August 1, 2009
Bel Canto e.One DAC3 Digital-to-Analog Converter
and e.One CD2 CD Player
The Italian phrase bel
canto can be translated as "beautiful song" or "beautiful
singing." To vocal-music buffs it refers to a style in which the top priority is the
sheer beauty and elegance of the singers sound. By extension, bel canto
describes Italian opera of the early 19th century, when Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini
turned out countless works brimming with florid melodies and long, legato lines that
demanded singers whose vocal agility and tonal purity could touch the heart.
These days, audiophiles also associate the term with Bel
Canto Design, a Minnesota-based high-end company whose distinctive products exemplify the
virtues of bel canto via innovative electronics aimed at sounding as liquid and
alluring as the great singers of the distant past. And the "Design" part of the
companys name lets you know that the look of their products sets them apart from the
standard black-and/or-silver boxes festooned with the buttons, bells, and whistles typical
of audio gear. Founder and chief designer John Stronczers designation of the CD2 and
DAC3 as members of his e.One line indicates that they occupy the top echelon of his
current product roster. Both models share the same look -- sleek, simple, functional.
Placed side by side, they look like a single long, svelte component, their diminutive
sizes belying their rock-solid build and big sound.
The e.One CD2 and e.One DAC3
The first thing I noticed about the e.One CD2 player was
the unusual way it houses -- or, rather, unhouses -- the disc its playing.
The CD2 is a top-feeder, but without the traditional sliding or top-lifting door. Instead,
the naked disc spins in plain view, protected only by an aluminum bar that permits enough
room for the user to gingerly place the disc on a center cone. Once settled, the disc is
secured with a supplied magnetic puck, which damps vibrations as the CD spins. Bel
Cantos User Guide suggests that, when the CD2s not in use, you can leave a
disc in position to protect the exposed laser lens from unwanted dust. Though I noticed no
ill effects from dust, Im wary of such designs over the long term, especially for
users who have cats who like to explore intriguing new surfaces.
The CD2 tips the scales at 18 pounds, with dimensions of
8.5"W x 4.5"H x 12.5"D; the DAC3 is 8.5"W x 3"H x 12.5"D and
weighs 14 pounds. The front panel of the CD2 is minimalism exemplified: set into its
silver face is an oblong display window, and on its right, a single, large control wheel.
Depending on how the CD2 is used -- as a standalone CD player direct to the amps, or as a
CD transport feeding a D/A converter or preamp -- this control lets you choose inputs,
change sample rates, and adjust volume. The CD2s wide range of operating choices
will entrance the dedicated tweaker, while its minimalist approach to front-end labeling
and controls may seem challenging to others. The manual covers the available choices and
tells you how to access them, but theres an adjustment period for those used to
components that have a discrete button for each function.
On the rear panel is a Fixed/Variable Output button; set to
IN, its in Fixed mode and routes the signal to your preamp; OUT means its in
Variable mode and sending the signal from the CD2 to the amplifier. Analog outputs include
single-ended RCA and balanced XLR; digital outputs are AES/EBU XLR, S/PDIF BNC, and
TosLink. All connections output 24-bit/96kHz signals; the CD2 will play "Red
Book" CDs, CD-Rs, and CD-RWs.
The CD2 has a four-layer PC board, multistage power
supplies, 24/192 upsampling (available when using its analog outputs only), and more, but
Bel Cantos trademarked Ultra-Clock architecture is cited in their literature as a
prime factor in the players sound. They claim that Ultra-Clock has extremely high
accuracy and "jitter performance 50x better than other clocks," something I hope
no one asks me to confirm. I found the CD2s outboard power supply intriguing --
its a cell-phone-sized box attached to a power cord that plugs into a receptacle on
the rear panel. The AC cord then runs from the power-supply box to the outlet. This
isolates it from the CD mechanism and internal circuitry, doing the job of a conventional
separate-box power supply. This neat, space-saving PS is also said to contain filters and
regulators that lower noise levels.
The DAC3 shares many features of the CD2 -- it looks like
the players twin, and the DAC3s rear panel closely mimics the players
layout, including a Fixed/Variable Output button that allows it, too, to be used with a
preamp or fed directly to an amplifier. Theres also a USB input that enables
playback from a computer using a recent operating system. Other inputs include XLR AES/EBU
and S/PDIF, all galvanically isolated from internal circuits to lower noise. All digital
signals are upsampled to 24/192 via a two-channel Burr-Brown PCM 1792 DAC chip that gets
its datastream from the CS8421 Cirrus sample-rate converter chip. Like the CD2, the DAC3
includes the Ultra-Clock circuit.
The DAC3s sole front-panel knob makes accessible a
variety of functions: standby and operating modes, input selection, soft mute, and volume
control are mentioned in the Users Guide, but I suspect it can be trained to cook
dinner and clean windows as well. Like the CD2, the DAC3 may take some getting used to --
Im still navigating with manual in hand. Theres an inherent conflict between
simplicity of visual design and complexity of operation. Bel Canto leans toward a more
elegant appearance; other manufacturers prefer more user-friendly arrays of multiple and
clearly marked buttons and switches.
I inserted the Bel Cantos in my reference system, alongside
the Cary 306 SACD Pro player, the Reimyo CAT-777 line-stage preamplifier, modified Jadis
JA-80 monoblock power amplifiers, Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen.III HSE speakers, and a
compatible mix of wires that included Nordost Quattro Fil interconnects and Siltech G3 AC
cords, interconnects, and speaker cables. My listening room is about 21D x 18W
by 8.5"H, with the speakers about 8 apart and 3.5 from the front
(shorter) wall. My listening position varied; much of the time I sat in an easy chair
about 9 from the speakers, but sometimes moved forward for nearfield listening, and
sometime back against the bookcase-lined rear wall, where the sound, against all
expectations, was as coherent and realistic as a front mezzanine seat in Carnegie Hall.
Most of my listening was with the Bel Cantos tethered to
the outstanding Reimyo preamp. For a relatively small part of it, toward the end, I
bypassed the Reimyo and passed the DAC3s signal directly to the Jadis monoblocks. In
the past, Ive been disappointed when I heard a CD player or DAC direct into my
systems amp(s). Each time, Id been led to believe Id hear greater
transparency and detail, but the results never came close to such expectations. So I was
dubious that the Bel Canto duo would match or exceed what I heard when they were played
through my preamp. In fact, they didnt match the quality obtained through the
Reimyo, but they came far closer than I ever thought they would. In the next section
Ill mention some of the results of my listening, results that were representative of
the sound I heard with a variety of other discs beyond the ones mentioned in this review.
My comments refer to the Bel Cantos played through the preamp, but Ill briefly
mention findings from the discs heard when the DAC3 signal was fed direct to the amps,
since they, too, were consistent with what I heard with other CDs.
I usually begin the serious, note-taking phase of a review
with my torture test: a few CDs Ive found that give me a quick read of whether the
component(s) in question threaten to do serious damage to my ears. I also want to know how
the gear copes with recordings Ive found especially revealing in one or more
aspects, most especially those relating to my own listening priorities. For example,
elevated mid-treble reproduction drives me up the wall, so I usually start with a solo
violin and/or soprano voice.
A friend once claimed that he can tell everything he needs
to know about a piece of equipment by listening to the first few minutes of
Rachmaninoffs Symphony No.2. The work begins with deep rumblings in the bass,
followed by a wind choir, then a sighing melodic figure in the strings thats then
elaborated on by the brass, the violins climbing higher and higher, and rhythmic plucking
in the cellos. Heard via a well-recorded performance by the Rotterdam Philharmonic under
the baton of Edo De Waart (Pentatone 51861530), this sequence, with its wide dynamic and
tonal ranges, told me a lot about the Bel Cantos stellar performance. But my
friends formula makes for imperfect snap judgments best suited to traversing such
events as the annual Consumer Electronics Show -- it cant substitute for listening
to a range of program material over an extended period.
So I turned next to Viktoria Mullovas superb new set
of J.S. Bachs Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (CD, Onyx 4040). Id
recently heard this on my reference Cary 306 SACD Pro, and it was fresh in my memory,
especially as Mullova plays Bach on a period violin with gut strings and a baroque bow.
While many period instrumentalists make sounds akin to chalk on a blackboard, Mullova
plays with a velvety bottom range and a sweet treble. The Bel Cantos captured her
performances well, but my reference player put more body on her tone, coming closer to the
sound of a real violin. With the Bel Cantos, the violin seemed a half-size too small, its
timbre a shade too thin -- not anorexic, but on just the slimmer side of reality. Since
tonal body is very high in my hierarchy of audio preferences, that was a disappointment,
though hardly a fatal one; many audiophiles actually prefer an aural image with the
tautness and edge that lent excitement to the way the Bel Cantos projected Mullovas
sound. I think were back in "Cool vs. Warm" territory, a battlefield
Id prefer not to re-enter. Suffice it to say that the recording sounded good on
both; if I ultimately preferred the sound of the Cary, others might prefer the sound of
the Bel Cantos. Later, listening to Mullovas Bach through the DAC3s signal fed
directly to the amplifiers and bypassing my preamp, I was impressed by the immediacy of
the sound and appreciated her uniquely warm lower register, but disappointed in the upper
trebles lack of bite.
The Bel Cantos excelled with a terrific new recording of
Handel opera arias and duets sung by soprano Sandrine Piau and contralto Sara Mingardo,
with the Concerto Italiano led by Rinaldo Alessandrini (CD, Naďve 30483). Piaus
bright, pure soprano was well reproduced, and the contrasting, intertwined voices of the
soloists were thrilling to hear. The engineers give full due to the period orchestra,
reproduced on a deep soundstage that lends the illusion of reality to the recorder players
at the rear of the stage. The Bel Cantos also caught the resonance of Cambridges
Trinity College chapel, the recording venue of the school choirs performance of
Handels Chandos Anthems, led by Stephen Layton (CD, Hyperion CDA67737). Here,
the choirs big, full sound and the natural balance between soloists and orchestra
were big pluses, as was the transparency of the recording, which lent clarity to each
section of the chorus. Unfortunately, that transparency meant that the flaws of individual
singers were exposed, poor diction and heavily aspirated bass runs detracting from the
A couple of orchestral recordings confirmed the Bel
Cantos excellence in capturing wide-ranging dynamics and realistic soundstaging.
