- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Thursday, 01 December 2011 00:00
- Written by Jason Thorpe
Jason’s an analog guy . . .
I usually don’t review D/A converters. For the past decade my beat has been analog, and I’ve covered a fair bit of it. Digital has left me cold -- I’d rather curl up with vinyl, for both the sound and the aesthetic. Ignoring for a minute the warmer sound of LPs (which, you could argue, isn’t as accurate as digital), perhaps the biggest impediment to my enjoyment of CDs was my intense distaste for the discs themselves -- their cold, thin, sterile look and feel. I’d have to factor in a special loathing for CD cases and the vile adhesives with which they often come sealed. Those towering stacks of CDs, toppling at the slightest provocation, give off a brittle, ear-grating noise as they clatter down into nasty broken piles.
But over the last couple of years I’ve ripped my entire collection of CDs to my dedicated music server, and am now free from ever again having to touch those awful discs, or open another case with a broken hinge. I can now listen to digital files without prejudice. And sometime over the last five years the reasonably priced digital front end snuck up on me to become a true high-end contender. Oh sure, for the last 15 years or so you could throw a whole pile of money at a DAC and come out with something musical, but I’ve never run in dCS or Esoteric circles -- I operate an order of magnitude lower than that.
When Gilbert Yeung, chief cook and bottle washer of Blue Circle Audio, stopped by a while back to pick up his BC703 phono stage, which I’d just finished reviewing, he took note of the Squeezebox Touch I was using to feed my second system, in the living room. I saw that he was clocking my Benchmark DAC1, and I asked him if he wanted to give it a listen. We sat down and chatted digital for a while, and by the end of his visit I seemed to have agreed to review his new BC509 DAC ($1205 USD).
So be it. I will ignore the strange urge to repeatedly apologize for actually reviewing a digital product, as right now I’m sitting on my comfy couch listening to wonderful music through a decidedly good-sounding system that itself need make no apologies. Turning and turning in the widening gyre, and all that.
The BC509 is fairly small but sturdy. My sample came in standard dress: black metalwork and a black acrylic faceplate, the company’s signature blue circle illuminated. Blue Circle Audio will be pleased to work with you should you want something flashier; say, accents in stainless steel or real wood. I prefer the understated look of the stock coachwork.
I spent some more time talking with Gilbert Yeung, but he didn’t want to go into detail about the BC509’s innards. Yeung feels that a DAC’s chipset contributes only 25% of its sound, and that what surrounds those chips is more important. According to him, the analog circuitry and power supply are responsible for 50%, the implementation of the chipset the remaining 25%.
So Blue Circle spends much of its time working on that power supply. Lurking within the BC509 are over 200,000μF of capacitance -- more than many integrated amplifiers. This trend is endemic to the Blue Circle line, stuffed as their models usually are with endless rows of capacitors. If the worldwide prices of caps start to skyrocket, you’ll know who’s responsible.
The stock BC509 comes with optical, coaxial, and AES/EBU inputs. You can opt to replace the coaxial connector with a BNC. USB is available as another option: a standard 16-bit/44.1kHz USB input adds $182 to the price, a 24/96 input $433. (Yeung wanted me to point out that the latter will also happily decode a CD-resolution signal.)
The BC509’s USB input isn’t asynchronous, but according to Blue Circle it runs in ultra-low-jitter adaptive mode, with jitter figures damn close to those of asynchronous connections.
Since I was using Wi-Fi, hence TCP/IP (which I consider to be an extremely underrated and underutilized protocol), I didn’t need the USB option. Instead, I ran an S/PDIF cable from my Squeezebox Touch into the BC509.
. . . and this is his digital system
First, some context. I’ve been absolutely thrilled with the performance of my Peachtree Decco2 combo of integrated amplifier and DAC. Fed from my Squeezebox Touch and feeding a pair of MartinLogan Ethos speakers, the Peachtree has punched way, way above its weight class. For $799, it’s a spectacular value. The Decco2’s DAC is easy to listen to -- just revealing enough to unearth the details in music without descending into sterility.
Also sitting in for a while, until I was certain I no longer needed it, was my Benchmark DAC1. I’ve had this DAC in my system for about five years now, which is something of a record for a source component. As I usually send its analog output to some sort of tube amp or another, the Benchmark’s crisp, truthful, unadulterated sound has never ceased to charm me.
So over the past few years I’ve had two budget champs in my system, and now in pops the slightly more upmarket BC509. In ascending order of price: the Peachtree Decco2’s built-in DAC, which, I guess you could say, comes with a damn fine integrated for no extra charge, for $799; the Benchmark DAC1, at $995; and, at $1205, the Blue Circle BC509, within spitting distance of the DAC1. What I had here was a vertical tasting.
