PLAYBACK 24: Bel Canto Design S300iUSB Integrated Amplifier/DAC

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Categories:
Integrated amplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters
PLAYBACK 24: Bel Canto Design S300iUSB Integrated Amplifier/DAC

Not so very long ago, Minnesota-based Bel Canto Design seemed like a technically innovative but otherwise very traditional high-end audio company, complete with top-tier products that sold at decidedly upper-crust prices. However, with the advent of the firm’s e.One-series components a few years ago the company turned a corner of sorts, offering products that still offer top-tier performance, but that sell for 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 what is arguably the most versatile of Bel Canto’s e.One-series models and the product that is the subject of this review: namely, the S300iUSB integrated amplifier/USB DAC that sells for $1995.

The S300iUSB shares a common chassis footprint with other e.One models, which means that it is housed in a compact enclosure that is deeper than it is wide and sized to allow pairs of e.One components to be placed side by side on a typical equipment rack shelf. Early on, I discovered that pictures don’t do justice to the build quality of Bel Canto’s e.One-series components. When I hoisted the S300iUSB from its shipping carton, I immediately found that it was heavier than it looked, very solidly built, and put together with the kind of fit and finish normally associated with old-school, metal-bodied cameras (think of early generation Leicas or Nikons and you’ve got the general idea). So, while the S300iUSB may be small in physical stature as high-end audio components go, it nevertheless pushes all the right pride-of-ownership buttons.

The S300iUSB is simple in appearance and in use—so simple, in fact, that its only visible user controls are an illuminated front-panel display window (which shows amplifier status, input channel selections, and volume settings) plus a single, ingeniously designed, multifunction control knob. By pressing and/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, which provides a largely self-explanatory suite of control buttons.

The S300iUSB’s integrated amplifier consists of a low distortion, wide-bandwidth preamplifier coupled with a potent, 150 Wpc, dual mono Class D power amplifier that is 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 S300iISB—provides digital audio input in the form of a 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC (Bel Canto offers other input modules, too, such as a phono stage). The input side of the DAC incorporates a built-in version of the circuitry from Bel Canto’s well-regarded 24/96 USB Link module, which is said to reduce jitter and noise for improved sound quality. Interestingly, the USB Link circuitry probably performs better in the S300iUSB than it does as a standalone product (which is how the Link is normally sold) because it is positioned on the same circuit board as the DAC—eliminating the Link’s traditional outboard housing, digital audio cable and connector as possible sources of noise and jitter.

What we have here, then, is a physically compact but nonetheless lionhearted little integrated amp that can do justice to traditional analog source components, yet that offers the flexibility of making great music when fed digital audio files from computer-based music systems. Whether you are looking to build a killer PC-based desktop audio system or perhaps a more traditional audio system that incorporates a PC or music server as a key source component, the S300iUSB could be the ideal amp/DAC for you.

OVERVIEW

Consider this amplifier/DAC if: you want an amp that makes an ideal “bridge component,” addressing the needs of those who own traditional analog audio components, but also want to make the most of computer or server-based digital audio files. But also consider the S300iUSB because it is powerful, well-priced for the quality-level it offers, and sounds great.

Look further if: you require an integrated amplifier that provides a built-in headphone amp (sadly, no headphone jack is provided), or if you need a DACs that provides a user selectable combination of USB, S/PDIF, and Toslink inputs (as things stand, the Bel Canto’s DAC is kind of a one-trick pony, providing a single USB input only).

