You can't criticize manufacturers for responding to a change in tastes. CD has forever changed the face of hi-fi, so all you're doing when you mourn the passage of the phono stage is increase the value of shares in sackcloth and ashes. Instead, be thankful that the companies in the high end who know how to read the leaves in the cup are intent on making the best line stage amplifiers they can design; what you use for a phono section can be either your existing, pre-CD pre-amp or an outboard phono section. With this in mind, Bill Beard has launched an all-valve, line-level-only integrated amplifier, the first product to bear his new company's name.
Briefly, Bill has left Beard Audio (which will continue with the existing range of separates) to form British Built Audiophile Products. Although the new units will differ in many ways from the designs he produced over the past 12 years, all will continue in the tradition established by such classics as the P100 amplifier. As stated in the literature, the amplifiers produced by British Built Audiophile Products (or BBAP for short) will offer superb sound and build quality at sensible prices. If the BB100 under review is indicative of what may follow, we might at last be seeing the emergence of a full range of real-world, UK-made tube electronics.
The BB100 is a hefty, single-chassis item designed to bring out the hi-fi casualty in all of us. With or without the protective cage in place, the BB100 shouts 'Valves!' because you can see all 18 a'glowing. This conservatively-rated 2x50-watter derives its power from three parallel 'push-pull' pairs EL84s per channel, presenting a very low (2.6k ohm) output impedance to the output transformer for easier driving conditions. The valves are lined up like soldiers behind a complement of four ECC 81s and two ECC82s in the pre-amp section. Each channel in the pre-amp employs one ECC81 in the driver stage, another '81 as a phase splitter and the '82 as a cathode follower. The heaters for every valve in the BB100 are fully DC regulated. To prevent paranoia among those of you who think that valves are a recipe for ensuring your local repairman's fiscal health, the BB100 has been designed to make valve amp ownership a set-and-forget exercise.
For openers, all of the valves are common, inexpensive and durable; just ring PM Components if you don't believe me. Then, to give you a visual confirmation of each valve's well-being, a red LED next to each tube glows when the bottle ages toward senility; this is achieved by measuring the amount of current drawn by each valve. A brightly glowing LED means that you whip out the valve and pop in a fresh one. 'What about biasing?' I hear from those of you with incurable persecution complexes. No sweat: the BB100 operates with a mix of grid and cathode biasing to preclude the need for bias adjustments.
On a personal note, I find all the fear of adjusting bias to be excessive and unnecessary. If I can do it, anyone can. On the other hand, it's been explained to me by more than one manufacturer that no matter how clear the instructions, some brain-dead nebbish is going to set the bias incorrectly and murder an innocent tube. The only reason that I even mention this, since most would willingly trade the inconvenience of manual adjusting for automatic biasing, is the slight trade-off between cathode vs grid bias circuitry. With cathode biasing you get the nice, sweet 'old valve' sound and automatic biasing, whereas grid bias arrangements produce tight, crisp bass more appealing to modern ears while requiring manual adjustment. BBAP has employed a hybrid of the two which works beautifully, so I suppose there's little sonic justification for grid-only biasing.
The BB100 is pretty much dual-mono throughout, with the only shared aspects of the design being the single-piece, double-wound mains transformer and a master gain control (whoopee!). The latter, however, is a double-track knob, so the 'mono-ing' is mechanical rather electronic. With the cage removed and the controls facing you, the back third of the BB100's top surface contains the mains transformer flanked by the separate output transformers. These are wound and constructed to 1% tolerance and are described as a '35% ultra-linear tap design', understressed to require less feedback. The output section also employs 1300uF reservoir capacitors for each channel. The driver stage is a high current design with its own dedicated regulated DC power supply of 4700uF per channel.
The BB100, despite its sensible pricing, is brimming with designer goodies, of which 80% are purpose-made to BBAP specifications. All capacitors are either polypropylene types or low ESR electrolytics, mounted on a double-sided PCB employing 2oz copper tracks. For easier servicing, the main tracks and components are positioned on one side of the board. Internal
wiring consists of computer data transmission cable, a solid core type made from silver-plated copper. The BB100 uses separate star earthing for each channel.
At the back of the amplifier are high-quality gold-plated input sockets for CD, tape in and out, tuner, auxiliary and 'external phono', two fuse holders, the on-off switch and Michell binding
posts which accept just about any connector you'd care to employ short of a DIN speaker plug. Loaded it may be, but the front panel re-affirms the minimalism of this design.
The profusion of knobs indicates dual-mono status rather than a clutch of facilities. At the outer ends of the fascia are the left and right source selectors which possess a nice feel and
positive detents. The centre of the panel contains the master volume control as well as separate left and right gain controls for 'fine-tuning'. Although most users will set these for best overall sound and perform most operations with the master control, users are advised to experiment.
Reminding me of the operation of the Audio Research SP-15, this gain setting flexibility can be used to optimize the sound according to the source. Phono via an external pre-amp, for
example, sounded best with the separate controls at the 12 o'clock position and the master control operation between 10 and 2, while directly injected CD was preferred with the gain
controls at around 9 o'clock. This provided the same arc of operation as with phono and offered the best balance between absolute sound quality and minimum noise -- not that the BB100 suffers from much of the latter.
Used with a variety of sources and the Audio Research SP-14 pre-amp as a phono stage, the BB100 was mated to speakers including the Monitor Audio Studio 10, the Sonus Faber Electa
Amator, the JBL S119 and the Celestion SL700. The first thing I learned is that most sane individuals will have a hard time finding any speakers (of the sort likely to be paired with a #995 integrated amplifier) which this animal can't drive. Indeed, I'm so confident about the BB100's ability to drive all manner of systems that I'm looking forward to the arrival of the Apogee Stage 'budget' model as a potential torture test. If ever there's been a case of a power rating not indicating an amplifier's true prowess, then it's the 50 watts accredited to the BB100.
Even more impressive for many will be its clear, unmuddied, taut lower registers -- probably the best I've heard from any modern valve amplifier at this price point. The extension proved far greater than the capabilities of most of the speakers I employed, hence the need to enlist the JBL S119, a speaker which had only arrived a few days before writing this review. Despite being unfamiliar with this unusual 'omni', I was able to exploit its 8in woofer and meter-high cabinet to find out what the BB100 would do with test tones, synth-generated bass and organ notes. I believe my colleague Pete Clark would call this amp, in modern parlance, a stonker.
Read more about the BB100 on Page 2.