GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published June 15, 2005

 

Blue Circle Audio BC606 Music Bar

When people start talking about megabuck interconnects and light-bathed speaker wires, my eyes glaze over and roll back into my head. Maybe the "Show Me" state rubbed off on me in the short time I lived there, or maybe it was my upbringing in a rural German community in southern Illinois, but I’m not quickly convinced of anything. It’s not that I don’t believe that cables can make a difference, it’s just that so much of what’s sold in the cable business has the look of snake oil to me.

What really gets my blood boiling is when audiophiles and fellow members of the audio press start talking about transformational changes brought about by swapping out a particular cable or power conditioner. Worse is when they recommend that someone on a tight budget spend a significant percentage of their purchase on these products. The most you should ever hear from changing power conditioners or cables is an incremental change. If you hear more than that, something is wrong somewhere. If you want a transformational change, buy better speakers.

However, my views on where it makes sense to start spending money on power products are changing. The first reason for this change is the dramatic improvements that have been made in the last ten years in loudspeaker and electronics design. Performance that was previously available only from very costly audio systems is now widely available in the budget and near-budget markets. The second reason is the emergence of high-performance power conditioners. Once relegated to the high end of the audio marketplace, some of these are now priced realistically for those of us on modest budgets. Does it make sense to spend a hard-earned $300 on a good power conditioner if you have old $300/pair speakers? No. What about $1000/pair speakers? Well, depending on exactly what those speakers and your other components are, these days it might make sense.

The Music Bar

Companies such as Blue Circle Audio don’t traffic in snake oil. Their take on vibration isolation is a kit of foam pucks that retails for $40 for a set of 20. With this kind of mindset, when designer Gilbert Yeung offers a power conditioner for review, it should probably be taken seriously.

The BC606 Music Bar ($299 USD) is a prime example of the new breed of budget power products. It looks simple enough at first glance, but it’s actually a very-high-quality Hammond power bar with six hospital-grade Hubbell outlets housed in a chassis of extruded aluminum. Not your run-of-the-mill power strip, this represents a significant percentage of the unit’s base cost. Blue Circle modifies the Hammond by replacing its stock power cord with a Neutrik connector, thus allowing the use of different power cords between the Music Bar and the wall outlet. To this they add the guts of not one but two of their BC86 power conditioners. Your downstream components should be very well conditioned. Nor are there any lights, switches, or fuses to muck with the delivery of clean power to your components. The Music Bar is built for a single purpose, and Gilbert Yeung has consistently chosen quality over unnecessary features.

Blue Circle offers three choices of power cords to go along with the BC606 Music Bar. The standard cord is a 14-gauge hospital-grade affair that’s nothing special but gets the job done. The two upgrade cords are special Neutrik-terminated versions of the BC61 and BC62 cords and cost an additional $100 and $200, respectively. Both upgrade cords are made of high-purity copper wire: 14-gauge for the BC61, 10-gauge for the BC62. The BC62 terminates at the wall plug with a Hubbell hospital-grade plug end, while the BC61 "gets by" with a Wattgate plug that is of very high quality by any rational standard. And that locking Neutrik connector provides a secure and reliable method of ensuring power transfer in a removable connecter. It’s certainly more secure than the standard IEC connections on the back of most high-end audio gear. (More than once, an IEC plug on one of my components has loosened as I pulled wires for a new piece of equipment.)

Unlike many conventional high-end power cords, the two upgrade cords are not externally shielded. Blue Circle has instead chosen to braid the cables using what they call the "double reverse twist geometry," which conjures up visions of an Olympic gymnast’s floor routine. The stated benefit of this geometry is that its design helps reject not only RF interference in the cord itself, but also whatever RF is present in the line before it reaches the cord. The lack of external shielding also makes the cord very flexible -- a big plus when I had to snake the thick BC62 through an opening in my equipment rack, then around the corner of my bay window to an available wall outlet.

Listening

I find solo piano tracks helpful in sorting out subtle differences between components. I think this is partly due to the relative simplicity of the music and the corresponding lack of clutter to muddy the aural senses. It also has to do with the nature of the decay of piano tones and the ability to hear differences in tone and the space surrounding the notes. A few months ago I discovered George Winston’s December on LP, but have since added to my collection the album’s 20th Anniversary Edition, on CD [Windham Hill 11611-2]. To listen to this CD critically it helps to shut off the dishwasher, throw that pesky ticking clock in the trash, and exile the kids to Tibet -- but if you must, the job can be done in more or less normal circumstances.

