Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Cairn Fog v2.0 as transport; Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC; Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 filter/buffer on the DAC's analog outputs
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe6 GenII; Eastern Electric MiniMax [on loan]; Acoustic Reality eAR Pre2 [on review]
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88; Bel Canto eVo 4 GenII; Coda Technologies S5 [on review]; Acoustic Reality eAR Enigma Plus [on review];
Speakers: Avantgarde Acoustic DUO; nOrh SM 6.9; Gallo Acoustics Reference III [on review]
Cables: HMS Grand Finale; Analysis Plus Solo Oval and Oval 8; i2digital X-60; Stereovox HDXV; Mapleshade Ebony active digital interconnect; Furutech Digi. Reference BNC-BNC digital cable; ma recordings BNC/BNC reference digital cable [on review]; Mapleshade Planar power cord with DC bias; Audio Magic Clairvoyant power cords; Crystal Cable Reference wire set [on loan]; Z-Cable Cyclone Ref1 power cords on BPT and Walker
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature; Walker Audio Velocitor for source components
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs; Mapleshade 4" solid maple platform under BPT conditioner
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
GenII upgrade program: $600 for eVo2i & eVo2; $1,000 for eVo2 monos & eVo4; $1,400 for eVo6

April in Taos is shifty business for weary weather frogs. From catch-a-tan to rain and the occasional freak snow attempts, the skies are unpredictable from day to day. Yesterday saw me tank them rays in the steel-frame hammock for three half-hour sessions to combat my usual pale Nosferatu's writer curse. Today, strong winds and intermittent rains were rattling our outdoor shade tent something fierce, threatening to decapitate Ivette's freshly potted baby roses. With my friendly FedEx guy due in two days to pick up the slightly older eVo GenII without the latest upgrade, 'twas just the perfect indoor circumstance to indulge an uncommon reviewer's quickie and report on what the swapping of one part per channel had accomplished in Bel Canto's latest generation of eVo amps. We're talking one lone capacitor on the LC output filter, incidentally a part that, when purchased in quantity, should cost less than a cup of ordinary Java.

A week prior, Bel Canto's John Stronczer had called excitedly. One of his techs had tinkered around with parts substitutions and had replaced the metalized polyester film HF capacitor at the output filter with a designer unit. Everybody in the office had heard the improvements. Stronczer thereupon decided to turn this happenstance into an impromptu but formal research project. He eventually located a double metalized polypropylene German part with much better slew rate and AC specs as well as a higher quality dielectric. This particular part had still been a faraway dream when the eVo architecture originally launched but now fit the intended application to the proverbial tee.

The big and sweeping changes in Bel Canto's GenII eVo amps naturally are the all-new 4-layer motherboards with the latest Tripath Digital Power Processing module. But now John Stronczer was excited about what this final tweak had accomplished. In fact, he had personally replaced these very capacitors on 40 amplifier boards just the day prior, a miniature mod in terms of complexity that's standard on all new GenII eVos but perhaps not so mini during actual listening?

Having both amps side by side -- the slightly earlier eVo 4 GenII and the just-dispatched one -- the only difference were the two above blue boxy capacitors in place of the orange polyesters on the prior version. Reflecting on my Mesa days during the rise of the Tigris integrated and designer Randy Smith's experiments with different Wima caps, I could appreciate that rather inexpensive parts, selected judiciously for particularly critical circuit junctures, can indeed make surprisingly audible differences. In these instances, it's not a matter of money at all. Rather, it's a matter of endless listening to otherwise equivalent parts to identify the best-sounding one. It's something raw paper specs cannot predict at all. And sometimes, parts become available only after the original design process has run its course. It mandates consistent check-ups by an inspired purchasing department to communicate new releases to the engineers.

Needless to say, this whole process is part and parcel of HighEnd audio design in general. I know a professional gent in California who gets paid good money to listen to papers, foils, sprays and lacquers to design audiophile-grade capacitors for custom applications. Among certain HighEnd firms' circuit designers, he's quite the celebrity. His agonizing over audible differences between chemicals and materials makes my job tame and primitive by comparison. That's why I hang in a hammock and he zips around in a snazzy sports car. Vroom vroom.

Our own Les Turoczi had already shipped back his eVo2i GenII since his review notes were complete. John Stronczer suggested to return his review loaner with the two new caps installed. Les was curious and has since taken delivery. His review, due toward month's end, will report on whatever differences he perceived from this mod. Since I had two amps in-house for a few days, one pre and one post mod, I decided to make use of the bad weather and perform an actual A/B/A. Think of it as a premature second opinion to Les' own findings in the forthcoming eVo integrated feature review. It'll also allow Les to completely contradict his Editor and thereby inject some spice into our lunar ear-cleaning games.

