September 1, 2009

Blue Circle Audio Fon Lo Thingee Phono Stage


Saying it, I feel like a broken record -- appropriate, considering that the subject of this review is a phono stage -- but Gilbert Yeung, the man behind Blue Circle Audio, is almost ridiculously pragmatic. In speaking with him, as well as in hearing and seeing his products, it’s clear that his No.1 priority is obtaining the best sound; any cosmetic appeal comes in a distant second. Although the functions and appearance of most Blue Circle products can be upgraded, in their basic configuration they usually boast few bells or whistles.

So it is with Yeung’s newest phono stage, the Fon Lo Thingee. First, to state the obvious: the Fon Lo Thingee is not pretty. Of the three Blue Circle products I’ve now reviewed, it’s the least attractive, and the first that I didn’t want to display on my equipment rack. That said, the FLT isn’t really meant to be seen. It consists of two small cylinders, one containing the phono gain stage itself, the other the power supply. There’s no good way to display them; they lie on their sides.

The Fon Lo Thingee is actually a combination of two other Blue Circle phono stages: the input stage of the BC703 ($6995 USD) and the output stage and RIAA equalization of the BC707 ($2295) -- a good example of the benefits to the consumer of trickled-down technology. The FLT comes in four flavors, ranging in price from $349 to $949. In all four configurations the gain stage is the same; the various options are for the power supply. The basic gain stage and power supply cost $349; it can be upgraded with the Biggie Pipe power supply, which costs another $200 and yields an additional 88,000uF of capacitance. To the basic power supply or Biggie Pipe can be added an SP Capacitor pack ($400), which provides more than three times the capacitance of the Biggie Pipe and is inserted between the power and gain stages, bringing the total cost to $749 or $949, depending on the power supply selected. With the SP Capacitor in the chain, the FLT consists of three short lengths of pipe linked with cables colored and striped like candy canes and terminated in Neutrik connectors. These XLR-style DC power connections are easily the nicest I’ve used; locking tightly in place, they can’t be accidentally pulled apart.

There are four jacks on the FLT’s input end: two RCA connectors and two for loading plugs. Although I never made use of this feature, the loading plugs let the user match various cartridges with impedances and/or capacitances (Blue Circle also offers various optional resistance and/or capacitance loading plugs). User-adjustable gain settings between 60 and 38dB are selected with a small blue DIP switch located among the four jacks; a wing nut on the top of the phono stage serves as a grounding post for the turntable ground.

If you use a low-output moving-coil cartridge, you may want to consider the Fon Lo Thingee MC. It uses the same circuit and comes in the same four configurations as the FLT, but has user-adjustable gain settings of 58 and 71dB, and is intended for cartridges with outputs of less than 0.5mV. Owing to the FLT MC’s higher gain, Blue Circle recommends pairing it with the Biggie Pipe power supply, though that isn’t absolutely necessary. The FLT MC and its various power-supply configurations each cost an additional $25 over the prices quoted above, for a range of $374 to $974.

The material used for the FLT’s casework is actually ABS plastic, which, according to Yueng, is quite sturdy. It’s possible to look directly inside the FLT and see the circuitry, although a silicone filling conceals the interior of the power supplies and the SP Capacitor pack.

Recently, Blue Circle has added the option of a battery pack, the Batche Thingee, though this did not accompany my review sample. Their goal was to remove the FLT from the power grid, making it immune to fluctuations in the quantity and quality of power coming from the wall. The Batche Thingee is inserted between the power supply and gain stage and requires 12 standard AA Ni-MH batteries. Blue Circle claims that the Batche Thingee will operate for over 48 hours on a full charge. However, they recommend using the Auto Mute Thingee with the Batche Thingee, so that the FLT is automatically shut off just before the batteries are fully drained, to prevent any noise from damaging your components. However, with the Auto Mute Thingee in the chain, a full battery charge will last only about 20 hours.

The Fon Lo Thingee with the standard power supply.


I used the Fon Lo Thingee with a Thorens TD-160HD turntable fitted with a modified Rega RB250 tonearm, on which was mounted a Dynavector DV-10x5 high-output moving-coil cartridge. Amplification duties were performed by a Bryston B100 SST, to which were connected PSB Platinum M2 bookshelf speakers, via AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cables terminated in banana plugs. The turntable was also connected to the FLT using AMX Optimum RCA interconnects, while the FLT linked to the Bryston using the phono cables supplied with the Thorens. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner.