With the Music Bar in the system and with each of Blue Circle’s two more expensive power cords, I heard more openness and a little more air in the decays of Winston’s chords. The difference in moving from my own Monster AV700 power strip ($49) to the Music Bar with its most expensive power cord was akin to putting on a pair of sunglasses on a hazy day. It was suddenly easier to hear everything, with improved purity and definition and a complete lack of glare.

One of the more interesting CDs I’ve picked up lately is Chiara Civello’s Last Quarter Moon [Verve Forecast 3473-02]. This Italian-born singer-songwriter is quickly making a name for herself, and even collaborated with Burt Bacharach to write "Trouble" for this album. The track that pricked up my ears and made me take notice was hearing Civello’s cover of Suzanne Vega’s "Caramel" with the Music Bar in the system. I knew something was different, so I quickly stopped the CD and swapped the Monster AV700 back in. Yep, there it was. With the Music Bar distributing power among the components, the kick drum on this track was deeper, tighter, more defined. I played "Caramel" several times, swapping the two strips to confirm what I’d heard. There was no mistaking the difference.

Blues star Marcia Ball’s Presumed Innocent [Alligator 4879] has spent a lot of time in my CD player lately. Her music runs in the same vein as Delbert McClinton’s while maintaining its own signature. It’s soulful, rhythmic, and infectious. If you can keep from tapping your feet during "Louella," then you must have checked your own soul at the door. McClinton is Ball’s duet partner on "You Make It Hard," one of the more successful tracks on a pretty spectacular recording. When I replaced the Monster AV700 with the Music Bar with its standard power cord, the bass on this track was tighter, more forceful, and seemed a bit deeper. The biggest shift was to an increased openness and clarity, especially in the upper frequencies. Changing to the middle and top power cords produced incremental improvements, though each was smaller than the one before.

If there was ever a movie that didn’t deserve the attention lavished on its transfer from film to DVD, it must be Driven, with Sylvester Stallone -- but here I am citing it in a review. I don’t have room to list the film’s many failings, but suffice it to say that the video transfer is about the only reason I can see to own it. That said, this is one of the first DVDs I break out after I recalibrate my Hitachi HD rear-projection TV. For this test, I first calibrated the TV, checked it out, then swapped the Monster Cable HTS2500 power conditioner ($225) out of my home theater in favor of the Blue Circle Music Bar.

It hardly seemed possible, but everything was now a little sharper, colors were richer, and dark backgrounds became black holes utterly void of video noise. A great example was the scene where Sly drops three quarters on the track, then picks them up on his tires in the next lap. While this has got to be one of the dumbest racing scenes ever filmed, with the Music Bar in the system the detail in the quarters vibrating on the pavement was nothing short of astonishing. The resulting image was the closest thing I’ve seen to high definition from a standard DVD.

My audio system has seen a series of power products over the last few years: a Panamax 1000+ ($225), which died of old age and one too many electrical surges; a TrippLite surge protector, which sacrificed itself catastrophically during an electrical storm; and its replacement, the Monster Cable AV700 surge protector. I expected I might hear some differences between the Monster power strip I was using in my audio system and the Music Bar, but I didn’t expect to hear anything between the three power cords. Well, here’s one more thing I have to start paying attention to.

While I can’t and won’t say that the Music Bar transformed the sound of my audio system, the differences were not entirely subtle. My system’s transparency and openness increased with each upgrade of power cord. The most pronounced difference was between the Music Bar’s base cord and the BC61, but there was also a noticeable difference between the BC61 and the BC62. Cables do matter. Lesson learned.

Full circle

Blue Circle has made a believer of this skeptic. In my system, the BC606 Music Bar delivered on its promise of making a fairly substantial incremental improvement in the overall sound quality of a reasonably capable system. With this product, Blue Circle has finally driven the cost of high-end power conditioning down to a level where it can benefit those of us who live most of our lives listening to "budget" equipment. This is happy news indeed.

...Jeff Van Dyne

Price of equipment reviewed


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