SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published September 1, 2002

 

Blue Circle Audio Music Pumps Mono Amplifiers and Music Purse Preamplifier

Everywhere I went last March at Montreal's Le Festival du Son & Image, people were giggling about Blue Circle's exhibit. Blue Circle's playful designer and company spokesman Gilbert Yeung -- who had spent the majority of the preceding year's show wearing a version of his company's logo, sculpted in blue foam, as a hat -- had constructed a pair of small monoblock amplifiers, installing them into a pair of bright-red women's high-heeled pumps and pairing them with a preamplifier fitted into a matching leather purse.

What was ironic about this was that Gilbert wasn't displaying the Music Pumps and the Music Purse as products; no, he was actually introducing a new line of more affordable Blue Circle components. The Music Pumps and Purse were simply ice-breakers, so to speak, whimsical props designed to start conversations and offer show-goers a chuckle as they went into room after room goggling at black and silver boxes and the speakers that loved them.

By the time I made it to Gilbert's room, 15 minutes after the show's official closing on Sunday evening, that had changed, sort of. Gilbert had taken several "special orders" for the products and was now committed to making a few pairs for customers who simply had to own a set.

He'd already packed the Pumps and Purse by the time I made it to his room, but Gilbert's an accommodating fellow and he quickly unpacked them so my wife and I could see what all the fuss was about.

We loved 'em.

In fact, my wife was completely smitten. You have to understand -- she's married to me. Equipment flows around her like a river lapping around a small island of sanity. Most of it makes absolutely no impression on her, unless it sports a feature that irritates her sense of logic. Very occasionally, she'll get excited -- very occasionally. Such as the life-altering moment the two of us heard our first pair of Quad ELSes and she turned to me and said, "We're getting a pair of these, aren't we?"

So you see why I pay attention when an audio product takes her fancy -- she's got an impressive track record.

And Gilbert had another order for his Music Pumps and Music Purse.

A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing

The Music Pumps and Music Purse owe their genesis to two of Gilbert's personal quirks. His girlfriend tends to favor classic high-heeled pumps of the sort that show "toe cleavage" and Gilbert finds this . . . shall we say . . . pleasurably stimulating. So a few years back, when the shoes were temporarily out of vogue, they felt anxious and sought out an Internet source for their preferred footwear.

They found it at www.classicpumps.com, a site whose mission is to "rid the world of ugly shoes." Gilbert's girlfriend fell for the Pepe Jiminez Lola -- which has a 4" heel and comes in a wide range of colors (Aqua, Black Kid, Black Patent, Black Crocodile Print, Black Suede, Black Texture Snake, Bone, Chocolate Brown, Dark Green, Dark Gray, Fuchsia, Gold, Lemon, Navy, Olive, Orange, Pastel Pink, Purple, Red, Red Patent, Royal Blue, Silver, Light Taupe, White, White Patent, Wine). To hear Gilbert tell it, they soon had 26 pairs around the house.

The other factor in the Pumps' creation is that Gilbert has about a million ideas a minute, and one afternoon, to fight boredom, he decided to build something. I'd love to tell you that, as he paced the floor, he tripped over a pump, or that, as he rooted in the closet for parts, a pump fell off a shelf beaning his noggin, but I have no idea about the nuts'n'bolts of it. All Gilbert will say is that he realized that audio didn't have to come in metal boxes and he chose the shoes because he likes 'em.

And I think he means he really likes 'em, because, when I suggested he build a really hefty monoblock and install it in a hiking boot, he demurred, saying, "I'm not aroused by hiking boots."

And the preamp purse? Oh come on! What else matches a nice pair of pumps?

The most exciting phrase to hear in science … is not "Eureka!" but "That's funny..."

Keep in mind, however, that on top of everything else, Gilbert is a high-end audio designer. As whimsical as the Music Pumps are, they are also serious audio products. Gilbert may have built them to amuse himself, but he wasn't about to abandon his purist roots. While the Music Pumps and Purse were not designed to outperform Blue Circle's superb high-resolution components, Gilbert's of the opinion that life is too short to listen to crappy hi-fi. So tongue-in-cheek or not, the Pumps and Purse are real hi-fi.

