Once upon a time, high-end audio meant products that were markedly superior in build and performance than their more entry-level counterparts. It also used to mean products that retained a good resale value even a dozen years after purchase. But perhaps most importantly, high-end was ‘accessibly expensive’; not cheap, but within the reach of professional people of good financial standing.
Now, high-end seems more about making Fabergé eggs, and less bringing home the musical bacon.
B.M.C Audio is a direct challenge to extravagance for its own sake. Short for Balanced Music Concept, B.M.C. produces a small, but extremely consistent portfolio of products in two lines. The products offer superior build and performance over entry-level components. They rely on solid engineering that is a sure indicator of being able to stay the course, and they are ‘accessibly expensive’. In other words, exactly the sort of high-end audio most of us signed up for.
We had a trio of products in for test, but this time will focus on the BDCD1.1 CD player/transport, and the DAC1PreHR digital controller. The CS2 stereo integrated amplifier/stereo power amplifier will be the subject of a review at a later date. There is also a very highly respected phono stage in this line. These products are taken from the company’s higher end range; B.M.C. also produces a ‘pure’ line below these models and includes loudspeakers and cables.
B.M.C. walks on that road well travelled today; the products are designed and built in the global economy. In fact, CEO and chief designer Carlos Candeias relocated from his home in Germany to the East to ensure traditional high-end build quality values, using globally-sourced components. It clearly works; the company produces OEM products for audio’s great and good, including TEAC and, obviously, CEC.
The obvious aspect here is if you look to CEC’s higher-end CD players, you’ll find the BDCD1.1’s core structure of a belt-drive custom-made CD mechanism connected to the DAC via four BNC-BNC connectors. These cover left channel clock, right channel clock, bit clock and digital audio data respectively. Belt drive for a CD is a controversial choice, because a CD plays at constant linear velocity, rather than a fixed angular velocity. Where vinyl demands a precise and fixed number of revolutions per minute, the angular velocity of CD can be anywhere between 200rpm and 500rpm, in order to keep the scanning velocity at a constant 1.2 metres per second. In theory, any advantages of flywheel effect from the clamp and the belt drive smoothing out cogging effects from a motor should be irrelevant. However, the words “in theory” and “should be” are key; in the real-world, belt-drive has its strong support from brands like Burmester, CEC, and B.M.C., and there is a commonly held idea that belt-drive just sounds smoother than rigid CAV direct drive mechanisms; whether you agree or not, all these players are noted for their smooth, ‘un-digital’ sound.
Both CD player and DAC use the same Burr-Brown PCM1792 DAC chips in balanced mode, but in the DAC that is far from the whole story. In place of the regular current-to-voltage conversion chip after the DAC, B.M.C. uses a custom discrete and proprietary ‘current injection’ module. This creates a balanced voltage output, which is fed to the balanced output stage, which is in actuality a cascaded set of single-ended Class A outputs with an independent circuit constantly measuring the current inside the voltage stage to supply external, phase independent current. This meets a floating voltage cascode stage, and the result doesn’t just correct THD (as in a feedback loop), it avoids harmonic distortion; this is dubbed LEF (load effect free) in B.M.C. parlance. In short, this is the product of an engineer’s engineer.
The DAC1PreHR is designed to be the bridge between today’s increasingly digital oriented world (it has four conventional digital inputs, the four Superlink connector input, and asynchronous USB capable of 32bit, 384kHz processing) but also features two single-ended, one balanced, and one balanced line output analogue preamp module. It also has a pair of what look like Toslink connectors, to connect the preamp direct to the CS2 stereo integrated, which becomes a power amp slave to the preamp.
The pre has front panel options of flat (linear phase) or pulse (apodizing) filter settings, the option of 32x and 128x oversampling, a separate upsampler, and the option of a 3dB boost. I found, in my own listening, that I gravitated toward the ‘pulse’ setting (apodizing filters typically have a small treble roll-off in the process of minimizing pre-ringing at the 22.05kHz brick wall of a 44.1kHz sample, but weighed against the improvement in overall performance, this roll-off was more than a welcome trade-off). I also found the over-and-up samplers were best applied according to taste; the better the recording, the more the benefit to both oversampling and upsampling. By way of contrast, a poor recording was best left ‘as is’.
Where the DAC1PreHR goes from ‘clever’ to ‘genius’ is in its ‘DIGM’ (discrete intelligent gain management) system, which only comes to life when used in an all B.M.C. system. Unlike most volume controls, that are either active gain stages or signal attenuators, DIGM works with the signal unsullied. And it’s where those little extra Toslink connectors come into their own; they pass a trigger signal to the power amplifier stage in the integrated or power amplifier, to alter its amplification factor directly. In the process, cutting out a lot of gain interstages. This is almost like the Power DAC concept touted by Wadia and Devialet, except in the analogue domain. We’ll cover this in some length in the subsequent review of the integrated amplifier, but suffice it to say, it’s one of the most clever, innovative and, in retrospect, obvious steps forward in amplifier design we’ve seen in some years, because it creates what can only be described as a systemic gain structure. And, best of all, it works. Outside of the full B.M.C. system, volume control is from a digitally controlled, resistor ladder array chip.
However you use them tonally, the CD and DAC duo is extremely neutral in character. Some electronics seem to push the music forward in an exciting manner, while others hold it back to create a sense of additional space and image width. The B.M.C. duo is rare in that it walks a more honest path between these two extremes.
