as most of u guys know i am not ur regular guy here on headfi..thats why i also bought a not so regular rig..some will say i am nuts to spend what i spend on this..but as i always say...as long this rig makes me happy..its worth every dollar i spend on it...soooo now onto the first impressions review i promised to some of u guys..
It all started a year ago, in march 2013. A casual check on Blue Circle Audio’s headphone amp offerings and the review Skylark did on his Blue Circle SBH headphone amp have turned out to be the first ever custom design project I started. And it turned out to be an educational, fun filled, nervous and exciting experience...trust me it made me sweat kilos sometimes..
Some background about the brand
Blue Circle is not new to those who are at the high-end of the audio universe. They have been in the hi-fi business for over 20 years. The founder and chief designer Gilbert Yeung (nicknamed Gil-Butt) has been gaining a lot of attention because of his unique design and universal praise of his 2-channel audio products.
when u look at the product offering of Blue Circle, u can easily see that Blue Circle has maybe the widest price range of audiophile products in the audio industry.
If you want a US$20,000 power amp ? No problem. Want something even more exotic? Gilbert will be happy to satisfy your wishes – as long as it is about the sonics, not extravagant case work, and as long as you have a deep enough pocket. are u on a budget and want to get a no-frills audiophile component ? Blue Circle offers the “Shoe Box” series or even the “Thingee” series which present the some of the best values in hi-fi universe. they also have its own line of interconnects, power cables, power conditioners and even surge protectors etc.! The very unconventional and different approach of its product line up made Blue Circle a class of its own in this industry...and it helps that Gilbert is a guy who is one of the most honest and down to earth funny guy i ever met..he will never ever try to sell u stuff u dont really want..
on contrary, in my case he tried to save money if possible and kept out stuff that was not really needed!!
Blue Circle didnt show up on my radar as a headphone brand (most reviews i found was about their wonderful speaker amps) until i read a review from Skylab here on headfi, he did a very favorable review about their budget SBH Headphone amp (i understand its from their shoebox series), at that time it was the only headphone amp they had (around 2009'ish)..and then i started to read about what they do in general...read ALL, and i mean ALL, reviews about their products..from amps to dacs to cables..EVERYTHING... and i browsed their site as if i was sherlock holmes finding clues to solve a crime...i did that as i had a very good rig already that i used as reference at the time..
at that time i owned a very special modded Darkvoice 337 (with Bendix 6080WB graphite plates and TS SJ7GT meshplates tubes) and a modulor 2.0/jerg opengrill modded HE500..a rig that could go one on one with much more expensive rigs soundwise.. so my expectations were very high and my demands even higher...and my budget was tight at that moment..Now thats a contradiction!!
So in March 2013 I wrote to Gilbert to ask about his products. It all started with the SBH Headphone amp, of which Skylark said it was an amp sounding much better then its pricetag and its looks...
as u guys know I always like simple but efficient design, which is exactly how Blue Circle builts its products.
So we started talking by mail and i told him i was on a budget and that i really only needed one input, being USB and one output, being dual 3pin XLR and so on went our mails back and forth. he is a very easygoing person with huge sense of humor and i like that and when he asked me about what headphone i was going to use it with the SBH, i told him it was a HE500 and once again mails went back and forth until a point he adviced me that the SBH (even a modified one) wouldnt be enough to drive a HE500 sufficiently, but i told him i was on a budget, so he proposed he could maybe make me a more simple headphone amp based on a custommade project he did for a client, the FLO amp, a battery powered custommade amp. so we started to discuss what to put in (the specs etc.) and that it had to fit exactly within my budget, so i agreed.
he told me he had a waiting list of 6 months, so he would start with the actual built in nov.
