Blue Circle Audio Li'l703 Phono Stage

"Li'l" doesn't mean "compromised."

by John Crossett | December 19, 2012

lue Circle owner, designer, chief cook and bottle washer Gilbert Yeung is an inveterate tinkerer. It doesn't matter if an idea comes from his fertile imagination or the seed is planted by suggestions from an outside source: If Gilbert sees merit, he builds a prototype to determine if the idea can come to fruition to his exacting standards. Thus, when a customer mentioned to Gilbert that despite the fact that he loved the Blue Circle BC703 phono stage he really needed a smaller unit, it was exactly the type of challenge that Gilbert couldn't resist. So he designed the Li'l703, which is half the size of his top phono stage -- and exactly what his customer was looking for. Unsurprisingly, that customer was thrilled. I can imagine others being just as happy, as the Li'l703 definitely delivers the sonic goods along with its smaller footprint.

Price: $2200; Really Big power supply (as reviewed), $700.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Blue Circle Audio
RR2
Innerkip, Ontario
Canada N0J 1M0
(519) 469-3215
www.bluecircle.com

Measuring just 8" x 8" x 3" and weighing in at 4.5 pounds, the solid-state Li'l703 has the same specifications and internal settings as the full-sized BC703, just built onto a scaled-down board. While I'm sure Gilbert could have squeezed a power supply of some kind into the chassis, it most likely would have been inadequate for the job and seriously compromised the sonics. So instead he built the Li'l703 to accept any of his Thingee external power supplies. Gilbert shipped the review unit with the Really Big ($700), but you can also use either the Biggie Pipe ($275) or the Power Supply iaB (for "in a box," $1495), or you can wait for the dedicated Li'l703 power supply to come later. All attach via an XLR jack.

The Li'l703 is a moving-coil-only design, though you can order it with an optional moving-magnet stage if you wish. The MC gain setting is internal but user adjustable for 61dB, 67dB, 75dB, 81dB or 87dB, which allows users of all MC cartridges, including those with the very lowest output, to set the ideal amount of gain. (Should you order the MM stage, it comes fixed at 42dB.) Load can be set at 100, 220, 470, or 1k ohms, or you can have the factory set a specific value if the standard choices don't meet your needs. Frequency response is claimed to be 10Hz to 100kHz +/- 0.1 dB, with the rumble filter off. The rumble-filter cutoff frequency is 18Hz.

The front panel of the Li'l703 sports only the circular Blue Circle logo and the unit's name. This simple, no-nonsense design looks mighty classy. Around back there was one major surprise. Not only were there the MC and (for those who order it) MM gold-plated RCA input jacks, but a pair of gold-plated RCA output jacks and a pair of balanced XLRs as well. Wow, balanced outputs on a unit this small. They signal that the Li'l703 is truly balanced. I tried both outputs and much preferred the balanced (which also increase gain by 6dB), so that was how I did all of my listening. Other than that, there is a butterfly nut for ground and the XLR jack for the power supply.

he Li'l703 replaced my full-sized Audio Research PH6, and I was immediately struck by how neutral the sound of the pint-sized phono stage was. The first LP I cued up on the VPI was Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman [A&M SP 4280]. Stevens' acoustic guitar strums on the opening track, "Where Do The Children Play," were quick and sharply rendered. I could get a real sense of fingers drifting over the strings and those strings reacting, exciting the wooden body of the guitar and reproducing sound with little or nothing in the way. Stevens' distinctive deep, raspy voice was reproduced with an accuracy that made me sit up and take the Li'l703 much more seriously. This, despite its small stature, is definitely no toy. There was nothing "li'l" about the way it reproduced the Cat Stevens album, nothing that even faintly whispered "compromise."

Okay then, I reasoned, let's wheel out some of the standard test LPs -- ones I love for both the music and the sound -- and see how well the Li'l703 stands up to them. I figured I wouldn't waste any time, so I reached for Clifford Curzon's recording of Mozart Piano Concertos Nos.20 & 27 [London CS 7251], because it's one of the best-sounding records I own -- and I love Mozart. Curzon teamed up with Benjamin Britten and the English Chamber Orchestra for a world-class performance of these two concerti, and even though Curzon wasn't completely happy with his interpretation of Concerto No.27, I consider his version a masterpiece. The Li'l703 shone in every way. The piano seemed to leap from the speakers, placing me at the recording session, hearing detail as small as Curzon's fingers tapping on the keys, those keys banging on the strings and the vibration of those strings bouncing off the soundboard. The sense of an actual live presence was among the best I've heard. Add in an orchestral sound that was both full-sized and yet individually detailed and again the Li'l703 demonstrated that it could hold its own in any company, never shying away from the limelight. One trait the Curzon LP demonstrated was that the Li'l703 set the music a little forward, as opposed to being laid-back. There was never any need for me to "lean into" the music -- or the performance. The Li'l703 set it all right in front of me.

The next album I plucked from my shelves was the Classic Records reissue of Duke Ellington's Jazz Party In Stereo [Columbia/Classic Records CS 8127). On the opening track, Ellington is backed by a stage full of percussion. The Li'l703's crisp, clean, open sound allowed each different instrument to display its own unique sonic signature and stand apart from the rest of the crowd. From the sound of the seeds moving as the shaker was rattled, to the padded mallets striking the surface of the metal bars on the xylophone, to the strike of the wooden drumstick on the brass cymbal, each was unique and distinct yet still a part of the whole -- exactly as each should be, in other words.