After spending many hours listening to records with the FLT, it was pretty clear that it had little personality of its own. It refused to lean in any particular direction, never sounding too bright or too dark, too forward or too recessed, too lean or too full. It would have been fun to compare the FLT in its base configuration against more expensive phono stages in a double-blind test. The logistics of blind testing with vinyl are tricky, but I’d be willing to bet that the FLT would hold its own well, especially when its price is taken into consideration.

Even with the basic power supply and no capacitor pack, the Blue Circle sounded superb. If you’re considering buying the FLT, can’t afford one of its more extravagant power supplies, but are concerned you’ll then get only a fraction of its performance, stop worrying. Most of the FLT’s performance costs $349 -- don’t expect the improvement in sound to increase proportionately with the upgrades. This is a phono stage for the audiophile on a budget, and rest assured: this is an audiophile’s phono stage.

More than anything else, the FLT was musical. I can hear you asking right now: Isn’t anything that plays back music "musical"? Strictly speaking, yes. What I mean is that the FLT wasn’t overly analytical. It did as good a job as any phono stage I’ve heard at conveying detail and allowing me to hear into recordings, but never to the point where I found myself dissecting what I was hearing at the expense of the musical whole. In fact, if I could say just one thing to describe my time with the FLT, it would be this: Once I’d plugged it into my system, I just sort of forgot about it. Sometimes, equipment will do something distracting, such as having a little too much energy up top or poor definition down low, making it easy to focus on a single element in the sound. Not the FLT. It sounded well balanced and very engaging.

Add a Biggie Pipe

Blue Circle Audio sent along a complete Fon Lo Thingee, including the Biggie Pipe power supply and SP Capacitor pack. Although I spent most of the review period using the FLT in its basic configuration, I also did some listening using the various power-supply options.

My first experiment was to replace the FLT’s basic power supply with the Biggie Pipe. The net effect of this exchange was an improvement in the already impressive tightness of the bass. Listening to "Needle in the Hay," from Elliott Smith, the lowest notes on Smith’s acoustic guitar firmed up and became even clearer than with the basic power supply. I couldn’t hear much difference higher in the audioband, but while the disparity in performance between the two supplies was small, it was nonetheless noticeable. Overall, the basic PS provided most of the Biggie’s performance; but if you can swing an extra $200, upgrading to a beefier power supply is generally a good thing in sound reproduction.

I then returned to the basic power supply, and spent some time listening to the first few songs from Radiohead’s Kid A (LP, EMI LC0299) before inserting the SP Capacitor pack in the chain. The first thing I noticed was that music now appeared from across an even wider stage, on which it was even easier to make out what was going on. The sound picture was very transparent, images carved out by an even finer blade, which made them more distinct from everything else around them. On its own, the FLT sounded very clean; with the SP Capacitor pack, it sounded even cleaner.

As I found out by playing around with different configurations, even better performance could be had with the improved power supply and capacitor pack. But when either the Biggie Pipe or the SP Capacitor pack upgrade was added on its own, the difference wasn’t proportionate to the cost. When I combined them, however, the improvement over the basic model was quite noticeable.

Again, $349 buys most of the performance the FLT offers, but a fully decked-out FLT sounded amazingly clear, with an even tonal balance and an excellent ability to resolve detail. In short, the Blue Circle Audio Fon Lo Thingee is the best phono stage I’ve heard. If your wallet can stretch far enough, an audition is absolutely necessary.

. . . Philip Beaudette

The pace and rhythm of "Southern Belle," from Elliott Smith’s self-titled second record (LP, Kill Rock Stars KRS 246), were invigorating. The music sounded full as Smith’s guitar drove the track forward with incredible energy. The separation of Smith’s voice and guitar was beyond reproach, as were the width of the stage and the very natural sense of depth that are hallmarks of analog sound. This was also true of "Pale Blue Eyes," from the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album (LP, MGM SE-4617). The tambourine that emerges from well behind Lou Reed’s voice creates an illusion of depth in which the ringing of the instrument’s small metal zils was reproduced with pristine clarity.

It wasn’t only the FLT’s presentation of depth that was so impressive. "All Is Full of Love," from Björk’s Homogenic (LP, Björk Overseas Ltd./One Little Indian Ltd. LC 00309), was so immersive that it not only filled the front of the room but spread out and wrapped itself around me in the process. Talk about involving. Obviously, the FLT needed good partnering equipment to achieve this effect, but what was most remarkable was that, even when used in a system costing many multiples of its price, it didn’t feel out of place. At just $349, most people are willing to accept sonic shortcomings as part of the package, but I consistently found there was no need to make any excuses for the FLT’s performance.

