Bel Canto Design C7R D/A receiver
As a young music lover, I never knew there were such things as separate preamplifiers, amplifiers, and FM tuners. All I knew was that if I wanted to play music from my CD player, hook up my VCR to my stereo, or listen to the radio, I needed that magical device: a receiver. It was all I ever wanted.
It's my guess that many folks out there want good sound but can't be bothered with separates. All those folks know when they walk into a store or look online is that they need a receiver. And in this digital age, when many people listen to music from their computers, a receiver with a good onboard DAC that can also take a straight USB input is pretty much a necessity. However, most products designed as simplified, all-in-one packages have almost no audiophile pedigree. In fact, I'm sure that, in terms of sound quality, most audiophiles would justifiably rate receivers as the lowest of the low.
So I read with hope about Bel Canto Design's new C7R, an honest-to-god receiver (Bel Canto calls it a DAC integrated amplifier) that boasts some truly high-end amplification aspirations, comes with a built-in DAC with USB input, an FM tuner, and an analog input, and costs a respectably fair $2995. I got one in for a listen.
Ins and Outs
The C7R, like all Bel Canto products, is a cute little thing whose half-width (8.5") steel chassis and aluminum faceplate give it an air of simple elegance. On the front panel is a display, and a knob that can be pushed to select the input, and rotated to adjust the volume and tuning frequencyin fact, it's all you need to control most of what the C7R does. I found this knob simple and straightforward to usesimple enough that even a first-time user will be able to figure it out in about 10 seconds. All of the C7R's functions can also be used via the remote control, which will also command any other Bel Canto product. However, compared to the simplicity of the faceplate knob, the remote's layout is just plain dumb (during a recent trip to my listening room, John Atkinson couldn't get it to work consistently), it has way too many buttons, and it feels cheap in the hand. Hey, Bel Cantothere must be a better remote control you could make. The remote aside, everything else about the C7R feels like first-rate construction. It was a joy to behold and to use.
Aside from HDMI, AES/EBU, and balanced analog inputs, the C7R accepts whatever you want to plug into it. It has an unbalanced analog input that will accept line-level signals, and a phono input for use with moving-magnet cartridges. On the digital side, it has one 24/96 USB, two 24-bit/192kHz S/PDIF, and two 24/96 TosLink inputs. The S/PDIF inputs are terminated with RCA jacks, just in case you use BNC connectors (I often do). The digital inputs are attached to 24/192 digital-to-analog converters based on Bel Canto's Two-Stage Master Reference Ultra-Clock, which rejects digital jitter and allows the C7R to play with a claimed dynamic range of over 115dB in the digital realm. My only, and slight, disappointment was the lack of glass ST fiber-optic input, which my Bel Canto e.One DAC 3.5VB Mk.II D/A converter does support. This type of glass input works with Bel Canto's other USB-related products, such as their old Light Link and their new uLink and RefLink. (The ST connection's wider bandwidth compared with plastic fiber-optic connections, allows it to transfer signals over longer runs of cable without increasing jitter.) Oh, wellI can't expect this little thing to do everything.
The C7R's power-amplifier section, based on the ICEpower module used in Bel Canto's e.One REF150S power amplifier, puts out 120Wpc into 4 ohms or 60Wpc into 8 ohms. This makes the C7R usefully powerful, but you're not gonna be running a disco off this baby. The C7R's heavily regulated switch-mode power supplies and switching output stage allow it to operate with high efficiency and minimal heat dissipationit draws only 14W when on. I found that the C7R got only barely warmer than the ambient temperature of my room, which should allow it to be placed anywhere. In fact, the C7R also comes with an IR remote inputit could be tucked away, entirely out of sight, while an external eye made possible remote control. The C7R's volume control is a 24-bit digital level control, so digiphobes beware: That analog input signal will be converted to digital at 192kHz with 24-bit resolution, then converted back to analog just before the output stage.
The C7R can output sound in three ways: via its line-level output, which can also be used as a home-theater bypass; via the two pairs of WBT Next Gen binding posts on its rear panel; and via the ¼" headphone jack on its faceplate.
I began listening to the C7R as I finished editing A Drop in the Ocean, a new CD by the Portland State Chamber Choir. As always, I used my trusty Sennheiser HD600 headphones to listen carefully to each splice I made. Editing this album was a challenge; we'd recorded in a very reverberant space, and not only did I need to make sure that each splice lined up in time with the music, I also had to match the decaying reverberation of the outgoing splice with the ambience of the incoming splice. If the reverberations don't match, the "gear change" at the splice point is jarringly audible.
Since I was doing so much headphone listening, I decided to give my Centrance DACmini headphone amp some time out, and plugged my laptop into the C7R via the latter's USB input. The C7R solidly and ably drove the HD600s, offering plenty of gain, and great immediacy and stability of tone. The sessions had been recorded at 24/88.2, and the combination of the C7R's onboard DAC and its headphone amp proved to be a very revealing and nuanced transcriber of the high-resolution files. The Bel Canto offered better image outlines of individual singers than the Centrance, separating them more from the background acoustic. The C7R's treble was a bit more extended than the Dacmini's, if perhaps a touch grainer. Through the Sennheisers, the C7R's bass had a bit more authority than the Centrance headphone amp, letting the choir's basses (I was one of them) sound as manly as we do in real life. The reverberation of the recording venue, St. Stephen's Church in Portland, Oregon, was very clear and liquid, and the C7R let me hear how well I was doing my job of splicing together performances of some great choral works.