I spent quite a while listening to the BC509 in isolation, without swapping back and forth between it and the two other DACs. The BC509 at first sounded somewhat unassuming -- it didn’t overtly draw attention to itself, but instead crept up on me. At first it was just pleasant to listen to -- no sharp edges or digital crispness. Then, slowly, the BC509 seemed to unfold and reveal itself.
In my opinion, tonal balance doesn’t demarcate high-quality audio. First and foremost, I identify an overachieving component by its reproduction of space. The ability to re-create a realistic, three-dimensional environment at the front of my room is where the rubber meets the road. And it was here that the BC509 proved itself.
When I find a piece of music I like, I often play it to death -- my Squeezebox’s Mark As Favorites function comes in really handy. My latest victim is Isabel Bayrakdarian and her wonderful Tango Notturno (16/44.1 FLAC, CBC). The album begins with a real barn burner. "Tcheknagh Yeraz" comes in all delicate-like, with a far-off piano that highlights the BC509’s wonderful portrayal of space. It’s easy to hear the room in which this piece was recorded -- it sounds like a wood-floored, high-ceilinged studio. Bayrakdarian’s rich, buttery soprano jumps right in, dead center, and her voice opens up like a flower. Despite the airy, spacious background, her voice was cohesive and focused, with just the right amount of bloom. Via the BC509 I could acutely hear the precise position of her voice, along with a nicely resolved halo of the room ambience itself. Very nice indeed.
The evolution of my digital system has liberated much of my music. While there’s plenty of blather about how many LPs were never reissued on CD, the obverse is true for me: I have a long ton of CDs (now files) that aren’t duplicated in my reasonably large LP collection. Take Peter Gabriel’s New Blood (16/44.1 FLAC, Real World). While it will undoubtedly be released on vinyl by someone (Classic Records would probably do a bang-up job), I can afford only one copy, so I’ve made it digital. That way, I can listen to it in the car and on my iPhone. I’m sitting here running it through the Squeezebox and the BC509 and I couldn’t be happier.
New Blood shouldn’t work as well as it does. Re-recording old hits with a symphony orchestra has the makings of a disaster, but Gabriel does it with class and intelligence. "Intruder" retains the dark feel of the original version, but adds some moodiness while removing some of the dread. This is already a rich, fruity-sounding track, and the BC509 let me know that. The Blue Circle DAC injected just the tiniest bit of richness through the midrange -- nothing overt or distracting, but it was there. In my opinion, this is a fantastic feature that goes some way toward ameliorating the sterility that can sometimes afflict digital sound. Again, rest assured that the BC509 didn’t sound warm or lack detail. The best way to describe it is that it didn’t sound cold or sterile. Perhaps organic is the best adjective. There’s lots going on in "Intruder," and it would be easy for it to dissolve into a shrill conglomeration. But the BC509 kept the spotlight where it needs to be: Gabriel’s voice was front and center, and despite the frantic thrashings of the orchestra just over his shoulder, things never devolved into harshness. There was the requisite bite to the horn section, but with only the harmonics that should be there. Good stuff indeed.
"Wallflower" features a delightfully simple piano backing and a beautiful backing vocal. The BC509 followed that piano as it ascended and descended, giving it body where it needed it in the lower registers, and delicacy up north of middle C. On this track the BC509 did what it needed to do: get the hell out of the way and present the music with clarity. Sitting here writing this, I’ve played this track through several times and each time found myself drawn into the music, with no desire to concentrate on the equipment that was reproducing it. Isn’t that the whole point?
How about a difficult listen? Does it get any harder than John Zorn’s Kristallnacht (16/44.1 FLAC, Tzadik)? This music is based on the series of attacks on Jews that took place in Germany on November 9 and 10, 1938. The title, which literally means "night of crystal," has come to mean "night of broken glass," referring to the thousands of windowpanes broken. The album is Zorn’s way of coming to terms with the horrors of the Holocaust.
"Shtetl" begins ominously, with minor-key music played by a small Klezmer ensemble; under that, and woven through the piece, is what sounds like a speech by Hitler. The contrast is frightening, which is what Zorn was undoubtedly aiming for. The second track, "Never Again," is almost 12 minutes of breaking glass -- layer upon layer of it. I could take only about three minutes of this, but it told me, in no uncertain terms, that the BC509 did not roll off or otherwise euphonize the treble. The overtones and high-frequency content of this track are absolutely staggering -- and completely unlistenable. But the BC509 delivered it all as it should be heard, giving me a knifing headache in the process. I probably will never listen to this piece again, but it served its purpose.
