A long time ago, in a parallel universe, I studied and eventually taught English. The instructor of the Teaching College English class told us that, sometimes, you could tell how good a paper was by how much it weighed. More paper meant that more thought and effort had gone into creating the document. Of course, this was before the Internet offered "A" papers for download. However, even today, people still equate weight and size with substance.

The first time I picked up the Bel Canto DAC-2, I lifted it and thought, "That feels about right. But, is it an "A" component?" The appearance of the DAC-2 is unassuming - a black box of extruded metal that looks like someone sawed off the main support of a speaker stand. The only visible features are the gold-plated connectors, the red/green LED and the silk-screen nomenclature. Like a term paper bound in a Duo-tang folder, I knew I'd have to read/listen on to determine the merit.

Getting interconnected

In the first month of listening, I thought there was a problem with the DAC-2. The music kept cutting out at random. I wondered whether maybe Srajan had shaken something loose when he opened the casing to take the snazzy pictures of the converter's insides. Somehow, the signal wasn't getting to the DAC properly because the green light confirming data lock went red to temporarily interrupt the music. This indicated loss of signal from the transport, a problem upstream from the DAC. I suspected the digital interconnect that a friend had lent me - this reviewer can't afford to keep multiple sets of $200 interconnects on hand. Before mass-hysteria ensued, I e-mailed Mark Markel of Analysis Plus with a request for a digital cable that would be appropriate with the DAC-2. I was promptly shipped the Digital Oval interconnect.

The Digital Oval interconnect is a yellow-sleeved hollow-oval design with EMI/RFI shielding, directional arrows and 75-ohm connectors that can be locked in place. I had never used locking connectors before. Boy are they neat! Unscrew the connectors before attaching them to your components, then rotate the connector sleeves in place, with finger tightening more than adequate. Just don't forget to unlock the connectors before trying to remove them. My one meter loaner retails for $130 but can be ordered in different lengths and terminations including XLR-balanced.

Like most audio components I've tried, the Digital Oval didn't sound good right out of the box. Initially, the bass wasn't very taut, the treble too forward. Still, the cable was an immediate improvement over the faulty loaner cable, the intermittent signal cut-out fixed. Over the next 5 days, I ran several CDs on endless repeat to clock over 100 hours on the yellow streak. After break-in, it fleshed out beautifully and proved to be an excellent match for the Bel Canto.

Love Reign O'er Me

My wife turned me on to the Who's Quadrophenia during the first year we were married. She has a beat-up LP that sounds fantastic despite the pops, skips and turntable rumble. The remastered digital Quadrophenia [MCA Records 11463, 1996] also sounds excellent and comes close to capturing the same epic sprawl of Townsend's teenage dilemmas that I heard on vinyl. The CD booklet even feels like the original album jacket, an experience that most CDs regrettably don't offer. Remember how good it felt to hold a record cover in your hands, to note every miniscule detail in the artwork while listening to the music? No? Then I'll go back to the review at hand.

In "The Real Me", John Entwistle's bass was better defined. The DAC-2 showed the oiled muscles of the bass guitar when Entwistle pushes the music as though elbowing the bass around a mosh pit. Keith Moon's drum fills --representing the moshers, no doubt -- not only traveled all over the wide and deep soundstage with sharp accuracy, but the presence of the drums took on physical shape. The horns added a touch of brass over the Rock guitar din, yet the contributions of each musician were easily identified. Throughout this recording -- a great one to play all the way through -- Daltrey's voice and Townsend's backing vocals were better defined and sounded much more alive, as if I were listening to them today instead of through a 30-year old recording.

How so? The DAC-2 revealed the inherent rightness of the recording. It took a good sounding CD and made it sound as good as the LP - sans pops, skips, or infrasonic rumble. Confession time: I have no idea what a master tape sounds like. Still, the Bel Canto box brought out a level of detail that totally clued me in as to how the recording was made. What's more, it rocked, made me want to jump out of my chair and throw plastic lawn furniture into the man-made mud hole that is our neighborhood pond. My wife noticed this heightened intensity as well. She asked how I was going to send the DAC-2 back to the manufacturer. Good question, darling - because without the DAC-2, the whole experience devolved into something I used to call normal but now, by comparison, found hard to swallow.

The horns didn't sound as smooth, the drums became flat, the bass wasn't as rounded in tone, the entire sonic image shrunk. The difference between my standard Audio Refinement CD Complete and the DAC-2 in the loop was like attending a Rock concert in 2003 instead of 1973 (or '83 in my case). A long time ago, people used to really cut loose at a concert. They would dance, sing along, climb the walls, mill about, change seats, talk between sets, live the whole concert experience. Go to a concert today. You'll see people swaying in place in front of their assigned steel bench, staring hypnotized at giant video monitors instead of the live musicians on the stage. Venue security is solely concerned over butts on the seats. No milling about or talking at a modern concert - get back into your goddamn seat or be escorted to the parking lot! With the DAC-2 in place, the '70s concert experience was alive and well, prompting my CD player to shake out her hair and rush the stage.

