Blue Circle CS Integrated Amplifier
The First Step is the Biggest
Review by Todd Warnke
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The single most important product price point in our pastime is the
$1,000 mark. And this for two reasons. First, around this mark a manufacturer has enough margin to begin to use higher quality parts as well as the dollars to invest in more innovative circuits and layouts. Just as importantly, the first time someone goes out to spend four figures on a single component, at least one that is not a Home Theater AV receiver, marks a serious commitment to sound quality, and more than likely at the cost of quantity. That is they recognize the trade-off between four crappy drivers and two good ones or between 500 bad watts and fewer better ones. Not that sub kilo-buck components are necessarily non-audiophile ones, it is just that the one G threshold marks a psychological barrier as well as a qualitative one. So it follows somewhat obviously, that those products that sit on that divide will be the ones that lure the unsuspecting over into our little obsession or returns them to the mass-marketers. And, again pretty obviously, we had all better hope that those products showcase enough of the virtues of the high-end aesthetic to sink the hook firmly into those who love music. All of which means that when Gilbert Yeung of Blue Circle Audio showed his new integrated amplifier at CES 2002, the CS, and let it leak that retail is $1150, I immediately started begging for a review sample. For those who may not know, I have used his 25 watt, single-ended, class A, hybrid (tube input stage, solid-state output stage), amplifier, the BC6, as a reference for about 5 years and at
$3,750 have yet to find anything that approaches its innate musical sense for the dollars. Which makes the prospect of an entry level integrated amplifier from Blue Circle immediately attractive, if not to you than most certainly to me.
Let's Start With The Product Description
The CS, like the rest of the Blue Circle line, has a stainless steel face, but where most other Blue Circle products use stainless for the entire case the CS, as a cost control measure, uses powder-coated steel everywhere but the face. The front panel controls, from left to right - source, balance and volume - also use the traditional Blue Circle wood knobs. The front panel continues a couple of other Blue Circle styling cues as well. The first of which is the use of small toggle switch controls, in this case for power and to activate the tape loop, while the second is the center-mounted blue circle power indicator. At about 22 pounds and 17.5" wide, 3.625" tall and 8.625" deep, the CS is not a large unit, but it is quite solid and very well proportioned.
Round back the CS similarly purposeful. Reading left to right again, the rear plate holds the fuse and IEC power receptacle, a pair of gold-plated 5-way binding posts (their plastic knobs are easily forgiven in light of the price point), optional pre-amplifier outputs (for $75), a set of tape loop RCA jacks and three pair of RCA jacks for sources.
Inside the CS is 100% hard wired, that is, no circuit boards. Each channel has a dedicated custom-made transformer, with a third, smaller transformer used for the pre-amplifier circuit. Each channel also uses a single output device … that's right, the CS is single-ended, although, at this price point it is a class A/B design and not full class A. With 50 watts on tap the CS offers serious power when called upon. But enough of the numbers, let's get to the good stuff.
The Blue Circle house sound is pure, emotionally direct and palpable. In my experience what changes as you move up the product range is that the detail becomes easier to pick out, staging solidifies, dynamics increase and tonality adds richness even as clarity increases. One more thing about the Blue Circle sound is that while the list of changes looks impressive, to date even their lower priced products have started at a fairly high level, so that list of changes is of incremental improvements rather than of quantum shifts. On the other hand,
$1,150 is not very many dollars in audiogeek terms, especially for a component that is both pre and power amplifier. So, while
Mr. Yeung's track record gave me hope for the CS, I also approached it with a realistic attitude. In other words, I hoped for a touch of the Blue Circle magic even as I knew there was no way I was going to find a BC6 with twice the power, for a third of the price and with a pre-amplifier thrown in for free.
After letting the CS break-in for several weeks she spent most of her time in a cost-appropriate but far from low-end system consisting of a Cary CD-303/200, a pair of Silverline SR11 loudspeakers, wire by Acoustic Zen and Cardas and power conditioning by
VansEvers. The CS also spent time driving my Merlin VSM-SE loudspeakers, connected to a Powersnakes Hydra power conditioner and was used with several power cords that cost as much or more than the CS itself. The latter components were used to confirm or extend impressions rather than as a review system, although, as you will see, the CS acquitted herself quite well even in the big rig.
