Bel Canto Design C7R D/A receiver Page 2
Next I plugged the C7R into my big rig: Clearaudio Ovation turntable and Basic+ phono preamp, Bel Canto e.One CD2 CD player (used as a transport) and e.One DAC 3.5VB Mk.II DAC, and Revel Performa F30 speakers. My Kimber Kable BiFocal-X speaker cables fit beautifully in the C7R's WTB Next Gen speaker terminals, and my heavy Sain Line Systems Pure Reference power cord was well supported by the C7R's IEC inlet. Though the C7R is a wee thing, it's dense enough to support the weight of audiophile cables while making solid connections with them.
First up was to evaluate the C7R's onboard DAC, fed directly from the CD2 via a Stereovox S/PDIF cable. I played Johnny Cash's Unearthed boxed set (5 CDs, Lost Highway/American Recordings B0001679-02)a treasure, this "Best of Cash on American Recordings" is a great overview of his recorded golden years. Listening to Cash sing Nick Cave's "Mercy Seat," I was immediately struck by how good this amp and DAC sounded. After listening to the Audio Research Reference 150 for the past months, I was a bit spoiled by its product-of-the-year sound. Surprisingly, I didn't find myself pining for the REF150 as I listened to Cash sing this antihero's tale of death row through the C7R. The lateral imaging was especially wide, stable, and well defined. The midrange and bass were nicely fleshed outjust enough not to make me miss the ARC's tubes. The rumbling upright piano that takes over at the end of the track was especially well defined, giving me weight as well as letting me hear the individual notes of this murky texture. Cash's cover of Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" came through with immediacy and clarity. In this mix, two acoustic guitars are placed hard left and right, one coming directly from each speaker. The C7R presented the guitars with all necessary dynamics, macro and micro, to give this track a sense of lifelike scale.
Listening to Aphex Twin's Come to Daddy (CD, Sire 31001) via the C7R's internal DAC revealed a very nice-sounding power amplifier at the heart of this receiver. Though I've certainly heard more control and slam in the bass from my reference system, the C7R did a remarkably good job, offering bass lines with tone that was generous yet nuanced and textured. I was able to turn up the volume quite high with no audible distortion. Though the C7R didn't offer the last word in dynamic range, it slightly rounded the leading edges of transient attacks in a polite, easy waythe way any 60Wpc amplifier would. I must say, however, that the C7R sounded slightly more powerful than its numbers indicate, and never hard or aggressive as it approached the upper limit of its dynamic range. Instead, it maintained a nice, open, neutral sound, even when pushed.
The Aphex Twin tracks did highlight one aspect of the C7R's sound. Via its onboard DAC, the C7R's treble was a tad on the crisp, forward side. Though it never sounded hard or pinched, there was a touch of highlighting in the top octaves, accompanied by a slight homogenization of the treble. In no way was the C7R's treble unpleasant, but in comparison with the best DACs and amplifiers I've heard, the Bel Canto sounded a little crisppleasantly so.
To compare the C7R's DAC with one of the best DACs I know, I plugged Bel Canto's own e.One DAC 3.5VB Mk.II, in fixed-output mode, into the C7R's line-level input. (I reviewed the DAC 3.5VB Mk.II in June 2011.) The sound remained remarkably similar through the DAC 3.5, which says a lot for the C7R's DAC. However, the DAC 3.5VB truly fleshed out the midrange, creating greater and more believable front-to-back layering, and smoothed out and extended the treble response. Music had a greater ease and realism through the DAC 3.5VB Mk.II, and I couldn't help thinking that its noise floor was much lower than the C7R's. Still, I was amazed that the C7R's DAC was in no way embarrassed by performing side by side with its bigger, more sophisticated brother.
To test the C7R's analog inputs, I hooked up the Clearaudio Ovation turntable via Clearaudio's Basic+ phono preamp. The Ovation sounded delicious playing Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues (LP, Sub Pop 888). The reverberation was very liquid, and the C7R did a fine job of resolving this album's complex mixes. While the C7R couldn't give me all the palpability, three-dimensionality, and scale of the ARC REF150, I was still totally immersed in the music. Classical fare also benefited from the C7R's ability to present music with a sense of cleanness while still maintaining the body of instruments' tones. Artur Rubinstein's piano in his recording of Chopin Nocturnes was far more revealing and immersive than this little receiver had any right to sound.
I briefly spent some time listening to the C7R's FM tuner. All I can say is that it worked just fine, though I must admit to having no real basis of comparison for how FM broadcasts can sound through a high-end rig. Since my move to Oregon, my radio listening has gone down considerablyI miss the fantastic programming of Minnesota Public Radio. I'm sure the good folks at the Bel Canto plant in Minneapolis enjoy lots of MPR's programming via the C7R.
I am now a bona-fide audiophile. My quest for the best musical reproduction involves separate amplifiers, DACs, phono preamps, USB interfaces, CD transports, even FM tuners. The whole audiophile rigmarole can get a little complicated and expensive. But I love good sound, and have (unfortunately) found that separate components offer the best performance, and the ability to balance the sound of my system.
My time with the Bel Canto C7R receiver showed me that great, audiophile-quality sound can also be gotten out of one little box. The C7R's amplifier section is usefully powerful and nuanced, even if it lacks the juice needed to really rattle the rafters. The C7R's DAC is no mere convenience, sounding quite impressive and holding its own against much more costly D/A converters. The C7R's multitude of digital inputs, including USB, make it a usefully flexible tool to integrate into any music lover's life. Its analog inputs will let you spin vinyl, and you can uses its FM tuner to listen to Car Talk. Perhaps all I ever needed was a receiver . . . ?
The C7R is tiny but elegant; it uses little power, doesn't get hot, and it's built in the US by a real company that stands behind its work. I loved the Bel Canto C7R. I recommend it to anyone who wants simplicity and great sound.