Undiscovered High-End Esoterica
By Dick Olsher
That Other French High-End Company
Any yuppie even remotely into the high-end scene has surely glimpsed the Jadis moniker. These "designer electronic" creations, handcrafted by French hands across the Atlantic, should make the cultured yuppie salivate with dreams of parking a Jadis anything next to his BMW motor car. My lifestyle embraces little that's apparently held in high esteem by yuppie tribesmen. Let' see... I don't own a BMW, a Bally's Spa memebership, and I don't even frequent Starbuck's. However, I don't share Fat Al Da Canoli's (my man in Philly) anti-Yuppie attitude. He suggests that by depriving them of Starbucks's, skim-milk cappuccino, Bally's, non-alcoholic beer, nouvelle cuisine, BMWs, and anything else bourgeosis would either turn yuppies into real human beings or drive them into severe depression. I say, let them enjoy the Jadis mystique. Afterall, Jadis electronics have earned a bevy of rave reviews. I should know, as I myself have sung the Jadis JP80MC preamp's praises not too long ago. The problem, however, with any form of mystique or legend is that it biases our collective subconscious. It leads us down the path of snobery and blinds us to the possibility that newer and/or more affordable gear can sonically be more than competitive. It is, therefore, with distinct pleasure that I shine the spotlight onto another French company whose headline tube products are quite affordable in high-end terms, and one product in particular which eclipses performance wise any similarly priced power amp known to me.
The Audio Sculpture line by Audio Matiere is imported and distributed in the US by Ron Hedrich/Marigo Audio Lab. I have spent time with the Accordance, a 30-watt stereo amp ($3,975), and also the Equilibre ($8,475) -- nominally a 60-watt stereo amp reviewed by Tom Davis in Vol.1, No.6 of Fi Magazine. In my estimation, designer Jean Jacques Van Leeuwen's patented output stage pushes tube sound in a new direction. It is often easy to categorize tube sound as either bluesy and hard edged as exemplified by 6550 or EL34 based output stages, or as sweet and soft ala KT77 or KT88 based designs. Remarkably, the Equilibre imbues musical textures with the sort of romantic glow and warmth I've come to expect from say a Gold Lion KT77, although its power tube complement is 6550 plus EL34. The mids are vivid in spades with wave after wave of honey-coated harmonic bliss. It felt like I had crawled into a warm and inviting sonic womb. And while I can quibble with its performance at the frequency extremes (bass control and slightly closed-in treble) or with its somewhat fuzzy portrayal of image outlines (Marigo Audio Lab's Bear Feet positioned under the chassis greatly enhance spatial resolution), the Equilibre won me over with its stupendous dynamic palette. The music's microdynamics were convincingly resolved as were complex passages without a hint of congestion or compression. It is really moving. The Equilibre appears to tap the music's full emotional punch. If you like music to sweep you away, make you cry and laugh, then the Equilibre is the right vehicle for you. It should be bundled with a handkerchief for romantic souls like me. The sound reminds me strongly of a vintage Marantz 8B, but with more muscle and definition, and a heart that is pure gold.
The Accordance isn't quite as successful as the Equilibre in capturing the heart of the music. It's sound is always pretty but not as involving. It lacks the romantic halo and "balls" of its bigger brother. The tonal balance is on the lean side of reality through the lower mids, while the upper mids are a bit more laid back than I would like. Image outlines, however, are more precisely focused within the soundstage and in general the Accordance is capable of skecthing out a convincing 3-D acoustic impression. More yuppie than real; pretty rather than effective is how the Accordance stacks up in my book.