After a few weeks my budget could be stretched, so i went looking for a better phone and my eye fell on the immaculate HE6. so again i contacted Gilbert and told him the good news and that i was going to get a HE6, no worries he replied, give me a few days to come up with something. A few days later he mailed me that my new amp based on the the FLO amp wouldnt be strong enough to drive the HE6, and that he needed a few more days to check it out, so i waited the longest 7 days ever in my life...
and then came his mail. he could make me an amp capable to drive a HE6 with an external powersupply based on his 'Biggie Pipe Powersupply" in a tube to keep the costs on bay. the enclosure of the main amp would be like the ones he uses on his regular integrated speaker amps and the amp itself would be based on his NSL speaker amp to give the amount of power and dynamics needed to drive a HE6.
so in june i got the autocad drawing of the front and the backside of the amp and some measurements, and asked me if he had green light. I said YES. and the same day i did my first downpayment. He always does this with his custom projects, first the a payment at start of project and then a second and last payment when its ready to ship.
and from then on it was waiting until Gilbert contacted me again that he was going to start my project.
as this was my first custommade project i ever did, it had a certain risk, but knowing about his reputation and reading his reply mails made me feel at ease.
so the day in november came that he mailed me that he was going to built my amp and to keep things short, during the building fase Gillbert changed the cover twice to the one which satisfied him, the powersupply actually had at least 4 revisions from biggie pipes of 4', 5', 6' diameter to the powersupply i have now in the GRC3.1 enclosure and that was totally because, while building the damn thing, the powersupply output was not adequate enough to drive a he6 perfectly according to Gilberts extremely high demands. I have to say he informed me with every step/change he made, and i never ever paid extra during this proces then what was agreed upon innitially (with the biggie pipe powersupply!), now thats customer service extreme, dudes!! because of the long wait i also bought some new goodies to help improving the soundqualily. (see my profile for that)...
and then D-Day came, the 8th of march, that the postman was at my doorstep with the big 20KG box, damn, almost broke my back by carying it to my 4th floor on my own!
Design and specs:
- Headphone amp based on the NSL, with a BC509 dac module (with 24/96 USB upgraded input)
- external BCG3.1 powersupply connecting to the main-amp by a 4pin XLR connector by Neutrik
- only 1 input: USB
- two outputs: dual 3pins XLR and single ended
- No on-off switch
- construction: 18G steel chassis with insides painted blue, with black Plexiglass front- & back plate and stainless steel cover
- real Black Oak wooden volume knob
- Alps lasertrimmed volume control
- Peed Al Sea (PLC) Thingee FX2 (4 outlets)
- X0E low frequency filter with 6x Syllicone Filter in one module (with BC61 power-cable upgrade)
- TSPD surge protection module
- main-amp: 17" wide x 3.1" height x 8" deep
- BCG3.1 power-supply: 6" wide x 5.3" height x 14.5" deep
power-output: 5,28W into 50ohm, with both channels driven
total capacity: 650.000uF
- digital Source: Windows 8 laptop with Jriver 19
- Headphone: Referencesounds Code-X HE-5 #15 'Black Edition'
- Cables: - Headphone cable: Balanced Toxic Cables "Black Widow" 22AWG 8wire dual mono, 3pin Valab XLR connectors
- Power-cable: Custommade Aura Hifi 14AWG, copper (x2)
- USB cable: Blue Circle Audio BC98
- Accessories: Solid Tech 'Feet of Silence', Solid Tech Radius 3 audio rack
some picsies how it looks:
cad drawing of the front and back:
while still being tested cruelsome to the extremes:
and now how it looks from the outside:
packing the stuff out:
my powergrid conditoning stuff
some sexy dark pics on request of some of u guys
'THE MATCH' on pics.
First audio impressions after around 100 hrs burn-in time:
okay now we had that covered its now up to the sound, or better said the experience this amp gives me audio-wise.
first of all the soundsignature i was after:
I wanted natural, powerful, organic and balanced sound. with Smooth and dynamic highs with minimum roll off and controlled punchy lows. True to source, realistic, precise imaging and a holographic sound stage (my planar being the bottleneck in this ofcourse!). By balanced and realistic I mean music to be right-proportioned and show a true picture of the performance (I so hate to hear a small ensemble being portrait like an orchestra, or a small jazz club gig to sound like a huge concert in an open stadium).
