When I reviewed the Bel Canto Ref600 Monos and the 2.7 DAC I was struck by the naturalness of the presentation. The Black EX takes that naturalness to another level. This was not what I would normally expect from a digital device and Class D amplifiers. I was enjoying an analog experience. I started with Tidal via the SEEK app on my iPhone 8 plus queueing up the FM radio 70’s staple ‘FM’ by Steely Dan from the FMmovie soundtrack [MCA]. This 16/44.1 was as clear and clean as I can ever remember hearing it. The opening guitar work had a spangle (a technical term) that cut through the bassline. The tenor sax was tone filled with just the right amount of rasp. Having listened to this song for over forty years it is one of those soundtracks of your life songs. To hear it in such a quality “analogue” presentation was incredibly satisfying. This was a great start demonstrating immediately what Bel Canto said they were striving for with their twenty-year quest to incrementally improve on their chosen DAC technology.
Next up was Murray Perahia performing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 in B Flat Major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier” 1. Allegro also via Tidal. Piano can be tough for digital, subject to brightness and sometimes brittle tonality I approach it with trepidation. The Black EX delivered with full tonality and a complete lack of brightness or edge. Listening to the performance I am struck by the feeling of joy and playfulness. There is an uplifting energy to the piece that was magnified by the correctness to the piano’s tone. The precision and nuance of Mr. Perahia’s playing carried through with wonderful fullness. The Black EX made this an almost live experience with its tone and dimensionality. Very well done.
Wrapping up with the SACD of Alison Krauss + Union Station Live[2002 Rounder Records] ‘The Lucky One’features Alison’s incredibly pure voice accompanied by the impeccable musicianship of Union Station. Female vocals can make or break any system. The Bel Canto Black EX Integrated’s rendering of Alison’s voice was exquisitely pure. The guitar, Dobro, and violin tone were full and full of tone. It was a superb and natural presentation.
Finally, it’s hard not to consider the Bel Canto Black EX without going to the ‘D’-word – Devialet. The slim, shiny box from Paris was the ‘shot heard round the audio world’ when it first appeared at the start of this decade, and the shockwaves continue to resonate through much of high-end audio. In truth, Devialet was and remains more prevalent in Europe and the UK than the US to my mind, but it opened the door for smaller, integrated products that retain high-end performance worldwide. I haven’t logged enough hours with a Devialet to compare directly, but the Bel Canto’s sound stands on its own. It’s not a ‘Devialet killer’ because it doesn’t need to be a ‘Devialet killer’. Audio is sufficiently broad in scope for both to coexist peacefully. But what it has in common with that French fashionista is that people with separate preamps, DACs, phono stages, power amps, power supplies and the rest listen to these one-box wonders... and often trade the lot in for this one superstar. That’s what the original D-Premier did so well, and that’s what the Bel Canto Black EX does so well, too. This is a disruptive product, challenging head on the status quo of high-end audio, and that is refreshing and a much needed catalyst for change in what can too often be an industry hide-bound in convention. Other brands should be worried, but more importantly, other brands should be learning from the Black EX and doing the same thing!