The BC-1 Mk-II linestage preamplifier and the BP-1 Mk-II 500Wpc stereo amplifier from celebrated Japanese audio engineer Fumio Ohashi of Bridge Audio Laboratory (BAlabo) are the most exquisitely beautiful sounding audio components I’ve yet heard—tube or solid-state. Thanks to the fact that they are among the highest-resolution preamps and amps I’ve heard, they are also among the most persuasively lifelike. That said, let me quickly note that the BAlabo’s brand of realism is a bit sugarcoated. The “trouble,” if you want to call it that—and I don’t, as you will see—is that the BP-1 and the BC-1 (in particular) tend to make everything sound beautiful, even poorer recordings. In this regard, they are highly reminiscent of the TW-Acustic turntables—and for good reasons.
Like the TW Raven AC-3, the BAlabo electronics are audibly superior at reproducing the full durations of notes, at spinning out the harmonic series of any instrument at any pitch in a way that makes timbres sound exceptionally dense and lifelike in color. Some amps and preamps—particularly Class A/B solid-state—tend to condense the harmonic series, giving you more starting transient and fundamental and less steady-state tone and decay. The BAlabo gear isn’t quite the polar opposite of this, since it is also superb at transients (particularly in the midband and the bass), but it is close to the opposite. The BC-1 and BP-1 unfold a note as if it were a piece of origami, only instead of a paper tiger or flower or bird you get a clarinet, a piano, a human voice. Just put on any recording with a stringed instrument—from Joan Baez’s guitar on her incomparable eponymous first album to Joni Mitchell’s dulcimer throughout Blue to Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg’s violin in the Prokofiev First Violin Sonata—and you will instantly and unmistakably hear tone colors expand as they do with the TW-Acustic ’tables (and as they so often do in life, particularly if you’re seated close by the instruments). It’s as if everything is being played sostenuto and being recorded with Neumann M-49 triode-powered condenser mikes.
To be fair—and once again like the TW-Acustic ’tables—even as they get richer and more voluptuous, you will also hear tone colors darken with the BAlabo components, as if the instruments sounding them were playing in a pit orchestra or a small club rather than on a large open stage. This overall darkness is not a matter of veiling in the treble, although the BAlabo’s top end is just a little softer and sweeter and less explosively dynamic than that of, oh, the dead-center-neutral Soulution gear I raved about a few issues ago (or than the equally dark and very nearly as lovely-sounding MBL electronics). Nor is it a question of a humped-up bass—the BAlabo’s grip, definition, and realism in the low end are (alongside the MBL 9011) standard-setting in my experience. And it is certainly not a result of any kind of midrange opacity. As noted, the BAlabo electronics are among the highest-resolution audio components I’ve ever heard, retrieving fresh low-level details about dynamics, tone colors, and instrumental textures from every disc in rather the same way that the Soulution gear does, although, here, the details don’t add up to an entirely new gestalt as they did with the Soulution 720 and 710/700. (At the time that I reviewed them, I’d never before heard anything that sounded quite as transparent-to-sources as the Soulution components; in the MBL electronics, I have heard gear that sounds similar to BAlabo’s offerings, although, perhaps, not quite as voluptuously beautiful or as finely detailed.)
There could be all sorts of technical reasons for the BAlabo’s overall Class A-like richness and darkness, from bandwidth to transistor-biasing. Whatever those reasons are, I’m certain that the BC-1 and BP-1’s “yin” tonal palette was a deliberate design choice. Ohashi simply wanted his gear to sound ravishingly beautiful—the way music often sounds in life and almost always sounds in our memories.
How he achieved this unstinting gorgeousness appears to be more than just a matter of using the highest-quality parts in exceptional circuits. Ohashi seems to have laid equal emphasis on lowering noise of every kind. Both amp and preamp use “unique” internal grounding schemes to eliminate stray intra-channel currents. Signal ground-plane connectors on amp and preamp, which require the use of a specially designed (and, at $2k, very expensive) grounding wire, reduce differences in the ground potential between preamp and amp, while the built-in power-line filters and rectifiers lower AC line noise and the massive, superbly built, constrained-layer (aluminum/steel/polymer) chassis disperse mechanical resonances. Everything that could be done to control the propagation of noise generated from outside and from inside the preamp and amp has been done. Add this to the generous use of custom-made caps and resistors, a “post-attenuation scheme” in the BC-1 MkII preamp that amplifies line-level signals at the input stage (before they reach the volume control), and the preamp’s absolutely heroic (and positively gigantic) 58-position volume attenuator that looks like something from Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, is said to be accurate to 0.2dB at every position, and uses thick copper plates between each of its eight sections to shield against noise and absorb vibration, and you get a preamp and amp that achieve S/N ratios of >110dB. BAlabo may not have gone about it in quite the same way as Soulution did with the Switzers’ very-high-speed, very-high-bandwidth, very-high-negative-feedback circuits (and it may not have achieved quite the same astonishingly low noise floor that Soulution did in its 720 preamp and 700/710 amps), but Ohashi’s goal was the same as Christoph Schürmann’s—to reduce noise, increase low-level resolution, and improve musical realism. In my opinion he has succeeded across the board.