I realised it was not easy to explain what i wanted in words but luckily Gilbert is such an intelligent person that he knew what I wanted to have and what to put into his design. and he did an excellent job i must say! above any expectations good.
first SHORT expressions:
i will do that tomorrow...this has been a long post until now..so bare with me...so i will do this in steps...
okay back to business:
To kill all the doubts about the qualities of this amp in the butt:
In short: Its Key qualities are: powerful, life, airiness, detail, energy, clarity, organic, presence, soundstage and dynamics. No surprises if you read the reviews about the amp on which he is completely based on, the mighty "NSL". In comparison with the modded 337 i had, the 'PaG' has a much better overall balance and more body. Especially the lows and treble, where it exhibits a justly praised degree of magic compared to the 337. In comparison with the 337, the 'PaG' is not so noticeably warm and as a result, again, music feels more present and alive. The Lows on the PaG totally annyhilates the not also to meagre Lows of the 337, but this is also not in the least because of the attribution of the Code-X no doubt (compared to the he500) and the 650.000uF of capacity..so lots of headroom in its backpocket. Although the 337 did nothing wrong and excelled in many areas i now know it was missing something - the something that all BC amps have i understand and the 'PaG' has it in spades: there-ness, is-ness. The music in ur ears comes alive! nothing more nothing less..like an open window into the music ur listening..
So now i have ur undivided attention i will continiu with the prematurial first impressions:
Now that the 'PaG' has had a break-in time for around 100hrs, i can try to get my first impressions on paper...so bare with me on this as it will probably change once it is fully burned in over around 1 month with non-stop 24-7 playing break-in time or so..i will update my impressions in due time when i think its interesting enough to post..so check this thread so now and then if ur interested.
sooo here it goes...
In use, the first thing to jump out was the bass performance of the PaG. it was as if it has unlimited power to its proposal... another thing thats hit me in the face like a atomic bomb was the sweet treble (with good recordings!). While stopping far short of the bright zone, the top end of the 'Pag' is open and extended. knowing this i went on searching what was considered to be an extreme test to check the performance of the treble..so i found this, its totally not my style..but..it served its purpos well: it was a high quality lossless track of 'peoples colony no.1'
On 'Peoples Colony No. 1', the combination of Latin and Middle Eastern percussion and Sufi-based vocal pyrotechnics places extreme stress on how treble is protraited. A touch hot and it is a real ear-bleeder, a bit soft and the extreme edge is boring to the point that the track becomes just another trance release, lacking the authenticity that they add to the beats supplied by Temple of Sound and it passed the test with flying colors! but i was glad i didnt need to hear that track again as it was so NOT my style of music..no pun intended ofcourse guys.
For me the 'PaG' balanced on the line between these two presentations with all the grace of the football player Christiano Ronaldo (i like soccer..lolz)...but it also showed me that the voices were a bit nausal..and thats exactly how its recorded i understand! i absolutely hated that song..but just for the sake of this review i listened to it at least 3 times to make sure i heard all correctly..and i did...
The frequency just below this, the mid and upper midrange, was shown to excellent effect listening to what I think is the best recording i ever heard from Freddy Mercury, it was with Montserat Caballe, especially 'the fallen priest' and 'rachmanov's revenge', sang live in Barcelona. When i was listening to this recordings through this rig, the nuance in Freddy's voice when listening through the 'PaG' was uncomparable to anything I have heard until now headphone wise or otherwise.as if i had to learn how to listen to music again..it sounded so real...especially when the two voices were changing octaves from low and then higher, while a full orchestra was playing behind them with full force sometimes...unbelievable..i now wish i was there when they actually had that concert back then..it must have been stellar to be there!!!!!
