Music in the Round #21

I've been tweaking my weekend multichannel system for years, but with my city system I've kinda faked it. I now realize that I listen more actively to the weekend system, and not only because that's when I have the time for it—the sound of that system is simply more engaging and psychologically immersive. So, with the growth of my library of SACD and DVD-Audio recordings to almost half the size of my CD collection, I told my wife that it was time to transform of "our" city stereo rig into a full-blown multichannel system.

I added a third B&W 802D loudspeaker for the center channel and a pair of B&W 804S speakers for the surrounds to the two 802Ds already in place. A B&W HTM1D for the center channel would have been a nearly perfect timbral match for the 802Ds—it has the identical FST Kevlar midrange cone and diamond tweeter mounted in an identical Marlan head. It is also one of the very few dedicated center speakers that doesn't suffer from the horizontal-plane dispersion problems endemic to center-channels with the common midrange-tweeter-midrange driver array. However, the only stand B&W makes for the HTM1D places it below a video screen; at that height, the tweeter would be some 10" lower than those of the flanking 802Ds. Because the only video component of this audio system is a 5" LCD used to read DVD-A menus, the use of a third 802D in the center was a no-brainer.

I wanted full-range speakers for the rear channels because my analog multichannel preamp has no bass management, my handy-dandy Outlaw ICBM bass manager is not quite transparent enough, and the bass-management systems in most disc players are rudimentary. In addition, my wife hates little speakers on stands, they take up as much floor space as much bigger speakers, but two more 802Ds aimed at me from either side of the couch would have been physically intimidating. The tweeter of the 40"-high 804S is at my ear level when I sit on the listening couch, and the speaker has the same footprint as the smaller 805S. I found that somehow appealing.

My main source is a PL-1a universal player from Bel Canto Design, which feeds a Bel Canto Pre6 preamplifier, whose output is distributed to three Bel Canto e.One REF1000 500W monoblock amps ($1995 each)—one adjacent to each of the three 802Ds—and an e.One S300 150Wpc two-channel amp ($1395) for the two 804Ss. There's also a Sony XA-777ES SACD player, and a Classé CA-3200 power amp is an alternative for the front-channel power. (My FM tuner, turntable, and phono preamp have no relevance for multichannel, but they do add to my musical experiences.)

These new Bel Canto digital amps, the successors to their Tripath-based eVo amps, are based on Bang & Olufsen's ICEPower modules. Bel Canto is not the only company offering ICE-based switching amplifiers, but their track record is good and these models suited my setup. The B&O modules come pretty complete, so you might expect that all ICE-based amps would be fairly similar (and be pretty disappointed that you can't buy them for DIY projects). However, some companies simply pop them into a box, while others, such as Bel Canto, pay attention to the details. For example, Bel Canto treats the B&O's 1000ASP module in the REF1000 with a fair amount of viscous goop to damp and stabilize the large capacitors, relays, and other components on the printed circuit board. The entire chassis is much like a well-dressed brick: compact and solid.

In addition, Bel Canto adds hefty ferrite RF filters on the speaker and AC leads. Switching amps have a reputation for generating high-frequency and radio-frequency noise, so I think this is as much to keep the e.One amps from affecting other components in the system and/or on the same AC line as it is to wall off the amps from external nasties. Bel Canto's John Stronczer tells me they use WBT and Neutrik connectors, internal balanced and shielded small-signal wiring of pure professional-grade copper, and single-crystal speaker wire.

Bel Canto conservatively rates the e.One REF1000 at >1000W into 4 ohms or >500W into 8 ohms, both somewhat within the specs for the OEM ICE module. The two-channel e.One S300, based on the 200ASC ICE module, is rated at 300Wpc into 4 ohms or 150Wpc into 8 ohms. The amps' other specs, available at Bel Canto's website, are equally impressive. The REF1000 has selectable RCA and XLR inputs, multiway speaker terminals, an IEC power socket and power switch on the rear panel, and a tiny blue LED on the front. The S300 looks identical except that it has twice the number of input and output connectors.

