Ever less than aggressive, Bill Beard has been quietly - if you'll forgive the term - manufacturing all-tube amplifiers for export these past few years. Those of us who see on occasion magazines from foreign countries have noticed ads for something called the BB30-60, an integrated amplifier with a split personality. And now Bill feels that it's time to bring it to the home market.
Read more high end audiophile integrated amps from Krell, Copland, Audio Research and other high end brands here...
Given that his last venture was the unusual two-chassis BB101 integrated, an amp which was just a bit too iconoclastic to appeal to a wide number of valve crazies, it's interesting to note that the BB30-60 also flies in the face of circa-1998 fashion. After all, are we not being sucked into a single-ended vortex, spearheaded by the most political audio movement since Linnism? For all the good work produced by serious single-ended triode companies like Cary, Unison Research, E.A.R. and a few others, there's still too much of a stench of insanity associated with the genre. Bravely, the BB30-60 is a classic push-pull, transformer-coupled design packed with deliberately plentiful tubes. It's as if Beard actively opposed the move toward exotic tubes for the sake of it, and he finds single-ended triodes' power limitations to be too much of a sacrifice for most users.
Read a review of the Beard Audio BB100 Tube Power Amp here...
But Bill has learned a lesson, one which addresses a problem long associated with his otherwise yummy amplifiers. For too long, they've looked like shit. I'm sorry, but there's no other way to put it. Ugly? They not only redefined the word, they became a synonym for it. So the BB30-60 is a breath of fresh, if slightly Tuscan air. Gone are the mock Chippendale sculptings, the hideous Brunelian cages, the stuffy, hints-of-lavender Anglicisms which made the BB101 look like something which an pundit would have guessed housed a Victorian potty. Enter the New Beard, trimmed and shaped and so damned sexy that you'd swear, if the badge were covered, that it came from Milan or maybe Copenhagen.
It's all down to the curvy wooden cabinetry and the arched cover reminiscent of the flimsier Rogers valve amplifier's lid. Quite simply, the BB30-60 is as far removed from its predecessor, the first version of the BB30-60, as the new Porsche 911 is from the VW Beetle. It's as if Bill Beard underwent a religious conversion. And when you first see it in person, you'll fall in love with it. Especially when the vendor tells you that the retail price is £1495...
Yup - £1495 for an amplifier as good-looking, as pride-of-ownership-enhancing as anything made on this side of the Alps. You see it and you just want to touch it. And then you find out that, under the skin, it contains enough of the Right Stuff to make it a bargain even if it were clad in its hideous old skin. In its new form, this amp certainly has presence, and not just because of the styling. It measures a shelf-filling 530x330x150mm and weighs a shelf-straining 22kg. You can deal with aesthetics by choosing between Brazilian Mahogany, American Cherry or Piano Black, with rosewood available at extra cost
Versatility is the theme, and it's what gave the BB30-60 its name. The numbers stand for the power ratings in stereo and mono, slightly conservative as the actual ratings are closer to 32W/ch into 8 ohms, or 65W mono into 4 ohms. Quite simply, this stereo integrated amp can be converted into a monoblock with the linking of the rear-terminals and cranking the source selector to the six-o'clock position.
Underneath the cover, it's a zero feedback, dual mono design right down to requiring two mains leads. All that links the two channels are the source selector and volume control, fundamentally passive and completely by-passed when the BB30-60 is used as a mono amplifier. When run in the latter mode, the volume control becomes an adjuster for the amplifier's input sensitivity, with markings on the right half of the scale reading between .225V and 1.0V. The source selector's six-o'clock position reads 'mono' and there's a single socket at the back to accept the signal from either an active or passive pre-amp.
In stereo mode, the controls operate entirely as conventional volume and source selector controls, the latter accessing five line-level inputs. Flanking the opening which contains the control panel are separate left and right on/off switches with red LEDs to indicate on-status; remember: this is truly dual-mono when used as two-channel amp, hence two AC switches. The back contains the requisite gold-plated phono sockets and Michell-grade multi-way speaker terminals, with extra pairs for easy bi-wiring; the lower terminals also provide the connections for the mono link. The two mains inputs, which accept IEC three-way AC plugs, also contain mains fuses.
