Bel Canto e.One DAC3.5VB D/A converter Page 3

The DAC3.5VB truly excelled in two areas: soundstaging and quietness. It produced broad, deep soundstages on which there was great separation between instruments, and the proper perspective of texture between instruments miked closely and those farther off. This was very evident with Roy Halee's beautiful engineering of the title track of Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, collected in The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964–1970 (CD, Columbia/Legacy C5K 63815). Through the DAC3.5VB, the track's distant, duple-timed glockenspiel was both a point source of unreflected sound as well as a ringing shimmer that lit up the entire width of the recording studio. Meanwhile, the swirling harpsichords sat strikingly close in the mix, the Bel Canto presenting the tangible texture of each plucked string.

The DAC3.5VB's quiet backgrounds made possible startling degrees of micro- and macrodynamics. By definition, dynamics are the magnitude of difference between loud and soft sounds. When background noise is diminished, notes and sounds appear to jump higher and faster away from the background, and thus sound more dynamic. For example: Crinkling a cellophane wrapper in a quiet church sounds far more dynamic than the same action done in a moving subway car. On the microdynamic level, the plucked banjo notes in Sufjan Stevens' "The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, The Mind That Knows Itself)," from his excellent The Avalanche (CD, Asthmatic Kitty AKR022), were tactile and palpable. I could hear the tension of the pick applied to each string, and how that energy was instantly released to become the instrument's familiar clanging, jangling, nasal ring.

On the level of macrodynamics, the DAC3.5VB's low noise made orchestral crescendos, as in Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra's vivid reading of Respighi's Pines of Rome (CD, Reference RR-95CD), all the more thrilling. As I tell the choirs I conduct, you can't have a meaningful forte unless you have a great pianissimo. The DAC3.5VB was able to bring the background noise to a convincing ppp, which made the ff of my hometown orchestra marching down the Appian Way all the more realistic and exciting. If you're looking for some sort of rounded-off, euphonic-sounding digital front-end, the DAC3.5VB is not for you. But that doesn't mean it sounded cold or analytical. Its beauty came from truth.

Light Link Liker
I'm no expert or enthusiast of computer audio—I just dabble. In the past, I've used the USB inputs of the various DACs I've had on hand, but I admit that I've never been wholly enamored of the process and mystery of getting good sound out of my laptop. Between overcoming my operating system, working with USB (a connection not naturally suited to transmitting high-end audio signals), and the quality of the DAC's USB input, I have yet to get sound as good as what a dedicated disc transport gives me. Usually, the computer sound is more grainy and flat than that of dedicated audio gear. But again, I haven't tried all that hard to make my laptop a genuine high-end source component.

To my delight and surprise, using the J. River Media Center program (another Minneapolis company) with Bel Canto's Light Link 24/96 and e.One DAC3.5VB, I was easily able to get sound from my laptop that was as good as what I got from BC's e.One CD2, and to play high-resolution files through my system. Using the Light Link 24/96 and the DAC3.5VB, I became a real fan of Bel Canto's approach to computer audio.

Setting the Benchmark
In John Atkinson's review of Bel Canto's e.One DAC3 in November 2007, he directly compared it with Benchmark's DAC1 ($995). It's now 2011, and I thought I'd set up a shoot-out between each company's latest models, the e.One DAC3.5VB and the DAC1 HDR ($1895). I matched the volume levels between the DACs with a RadioShack SPL meter and the test tones on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH015-2), then played some tunes, beginning with a track from that same disc: pianist Robert Silverman's reading of Liszt's Liebestraum.

There was very little tonal difference between the DACs. Each presented a very neutral and revealing picture of this piano playing in this hall, the Bel Canto letting me more easily "see" the piano's outline in relief against its acoustic surroundings.

It was when I turned to music with more complicated mixes and more information at the frequency extremes that the Bel Canto outshone the Benchmark. The DAC3.5VB had deeper bass, a sweeter, more extended, more grain-free treble, a more liquid midrange, and a bigger, more layered soundstage. Don't get me wrong, the Benchmark DAC1 HDR is a fantastic product, but I feel that the DAC3.5VB's clearly superior performance entirely justifies its significantly higher price. In fact, I think the Bel Canto e.One DAC3.5VB is in a league altogether different from the still-impressive Benchmark DAC1 HDR.

You Betcha
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Bel Canto's e.One DAC3.5VB. It does everything you might ever need a DAC to do, and I'd put its sound as being among the best I've heard. In fact, the only other digital sound I've enjoyed significantly more (in an environment I was familiar with) was when I heard the Meridian 808i.2 CD player ($16,995) at John Atkinson's house. Yes, I do think the e.One DAC3.5VB is good enough to stand comparison with a front-end of the Meridian's caliber and price. The Bel Canto's styling, build quality, and performance make it an obvious contender for Class A of our "Recommended Components," and one of the best D/A converters I've heard. And though I've heaped an embarrassing amount of praise on the e.One DAC3.5VB, I'm sure the good Minnesotans at Bel Canto won't let this review go to their heads.

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