Bel Canto e.One S300iu integrated amplifier Page 2

The S300iu is completely straight-ahead in terms of setup. It doesn't produce much in the way of heat, so placement isn't a problem—and the remote means you can even put it where it's hard to reach. Bel Canto suggests that its "performance starts to stabilize after about 100 hours of continuous power up." Perhaps it did, but the difference wasn't as drastic as some I've heard—primarily in components with Teflon capacitors.

The nest
I installed the S300iu in my smaller dedicated listening room, driving the Usher Be-718 speakers (reviewed in the May issue), using my Apple G4 iBook as a USB source, and the combo of McIntosh MS750 and Bel Canto e.One DAC3 driving a line-source input. I also used the DAC3's USB input with the iBook, just to compare its performance with that of the S300iu's DAC. All digital files were encoded in Apple Lossless Coding (ALC) or non-DRM 256kbps MP3.

The mess
From the outset, the e.One S300iu impressed me with its robust, coherent sound. The Ushers need to be pushed around a bit and the Bel Canto was up to the task, extracting taut, explosive bass in good quantity—always good news in a "starter" amp. More impressive, the S300iu exhibited a balance from top to bottom that was very natural—and its midrange had a clarity that was immediately appealing.

Patricia Barber's Café Blue (CD, Premonition/Blue Note PREM 737) floated a soundstage that was more than credible, with Jim McLean's processed guitar cutting sharply through to the fore.

The music was dynamic and uncolored. After completing Café Blue (I'd meant to dip into only a song or two), I assayed an experiment. Listening to an unused line-level input, I cranked the loudness control beyond its "50" midpoint setting, beyond a volume-control setting of "60.0," then higher. The speakers remained silent until I entered territory I doubt I would have ventured into with a signal. The S300iu was impressively quiet. When I attempted the same experiment with the USB input, I ran into noise at a lower—albeit still quite high—level.

What to make of this? Not much, really. As John Stronczer said, the S300iu has a $200 DAC. Its 93dB noise floor is quite good, especially for a component designed to introduce consumers with less-than-state-of-the-art digital front ends, such as the average computer or personal digital player (PDP), to a true high-fidelity component.

When I played ALC files of Pat Martino's Footprints (ripped from a copy of 32 Jazz CD 32021), I was unaware of any noise, instead hearing dynamic, constantly shifting cascades of notes. Billy Higgins' drumming was sharp, incisive, and nimble as all get-out. Richard Davis' double bass had heft and propulsive slam. The interplay of Martino and rhythm guitarist Bobby Rose on "The Visit" was intricate and breathtaking.

From such an affordable DAC add-on, this was impressive performance. In fact, I've heard DAC separates that were less detailed and less involving. Well played, Bel Canto.

However, Cassandra Wilson's atmospheric "Death Letter," an ALC ripped from her New Moon Daughter (CD, Blue Note 32861), sounded a bit less rich in the midrange than I remembered it. Wilson's husky chest tones have such rich timbre that her voice is a superb test for any system. Brandon Ross's guitar and Kevin Breit's tenor banjo came through sharp and unsullied, so the higher frequencies sounded superb. It was time to try some comparisons.

The rest?
I connected my iBook to the e.One DAC3's USB input and repeated "Death Letter." Ah. Wilson's voice was now more full-bodied, less bleached out. It wasn't really a big difference—but it made all the difference in the world. Alert the media: a $2500 DAC can still sound better than a $200 one. The question was, how big a difference would there be between the e.One S300iu ($2195) and the 60Wpc Ayre AX-7e integrated ($3500), which I reviewed in March 2008? There lies a tale.

In my review of the Usher Be-718 speakers, I noted that they responded better to amps with more power than to the 60Wpc Ayre integrated—specifically, to big brutes like my 300Wpc Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300. No big surprise, but in my smaller listening room, at sane volumes, the Ayre gave the Be-718s presence and an ineffable rightness that were difficult to cavil with.

Through the Ayre, an ALC of Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic's recording of Einojuhani Rautavaara's Symphony 7, Angel of Light (CD, Ondine ODE 869-2), filled the room with clouds of high strings floating on a heavy cushion of brass and basses. When I say "filled the room," I mean it almost literally. As I sat in the sweet spot, it felt as if the sound was pouring into the room like water, rising higher and becoming more immersive as section after section joined in. Around the four-minute mark of the first movement, when Rautavaara introduces his first major dissonances, underscored by rolled timpani, I almost felt I should surface for air.

Instead, I surfaced for the Bel Canto. The basses, brass, and timpani were stronger and had more impact though the S300iu, which made even stronger the sensation that the high strings and woodwinds were floating on their foundation. At the same time, the Ayre had more lushness through the midrange—the Bel Canto sounded a touch clearer in that region, which I initially construed as revealing more detail.

It wasn't that simple. In some ways, I was hearing more detail through the Bel Canto—in the bottom end, definitely. I could hear the basses swelling and diminishing far more clearly with the S300iu. Though the Ayre wasn't as adept at extracting that with the Be-718s, it revealed harmonies and textures in the midrange that the Bel Canto didn't. This became more apparent when I listened again to New Moon Daughter. Cassandra Wilson's smoky voice was a little leaner through the Bel Canto, a trifle less burnished. I was disappointed.

But not for long. As the disc played on, I got caught up in "Strange Fruit," which is pushed along by Lonnie Plaxico's lurching acoustic bass. That the Bel Canto nailed far more definitively than did the Ayre. As it did Chris Whitley's explosive flurries on some form of resophonic guitar—the notes were propelled out of the swirling sonic landscape with impressive dynamic authority. I jumped. And the second time I listened to it, I jumped again, even though I was expecting it.

The slight midrange bleaching I detected in Wilson's voice through the S300iu was less evident on "Strange Fruit," which plumbs the depths of her range. With that track, there was less tonal difference between the Bel Canto and the Ayre.

All of these comparisons were made using the Bel Canto e.One DAC3 as an external converter—I was comparing the two only as integrated amplifiers. Given that restriction, I'd give the Ayre the slight nod for its midrange abundance of detail, although ideally I'd pair it with speakers that required a bit less oomph, which the S300iu handily supplied.

The best?
The e.One S300iu is a high-end integrated amplifier constructed to the same standards as Bel Canto's more expensive standalone components, but designed, I suspect, for consumers who aren't necessarily audiophiles. Yet.

That isn't intended as a put-down. I think high-end audio has done a pretty pathetic job of convincing non-audiophiles to take it seriously. Consider the term mid-fi, for instance. What an attractive appellation.

The S300iu is built better than mainstream components, and it sounds better, too. A lot better. If I were used to flimsy, same-old mainstream gear, and an audiophile buddy told me to check out an S300iu, I'd immediately get what made it different—and that would be before I listened to my computer or PDP through the Bel Canto's nifty and oh-so-affordable USB input. At that point, I doubt you could keep me from buying it.

Pretty is as pretty does, and the Bel Canto e.One S300iu does pretty damn well. It sounds good, it'll make its owners feel pretty darn special, and it readily answers the question Why does high-end hi-fi cost more? Because it's better.

Maybe the e.One S300iu isn't perfect—nothing ever is. But show it to a music lover who wants more out of his recordings, and it just might show him his recordings already have it. And once he finds it, he'll want more of it.

If the S300iu can get me that worked up, imagine what it could do for someone new to the High End. In the e.One S300iu, Bel Canto may have made the most significant contribution to high-end audio since 1962, when J. Gordon Holt decided to start his own magazine.

Footnote 1: Kalman Rubinson wrote about the similar e.One 300s power amplifier in November 2006.

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