Blue Circle BC21 preamplifier & BC22 power amplifier Page 2

Finally and most curious, the BC22, like the BC21, sits on three round wooden feet that I found strangely out of sync with Blue Circle's otherwise no-nonsense style. The company says it uses wooden feet for reasons of acoustics, but each foot is about 2" in diameter—they can't truly offer the stability of a tripod stance, and seem to have no significant compliance to provide isolation. On the other hand, I can't see that this curiosity in any way compromises the amp.

Blue Circle does not specify gain for the BC21 or BC22. In fact, other than maximum output, it specifies no performance parameters at all. I found the BC21's gain quite high, but there was no signal leakage with the volume control turned fully counterclockwise. Volume settings with any of the amps I tried barely went up to 11 o'clock on the control, and 'round midnight was too loud for any time of day. The BC22 was dead quiet through its XLR or RCA inputs, and ran moderately warm even at idle.

The BC22 Solo
I first hooked the BC22 up to my main system in place of the Sonic Frontiers Power-3s and prepared myself for a letdown. After all, my reference system is finally approaching stability—any interloper would surely push things back toward chaos. But powered by the BC22, the system just kept on singing. It handled the dynamic range and overripe reverberation of Biber's Missa Salisburgensis (Ton Koopman, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Erato 25506-2) with aplomb. This indicated that the overall balance of the BC22 was smooth, that it did not suffer from stridency, and that it was sufficiently open and detailed. Having thus overcome the anticipation of disappointment, I was turned on by the prospect that the BC22 could play in the big leagues, and looked forward to some long musical evenings with it.

Those months of evenings have passed and I am still deeply impressed. The BC22 had a tonal sweetness and purity in the midrange well beyond what I expected for $2150. Soundstaging and resolution were very good, and micro- and macrodynamics were excellent in magnitude and precision. The higher frequencies were fairly tubelike: extended, and so lacking in harshness that they could seem a bit soft on casual listening. In this and most ways, the BC22's sound was closer to that of the SF Power-3 than of the McCormack Audio DNA-1. Also tubelike, but in a more old-fashioned way, was the lack of profound bass response (with the Sonic Frontiers Line-3 driving the BC22 via JPS Superconductor II balanced cables or Cardas Cross unbalanced cables).

For example, when I played Martinu's colorful Symphony 6 (Jirí Belohlávek, Czech Philharmonic, Chandos CHAN 8897), everything seemed just lovely. There was quite sufficient bass for decent musical balances, especially with cellos and string bass—unless one were familiar with the recording and the system, one would find nothing amiss. Lacking, however, was the gut-punching impact that the Revel Ultima Studio loudspeakers can inflict with orchestral fortissimos. Looking at John Atkinson's impedance traces for the Studios (Stereophile, December 2000, p.152), it's possible that the speakers could present a 4 ohm load from the midrange down, and that the BC22 was just running out of horsepower. However, the amp's robust dynamic performance everywhere but at the bottom end suggested otherwise. Perhaps with more suitable mates, the BC22 might do better.

So I whisked the amp off to Connecticut for a frolicsome weekend with the Paradigm Reference Studio/60 and Reference Studio/20 speakers, which I'm using to build a multichannel music and home-theater system. The Paradigms' bass is not as extended as the Revels', but they're relatively easy to drive in my fairly live half-cube of a listening room. I'd tried other amps in this room, but had always been troubled by midrange emphasis and bass that varied from lumpy to nonexistent.

The BC22, however, seemed an ideal mate for the Studio/60s and 20s; the overall performance was much better than previously achieved. The BC22's excellent dynamics, forgiving highs, and transparent midrange complemented the sound of both pairs of Paradigms in this difficult room. In particular, when driven by the Blue Circle amp, the quality and quantity of bass through the Studio/20s were impressively tight and full, respectively, while the larger Studio/60s gained the authoritative balance I had for so long been seeking.

Comparing the two-channel CD of Buena Vista Social Club (Nonesuch 79478-2) on this setup with the DVD of the movie on the subwoofer-assisted multichannel system in no way embarrassed the two-channel setup. Voices had body and stable placement, with all the bass and percussion in balance. The only real difference was the DVD's enlarged and distinctive ambience. My take on this is that the two Paradigm models present easier loads, and as neither extends into the nether regions as do the Revel Studios, any low-bass rolloff by the BC22 would be simply irrelevant.

The good news: There's finally some hope of my hearing great sound on the weekends!

Blue Circle Duet
It was back to the Big Apple for Round Two, this time with the BC21 driving the BC22 via Cardas Cross coaxial.

Transformation! The BC21 emphatically restored the missing whack and weight, and the combination had no trouble driving the Revel Studios from the top to the very bottom. All the clarity and dynamics noted before were retained and extended into the depths. Martinu's Symphony 6 was now fully fleshed out. Grabbing disc after disc from the shelf, I was continually amazed at how close the BC21/BC22 combination came to my reference Sonic Frontiers Line-3/Power-3 combination.

Then I played a real barn-burner: Alfred Reed's Live! Volume 1, with the Senzoku Gakuen Symphonic Wind Orchestra and Otonowa Wind Symphonica (Klavier KCD-11103). The BC21/22 sounded solid and expansive, from the explosive opening of El Camino Real through the more delicate selections. Sure, there were differences: The Blue Circles' soundstage was less deep, and there was some congestion of individual voices and instruments in ensembles. However, these limitations were apparent only on recordings, like this one, that are endowed with great resolution of these features. Moreover, I tend to pay attention to this parameter stuff only when listening for the purposes of a review. The majority of the time, thank goodness, the music-lover should not be consciously aware of how the hardware is contributing to his or her enjoyment. Scanning my memory and notes, I can find no instance in which the BC21/22 sounded less than excellent.

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