Associated Equipment:
Analog
Front End
Digital Front End
Amplification
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Blue Circle Audio BC703 High Precision Reference Phonostage
Analog excellence in a digital world

 

 June 2009

         

 


Blue Circular Flexibility
I really hadn't taken Gilbert Yeung, chief oracle at Blue Circle Audio, seriously when I first met him and he told me of his keen interest in phono circuits. At the time he scarcely had any phono gear on his site, save for a phono preamp or two. It wasn't until I met a gentleman who described a phono preamp that Gilbert designed for him that I came to realize just how serious about phono circuitry he really was. I have been impressed with Gilbert's ability to build high performance amplifiers, preamplifiers, DACs, and even a power line conditioner. Still, I had questions running through my mind as to whether he could really come up with a phono preamp that would compete with some of the very best available. A few years after that initial discussion Gilbert and I finally talked about phono preamps and the opportunity for me to review his latest creation, the BC703 phono preamp. Since I still do a fair amount of listening to vinyl, I felt more than equal to the task of putting the BC703 through its paces.

More than just a pretty faceplate
Not long after arrangements were made for the review, Gilbert stopped by my house and set-up the BC703. The BC703 is a gorgeous piece of equipment, both inside and out, but especially with the “Purpleheart/Walnut” faceplate, which is how my review piece was finished, but is an extra cost. The standard finish is stainless steel. Gilbert set the gain and impedance loading for my cartridge from a bank of pins that utilize gold plated jumpers inside the BC703. He felt that these were more reliable to use for the long run. The BC703 is a solid-state piece so there are no tubes to deal with. The front panel is pretty clean and straight forward with the trademark lit “blue circle” logo in the center of the faceplate and a mute switch. There is also a blue circle on the separate power supply. It is important to note here that there is no on/off switch for the BC703 and that when it is plugged in, it is on. When muted, the logo is not lit.

 

There are some very nice touches to the BC703 located on the rear panel. There are two ground posts on the back panel. One is the system ground screw and the other is an earth ground screw. The reason for the two ground posts, is in case a user has to use the ground lift switch. Once it is in the lifted position, the two ground posts are separated. This is helpful because it presents owners with a choice of grounding the turntable into the system ground or the earth ground for the quietest operation. As we know, when it comes to phono reproduction, the quieter things are, the more we enjoy our music. So don't take the grounding for granted. Another feature on the rear panel of the BC703 is the polarity switch for each channel located just beside the output jacks. Being able to switch the polarity back and forth for each channel individually can be very handy for trouble shooting. It’s also very helpful for getting the right polarity for some of our vinyl where it may seem a little off.

There are two sets of phono inputs; one for moving magnet cartridges and one moving coils. There are also two sets of cable outputs, one for single-ended (RCA) and one for balanced (XLR) cables. The BC703 has gain rated to 87dB, which is amazing when you stop to think about it. There aren't very many cartridges on the planet that the BC703 couldn't drive straight in, e.g., the Benz Ebony TR. You fans of low output moving coil cartridges, here is a phono-preamp that doesn't know the meaning of phrase, “step-up device.”

So what did it sound like?
Setup of the BC703 was fairly straight forward and the amount of adjustment needed to get the best out of your cartridge is minimal. After spending time making sure the load setting and gain were matched to my Transfiguration Phoenix, the music began to soar within a few bars of the first album that I played. The very first thing that hit me about the BC703 was how quiet it is. No doubt the 87dB of gain that's on hand helps with this. I have always used this analogy when speaking of digital products, but I have to say it here as well: the music seems to be emanating from a deep, black, quiet background. This helps the music to appear to the ear as possessing a more vivid and tangible quality. The BC703 is a solid-state device, to be sure, but it sounds very lifelike and natural. It’s ever so slightly warm character gives music a certain “realness” that I found to be especially attractive in its upper frequencies. By that I mean there was no hardness to the sound, especially in the upper frequencies. Having spent a lot of time with some very revealing speakers, I have gained an appreciation for neutral sounding analog devices. Where a lot of phono preamps fall short is in the upper registers where the highs can sound a little bit on the hard or bright side of neutral. This is usually what individuals are referencing when speaking of cartridges having a “rising top end.” It's just a polite way of saying something sounds bright. The BC703 does not sound bright at all. It sounds natural. The highs are airy and extended to a higher degree than most of the phono preamps I have listened to. Cymbals crash, triangles ring sweetly and delicately but with the energy you come to hear in real life.

As nice as the high frequency performance of the BC703 is, it's the midrange that I came to appreciate the most. The BC703 seemingly allowed my albums to reveal all of the sonic treasures contained deep within their grooves. It would be all too easy to say the BC703 breathed life into the midrange, but that wouldn't be accurate. For me, it's more like the life was already there, and the BC703 allowed more of it to come through. Performers have a seemingly palpable quality that adds to the excitement present in live recorded music. Female vocals, in particular are presented as silky smooth without a hint of congestion or feeling closed in. The BC703 renders a wide, deep soundstage and allows the artists to exist dimensionally and with a large amount of presence. Complex passages are unraveled with ease and I found it easy to follow the lines of different musicians when the music turned into a cacophony of sonorous sound. Another performance parameter that the BC703 excelled in was the mid-bass. Music reproduced here was lively with good punch and drive, especially with more up-tempo, rock, R&B, and heavily bass modulated music. The BC703 will definitely appeal to the toe tappers. Deep bass performance with the BC703 is also very good and what you would expect from a phono preamp with this level of execution. The BC703 allows the power and emotion of large scale orchestral works to be more of an experience than just merely a listening session. I found myself being more drawn into the music instead of simply listening to it.

