SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published May 15, 2002

 

Blue Circle Audio BC3 Galatea Preamplifier

I’ve always harbored a passion for a Morgan motor car. Morgans, in case you aren’t aware, are perhaps the ultimate personification of the British sports car. They still make ‘em pretty much like H. F. S. Morgan did back when his Pickersleigh Road factory started cranking out four-wheel models in the ‘30s -- the chassis is still hewn from ash, and aluminum stock is still pounded over wooden frames until it takes on the sinuous curves and flares of the classic Morgan coachwork. Why the bonnet is even held down by a leather strap!

There are endless reasons why the +8 (my fantasy model) is a thoroughly impractical car. Morgan doesn’t make a hardtop model. Loaded with passenger and driver -- or simply the driver, in my case -- the car only has five inches clearance, and the suspension is not, shall we say, forgiving; therefore, you can only really drive them pleasurably on dry, well-paved roads. There’s a two-year waiting list at the factory (and remember, the company’s British, so the queue is sacred -- there’s no jumping the line). Then, there’s the small matter of price: a completely stock +8 runs a not insubstantial £30,000. And we won’t even speak of getting one that’s street legal in the US, or the possibility of finding a mechanic here who knows his way around one. (Hey, it’s a British sports car -- you find a mechanic before you buy one.)

But. But. But . . .

But, if you like to drive drive, if you like to feel the pavement thrumming through your hands while they caress the wheel, if you like the sensation of a hand in the small of your back pushing you into the true path through a curve, if you want to experience the purest motoring this side of a track, the Morgan is possibly the most genuine distillation of motor fun you can have with a vehicle whose owner’s manual isn’t in Italian.

To a certain kind of motoring enthusiast, all of the Morgan’s shortcomings could simply be described as intrinsic components of its character.

When I received Blue Circle’s BC3 Galatea, I immediately recognized it as the Morgan’s soul brother. Its non-magnetic stainless-steel chassis is lovely, but shows the unmistakable signs of having been hand built. This is no more a criticism than describing a +8 as handcrafted -- Blue Circle’s owner Gilbert Yeung contracts a company in New Dundee to bend Blue Circle’s casework to order, and they do it well, but you’d never take the BC3 for a mass-produced item.

And, like the Morgan, the BC3 lacks a certain number of convenience features, so it seems to hark back to an earlier era: It has no remote control, it employs dual volume controls and source selectors, and it requires a certain fearless adventurousness on the part of its owners.

And, at $4650, it’s a bit of a luxury -- one definitely aimed at the enthusiast who feels that the journey itself should be as romantic as the destination.

Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic

The Blue Circle BC3 Galatea is smack in the middle of the BC3 line. At $3300, you have the BC3 Despina, which sports the same audio circuit, but utilizes a less complex power supply. The BC3000, at $6250, keeps the Galatea’s BCG3.1 power supply and utilizes a variation on the BC3’s audio circuit that includes additional damping for the tubes themselves.

The BC3 Galatea is housed in two polished boxes of bent stainless steel: one, bearing shoebox proportions, houses the dual-transformer truly balanced (common-mode rejecting) DC power supply; the other contains the audio circuitry. Both chassis bear Blue Circle’s distinctive, glowing blue circle-with-a-dot-in-the-middle logo on their front panels. On the rear of the BCG3.1 power supply is an IEC power cord socket, an on/off switch, and a Neutrik connector for the handmade Cardas-sourced twisted-pair umbilical cable that connects the power supply to the preamp.

On either side of the preamp’s centrally located logo are two oversized wooden knobs flanking a toggle switch. Each channel has its own volume pot, source/monitor switch, and rotary source selector. The rear panel has accommodations for five line-level inputs, an output and a tape loop. All of the RCA jacks are Cardas-sourced rhodium jobbies. The dual-mono theme is carried over on the BC3’s rear panel -- each channel occupies one half of the real estate and there may be a span of as much as a foot between a source’s right and left inputs.

The BC3’s lid is a U-shaped solid piece of stainless steel, pierced by two sets of holes (two circles of eight holes surrounding a central hole -- think large asterisk) and held to the chassis by four threaded studs designed to allow you to remove the lid without tools. As I removed the lid, I was struck by its weight; closer examination revealed it was damped with a large piece of Dynamat, a lead and anthracite-tar panel-damping material widely used in autosound circles. As a result, the steel shell was acoustically dead.

Did I mention that the preamp sits on four wood feet? (Note: Lately many audiophiles have been touting the benefits of wood supports; some have even made outrageous claims for them. Here you get them free -- and you can always replace them with cheap rubber feet if you think they’re too silly.)

bluecircle_bcg31.jpg (6803 bytes)Inside, the look is sparse. The deep blue, transparent circuit board isn’t etched with a single trace -- Yeung uses it only as a surface to which he affixes the circuit components, which are connected with point-to-point wiring (generally the lead-outs of the circuit elements; elsewhere Cardas wire), and which float above the board, except where Yeung has damped them with strategically placed gobs of silicon sealant.

