Issue No. 2 1998
by Victor Chavira
I am not a preamp user. The last preamp I had, in my primitive system of years ago, was an Adcom GTP400. I haven't been using a preamp because I didn't see the logic of having a control device in the signal path when all I listen to is CDs. My motive for reviewing the Alternate Audio BCAP was pure curiosity. I am deeply familiar with the sound of my system, and knew that if the BCAP did anything bad to the sound, I would know it in an instant. What I heard surprised me.
Before I comment on the BCAP, I must report upon a cable upgrade to my system. In the last issue I described the speed and transparency accomplished in my system by the Nordost SPM cables and interconnects. Because of this, I found it difficult to return to my Tara Labs RSC Prime 1000 biwire and Kimber PBJ. Nordost Super Flatline yielded little improvement over the RSC Prime, so I tried Nordost's Blue Heavens, which are of similar composition to the top-of-the-line SPMs, but more affordable.
When I first installed the Blue Heavens, the sound was dry and hard. At least 70 hours of break-in time are recommended by Nordost. To speed up the process, I left the system playing the busy theme music from the Men in Black soundtrack while I was at work. After several days of this, the cables began to sound fresh and alive. Sound seemed to flow unimpeded from the CD player to the amp to the speakers and finally to my ears, as if part of a grand harmonious cycle. All listening to the BCAP was done with the Blue Heavens in the system. Aesthetically, the BCAP is an illustration of simplicity of design. The 1 3/4"-high unit sports a thick, wide, aluminum faceplate. On the left are three grey, smooth-turning, machined aluminum controls for volume, balance, and input selection.
These controls are backlit by a pale red light. On the right are two small switches for mute and power. Actually, power is turned on from the rear with a rocker switch, and the front switch functions as standby. The preamp was placed atop the CD player and connected to the wall socket with the detachable power cord provided. I connected it to my CD player with an additional pair of .5 meter Blue Heaven interconnect. Although by adding an active component and another set of interconnects to my system, I added to the potential for sonic degradation, the system paradoxically benefitted by allowing the CD player to function at full throttle, thereby avoiding the degradations of the digital volume control.
What I heard from my system with the BCAP installed was much more than could be accounted for by eliminating the digital volume control. To begin with, the soundstage became much wider and deeper. Most of the finer speakers I have heard accomplish this trick by projecting the sounds of cowbells and other small percussion instruments far beyond what an experienced listener might expect, as if the sounds were emanating from midair. Sure, Maggie's do imaging well, but I have never perceived images so acutely, so detached from the transducer as I did with the BCAP in the system.
Bass was another revelation. I was astounded by how much better bass sounded with the BCAP. Acoustic and electric bass sounded vibrant yet balanced with all the other harmonic elements in the music. This was observed while listening to Sunflower by Tito Puente and the Latin Jazz Golden All Stars, Volume 1. I had always perceived this live CD to be poorly recorded, as bassist Andy Gonzalez could barely be heard under the driving percussion and lead flute. Now, however, I could practically see Andy plucking away at his baby bass, playing against the steady meters of conga and timbale. His notes were more legato than the muted staccato I hear without the BCAP. Bass drums were also more realistically displayed. At times I felt as if drummers were dancing on their bass drums rather than just stepping in the pedals to keep time.
Music sounded much more dynamic with the BCAP. This was not only true of large orchestral music and rock, but of gentle sounds such as strums on a guitar.
A few words are in order here about component interaction and compatibility. My Audio Electronics CD1 has an output of about three volts at 410 ohms. The BCAP has a maximum output of 15 volts at 10 ohms. The input impedance for the BCAP is 18k ohms versus 100k ohms for my Anthem Amp 1. I'll leave it up to technically minded readers to interpret these numbers and how they may have contributed to what I was hearing.
Next I decided to do some comparison listening with and without the BCAP in place. The first tune I listened to-with the BCAP-was Atardecer by Ensamble Gurrufio on Dorian Discovery. The flute had a nice silvery sheen. I could discern the shape of the Venezuelan cuatro. I could differentiate between fingernails or fingertips on a string, and between slaps and strums. I could hear a string buzzing if it wasn't perfectly fretted. Bass sounded more legato. Without the BCAP, the flute sounded almost woody in character, as if made of bamboo. Bass was not as defined. However, room ambiance was rendered better without the BCAP.
The next disc I listened to was McCoy Tyner's The Music of Burt Bacharach, Trio with Symphony. The second track is a lovely rendition of What the World Needs Now Is Love. Anyone who appreciates the art of arranging and orchestrating will enjoy John Clayton's marvelous scoring of this timeless music. At the introduction to the theme, a French horn plays a long muted note for several measures that is followed by clarinet, cello, the string section, and finally the trio. It is a sublime musical moment. With the preamp in the system, I noticed how quiet the background became.
Bass sounded firm and tall. Piano resounded truly. The string section, however, sounded as if the musicians were all playing in a straight line. With the preamp removed, the clarinet resonated with woodiness. Room noise was noticeable. On the other hand, bass images were not as defined, and notes on the left-hand chords of the piano blended a bit. Changes in loudness were not as dynamic. Nevertheless, the string section stepped out of its straight line, and spread out within the soundstage. This trend was repeated when I listened to Paco de Lucia's interpretation of Joauqin Rodrigo's Concerto de Aranjuez. With the BCAP, there was little hall noise and ambiance. Strings tended to sound as if they were arranged in a straight line. Oboe sounded less reedy. Without the BCAP, there was noticeable hall noise and ambiance. Music and musicians sounded more layered. The sonic characteristics I have described in no way detracted from the many hours of musical enjoyment I derived from the BCAP.
This product changed my understanding about what a preamp is supposed to do.
From an amplifier's point of view, there is just no substitute for a good clean signal to work with. Of all the components I have had the pleasure of listening to thus far, the BCAP interacted the most synergistically with my system, improving dynamics and imaging, and adding versatility. The only things that may detract from the BCAP's appeal for some buyers are: it has no phono stage, no headphone jack, no tape loop, and no phase inversion.
If you are looking for set-and-play simplicity and hours of musical enjoyment, the BCAP may be just the thing for you. It should give many years of satisfaction.
- Victor Chavira