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The only downside to this bodacious package? If you are a REL sub user like me, you cannot attach the ground lead of the high-level connection to one of the negative speaker terminals. Remember, it's live due to the balanced output topology. I was also unable to secure a good ground connection on any of the chassis screws due to the thorough paint finish. However, Gilbert came to the rescue by providing a custom male RCA connector with a short lead attached to the ground and an alligator clip on the other end. Cool. Now I could ground my REL to an unused RCA jack. Furthermore, Gilbert informed me that as of now, all NSCS amps will feature a dedicated ground post on the rear just for us REL guys. How's that for quick executive-level decision making? I bet Sony/BMG wish they could move that fast. Weeks later and they're still stumbling through their DRM fiasco. I wonder if there is enough room inside the Blue Circle to cram a phonostage or headphone output in? Hmmmmm.

As a result of the oversized power supply -- a Blue Circle trait -- the NSCS is one hefty bit of hardware. The amp ran fairly cool and only got slightly warm when cranked for long periods. The manual was clear, concise and a breeze to use. Warranty is three years parts and labor. Stainless steel faceplate with blue chassis cover and wooden knobs are standard issue. Other colors and knobs are available at additional charge. My sample featured blue case work and brown wood knobs. On the rear of the amp are three single-ended inputs, a tape loop, preamp outputs, metal five-way speaker binding posts and an IEC power inlet with integral mains fuse holder. Note how the lettering for the various connections on the back panel is both right-side up and down. Clever. I can't recall how many times I've struggled to find the correct connection while leaning over an amp. The front sports three large wooden controls: source selection, balance and volume respectively. There are also two metal toggle switches for power on/off and tape loop. Dead center sits Blue Circle's trademark circular emblem which lights up upon power-up - blue of course. All in all, the NSCS proved to be a well built, easy-to-use piece of kit and I did not experience any problems during my time with it. It saw plenty of action with three different speakers: GMA Callisto, Zu Tone and Almarro M2A. Neither presented a difficult load.

My sample featured a stereo Shallco volume control, a thing of beauty when you remove the cover to peek. All those tiny resistors! There is also a small toggle behind the control inside to alter gain. This is a handy feature if you use sensitive speakers as I did with the 101dB Zu Tones. This should reduce the potential for noise and allow a greater range of volume settings.

So how did the Not So Compact Series sound? Darn fine. I realize it has become cliché to refer to a solid-state amp as 'tube-like' in its presentation. However, I just couldn't shake the feeling that there was a little touch of glass somewhere. No, there weren't any 6922s or 12AU7s hiding in a corner. Yes, it's a solid-state amp but minus the chalky, tonally bleached sonics that plague most of them. The NSCS also exhibited a sweeter top end with a touch more midrange warmth than similarly priced brethren. There was plenty of bottom end, considerably well controlled and solid without any trace of bloat or rhythmic lethargy. The midrange was full and offered plenty of detail and nuance. Transients were quick, clean and sharp yet not accentuated. While this amp didn't express quite the sense of harmonic rightness I get with tubes, truth of timbre was exceptional and instruments sounded lifelike and believable. The NSCS did not project music into my room. It exhibited a slightly laid-back mid-hall sort of presentation.

The NSCS was adept at preserving the music's sense of flow as well as scale. It sounded big when the music demanded it as in Mahler's colossal 8th Symphony [Harmonia Mundi HMC 901858.59]; downright suave and debonair on Ben Webster's Soulville LP Speakers Corner/Verve MG V-8274] and wonderfully intimate and sweet on Saint-Saens' brilliantly playful Piano Trios [Harmonia Mundi HMC 901862]. The Blue Circle also deftly handled the swagger and strut of Jet's Get Born LP [Elektra/Rhino 78069] as well as the ethereal beauty of Grey DeLisle's Graceful Ghost LP [Classic Records/Sugar Hill SUG LP-3985]. I slipped on my Spanish boots and polished off a plate of paella for Tomatito's Pasea de las Castanos [Emarcy 014 313-2]. Not every amp has the speed and transient fidelity to keep up with Flamenco fare. The NSCS didn't so much as flinch. The amp was dead quiet even with my ear a foot away from the front baffle of the 101dB Zu Tone. I noted no electronic glare or haze during music playback. There was plenty of transparency which revealed the inner detail of music. What else can I say? The NSCS was an engaging, clean, dynamic yet smooth operator that did not at all offend or get in my face.

