Bel Canto e.One DAC3 Digital-to-Analog
Converter and e.One CD2 CD Player
Speaker cables and digital sources are
two of my least favorite component categories to review, and for the same reason: In my
system, any differences I hear between different products within either category tend to
be relatively small and tough to pinpoint. It just takes more work -- although its
still a labor of love.
But once I have identified those differences --
however much smaller they may be than the differences between, say, two different models
of loudspeaker -- they become very important: now theyre always there, and I can
always hear them. And thats the crux of high-end audio: Because any chain, including
an audio signal chain, is only as strong as its weakest link, that smallest, weakest link
becomes, in a crucial way, the most important in the chain. We audiophiles are forever
trying to identify and replace that weakest link.
So on the heels of reviewing the admittedly excellent Stello DA100 Signature DAC ($995) and Stello
CDT100 transport ($895), I was not extremely excited about the prospect of reviewing
two more digital components to pick through yet more nits and bits. That said, Bel Canto
has built a good reputation in all things digital, and, not previously having had any of
their gear in my system, I was looking forward to hearing what all the hubbub was about.
The subjects of this review are Bel Cantos e.One CD2
CD player ($2995 USD) and e.One DAC3 digital-to-analog converter ($2495). Despite being
small -- both components easily fit side by side on a single audio-rack shelf -- the Bel
Cantos were deceptively heavy. The DAC3 measures 8.5"W x 3"H x 12.5"D and
weighs 14 pounds; the CD2 is 8.5"W x 4.5"H x 12.5"D and weighs 18 pounds.
They look simple and industrial, neither overly attractive nor unattractive. They look
purpose built. Both models have Fixed and Variable output modes that allow them to be used
with a traditional preamplifier, or they can be plugged directly into a power amplifier,
skipping the need for a separate preamp altogether. This, like the components sizes,
is in keeping with Bel Cantos theme of less is more. And speaking of less -- for
those of us concerned with the environment and energy consumption, at idle the DAC3 and
CD2 draw a mere 5W and 15W, respectively.
The user will need to spend a little time with the manuals
to get the most out of the CD2 and DAC3, especially as inadvertently setting the output of
either to Fixed when plugging it directly into an amplifier could make for a very bad day.
Controlling each device with the single knob on its front panel works well after
youve gotten a basic familiarity with their operation, but I much preferred the
remote controls -- all major functions and more are available from these, and I
didnt have to hoist my butt out of my listening chair. The remotes for the two
models are identical, and worked flawlessly throughout the review period (except when I
mixed them up), as did the CD2 and DAC3 themselves. I didnt really like that the
transport-function buttons for the CD2 were small and spaced so far apart, and
theres no shuffle-play function, but other than that, it was fine.
The DAC3s five digital inputs are AES, S/PDIF RCA,
S/PDIF BNC, TosLink, and USB. All employ two jitter-rejection stages: an analog PLL stage
at the S/PDIF input, and a digital PLL stage at the sample-rate-conversion/filter stage;
Bel Cantos new Ultra-Clock is used for the D/A conversion. The DAC3 uses
Burr-Browns PCM1792 dual-differential multi-bit delta-sigma DAC chip, which gets its
datastream from the CS8421 Cirrus sample-rate converter chip; digital signals are
upsampled to 24-bit/192kHz. The DAC3 accepts all common digital streams up to a native
24/192 digital signal, except for the USB input, which accepts only up to 16/44.1 (Bel
Cantos USB Link 24/96 can be used to kick it up a notch). The result is a claimed
129dB of dynamic range (A-weighted, 20Hz-20kHz), with a frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz,
+/-0.5dB. Maximum output is 4.5V RMS from the XLR outputs, 2.25V RMS from the RCAs; the
total harmonic distortion plus noise (THD+N) is claimed to be <0.001% (4.5V RMS
balanced out, 1kHz). The DAC3 is said to be class-A biased and fully balanced, and offers
one pair each of balanced and single-ended outputs. Although Bel Canto strongly encourages
the use of the balanced connections, I couldnt take advantage of them in my system.
