Bel Canto PL-1A universal disc player

I recently had a house guest who is a music lover and amateur pianist but who had never heard of the SACD or DVD-Audio formats. I explained what they were and demonstrated examples of both, to his amazement. He then blew them off, saying that my system always sounds great and that the average person couldn't or wouldn't afford the kind of equipment I have. But when I told him that there were universal players available for less than $200 at retail and that, in fact, the player I was using was based on a transport drawn from a similar mass-market product, his interest was piqued. Of course, I didn't emphasize that one's expectations may not be the same, or that the boys designing the high-end stuff do make it sound different and, usually, much better. Heck, I'll do whatever I can to hook a music lover on these new formats, even if their future is uncertain. Once he's hooked, audiophilia will have him forever.

What I used to reel him in was Bel Canto's PL-1A universal player ($7500), a less expensive version of Bel Canto's first player, the PL-1 ($9499). Both are based on a Pioneer transport, and though the PL-1A lacks some of the fancy video features of the PL-1, it retains all the features and enhancements that relate to audio performance: balanced stereo and digital audio (AES/EBU) outputs, the facility to turn off the video output circuitry, and the ability to play almost any 5" silver disc you might have. Bel Canto describes the PL-1A as including "a combination of innovative analog output stage and D/A conversion design, low-jitter internal slaved-clock DVD drive operation, a superb power supply and careful parts selection. Both audio and video architectures have isolated power supplies with 16 power-regulation sections. Multiple independent low-jitter clocks and 108MHz/12-bit video DACs using proprietary video filtering provide a level of performance that is simply stunning." We've heard those terms before; as ever, the proof is in the performance, with music and on the test bench.

Out of the box, the PL-1A made an excellent first impression. All the necessary controls and access are incorporated into the now-familiar Bel Canto motif: a central, black oval inside a contoured front panel of brushed aluminum. This motif is repeated by a smaller aluminum oval below the central disc drawer. Round, silvery buttons to the right of the drawer control the Power/Standby and transport operations. To the left of the drawer, the Bel Canto logo accompanies buttons for progressive- or interlaced-scan video signals and for adding an audio delay (58ms) when video processing makes that necessary. It's all tidy and intuitive. The only foible, which may have been unique to my sample, were ticks that accompanied the closing of the drawer and reading of a disc and were just barely audible over the speakers.

The rear panel bears the inputs and outputs listed in the product description, plus a power switch, IEC power connector, and knockout panels for various factory-installable video options to and beyond those included in the PL-1. The remote control and the setup menus (which I viewed on a handy-dandy 5" LCD panel I found on the Web) seem to be standard Pioneer issue with Bel Canto logos attached; evidently, there was no need to reinvent the wheel.

The PL-1A arrived along with Bel Canto's Pre6 preamp and eVo6 and eVo4 power amps. All were immediately installed in my main system, which was being expanded from two to five channels. The Pre6's flexibility let me simultaneously hook up the PL-1A's 5.1-channel RCA, balanced stereo, and digital audio outputs (via the Theta Gen.VIII), so that I could switch among them while listening to CDs. With SACDs and DVD-As, I could choose between the single-ended and balanced outputs. The Pre6 also had enough inputs for another stereo/multichannel player, as well as two additional stereo inputs (FM tuner, phono preamp). That should have made it easy to differentiate the PL-1A's capabilities through each output and to distinguish them from other players. The former proved harder than the hookup itself.

What struck me about the PL-1A's sound, first with Sonic Frontiers and Classé amplification and later in the context of an all–Bel Canto system, was its overall clarity and integrity. Whether the signal was sent to the Revel Studio or B&W N802D loudspeakers, the sound was neither laid-back nor forward, but "there": wide across the front, deeply extended from the speaker plane back, and with a transparency that let the music and musicians engage and startle, as they can in concert. That said, it was necessary to do a lot of equipment swapping to get a handle on the PL-1A independent of its Bel Canto brethren, particularly in view of my awareness of the eVo amps' ever-so-slightly dry upper midrange.

After mixing and matching other amps and preamps and comparing the PL-1A with various other players, it seemed to me that the PL-1A was as good-sounding a player as I have heard. I kept coming back to that rather unexciting but fundamentally essential property of neutrality. The PL-1A seemed to favor no portion of the audio spectrum at the expense of any other, to impose no bias on the ambience and acoustics of the recording venue, and to neither restrain nor exaggerate dynamics.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's extraordinary Handel Arias, with Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (SACD, Avie 0030), was a case in point. Whether in two or many channels, the small ensemble was right at home, occupying a space on the other side of my speakers that seemed similar in size to my actual living room. Lieberson stood in front of my speakers and just left of center between them, and sang at a level appropriate to that space. This meant that her occasional forte lines were loud, but with no sense of limiting, image shift, or, most important, of imposed tonal character other than what would be heard live. As Walt Frazier might say, it was thrilling and chilling.