Here are some of my listening experiences while listening to the BC703. The collaborative effort between Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, Ella and Oscar [Pablo] shows us Ella in the early stages of showing her age, but still able to pull emotions from us with her voice. Here she's performing ballads with Oscar Peterson at the piano, and on some tracks they are accompanied by Ray Brown. Ella's voice has body and is in proportion to the piano. The piano is reproduced with nice tonality and natural note decay. Likewise, Joe Williams’ album, Nothin' But the Blues [Delos], the BC703 gave me pause on several occasions as I got the eerie sensation that he was present in the room with me, especially on the tracks, “Just a Dream” and “Mean Old World”. He really swings on album favorite, “Alright, OK, You Win”.

On the Sheffield Labs offering, The Moscow Sessions, Lawrence Leighton Smith and Dimitry Kitayenko conduct the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra doing Shostakovich Symphony No.1. My listening room seemed to fill with the airy sounds of the concert hall, just as it would if I had attended it live. The BC703, gave a strong sense of the size of the orchestra and the layering of its different sections. Also, as the music builds, there is a periodic strike on the tympani drum that rolls through my room and shakes my couch.

Another album favorite that was a joy to rediscover via the BC703 was Dave Grusin's, Gershwin Connection [GRP]. With the all-stars who accompany Grusin's piano playing, this album really does justice to the Gershwin brothers’ various works. The arrangements and performances are all outstanding on this sonic tour de force. From the powerful, Dave Weckl on the drums, driven “Fascinatin' Rhythm”, to Chick Corea's accompaniment of Grusin on “S'wonderful”, this album has a bit of something for everyone. The BC703 met the call of what made this album a success. It was soft and lyrical at times, it swung at times, and on other tracks the music has some serious drive to it.

Winding things up
I enjoyed the time spent with the BC703 in my system. It acquitted itself quite well and proved to rank in that upper echelon of phono preamps. It performed flawlessly. There were no clicks, pops or loud transients. You know the kind where your cartridge begins to track the end of the album where you get loud thumps. There was none of that. The BC703 was always under control and well behaved. I also loved the fact that I could use balanced interconnects out of it and straight into my ASR Emitter II. In comparison with some of the other phono preamps I had on hand, the BC703 either held its own, or in some cases outperformed what I compared it to. I preferred the BC703 to the phono section of my Klyne 7LX3.5B having a bit sweeter, more natural sounding top end and fuller sounding midrange. I also preferred it to the well received (deservedly so) ModWright 9.0. The ModWright is an excellent performer, especially at its price point, but I found the BC703 to be a little more involving, with the ModWright sounding slightly more laid back.

One of the more compelling comparisons I made was the BC703 to the ASR Basis Exclusive 2X. I have gone on record saying how much I enjoyed the performance of the ASR and recommended it for a Stereo Times “Most Wanted Component” award. The performance of the BC703 is very close to that of the ASR without its optional battery supply. The upper frequency sounds more extended with the ASR but the BC703 did a better job of conveying that sense of air and dimensionality. I would give the ASR a slight edge in dynamic performance and bass extension, but the BC703 has a livelier upper bass. In the final analysis, as with most other phono-preamps I have tried, once you use the ASR Basis Exclusive 2X with the battery power supply feeding your phono rig, the quieter noise floor and seemingly increased dynamic range and bass extension allows the music to give the edge to the Basis Exclusive.

With that being said, the BC703 is still an excellent performer and will take the performance of your vinyl playback system to that next level. Its performance with all kinds of music, flexibility with cartridge loading, and the abundance of gain makes it usable with just about any cartridge in existence, save the rare occurrence when you come across something that has output below .1mV. All in all, the Blue Circle Audio BC703 is “highly recommended.”




Specifications
MC gain setting (internal, user adjustable): 87db, 81db, 75db, 67dB, 61dB
MM gain setting (fixed): 42dB
Resistive MC input loading (ohms): 100, 220, 470, 1k, custom (factory adjusted)
Capacitive MC input loading: custom (factory adjusted)
Separate MC and MM inputs: single-ended RCA type
Outputs: balanced XLR and single-ended RCA type.
Frequency response: 10Hz to 100kHz +/- 0.1dB, rumble filter off.
Residual noise: MC input at 67dB gain setting: <500uV
Rumble Filter cut-off frequency: 18Hz
Dimensions: 17" wide x 14.5" deep, 3.5" high (preamp)
5.25" wide x 14.5 deep, 5.25" high (power supply)
Control features: manual muting, phase switches.

Cost: $6,995.00

Manufacturer
Blue Circle Audio
RR2
Innerkip, Ontario Canada
N0J 1M0
Phone: (519) 469-3215
Fax: (519) 469-3782
email: bcircle@bluecircle.com


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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