The $799/pair Music Pumps are 25W single-gain-stage monoblocks housed in a pair of size 11 1/2 women's dress shoes. The design is dirt simple -- probably the most basic circuit in the amp builder's cookbook, and I mean that as a compliment. The output device appears indistinguishable from the one 47 Labs employed in the $1500 4706 Gaincard I was so enamored of last winter. This is driven by an oversized 75W transformer, and the transformer and the huge heatsink attached to the output device stick out of the liberally applied electrical-grade silicone that pots everything inside the shoes' open architecture. Silver-plated copper wire with Teflon dielectric is used throughout the circuit, which is wired point to point, and pure-copper wire is used in the power supply. The Pumps' speaker wire is hard-wired to its output (more of the pure-copper stuff in a braided run of approximately 8') and a gold-plated RCA dangles out the shoe's back. A very short hard-wired power cable is terminated with a non-polarized two-prong plug (actually, Gilbert tints one leg of the plug red so you can observe polarity when wiring an entire system). The Music Pumps turn on and off by an extension cord designed for use with Christmas trees (it has an in-line on/off switch and it's green).

The $499 Music Purse is a three-input preamplifier with 6dB of gain, installed on/in Gilbert's custom-built breadboard/faceplate assemblage, which is affixed to the lining of a fine Spanish leather purse (see www.classicpumps.com/handbag.htm for color choices; scroll to model 708A). The model I auditioned had two inputs plus a tape/processor loop. The gold-plated input and output RCAs are attached to the preamp's faceplate, as are two miniscule toggle switches (input and source/monitor), a volume pot, and a power LED. A very-short hard-wired power cable with a non-polarized (as above) two-prong plug snakes out the purse's mouth. (Gilbert thinks it would be a shame to punch a hole in either the Pumps or Purse, so he doesn't.)

You can order the Music Pumps and Purse through a select few of Blue Circle's dealers or through www.classicpumps.com, Gilbert's source for chassis. Allow three to four weeks for delivery.

Humor distorts nothing, and only false gods are laughed off their earthly pedestals

Obviously, the Music Pumps and Purse have become real products since Gilbert unveiled them in Montreal. What happened?

People wanted them.

No one was more surprised than Gilbert. That surprised me. "Why on earth would you think people wouldn't want them?" I demanded, when Gilbert dropped off my wife's Pumps (in a color that can only be described as do me red).

"Audiophiles are so serious about their hobby. I wasn't sure whether they would be offended by my 'disrespect,' as I thought they would see it."

"And were they?"

"Some were. But a lot of people who never would have looked twice at specialty audio products wanted them the minute they saw them. So I was persuaded to make them a regular, special-order product."

I'm so glad he did. They're fun -- how can you look at them and not smile? I even like the absurd clunkiness of them, such as the way Gilbert just squirted a bunch of silicone into the shoes' openings to seal everything in. That keeps 'em from looking too slick.

And they make a pretty good minimal-function stereo system, too.

When Gilbert dropped 'em off, he was also picking up the Blue Circle BC3 Galatea preamp preamp I reviewed last spring, so we spent some time going over that product's technical details and then, as audio geeks will, began listening to music. My system, at the time, included the $30,000/pair Dynaudio Evidence Temptations, and after a disc or so, Gilbert got a mischievous look on his face.

"Let's hook up the Pumps," he urged.

Well, I figured, if a designer wanted to embarrass himself in front of an audio reviewer, who was I to stop him? We switched amps and I cued Buddy & Julie Miller [HighTone 8135] and sat back expecting Gilbert to break a land-speed record leaping up to save his darlings.

Dabnabbit -- the Temptations sounded great!

Like most of Buddy Miller's production efforts, Buddy & Julie Miller is saturated with compression -- I reckon that's his sound, darn it -- but the shimmering guitars and mandocello sounded spot on, as did his reedy country tenor. Then his wife started singing and I felt the earth move.

Whoooowee! The Temptations sounded great!

But I simply laughed my evil laugh (pace Sam Tellig) and pulled out The Wailers' African Herbsman [Trojan 62] and cranked it up, waiting for the solid-dub bottom of Lee Perry's production to make those pumps cry for their mama.

Wow! The Temptations really kicked reggae butt!

As Gilbert left my house with a huge grin pasted to his face, I was struck by two equally overwhelming convictions: 1) It's not pretty when an audio designer gloats, and 2) I was definitely going to have to log some serious listening time with the Music Pumps and Purse.

A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes

As enjoyable as it is, a joke -- even a really good joke -- can only carry you so far. The Music Pumps and Purse combined cost $1300 and you can buy some seriously good hi-fi equipment for that. That's almost what an Arcam DiVA A85 integrated amplifier costs, for instance.

The A85 is about as good as integrated amplifiers get -- at least ones that don't stack a few more zeroes to the left of the decimal point. It is extremely versatile, having five line-level inputs and two tape/processor loops to the Music Purse's two and one, respectively. It is microprocessor controlled, which means it has intelligent tone and volume controls, not to mention remote control. The Music Purse has no remote or tone-shaping ability. The A85 puts out 85Wpc compared to the Music Pumps' 25W. And the Arcam is a conventionally stylish audio product compared to the funky sexiness of the Music Pumps and Purse (okay, we'll call this one a draw to be decided by each viewer according to his or her, er, bent).