Listening to Tony Faulkner's two-channel recording of Mark-André Hamelin playing Alkan's Les Quatre Ages (CD, Hyperion CDA66794), I could hear the pianist's exquisite modulation of touch despite the avalanche of notes played—each was a discrete pearl that I could appreciate for its attack, tone, and decay. When I A/B'd this recording through the PL-1A's direct balanced stereo output and through the Theta Gen.VIII, the difference wrought by employing a DAC costing more than the player was inconsequential. Not that there wasn't a difference—the Gen.VIII's output was a bit silkier in the highs—but it was tiny, and noticeable only with intent concentration, excellent program material, and the B&W 802Ds' extraordinary diamond tweeters. Midrange, bass, dynamics, etc., were pretty much standoffs.

The PL-1A did even better when even more was demanded. I could play and enjoy Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (SACD, RCA Living Stereo 66376-2) at higher levels without hearing the glare and subtle hardness that can creep into this vintage recording. Of course, this also exposes the breathing, wheezing, and signs of personal effort as the CSO turns itself to this mighty performance. Similarly, this benefits recordings of cutting-edge quality that demand to be played at realistic SPLs, such as Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony's Mahler Ninth (SACD, San Francisco Symphony 60007)—I could turn up the wick until my system ran out of steam without uncovering heretofore inaudible gremlins. In fact, this subtle performance needs to be played at high levels, whether in stereo or multichannel, in order to get the emotional belt from it that more overt readings make too obvious.

I then took the PL-1A up to my multichannel system in the country, where it fit right in, though maybe not quite as well—the overall quality of that system couldn't quite take the Bel Canto's full measure. Nonetheless, in this very different environment, the PL-1A distinguished itself, particularly in the bass. First, in stereo and without bass management, the PL-1A's taut low frequencies made my Paradigm Studio/60s perform as if they were Virtual Studio/100s—in other words, a size bigger. Second, in multichannel, with or without bass management, the Paradigm Servo-15 subwoofer seemed tighter and more powerful, though less separable from the rest of the system.

I can listen to Polyphonic Spree's Together We're Heavy (DVD-A, DTS Entertainment 69286-011189-9) only in small snatches—I find the music cheap and derivative. But through the Bel Canto, the seductive and powerfully immersive mix of "Hold Me Now" solidly filled all the space in the room and in my head—I could feel it with my body as well as my ears. Yet unlike what I've heard from the players named in the next paragraph, there was no loss of detail with the PL-1A, despite the mammoth weight and impact of the music from all sides.

Compared side by side with the McCormack UDP-1 universal player ($3495) and the Simaudio Moon Orbiter universal player ($7200), the PL-1A ended up in the middle in terms of price, weight, size, and concept, although all are based on a Pioneer mechanism. I preferred the two more expensive players to the McCormack, which seemed a bit too smooth and lacking in dynamics, despite its weightier bass. Considering the price difference and the very satisfying subjective performance of the UDP-1, it would be hard for me to push a PL-1A on anyone—but if you make the comparison on a neutral and potent system, you might discover that your pockets are deeper than you thought.

The Orbiter and the PL-1A were tougher to compare; their prices are only $210 apart, their audio specifications nearly identical. Both were excellent with all disc formats in stereo or multichannel, but the Bel Canto was consistently a bit purer and cleaner when wide dynamics and high levels were needed, especially via its balanced outputs. That said, I could distinguish the two players from each other only in the Sonic Frontiers–Classé–Revel/B&W system, not in the McCormack-Bryston-Paradigm rig. The marginally less expensive PL-1A would seem to be the ideal choice for predominantly audio use in a high-end system. I wish I still had the Linn Unidisk 1.1 ($10,995) on hand for direct comparisons—it's probably the only universal player I've heard that deserves to go head-to-head with the Bel Canto.

On the other hand, I preferred the Simaudio Moon Orbiter as a video source. Negotiating the test patterns on Digital Video Essentials and the HQV Benchmark Disc, the Bel Canto was slightly more susceptible to jaggies, motion artifacts, and cadence changes than was the Orbiter when both were used via their component outputs. Still, to say that the Orbiter's DVI output was "better" is somewhat unfair. It's the original Bel Canto PL-1, not the PL-1A, that has the more sophisticated Faroudja DCDi video processing and SDI output and is clearly the choice for those with stringent video demands.

Is the Bel Canto PL-1A the perfect audio player? Impossible to say. Of my two systems, one is relatively warm and one relatively live, but neither needs a tone control, and the PL-1A's neutrality did the trick for both. Some folks like a big, bold, forward sound; for them, the Bel Canto may strip the gilt from the lily. Some folks have very unaggressive, almost timid systems; the PL-1A could push these over the edge into dull. But with relatively neutral equipment and room acoustics, the Bel Canto PL-1A almost disappeared as an influence on the sound and was equally transparent with all formats. Sort of like Goldilocks' final choice: just right.

Bel Canto Design
212 Third Avenue North
Minneapolis, MN 55401
(612) 317-4550