Starting in the bottom end, the BC-1 and BP-1 are simply the best I’ve heard at controlling and articulating the bass of the mighty Magico M5s. Here they narrowly edge out the Soulution combos, which are just a tad “bigger,” fuller, and not as tightly defined (although some might find the Soulution’s size, weight, and bloom more natural). As a result, you hear more bass-range detail, both transient and timbral, a bit more clearly through the BAlabo gear. (At least you do if you use Magico M5s.) Drums doubling electric bass, cellos doubling violas, harps doubling contrabasses (as, for instance, in the Passacaglia of the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra), any bass-range instruments playing similar pitches simultaneously are very clearly delineated by the BC-1 and BP-1, as are individual instrumentalists in orchestral choirs. And, of course, you get the added bonus of the BAlabo’s gorgeous reproduction of timbres.
The BAlabo’s midrange is a thing of utter beauty—so sweet, so finely detailed, so rich and fully articulated, so much like the real thing (heard close by). It is also fast, startlingly dynamic in impact (snapped strings or pounded piano chords or rim shots will astonish you), and, yes and for all its virtues, definitely on the dark side. That darkness does not keep voices and instruments from sounding real, BTW. However, it also, at the same time, tends to make them sound a bit more like hi-fi. To put this differently, a tonal balance that is as skewed toward the dark and rich side as that of the BAlabo gear (or the MBL gear, for that matter) won’t prevent you from thrilling and delighting to the music in precisely the same ways that hearing real musicians in a real acoustic thrills and delights. But the “sameness” of the presentation—the beautification of every recording—tends to remind you that you’re listening to a stereo. There is “real” and there is “hi-fi real.” The BAlabo leans towards the latter.
The treble range of the BAlabo is, as noted, sweet, soft, and, like the rest of the amp and preamp’s tonal palette, dark. Indeed, minus the darkness and softness it is a bit like the treble range of the Magico M5 (as was that of the Soulution gear). You’re simply not aware that there is separate treble information in the music until a piccolo comes flitting along or a cymbal gets struck—and then, like it’s popped up out of nowhere, you get the whole instrument, its dynamics and its timbre and its decay, albeit slightly more sweetly and darkly than what you’ll get from the Soulution gear.
The BAlabo’s soundstaging is quite good, but not great. (For great, see the Soulution review.) It is just a little bit narrower in width, a little more laid-back in depth, a little more closed-in in height than the very best I’ve heard.
Despite all this talk about “hi-fi real” and “darkness,” I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression. I love the sound of the BAlabo gear. I love listening to equipment that makes beautiful music sound beautiful, and I’m more than willing to overlook those few occasions where I know the BAlabo is making a record sound lovelier than it ought to sound. I know this is not very “audiophile” of me, but I’m a music lover before I’m an equipment reviewer and though it is necessary in my trade to use the gear that most clearly reveals things about other equipment, if I want to listen for sheer pleasure I quite honestly enjoy listening to the BAlabo just as much as I do the equipment from Soulution. (There is a third contender for Top Honors in my little pantheon of solid-state—the amps and preamp from Naoto Kurosawa of Technical Brain, which I will report on later in the year, along with summarizing how each of these great amps and preamps from Japan and Switzerland compare and contrast.)
I’m going to end this review as I ended my Soulution review. The way I see it there are three kinds of listeners (though these types tend to overlap): first, those who primarily want recorded instruments and voices to sound like live music—what I call the “absolute sound” type; second, those who want to hear exactly what has been recorded, whether it’s lifelike or not—what I call the “fidelity to mastertapes” type; and third, those who could care less about the absolute sound or mastertapes and just want to hear their music sound thrilling and beautiful—what I call the “as you like it” type. If you fall, primarily, into the third group—the “as you like it” type—but also lean strongly toward the first group—the “absolute sound” type—then the BAlabo equipment is tailor-made for you. Frankly, as I’ve already said, in certain moods and with many recordings it is tailor-made for me. I’ve never fully understood why a piece of gear has to periodically make records sound “bad” to pass audiophile muster. As long as the equipment also sounds persuasively lifelike—as the BAlabo most certainly does—what’s wrong with gorgeous? In my opinion, nothing. Hence, the BC-1 Mk-II and BP-1 Mk-II get my highest recommendation if they fit your listening biases. Without question, they are the most consistently beautiful-sounding electronics I’ve ever heard.