The next three octaves down the scale, from mid-bass to the lower midrange, were vibrant and lively in character. For example, the woody resonance and the harder hits on the piano, the faster smaller drums, the cellos and bigger violins on the soundtrack of 'Beowulf' were all there in spades and were portraited in a way i never thought it could in a headphone, the deep bass (huge drums) that kick in without a warning hits u like a tornado...so deep and powerfull, but still so in control and lightling fast following the changes in speed perfectly..and while the drums are rumbling the higher pitched violins are shown in (to my ears) the right way without any sweat, just right on the other lower side of the orchestra while the drums are on the other side more in the middle...perfectly placed..no smearing at all...and thats what was a bit lacking on the 337 i had...with very dynamic tracks the instruments sounded like they were smeared together a bit..it had a hard time keeping them apart when the track got 'difficult'.
But i have to be honest here.. I was really surprised at how well the 'PaG' portraited the fundamentals of that deep bass...didnt think that a humble 5,28w amp could go that low.. Still, a Home Theater receiver with its multi million watts into trillion channels with 4x 1600watts 35cm subwoofers it is not ofcourse..lolz.
But, if you're looking for a musical headphone amplifier to mate with a neutral sounding higher-end more power-hungry headphone (as my Code-X), the 'PaG' sounds perfectly capable to give u all the beautiful music u need or want.
Staging (positioning of instruments etc) with the 'PaG' was exceptional, although because of the abundance of power u have to lower the volume to a very low level so ur head dont explode. I have a personal preference for a slightly laidback stage instead of a slightly forward one. I find that a stage right in front of me is fun on the short run, but eventually fatiguing on the other hand a deeper stage more to the back, if well rendered, will draw me into a recording while also giving me a greater illusion of being transported to a different acoustic (so u can perfectly feel the admosphere of a jazz club or a huge orchestra playing or some totally crazed metallica heads (like Rammstein) doing their magic on their instruments. The 'PaG' does this in a stunning way although it is by a very small margin slightly more bassy than I find optimal..but i am guessing its all about break-in time as it keeps on smoothing out and opening up almost by the minute the more it plays.. Still, better this than in your face (as some other high power headphone amps tend to do). As for the rest of the stage, the 'PaG" shows a very credible, left to right, front to back and up and down sonic hologram (if u can say that about a headphone), one that held up very nicely and was very credible.
Dynamically the 'PaG' is a 'off the charts' capable performer with very good reproduction of every extreme parts of the sound frequency and everything in between. The details are portraited quite well, allthough the treble can be a bit painful on certain very high pitched guitars on high levels of listening or bad recordings (but that can be because of the bad recording itself, bad rip or because it still has a long break-in time to go)..
The small harmonic and pitch changes of complex acoustic passages like i stated in 'Beowulf' were done nicely and in a very believable way...
I can be short with this..i am a one amp, one headphone type of a guy so i dont have much to compare the 'PaG' with personally then the very capable modded OTL Darkvoice 337 tube amp i had for 2 years.
In general the Darkvoice 337 is more "tube-like", while the 'Pag' is more neutral and much more dynamic. Which would be better for you is a personal decision. Both are very capable amps in design and in performance, either one is in its own price catagory a winner in my book..
For me...the 'PaG' is a step up soundwise in a way i never ever thought could be possible..coming from the modded Darkvoice 337 with premium tubes in it paired with a modded Hifiman he500...the Code-X is ofcourse also not in the least responsible for the stellar soundquality i am experiencing now as is the balanced 8wire dual mono 22AWG 'Black Widow' headphone cable of Toxic cables.
In total, the 'PaG' is an open, well-balanced, powerful dynamic headphone amplifier. to my ears it doesnt have any recognizable weaknesses or it had to be the treble that could be a bit to hot sometimes or the bass thats sometimes to much available...but am sure its all about the meagre burn-in time of just 100hrs or less.
In short it is a superb performer in absolute terms. The lower bass and sweet midrange is exceptional good. It looks classy but not screamy just as i would like on a higher-end component, and it functions flawlessly (it only gave me a scare when i first plugged in the plug into the electricity grid and i was treated by a small flash coming from the socket of the wall..it scared me ****less..but gilbert relaxed me..it was normal because of the capacity of the amp...). sooo Staging is excellent, if a tad more laid back than the norm of powerful SS amps that i know of. It offers excellent detail to reward your choice of quality sources, and has stunning dynamics. even for the price i paid for, it is quite a remarkable product that by far exceeded my greatest expectations!