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced integrated amps)

  • Treble: 9
  • Midrange: 9
  • Bass: 10
  • Soundstaging: 9
  • Dynamics: 10
  • Value: 10

 Ratings (relative to comparably-priced DACs)

  • Design & Features: 4
  • Tonal Balance: 9
  • Timbral Purity: 9
  • Detail & Resolution: 9
  • Imaging/Soundstaging: 8
  • Dynamics: 8
  • Value: 8

FEATURES

  • Terrific fit, finish, and build quality: this little amp gets all the “intangibles” right.
  • Full-function remote control (but one that wasn’t fully documented in the manual that came with our review sample).
  • A multipurpose control knob that is simple, elegant, and surprisingly easy to master (once you get used to it, you may feel most competing components provide way too many superfluous knobs, buttons, and switches).
  • Four analog audio inputs and one USB digital audio input.
  • Preamp section with quoted bandwidth of “DC – 200kHz.”
  • Power amplifier section delivers 150 Wpc @ 8 Ohms, 300 Wpc @ 4 Ohms.
  • High-quality 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC incorporates circuit elements of Bel Canto’s well-regarded 24/96 USB Link module for reduced jitter and noise.
  • Analog input 4 provides user-selectable “home theater bypass” functions.

 

SONIC CHARACTER

Amplifier: Judged solely as an integrated amp, the S300iUSB 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 two things. First, despite its compact size, the S300iUSB handled dynamic swells in the music powerfully and expressively, vividly conveying the sense of energy and life in well-recorded performances. Second, I was impressed by the surefooted manner in which the Bel Canto was able to resolve subtle, low-level sonic details and to navigate tricky passages that provided densely layered transient information. The S300iUSB serves up an intense quality of immediacy and also of focus that make it an absolute blast to listen to. Compared to many ICEpower-based amplifiers I’ve heard (or reviewed) in the past, the Bel Canto has a noticeably more lively, open, and transparent sound (in fact, it’s one of the best ICEpower implementations I’ve yet heard).

During my listening tests, I used the Bel Canto to drive two excellent but also challenging speaker systems: the superb Usher Mini Dancer Two’s and the classic Magnepan MG 1.6’s. The Ushers are highly revealing speakers that reward amplifiers rich in subtlety and finesse, but tend to expose amplifiers that have even faint problems with edginess or glare. The Maggies, in turn, are planar magnetic speakers that also reward sonic subtlety and refinement, yet that also demand seriously muscular amps—wimpy amps need not apply. To its very great credit, the S300iUSB did a fine job with both speakers—a result not all integrated amps could achieve (either because they lacked sufficient refinement, power, or both).

The only very minor limitation I noted was that the S300iUSB didn’t reproduce very high frequency harmonics or the elusive sense of “air” surrounding instruments quite as effectively the my reference hybrid tube/solid-state integrated amp (which, admittedly, costs about four times what the Bel Canto does). Given that the Be Canto costs thousands less than my reference amp, I thought its performance was thoroughly admirable—good enough that, if my reference amp were ever taken away, I could easily see using the Bel Canto as a long-term substitute. One thing is certain: the S300iUSB 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 stop to consider that the Bel Canto also has a “secret weapon” most other integrated amps don’t provide; namely, a built-in, high-quality USB DAC.

USB/DAC: The Bel Canto’s USB DAC offers taut, rock-solid bass and smooth, articulate mids, and when fed lossless digital audio files it produces 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 may become).

Some of my colleagues at The Absolute Sound have questioned whether USB DACs are capable of doing a good job of capturing the rhythmic and timing-oriented aspects of music, but I found absolutely no such problems with the S300iUSB. 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, meaning that it does a fine job of teasing out the intricacies of complicated musical lines, or of rendering subtle textural details that define the voices of instruments. One small drawback I noted, however, is that the Bel Canto’s DAC section sometimes exhibited a somewhat hard-edged, spitty, and occasionally splashy sound on abrupt, vigorous upper midrange or treble transients—a problem I’ve encountered with many other USB DACs as well. But don’t get me wrong: the S300iUSB does not by any stretch of the imagination sound bright or characteristically harsh or edgy. It is just that sounds such as sibilant “S’s” in vocals, vigorous cymbal strikes, periodic reed noises from wind instruments, aggressive violin bowing changes, etc., occasionally disrupt the DAC’s otherwise smooth, articulate sound. I found I could greatly mitigate such transient problems, though not completely eliminate them, by using a high quality USB cable, such as the Furutech GT2 cable I used during most of my listening tests.

