Bel Canto DAC2.5 digital processor

13.12.2011..

I quote two trendy definitions: “Bel canto: virtuosic singing style, characterized by phrasing dexterousness that dominated Italian melodrama until Rossini”. “Bel canto: art of singing in relation to the beauty of sound and to the technical and virtuosic mastery”. I have commenced with these references because I would like to disclose the link between the artistic idea of Bel Canto and the source of inspiration that pushed Engineer John Stronczer, to found in 1993, in deep Minnesota, his audio company and to name it ambitiously Bel Canto Design.

Bel canto can compare to analogous compound expressions like good reading, bon ton, good taste, which valorise the term, rather than restricting it to its most common meaning. The association between bel canto and good music seems to be very appropriate in the audiophile context, calling up the past times, when the musical culture was a primary social value.

Therefore, I was so excited when ReMusic gave me the opportunity of reviewing the Bel Canto DAC2.5, the average model of Bel Canto D/A processors, right between the basic 1.5 and the top level 3.5.

 

The packing box looks like a gadget bag and it is easy to carry. Inside, the device is between two specular cardboard chassis that stretch two thick cellophane pellicles and keep the object suspended and safe from shocks.

The outer shell repeats the features of the current Bel Canto’s production line: a half-sized but deep housing, a black painted steel chassis with a thicker, heavy and damped cover.

 

The front panel, in aluminium colour, hosts a headphone jack on the left side while, on the right side, is a 38 mm multifunction control knob. To select the inputs you have just to push it, whereas a turn changes the levels of the volume. On the upper front fascia is the engraved Bel Canto logo and, in the lower part, a green wide display. The brightness and the contrast with the black background make easy the reading from every part of the room. The rear panel has plenty of connectors and graphic information revealing its distinctive nature. Five digital inputs are included: an AES/EBU, two S/PIDF, one TosLink - all with a 24 bit/192 kHz ADC analogue input - and a 24 bit/96 kHz USB port. The outputs are a 4Vrms XLR and a 2Vrms RCA, with a selector for the level, fixed or variable. Very interesting is the additional RCA analogue input, which is converted with a high quality 24 bit/192 kHz ADC, very used in recording studios. It allows the DAC to be direct-coupled to the power amplifier, eliminating the need for a preamplifier. The space inside holds three neat circuit boards. The vertical one, behind the front panel, contains the display and the control circuits. The power supply board has two parts: one integrated in the main module, and one separated that leads 12 V, by storing energy into two huge 68.000 mF capacitors. If it is true that “all roads lead to Rome”, looking at the main board, we can say that every circuit track of a good D/A processor leads to Burr Brown. Indeed, in the core of the board, a Burr Brown PCM1796 chip operates full time at 24 bit/192 kHz. This chip is well known for its excellent performances in dynamics, noise reduction, high resolution, and better tolerance to the clock jitter. Moreover, the manufacturer promotes its Master Reference Ultra-Clock circuitry that assures a reduction of the jitter below the audible threshold. The pursue of the precision is demonstrated through resistors with a tolerance of 0,1%, a class-A output stage, and through low noise power supply components. And the solid chassis I mentioned above.

The light plastic remote control is the weak point if compared to the general level of the machine.

 

The listening test starts by using the coaxial output of a custom Musical Fidelity E60 CD player. A very good source, but, after being matched with the DAC2.5, it took wing! I also have jousted with three digital cables: Boomerang Cable, Stat Audio, and White Gold Reference: all good but not as the White Gold ones.

 

After the run-in and warm-up for almost a week, the immediate sensation is an absolute quiet: the speakers are completely silent. The first CD I play is José Neto, homonymous album by B&W Music, 1993. I am swept away by a high magnitude sound wave: explosive, dynamic, with a deep bass, just a little redundant, but clear and clean, like all the others instruments do. José’s guitar, a Paradise Avalon with nylon strings, outlines harmonious paths on a sonic surface created by the Roland D50 and the Korg M1, supported by the magic percussions of Airto Moreira. Everything rises from the background silence. Music is never compressed, but open and expanded. It is bright and neutral, rather than thick and analytic. I carry on with Ben Allison, Peace Pipe, Palmetto Records, 2002. A kaleidoscopic record with instruments that dance hinging on Ben’s bass and Mamadou Diabate’s kora. Que fiesta! The transient are possessed. The image and the soundstage are real and natural, the dance of the instruments is rich and vivid.

Next, I switch to Carlos V- La canciòn del Emperador, performed by the Hespèrion XXI ensemble featuring the Capella Reial de Catalunya, directed by Jordi Savall, Aliavox label in co-production with ORF. This CD was recorded at 24 bit/192 kHz in high definition, inside one hall of Cardona Castle in Catalonia. The listener is carried away in a dream state into an atmosphere that is ancient and unequivocally contemporaneous with the performance. Also the high frequencies of harps and viols are silky and sweet, while the solo and choral voices hover graceful and enchanting.