In fact, there was no chance of mistaking the BC509’s presentation as dull or rolled off. The Blue Circle put out sufficient high-frequency information and detail to warrant its high-end aspirations, but without raking its nails down my face. Sort of like the slow refresh rate of an old CRT monitor, poor digital makes me edgy, and digital anything always used to make me want to turn the volume down. I like to listen at high volumes; perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the BC509 is that the cleanness of its treble made that possible.
After Kristallnacht, I needed a break. My new most favorite album of all time is the Decemberists’ The King Is Dead (16/44.1 FLAC, Rough Trade). This album is catchy, hook-filled, intelligent pop that crosses over to alt-country -- sort of an admixture of Son Volt, Great Big Sea, and the Weakerthans. "Don’t Carry It All" is driven forward by a big, juicy kick drum. It was easy to hear how the BC509 worked down in the basement. The Blue Circle DAC had tons of reserve dynamics down low, which enabled it to propel the music forward.
It took an album like The King Is Dead to show how the BC509 could latch on to the flow of propulsive music. I’ve heard that with other Blue Circle components, and in this case I’d wager it was at least partially the result of the BC509’s honkin’ big power supply. The rise and fall, the rhythmic ebb and flow of well-presented music are what distinguish a component such as the BC509 from more mundane sources.
What kind of an audiophile would I be if I didn’t tell you how the BC509 handled high-resolution digital files? Running the 24/96 version of Keith Jarrett’s Testament: Paris/London (24/96 FLAC, ECM/HDtracks) through the BC509 was intensely pleasurable. This isn’t my favorite Jarrett recording, but it’s still damn good, and the Blue Circle DAC clearly showed off the quality of the recording and the brilliance of Jarrett’s playing. The first track, descriptively titled "London, December 1, 2008: Part 1," is a rich, tinkly, introspectively noodling piece that seems to sound better the louder you play it. The BC509’s way with space surrounded each note of the piano with an ambient presence, and gave the lower notes an intensely satisfying feeling of weight and solidity.
As I said earlier, digital has come a long way, and affordable digital has gained in quality by leaps and bounds. Like the Blue Circle BC509, the DACs I own are all affordable and sound fabulous, and they all sound different -- though perhaps they differ not so much in quality as in flavor of sound. I’ve gone to great lengths to pick apart the BC509’s sound, but in many ways I’m picking nits. The specific differences in sound weren’t that great, but the end result was. The more I listened, the more I liked the BC509, and found myself resenting the time I had to spend listening to the Peachtree and the Benchmark. I wanted to get back to the BC509, and the desperate quality of that desire isn’t adequately explained by the small differences in sound quality among the three DACs. It came down to how much humanity was in the music. The BC509 dished out more depth and dynamics, more realism in the bass, and a silkier top end, and while each of these is small potatoes in isolation, together they cohered into a whole that, once again, sounded more like music.
If you’re searching for the last word in resolution and detail, the BC509 isn’t for you. While it gave a good, clear view of the music, it didn’t dredge up every last bit from those two-byte words. I’m well aware that many audiophiles get great pleasure from listening to their music at the granular level. I’m not one of them; as anyone who reads my reviews knows, I’m more than willing to sacrifice some detail for musicality, even if it means sacrificing some retrieval of information. While I didn’t feel that the BC509 was missing out on anything, I was acutely aware that it didn’t add some of the crispiness that some audiophiles construe as detail.
Over the time I spent with the BC509, I changed my outlook to include this quite reasonably priced system in my hi-fi worldview. A $1205 DAC, a $799 integrated amp (Peachtree Decco2), and a $6495 pair of speakers (MartinLogan Ethos) seems a bit top-heavy -- but it works, it works! If you’re looking for a digital front end that you don’t have to spend a fortune on but can still build a high-end system around, consider the Blue Circle Audio BC509.
. . . Jason Thorpe
- Analog source -- Pro-Ject RPM 10 turntable, Roksan Shiraz cartridge
- Digital source -- Logitech Squeezebox Touch
- Phono stage -- Aqvox Phono 2 CI
- Preamplifier -- Sonic Frontiers SFL-2
- Power amplifiers -- Audio Research VT100, Blue Circle Audio BC202KQ, Song Audio SA-300 MB
- Integrated amplifier -- Peachtree Audio Decco2
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology Mythos STS, MartinLogan Ethos
- Speaker cable -- Nordost Frey, Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8
- Interconnect -- Nordost Frey, Analysis Plus
- Power cords -- Nordost Vishnu, Shunyata Research Taipan
- Power conditioner -- Quantum QBASE QB8, Shunyata Research Hydra Model-6
Blue Circle Audio BC509 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $1205 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Blue Circle Audio, Inc.
Innerkip, Ontario N0J 1M0
Phone: (519) 469-3215
Fax: (519) 469-3782