Midrange purity was another of the Fon Lo Thingee’s strengths. Voices consistently impressed me with their clarity, and the sheer ease with which they were reproduced. Portishead’s newest album, Third (LP, Island/Universal LC 00407), provided a nice example of this. Singer Beth Gibbons’ dreamlike, reverb-soaked voice was sublime, at times occupying cavernous spaces in which the calm and control of her voice were a bit haunting. The stage was enormous; the walls of my listening room seemed to disappear. But despite its commendable performance, the FLT never did anything particularly special, merely conveying whatever information was in the grooves of the record.

Moving on to the title track from Massive Attack’s Protection (LP, Circa LC 3098), I was amazed by the lucidity with which the Blue Circle produced the ringing of a triangle. As it emanated from the left side of the stage, the sense of space around it was highly palpable. The bass on this track was weighty and tuneful (at least down to the limits of my bookshelf speakers), conveying very good definition and detail. My only regret was that I couldn’t listen to this album on a pair of floorstanders to really appreciate its low-end heft.

Like its reproduction of the mids and highs, the Fon Lo Thingee’s re-creation of low frequencies was balanced and very clean. Unless the music itself was so recorded, bass was never excessive or bloated, but tuneful and controlled. "Volcano," from Beck’s Modern Guilt (LP, DGC B0011630-1), was a good example. There’s some fairly low bass on this track, and while it went pretty deep in my room, it retained excellent clarity and focus. I don’t mean to suggest that the FLT sounded "digital"; what was amazing was its ability to achieve a good balance between the warm, full bass that’s characteristic of vinyl, and the superb precision and intelligibility generally considered to be strengths of the Compact Disc.

Blue Circle vs. Bryston

For comparison, I used the phono stage aboard the Bryston B100 SST integrated amplifier. The Bryston phono stage is a $500 option, which puts it in direct competition with the FLT. Of course, since the phono stage is built into the B100, it can’t be used in other systems, as can the FLT.

Both phono stages can be used with moving-magnet or high-output moving-coil cartridges. The Bryston amplifies the signal from the cartridge more than the Blue Circle did, which meant that I had to turn up the volume with the FLT in order to match the Bryston’s output level.

The Bryston and Blue Circle had several things in common. In terms of creating a credible soundstage, both stages were clearly adept at moving music outside the boundaries of the speakers and, depending on the quality of the recording, well beyond the front wall of the listening room. The bass reproduction of both was terrific, demonstrating admirable control and tangible impact. The fullness of analog bass was present in spades, but with neither the Blue Circle nor the Bryston did it ever come across as heavy or plodding.

An example of this could be heard on "Silverfuck," from the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream (LP, Caroline 1740 070 4 61740 5). Both phono stages reproduced this track’s low frequencies with excellent definition, making it easy to hear subtle changes in the bass. This was combined with superb midrange clarity that yielded outstanding vocal delineation. The Bryston had a slight edge in terms of bass firmness, but this advantage all but disappeared when I switched out the FLT’s basic power supply with the Biggie Pipe (see sidebar).

In fact, the more I listened, the more obvious it became how much these phono stages shared. Mind you, they weren’t cut from identical sonic cloth. The Bryston sounded a touch brighter, bringing the music slightly forward and subsequently making it seem more immediate. As a result, low-level details were even easier to hear, but the difference was small and, once again, highly dependent on the quality of the recording. And while the Blue Circle was no slouch when it came to handling deep bass, the Bryston seemed a touch more solid, wielding even stronger control over the low end.

What was most impressive about the Blue Circle was that I enjoyed listening to records with it just as much as with the Bryston B100 SST’s phono stage -- but the FLT costs $150 less, and can be used in other systems. Of the four phono stages I’ve heard in the past 12 months, the FLT is the only one that I know I could happily live with if I didn’t already own such a stage. The longer it was in my system, the less I thought about the Bryston, and the more I simply enjoyed everything the Fon Lo Thingee did.

See our Blue Circle Audio Fon Lo Thingee photo gallery.


In a review such as this one, in which I praise a product for its good value, I always wonder how a company manages such high performance at such low cost. Not so with Blue Circle Audio’s Fon Lo Thingee. One look at it and there’s absolutely no question where costs have been trimmed. In fact, the FLT’s biggest problem could be that many potential buyers won’t give it the time of day because it doesn’t look "high-end" enough. Too bad for them. Appearances can be deceiving, and that applies here.

But those willing to get past the Fon Lo Thingee’s no-frills looks to just hear how good it sounds might be rewarded: the performance of their systems might be taken to the next level for very little money. This unusual-looking little component is the best-sounding bit of budget hi-fi I’d heard in a very long time -- an exceptional value. The Fon Lo Thingee might not look like much, but it sounds like a million bucks.

. . . Philip Beaudette

Price of equipment reviewed