Though I never found that the e.One amps added noise to the system, I ran them from the same Environmental Potentials EP-2450 that I used with the eVos, which also provides a single front-panel power switch for the three front-channel amps. In addition, I placed each amp on a Bright Star Audio IsoRock 6.3S platform and encased it in a Little Rock 6.3S. The Bright Stars fit the e.One amps perfectly, sandwiching them between layers of damped, shielded isolators but leaving their front and rear panels exposed. These amps, even under stress, generated no significant heat, so ventilation wasn't an issue. Fully clad in Bright Star Rocks, the e.Ones seemed almost glued to the floor, and their already thick skins responded even less to a rap from my knuckles than they had pre-Rocks. How much such blandishments contribute to performance is debatable, but with this belt-and-suspenders setup, the e.Ones were in as optimal an environment as possible.

Over the years, as my power megalomania has advanced, the space behind the speakers has filled with various hulking amps. No more. Despite their power, the Bel Canto e.Ones are so small and understated that they almost disappeared. Each REF1000 hid behind its associated 802D, and the S300 hid under the lowest shelf of the rack. It was almost like having powered speakers. I can easily imagine them fitting into the bases of the B&W 802Ds.

The sound, however, was hard to ignore. The little REF1000 bricks delivered all the clean power the big speakers could want, and the S300 was perfect for the 804S, even when they were used as a stereo pair. The bass was very tight and well delineated, without any power limitations aside from my own tolerance and a consideration for my neighbors. My current favorite demo is Penderecki's Credo, on a Polskie Radio SACD (see sidebar, "Recordings in the Round"). This Andrew Lipinski production places the listener in a tall, deep space with lots of long reverberation. Nonetheless, I could discern that the distances between the soloists, choir, and orchestra all fit within the boundaries of that space. Powerful tuttis, some discreetly supported by organ, were gripping, but the quieter parts were no less so, and all were realistically balanced. The e.One amps (and the B&Ws) were up to the task—they were even livelier and more transparent than their predecessors, with no vestige of HF grain to mar the awesome illusion.

Compared with nonswitching amps such as Classé's Omicron or CA-3200, the Bel Canto e.Ones could seem somewhat "literal" in terms of their tightly defined two-channel soundstage, but that disappeared in multichannel use. In fact, even in stereo, I could make a case for the Bel Cantos being more truthful than the Classés, if less luxurious.

For solo voice in multichannel, I always return to the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Handel Arias (SACD, Avie AVI-30). Here, the smaller orchestra is in an acoustically drier space than the Penderecki, and Lieberson's glorious mezzo-soprano eerily appears right at the center speaker. There's a sense of personal communication with her that is the product of her art as well as of the uncanny simulation of a real event, something that is less convincing in two channels.

Stuff like Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Long Walk to Freedom (Telarc SACD-63109) and the Blue Man Group's The Complex (DTS Entertainment 69286-01120-9-4) are great and immersive, but how could they not be? Overall, though, these sounded equally good, if not equally loud, on my more modest weekend system.

Separate multichannel components—especially monoblock amps—require a lot of space, and are difficult to fit into a domestic environment not exclusively devoted to audio. The Bel Canto e.One amps make it possible to have multiple dedicated amps without compromise in sound quality or power output. My power-amp megalomania will probably never be cured, but the REF1000s make it less overt. That is, until I turn them on.

"Why, Kal, you're a bass freak!" proclaimed Michael Fremer when he heard my choice of demo discs at a press presentation. Why not? Why is deep, solid bass the province only of rock, club music, ambient, and electronica? Cellos and double basses make extended low-frequency response de rigueur for classical music—even chamber music. Piano and organ require it. Having the fullest extension of the frequency spectrum has been essential for me to experience the satisfaction of hearing all of the music.

In fact, back in the late 1950s, when I made the transition from mono to stereo, I had what might then have passed for a subwoofer. I couldn't fit into my room two big River Edge bass-reflex speakers, with their 12" RCA coaxial drive-units, so I had to find another way. That led to a pair of Weathers Book Speakers, each the size and shape of a Columbia Desk Encyclopedia and containing a single 2.5" by 10" driver—and putting out, of course, no bass. I added a 2-cubic-foot bass-reflex enclosure, with a University C-12SW 12" dual-voice-coil woofer; with some inductors and capacitors, this became the common woofer for the system. Was it good? Doubtful. The woofer box was too small, and the crossover was straight from the textbook. Still, it was stereo, I was into calypso, and it worked for me.