SIDEBAR: Set-up Notes and Further Thoughts
The BAlabo BC-1 Mk-II and BP-1 Mk-II are relatively easy to set up. Since they are both extraordinarily beautiful items with extensive built-in resonance controls, you will want to display them prominently in your room. You will also want some help uncrating them and moving them around. At 57 pounds, this is one heavy preamp, and in spite of its compact good looks the amp weighs in at 165 pounds. As noted in the review, BAlabo has gone to some pains to eliminate hum and noise that may arise from differences in the grounding potential of amp and preamp. To that end, you will have to connect a special cable between the ground-plane connector on the preamp and the ground-place connector on the amp. Although this cable costs $2k, it is, IMO, worth purchasing, as it does what BAlabo says it does: audibly reduces noise and increases resolution.
These BAlabo items are built with fanatical attention to detail and beautiful cosmetic/functional touches—you certainly will not feel cheated of your money if you buy them. For instance, the RCA inputs on the preamp and amp have little “doors” that collapse inward and upward when you plug an interconnect into them and keep out dust when the jacks aren’t being used. The amp has a six-position attenuator switch on the back, which allows you to hit the “sweet spot” on the preamp’s volume control (roughly between 11 and 3) by matching output levels to input levels. (I have to admit that I preferred the sound of the amp when the attenuator was set to max.) There are also two very cool-looking, lighted, power indicators on the front panel of the amp, which rise and fall with the power outputted by the BP-1. (As trick and useful as they are, once again I think the amp sounds its considerable best when the power indicators are turned off.)
Though I didn’t discuss this in the review proper, I did try the amp out with different preamps and it is clear to me that the BAlabo’s signature “darkness” and timbral richness is coming, primarily, from the preamp. Fed by a Soulution 720 linestage, the BP-1 Mk-II sounds remarkably like a Soulution 700 amp, albeit with considerably more power (for those of you who like to play loud, the thing is virtually inexhaustible), a bit less soundstage dimensionality, and sweeter timbres.
Of course, the primary reason for buying BAlabo gear, IMO, is its absolutely gorgeous tone colors, so mating it up with another manufacturer’s preamp doesn’t make a lot of sense. As I note in my review, this is a package designed for a certain kind of listener (who also has a lot of moolah). I found it enormously appealing and satisfying—and so did my listening panel (it was their favorite). If you want a different, more audiophile-neutral presentation, there are other options.
SPECS & PRICING
BAlabo BC-1 Mk-II
Type: Solid-state linestage preamp
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz, +0, -0.2dB; 5Hz–100kHz, +0, -1.0dB
S/N: 110 dB
Inputs: Two RCA (BNC optional), three balanced (XLR)
Tape loop: One pair in/out balanced (XLR)
Outputs: One pair RCA (BNC optional), one pair balanced (XLR)
Dimensions: 16.75” x 17.5” x 7.5”
Weight: 57 lbs.
BAlabo BP-1 MkII
Type: Stereo power amplifier
Power output: 500Wpc into 8 ohms
S/N: 110 dB
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz, +0, -0.1dB; 5Hz–100kHz +0, -1.0dB
Inputs: One pair RCA (BNC optional), one pair balanced (XLR)
Dimensions: 16.75” x 28.5” x 10.6”
Weight: 165 lbs.
JV’s Reference System
Loudspeakers: Magico M5, MartinLogan CLX, Focal Diablo Utopia
Linestage preamps: Audio Research Reference 5, Soulution 720, BAlabo BC-1 Mk-II
Phonostage preamps: Audio Research Reference 2, Audio Tekne TEA-2000, Lamm Industries LP-2 Deluxe
Power amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 610T, Soulution 700, Lamm ML-2, BAlabo BP-1 Mk-II
Analog source: Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond record player, AAS Gabriel/Da Vinci turntable with Da Vinci Grandezza and Nobile tonearms
Phono cartridges: Da Vinci Grandezza, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme, Clearaudio Goldfinger v2
Digital source: dCS Scarlatti with U-Clock, Soulution 740, ARC Reference CD8
Cable and interconnect: Tara Labs “Zero” Gold interconnect, Tara Labs “Omega” Gold speaker cable, Tara Labs “The One” Cobalt power cords, MIT Oracle MA-X interconnect, MIT Oracle MA speaker cable, Synergistic Research Absolute Reference speakers cables and interconnects, Audio Tekne Litz wire cable and interconnect
Accessories: Shakti Hallographs (6), A/V Room Services Metu acoustic panels and corner traps, ASC Tube Traps, Symposium Isis equipment stand, Symposium Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks, Symposium Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment stand, Walker Prologue amp stands, Shunyata Research Hydra V-Ray power distributor and Anaconda Helix Alpha/VX power cables, Tara Labs PM 2 AC Power Screens, Shunyata Research Dark Field Cable Elevators, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Winds Arm Load meter, Clearaudio Double Matrix record cleaner, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses