Taking the well packed Bel Canto out of the box and reveals a wonderfully finished product – right from the brushed finish up front to the volume control that feels lovely to touch, and twirl – it just looks really like something which will fit into any system. The display is easy to read and can be dimmed. The plastic, but not cheap looking, remote is functional and great for couch potatoes. The finish is better than any of the DACs that have been through my household or even most that I have seen so far, including the Line Magnetic 502CA that I own. The DAC is half width but deep and the heft (6.5kg) gives a good feel to the product.
From the manufacturer’s website, the DAC has a 124db dynamic range, with 24/192 asynchronous USB (as part of 5 digital inputs), an analog input and balanced and unbalanced output. Using a volume defeat button conveniently placed at the back, you can make it a pure DAC – just be careful with this in case you are using it into a power amp. Equally, remember to move the volume knob to 100% before using the volume defeat when connected to an integrated amp. The manufacturer’s spin is that it a High Definition Resolution (HDR) Core DAC, which means three things – ultra low and low noise digital clocks, asynchronous digital inputs and dual mode low noise high efficiency power supplies. It also has a headphone output (high current).
What the DAC does not do, to get it out of the way, is DSD without software conversion to PCM. The manufacturer recommends converting files to 24/176.4 PCM using a high performance playback software and makes persuasive arguments/measurements in their white paper, stating that “24/176.4 PCM is inherently a lower noise, wider dynamic range playback than DSD”. While it does not bother me (still a CD buyer), it raises eyebrows with “for this price, must have it all” buyers.
Setup & Listening
I received a brand new Bel Canto DAC – which, the distributor Jignesh Khatiwala of Absolute Sound said, needs at least 200 hours of break in. Even the first listen was promising, but Jignesh asked me to break in and listen for the best. I used the DAC in 2 set ups – as a preamp driving the Jaton Operetta belonging to my friend who’s got a new child – and hoping that all the fuss will keep him busy and the amp with me till little Chloe turns into a teenager. The Operetta gives the Harbeth Compact 7 ES3 speakers the power it craves, as opposed to my wonderful Clones 25i, which really should be moved to a smaller room.The second set up is as a standalone DAC into my Leben 300XS driving the Graham LS 5/9 – my precious!
I have found that the DAC requires considerable time to warm up (at least an hour, give or take) to sound its best. And that is just the beginning. A day, its better, and a few days, it sings. The longer you keep it on, the more relaxed the sound becomes –, the sound of Sarah Vaughn’s voice on Crazy and Mixed Up settles back for ease of presentation.
The first thing you notice is the bass. I have earlier maintained I am midrange focused – but man, the clarity of bass notes is addictive. I even feel like Josh Abrahams/Amiel Daemion – “Totally addicted to bass! Wah- wah-ah!’. The bass has superb texture and depth, especially when compared to my Line Magnetic. Listening to King Curtis – Soul Meeting –- Prestige your butt grooves into the seat. The bowed bass playing on Little Brother Soul is visceral! Listening to Ron Carter’s opening on Joe Henderson’s – State of the Tenor – Blue Note, followed by the weightiness of the sax, thrilling.
While the impressive bass grabs you, it is not like it is a “bassy” DAC in anyway – the sound is incredibly balanced – clarity, soundstaging and air – every stick hit of the drummer is so clean. I swear, sometimes it feels you can count the number of “hairs” on the brushes. And any strike of the cymbal is presented so very cleanly – cleaner than my Line Magnetic. There is also air and shimmer around every stroke which is, well, intoxicating! Piano strokes are well delineated and you can hear the colours of the performers very well. The soundstage width is really good, and the air adds to the ambient depth.
The clarity also is not so much about Hi-Fi kicks – it really helps you get into the music as small details, inflectxions all come out. The sense of strings vibrating, the hands gliding back, the singer taking a breath – all adds to a music engrossment. For example, difficult-to-listen music (even I admit!) Bartok’s – Sonata for unaccompanied Violin – Helios (one of Bartok’s last compositions, written for Menuhin) comes alive with harmonics and textures and the melodic fragments are gorgeous.It compels you to listen to the music, with the gorgeous tone..I listened to Vampire Weekend Contra – XL Recordings. There were so many sonic cues that jumped out – especially in the low frequencies. Harmonies were a delight to listen to and follow.