Theres also a jack for an IEC power cord to permit the use of aftermarket cords; I
stuck with the stock unit.
The CD2s transport mechanism is the CD-Pro2M, which I
believe is made by Philips. Like the Stello CDT100, the CD2 uses a magnetic puck to
stabilize a disc on the spindle. The Stello has a cover for its laser mechanism; Bel Canto
decided to leave its laser pickup alfresco, save for a metal arm that protrudes over the
laser assembly. The company recommends that you leave a blank CD in place to protect the
sensitive bits, but I couldnt help thinking they could have come up with a more
elegant way to safeguard those most critical elements, which are no doubt expensive to
replace. The other little disadvantage of not having a cover was that, in my room, light
reflected off the exposed disc and the spinning CD projected a little flying-saucer
pattern on the front wall that I found a little distracting if not exactly disturbing.
Another little quirk I found during use was that while the CD2 could display both track
number and elapsed time, it cant show both simultaneously, and it cant show
the track time remaining at all. The good thing is that the display itself can be turned
off entirely via the remote; if you want to listen in the dark, such issues of time and
spaceships should pose no problems.
As shipped, the CD2 outputs 24/96 from its digital outputs,
despite being able to upsample all data to 24/192 for its analog outputs. At the 24/96
setting, the digital output is still enabled, while at 24/192 it isnt. So those
looking to use the CD2 strictly as a transport are pretty much good to go (assuming the
Fixed/Variable button is in the correct position, of course). To get the most from the
CD2s analog outputs, however, it must be reset to 24/192 using a series of
keystrokes on the remote. To upsample to 24/192, the CD2 has an integrated DAC chip with a
dynamic range of 112dB, A-weighted (a little less than its DAC3 brother), and it, too,
uses Ultra-Clock technology that, when the CD2 is used in transport mode, is said to work
synergistically with that of the DAC3. Output levels are 2V RMS from the RCAs and 4V RMS
from the balanced XLRs, and the THD+N is stated as <0.0002%, with a frequency response
of 20Hz-20kHz, +/-0.1dB. Around back are one pair each of balanced and RCA analog outputs,
and AES/EBU XLR, S/PDIF BNC, and TosLink digital outputs, along with the Fixed/Variable
output button and an IEC jack.
Bel Canto recommends 100 hours of power-up before the
components stabilize and offer optimum performance. I did no critical listening to the CD2
or DAC3 right out of the box, so I cant comment on how much change occurs during
that first century of operation. But I detected no change in performance after that
critical mark was reached; 100 hours seems a safe bet.
My strategy for this review was to use the CD2 as a
starting point, then build on that with comparisons to other gear I had on hand as well as
to the DAC3, and finally compare the Bel Canto duo hooked up to each other, to see what,
if any, synergies might emerge.
When I began listening to the CD2, I heard nothing
remarkable -- it sounded like pretty good, standard digital sound -- and my fear of
reviewing yet more digital source components reared its ugly head. Then I realized that
Id never gone through the remote-control sequence to switch the players
internal DAC processing to 24-bit/192kHz from its factory default mode of 24/96. I did so,
and that seemingly small change brought the performance of the CD2 to a significantly
higher level. Thank goodness.
The first two things that came to mind in listening to the
CD2 were linearity and tonal richness. I thought that was a promising start, for a couple
reasons. First, I find that components that deliver a ripe tonal presentation often do so
through some artificial augmentation that almost inevitably results in bulges at certain
points in the frequency response. Second, many digital components have the reputation of
sounding a bit on the lean side, and that wasnt the case here.
Following this initial impression, my next impulse was to
evaluate the treble region, because sometimes tonality is enhanced by shelving down the
higher frequencies. This proved not to be the case either; cymbals, usually the first
tip-off that some sort of HF rolloff is going on, had a nice, metallic bite. Not only
that, but there was a cleanness about the reproduction of all types of cymbal
sounds that, far from sounding shelved down, was an area of absolute strength for the CD2.
In fact, the CD2 did something no other digital player has done in my system, capturing
what Ill call the cymbals underside tonal properties: an appreciable
depth and weight to the character of the instrument, in addition to the lighter, brighter,
shimmering qualities that I usually hear.
