". . .electronics that compete on the highest levels at prices that don't."
hinese manufacturing has had a huge impact on the consumer-electronics market, and the effect on the snack-sized piece that's high-end audio has been largely proportional. Chinese-made products and Chinese brands have hit the audiophile marketplace with a vengeance, some of them having high-end cred and others existing for the purpose of mere commodization -- getting the money from consumers while the getting is good.
All of this makes the story of B.M.C., or Balanced Music Concept, for those who prefer full names to initials, that much more interesting. B.M.C. products are engineered in Germany but manufactured in China to standards that rival the big names in America and Europe.
Like so many of the established audio companies of today, B.M.C. is the result of the ambition and drive of one man, in its case Carlos Candeias, a trained musician of Portuguese and Spanish descent who grew up and studied electrical engineering in Germany. Carlos is a true renaissance man, able to converse as easily about music as he is circuit design or international monetary policy -- in no less than six languages. He is one of those natural learners, someone for whom the devouring of information comes as easily and naturally as breathing.
Candeias has been creating and manufacturing audio electronics for more than twenty years, producing designs and consumer-ready products for brands such as CEC, AQVOX and TEAC. B.M.C. is a different animal altogether. First, it is Carlos's brand, incorporating his very original ideas about how to design and implement an entire system of audio components -- digital and analog electronics, speakers, even cables. Second, B.M.C. products go far beyond most Chinese brands in terms of parts quality, using, among other things, proprietary caps and resistors that Carlos has designed himself.
Finally, B.M.C. has a truly unique sales model, one that turns the traditional relationship between manufacturer and retailer on its head. B.M.C. makes it attractive for dealers to buy demonstration units, and when sales are made, the company aids dealers again by collecting the money from the customer, drop shipping, and then -- the real novelty here -- paying the dealer. This approach yields a number of potential advantages, including the protection of list prices. B.M.C. receives the money, so it knows what consumers are paying for its products and can simply refuse a sale if the price is below an acceptable threshold.
It takes a special product line to ensure the success of such an arrangement -- one whose perceived value is high enough to give dealers motivation to sell it without discounting. While the price of B.M.C. products is not bottom-basement, when you know a bit about each one and, moreover, when you hear them all together, you understand just how integral they are to this fascinating new way of selling audio equipment.
Most companies making audio gear have their special terminology, and B.M.C. has more of this than average (which I've exhaustively calculated at 2.11 buzzwords per brand). All of it, however, has a technical backbone that makes real sense when you consider how amps, preamps, DACs and phono stages traditionally function together and how that might be improved upon, at least in a theoretical sense (musical sense is another matter completely).
At the heart of B.M.C.'s system of electronics are a few ideas that Candeias feels are integral to an audio system achieving its highest performance. Three of these work together: LEF, CI and DIGM. LEF stands for Load Effect Free. While power amplifiers today fall quickly into categories based on their operating modes -- class A, class AB, class D -- LEF adds a few new letters to this alphabet soup, producing amplification that is not dependent on the traditional use of (or engineering around) feedback of any kind. Among the further advantages of an LEF amp like the M2 are its ability to deliver voltage independent of current -- no small feat when it comes to driving a complex speaker load -- and its single gain stage, less in this case definitely being more. Carlos calls LEF his "most significant breakthrough."
CI stands for Current Injection, and it's the way in which B.M.C. electronics process the incoming analog signal, in effect doing what the term implies. Instead of a traditional voltage-gain stage, B.M.C. electronics act as current-to-voltage converters, the strength of the signal relying on the impedance of the source, not its voltage. This has its most intriguing manifestation in the MCCI phono stage, with the cartridge's voltage output not being as important as its impedance, lower being better.
DIGM stands for Discrete Intelligent Gain Management and applies to the way in which B.M.C. electronics handle the fundamental task of controlling volume. In a traditional preamp-amp pairing, the amplifier's full output is at the ready at all times, and the preamp attenuates the signal from the source, adjusting it, and the system volume, up and down with the volume control. With B.M.C. electronics, the DAC/preamp still makes the adjustments, but in the gain of the amplifier. Instead of the preamp adjusting its own output, in effect it adjusts the amplifier's ability to amplify. There are a number of advantages to this, perhaps the chief one being that the preamp no longer reduces the signal only to have the amplifier increase it afterwards. Again, less is more.
