Bel Canto e.One DAC3.5VB D/A converter Page 2

The DAC3.5VB has one universal button/ volume control on its faceplate; however, the DAC is more easily and completely operate with the remote control. The remote, though functional, is not in the same league of elegance or cachet as the DAC itself—a piece of plastic with too many buttons, it occasionally frustrated me. An eight-character programmable display on the front of the DAC lets you keep track of which input you've selected. You can also temporarily disable inputs you're not using, so you can cycle through them faster with the remote. The DAC3.5VB's display is defeatable—you can set it to pop on when you change the volume or input, then go dark after a second or so. A lone button on the rear panel allows the user to set the Output Level to Fixed or Variable. To achieve proper line level in Fixed mode, the DAC's volume control needs to be at its maximum setting of "100" while in Variable mode, then switched to Fixed mode with the simple push of that button. The DAC3.5VB's volume control is a 24-bit digital attenuator that scrolls through 200 positions, from "0" to "100," in increments of 0.5dB.

Laying cable
I hooked up Bel Canto's e.One DAC3.5VB and e.One CD2 CD player to the e.One VBS1 power supply with the stock umbilical cords and let the trio play for a few hundred hours. You know the drill: During the break-in period the sound got more musical and warm and resolving, the sky turned bluer, the grass smelled greener, etc., etc. During the DAC3.5VB's stay at my home it fed a number of different amps: Sarah Palin's favorite, the Rogue M180 monoblocks, as well as Mystère's ia21, Pass Labs' Aleph 3, Plinius's SA103, and Simaudio's Moon i3.3 integrated amp. This allowed me to listen to the DAC3.5VB as both a straight DAC and as a combination DAC, preamp, and volume control.

I experimented with a number of cabling options and found that various AC power cords feeding the VBS1 did indeed affect the sound. Each cord brought its own signature to my system, but via the VBS1 that signature was much smaller: The power cords made an audible difference when powering the VBS1, but not nearly as much difference as when the same cables have directly fed other DACs. The VBS1 needed a good power cord, but not as badly as did many other components I've used.

I also experimented with running a number of balanced AES/EBU digital cables from the e.One CD2 to the DAC3.5VB, including DH Labs' Silver Sonic D-110, Wireworld's discontinued Gold Starlight 5, Illuminati's Orchid, and Canare's DA 206. The Gold Starlight 5, though it passed along a lot of info, slammin' bass, and a terrific soundstage, also had a slightly glary upper midrange/low treble. The Illuminati Orchid was very polite and smooth, but its top was rather rolled off, its midrange not very colorful, and its soundstage narrower than the other cables'. The Orchid seems like the sort of cable that was made back when digital didn't sound as good as it does today. The Canare DA 206 sounded nice, but lacked a bit of body in the mid- to upper bass. I really liked DH Labs' Silver Sonic D-110; it had a great soundstage and a smooth, super-extended treble. I felt I could hear more in the 10–18kHz range through the DH Labs than through any of the other cables, yet the treble was very easygoing. The DH Labs was nice and full in the mid- and upper bass, but lacked the Wireworld's slam in the lowest bass. Still, I settled on the DH Labs Silver Sonic D-110 for the duration of my review. Though the differences among these cables weren't earth-shattering, they made me aware of how resolving and neutral the DAC3.5VB was. It was a promising start.

A month or so into the review, John Stronczer sent me an upgraded VBS umbilical to run from the VBS1 to the DAC3.5VB. This VB-REF cable, made for Bel Canto by Minneapolis-based Sain Line Systems (who make most of the cables I use in my system), was terrific. While all of the other power and digital cables offered slightly different perspectives and flavors, the VB-REF offered sound that was truly better in every way. It opened up the soundstage even more, reduced treble grain, and lowered the perceived noise floor. At $495, the VB-REF is no cheap add-on, but I'd call it a necessary one if you want to realize the DAC3.5VB's full potential. I left the VB-REF cable in for the duration of my listening.

The Sound of Silence
The e.One DAC3.5VB didn't sound like anything. Tonally, it had no sonic character of its own. Bass was very extended and full, yet had nice slam. The bass-drum machines in Kraftwerk's nicely remastered Trans Europe Express (CD, Kling Klang 5099930830325) were delivered with both speed and weight. (It frightens me that this album was made when I was still in diapers.) The DAC3.5VB's midrange was fleshy, even, and full of texture. Gidon Kremer's violin in Vladimir Martynov's exquisite Come In! (CD, Nonesuch 79582-2) offered the right balance of the instrument's wooden body, steel strings, and rosined bow.

The DAC3.5VB's treble was among the cleanest, clearest, and most extended I've heard, and imposed no emphasis or grain on any recording I played. For me, the differences between the good and the best digital sound can be most easily heard in the top octaves. Good digital gear gets the tonal balance in the top octaves right, but smears and smooshes treble sounds into slightly homogenized information. The best digital gear delineates each treble sound in space and with a distinct timbre—sibilants sound like sibilants, shakers like shakers, cymbals like cymbals—each surrounded by the proper halo of acoustic. In this regard, the DAC3.5VB produced among the best digital sound I've heard.

Bel Canto Design
221 N. First Street
Minneapolis, MN 55401
(612) 317-4550