A Tale of Two Line Stages
I have a confession to make: I have strayed off the beaten track. For years
I've been puzzled by the paucity of truly great sounding preamps. The situation is really paradoxical in that I have no trouble at all in locating great sounding amps or speakers -- products which to my mind are technically more challenging. Yet, something as simple as a line stage seems to frustrate me. Oh where are all the great line stages hiding? Reduced to its basics, all you really need is a single voltage gain stage per channel, a stereo volume pot, and some switching capability (i.e., a function selector). It almost sounds trivial, but over the years, my search for line stage excellence in the highways of mainstream audio has pretty much come up empty handed. And so, I've started to search the byways andinvestigate several offerings from small audiophile-grade companys. The road less traveled has been rewarding as you can tell from the following capsule reviews of two of my favorite line stages todate: the Presence Audio (First Sound Co.) Line Stage I ($3,200 in deluxe version; $2,800 in basic version without fancy face plate), and the Canadian Blue Circle Audio BC-3 ($3,300). You will, I'm sure, notice some remarkable parallels between these two units in terms of circuit architecture and design philosophy. Could it be that these units are singing Tube God's true gospel?
Founded in 1989 by Emmanuel Go, First Sound's inaugural product was a passive preamp (I know, the designation is an oxymoron, but it appears to have taken hold) whose underlying design philosophy was striving for the purest signal path obtainable. Because a passive's range of applications is limited, Mr. Go undertook a research program aimed at realizing the naturalness, clarity, and purity of the passive approach in an active line stage. The cornerstone of the Presence Audio line stage is simplicity. The active ciruictry is quite minimal. A single voltage gain stage is used with a single vacuum tube (a 7308 dual-triode connected in parallel) per channel. The gain factor is 8 or 18 dB. Yes, the unit does invert polarity, so be sure to reverse polarity at the power amp outputs or at the speaker terminals. The layout is dual-mono down to separate input selector switches and stepped volume attenuators for each channel. The output impedance is about 1,500 ohms; Presence Audio recommends a matching power amp impedance of at least 50,000 ohms. This shouldn't be an issue with tube amps. An external power supply houses the power transformer, isolating the rest of the circuitry form this potential source of electromagnetic interference. Beefy solid-state bridge rectifiers and a massive reservoir of computer-grade electrolytics assure high-quality power on demand. Great care is taken in the execution of the ladder-type stepped volume attenuators. These are full of high-tech Holco metal-film resistors with gold-plated leads. Presence Audio's pursuit of component quality and its fanatical attention to detail can best be illustrated by the use of a hard to work with copper-based solder which was chosen after a listening based evaluation of a variety of competing brands. Who else do you know of that actually listens to the sound of different solders! The first version of the the preamp I auditioned was outfitted with Sovtek 6922s. Current production is improved over my first sample in terms of grounding and is also shipped with a better sounding tube -- a new old stock (NOS) 7308 (a military version of the 6DJ8/6922 tube). Although this is not a euphonic, lush, vintage audio sounding tube preamp,it nonetheless does capture the romantic spirit. The lower midrange was fleshed out with plenty of authority and weight. Harmonic textures ebbed and flowed with startling dynamic nuances and the sort of liquidity and purity one only comes to associate with world-class audio products. Soundstaging was a particularly strong suit. Soundstage depth perspective was resolved with layering other preamps only dream about. spatial resolution was a real joy to behold. Image outlines were sharply focused in space with believable palpability. On rock n' roll source material, it was possible to crank up the volume without any sense of strain or distortion. Most preamps when pushed hard change their sonic signature -- not so with the Presence Audio. It remained suave and articulate with a variety of music from baroque to rock.
There were, however, subtle symptoms of dynamic shyness as the music soared from moderately loud to loud. The problem, of course, centers around the resolution of music's macrodynamics. The Presence Audio tended to release or blunt a small measure of the music's inner tension. Harmonic colors were somewhat on the dark side of reality with the old stock tube complement. With the 7308s in place, the upper mids picked up a bit of needed sheen and brilliance so that violin and soprano sang not only sweetly but with a more convincing dose of glitter and sparkle.
This is one line stage that deserves to be considered in the context of cost-no-object systems. It manages more than just a glimpse of sonic valhalla. Hence, a rating of 9 out of a perfect 10 is in order. At its asking price, it qualifies as a genuine bargain. Overall, it is a true musical delight and has found a home in listening room 2.