Superlink, another B.M.C. innovation, sounds grandiose, but it lives up to it. Digital connections have been standardized since the early 1990s, with the odd variation, such as I²S, gaining more notoriety than market traction. Superlink is about as elemental as a digital connection gets. S/PDIF, the best-known format, has one inherent problem: the entirety of the digital signal, including the data, clock information and subcode, all ride together on the same cable, requiring the DAC to parse them. Superlink separates them, splitting the data stream into its component parts -- data, master clock, bit clock and left-right information -- and carrying each on a separate BNC-terminated cable. The benefit is derived from the splitting of the data stream and corresponding reduction in the potential for the deleterious sonic effects of jitter. This is sort of what I²S does, but only sort of. Whereas I²S uses a single cable with multiple conductors, Superlink divides the signal among four individual cables. Superlink also puts the reference clock in the DAC, sending this to the CD transport. This keeps the point of lowest jitter where it belongs -- inside the DAC.
While all of this tech talk is interesting -- more so to some of us than others -- what it boils down to is not just circuitry that's hidden within each chassis. The way in which you connect all of the B.M.C. components not only takes fullest advantage of Carlos's circuit innovations, but also maximizes the sound quality of the entire system, and by no small degree. The M2 amps have one RCA and two XLR inputs, one specifically for CI connection to the DAC1 PRE (HR) DAC/preamp. Along with this is a pair of TosLink outputs on the DAC/preamp and a corresponding input on each M2 amp. These are data leads required for full CI connection, in which case the DAC/preamp adjusts the gain of the amplifiers. They also aid in the display of the volume level on the M2's impressive front-mounted meter, which shows the more traditional output in watts as well.
While the DAC/preamp and CD transport can be tethered to each other via one of the more standard digital connections, Superlink is by far the best in technical and sonic terms. B.M.C. includes four BNC-terminated cables with the BCDC1.1 CD player/transport for this purpose. While this is perhaps the BDCD1.1's most obvious design innovation, its drive mechanism is a close second, only because the idea is not new: CEC transports have had belt-drive mechanisms since the brand's beginnings. The combination of a belt drive and heavy clamp, which acts as a flywheel, on top of the disc makes for very stable and smooth speed adjustments, and it's a difference you can hear. Carlos is not a proponent of using the latest and greatest DAC chips for D-to-A conversion. "The DAC chips are very much overrated concerning the share of the overall sound quality," he emphatically told me. The DAC/preamp uses BurrBrown PCM1792 chips, though in a fully balanced configuration.
All that I've discussed above about the products, their circuitry and connections is really the condensed version. There is much more to LEF, CI, DIGM, Superlink, and indeed Carlos Candeias's design for his entire system of electronics, none of it mere technology for its own sake, all of it aimed at improving the sound of audio systems in which B.M.C. electronics are used. While Carlos can dazzle with his insights and ideas, he is resolutely an audiophile at heart, and he has designed his products -- and their proprietary circuits -- to serve audiophiles and their music, not some engineering dogma. I admire this.
The parts. . .
ith that out of the way, we can get down to a discussion of sound -- almost. While this is a review of an entire system, each product can of course be used in systems that don't use only B.M.C. electronics, and in this context each has its own sonic signature, although they all share a fundamental set of traits. I suspect that most buyers will start with one piece of the system and slowly add to it as intrigue in the others builds -- or not, simply considering that one the end of the line. For these people I offer some brief insights into each component separately. I have had the B.M.C. electronics in my system for quite a while, and this has allowed me to use them with many other products in order to discern what each sounds like on its own.
Of the B.M.C. components, two (or actually three) are most likely to be used within systems comprising other brands of electronics, I think: the MCCI phono stage and the combination of the DAC1 PRE (HR) and BDCD1.1. Both of these sources, one analog and the other digital, have a similar sonic character, defined first and foremost by the absolutely immense amount of musical information they present. If detail is your personal audio touchstone, these B.M.C. products will have you wondering, as they did me, if it's possible for any competing product to uncover as much of the fine texture and nuance, let alone the sheer bandwidth and dynamics, of music played through them. Both also have a fundamentally even tonal balance, their deviation of the middle of the road being very slight at the most and nearly impossible to discern in isolation. They remind me to some degree of the various Boulder and Constellation products I've heard -- sounding not exactly like either of them, but falling within a broad arc of similar, highly detailed performance.
