Not long ago, Minnesota-based Bel Canto Design seemed like a technically innovative but otherwise traditional high-end audio company, complete with top-tier products that sold at decidedly upper-crust prices. With the advent of the firm’s e.One-series components a few years ago, however, Bel Canto reached a turning point of sorts, where it was able to offer very high performance products at much more manageable, real-world prices—a welcome turn of events for budget-minded music lovers. For the past few months I’ve been getting to know one of Bel Canto’s most versatile e.One models: the S300iU integrated amplifier/USB DAC, which sells for $1995.
Like other e.One models, the S300iU is housed in a compact enclosure that is deeper than it is wide, sized so that pairs of e.One components can fit side by side on typical equipment racks. Pictures, I discovered, don’t do justice to the S300iU, which is solidly built and blessed with the exquisite fit and finish reminiscent of old school, metal-bodied cameras. So, while small in stature, the S300iU nevertheless pushes all the right high-end pride-of-ownership buttons.
The S300iU is simple in appearance and in use—its only visible user controls are an illuminated display window (which shows amplifier status, input channel selections, and volume settings) plus a single, ingeniously designed, multifunction control knob. By pressing or rotating the knob, users can select inputs, invoke mute or home-theater bypass settings, or adjust volume levels. A full-function remote is also included.
The S300iU’s integrated amplifier consists of a low distortion, wide-bandwidth preamplifier coupled with a potent, 150Wpc, dual-mono Class D power amplifier based on modified ICEpower modules. The amp provides four line-level analog audio inputs plus a fifth modular input bay that—in the case of the S300iU—provides a digital audio input in the form of a 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC (Bel Canto offers other input modules, too, such as a phonostage).
The input side of the DAC incorporates a built-in version of the circuitry from Bel Canto’s well-regarded 24/96 USB Link, which is said to reduce jitter and noise for improved sound quality. Interestingly, though, the USB Link circuitry probably performs better in the S300iU than it does as a stand-alone product because it is positioned on the same circuit board as the DAC—eliminating the Link’s traditional outboard housing, digital audio cable, and connectors as possible sources of noise and jitter.
Judged solely as an integrated amp, the S300iU was simply excellent, producing a tight, punchy, well-defined sound that was unfailingly well controlled—a “take charge” sound, if you will. When I first installed the Bel Canto in my system, I was surprised by the powerful, expressive way in which it handled dynamic swells, vividly conveying the sense of energy and life in the music. It also did a great job of resolving subtle, low-level sonic details and of navigating tricky passages featuring densely layered transient information. Compared to many ICEpower-based amplifiers I’ve heard in the past, the Bel Canto offers a noticeably more lively, open, and transparent sound, conveying qualities of immediacy and focus that make it a blast to hear in action.
During my listening tests, I used the Bel Canto both to drive two excellent but challenging speaker systems: the superb Usher Mini Dancer Two and the classic Magnepan MG 1.6. The highly revealing Ushers reward amplifiers rich in subtlety and finesse, but tend to expose amplifiers that have even faint problems with edginess or glare. The planar magnetic Maggies, in turn, also reward sonic refinement while demanding serious muscle—wimpy amps need not apply. To its great credit, the S300iU did a fine job with both speakers, offering up power and refinement in equal measures.
The only minor limitation I noted was that the S300iU didn’t reproduce very-high-frequency harmonics or the elusive sense of “air” surrounding instruments quite as effectively as my reference hybrid tube/solid-state integrated amp (which costs nearly four times what the Bel Canto does). Given this huge price differential, I thought Bel Canto’s performance was thoroughly admirable—good enough that, if my reference amp ever failed, I could see using the Bel Canto as a long-term substitute. One thing is certain: The S300iU is thoroughly competitive with—and in some respects superior to—other fine integrated amps I’ve heard in this price class. This is really significant when you consider that the Bel Canto also has a “secret weapon” most other integrated amps do not provide: a built-in, high-quality USB DAC.
The Bel Canto’s USB DAC offers taut, rock-solid bass and smooth, articulate mids, and it produces—when fed lossless digital audio files—remarkably stable and sharply focused stereo images (each performer simply takes his or her place on stage, and stays put—no matter how complicated the music becomes). Some of my colleagues at The Absolute Sound have questioned whether USB DACs are capable of capturing the rhythmic and timing-oriented aspects of music, but I found no such problems with the S300iU. On the contrary, I thought it had terrific rhythmic drive and that it did a fine job of conveying the sense of “pulse” and “flow” within the music.