To show off the DAC-2' subtler abilities, I played "Sopra l'Aria di Ruggiero" by Salomone Rossi on the baroque music CD, Ostinato [Alia Vox AV 9820, 2002]. This is a fantastic and lively period performance by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI well worth repeat listening. The recording captures the tone of each instrument in a roomy and airy venue. This song has playful violin bowing over a steady bass line, with an intermittent organ poking occasionally above the musical water line. The converter offered all of these details while letting me follow Rossi's kaleidoscopic musical argument as it moves from simplicity to complexity and back.

When I unplugged the DAC-2, I could no longer perceive the exact shapes and sizes of the instruments. The music was still present, naturally, but it wasn't as dimensionally full-bodied. Leading edges became a little overdone, making the strings sounding scratchy. The organ receded farther into the background rather than being an integral part of the music. I also became more aware of the flaws in my CD player - a slightly hashy sound, a less energetic and convincing presentation. If you've ever gone shopping for clay pots to plant flowers, the Bel Canto provided an image so tactile that it was like touching the rough earthen surface of a plain terra-cotta planter. Regular CD had the effect of covering the clay with a clear glaze, preventing me from feeling the clay's surface texture, the details that would have revealed the hands which shaped the pot.

Reinserting the box from Minneapolis clarified just what my trusty in-Complete CD player was missing. I was put back into the hall while the music was being made. If you ever get a chance to see an Early Music performance at a venue with general seating, go early. Camp out if you have to (I have) so you can sit upfront. To be physically close to unamplified musicians is a life-altering experience - unless you were stuck next to a poor soul desperately trying to open a cough drop wrapped in crinkly plastic: "Yes, that was me with the doves, setting them free in the factory where you built your computer love." [Neil Young crinkling on "Revolution Blues"].

Neil Young supposedly never liked "CD quality" sound - and who can blame him? His electric, acoustic and symphonic music thrives on the presence and naturalness of black vinyl. The early unremastered CDs of his albums sounded horrific by comparison. Since the 90's, his new digitally-mastered recordings have been mostly excellent. The good news about Neil's back catalog? It's finally being proper remastered on HDCD-encoded 20-bit CDs as well as DVD-A. Why is Neil keen on DVD-A? It may just be what his label has chosen. But if he didn't really like the sound of CDs developed and promoted by a large Japanese company that rhymes with "pony", then he certainly wouldn't cotton to video-less SACD by the same you-know-who.

With the DAC-2, "Vampire Blues" from Neil Youngs' remastered On the Beach [Reprise 48497, 2003] reminded me of analog at its best, ignoring the pops, clicks, worn scratches and rumble for a minute. The music was compelling, my head bobbing to the rhythm. Neil's reedy voice had presence and weight. Ditto for the weird bass solo at the end of the song. Guitars were stretched across the soundstage. The hair drum sounded like a paper rattle with sand in it - shik-ka-shik! The DAC-2 was so good that I could even distinguish the details of the differently engineered tracks on the album.

Without it, the hair drum sounded like an insistent hiss - shh shh. This is the incoherent hashy digital sound I've mentioned earlier, resulting in confused leading edges that also slurred Neil's sibilants. It reminded me of a fuzzy worn record - wasn't digital supposed to be better than this? Without the DAC-2 to keep the fuzz from harassing the hippies, the music didn't sound cool. The weird bass solo became blurred and indistinct, the organ murky. The drums sounded like someone was punching a pillow instead of the steady yet dopey groove I heard with the D/A. I started to get fidgety, impatient for the song to end so I could return to the Bel Canto.

I've been collecting CDs since 1986 when I could afford my first player, a Symphonic 3-beam pickup with what I thought of as surprisingly good fidelity at the time. I was one of those idiots who sold off most of his record collection, replacing the best titles with CDs. It wasn't until much later that I realized that CD players do not all sound the same, that some of the LPs I replaced didn't sound as good on CD. What was I hearing? Partly because of the ear-bleeding highs, CDs were fatiguing, like those blasted occasions when you're stuck in line behind a chronic complainer. With my transport, the DAC-2 effectively taped the complainer's lips shut and moved me to the front of the line. I got to hear what I came for without digital distractions. Because my player doesn't decode HDCD, I wasn't able to compare the effects of the DAC-2 with HDCD. How come I own dozens of HDCD-encoded discs and no SACD hybrids? Because these recordings sound good even without the decoder. Do the engineers know something audiophiles don't?

"She knows what you want, but I know what you need..." [Bob Dylan]

Bel Canto refers to beautiful charming singing whose drawn-out lines create a near seamless cantabile presentation of music. Like the controlled breathing of an experienced singer, the DAC-2 was able to control the digital bits so the music could breathe freely. This engendered a powerful emotional response. I listened to recordings I haven't taken off the shelf in years. This box presented every signal I fed through it with greater detail and fidelity, as in rightness, truth and devotion to the source. The DAC-2 didn't outright transform terrible recordings but instead cut through layers of digital fat that covered the music on many CDs to present the material in the best way possible. With each recording I played, the DAC-2 brought me closer to what I must assume was the original recording than I've ever been. The experience wasn't extreme, just satisfying - exactly how I like my music.