Souad Massi's debut Raoui - The Storyteller [Wrasse Records 061] suggests an Algerian Tracy Chapman of perfected singer/ songwriter craft. The title track celebrates Souad's voice self-accompanied on guitar. Fragile yet cracked wide open as though dancing on the very edge of honesty, the tiniest subtleties in
this voice become a great reviewer's tool. The newer caps did two things - remove a small layer of grit or harshness as though literally cleansing the insides of Souad's throat like the Yogis do by swallowing muslin cloth soaked in warm water and pulling it back out; and creating more space inside the soundstage.

It's often surprising how the apparently simplest of tracks can showcase plasticity and dimensionality in what you'd think is barely any soundstage at all, just one musician on a stool in front of a microphone. Ah, but the space which the performer inhabited and which was defined by specific boundaries close or far away is exactly what superior playback gear recreates. It thus brings the relic of a past performance into the present moment, not just as a copy of approximate likeness but as a true time-traveling manifestation, of the past pouring fully into the now and thus becoming alive again. Subtlety is the name of the game here. It's what creates the context of believability. And the modified eVo removed a subliminal trace of electronic reminders to get more completely out of the picture. This purer openess -- or greater absence of artifacts -- together with the smoother behavior inside Souad's voice that could follow her all the way to the edge without turning edgy or hard made listening more forgetful of the artificial circumstance, of electronics pretending to erect the real thing.

Next to Fosforito and Camaron one of the most famous voices in Spanish Flamenco song, El Lebrijano's legendary Encuentros, a collaboration between Spanish and Moorish ensembles by way of the Moroccan Orquesta Arabigo Andaluza, was followed in 1998 by Casablanca [Hemisphere 7243 4 93342 29], that rare follow-up exploring similar ground that's possibly even better than the original. "Ay! Por Dios", like most other numbers here, takes place in a cavernous soundstage, with multiple percussionists spread out far, a Middle-Eastern string orchestra in the background, plus qanun zither, chorus and the virile Spanish and African solo vocalists. Many of the percussive elements on what is truly an excellent recording carry that peculiar sharpness that has you involuntarily react as though someone was in the room with you.

The modified eVo upped the heat in that 'shock department' as though a minuscule amount of fuzz or blur had been removed to render wooden cracks on metal, hand claps, finger snaps and foot stomps that little but significant amount more immediate and unprocessed. Because this stage was peopled by a far greater number of musicians, the increases of audible space were that much more pronounced over the Souad Massi solo cut. This simply confirmed the earlier observation but also showed how the extent of soundstaging cues is a function of the recording process.

Listening to Kari Bremnes' Spor [Kirkelig 110] and Sertab's eponymous Columbia release [494471 0] merely underlined these two particular areas of the mod: A small reduction in fine grain -- what my wife called 'slateness' -- coupled to more directness and greater spatial expansiveness. These are the types of changes reduced dielectric interaction in cables can also create - or speakers with no or minimal crossovers. It feels as though the musical flow through the 'distribution piping' of the equipment had accelerated; the pipes cleaned or increased in diameter; the spigot opened more fully.

It's both subtle and completely obvious - subtle in that it's not frequency-domain specific as in more bass or less treble; obvious as in you relating more powerfully to the music because some kind of invisible barrier or drag has been removed. From a certain point onward, this type of improvement in audio transparency and immediacy can come at a very high price. The farther along you are clawing up Mount Perfection's (Doom's) movable peak, the thinner the air gets, the more labored, incremental and slow your progress.

In today's case, it's but two small blue parts that come stock with every new eVo GenII and are available to all domestic owners of earlier GenIIs simply by contacting Bel Canto Design. There's something to be said for firms who practice ongoing development of their products. The new GenII boards constitute essentially all-new amplifier guts except for the transformer and case. Pricing for GenI to Gen II conversion is listed above. Today's mini mod is included in every such upgrade. Those few customers who have the new boards (identifiable by the longish/narrow Tripath chip) but not yet the GenII sticker to indicate an eVo from the short GenII run prior to this final tweak should contact Bel Canto for this upgrade. It will be performed for a very minor labor fee. Foreign such eVo owners should contact their distributors. Their service techs will merely invoice them for the time involved to replace the capacitors. Knowing what you could spend on new cables to obtain similar results, I highly recommend that your eVo amp make its appointment with the tech docs in Minneapolis or your equivalent foreign service man. You'll be another few hard-earned yards closer to that elusive peak.
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