Along with its crisp, clear presentation, the Ellington LP demonstrated a way with dynamic swing. A full-on big band can, under the right circumstances, blow you out of your seat with its power; yet, at the same time, it can mesmerize you with its delicacy. The Li'l703 could handle both ends of the scale with ease. There was no sense of stress when the band played full forte, and no colorations overlaying it when it slowed things down. I attributed much of this to the separate power supply -- quite literally the power behind what is undoubtedly an excellent circuit, but also an attractive feature in itself, offering both a range of purchasing options as well as an upgrade path. If you want more, then I'm sure there's more to be had -- just move to an even bigger power supply.

Another jazz LP that I love to pull out is Dave Bailey's One Foot in the Gutter [Epic/Classic Records BA 17008], with its lucid, in-the-studio sound. Listen to this LP and you can only conclude that the Li'l703 is a top-quality phono stage. There is a very real sense of being in the room with the musicians, a quality that eludes lesser phono stages. Via the Li'l703, I heard just what was captured on this recording. Each performer was located in his own space set within the overarching studio acoustic. The front line of Junior Cook on tenor sax, Clark Terry on trumpet, and Curtis Fuller on trombone could be heard -- and almost seen -- as distinct and individual. I could hear the breath of each, and how the tones were shaped by the bodies of the instruments. Behind the front line the rhythm section of Bailey on drums, Peck Morrison on bass and Horace Parlan on piano were conspicuous for both the clarity of their placement and the cleanness of their sound. Morrison's stand-up bass was appropriately large and woody, Parlan's piano had the quick hammer-striking-string sound, and Bailey's drums had just the right amount of snap as the drumstick hit the skins.

When it comes to soundstaging, the Li'l703 is both good and not quite so good. In terms of width, the Blue Circle phono stage can stand with any I've heard. From side to side there was plenty of space between instruments. But, it did seem to foreshorten depth a bit more than some of the best phono stages I've heard. Not that its presentation is flat -- it's not. It just doesn't reach as far into the rear corners, the outer reaches of the soundstage. But this is mitigated by its clarity and immediacy, qualities that I found truly addictive.

Thanks largely to that robust outboard power supply, the Li'l703 can reproduce bass that is both clean and deep. Peck Morrison's solo on "Well, You Needn't" was a thing of beauty. I heard both the pluck of individual strings as well as how those plucks excited the large wooden cavity of the bass's body. The resulting notes were clearly rendered and well placed, forming the perfect underpinning for the balance of the band.

espite the Li'l703 being completely solid state and my Audio Research PH6 ($3495) having tubes, the sonic differences between the two were not as large as you might think. There are two reasons for this. First, the PH6 doesn't sound like some lesser tube units -- all warm and fuzzy. Second, the Li'l703 doesn't sound like unfulfillling solid-state units -- all dry and sterile. Both phono stages maximize their respective strengths while lessening their dependence on traits usually associated with their design. No, the Li'l703 will never be mistaken for a tube phono stage, and the PH6 is never going to pass muster as a solid-state design, but the gap between these two is no longer the chasm that always seemed to keep these two technologies apart. Where the Li'l703 tilts ever so slightly to a lean, clear, sharp reproduction of the music that passes through it, with tight bass and pristine highs, the PH6 fills out the sound a bit more, slightly softening the sonic presentation and rounding the edges of individual notes. Its bass, while deep, isn't quite as tight, and though its highs are also pristine, they aren't quite as sharply rendered.

On a musical level the two again come far closer than is usual for a solid-state vs. tube comparison. For those who have listened to Audio Research gear, you’ll recognize its house sound -- one that emphasizes the whole over the parsing of the individual instruments. It’s not that it shortchanges delineation and detail; it's more the difference between sitting in row M versus row C and the commensurate view of the music's entirety. The Li’l703, on the other hand, puts you right there at the front of the audience. You hear more detailed instrumental nuance than from the PH6 while never losing the overall sense of the ensemble.

Overall, both are enjoyable and both make the music played though them come wonderfully alive. They are similar enough that both will find favor, but on the basis of their relative strengths rather than system synergy. Put another way, which of the two you prefer will be a matter of taste rather than design. I could very easily live with the Li'l703 as my reference phono stage, despite the fact that the PH6 fits me just fine.

on't let the scaled-down size of the Li'l703 fool you into thinking that it represents a compromise. Gilbert Yeung would never allow such a product to leave his bench. For many a listener, the small footprint and two-box format will be positives. Unless you simply can't accept a piece of gear that isn't of traditional size (I'm guessing that would be for emotional reasons, as no other objections make sense), then the Li'l703 may well rock your boat. It offers far greater sonic performance than its diminutive dimensions suggest, and does so with both finesses and power. No, it's not perfect -- if such a beast exists anywhere -- but it offers a beguiling combination of strengths that may have you reaching for your checkbook, while your mind is already imagining the hours you're about to spend listening to its vivid presentation.

Once again, Blue Circle's Gilbert Yeung has demonstrated that if an idea has merit, he can find a way to make it work. The Li'l703 was just what the doctor ordered for one customer, and after listening to it you might be asking for the same prescription.

Associated Equipment

Analog: VPI HW-19 Mk IV turntable, SME 309 tonearm, Lyra Argo i and Audio-Technica AT-OC9ML/II moving-coil cartridges, Clearaudio Maestro moving-magnet cartridge, Audio Research PH6 phono stage.

Digital: Oppo DV-981HD universal player.

Preamplifier: Audio Research LS17.

Power amplifiers: Raysonic M100 monoblocks.

Loudspeakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v3.

Interconnects: Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval.

Speaker cables: Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8.

Power conditioner: Blue Circle BC6000.

Power cords: Harmonic Technologies Pro AC-11, Analysis Plus Power Oval 10.

Equipment rack and platforms: two Archetype Salamander three-shelf racks; Symposium Svelte shelves, Ultra Platform, Isis shelf, Roller Block Series 2+, Roller Block Jr’s, and Fat Padz.

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