Blue Circle Audio Factory Tour
It was the fall of 1996, and SoundStage! was barely a year old. I had briefly seen and listened to Blue Circle Audios unique and seductive BC2 mono amplifiers. I could hardly wait to get to my computer to send that e-mail off to what was then a little-known company in a place I had no idea about. It felt like shooting an arrow into the woods.
From the beginning, I knew that Blue Circle Audio was no ordinary company. In fact, there was quite a lot of mystery surrounding it because anything I had heard about the company sounded like campfire legend. Things like,
"Theyre made by some man, Albert, I think, in the north of Ontario. Waaaayyy up in Canada, you know."
"Hand crafted out in the woods somewhere."
"Made by some little old man -- an eccentric genius of some sort."
No kidding. Given the nature of their products appearance (wood and stainless steel used in such a way that only an audiophile could love) and unique technology, I had developed a virtual image of a log cabin settled in a remote forest (up in northern Canada no less), where a little old man, dressing in overalls stooped over a heavy wood table, hand-cutting the chassis and soldering all the parts into place. Perhaps there would still be snow on the ground, and he would power the whole place with a generator. It was the kind of stuff that many audiophiles just love to gobble up -- no matter how detached from reality it is.
So I sent my electronic arrow, fired long and far, and received . . . no response. A week or so later, I sent another . . . and . . . I received a short response acknowledging that they had received my first e-mail and would talk to me -- but not until the audio show to be held in Toronto. It would be quite a while until I met this strange crew from the north.
In the meantime, I found out more about the company. The mystery behind some audio companies and their products is sometimes a lot more interesting than the reality. Its the stuff that even the most ambitious marketer couldnt think up.
I learned that Blue Circle Audio wasnt north of me -- it was actually southwest. It wasnt anywhere remote at all; it was 90 minutes from downtown Toronto (by car) in a small town called Innerkip. And the owners name wasnt Albert; his name is Gilbert -- Gilbert Yeung -- and when I finally met him, I had to apologize to him for getting his name wrong in those first e-mails. He wasnt some little old man in overalls, stooped over a heavy wood table hand-making his amplifiers. He was a young guy, mid-20s at the time, who usually wore jeans and a plaid shirt (funny thing is, he wears the same type of clothing today!).
There was some truth, though. He certainly did hand craft his amplifiers and did make the chassis out of wood -- wood he gets from a wood supplier, though, not from neighboring trees outside of a log cabin. And his company was small . . . very small. In those days, he worked out of his garage. Rumor had it his mother actually helped him build the wood chassis! Rumor also had it that he got the idea for his distinctive logo from an elevator button!
Blue Circle Audio was born in November 1990 with, basically, a hope and a dream -- and a few good ideas. Gilbert tells me that since he was a teenager, he dreamed of becoming an audio designer. Well, unlike the unfilled dreams of many, his dreams have come true. Hes now a respected designer, president of his own company, and through it all, has managed to hang on to his ideals of what fine audio equipment should be like.
This tour was done in the late fall of 2000. I must say that the day I conducted this tour, I did find it humorous to see Gilbert hunched over a wood table examining a BC2 amplifier.
In 1999, Blue Circle Audio moved into their current production facility, which is a large shop located on many acres of land. They are now about 10 minutes by car away from Innerkip -- so I guess they are now in somewhat of a remote place. Like many high-end audio companies Ive visited, there is little to identify about what goes on inside the building on this large plot of land. Only a keen-eyed individual will spot a medium-sized rock outside the factory -- painted blue, of course.
Today the company is much more diverse than it was in 1996. As Blue Circle Audio has grown to be a full-fledged enterprise, production needs have expanded exponentially as well. What the company has moved into, for Gilbert, will suffice for many years to come. If it doesnt, he has a few acres still to grow into.
Gilbert, Ive learned over time, is a perfectionist, and as a result, he has a meticulously designed production facility that makes use of every square inch -- production, testing, storage, and shipping -- its all here. Its a spacious and excessively clean place, and Gilbert monitors the whole operation from his office that sits above it all.
