Belles is one of those understated names in audio that keeps cropping up as a universally good thing. It’s an amplifier company; it doesn’t make valve amplifiers or solid-state amplifiers… it makes amplifiers. Good, solid, no-nonsense, minimalist amplifiers.The IA-01 integrated is a perfect example of this rolled-up-sleeves approach to making amplifiers. It looks almost identical to the excellent LA-01 preamp and couples that to the power amp stages from the MB200 power amps. Both of these have been reviewed here before, both of which were give a serious thumbs up in the process.
The designer – David Belles – is very much old school in his design. No op amps, not even much in the way of surface mount componentry. Just good, solid and mostly discrete components. The exception is the logic circuit chip, which basically lets the remote control volume and input selection, along with the trio of toggles for power, mute and input choice. The logic is rudimentary, in that you have to toggle your way through all four inputs in sequence and balance control is the stuff of legend, but you soon acclimatise yourself to this.
The amp features two pairs of power MOSFETS per side, mounted on the side heatsinks (the amp barely gets warm to the touch, suggesting Class AB operation). This delivers a very healthy 180 watts per channel, with more than 32 amps of peak current. The bulk of the chassis is taken up with a large toroidal transformer and two coke-can capacitors. These add bulk to an already heavy amplifier.
The solidity of build extends beyond the PCBs and internal architecture. The IA-01 is built on a reassuringly thick chassis, with 15mm thick, chamfered alloy front and top panels, all resting on Stillpoints feet. The overall appearance is Spartan and functional at best. It gives the whole package an air of unburstability and shows where the money goes when it comes to build quality.
A useful additional consideration here is longevity and reliability. The design is engineered to last, and with all well-engineered products, it’s not over-reliant on a host of hard-to-find components with hefty price tags. Belles has not scrimped on the components in the IA-01, but neither is it bristling with ‘Famous Name’ components. In the long term, repairs – should they ever arise – would not be a problem.
The Stillpoints feet are subject to a bit of to-and-fro conversations with the UK distributor apparently. Coherent Systems isn’t a big fan of Stillpoints, preferring instead the Black Ravioli system. It would like to see Belles use Black Ravioli in place of Stillpoints, but thus far Belles is holding out on that one. Remember, this is Audiophile, 2010 style… shouting “They’re just feet!” is punishable by death. The Stillpoints system works and I’m sure the Black Ravioli system works well too, albeit in a different manner from Stillpoints.
Whatever support-related technology you decide upon, the basic sound of the Belles IA-01 is similar to the LA-01/MB-200 in microcosm. It’s upbeat, dynamic and extended without a stinging treble or an over emphasized bass line. In a manner not dissimilar from the VTL amplifier tested this issue, it starts from the midrange out, delivering a clear, lucid and unobtrusive midband. It’s little wonder so many of these amplifiers wind up with loudspeakers from brands like Cabasse – they demand a fluid midband and that’s precisely what the IA-01 gives them.
This is one of the big things about Belles; for an American amplifier company, the products don’t sound American. It doesn’t have the full-speed-ahead sonic fireworks display, the ponderous power or the slick expansiveness of typical US iron. You don’t get the bright, powerful treble or the ground-shaking bass that you will hear from better-known US amp rivals. Instead, you get striking midband clarity and poise. Where the US connection starts to manifest is the IA-01’s ability to do that at high levels, because it’s backed up by some healthy power.
The other big American feather in its cap – which sets it aside from many European designs – is the ability to cast a very wide, holographic soundstage. The stage width appears extended further beyond the boxes, with considerably more depth and some height information. There’s a very positive sense of being able to pick musicians out from the mix in the room, and the Belles seems to place you six or seven rows back in the stalls of a concert. There’s a slight sense of detachment between you the listener and the musicians (unless you listen in the near field), but this can be seen in a positive light as setting a stage for the performance. This, coupled with the expansiveness of image, makes it the ideal opera lover’s amp, although it will also greatly benefit those who listen to a lot of live rock concerts – the Allman Brothers live at Fillmore East, King Curtis live at Fillmore West and the Who Live at Leeds (they’d run out of Fillmores by then, North and South having been annexed by the Carnegies), even AC/DC’s If You Want Blood… all give a sense of a performance, enhanced by the soundstaging.
Like all good amplifiers, the Belles gets out of the way rather than introduces its own sonic character. And yet, I can’t help likening it in a way with the Naim sound. This might not be the most uncolored presentation around for many, but Naim strives to make music entertaining and interesting. The Belles IA-01 has the same goal, but does it without the hyperbole and the change of presentation. This is perhaps what markes the Belles out best, that it goes for the musical enjoyment factor, yet does so without obvious compromises elsewhere. So, when you play something like the Butterfield Blues band, you get all the adrenalin and the bright, live sound, without feeling the music has been re-mastered for your listening pleasure by the electronics.
Where this doesn’t work, however, is with ‘loudness war’ recordings. Discs that are clipped, compressed and loud sound clipped, compressed and loud. Although the amp has a delicate treble and open midrange, it doesn’t enhance those compressed recordings in any way. It’s not a completely warts ‘n’ all presentation, but these scarred for life tracks don’t get much in the way of a soft landing from the IA-01. In truth, I don’t know whether this honesty is a good thing (it’s more accurate) or a bad thing (you might not want that much honesty), but I’m favouring the honest approach. Whether this is a major criticism or merely an observation does depend on how many compressed recordings like this you own. Most classical, jazz and back catalogue rock is largely free from such loud and compressed recordings – and new discs like Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs are fine too, but if you own a lot of new remasters, this could be more of an hurdle.
The amp has been criticised for its frequency extremes. I can see why, but I have another take on this. It will sound bass light next to amplifiers that will end up sounding ponderous in the process of delivering that extra low-end. That’s a delicate balance – more bass, less speed or more speed, less bass – and I think it’s one that Belles has got very right. This might be a cultural thing; we English are used to hearing our hi-fi light and tight, rather than big and (what we consider) blowsy. All of which would make me culturally predisposed toward the Belles IA-01 – its English accent is definitely more Gwyneth Paltrow than Dick Van Dyke. However, I’m not totally convinced this is a British thing, because I’m not convinced there should be cultural differences between audiophiles. Music is music, no matter where you come from. And music sounds very good indeed on this amplifier.
This is going to sound like some kind of Zen Koan, but it’s not hard to be impressed by the Belles IA-01, because it is not impressive. It doesn’t go for fireworks or flashy features. It’s just both built to last and made to sound musically enjoyable. Although there’s a lot more further up the Belles ladder, the IA-01 doesn’t demand you upgrade and therefore it may well be the amplifier that lives with you for the longest time.
SPECS & PRICING
Inputs: 4x single-ended RCA line only
Outputs: 1x single-ended RCA line only
Freq Response: 20Hz-20kHz (-1dB), 0.2Hz-125KHz (- 3dB)
Power output: 180 watts per channel
Input Impedance: 100K ohms
Distortion: IM and THD, less than .001%
Noise: less than 300 microvolts rms
Crosstalk: Over 45Db
Peak Current: 32 amperes
Damping Factor: over 2000
Dimensions (WxHxD): 43.2x8.9x33cm
Manufactured by Power Modules Inc
Distributed by Coherent Systems
Tel (UK only): 0845 5191833