Bel Canto e1X power amplifier Page 2

Midmorning of day five of the break-in period, I took my first critical listen; I chose a jazz selection from pianist Cyrus Chestnut's debut album, Revelation (16/44.1 FLAC, Atlantic Jazz 82518-2). This is a trio date, and on the closing track, "Cornbread Pudding," you're witness to incredible interplay between Chestnut, bassist Christopher Thomas, and drummer Clarence Penn. The session was engineered by Jim Anderson and mastered by Joe Gastwirt, and the realism of the instruments and the solid presence of the players in the soundfield has made this disc one of my reference evaluation tools for many years. Midway through the track, there's a great acoustic bass solo by Thomas; on a first-class system, you get a really good sense of the woodiness of the plucked bass and its incredible depth. It's a really good tool for assessing a speaker system's ability to portray bass and midbass content accurately: I know this record thoroughly.

I was struck by several things almost simultaneously. Image specificity seemed greatly improved with the Bel Canto e1X; it became easier to identify the positions of each player in the soundfield. As drummer Clarence Penn pounded the skins and tapped the cymbals, it was much easier to aurally "see" the placement of the tom-tom and kickdrum; his rapid-fire snare and cymbal work blazed across the middle of the soundstage. Chestnut's pianism flowed from the LRS loudspeakers more fluidly and with a greater sense of ease. And Christopher Thomas's bass fairly jumped out of the speakers. The overall tonal palette of the performance went from exceptionally good with my Emotiva amps to, well, almost Technicolor through the e1X.


And the e1X exerted a level of control over the Maggies that I'd never before experienced. Magneplanars—especially the smaller ones—are notorious for exhibiting some degree of mid-bass panel flap: Magneplanar bass panels are riveted at a number of points to control excessive panel flexure, which also restricts the panel's free movement when relatively strong bass content is present. Lesser amplifiers will allow enough panel movement to cause a relatively loud "thunk" around the rivet location; I've heard this countless times with almost every pair of Maggies I've ever owned—and it can be particularly obvious with plucked acoustic bass content. (Think: Jimmy Garrison's powerful acoustic bass solo on "Lonnie's Lament" from John Coltrane's classic Crescent [16/44.1 FLAC, Impulse 1764902].) No matter how close to or beyond reference levels I pushed the e1X-driven LRSs, they responded with absolute authority and zero driver-induced distortion.

The Bel Canto e1X was undoubtedly also the quietest amplifier I've ever had in my system. With the LRS speakers being so very inefficient, you generally need to really crank the volume knob to get to SPLs approaching normal levels. Full-blown orchestral passages from sources with tremendous dynamic range require an even further twist; it's not unusual for the volume on my PS Audio preamp to reach 80 or 85 on a scale that maxes at 100. With every other amp I've used in my system, I could always hear some residual noise in the background, even with the most well-engineered recordings. Not so with the e1X—nothing, not a peep: It was absolutely, perfectly, completely silent.

Listening with the Zu Audio Omens
Zu's loudspeaker designs (footnote 1) are almost all based on a single 10" (approximate) full-range driver that's adapted from a Harry Olsen design from the 1930s (footnote 2). That driver is then augmented by a compression tweeter loaded with a shallow aluminum horn; a single, high-quality capacitor placed ahead of the tweeter forms the high-pass filter. The Omen ($2250/pair) is rated at 12 ohms, with a sensitivity of 95dB. I regard the Omen as one of the best bargains currently available in high-end audio.

After days of marveling at the Bel Canto amp's interaction with the Magneplanar LRS, it was time to swap in the Zu Omens, to see how well the e1X addressed the peculiarities of a high-efficiency design. I've found that lower-quality amps can assign a certain "chestiness" to the Zu's full-range driver, often accompanied by a slight increase in grain in the treble coming from the compression tweeter. I chose the track "Drown in My Own Tears" from Soul Serenade (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia 89013), a 2003 release from the Derek Trucks Band that features Gregg Allman on lead vocals. The song begins with a searing slide guitar intro by Trucks, with Hammond organ accompaniment, then segues into Gregg Allman's whiskey-drenched vocal—minus some of the rawness of tone from three decades earlier with the Allman Brothers Band, although on this 2003 release it nonetheless retains all of its power and effectiveness. With the Bel Canto, that chestiness was gone.


I followed this with a track from DTB's next album, Joyful Noise (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia 86507), "Baby You're Right," which features a stunning, blues-drenched love call from Susan Tedeschi, the future Mrs. Trucks. Tedeschi's gut-wrenching vocal delivery is matched only by the intensity of Trucks's astonishing slide guitar technique—Duane Allman would have been impressed! When she shouts out, "I wanna love you, I wanna hug you!," you'd believe it (obviously Derek Trucks did, too). With the e1X in the system, this music sounded even less compressed, and the Omens remained perfectly mannered while delivering a brute assault on the senses. The apparent clarity of the e1X made it easy to appreciate the strengths of the Omens, which are good at portraying the dynamics of jazz and orchestral music but can also rock with the very best. They can't match the hyper-holographic spatial performance of the Magnepan LRS, but they definitely imbue Gregg Allman's growl with a certain rightness that the LRS misses.

I admit some expectation bias: I would have expected a high-end stereo amplifier with a $6000 price to outperform my $1600/pair Emotiva monoblocks. But I wasn't expecting the e1X to be this much of an improvement. I didn't expect to be so completely gobsmacked by the level of clarity and musicality I'm hearing now from the e1X, with both the Magnepan LRS's and the Zu Omens.

I'm smitten with the wide and deep soundstage that I get from my Magneplanar LRS loudspeakers and how they disappear before me. And I love the muscularity and purity of tone that I get from my Zu Omens. And now, here's an impeccably musical amp that makes it easy to have both.

Footnote 1: Stereophile hasn't reviewed the Zu Omen but has reviewed the conceptually similar Zu Essence and Zu Soul Supreme.—Ed.

Footnote 2: Harry F. Olsen was a prominent engineer at RCA Victor and an early pioneer in the field of acoustical engineering.

Bel Canto Design
221 1st St. North, Suite 300
Minneapolis, MN 55401
(612) 317-4550

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Mr.Tom Gibbs has good size listening room suitable for reviewing large size loudspeakers :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Mr.TG could review the new, more powerful, same price as the Bel Canto, PS Audio Stellar M1200 mono-blocks, $6,000/pair ...... They are hybrid tube/Class-D design amps :-) .......

Ortofan's picture

...Bryston 4B3. Slightly higher output power capability and a 20-year warranty, instead of only 5 years from Bel Canto.

Otherwise, the still more powerful Parasound Halo A 21+ costs only $3,000.

The yet again more powerful Rotel RC-1590 costs $3,500.

OTOH, if you need a fancy brand name to impress your fellow audiophiles, then the Mark Levinson No. 532H, with an output capability similar to that of the Bel Canto, is now available for $6K.

None of these amps requires an external filter to limit ultrasonic garbage at their output.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Parasound JC-5 can put out more power and costs the same, $6,000 :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

However, if you are one of the 'green new deal' supporters, Bel Canto and PS Audio Stellar amps are good choices :-) ........

Kal Rubinson's picture

I will not argue any of your suggestions but I believe that more apt comparisons might be among amps that can be as easily lifted as the BC. :-)

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be Ortofan's 'Total-T' levels are higher than many of us .......... Just kidding Ortofan :-) .......

Ortofan's picture

... been my first suggestion, except that Benchmark does not specify an output power rating for operation in bridged mono mode into a 4Ω load.

If spending $6K on a power amp, I'd try to scrape up another $1K and buy a McIntosh MC312. 385W into either 8Ω or 4Ω should be sufficient. If not, the power guard feature will prevent clipping. The dealer will deliver it and the amp need never again be moved until after I die. Plus, it has those blue lit meters.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Recently reviewed Primare A35.2 Class-D amp is slightly less powerful, and costs $3,500 :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Stereophile Class-A, PS Audio Stellar M-700 Class-D monos are more powerful and cost $3,000/pair :-) ........

John Atkinson's picture
Ortofan wrote:
None of these amps requires an external filter to limit ultrasonic garbage at their output.

Neither does the Bel Canto when used to drive a pair of loudspeakers. But as I have explained, I need to use such a filter when measuring class-D amplifiers to avoid driving my analyzer's input stage into slew-rate limiting and thus give inaccurate distortion readings.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

jeffhenning's picture

You and your crazy fear of input stage slew-rate limiting. The next thing you are going to say is that your measurements are accurate and relate to the sound you can hear.

You nutty kid!

a.wayne's picture

Hello John ,

So whats causing the poor Squarewave responses ..?


John Atkinson's picture
a.wayne wrote:
So whats causing the poor Squarewave responses?

The Bel Canto's squarewave response isn't "poor." In the 10kHz squarewave (fig.2), the lengthened risetime is associated with the ultrasonic rolloff (-3dB at 38kHz) seen in fig.1. There is a very slight overshoot on the waveform's leading edges but this is not accompanied by any ringing.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

stereophileuser2020's picture

In the year 2020, you should really start thinking about the impact of power efficiency on the planet. Class D with its 90% efficiency is the only way to go.

Also, class D is much, much lighter in weight.

  • Bel Canto e1x amp (this review): 13 lbs
  • Bryston 4B3: 42 lbs
  • Parasound A 21+: 71 lbs
  • Rotel RB-1590: 84 lbs
Ortofan's picture

... NAD C 298 amp with the Purifi Eigentakt amp modules.

dc_bruce's picture

It's probably worth noting that when Jim Whinney introduced his "Magneplanar" speakers in the early 1970s, he demoed them with a 60 watt Audio Research tube amp. I first heard the Magneplanar (a 3-panel speaker, IIRC) demonstrated in 1972. I believe the transistor amps of the time were rated at about the same power output and clipped pretty nastily, unlike the ARC tube amps. Supposedly, the Magneplanar was much easier load, not being particularly reactive like cone speakers. I think people's expectations about loudness was less than it is today, and the Magneplanar was very listenable, as it remains today.

jeffhenning's picture

Thinking of the white papers and reviews of nCore amps I've seen in the past, they usually have a lot less distortion in the treble than this amp. In fact, they usually have very little rise in distortion as the frequency goes north.

That makes me wonder if this is a "feature" of Bel Canto's input stage.

Regardless, for around $1,800 or so, you can get Nord to make you an amp with one of Bruno's latest Purifi amp modules with a choice of input op-amps.

I think that says all you need to know on this subject.

David Harper's picture

While it is particularly important (with maggies)that an amp be a good match for them (I have the LRS speakers) it has nothing to do with the price of the amp. Rather it is about impedance,power output, current capability, etc. Correctly designed high-quality power amplifiers, when not overdriven, do not vary in sound quality.I'm driving my maggies with a Schiit Vidar amp which cost $700 and the sound quality (again, when not overdriven) is equal to that of any other amp regardless of price.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

In a recent review of Primare Class-D amp, HR used the Primare and Bel Canto Class-D amps to drive his Magnepan .7 speakers and got good results :-) ........

Tom Gibbs's picture

A couple of things; yes, $6000 is a lot for an amplifier to drive a $650 pair of loudspeakers, but it makes a couple of things really very clear. 1) When Wendell Diller says the Magneplanar LRS is built to show its mettle with higher-quality electronics, he's not overstating his position. The LRS will handle high input power levels and reproduce impressive dynamics with the Bel Canto e1X without flinching. 2) Sometimes it's possible to get a significant portion of a manufacturer's higher-end excellence at a very reasonable price point. The LRS is an almost unbelievable example of this, and also, though at a significantly higher price point, so is the e1X; it gives you so much more than just a taste of Bel Canto's top-line design implementations at a significantly reduced price.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be Mr.TG could review the new Yamaha NS-5000 speakers? :-) ........

Ali's picture

Class D, it seems, getting momentum!

Ric Schultz's picture

Amps using the same Ncore module and even the slightly better Purifi modules are available from VTV Audio, Nord, Apollon, etc. For instance, from VTV you can get a stereo amp with two Purifi/or NC500 modules, one 1200 watt power supply, discrete input stage using Sparko labs input op amps and Sparko labs regulators for $1350! Mono blocks are $1800. Less than one third the price and you get mono blocks with 1200 watt power supply in each amp. Direct sales, 30 day trial period. You can also get mono block amps using the NC1200 (bigger, more powerful and better sounding than NC500 modules) modules for about $2600. And these much cheaper amps can be modded for even better sound.