When I noted the lack of solid-state artifacts and the smooth, slightly tubey nature of the NSCS, I became suspicious. I've heard something like this before. I recalled from a Soundstage! review that some of Gilbert's amps use opamps in their output stages. So I queried Gilbert. Well, whaddya know. The NSCS does indeed use opamps in its output stage. They're just tucked away quietly and not readily visible. There are plenty of reviews of Blue Circle gear available but with the exception of the one on Soundstage!, I am not aware of any that mention opamps. In fact, Blue Circle has used opamps for several years. Gilbert just hasn't advertised it. He's more concerned that listeners ignore the tekkie aspects and use their ears instead. He's probably right. We've all become far too focused and obsessed with stats, measurements and fancy graphs while ignoring the most crucial measuring tool of all: our ears. Anybody know what a THD vs. frequency graph at 4.85V into 2, 4 and 8 ohms sounds like? Neither do I. However, I can tell you if an amp can play a tune or squeeze blue cheese. Unfortunately for Gilbert, I'm far too anal to let sleeping dogs lie: I had to know more.

While Gilbert's chosen chip and implementation is completely different to the 47Labs Gaincard and its various clones, I thought there were some sonic similarities. Gilbert was understandably reluctant to identify the specific opamp but did offer that it's an advanced high-performance chip used in the demanding aerospace sector. Gilbert spent considerable time trying different opamps before finding one that worked best in his designs and isn't about to give away the farm. So don't bother asking Gilbert. Go do you own research.

Until the Gaincard burst upon the scene several years ago, opamps were not highly regarded by the audio industry. Nor by listeners for that matter. Well, times have changed. So has technology. Gilbert explains that today's opamps are far superior to those made just ten years ago and if used correctly, have great potential especially for long-term reliability. I don't want to overstate the importance of these crafty slivers in the NSCS and neither does Gilbert. There are several other significant factors that contribute to the amp's sonics just as was the case in Jeff Rowland's original Concentra integrated. The implementation of an output device -- be it opamp, tube or transistor -- is far more critical than the part itself. For example, the NSCS has a lot more parts such as an active preamp section plus a colossal power supply. The Gaincard and most of its clones do not. Where this Canadian differs sonically from its smaller chip cousins is in tonal richness, bass power and control as well as loudspeaker compatibility. Maybe it's not as quick or incisive but the NSCS is really close. It is also considerably more user-friendly and flexible.

I generally dislike comparing components during a review as I'm not sure what that proves. While fun to do, quick A/B/A comparisons will tell you little if anything about the true nature of a component. I like to listen to a system for several days to attempt to get a sense of the piece before swapping it out. With few exceptions, I have found there is also rarely a 'best' in my mind. Things may sound different and there be one piece that gels better with some systems and listener preferences than others. In which case, if it sounds right to you, it is right. The first thing I ask when auditioning a review piece is, "Does this thing play music or does screw it up with HiFi flash and dazzle"?

I therefore tend to be more forgiving of tonal colorations, soundstaging and imaging effects than most people. However, I do try to capture them for readers. Then I attempt to describe what effect the component has in my system. Hopefully readers will get some sense of the component and follow up themselves with further investigation if what I describe gets their mojo working. I frequently get e-mail from readers asking to compare components and to pick the 'best' at a given price point (or whatever criteria they may have set up). While I love the interaction with fellow thrill seekers, I dislike offering a concrete answer. There is no best. Get over it. Simply put, I know there are folks who would just flip over the NSCS and there will be punters who will wonder what all the fuss is about - especially those seeking HiFi fireworks, inky black silences, huge soundstaging and nonsense like that. You won't find that here. The big steel beast from Innerkip is about enjoying the color and thrill of music without emptying your bank account or searing your ears.

The NSCS was certainly one of the most enjoyable solid-state amps I've heard. While not as compact and svelte as my now departed and similarly priced Bryston B60, I'd prefer the NSCS when it comes to playing music. While audio memory can be a trifle dodgy, I'd even take the Blue Circle over the wildly more flexible yet considerably more expensive Stello M200 monos and DP200 preamp I reviewed earlier this year. The fact that I prefer the NSCS to components at two and three times its price should say enough.

The Blue Circle NSCS would be a fine centerpiece for an affordable audio system. Mate it with the source and speakers of your choice, leave it on, stop obsessing about audio-dweeb minutiae and buy some music instead. If you are looking for a unique integrated amp that should drive just about any speaker and want the low maintenance and reliability of solid- state but still musical sounds -- i.e. getting all the notes, rhythms and nuances of the music right with just a touch of tube warmth -- put the NSCS on your audition list. Sometime in 2006, I hope to report on Gilbert's forthcoming FtTH hybrid integrated which features a substantial outboard power supply and, like Blue Circle's 200 series power amps, mates Gilbert's opamp-based output to a tube front end. Now that could be the cat's bushy whiskers. Stay tuned.

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