Under the lid, held in place by a screw at either end of the chassis, and its the kind of sight a service engineer adores: everything visible and easy to access. The Sovtek 'M'-coded (military-spec) valve complement includes four 6922s (ECC88 equivalent) in the driver stage and eight EL84s for the output, self-biasing and using Beard's Floating Split Level Bias circuitry. They're monitored by two-stage LEDs which glow green to indicate perfect operating status, and red to denote replacement time. While you're under the bonnet, you'll also see that the filled-in areas of the curved hood cover the four transformers, separate mains and output transformers for each channel, that there are easy-to-change HT fuses in the front corners of the centre section, and that the 12 valves are lined up in rows for quick changing, expected when 4000 hours have elapsed.
Although a second BB30-60 was supplied for the review, so I could assess both stereo and monoblock performance, I rarely felt the need to use two units on power grounds alone. Whether driving Quad ESL 63s, Quad 77-10Ls, small Sonus Fabers or LS3/5As, a single BB30-30 never seemed to struggle. Four EL84s per channel are obviously capable of providing enough grunt for most 86-88dB/1W sensitivity speakers, so those who have succumbed to the honk will find even a lone BB30-60 a revelation.
Because the fundamental design is a stereo unit, I'm inclined to concentrate on the BB30-60 in two-channel mode. But before getting too specific about it in 30W/ch form, I should point out that the conversion to monoblock status adds more than just a doubling of the power, and there are some teensy sacrifices to make, besides finding an extra £1495 and a pre-amp. Undoubtedly, in the monoblock form the Beard has more slam, faster dynamic swings from soft to loud, and a readily perceived change in the nature of the bass. Neither 'better' nor 'worse', it's more a case of presentation than quantity or quality. It sounds, simply, like the bass has more prominence in monoblock mode, the sound actually moving slightly in front of the line of the loudspeakers.
The 'teensy sacrifices' include a slight loss of subtlety and absolute transparency, the monoblocks sounding more 'vintage' in character, not quite clouded but certainly less willing to give up tiny details in the music. And in case you're wondering if the addition of a pre-amp caused this, I should add that I compared stereo to monoblock with a direct feed off the Marantz CD63SE, which has its own output level. If anything, the stereo version should have sounded slightly more congested, but it didn't. But I did say that these were teensy sacrifices, barely audible and not worth considering if you the extra power. (Or maybe you just want to have two of these gorgeous works of the audio art in your room instead of one...)
A BB30-60 on its own is still an amp with which to reckon, the power issue never rearing its head in my 14x22ft lounge. OK, I'm not a headbanger, but neither do I play at whisper levels, so consider my remarks as valid if you sit 2m from the speakers and find 75-80dB playback levels to be adequate at that position. Most of my listening kept the volume control at the 10-11 o'clock position, and not once did the amp clip, strain, overheat or crackle.
It was a delirious voyage into the past, but not to Beard P100 territory. Rather, the BB30-60 turned the WayBack dial to the Leak era, and I couldn't help but think of TL12s, only with more power. More subtle and less forceful than Leak-contemporary Radfords and less subtle and more forceful than Quad IIs, the BB30-60 sounds like an amalgam of classic British valve amps if you think of the Radford/Leak/Quad trilogy in the terms I've just outlined. (Brief anachrophilic aside: No, that's not my way of saying that the Leak was more balanced than the Radford at one end and the Quad at the other; it's horses for course, with the Quads driving ESLs, the Radford hooked up to hungry dynamics and the Leak feeding more sensitive dynamic designs.) What this does not mean is anonymity, though, for the Beard design creates its own hybrid sound, and it has one ace up its sleeve, a card not even available to cheaters 40 years ago.
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