Some specific examples: I recently acquired a copy of Blues
for Bighead, by Andy McClouds Gentlemen of Jazz (CD, Mapleshade 7832),
and the title track proved a useful tool for gaining insight into the CD2s sound. In
addition to the characteristics mentioned above, what became very apparent was the
CD2s ability to capture and communicate the energy produced by individual
instruments within their own space. It was as if each performer existed fully and
completely within his own bubble. This went beyond simple imaging, which many components
can do very well -- the CD2 seemed to combine outstanding imaging and tonal
characteristics with an inner resolution that brought sounds more to life within their own
defined spaces. In the end, it all still hung together in an organic whole that made
complete sense, sounded right, and made listening easy and effortless.
I compared the Bel Canto e.One CD2 as a standalone CD
player with the Stello combo of DA100 Signature DAC and CDT100 transport. When I listened
to "Signe," from Eric Claptons Unplugged (CD, Reprise 45024-2), it
was immediately obvious that the guitar and vibraphone were more physically present in the
room through the CD2 than through the Stellos. The overused but best terms for it would be
greater image weight and/or density. When I then played Blues for Bighead, it was
also apparent that the CD2 had superior slam and impact when the sax kicked in or the
snare drum was whacked (as it turned out, this also manifested itself in a later, more
But while the CD2 carried the day in terms of greater tonal
depth and weight, the Stello duo countered with a bit more focus, clarity, and image
specificity. On the Clapton track, the woodblock at the back of the stage was positioned
farther beyond my front wall, increasing the overall sense of depth, but whether this was
real or more of a hi-fi gimmick will likely be a matter of taste and personal preference.
Next, I compared the Bel Canto e.One CD2 with internal DAC
and the Stello CDT100 feeding the DAC3 (since the DAC3 is supposed to suppress jitter I
didnt think that the transport should make much difference -- I was wrong as
youll read later). What I heard was an interesting and surprising tradeoff in
strengths between the two units, despite their, not surprisingly, sharing many sonic
traits. While both units exhibited excellent linearity throughout the audioband, neither
exhibiting any trace of digital nastiness, the DAC3/CDT100 went even further in portraying
instruments and voices within their own dimensional spaces, and made the CD2 by itself
sound just a little flatter in comparison. The DAC3/CDT100 also revealed a bit more light
and flesh on the instrumental bones, such that I could not only clearly identify the
violin section, but also the layers within it. The DAC3/CDT100 also seemed quicker apace
than the CD2, despite both being completely warmed up and battle ready.
Its not that the CD2 was a slouch in any of these
areas -- in fact, it held its own very well. But the devil is in the details, and with
respect to these particular details, the DAC3 edged out its disc-spinning brother. But it
wasnt a shutout -- the CD2 still had the edge in dynamic impact and slam. Whether it
came from a whacked tom-tom or a bombastic orchestral burst, the CD2 had more oomph
in certain circumstances than its non-spinning brother. These werent night-and-day
differences, and it took me some time to identify them with any certainty or consistency;
overall, the two, as would be expected, exhibited many sonically similar traits. But when
youre looking at the differences between digital sources, these types of differences
make all the difference, so there it is.
There were two other ear-opening experiences during the
review process, one of which was when I hooked up the CD2 to the DAC3. My experience prior
to this was that DACs have a significantly greater impact on sound than do disc
transports, so I didnt expect much by tethering the two siblings together. Brother,
was I wrong. What emerged from the pairing was an unmistakable and superior synergy that
brought everything into greater musical focus, with a heightened sense of realism and
sonic rightness. With both Bel Cantos working together, the soundstage opened up and
expanded even farther -- there was more of a surround-sound effect. Just as impressive was
the increased robustness of the overall sound, which was much more visceral to the point
where the performance could be felt more, as well as heard. There was also an improvement
in perceived depth that erased the Stellos slight advantage in this area, while the
CD2s advantage in dynamic range was maintained.