In use, the first thing to jump out was the treble performance of the CS. In the past Blue Circle has received some mixed commentary on their treble, with some folks finding the sound a touch soft. If you have wondered the same, then the CS is for you. While stopping far short of the bright zone, the top end of the CS is open and extended. On
Peoples Colony No. 1 [Realworld 50789], a collaboration between Temple of Sound and Bizwan-Muazzam Qawwali (the first group is composed of
ex-Transglobal Underground players and the second are two nephews of the late great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), the combination of Latin and Middle Eastern percussion and Sufi-based vocal pyrotechnics places extreme stress on treble reproduction. A touch hot and it is a real ear-bleeder, a bit soft and the edge dulls to the point that the album becomes just another trance release, lacking the authenticity that Bizwan-Muazzam Qawwali add to the beats supplied by Temple of Sound. For me and in this system the CS toed the line between these two presentations with all the grace of the Brazilian football team.
The spectrum just below this, the mid and upper midrange, was shown to excellent effect listening to what I think is the best Eva Cassidy album,
Live At Blues Alley [Blix Street GS-10046]. While I have listened to this recording through much higher priced gear, the nuance in Cassidy's voice when using the CS was comparable to anything I have heard.
The next three octaves down the scale, from mid-bass through lower midrange, were vibrant and lively in character although just the slightest touch thin. For example, small amounts of the woody resonance of piano, cello and acoustic guitar were missing. So, when listening to the
Rostropovich Bach Cello Suites [EMI 273269] the lighter, swifter suite number 1 played better than the more meditative, deep toned number 5. Still, the performances on suite 5 (and suites 2 and 6 for that matter) were excellent and lacked only in comparison to far more expensive pre/power combinations.
Deep bass is not something the Silverline Audio speakers do, and even my reference Merlin
VSM-SE with the battery BAM module barely reaches into to the top of deep bass territory, so my comments are tentative here, at best, but I was surprised at how well the CS articulated the fundamentals. Still, a Home Theater integrated it is not. But, if you looking for a musical integrated amplifier to mate with a powered sub for two-channel, the CS sounded perfectly capable in my room.
Staging with the CS was really quite good, albeit with a small issue of character. In the past I have stated my personal preference for a slightly laidback stage as opposed to a slightly forward one. I find that a stage thrust at me is involving over the short run, but eventually fatiguing whereas a deeper stage with the front at or behind the speaker plane, if well rendered, will draw me into a recording while also giving me a greater illusion of be transported to a different acoustic. The CS does this quite well although it is by a very small margin slightly more laidback than I find optimal. Still, better this than in your face. As for the rest of the stage, the CS threw a very credible, left to right and front to back sonic hologram, one that held up nicely over the long haul.
Dynamically the CS is a capable performer with very good reproduction of the leading edge of transients. The trailing edge is also delineated quite well, although not quite to the level of the front edge. Inner detail is enjoyable but is, perhaps, the weakest part of the CS. To expand that a bit, inner resolution is actually quite good, with the subtle interplay of musicians during complex passages being easy to pick out and follow. The small harmonic and pitch changes of complex acoustic passages were also well done, but in comparison to the skill of, say the BC6 or the $2,795 Conrad-Johnson MV60, those shadings were less complex and tangible. Perspective, of course, is what saves the CS as it is 1/3 the price of the BC6 and less than half the price of the MV60.
The CS faces off against considerable competition at its price point from the likes of the Audio Analogue Puccini, and most especially just above it, from products like the $1,795 Bryston B60. Since it is unfair to compare products that differ by almost double in price, and patently unfair to do so at entry-level prices, let's skip the Bryston, except to say that I like the Blue Circle better than the B60, by a lot.
As for the Puccini, it renders a slightly warmer image, with better bass power. The CS, though, has better mids and lower treble. Detail is roughly equal, with the CS imaging better. Staging is close, with the CS being a touch more laidback. Dynamically the CS has a slight edge, and also presents inner detail a tad better. Of the two, the Puccini is more "tube-like", while the CS is more neutral. Which would be better for you is a personal decision; I could live with both, but in different systems.
In total, the CS is an open, well-balanced, satisfying integrated amplifier. Its strength lies in the mids and lower treble, where it is a superb performer in absolute terms. The bass is very good, most especially considering the investment. It looks the part of a high-end component, and functioned flawlessly. Staging is excellent, if a tad more laid back than the norm. It offers enough detail to reward your choice of quality sources, and has very good dynamics. For $1,150, this is quite a remarkable product.
The Larger View
Alright, let's get to it, will the CS lure the unwashed over into our realm, or even better, allow for the frugal audiogeek (now there's a contradiction in terms!) to find a long-term partner? In a word, yes. It is far better than any mass-market gear at the price range. It is very involving, and so is a part of the Blue Circle house sound. Play this for your friends, and if they do not get it, then chances are that listening to a 100K system will not convince them either. But, best of all, the CS is not just a transition component, it is a real high-end product that will reward careful system building and stand up over the long-term. At the price, it is the one to beat.