‘Honest’ is the word most commonly appearing on the note pad when listening to the B.M.C. duo. The high frequency performance is extended (even on the apodizing filter) and real sounding, the midrange is honest and neutral, and the bass is natural without being over-extended. The overall balance is on the ‘dark’ side, but this is just a perfect foil for the exaggerated ‘shiny’ and ‘forward’ presentations found in most audio today.
This tonal balance and inherent ‘honest’ presentation doesn’t lend itself toward a specific genre or genres of music. If you like classical music, you’ll think it was designed with classical music in mind. If you are a headbanger, you’ll think the designer wore the same Metallica T-Shirt for the entire process. “The designer must play sax,” say the saxophone players. “He clearly knows his guitar licks,” says the Jim Hall copycat. In other words, it holds a mirror up to your own musical tastes; the good news means, it will grow with your musical tastes too.
However, if you are hoping for a sound that pretties up your music, this isn’t the system for you. While it doesn’t lay the music bare, it will not forgive heavy-handed signal compression, poor mixing, or bad mastering. This extends to data reduction too, but with the caveat that ‘good recording, high-rate MP3’ still sounds very good. You will find yourself actively seeking out the best masters where possible, but the B.M.C. is ‘discerning’ rather than ‘fussy’.
The sound is also more cerebral than earthy. Bass is deep, dynamic, powerful, and controlled, rather than full, fat, and rich, and this gives the overall presentation (in most cases) a sense of rising up out of a solid foundation of deep bass notes. The exception is James Blake’s ‘Our Love Comes Back’ from his second album Overgrown [Atlas/A&M], a more reflective album of not dubstep compared to his eponymous first. Here, the treated piano, the falsetto voice and the repetitive drum sound more like there’s too much air, not enough foundation. In fairness, this is as much a criticism of the music as the B.M.C. system, but some will make the synth kick drum sound more mournful, better underpinning the music as a result. Personally, I’m happy with the greater control and will take that over a possibly false sense of bass weight any time.
While I’m not factoring in the third link in the chain, there’s one big thing that can’t be missed – consistency. Naturally, I separated the three B.M.C. components, tried them individually, in partnership, in different combinations, and different configurations. I used the CD player as a player, as a transport into the DAC1PreHR, and as a transport into other DACs. I used the DAC1PreHR with the CD player, with other players, with USB, and as a line preamplifier. And I did similar fiddling round with the amplifier, using it both in integrated and power amplifier modes. What I got from all of this is they all do an equally good, and remarkably consistent, performance. Granted, everything shifts into higher gear when you use the five cable ‘Superlink’, use balanced inputs and outputs, and run them as transport, DAC/Pre, and power amplifier, but the performance is so consistent, you’ll get close no matter how you join them together. I take this as a sure sign of good engineering in action.
The downside? It doesn’t do DSD or UPnP streaming, and for some that marks the end of the review, regardless of how good the B.M.C. devices sound. Also, the B.M.C. pairing is best used balanced. If you connect to a system that only sports single-ended inputs, you won’t be disappointed. It’s just that the balanced operation is a big step up on single-ended and if you can take advantage of that, you should.
That aside, there is a little bit of getting used to how the large knobs work (it’s fairly obvious in the DAC1PreHR as preamp, but the turn/push action of the CD player/transport might require a brief learning curve). In addition, I’d like for the Toslink like communications port (that connects DAC to amp) to include the CD player, if only so that I could press just one ‘dim’ button to lower the light level. And, er, that’s kind of it. I feel like I am abandoning my duty as a reviewer by not finding something to pull apart here, but there really isn’t anything to pull apart. In fact, what’s so strong about the B.M.C. concept is it resists pulling apart. This is clearly equipment that has been designed to work as a team; the individual components are excellent in and of themselves, but there is even greater synergy in partnership, showing that the designer is thinking beyond components as separate entities to consider how they work together.
This is how high-end is supposed to be. The B.M.C. BDCD1.1 and DAC1PreHR sound good. They sound good on their own, and sound even better together. They don’t sound ‘good for the money’ and they don’t sound like ‘high-end’; they just sound intrinsically right. Whenever I encounter products of this quality, it gives me hope for the future of audio; but when they don’t cost as much as a private jet, that hope just gets a whole lot sweeter.
BDCD1.1 CD transport/player
Digital outputs: Coaxial RCA, BNC, Toslink S/PDIF, AES/EBU, 4x BNC Superlink
Analogue outputs: 2x RCA stereo pair line, 1x XLR stereo pair
Frequency Response: 20Hz-20kHz (flat filter): +0/-0.3dB; 20Hz-20kHz (pulse filter): +0/-2.5; THD+N: 0.006% (0dBFS, digital)
Signal to noise ratio: -115dB
Dimensions (WxHxD): 43.5×9.9x32cm
Inputs: Digital: Coaxial RCA, BNC, Toslink S/PDIF, AES/EBU (all to 24/192 resolution), USB (to 32/394 resolution), 4x BNC Superlink
Analogue: 2x RCA stereo pair line, 1x XLR stereo pair
Outputs: fixed line-level XLR stereo pair, main fixed/variable RCA stereo pair, XLR stereo pair. 2x DIGM links to B.M.C. amplifier
Frequency Response: 20Hz-20kHz (flat filter): +0/-0.25dB; 20Hz-20kHz (pulse filter): +0/-1.75dB; THD+N: 0.006% (0dBFS, digital), 0.0008% (1Vrms, preamp)
Signal to noise ratio: -110dB (digital), -130dB (preamp)
Dimensions (WxHxD): 43.5×7.8x32cm
Manufacturer: B.M.C. Audio GmbH
UK Distributor: Colab Audio Ltd
Tel: +44(0)7768 720456