The noise floor of this DAC/preamp was exceptionally low. It is like the well that Murakami’s protagonist seems to be sitting in where all noises vanish and whatever is there, emerges with clarity. This helps in both dynamics (especially of low frequencies) and separation of instruments.
So what’s there not to like? When I use the Line Magnetic 502CA with the Bel Canto as a preamp (lovely again), there is a bit more of softness and weight to the sound which also appeals, but with a loss in resolution. The sharp leading edge of the Bel Canto which really helps the sound of cymbals, piano etc, also leads to the feeling of tad lower fullness/richness (but still good body).Notably, however, it does not have the stripped cleanness of the Mytek 192 DSD or Prismsound Orpheus. In my Operetta-Harbeth set up, I was craving for some additional fullness with the Bel Canto in place, which came in the moment the Line Magnetic was used – but with loss of clarity and resolution too. However, the Bel Canto DAC with the Leben/Graham combo was marvelous – you weren’t searching for fullness here.
I then moved on to my friend Dinyar’s place – he has a serious high performance system consisting of Revel Ultima Speakers, Gamut 200 Monos, Audio Research LS 26, Electrocompaniet CD player, Chord QBD76 DAC and computer audio with Windows playing JRiver. Bass, you want totally bad assbass? You should listen at Dinyar’s. Dynamics – ha! A sudden crescendo will move your seat back!All analogue connections were balanced.
When we listened to Leonard Cohen (Tower of Song (– 16/44.1, FLAC) using Bel Canto as a preamp, the noise floor was low, but the voice seemed to lose some of its magic – a tad too gravelly. When we listened with the Bel Canto DAC and the Audio Research pre, the magic was back (and how) in terms of punch and flow. In comparison, the Chord DAC sounds fuller, but loses out some of the texture. We compared Yello’s Oh Yeah (16/44.1, WAV) and the CD -(Warner Brothers), – the CD sounded much cleaner. The standalone Electrocompaniet CD spinner was no contest, as it sounded flatter. We ran through various pieces of music (an amazing recording of Joe Weed – The Vultures – Top Music, – featuring various instruments like the mandolin, guitar, fiddle, dobra, accordion featuring sound of the Shadows) was portrayed realistically in space, with super texture to the instruments.
In a nutshell, the Bel Canto stood shoulder to shoulder with the Chord DSD, with a slightly different presentation – less fuller, but still tonally correct, and with stronger flow (PRAT?) and textures. Did I say that less fuller does NOT mean lean? NOT lean! Ok? In fact, for that you need to pay more. In fact, I don’t even want to listen to their top end DAC (3.7) – forget it! If this is so good, heavens I will feel sore that that one is not at home.
At home one night, I put on Ustad Rashid Khan –Vocal– RPG and as RaagMultani started, it was just sheer bliss to follow the vocalist and hear the colour produced by the tabla player.
This is possibly the best of the solid state DACs I have listened to at its price (and some more). It has tonal accuracy, a great quality preamp, strong resolution, clarity of sound and good flow to the music. As a standalone DAC, it is phenomenal, and worked wonderfully with my warm Graham/Leben set up – all texture and timbre. Note that the longer it is kept on, the better it sounds – in particular the soundstaging.. A wonderful DAC for music lovers who want to both analyze the nuances of the music and yet not miss the musical ride – definitely for those who have warm/full sounding systems.
- DAC: Line Magnetic 502CA
- Amps: Leben 300xs/Clones 25i
- CD players: Teac, Oppo
- Cables: Symphonic Line, Mogami, Oyaide, Hitachi
- Speakers: Harbeth Compact 7ES3, Graham LS 5/9
Bel Canto, USA
Distributor: Absolute Sound
E-mail: [email protected]
Phone: +91 98251 33320