When all the synergies were added up, what I came to was
that ultimate audiophile goal of effortless listening -- that special balance where I stop
thinking about how well music is reproduced, or its individual sonic elements, and just
enjoy the sound without that nagging sense that anything is being emphasized or smoothed
over to achieve it. Thats about the highest praise I can give an audio component,
and this Bel Canto pair well deserves it.
While each Bel Canto component can be run directly into a
power amplifier, I didnt expect either to reach the level of performance of my
Bryston BP 6 C-Series preamplifier. However, the DAC3 managed to do just that. In fact,
while using only the Stereovox Colibri-R interconnects, I thought the DAC3 was slightly
superior in terms of overall clarity and tonal completeness. However, replacing the
Colibri-R with an Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II between the DAC3 and the Bryston
negated that advantage and made the comparison a complete toss-up. Given the high praise
Id heaped on the Bryston BP 6 (I bought the review sample), this speaks highly
indeed of the DAC3 as a preamplifier. Given the DAC3s and Bryston BP 6s
performances with the more lean-sounding Stereovox interconnect and the richer-sounding
Acoustic Zen, I conclude that the Bryston is perhaps the leaner or more transparent, the
DAC3 the more polite or fuller sounding. Choose your interconnects appropriately and
youll be rewarded with top-notch performance either way.
Because the DAC3 has a
24-bit digital volume control, Im sure some are wondering about its resolution,
especially at lower volume levels. Going up and down the volume scale, I could detect no
loss of or change in resolution at all -- nada. All else being equal, I could easily live
with the DAC3 as my preamplifier. However, all here is not completely equal; as a
preamplifier, the DAC3 has some limitations. One is that youre restricted to only
digital inputs, and the other is that theres no balance control. These are deal
breakers for someone who plans to soon dust off and crank up his old Rega Planar 2
turntable, and who often fiddles with balance controls. If theyre not for you, I
encourage you to give the formidable DAC3 a shot against your favorite preamp and be
prepared for an ear-opening surprise.
The CD2, too, fared very well in preamplifier mode, but as
mentioned above, there was a slight lack of depth and dimension in comparison with the
Bryston. But otherwise, again, I would have no hesitation about using the CD2 as an
integrated CD player directly into a power amp. As a matter of fact, for budding
audiophiles on a budget, this could be an outstanding way to get deep into high-end
territory without having to spend those scarce extra dollars on a standalone preamp and
additional interconnects. You can always upgrade to that megabuck preamp later -- or add
the DAC3 to take advantage of all the familial synergies of using the two devices
Other than the performance differences noted above, when
the DAC3 outdid its integrated brother in certain areas, I had just one reservation. Both
Bel Cantos exhibited such extraordinary poise and refinement that I just couldnt get
them to sound harsh, grainy, or overly objectionable. That, combined with the fact that
they sounded best with the very revealing Stereovox Colibri-R interconnect, means that if
theyre used with warmer- or richer-sounding interconnects, some of their formidable
strengths will be lost, and they may even sound a bit too rich or ripe.
Despite their half-pint size and decidedly unfancy
casework, these Bel Canto e.One products delivered the sonic goods, and have provided the
best digital performance Ive had in my system thus far -- and not by small margin.
This is astonishing, because these are digital components, where nuances are touted as
huge differences, and because my systems digital front end was pretty decent to
start with (if considerably less expensive). Yes, you do get some significant and tangible
advantages by coughing up for the DAC3, and even more if you cough up for the CD2 as well.
But given what I heard, the CD2 on its own will far surpass many other digital components;
just make sure its in 24-bit/192kHz mode when using its analog outputs.
My initial hesitation about reviewing more digital
components became a nonissue. In this case, the superior sound of Bel Cantos e.One
CD2 and e.One DAC3 were very easy to hear and, just as important, to thoroughly enjoy.
. . . Tim Shea
|Bel Canto Design e.One DAC3 Digital-to-Analog
Price: $2495 USD.
Bel Canto Design e.One CD2 CD player
Price: $2995 USD.
Warranty (both): Two years parts and labor (nontransferable).
Bel Canto Design
212 Third Avenue N., Suite 274
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Phone: (612) 317-4550
Fax: (612) 359-9358