Gilbert Yeung, Blue Circle Audio's progenitor, recalls his childhood when his parents bought their first stereo system. It was a Sansui combo complete with a receiver, cassette deck, and a turntable. This was his first exposure to anything more sophisticated than a 1970s version of the "ghetto blaster." Young Gilbert began to appreciate the difference hardware makes in the enjoyment of reproduced music. By age 13, he was already studying various audio systems and planning his ideal setup. His amplifier design philosophy can be best summed up as wire with gain: a minimalist approach, founded in the belief that circuit simplicity and signal purity go hand in hand.
A single Sovtek 6922 dual-triode is used per channel. One of the triode sections is used as a conventional voltage gain stage (24.7 dB), while the other is deployed as a buffer stage. No global feeback is used. The buffer stage confers low output impedance (27.5 ohms), a critical parameter in driving long cable runs. Since Mr. Yeung's ideal system configuration consists of long interconnects and short speaker cable, the BC-3 not surprisingly is designed to drive up to 150-foot long interconnect runs with adequate gain for even insensitive power amps.Visually, the unit is a certified beauty-contest winner: a stainless steel, non-magnetic chassis, adorned with hand polished hardwood knobs, and that really cool bluish glow of the Blue Circle logo. A startling contrast of old and new. Black cherry is standard, but a variety of optional woods is available. In this case, beauty is much more than skin deep. Be sure to take the cover off and feast your eyes at the BC-3's internal organs. The layout is dual-mono with separate function selctor switches and attenuators for each channel. The Shallco military-grade ladder-type stepped volume attenuators are absolutely spectacular. Note also the absence of a conventional circuit board. The active circuitry is mounted on a quarter-inch thick acrylic board which floats on spring-loaded stand offs for isolation and vibration control. All wiring on the board is point-to-point. An outboard power supply is used to locate the power transformer away from the main chassis. Both of the main outputs invert polarity.
If you're shopping around for a romantic, euphonic sounding preamp, in the classic tube tradition, then this unit is definitely NOT for you. The sound, with one exception, was uniformly true to the original tonal balance and harmonic colors. No editorializing, please, is the BC-3's middle name. Harmonic textures were smooth and pristine without the tube glare and brightness endemic to so many tube preamps. Midrange textures were lucid and vitalized with a natural sweetness. I found the integrity and cohesiveness of the soundstage to be quite endearing. Spatial detail was painted with a fine brush that readily resolved massed voices and the air around individual instruments. There was plenty of low-level detail to behold. Detail lofted naturally from a low-noise floor, in the same manner that a soap bubble dances through the air. Some preamps specialize in force feeding the listener an earful of detail; more accurately, a barrage of in-your-face zingers that becomes almost an instant irritant. The BC-3, on the other hand, allowed me to enjoy an ensemble sound as an organic whole. I could tune in the orchestra without being distracted by discrete detail. Yet, I could also -- at my leisure -- re-focus my attention span onto particular nunaces and retrieve them at will. The impression of speed and control was strong. Transients were unfolded with first-class attack and controlled decay. Multi-track recordings were readily exposed in terms of EQ and reverb settings for individual instruments in the mix.
Few preamps possess a full palette of harmonic colors through the upper mids and presence region. Too often colors are bleached out so that the vividness of soprano voice withers. This being a priority of mine, I attach considerable weight to a preamp's performance in this area. Color shadings were superbly reproduced by the BC-3 throught he upper registers. This part of the spectrum was also wonderfully transparent. The BC-3 edges out the Presence Audio line stage in this respect, but does not equal the latter unit's suaver and more robust lower midrange. The BC-3's lightly lean lower mids will require careful matching of components downstream to maintain timbre realism. Certainly, this would be the wrong preamp for overdamped loudspeakers.
Overall, I would rank the BC-3 as a world-clas unit and a strong 9 out of a perfect 10. In view of the price to performance ratio, I'd say buy now before Blue Circle catches up with standard high-end marketing practices.
Blue Circle Audio may be contacted at (519) 469-3215. Audiophiles may also contact Madcap Audio at (416) 487-3594, and ask for Jonathan.