In terms of sheer functionality, the Arcam wins hands down. It's a really, really good integrated amplifier and it's hard to beat.

Connect the A85 and the Music Pumps to a pair of high-resolution, not-too-difficult-to-drive loudspeakers, such as the DiAural Roman Audio Centurions I used for my extended audition, and it's awfully hard to fault either of them on the basis of sound quality, however.

Both deliver sweet, musically involving sound with airy high frequencies and deep, articulate bass. That said, carefully comparing the two (level-matched to within .1dB) did reveal that each had a distinct personality.

I initially had some difficulty separating Bruce Springsteen's The Rising [Sony 86600] from its hoopla, but it was immediately obvious that it didn't sound like any other E Street Band project. It says a lot about how ill-served Springsteen has been by the engineering of his albums that this one ranks as one of his best sounding, but there it is. And its rawness does lend it a certain air of urgency that is reinforced by the sheer gutsiness of the band on a number of tracks.

"Into the Fire," sung to a dead fireman husband, after a verse accompanied by ethereal dobro and acoustic guitar, driven by Max Weinberg's muted snare and toms, changes from solemn to expectant transcendence as the band's keyboardists Roy Bittan and Danny Federicci ramp up a crescendo under the repeated invocation "May your strength bring us strength/May your faith give us faith/May your hope give us hope/May your love give us love." It's a powerful moment -- and it's pure rock'n'roll.

The Music Pumps and Purse capture the rasp in Springsteen's throat and keep the ghostly acoustic instruments well offstage -- as they should be. They also shade the dynamic progression of the invocation/chorus with a rich and perfectly realized crescendo. The Arcam, however, seems to capture the contrast itself better: The quietest passages seem quieter and the loudest passages louder. In other words, the Arcam has greater dynamic range.

Similarly, Against the Dying of the Light [Cantus CTS 1202] by the men's chorus Cantus seems to have greater inner detail through the Arcam, both among the singers' voices and in the extremely close acoustic of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault, Minnesota.

The Music Pumps and Purse revealed the singers arrayed in a slightly bowed line from one side of the chapel to the other -- it's a huge image, and it was stable and convincing. It also caught Cantus's remarkable control of the living melodic line and even the rapid flutter of the stone chapel's fast reverberant field. It was superb sound.

The Arcam caught a tad more of the quicksilver in the tenor voices -- they had a slightly brighter, more plangent tone, more evocative of the program material's themes of death and transcendence. And in Debussy's "Invocation," which has piano accompaniment, the attack of the hammers striking the strings had more zing.

As good as it is -- and as enjoyable as it sounds -- the Music Purse and Pumps combination sacrifices a modicum of low-level detail compared to the Arcam, and probably compared to the best separates at its price point. Not a lot, certainly, but enough to notice in a direct comparison.

Humor is perhaps . . . an awareness that some things are really important, others not

In a way, I suspect, no one will be shocked, shocked that the Music Pumps and Music Purse aren't competitive with the finest audio separates available at any cost -- or even that they lag a step behind the best available at the price point they actually inhabit. I don't think they pretend to.

What they are is something else. An admission, perhaps, that sometimes simply enjoying yourself is sufficient unto itself. The Music Pumps and Purse are reminders to audiophiles everywhere not to take themselves too seriously. I suspect that, if Gilbert wanted to, he could build even better products into these unusual chassis -- but they would cost ten times more and not be a tenth as funny.

As it is, the Music Purse and the Music Pumps are very good audio products capable of reproducing music in a particularly enjoyable way. But I don't think audiophiles will be buying the bulk of Gilbert's matching purse and pumps. I suspect it will appeal primarily to folks who are, in fact, turned off by audio's sense of self-importance and apparent stylistic craving for industrial magnificence. Maybe art collectors or fashion divas or décor junkies will prove his target audience. And maybe not.

Perhaps all he needs is a few folks who know what they like and don't mind laughing at themselves. And while I don't know if that's enough of a majority for any product to be a huge success, I am convinced it's not bad company to be in. I bought a set for my wife, but they make me smile every time I look at them -- and that by itself has got to be worth $1300 over a lifetime.

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com

Blue Circle Audio Music Pumps and Music Purse
Price: $799 USD per pair for Music Pumps; $499 USD for Music Purse
Warranty: One year parts and labor with return of registration; 90 days otherwise

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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