Now I need to deepen the listening of the voice. Fatally I choose Odetta and Larry, Fantasy Record, 1993. This recording captures the great folk/blues singer together with the banjoist and singer Larry Mohr, during some live gigs at the Tin Angel Club in San Francisco, between 1953 and 1954. Mrs. Felious, singing as a deep contralto, captivates the audience and the applause, engraved on the record, always seems hesitant just to avoid breaking the spell. The Bel Canto DAC, with discretion, offers its talent, catching the clamouring and tinkling in such a clear way that I feel like having a drink!

It is time for an extreme test. There is nothing better than Aoi, by the Japanese singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Ayuo Takahashi, Tzadik label, 2005. What a wonderful work!

The artist, besides looking after the vocal scores, plays different kinds of guitars, the piano, the synth, the bouzuki, the guitar-sitar, the bass and the muzys sequencer, but in his own way, unsettling all the expressive musical rules. Sometimes he is percussive, other times lyrical, and the bizarre living presence of noisy and distortions testifies the enlightened and brilliant John Zor’s production.

Our DAC does not miss any detail and deftly rebuilds the soundstage of a so articulated musical message. The record is not simple but it can enrapture the listener with a reproduction that draws out the soul of the instruments that intertwine.

Tonal balance, channel separation and resolution are superb so to let suppose the complete lack of harmonic distortion or jarring notes in the power supply. I am sure that the sound performances of the Bel Canto2.5 are coherent with primacy lab measurements.

Now I need some peace of mind and for this reason I play in sequence José Neto, Mountains and the sea, Water Lily Acoustic, 1986, a brilliant recording by Masaru Kohno playing an acoustic guitar with nylon strings, and Didier Squiban, Molène, L’Oz production, 1997, a record of grand piano suites.

It is round midnight, the machine temperature is at the top, good vibrations grow up, my body is relaxed: I breathe with satisfaction, while Squiban’s white piano paints misty Breton landscapes. The atmosphere is sizzling and I feel a sense of fulfilment.

Great music, distilled by perfect hi-end electronics, is like a killer: it strikes your heart!

So I state the end of session without turn the unit off because I want to test the analogue input, by using the DAC as a preamplifier. The day after, I connect it to the California Audio Labs Aria MKIII CD player and afterwards, to the EMT 938 turntable with an EMT 929 tone-arm and TSD 15 SFL cartridge. I was expecting not the same level of performances that the Bel Canto had as a converter, nonetheless it has behaved with care and sobriety, keeping good hints of playback. I have noticed however that the soundstage has flattened a little, the bass was not very deep and strong, and the resolution was less enhanced.

In conclusion, I can affirm that the Bel Canto 2.5 is a DAC of absolute modernity. For the quality of its sound, the superb engineering and the possibility of handling the analogue sources, it represent an incomparable item in terms of versatility.

Great experience, fantastic machine, good sound… Bel Canto!

Ah! If Verdi and Rossini were still here…

 

SCHEME SUMMARY

top score ✳✳✳✳✳ ReMusic Sparks

Tone colour✳✳✳✳ | Good tendency to naturalness. So far, it is the less digital among DACs.

Dynamics ✳✳✳✳ | A locomotive. A bit excessive in the bass frequencies.

Detail ✳✳✳✳ | Ruthless. Impossible hiding yourselves.

Clearness ✳✳✳✳ | More than transparent. I would say quite naked.

Image ✳✳✳ ½ | Fair three-dimensionality. Not high sense of air and some limit in width and depth.

Rise time ✳✳✳ ½ | It could be a four-hundred-meter runner.

Manufacture ✳✳✳ ½ | Tidy substance both hardware and software. Aesthetic improvable.

Price/quality ratio ✳✳✳✳ | Attractive, considered the double functionality as DAC and pre amplifier.

 

Official technical specifications:

Digital section

Maximum input data rate:

24bit data at 192Ks/s: AES 110ohm XLR, SPDIF 75ohm, TOSLINK

24bit data at 96Ks/s: USB

Master clock jitter: 2picosecond RMS

Analog 24/192 DAC section

Maximum output: 4Vrms balanced XLR, 2Vrms RCA

Output impedance: 200ohms balanced XLR, 100ohms RCA

Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20KHz +/- 0.5 dB

TDH+N: <0.0015%; 4Vrms balanced out, 1KHz

Output noise: 3.3uVrms A-weighted 20Hz – 20KHz

Dynamic range: 122dB, A-weighted 20Hz – 20KHz 

Analog 24/192 ADC section

Maximum input: 2.5Vrms RCA

Input impedance: 12K ohms RCA

Frequency response: 20Hz – 20KHz +/- 0.5 dB

THD+N: 0.003%, 2.5 Vrms input, 1KHz

Dynamic range: 110dB A-weighted 20Hz – 20KHz

Headphone section

Maximum output: 138mW

THD+N: 0.0055% 35mW, 1KHz

Output noise: 17Vrms, A-weighted 20Hz – 20KHz

General

Dimensions: 8.5” W x 12.5” D x 3.5” H (216mm x 318mm x 88mm)

Weight: 14lbs. (6.5 kg)

Official Italian dealer: to Audio Point Italia website

Official current price in Italy: 2,400.00 EU

Associated equipment: to Giuseppe "MinGius" Trotto's system

by Giuseppe Trotto
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