Bel Canto Design has been producing terrific sounding gear for over twenty years. Based in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, the firm began as a tube specialist yet has evolved into a premier solid-state shop. Founder John Stronczer is a dedicated engineer and passionate audiophile who examines the benefit of every part to ensure it is a necessary component of sufficient quality to add meaningfully to the whole of the piece. I have had a couple of opportunities to spend time at Bel Canto HQ and I can attest to the measured approach and high standards used to infuse a bit of audio magic into their gear. John’s attention to both the engineering and sonic benefits of each part create wonder and once again I am privileged to enjoy their latest work.
The Bel Canto Black series was a mighty leap into ultra-high-end audio a few years ago. The Black is a three-box system that was not exactly a dual mono amp and preamp combo. The third box was so much more than a preamp and more of a convergence control unit. Imposing, with black anodized aluminium glowing with HAL 9000 inspired red LED’s, the Black system was a high-end coming-out party for the company. At around £55,000 it was by far the brand’s most expensive and sophisticated offering. Indeed, it has been hailed by the press for the impressive sound quality and the digital and analogue convergent tech. Fortunately for the rest of us, the last few years have seen some ‘trickle-down’ from this system; first to the impressive Black ACI 600 integrated at around £25,000 and now the Black EX Integrated, the subject of this review, at £15,000.
Upon opening the box, you find the manual, a hefty remote control, and a BNC to RCA adapter for S/PDIF use. The Black EX is encased in thick foam underneath. First impressions of the unit are, for me, strongly favourable. It is a beautiful industrial design of black (naturally) aluminium with a display, one control wheel and a headphone jack on the front. This spartan layout belies the incredible level of customization over the sound and input options found within the Black EX’s control software. The headphone jack has its own independent circuitry that utilises a dedicated 112dB dynamic range DAC to supply its own separate output buffer stage. I found it is a more than credible device, albeit one that does require its own break in time to achieve best quality.
The Black system; The Original Black, the ACI 600, and the Black EX all are centered around two proprietary technologies. One is the AMiP platform. What is it exactly? AMiP stands for ‘Asynchronous Multi-Input Processor’. It is a multi-processor based system that manages the Ethernet interface, audio, DAC’s, and inputs to coordinate with Roon and DLNA based servers, streaming services like Tidal and MQA encoded files to access digital music in virtually any form from anywhere they can connect to. It can accept files up to 24/192 via its many digital inputs such as S/PDIF, Toslink, and AES and up to 24/384 and DSD128 via USB 2.0. As usual for these devices Mac computers require no driver. Windows machines can download the Black EX specific driver from the Bel Canto website.
The second cornerstone is Bel Canto’s HDR-II (High Dynamic Resolution) core. HDR is a result of twenty years of refinement to a DAC technology Bel Canto has chosen to refine due to the “rightness” of its D to A conversion. The DAC wars created several camps of adherents to certain DAC approaches, R2R, Delta-Sigma, Multi-Bit… so many approaches. What many audiophiles fail to grasp is the chip is a start. What the engineer does with it is likely more meaningful to good sound than the base approach. Bel Canto describes what they have achieved as the, “highest levels of analogue purity and uncompromised performance,” which basically translates to a more musical result. No digital edge or rounded off highs from the digitizing of an analog signal then converting it back. Or making the file more musical as analog if it was digitally recorded. To me the Black EX via it’s HDR-II tech has a rightness to the sound. It is not artificial. Audiophiles can debate the engineering greatness of a particular approach strictly from an engineering perspective; I frankly only care which approach yields better sound from my speakers.