The Bel Canto offers higher levels of resolution than some, but not all, competing USB DACs I’ve heard, and its does a fine job of teasing out complicated musical lines, and of rendering subtle textural details that define instrumental voices. One drawback I noted, however, is that the Bel Canto DAC occasionally exhibits a somewhat hard-edged, spitty, or splashy sound on abrupt, vigorous upper midrange or treble transients—a problem I’ve encountered with other USB DACs as well. But don’t misunderstand me: The S300iU certainly does not sound bright, harsh, or edgy. It is just that sounds such as sibilant “S’s” in vocals, vigorous cymbal strikes, sharp reed noises from wind instruments, or abrupt violin bowing changes can occasionally disrupt the DAC’s otherwise smooth, articulate sound. I found transient problems of this sort could be minimized, though not completely eliminated, by using a high-quality USB cable such as the Furutech GT2 cable I used during my listening tests
I’ve spoken about the Bel Canto’s ability to capture the “energy and life” in well-made recordings and to experience those qualities firsthand, try putting on the track “Tommy” from bassist Dean Peer’s stunning Ucross [XLO Recordings]. Peer puts on a dazzling display of bass guitar techniques, including conventional finger-style playing, slapping, lift-offs, hammer-ons, overhand tapping, and perhaps most amazing of all, very-high-frequency harmonics that give the bass an otherworldly, chime-like sound. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing such a performance live, you know it can be characterized both by sheer dynamic punch and—paradoxically—by great delicacy (Peer’s harmonic techniques give the bass an almost gamelan-like quality where harmonics and fundamentals merge in exquisitely complex ways).
The Bel Canto just waded right in and owned this track, providing sufficient power and control to enable my speakers to create a good facsimile of a live bass guitar performance (something that—trust me on this—most amps have a very hard time doing). But it was in Peer’s upper register playing that the S300iU really came into its own, keeping up with Peer’s blazingly fast, rapid-fire techniques without skipping a beat, and beautifully displaying his high harmonics in their full glory.
Another track that shows the Bel Canto’s strengths to good advantage is “Talking Wind” from Marilyn Mazur and Jan Garbarek’s Elixir [ECM]. The song is a percussion tour de force, displaying an astonishingly diverse array of high- and low-frequency instruments performing within a pleasantly reverberant space. On this complicated track, the S300iU captured the distinctive transient signatures and voices of the instruments with surprising realism. As instruments were struck, their sounds and positions on stage seemed so lifelike and vivid that I felt the almost child-like urge to point toward empty spaces between or beyond my speakers and to say, “That gong/drum/chime sounds like it’s right there.” Better still, the Bel Canto beautifully reproduced the slowly decaying reverberant “tails” of individual notes gradually fading to silence within the recording space.
During my listening test, I compared the DAC section of the S300iU to both the Chordette Gem USB DAC ($799) and to the USB DAC section of the Peachtree Nova amp/DAC ($1195). I found the S300iU offered considerably better resolution and delineation of small sonic details than the Chordette Gem, but that the Gem consistently sounded smoother on upper midrange/treble transients and offered more convincing, holographic 3-D imaging. The Bel Canto and Peachtree DAC sections were much closer in character, though a careful comparison revealed that the Peachtree offered even higher levels of resolution, slightly tighter and better-defined bass, and somewhat smoother upper mids and highs.
Because the two products are conceptually similar, I also compared the amplifier sections of the S300iU and the Peachtree Nova and found the Bel Canto was hands down the superior performer. Good though the Nova is, the S300iU’s amp section was audibly cleaner, quieter, more powerful, and capable of resolving finer levels of sonic details.
First, the Bel Canto S300iU is a compact lion-hearted integrated amplifier that can stand tall beside just about anything I’ve heard in its price class. The Bel Canto’s built-in USB DAC is also very good, though perhaps not quite as good as its terrific amplifier section. Nevertheless, the USB DAC gives the S300iU an extra dimension, making it a very serious, plug-and-play front end for use with computer- or server-based audio systems.
Bel Canto Design S300iU Integrated Amplifier/USB DAC
Power output: 150Wpc @ 8 ohms
Inputs: Four stereo analog (one with “home-theater” bypass), one digital audio (USB)
DAC upsampling: 24-bit/96kHz
Outputs: Preamp out, record out
Dimensions: 3" x 8.5" x 13.5"
Weight: 12 lbs.
Bel Canto Design
Musical Fidelity kW 500 integrated amplifier and kW SACD player, Chordette Gem Bluetooth decoder/USB DAC, Peachtree Audio Nova integrated amplifier/USB DAC, Usher Audio Mini Dancer Two and Magneplanar Magnepan MG1.6QR loudspeakers, Furutech cables (signal, speaker, coaxial and USB digital audio), PS Audio power conditioners and power cords, Solid Tech Reference Rack-of-Silence, RPG and Auralex room treatments