Bel Canto Design DAC 1 D/A processor Page 2
Bel Canto is best known for single-ended-triode tube electronics (including the SETi40, a Sam Tellig fave), and despite the fact that there are no thermionic tubes to be found anywhere in the DAC 1, this heritage was apparent in the sound. "Smooth," "musical," "non-fatiguing," and, yes, "analog-like" were some of the descriptors that came to mind. I know that some audiophiles are still inclined to characterize CD playback as harsh, edgy, and clinical, and I've certainly heard these sorts of sounds from digital front-ends in the past—but I don't see how any fair-minded person can describe the sound of CDs played back through the DAC 1 in these terms. As always, the sound of an audio system depends on the source material, other components in the system, and setup and listening environment. But if a system includes the DAC 1 and the sound is forward, aggressive, or harsh, the DAC 1 would be the last component I would suspect of being responsible for these problems.
The DAC 1's smooth, easygoing nature was apparent with a wide range of CDs, and was a particular asset with ones with which I have a love/hate relationship: love the music/performers, hate the sound. Alas, I have more than a few CDs in my collection that are in this category, including many of the show-music releases from Varèse Sarabande. Perhaps "hate" is too strong a word—Varèse Sarabande's sound is never that bad—but I've often wished that No One Is Alone (VSD-5623), an otherwise outstanding recording by Laurie Beechman (who died so tragically young) sounded less up-close and aggressive. Using the DAC 1, the forward quality and excessive sibilance that I had accepted as characteristics of the recording did not seem as bothersome, and it was easier for me to concentrate on Laurie's singing alone. I don't have a lot of recordings in the 24/96 DVD format—most of the music on these releases just doesn't interest me—but the DAC 1 sounded great with the ones that I tried, Jon Faddis' Remembrances (Chesky CHDVD176) sounding much better than its CD equivalent (JD166).
To help place the DAC 1's performance with CD sources in a comparative context, I had two digital processors at hand: the PS Audio UltraLink II and the MSB Technology Link III. The UltraLink II is no longer available, but was rated Class B in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" as recently as October 1997. It is a good example of the near-state-of-the-art digital processors of just two or three years ago, and was considered good excellent value at $2295. The Mk.II version of the UltraLink features a 20-bit, 8x-oversampling DAC, UltraAnalog's AES20 receiver, and HDCD decoder/filter technology. Heard on its own (using the preferred AES/EBU connection), the UltraLink Two actually sounded pretty good, with lots of detail and good dynamics, but switching to the DAC 1 resulted in a much more realistic presentation of instrumental and vocal timbres, greater ease and liquidity, and an overall less "electronic" character.
MSB Technology's LinkDAC III (see Kalman Rubinson's review of the original version in January 1999 and his Follow-Up on the III in September 2000) is a digital processor that shares some design features with the Bel Canto DAC 1 (24/96 capability, use of the CS8420 sample-rate converter), but it's a more "tweaky" product offering a variety of optional upgrades. The unit I used for comparative purposes had the optional P1000 heavy-duty power supply, upsampler board, and the Full Nelson upgrade, which involves various improvements in circuitry/parts quality, plus a replacement of the TosLink input with AES/EBU. MSB also provided an oscillator chip that increases the upsampling rate from 96kHz to 132.3kHz; I installed this one, too. With all these options, the Link III comes in at $1382, which is very close to the price of the Bel Canto DAC 1.
The two processors sounded more alike than different. The comments I made about the musicality of the DAC 1 apply to the Link III as well; there seems to be something fundamentally right about combining a sample-rate converter with a 24/96 DAC. However, to the extent that there were differences, I felt they were in the Link III's favor, particularly when using its AES/EBU input. At least in my system—and, as they say on the Internet, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary)—the Link III had better dynamics (transients had greater "suddenness"), a more airy top end, and bass with more weight and greater extension.
The DAC 1 sounded even smoother and sweeter, which might be useful in systems that are otherwise on the hard-edged side. But in the context of the Avantgarde/Cary system currently in my music room, the sound was almost too smooth, and just a bit bland in comparison with the Link III (and the real thing). It was the kind of sound that doesn't offend or lead to listener fatigue, but the Link III, while still avoiding the hard "digital" sound, offered what I felt was a better balance of musicality, detail, transparency, and dynamics.
The Bel Canto DAC 1 illustrates how far moderately priced digital processors have come in just the past few years. Its presentation is smoothly musical, the antithesis of the sort of forward, clinical, fatiguing sound that has characterized much of digital replay in the past. I've certainly enjoyed my time with the DAC 1, but ultimately I preferred the more exciting, more dynamic sound of the fully optioned MSB Link III. The Link III is a more tweaky product, and those averse to tweakiness might prefer the simplicity of the DAC 1—but the III also offers more options, including an AES/EBU input. Although both products are said to be upgradeable, the Link III's open layout is more amenable to tweaks and modifications.
The Bel Canto DAC 1 is a more-than-credible performer, but my first recommendation in this price range is the MSB Link III with upsampling card, Full Nelson upgrade, and P1000 power supply.