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

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, the use of 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 that it is characterized both by its sheer dynamic punch (those slapped low-frequency notes hit with the force of a hand slap to the face) and—paradoxically enough—by its delicacy (Peer’s high frequency techniques give the bass an almost gamelan-like quality where harmonics and fundamentals mix and merge in exquisitely complex ways). Somewhat to my surprise, the Bel Canto just waded right in and flat out owned this track, providing sufficient bass control to enable 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 S300iUSB really came into its own, keeping up with Peer’s blazingly fast, rapid-fire techniques without skipping a beat, and beautifully delineating and displaying his high harmonics in their full glory. The Bel Canto really takes hold of the material it’s fed, creating a compelling sound that makes you want to stop what you are doing and just listen.

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 percussion instruments captured in a pleasantly reverberant space. What wowed me was the sheer immediacy of the S300iUSB’s presentation, where the transient attack and well-delineated voices of the instruments seemed just spot on. As instruments were struck, their sounds and positions onstage seemed so life-like and vivid that I felt the almost child-like temptation to point toward empty spaces between or beyond my speakers and to say, “that gong/drum/chime sounds like it’s right there…” What was also very impressive was the way the Bel Canto captured the slowly decaying reverberant “tails” of individual notes as they gradually faded to silence within the recording space. Not many amplifiers could match the intensity, subtlety and fine resolution that the Bel Canto exhibited on this track.

 

COMPETITIVE ANALYSIS

I compared the DAC section of the S300iUSB to both the $700 Chordette Gem USB DAC (which will be the subject of a future Playback review) and to the USB DAC section of the $1195 Peachtree Nova amp/DAC (reviewed in Playback 21).

I found the S300iUSB 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, perhaps as a result, offered even more convincing and holographic 3D imaging than the Bel Canto DAC did.

The sound of the Bel Canto and Peachtree DAC sections were in many respects similar, 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 (without any loss in detail). Another practical point in the Peachtree’s favor was the fact that its DAC module provides not only a USB input, but also two S/PDIF and two Toslink (optical) digital audio inputs, which are switch-selectable. I would like to see Bel Canto equip the S300iUSB’s DAC module with switch-selectable USB, S/PDIF, and Toslink inputs to maximize versatility.

Because the products are conceptually similar, I compared the amplifier sections of the S300iUSB to the amp of the Peachtree Nova and found the Bel Canto amp was hands down the superior performer. Good though the Nova amp is, the S300iUSB’s amp section was audibly cleaner, quieter, more powerful, and capable of resolving finer levels of sonic details. Frankly, you could build a case that the S300iUSB would be a good value even if sold as a standalone integrated amp without a DAC, but the good news is that an onboard USB DAC is included (and a very good one at that).

BOTTOM LINE:

Bel Canto’s S300iUSB is, first and foremost, an excellent and affordable integrated amplifier that can stand tall in comparison to just about anything I’ve heard in its price class, offering—in equal measures--both sonic refinement and serious muscle (meaning it can drive the overwhelming majority of speakers one might wish to use). The Bel Canto’s built-in USB DAC is very good (though perhaps not as good as its terrific amplifier section in an absolute sense). But the point is that the USB DAC gives the S300iUSB an extra dimension, making it a very serious yet also plug-n-play front end for use with computer or server-based audio systems.

SPECS & PRICING

Bel Canto S300iUSB Integrated Amplifier/USB DAC

Power: 150 Wpc @ 8 ohms
Inputs: four stereo analog (one with “home theater” bypass), one digital audio (USB)
DAC Upsampling: 24-bit/96kHz (the DAC in the S300iUSB, unlike Bel Canto’s more costly DAC3,
does not upsample to 24/192 but operates at the original sample rate up to 24/96)
DAC signal-to-noise:106dB “A-weighted”
Outputs: preamp out, record out
Dimensions (H x W x D): 3” x 8.5” x 13.5”
Weight: 12 lbs.
Warranty:
90 days, parts and labor (automatically extends to 2 years, parts and labor, if owners return warranty cards within 30 days of initial purchase)
Price: $1995

Bel Canto Design
(612) 317-4550
www.belcantodesign.com

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