The board itself employs a compressed spring suspension. In pride of place in the board’s center are two 6922 dual triode tubes. Yeung employs these, surprisingly, in a shared configuration where the front tube’s pair of triodes function as the two channels’ voltage gain stages, while the rear tube’s halves buffer that output. The theoretical downside to this is that the two halves of the tube are capacitively coupled, which might cut down on channel separation.

I asked Gilbert Yeung why he would risk this, given the care he had otherwise taken to preserve channel separation. He acknowledged the collective consensus that using separate tubes guaranteed separation, but opined that temperature and voltage changes of the filaments changed the sound of the musical signal and that sharing tubes guaranteed that the two halves of the tube would offer identical environments, and therefore, identical sound in both channels.

The Blue Circle’s volume pots are extremely impressive. They are handmade 31-element Shallco stepped attenuators. Personally, I hate dual volume controls, but these were easier to adjust equally than most. I have to admit I seldom had any problem achieving a proper balance or the correct volume for a given recording; I was concerned that Yeung had chosen to arrange his resistor ladder in 31 equal 2dB steps over most of the BC3’s range (the last few steps consist of two 3dB steps, a 4dB step, and a 6dB step -- there’s no full mute, the quietest the preamp gets is 90dB down, which will leave some listeners with audible signal still coming through).

In my experience, steps of 2dB make it hard to fine-tune the volume sometimes -- you have to settle for either slightly too loud or slightly too soft. Is this really a big deal? It is to anyone who has ever heard how some records can pop to life when the proper volume is achieved. I believe Mr. Yeung should consider switching to .5dB steps in the most critical "middle" positions.

On the other hand, that pretty much goes through my whole list of gripes right there. Not too shabby.

This rough magic I here abjure

The once-firm line between the sound of solid-state and tubed gear now exists primarily as a collective hallucination shared by audiophiles not old enough to remember when it actually existed. Does anyone really believe that contemporary Conrad-Johnson gear sounds like Sonic Frontiers’ products just because they both use tubes to amplify signal? Or that Krell and Ayre share a sound simply because they use transistors?

I only mention this because the BC3 Galatea, ummm, does not sound like a tubed preamp. So, just to keep a twenty-year-old audio myth alive for another month, I have to say that the Blue Circle does not sound colored in any way or suffer from blunted highs or weak bass. It has a crystalline clarity, a sparkling top end, and powerful extended bass. In short, it performs essentially like a preamp at this price ought to. It sounds good.

It does have one performance quirk I should mention up front. Because it is a single-stage design, the preamp inverts phase. This isn’t a problem as long as you remember to switch the polarity of your speaker leads as well (unless, of course, your amplifier also inverts phase, in which case, you’re back to a normal connection at the speaker).

The magic of the sea and the voice of that wayward song

I auditioned the BC3 Galatea with a variety of power amplifiers, including the Krell FPB-300c, the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300, the VTL TT-25s, and the Ayre V-5. It drove them all well, with a seductive, musically relaxed sense of authenticity, but it really seemed to cotton to the Ayre amplifier. Whatever the reason, I was infatuated with the combination and foreswore all others for the rest of the audition. The Blue Circle/Ayre combination was magical.

I recently discovered Island’s deluxe editions of the great Wailers recordings. These are two-disc affairs that give us the original Jamaican recording sessions for Trojan on one disc and the remastered "prettied-up" Island versions on the other. Wailers fans have debated the merits of the two for years and while, like many hardcore reggae fans, I prefer the rawer, less densely orchestrated Trojan recordings, I really like having newly remixed versions of the slicker Island releases, too.

I started my audition with Catch A Fire [Island/Tuff Gong 314 548 635-2]. The Blue Circle Galatea/Ayre V-5 drove the Dynaudio Evidence Temptations like a dream -- pulling deep, elemental dub bass from the lines "Family Man" Barrett laid down over thirty years ago. This was true reggae bass, too -- the kind that hits you physically in the chest and then falls to the floor with an audible thud.

It was like hearing the Wailers again for the first time. The sound was physical -- it wasn’t just the tidal pull of the deep bass, the music just demanded that you dance. And then, those lyrics! If you’ve started to feel as though reggae has been incorporated into pop music’s Esperanto -- just one more flavor in the international musical stew -- you owe it to yourself to hear these songs again. In Catch A Fire, the Wailers were still a band with two strong songwriters, for every "Concrete Jungle" by Bob Marley, there was a "400 Years" by Peter Tosh.

Although the bass was what grabbed me, what kept me listening was the way the BC3 captured the pace and timing of the music. Everything started and stopped precisely when it should have -- there was no blur or overhang.

I was similarly captivated by the way the BC3 reproduced the signature acoustic of Blue Heaven Studio on John Atkinson’s most recent recording: Musical Fidelity’s Antony Michaelson playing Mozart’s and Brahms’ clarinet quintets [STPH 015-2]. The studio has a distinctive, bright, supportive bloom totally at odds with the modern "deadness=perfection" studio sound of most big-time recording venues.

In addition, Michaelson plays a unique instrument, a bespoke clarinet tuned to A (rather than the conventional B flat). You wouldn’t think that a half-step lower would make much of a difference, but Michaelson’s tone is huge. Antony recently offered to play for me, and I will definitely take him up on it, as long as he promises not to point that thing at me! Its tone is so big, it’s scary.

