Music in the Round #3 Page 3

While the ICBM runs off a chintzy-looking wall wart, its construction and performance were serious and solid. While remaining powered up at all times, the ICBM added no perceptible hum or noise. In fact, once I'd set it up to my satisfaction, it required no further attention until I changed another component in the system.

There's little more that need be said about the ICBM. It did the job it was intended to do, and I could hear no sonic compromise while using it. It was difficult to A/B it, as I'm not sure there's any way to completely bypass all its circuits, pots, and switches. Swapping it in and out of the system in two channels with the Paradigm '60s, I was satisfied that any very slight veiling I might have heard with the Outlaw was more than outweighed by the advantages gained from its use. Also, I was impressed with the ultradetailed (but not bright) sound of the Magnepans as heard through the ICBM. Surely, if there was any significant corruption, the Maggies would have revealed it.

As far as I know, the ICBM is the only game in town when it comes to add-on analog bass management for the home user. Until the day there's a quality pre-pro that will accept industry-standard digital multichannel inputs from all formats, and manage bass and other functions in the digital domain, the Outlaw Audio ICBM will have an honored place in my system.

Multichannel Preamp No.3
My first experience with an analog multichannel preamplifier was with the Sony TA-P9000ES, a remarkably self-effacing device. It did its limited job with its two multichannel inputs extremely well. It was supplanted by the more capable McCormack MAP-1, a line-level analog preamp that I found both good-sounding and simple to learn and use. In this era of complexity, the latter is no small accomplishment. The latest contender in the multichannel preamp games is the Bel Canto Pre6.

The Bel Canto Pre6 aims higher than these two in its elegant appearance and programmability, and that's reflected in its price: $3800. The Pre6 is capable of eight-channel operation, or six-channel operation in one zone simultaneous with two-channel stereo operation in another. Its degree of flexibility can be downright intimidating, but it comes with a reasonable default setup for two six-channel inputs, three two-channel inputs (one of them balanced), stereo tape input/output, two six-channel outputs (one balanced), and two two-channel outputs (one balanced). Those with special needs can arrange for up to 12 stereo inputs. (Whew!) Bel Canto has thoughtfully put a red/green LED next to each input jack; these are of great value in making connections.

As on all current Bel Canto designs, the Pre6's control panel is a large black oval surrounded by a brushed-aluminum faceplate. Across the front, from left to right, are the company name, Mute and Enter buttons, a large bright display, a four-button array for Volume Up/Down, Input Selection, and Tape Monitor, and, finally, a Standby button. I never used any of these, instead preferring the remote control. For example, the front-panel Input button lets you step through the inputs in order, while the remote gives you direct access, and adds left/right balance controls and a display shut-off option. But the display readout is so readable and the remote control so convenient, why get up from your seat?

Inside the Pre6 is one large printed circuit board bearing the active componentry, with precision resistors and film capacitors, in a small corner. It is otherwise dominated by high-quality mechanical relays. A daughterboard attaches to the rear panel for input/output, and another attaches to the front panel for controlling the logic and display. That front PCB also holds a SIP connector, which permits reprogramming of the microprocessor controller that actually runs the operations.

The Pre6 works in some unique ways. The Standby button disables the display and completely mutes the audio output. Pressing Standby again reawakens the Pre6 and ramps the volume up to Soft Mute (a programmable partial attenuation); you then must push Mute to get full output. Got it? In operation, pushing Mute twice within three seconds fully mutes the output, but repeated pressings with less than three seconds between them toggles between Soft Mute and full output. Want to switch between inputs? Looping through the sources with the front panel or selecting directly from the remote, the Pre6 will ramp the volume down, make the switch, then ramp the volume back up. Bel Canto says that the ramping is quick. This is fine for general domestic use—the Sonic Frontiers Line-3 in my main system does the same—but in both cases, forget about rapid A/B comparisons.

The Pre6's configuration options include defining which input jacks are grouped for each input, the naming of each input, and the setting of volume offsets for center and surround channels in the multichannel inputs. To get to the configuration menu, one must hit the front-panel Enter button four times (or hold it down for longer than two seconds), or press the remote's Enter button eight times. Once you're in, many of the labeled buttons assume new personalities, to steer you through the setup options. Bel Canto's manual offers aid in the form of flow charts, but I found them confusing and too small to read.

