The not so compact, but oh so good amplifier from Blue Circle
In the fall of 2004 I wrote about Blue Circle’s entry level solid state integrated amplifier — the CS. I found it provided a high degree of musicality that could easily compete with other integrated amps that cost twice as much.
When I learned last year that Gilbert Yeung, Blue Circle’s founder and the person who not only designs but hand-builds the products he sells, was releasing an upgraded version of the CS I pleaded with him for a review unit.
Not surprisingly, he told me to get in line in behind the other reviewers. I finally got the chance to audition the new NSCS this spring. And believe me, the wait was worth it.
The NSCS, which stands for “Not So Compact Series,” is actually much more than an upgraded CS. With a price of $2595 its priced $1,200 higher than the current CS, but contains some substantial differences. The NSCS has vastly improved power supplies, balanced outputs, and an optional choice of dual Shallco attenuators or one Shallco and a balance control. The demo unit I tested came with a single Shallco and sells for $2950.
Much of its 42 pound weight, which is nearly three times the weight of the CS, comes from its massive 600VA toroidal transformer providing the NSCS with a power output of 110 w/ch into an 8 ohms compared to 50 w/ch for the CS. The amplifier section takes advantage of Blue Circle’s Truly Balanced Output Technology (TBOT) found on its more expensive power amps. With TBOT both the positive and negative binding posts supply an active signal to the speaker voice coils. This results in the amplifier applying more control over the speaker cone motion than conventional designs.
While much heavier, and nearly six inches deeper than the CS at 17.25″ wide x 3.5″ height x 14.25″ deep, the amplifier should easily fit into most rack units. The build quality, as usual for a Blue Circle product, is exceptional. Even after running the amp for hours at loud levels, it never became more than warm to the touch. While I would not recommend the smaller CS for larger rooms with inefficient speakers, the NSCS should be able to step right in without breaking a sweat.
I auditioned the NSCS fitted with Black Mountain Cable’s Peak Gold power cable. My reference system consists of Soliloquy 5.0s speakers, Cambridge Audio Azur 640C (version two) CD player, with Oritek X-2 audio interconnects, Alpha-Core Python Mi2 speaker cable, Blue Circle’s MR1200 Music Ring balanced power line conditioner and DH Labs Power Plus power cord.
Once warmed up I immediately found the NSCS to offer far greater resolution and transparency than the CS. This was apparent on a variety of recordings where I kept hearing details of orchestration, and sometimes artifacts of recording technology, that I hadn’t noticed before or that had not been as clearly defined.
Like the CS, the NSCS’s tonal presentation remained fundamentally neutral. But the NSCS clearly demonstrated greater upper and bottom extension and was more obviously dynamic especially on large-scale orchestral recordings. To put it simply, if you like the sound of the CS you will love the NSCS.
In auditioning the NSCS I used the recordings I had played on the CS such as Holly Cole’s “Trust in Me.” On the NSCS I found that both the piano and Cole’s vocals had a more life-like presence and provided a larger and more refined soundstage than the CS.
On Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis” the separation of instruments and voices was exceptional and provided the appropriate timbre on all instruments used.
The NSCS also uncovered new subtleties in Patricia Barber’s “Cafe Blue” album, and Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.” The amp added even more air and warmth to Barber’s icy cool vocals and Davis’ soaring trumpet solos than the CS.
I also played “Your Wish is my Wish” from Sarah Slean’s last album which features Sarah’s unique voice and piano. The NSCS provided sensational soundstaging and reproduction of Sarah’s wonderful harmonies. I’ve seen Sarah live in concert twice and the NSCS was able to transport me right back.
Like the CS before, I found the new NSCS delivered both the depth of expression and richness you find in good tube amps while also providing the nimble transient performance offered by accomplished solid-state designs. The midband liquidity and extension of higher frequencies that so impressed me with the CS are now even better defined with Gilbert’s newest creation.
The bass performance, while obviously improved over the CS, was not as significant as I thought it might be given the huge transformer employed. Don’t get me wrong, the bass is tight and accurate, but if you are looking for an amplifier that emphasizes bass over true musical reproduction, you should look elsewhere.
In upgrading audio components I often find myself compromising between more resolution and pure musical impact. With the NSCS I found that rare product that succeeds in bringing resolution and musicality together.
In completing my audition of the NSCS I found myself back again at the beginning. Since the demo unit was not available for sale, I’ve once again asked Gilbert to set aside an NSCS, this time to be added to my reference system. Once again he has told me to get in line, explaining that with his current back orders I may get my NSCS in four months. Knowing now what to expect, the wait will be even harder the second time around.
- 3 pair of line level inputs
- 1 preamp output
- heavy duty gold-plated binding posts
- high / low level switch for optional Shallco attenuator(s)
- 110 watts per channel
- 600VA transformer for the output stage only
- separate preamp and power amp power supply
- black chassis cover standard (other colours available..some at additional cost)
Options: (at additional cost)
- Shallco stereo volume control
- Dual Mono Shallco volume controls
- Remote Controlled Volume
- stainless faceplate standard…purpleheart/ walnut or various colours of MDF available as options
- additional inputs and outputs available
- processor bypass loop for home theatre application
- Technical Specs: … taken with single Shallco attenuator model
- Residue noise reference to full power output: >-93dB or <605 uV non weighted
- Residue noise reference to full power output: >-103dB or <200 uV within audio band
- Tracking error: < +/- 0.1 dB
- Frequency response (10W into 8 ohms): 10Hz to 80KHz +0.00db, -0.2dB; -1.0db at >100kHz
- Distortion at 10W into 8 ohms: <0.1 %
- Voltage gain: 29dB
- Input sensitivity: 1.05V
- Input impedance: 100Kohms
- Volume control range: -85dB to 0db in 62 steps standard in Shallco attenuators
- Dimensions: 17.25″ wide x 3.5″ height x 14.25″deep. (add 1.125″ at front for knobs and 1.125″ at rear for binding posts)
- Weight: 42 Lbs
About the Author:
John Bugailiskis is an audio enthusiast based in Canada.