Such wonders, and all from one unassuming small black box! The DAC-2 deserves to be called Bel Canto. It has certainly earned its Blue Moon award. I would follow that with an A+ and my own el-cheapo gold foil star!

Is there a DAC-2 in the house?

Not content to offer a "good enough" follow-up, I asked my friend Don if I could try the DAC-2 on his brand-new Marantz SA8260 SACD/CD player. While I have heard SACD in a dealer showroom in a cost-no-object system, I've never had the opportunity to compare SACD with CD in a system where cost is important. How 'bout the fact that the first SACD I ever heard was of a recording made in 1959 - Miles Davis' So What ? Are there any SACDs of recordings made in the 21st Century?

Don listens mostly to jazz and his system makes that clear. It strikes a fine balance between detail and naturalness, with a beautiful midrange and a reasonable amount of bass. With the Marantz as source, the rest of the system includes: Sonic Frontiers preamp; Bryston 7B ST monoblocks; Vandersteen 3A loudspeakers. Don uses XLO interconnects, AudioQuest speaker cables, TARALabs power cables, and an Audio Power power wedge. Pricey? A little. Exorbitant? No way! Musical? Yes indeed!

For this experiment, we put on the 30th-anniversary hybrid SACD of Pink Floyd's famous Dark Side of the Moon [Capitol/EMI Records 82136, 2003] and compared it against my copy of the 20th-anniversary CD [Capitol/EMI Records 81479, 1993]. Don likes "Money" - and who doesn't? We played my CD first, direct and sans external DAC. Luckily, my expectations were pretty low. The sound was nothing to write home about. The shrill guitar lead and sax solos sounded fuzzy and indistinct through this SACD player, too. The sound suffered from all of the usual 16/44 maladies -bright highs, thin bass, narrow soundstage, blurry details. (This is a common assumption but patently untrue - a SOTA DAC like my Zanden Model 5000 MkIII which only decodes 16/44 data streams puts a complete lie to this notion. All CDs are 16/44 and no more, never mind the bits-and-numbers designations. It's intrinsic to the Redbook format - Ed).

When we tried the CD layer of the hybrid SACD, the cash register's ka-ching panned nicely from the right to the left channel where my CD fudged this effect. The newly remastered hybrid CD also revealed more detail and more powerful bass. The signature guitar twang sounded more involving than on my CD, however, the shrill guitar and sax solos were as unbearable as a dentist's drill. I suspect that the highs were EQ'd for increased loudness and to compensate for bigger bass boom, but this also had the effect of making the louder passages sound congested, dirty and compressed. My trusty old CD was much more subtle -- if lightweight and uninvolving -- than this remastered bruiser! For you, dear readers, I listened to the entire track. Ouch!

Switching to the SACD layer did eventually put me at ease. The SACD sounded louder than my old CD, but not as loud as the new CD layer. It offered a vast improvement over what I previously heard. The cash register ka-ching'd properly between channels, money sounds filled a larger space, soundstaging was significantly improved. Gilmour's power riff and the sax solo still sounded a little edgy and bright, but this may be appropriate for the recording. The bass guitar and drums came across much more realistically and exciting than on either of the remastered CDs or CD layer - The Floyd was finally grooving! SACD had the same effect as standing up close to a painting in an Art museum. You discern individual brush strokes. I could hear all of the effects Roger Waters and Alan Parsons included in the mix because nothing was buried under clumped-together details.

So what difference would the DAC-2 make to the molten CD layer on the hybrid disc? It turned the flaming terror of the CD layer into a Hawaiian island with an extinct volcano. The bright, edgy highs were smoothed out. The lead guitar twang and the screeching saxophones were tamed. Instead of fleeing, I was entranced and wanted to listen. The soundstage was less congested, and I had a more accurate picture of the musicians and their instruments. Compared to the SACD layer, the sound was very different, yet I wasn't left wanting for musical details or ambient cues. The DAC-2 approached the size and scope of SACD, but not in the same way. The Marantz player was dangerously close to the hyper-detail that can drive certain listeners out of a room by offering a more forward, upfront presentation. The DAC-2 offered the same details, but invited this listener back into the music rather than forcing the music on him. For some, the DAC-2 may sound a little too smooth, too refined, too relaxed - like a salesman, certain listeners might not trust it. I suspect that a more forward sound could be achieved by tuning with cables and accessories. The SACD layer sounded excellent. Even though it wasn't as mellifluous as the DAC-2, it was more revealing, probably because of the extra bite it presented in David Gilmour's guitar and bellowing voice. Personally, I would call it a draw. While my experience was not conclusive, SACD did not out-distance the DAC-2 by the significant margin I was expecting.

In fact, I would choose the DAC-2 over SACD. My decision is based on my lack of disposable income -- for remastered software of questionable merit --a complete lack of interest in surround sound remixes, and the fact that the Bel Canto Design DAC makes the gap between the two formats seem very small. The DAC-2 is an easy recommendation for getting the most from your CD player, and it is certainly worth trying in comparison to even an expensive SACD player.

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