With the immediate necessity to set channel balance for the Magnepan system (and needing to show the visiting Wendell Diller my competence), I grabbed the remote. I clicked Enter eight times and, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz after she's clicked her heels, entered a wondrous realm: Input Configuration.

It wasn't so bad! Within five minutes, we had all the channel offsets for the Magnepans (see above) programmed for the two multichannel inputs. Trial and error worked better for me than trying to understand the manual. However, a strange thing happened after inputting the offsets: The Pre6 would often make very loud pops when being reprogrammed, or, more important, when being switched among inputs. A distress call to Bel Canto resulted in their sending an interface board for the front PCB SIP connector, a serial cable for my laptop, and a disc of software. After upgrading the software from Rev. 3.16 (3/35/03) to Rev. 3.19 (7/8/03), all was well, with sure and silent switching thereafter. I don't know if such problems are endemic to earlier software versions, but I do know that they're easily cured.

But all that's water under the bridge. The Pre6 sounded absolutely wonderful and, as configured, operated perfectly. I sat comfortably on the couch, Pre6 remote in hand, enjoying Alan Civil playing Mozart's Horn Concertos (Pentatone 5186 105), a classic 1971 performance remastered in stereo and four-channel from the original quadraphonic masters. The stereo track is like the original LP but with a quieter background. In multichannel, the sound of the horn is less confined and seems to be much larger, just as it would in a concert hall. After all, a French horn's bell is usually aimed away from the audience; most of the sound reaches our ears indirectly, after having bounced off the walls of the hall. I suspect that the stereo mix minimizes this in order not to obscure the other instruments, but multichannel lets the horn sound like a real French horn in a real hall. So felicitous were the balance and resolution of recording and system—including, in no small part, the Pre6—that the orchestral details were not masked while the horn filled the hall.

What I liked best about the Bel Canto Pre6 was the difficulty I had defining its sound. Most of the adjectives used to describe components imply a sonic character of some kind, and the Pre6 had little. Even the use of such terms as "open," "full," and "spacious" assumes that the signal and music had these features but that the component is neutral in permitting us to hear that. The Pre6 sounded lively, tight, and punchy on Mark Nodwell's Nemesis (SACD, Songlines SGL SA1530-2), with a small ensemble of trumpet, guitar, piano, bass, and drums. But that's part and parcel of this bluesy, swingy music and its recording, as was a bit more splash in the rear channels than I found ideal.

On the other hand, the Pre6 sounded strong, sweet, and powerful with Mahler's Symphony 5, performed by Hartmut Haenchen and the Netherlands Philharmonic (Pentatone 5186 004) and recorded during a concert in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. While this is not a performance for the ages, the richness of the acoustic gives considerable size to the sound; I feel I know what it was to be part of that audience. Benjamin Zander's recording of this work with the Philharmonia Orchestra (SACD, Telarc CD-80569) is, overall, a more balanced performance; on the same system, it sounded more direct and detailed, but with less weight or sense of occasion. I listened to a dozen or so other familiar recordings, and each seemed different enough that I could detect no bias imposed on them by the Pre6.

Compared to the McCormack MAP-1, the Bel Canto Pre6 has less zing in the highs and definitely worked better with the Magnepans. With the Paradigms, it was a toss-up. The McCormack was less tolerant of bright or splashy recordings, but could be thrilling with the better ones. With the Pre6, such distinctions were apparent but less disturbing. The simpler MAP-1 was easier to set up and use and, at its lower price, might be preferred if matched up with a little care.

All in all, though, I found the Bel Canto Pre6 easier and more enjoyable to use with a wider range of components and discs. Perhaps it goes back to my continuing inability to put my finger on the character of its sound—like any really first-rate preamp, it doesn't have much character. One of these days, when I can spare it from the multichannel system, it deserves an audition in the main stereo system. It's that good.

Coming Attractions
On tap are two more multichannel analog preamps, one about four times the price of the other; a universal disc player; and some concerned thoughts about center-channel speakers. See you in March.