Corporate culture at the top

Since its year 2000 introduction, the eVo amplifier circuitry of Bel Canto Design's chip-based digital power processing by Tripath has garnered enviable press. Make that enviably comprehensive. Without exception, said critics (this scribe among them) have touted its performance as fit for the highest floor of the SS Corp.'s downtown high rise. The overall consensus? That it lives behind one of the more modestly frosted doors without sandblasted detailing. One that pronounces in still hushed tones "You've got the smarts, cred and work ethics to belong here, junior. But where's the discretionary income to impress the old-timers with? The de rigeur $2,000/pr hand-crafted Italian leather loafers and matching Saville Row suits? Where's your white Berber, granite wet bars, mahogany paneling and the Asian designer secretary? Smell them thorns, bubba. Charge like the big boyz do."

It was thus only a matter of time. Designer John Stronczer would eventually get with the program - claim rightful occupancy of one of the solid-state tower's posher top-floor offices. Should he add 24-carat gold plated front panels? Insert weight-deception lead liners? Command exotic retails that would mean instant credibility with High-End audio's exclusive SOTA club? The eVo2i -- and the rest of the revamped line -- does sport the new vertically curved silver front panel introduced at CES 2002. It's the classy nouveau Bel Canto aesthetic and wedded to tasty blue displays and status indicators.

But as any woman will be quick to point out -- - no matter how tastefully blue you'll turn upon choking on the bill -- when shopping for that ring, silver is not gold. Now take the eVo 2i. At $3,200, this very stylish integrated marries the linestage of the PRe1 ($2,395) and the output stage of the utalitarian but bona fide high performance black original eVo 200.2 ($2,395). That leaves $1,600 to please your foxy lady with a fine diamond. It's clear Stronczer paid the top-floor execs only partial heed. The eVo 2i's turnabout from 1+1=2 arithmetic clearly undermines their advice on inflationary pricing tactics. Instead it embraces his original value concept, perhaps farther than any of his previous product launches.

The eVolution continues

For starters, saving you $1,600 on a spare chassis is very generous. Removing one preamplifier gain stage -- now equally redundant due to the integrated concept -- could actually mean superior performance. Throwing improved cosmetics into the bargain is more generous still. For the 2i, Stronczer also copied the PRe1's wonderfully comprehensive functionality and substantial custom aluminum remote. It controls volume in 0.5dB increments; changes inputs via numerical direct-access; adjusts balance; turns the display on/off; goes to standby or mute. Further details? How about automatic display brightness attenuation after receipt of commands, and auto memory default to an input's last-used volume setting?

But where the PRe1's remote balance provision merely lit up left or right pointing green arrows -- without attendant readout confirmation for each possible click of added attenuation -- the 2i gives you 0.5 decibel numerical steps. Where the PRe1's input display communicated via small red dots above small non-illuminated numbers 1 thru 5, the 2i's central blue display (large and easy to read) tells you "input 4" instead. Instead of complete attenuation, the 2i's mute command at first corresponds to a "soft" display. It attenuates signal by a preset 20dB - plenty low to take a phone call but not enough to forget that your source is still playing. If "mute" is pressed twice before the display dims, attenuation is complete for dead silence, confirmed by a "mute" instead of "soft" display. Output levels can be changed in either mode. Once "mute" or "soft" is defeated, the 2i automatically ramps up to the newly programmed volume setting. Slick.

But wait, the 2i's smarter still. Switching between inputs automatically performs a ramp-down/ramp-up to avoid sudden output changes. Once you've entered the input configuration menu (either by holding the front panel "enter" button for two seconds or by pressing the one on the remote control eight times), all unused inputs except "tape" can be disabled.

With a maximum voltage gain of 16dB (unity gain corresponds to a display readout of 84) each input's initial output level is factory-preset at 65 - a 19dB attenuation from a source's input voltage. This programmed value can be customized for each input. So can the -20dB auto soft setting. And: Each input can be named with up to eight upper or lower characters for some cheap or impressive thrills (see right).
Can't buy royalty? Really? Knighthood and old age are merely key strokes away...

Having lived with the PRe1 since my review, I consider these additions very luxurious, welcome but quite unexpected. They represent sophisticated refinements over what already had been a very trick, intuitive and user-friendly interface.

As has been Bel Canto's habit since the SETi40's tenure, front panel controls are silver push buttons, albeit elegantly smaller than on either the 2i's tubed predecessor or the now discontinued PRe1 and SEP1. The two to the left of the central LED display control "mute" and "enter", the five to its right read "main" (toggling thru the inputs unlike the remote that allows direct access), "volume up/down", "tape" and "standby".

Between the two rightmost buttons rests a small round LED. It remains off while the main display is activated but otherwise lights up blue to become the only visual reminder for full-on power status. In standby (also available via remote) it defaults to red.

Unless the rear-mounted AC mains switch is deactivated, the 2i mutes its outputs in standby but retains an active charge in the circuitry for optimum performance. With its famed 90% efficiency, the Tripath technology remains luke warm to the touch even under max output conditions (120/200w into 8/4 ohms respectively) and consumes absolutely minimal wall juice in standby. It makes complete power-down mandatory only during violent close-by thunder storms or vacation leaves.

Rear panel connectivity includes 4 inputs (1 balanced, 3 single-ended), 1 tape loop and 1 buffered pre-out for possible passive bi-amping with an eVo 2 or 200.2 or a second-zone system. Due to negligible output impedance common for solid state amplifiers, damping factor is given as greater than 100.

A look at the innards revealed the pre- and power amplifier section boards and the massive 538VA potted toroid.

Full Monty pickle shot
The eVolutionary brain

Tangential approach

Preamp board

I originally wrote a sidebar to Marc Mickelson's 2001 SoundStage! review of the just-released eVo 200.2. Feature reviews on the eVo 200.4 and PRe1 followed. Referenced earlier, the sonic case evidence on the 200.2 via the numerous, readily accessible performance reviews on Bel Canto's website is rather conclusive.

Faced with doing the honors on the 2i, it seemed terribly trite and redundant to approach it on auto repeat pilot. Why describe the well-established eVo sound all over again, especially since I had done so twice before?

No, I wanted to ask the burning question prospective owners would likely die to have answered:

How would the integrated version perform when compared to the eVo 200.4 (running unbridged for identical power, only two channels driven to mimic the eVo 200.2) fed by the PRe1? Put more bluntly, could the savvy shopper now obtain $4,800 performance for $3,200?

I suffered two assumptions that needed clarification. The eVo2i omits one preamplifier gain stage. The less-is-more audio truism predicts enhanced transparency. The eVo 200.4's power transformer (being a 4-channel HomeTheater piece) is three times larger than the 2i's. With demanding speaker loads, one might expect differences in drive and bass control. Here my ability to render judgment would be limited. Probably the most "challenging" load I had access to were nOrh's SM6.9 loudspeakers. Under those still rather benign circumstances, the cards may have been stacked slightly in favor of the 2i. If one didn't need the added oomph a more massive transformer should likely bestow, would simplifying the pre/power amp interface (one less interconnect, one less gain stage) become the deciding factor? Would the scales tip in favor of the one-box unit?