And the BC3 Galatea just thrived on capturing the small touches that distinguish Blue Heaven from the dead-zone studio. It caught the fast echo of the little brick church, and it nested Michaelson’s voluminous tone on its oh-so-unique cushion of air. And the instrument itself? It may well be a licorice stick, but in Antony’s hands it was red hot -- a searing brand that capered above and around Mozart’s lovely themes and Brahms’ profound ones.

The BC3 is a soundstaging wonder. It even managed to make assembled-in-the-studio mixes -- such as the gimmicky, but extremely effective, Rêver Mieux by Daniel Bélanger [Audiogram ADCD 19150] -- sound 3D and totally real. (This disc is one of the gems I returned with from the Montreal Son & Image show -- many thanks to Paradigm’s Mark Aling for demoing with it.) Bélanger thinks nothing of adding echo to a line or of employing a flanger or other studio effect on his voice -- he’s creating an emotional sonic landscape that doesn’t follow the same rules as the one we live in. And it works -- and the BC3 can present that world with a palpable believability.

We must not let in daylight upon our magic.

My reference preamp remains the Ayre K-1x, a design with more than a passing resemblance to the BC3 Galatea -- at least in several important ways. First, it too employs a Shallco-based resistive ladder volume control, albeit a 46-position model with 1dB steps rather than the BC3’s coarser 31-position 2dB ladder. It also sports a hefty outboard power supply and a, shall we say, idiosyncratic layout that reflects its designer’s non-linear approach to problem solving.

Of course, the $6750 Ayre is solid state, while the $4650 BC3 Galatea has tubes. Yet they sound amazingly alike. Both have liquid, intensely musical presentations that emphasize what is good about the recordings they play. Both have the resolving power to reveal poor recordings and clumsy edits, but neither preamp calls an undue amount of attention to such matters. The music comes first, you know.

Where the two part company is in the deep, deep bass -- such as the synthesized bass on Fila Brazillia’s A Touch of Cloth [Tritone 001]. Here, the Ayre presents the deep synth tones with the same force and power as any thumbed bass line; the BC3 did a good job, but it lacked the sheer punch of its solid-state rival.

Associated Equipment:


Preamplifier: Ayre K-1x, Krell KCT

CD players: Audio Research DS3, Perreaux ECD2

Power Amplifier: Ayre V-5, Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300, VTL-TT-25, Krell FPB-300c

Loudspeakers: Dynaudio Evidence Temptation

Cables: AudioTruth Midnight, AudioQuest Dragon, DiMarzio M-Path, DiMarzio Super M-Path

Accessories: Osar Selway Audio Racks, AudioQuest Big Feet and Little Feet, Vibrapods, PS Audio Ultimate Outlet, PS Audio Power Plant P600

Room treatment: ASC Tube Traps, Slim Jims, Bass Traps

Auditioning the Brahms/Mozart quintets disc, I was more convinced by the woody overtones of Michaelson’s sound through the Ayre -- it captured the darkness among the HF sparkle, a detail that simply was lost with the BC3.

And, I hate to belabor the point, the Ayre’s volume pot was better able to get the sound just right than the Blue Circle's. Taken on its own, I didn’t ever really feel the BC3 missed the mark regarding full-sized sound, but head-to-head with the Ayre, it tended to be slightly off of my preferred response levels. But most people don’t have a second preamp to compare with the Blue Circle -- not in everyday use, anyhow -- so this might well never present a problem.

When you consider that the Ayre K-1x is fully differentially balanced -- and costs almost half again as much as the BC3 Galatea -- it’s not surprising that it can better that preamp’s bass extension and low-level resolution. Put another way, the BC3 Galatea is worthy of comparison with the finest preamplifiers I have personally experienced.

Once more weave together emotion, thought, and magic sound

The Blue Circle BC3 Galatea is definitely a profoundly good preamplifier, but it’s not for everyone. Like my beloved Morgans, it’s a little wild for some audiophiles, while its spartan handmade splendor might well be another audiophile’s "hair shirt" component. I know many people who would never own a preamp that lacked remote control -- let’s not even mention dual-mono volume pots.

But other audio enthusiasts -- especially those of us who remember the good old days when the people who gave the companies their names were still active hobbyists -- will be entranced by the Blue Circle’s make-no-concessions audio purity and unique vision. And when you consider that you get all that in a hand-built, individually assembled package capable of standing side by side with some of audio’s finest products, it’s enough to tempt anybody with even a spec of audio romance left alive in his soul.

There are many fantastic audio products available today, but for the right music lover the BC3 Galatea offers all of that and some good old-fashioned magic, too.

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com

Blue Circle Audio BC3 Galatea Preamplifier
Price: $4650 USD
Warranty: Three years parts and labor (90 days on tubes)

Blue Circle Audio, Inc.
RR2
Innerkip, Ontario, Canada N0J 1M0
Phone: (519) 469-3215
Fax: (519) 469-3782

Website: www.bluecircle.com


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