You can order the BDCD1.1 with an optional analog output stage ($5990, the version reviewed), turning it into a single-box CD player (it can still be used as a transport). This version was sent to me, and its sound is very close to its use as a transport along with the DAC1 Pre (HR) (which comes with both variable and fixed outputs, so it can be used as a source itself), though not quite as startlingly vivid. However, the price this way is less than half of that with the DAC1 Pre (HR), making the BDCD1.1 very competitive with CD players in its general price range and even considerably above. It is also available as a transport alone, saving you the $1000 cost of the analog stage, which would be superfluous if you planned to use the BDCD1.1 with the DAC1 Pre (HR) or another standalone DAC. About the only input the DAC1 Pre (HR) is missing is one that allows for playback straight from a thumb drive. It has just about everything else at present, including asynchronous USB.
There are a few operational quirks with the B.M.C. products that you must get used to, such as the BDCD1.1's New CD button. Because BDCD1.1 has no drawer or lid, the button is necessary to initiate a read of a CD's TOC, something you must do every time you swap discs. It becomes second nature after a few days. Also, if you use the DAC1 Pre (HR) without a matching B.M.C. amp, you will have no readout of the volume level, so you'll have to set by ear. Also, with the DAC1 Pre (HR) connected via the CI input to a B.M.C. amp, you will need to live at the upper end of the volume range to get adequate output. With Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF speakers, the most sensitive speakers I had on hand, there was no discernible output below 30.
What of the amps? you may be asking at this point. First, more than any of the B.M.C. electronics, they need break-in, and lots of it. No matter how they are used, they sound stiff and two-dimensional straight out of their crates, both issues improving with playing time. Used on their own, the M2s were tonally much like the source components, displaying control, though not to the point of constriction, down into the lowest bass. This is a way of saying they were lithe and lively, instead of overdamped and dead-sounding. They never developed quite the depth of field that I heard with any of the other amps I had on hand, however, the soundstage stretching between the speakers but not much around and behind them. Because I listened to the M2s with my other electronics before connecting the entire B.M.C. system, I thought that this was just the way things were going to be when everything was playing together. But when you connect the DAC/preamp and amps via the CI input, the soundstage pushes out in all directions, and all concern is for naught.
While I can easily recommend the B.M.C. source components on their own, I would only buy the M2 amps if I planned to assemble a full-boat B.M.C. system. Luckily, there are many very good reasons to consider doing just this.
. . .and the whole
ith the BDCD1.1 connected to the DAC1 Pre (HR) via Superlink, the DAC1 Pre (HR) connected to the M2s via the XLR-CI input, and the MCCI connected via its XLR outputs, you have electronics that cost a little over $32,000 and make quite a sonic statement, one of infinitesimal noise, seemingly endless retrieval of detail, and tight-fisted control of whatever speakers are in use. (B.M.C. makes those too, and they are just as intriguing as the company's electronics.) It rarely happens that a new component, let alone an entire system, makes me think that I've previously not heard everything from a record or CD, but this happened regularly with the B.M.C. system. So many plain old CDs and LPs sounded high-res -- or at least they fulfilled anticipation of what high-res should sound like, not that it always does. The effect was often stunning and always consonant with not only the principles of great hi-fi but the very characteristics of live music -- if the source material was up to it.
Such extreme resolving powers can cut both ways, however, presenting music with an unyielding austerity, the equipment overpowering the music it reproduces. In such instances, the most naturally produced recordings can sound otherworldly, while listening to everything else -- the bulk of any music collection -- becomes a chore, more about the method than the message. While the B.M.C. system was not forgiving in the sense of smoothing over obvious flaws, it also did not magnify them. It had an uncanny way of exposing each recording, giving insight into both its creation and the music. Flaws were present but not exaggerated or turned into bona fide issues that got in the way of the simple enjoyment of listening.
It was particularly interesting to hear CDs and LPs of the same music, not only for what the B.M.C. electronics revealed about the very different media, but also for any inherent differences in the recordings' presentations. I've been listening to Television's eponymously titled "return" album since it was released in the early 1990s. This music is endlessly fascinating to me, each song a riddle to be deciphered. The playing is idiosyncratic and skilled, the lyrics dense and playful, bordering on mysterious. I know nothing else like it, although guitarist Tom Verlaine's solo work comes close. If you're ever wanting a little adventure from your music, you'll get it here.
