo')" the horns were brassier and bleated harder than I remembered, leading to the thought that maybe there is a midrange emphasis in the amps. But the flute solo in the same song was more reserved and utterly without any extra 'help'. Trombones were immediate but not in your face. Perhaps most important, the crowd ambience, which is fairly prominent on this recording, is vivid, exciting, and "live" in the best sense - it really communicated the feel of a concert even on an old and distinctly non-audiophile LP. Compared to my Music Reference RM-9 II and to the Mark Levinson 336 that I had had for audition, the BC-8 did seem faster and more electric.
Bass was very full and tightly controlled at the same time, every bit as much as with the Levinson. Even though my Genesis VI's cross over to their dedicated bass amp for the deepest bass, it was consistently clear that there was "more" bass than normal but that the low tones retained good definition. Midbass as well was very tight, more so than my memory of the BC-2's. I also used the BC-8 with my Vienna Acoustic Mozarts for a further comparison, with similar results. Along with the drive and power of the bass came great macrodynamics: the BC-8 effortlessly moves from very quiet to very loud.
Staying with some old records, I put on Ian Matthews' Some Days You Eat the Bear... (Elektra 75078) that is an old LP with some fine songs but with a forward midrange. Some of the cuts (notably "A Wailing Goodbye") are rather congested and thin. Via the BC-8 they were quite listenable, and seemed to lose some of the muddiness and peakiness I had noticed almost 30 years ago and many times since. Similarly, Marshall Crenshaw's first album (WB BSK 3673) is pretty up front in its presentation, which is suitable for the car-radio Buddy-Hollyish sound that Crenshaw seemed to want. The BC-8 treated Crenshaw very nicely - dynamic, light and fast, without too much sharpness or shrillness.
The acid tests over, I moved to some unamplified music for a better view. On "Too Rich For My Blood" from Café Blue (Premonition 737), piano tones were rich and full and carried the weight of Patricia Barber's powerful playing. The drums that close the piece were both crisp and full, with a live attack and plenty of nuance in the distinction in tonal differences as a function of how and where the skin was struck. On this same cut the midrange and upper midrange were rendered with definition and delicacy, Barber's voice almost tangible in the room. Moreover, the soundscaping was excellent. The image extended to the outer edges of my speakers, with very little narrowing behind the speakers. Placement of the instruments was precise without being razor-sharp (something one never hears in live music), and image depth was as good as can be expected in my smallish listening room.
Highs were clean and well defined throughout my time with the BC-8s. On the Franck sonata in A, Johanna Martzy's violin was both powerful and sweet on the great Coup d'Archet reissue (Coup 001). And if anyone out there believes that mono recordings may be lacking in spatial qualities (or that you really need 6 or 7 or more channels to get real depth!), you owe yourself the treat of hearing the depth in the Martzy recording played through the BC-8's. The violin, all by itself, emerges from a real space that has depth and width, in the same way that a real instrument might have in one's own house.
Overall, the BC-8s give the impression that they are unflappable and can do no wrong. There is a certain aliveness to the sound that I would characterize as a sonic signature of the amplifier. At the same time, there remains the memory of the smoothness and sweetness of the BC-2, and the warmth conveyed (an illusion, maybe?) by the latter's tubes and wood chassis. The BC-8, as fine and accurate as it is, did not fit that memory, or that profile. We are not setting up a facile tube/solid state dichotomy here, where tubes are warm and transistors are cold. Indeed, the BC-8 did not have the slight darkness and 'seriousness' of the Mark Levinson 336, also a solid-state design. In many ways, the BC-8 is beautifully balanced, with power to spare, an ability to drive any load, prodigious and accurate bass, and sweet, detailed highs. At the price of $6,950, the BC-8 is among a small handful of amps that one can turn on and forget about, with the knowledge that it will deliver beautiful music.
Still, it is clear from the evolution as well as the history of Blue Circle designs that Gilbert Yeung would shoot even higher in a 'statement' product. However, that product, the hybrid AG-8000, is twice the price of the BC-8. I have not had the opportunity to listen to it, but Gilbert believes it is clearly better and more refined in its capture of the musical event. With an amplifier as good as the BC-8, it is hard to imagine something much better.
In addition - and this is no small point - when one buys a Blue Circle product, one has an almost one-on-one relationship with the company. There are very few Blue Circle amplifiers for sale on Audiogon or other web sites; the reasons are likely the superb quality and sound of the products, and the willingness to stand behind them. While the designs may change at Blue Circle, the execution does not. The BC-8 is no exception to that tradition - a great product and a great value.
Power Output: 225 watts into 8 ohms, over 1,600 watts into 1 ohm
Output Type: High bias "Class AB"
Inputs: Balanced via XLR (single-ended adapters custom manufactured by Blue Circle are supplied)
Dimensions: 9.5 x 9.5 x 22 (HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 71 lbs. each
Price: $6,950 per pair