The big picture:
Alright, let us put it all together now, will the custommade Blue Circle Audio 'PaG' lure the unknowing headphonefan over into the Blue Circle Audio Web, or even better, allow for the newbie audio headfi-geek (now there's a contradiction in terms! lolz) to find a long-term partner in headphone heaven? In a word, yes, IMHO. It is far better than any 'mass-market' amp i heared until now. It is very involving, and thats also a part of the Blue Circle house sound i understand..once a Bluecirkian always a Bluecirkian. " src="http://files.head-fi.org/images/smilies/wink.gif" />
When i let my friends listen to my rig, and they dont get it, then chances are that listening to any other even extremely expensive rigs will not convince them either..so i let them go back to their bassy stuff cheap stuff.
And, best of all, the 'PaG' is not just a transition (temporarely) component, it is a real high-end end game product that will reward careful headphone rig building and it will still stand firm over the long-term. And even at the price i paid for it , it is very hard to beat in my opinion.
Now for the so important points (like the Eurovision Songcontest that will take place very soon again)..pls keep ur votes ready, messieurs et madames..here are the votes for:
Lower-bass - 9
as 10 is not possible with a headphone IMHO..u need to feel it in ur gut also to get a perfect score for this in my opinion, but for a headphone u cant ask for more
Mid-bass - 9
Midrange - 10
i think the bit of hot treble i hear sometimes has to do with the lack of break-in time and bad recordings..so this is a point awaiting the end of the break-in period
Attack - 10++++++!
Decay - 9
Resolution/ Detail - 9
Soundstage - 8
i think this has more to do with the technical shortcomings of the planar headphone design in general then the amp itself, and my referencesounds Code-X is a modded HE-5..but i hope to get a new (better) headphone cable and 2 powercables soon to help allivate that a bit.
Imaging/placement of instruments - 9
Fit and Finish - 10+++
clean-built no frizzles design, totally built for utmost efficiency and performance, with so much attention for little details and utmost dedication..maybe even with love!...even the bolts are polished stainless steel beauties with rounded heads!)
Self Noise - 10
totally silent when no music is played..total black background..i think that the extra filtering stuff i bought also helps in a big way!, this can be a bit annyoing though sometimes when u have a full LP (vinyl) rip..in front of the black background u hear every tracking noise (u even sometimes hear the pitch changing of that noise!) of the needle until it goes to the next track..and i am not even talking about the crackling noises u hear when the LP is worn out..i had some high quality 24bit 4000bps vinyl rips of Queen and those are now totally unlistenable because of those crackling noises during playback...! as Gilbert said to me once and i quote: 'WHEN U HAVE GOOD SOUND U ALSO GET BAD SOUND' i think he meant these noise issues with it.
Value for the Money - 7-10?
i really dont know..yes its expensive..but OMG the built quality, the classy simple looks, the music experience it gives u in return... for me its a total 10...but for most of u guys on a certain budget maybe a 7minus...
BUT...u can always go for their also excellent sounding (also upgradable) 'standard' SBH headphone amp (look for reviews on headfi and google)..and start there! look at me: headphone wise i also started with a very humble Matrix Mstage rev. 1, Q-jays in-ears phones and a cowon D2 mp3 player as source once... and lookie at me now
okay now...my fingers are hurting and my brain is like mush now..need to go back to my relaxation station..u guess what that will be...
hope u enjoyed this first impressions write on a bit.
until my next update!
may the force of the audiogods be with u!
Found some better pics that Gilbert himself made for me of the amp:
Pics of my headphone and my cable i use on my amp:
a few pics of my new rack and the new feet i bought
Edited by hifimanrookie - 7/7/14 at 2:09pm