I walked in that day and saw some Power Pillows in the final stages of being packed up and shipped, and on the other side, I saw Al Whyley assembling some 20 series preamplifiers. He was also doing some work on a BC series preamplifier (Blue Circle, like many companies, likes to use lots of letters and numbers for their product names).
Unlike just a few years ago, their product range is now vast for what is still a relatively small company, and Gilbert, of course, still designs everything. Their amplifiers and preamplifiers span a much wider price range, from the 20 series which is considered their "entry level," to what is going to be called the AG series at prices that go by the old saying, "If you need to ask . . ." There are also power conditioners (the perfectly named Power Line Pillow) and power cords, and more recently, theyve added speaker cables and interconnects. The home-theater market is also served by products like the BC32 amplifier. Gilbert says there may be a surround-sound processor in the future too. He also has indicated an interest in speakers -- but not too soon. As someone close to Gilbert said, "Everything Gilbert does has a purpose." And thats why we see the diverse and interesting product range he has today. Of course, being a perfectionist with a purpose, Gilbert is going through what he calls "controlled growth."
What further differentiates Blue Circle from other companies is not only the look of their products, but also the approach they take to each design. Their original BC2 amplifiers perfectly illustrate Gilberts design philosophy, which doesnt subscribe to any one technology.
While some audiophiles still wage war on whether tubes are better than solid-state, Blue Circle uses both for purposes they see most appropriate. Gilbert says he uses what he "thinks works best." As for exactly what goes into the products, he stresses that "90% of the result is in the design, 10% in the parts." He goes on further to reinforce his point by saying, "Bad design, good parts? Still bad." That doesnt mean, though, that he doesnt take his parts selection seriously -- he does. In fact, he takes it so seriously that hes been known to agonize when he finds a part that is superior in terms of quality and sound but doesnt have an audiophile name on it. The marketer in him likely tells him to forego it despite the benefit of using a brand name, but I know for a fact that the designer in him wins and he uses what he knows is right.
For the most part, Blue Circle Audio still uses point-to-point wiring in most of their products. Its a long and slow process, but Gilbert feels the end result is worth it. For the BC designated preamplifiers (BC3 Despina, BC3 Galatea, and BC3000), they even build their own volume controls -- from scratch! Theres a lot of soldering going on here. There is also a nifty aspect of the BC series preamplifiers -- the acrylic isolation board that the main components are attached to could be no other color than . . . blue.
A unique aspect of the companys products is the use of wood and stainless steel. No product discussion could go on without mentioning that. Wood, Gilbert has explained to me, has many fine properties, including the way it resonates. When he originally designed the BC2 amplifiers, he made them all metal and didnt like the way they sound. Using wood fixed all that.
I quizzed him about his use of stainless steel, which is prevalent in all his amplifier and preamplifier designs. His reply was swift and to the point -- he likes it. But it goes beyond that, as he cited the benefits such as being non-magnetic, stronger than many metals, and unlike aluminum, not all that common in audio. One thing is for certain: his products are unique.
Its been said many times before that in audio, the real proof is in the listening. Quite simply, the final test that any audio goes through is in the listening phase. No matter what it looks like, how its made, what its made of, or whatever legendary tale is behind it, if it doesnt sound good, what good is it?
Ive been using the Blue Circle BC3 (since upgraded to full BC3000 status) and BC2s now for almost four years, and I have nary a complaint. But this doesnt really surprise me -- Gilbert listens to all his designs and tweaks them all to perfection.
Adjacent to the factory, on the same plot of land, is Gilberts house. In it are two reasonably large, fully equipped listening rooms. His speakers are his long-term reference MartinLogan CLS IIz -- a speaker he says he uses because of its exceptional transparency. All electronics and cabling are, of course, by Blue Circle Audio.
And while the proof may be in the listening, proof is also in the test of time. Blue Circle has just celebrated their tenth year of existence. As a student of business and a person who started a company from scratch, I know how important the first years of business are to a companys survival. Undoubtedly, there were many that thought such a distinctive company serving a specialized clientele could not flourish in times like this. Blue Circle Audio has not only survived; theyve grown. The company is a unique, Canadian success story that is a testament to need to follow ones dreams.
To find out more about Blue Circle Audio
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