Demonstrating those attributes was a fine recording of Haydns symphonies 25, 42, and
65, with Patrick Gallois conducting the Sinfonia Finlandia (CD, Naxos 8.570761),
especially as Gallois split the first and second violins to left and right, respectively,
liberating the high-strings sound from the left speaker and adding a special dimension
that clarified the string lines. Though most Haydn symphonies lack an extreme dynamic
range, this recording accurately conveyed the gradations of mezzo-forte wherein
most of the music resides; even casual listening revealed that the horns were well back
toward the rear of the stage.
Larger tonal and dynamic palettes are found in
Dvoráks bigger works, especially when recorded with the accuracy of Yakov
Kreizbergs performance with the Netherlands Philharmonic (SACD/CD, Pentatone
5186082). The tremendous dynamic range and orchestral detail of his Symphony No.7, plus
the sound of the strings -- sweet where it has to be, biting where a touch of edginess is
appropriate -- made this a joy to listen to. The discs companion work is
Dvoráks The Golden Spinning Wheel, a tone poem based on a grisly folk tale
featuring a wicked stepmother, the dismemberment of the kings chosen bride, her
resurrection, and the feeding of her killer to the wolves. Somehow Dvorák managed to
bring some of his loveliest music to a plot line that seems more appropriate to screaming
brass and batteries of percussion. The Bel Cantos were up to letting me in on the glories
of Pentatones excellent sound, even from the CD layer of this hybrid SACD. The
enormous dynamic range was impressive, as were the abundant orchestral detail and the
deep, wide soundstage, but most impressive to me was the way the solo violins
harmonics were captured with accuracy in a passage about 20 minutes into the work, just
after a dense wind chorale. This was another disc that suffered somewhat when played
direct from the DAC3 to the amplifiers, most noticeably in the somewhat mushy bass line.
Finally, I turned to a pair of jazz classics wonderfully
recorded for Blue Note by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, and reissued in superb SACD
transfers by Analogue Productions. Of necessity, since the Bel Cantos dont do SACD,
I listened to the upsampled CD layers of the hybrid discs and reveled in the immediacy of
the sound. John Coltranes classic Blue Train album (Analogue Productions CBNJ
81577 SA) never sounded better in my experience, his big, burly tenor-sax timbre caught
perfectly, as were Lee Morgans pungent trumpet and Curtis Fullers wide-timbre
trombone. Philly Joe Jones drums came through loud and clear, as did his delicate
brushwork behind Paul Chambers bass solo. But the irrepressible Coltranes
intro and solo in "Moments Notice" had an effect of shock and awe:
soaring, with a creamy upper register and playing that brimmed with passionate
Similar electricity was found on Lee Morgans Leeway
(Analogue Productions CBNJ 84034 SA). As on Blue Train, here is an abundance of
white-hot post-bop playing that was a joy to hear in such vivid, open sound. It would be
easy to isolate such moments as alto-sax master Jackie McLeans slashing intensity or
Morgans trenchant trumpet, but listening for what the Bel Cantos were doing to
penetrate deep into a brilliant recording-transfer job, I found subtler pleasures. One was
the sheer brilliance of Morgans playing, amplified by sound that captured perfectly
placed slurs and the equally perfect articulation of his explosions of rapid-fire notes.
Another was the way Bobby Timmons piano was reproduced, his vamping on "Midtown
Blues" affording special pleasure.
The Bel Canto e.One CD2 and e.One
DAC3 are clearly superior components: sleek in design, impressive in sound, and versatile
in use. At a combined list price of $5490 theyre by no means cheap, but Ive
heard far more expensive single-box and separate models that cant measure up to
their performance. I suppose that qualifies the Bel Cantos as a good choice of source
component in todays market, especially since they can be worked into a system
piecemeal: the CD2 as a standalone player, albeit one of marginal pretensions; then the
DAC3 joining it and played directly into the amplifier, saving on the cost of a preamp and
associated cables; and finally -- best by far of all -- in combination with a top-grade
preamplifier between DAC3 and amplifier.
While I felt that my reference Cary 306 SACD Pro was
ultimately more satisfying, with a firmer bass, sweeter high end, somewhat greater
liquidity, and more body to voices and instruments, the combination of CD2 and DAC3 was a
neutral-sounding alternative with special strengths in soundstaging and detail retrieval
-- and its $2500 cheaper. The Bel Canto e.Ones also made my short list of gear that
encourages further listening. The pleasure of my extended listening sessions with them was
characterized by a desire to hear "just one more CD," regardless of the hour.
That, to me, distinguishes the best from the rest.
. . . Dan Davis
Bel Canto Design e.One DAC3 Digital-to-Analog
Price: $2495 USD.
Bel Canto Design e.One CD2 CD player
Price: $2995 USD.
Warranty (both): Two years parts and labor (nontransferable).
Bel Canto Design
212 Third Avenue N., Suite 274
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Phone: (612) 317-4550
Fax: (612) 359-9358