In any case, the first thing that the B.M.C. system made plain was the fact that the CD [Capitol C2-98396] sounds better than the LP [4 Men With Beards 4M533LP]. This was not a revelation to me -- I had discovered it months before, after I bought the LP -- but the reasons were much more obvious now, the LP sounding somewhat congealed, even compressed, making me think that it might be from a digital source, perhaps even the CD, which was more airy and delineated, especially the dual guitar lines. There was no overt warmth to the LP, the B.M.C. phono stage staying true to the rest of the electronics' tonal evenhandedness. If anything, the CD sounded a touch more colorful.
The kind of resolution that the B.M.C. electronics display would worry me in the abstract, as so often it comes at the expense of tonal saturation and image density -- the physicality that I value in musical reproduction. While you won't mistake the B.M.C. sound for tubes, neither will you feel like you're trading weight and solidity for sheer detail. The B.M.C. system doesn't sound at all diminutive or wispy, and it has real power from the lower midrange on down. Bass faves like Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects of Desire [A&M 540583] and Harry Connick's She [Columbia 64376] were impressively meaty down low -- and even up higher in the range, into the mids, which were lithe and present. Again, this wasn't tube presence, but rather above-average solid-state presence, giving instruments and singers a well-wrought sense of weight when the recordings obliged.
The M2s' meters barely twitched with most music, the amps never sounding brutish, as though all that power was the first thing to notice. While the M2s were rated at 200 watts at 8 ohms, their 2kW transformers are so massive as to make the amps feel like they're bolted to the floor when you try to lift them. The M2s have tremendous power reserves, making me sure that their power rating must be very conservative. Soundstage width and subjective spaciousness were impressive, with depth spreading more to the sides of the room instead of seemingly fixing on a single point that vanishes toward the middle. The Suzanne Vega CD is heavy with atmosphere, a soundscape that seems at once palpable and then almost ponderous, as though its about to buckle under its own weight. This was a quality the BMC electronics conveyed well, the combination of a slightly dark tonality and lack of air helping to define the recording's essential nature.
The B.M.C. system favored no particular style of music, as some electronics can, perhaps because it was able to lay all recordings bare. Last year, when Paul Bolin and I visited B.M.C.'s US distributor, Aaudio Imports, in Colorado, Carlos Candeias revealed that among his "hobbies" was, for lack of a better way to put it, DIY remastering. He wanted to improve the digital music he listened to and valued most, so he rewrote the algorithms for "a not well-known digital editing program," as he told us, and set about doing his own remastering. As he explained, he corrected "frequency-domain and time-domain errors, dynamic errors and noise problems." With some pieces of music, this took minutes, while with others from poor source materials it took days.
The results Paul and I heard during our visit spoke for themselves. There was something immediately better about Carlos's remasters. He kindly sent me home with a thumb drive packed with his music, and I was anxious to hear it on his electronics, using my laptop as source. Again, this music impressed, and I played cuts I knew well -- from Neil Young and Peter Gabriel -- and a few originals that one of B.M.C.'s employees recorded. The general character, the overall mien, of this music was a parallel to what the B.M.C. electronics did so well: unearth mountains of detail while preserving the music's intent, its art. Ultimately, I heard more of the music and the recording -- the what and the how -- than with so many competing products. I think we all prefer a particular ratio of these things, that perfect point where they intersect. Carlos Candeias seems to have figured out a way to maximize them and do so without one overshadowing the other.
A different better
ead enough about hi-fi equipment nowadays and you'll begin to think that some little-known or completely unknown company comes from out of nowhere every month to push the boundaries of sonic reproduction further than ever before -- often at prices that also go further than ever before. These brands give their discoverers the apparent satisfaction of unearthing them, along with possessing the acute hearing and good taste to understand them. The print magazines seem especially engaged in this, one of them much more than the others. Do they know what they do and not care, or do they really not know?
Neither is flattering. There is little that's truly new under the audio sun. Most of it is, at best, refinement of established ideas. In a sense, this could be said about B.M.C. and Carlos Candeias's innovations, although calling them refinements would be a mistake. What Carlos has done is define some potent ways for audio electronics to function together that have real technical and sonic advantages. He has also created an entire system of electronics that works together in something beyond synergy -- it's more like essentiality. His phono stage and digital components make very strong statements for themselves when used with other electronics, but when you put them together and add a B.M.C. amplifier you get something that's more than the sum of parts. It's an original sum itself.
B.M.C. has put together a puzzle that for high-end audio had previously not been completed: mixing inspired design and Chinese manufacturing to produce electronics that compete on the highest levels at prices that don't. The makers of solid-state electronics, especially ones at the uppermost end of the price spectrum (they know who they are), should be concerned about B.M.C. -- very concerned.
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