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Reviewer: Les Turoczi
Digital sources: Naim CD2 with DIN-to-RCA interconnects from Chord, Wasatch and a non-commercial prototype; Sony PCM R500 DAT deck; Sound Devices 744T HD Digital Recorder; Underwood HiFi modified Denon 3910 universal player [previously reviewed]
Analog Source: Linn Sondek LP 12 fully upgraded with Lingo, Cirkus, Trampolin etc.; Naim ARO arm; Spectral moving-coil MCIIB cartridge; ARC PH3SE phono stage; Magnum Dynalab Etude FM tuner
Preamp: Audio Research REF 1 line stage
Power Amp: McCormack DNA 500
Speakers: PMC IB2 [previously reviewed units]
Cables/Wires: Various sets of interconnects and speaker wires from ARC Litz, Wasatch, Stealth Audio, Grover Huffman and experimental prototype ultra-thin gauge silver coated copper ICs
Power: Dedicated power lines separated for analog and digital applications
Accessories: "The Base" platforms; Sound Anchor 20” Speaker Stands; Symposium Svelte Shelves, Point Pods and Fat Padz [on loan]
Stands: Sound Organization
Room size: 14' by 23' with 8' ceiling, speakers set up on short wall; carpeted concrete flooring
Review component retail: $1,395
|Intro: Technology on the move
John Stronczer has navigated interesting audio waters during the evolution of products from his well-regarded company, Bel Canto Designs [BCD]. Beginning with tube circuits, then Tripath approaches and now onto ICEPower analog switching power modules, BCD has always shown that they relish moving with technological advances that serve the music and the listener in positive ways.
My prior review exploration with the BCD eVo2i [improved] integrated amplifier offered a solid sense of the engineering savvy and implementation skills that are part of the foundation of Bel Canto. I have experienced other gear from them at friends' homes and elsewhere, always coming away feeling that the sound was delivered honestly and well. By offering very good looking, solidly built, feature-laden gear, they give the consumer performance, reliability and value in a broad range of products. This e.One S300 stereo amplifier follows in that tradition.
The S300 [as I will refer to it here] is a tidy package, which belies its performance abilities. While not overly heavy in weight, it is substantial and gives a sense of thoughtful and confident manufacturing practices. I found only one small quibble regarding the ergonomic/mechanical nature of things and that is very much a personal matter. Namely, the WBT 5-way safety speaker binding posts are of a more modern design including a plastic capping overlay which requires that spade lugs insert in only one particular direction. My Stealth Audio wires happen to carry over-sized spades and getting them to seat properly within the terminals was a bit of a chore. Obviously, it can be done, however doing so required just a small extra degree of fidgeting to achieve solid connections. Again, this will likely not be an issue for the majority of owners.
So what about ICEPower circuitry? I am not technically astute enough to generate a serious discussion of this design approach, however, as many know now, it comes from the folks at Bang & Olufsen; the discoverer being engineer Karsten Nielsen. Srajan has captured the central idea well in his February 2005 comments. More details are available from B&O's pages and related links. It is noteworthy to mention that there are multiple levels/iterations of these ICEPower modules, so which ones go where may make interesting future evolutionary explorations.
The fundamental concept is to generate clean sound in a very energy efficient fashion, employing a compact format which generates little or no heat and is very cost-effective. While B&O incorporates these amplification modules in several of their own offerings, many other manufacturers have adopted versions of these devices and found much to like. It is interesting that B&O decided to readily share this technology and they deserve recognition for doing so. Clearly, BCD is among those adopters utilizing such approaches while putting their own spin on final outcomes.
The amplifier does provide the opportunity for a bit of tweaking in terms of power cord choice, as well as trials to see how vibration control via substrate support goes. I did both of these rituals and will comment about them shortly. By the way, I preferred using the XLR path between the S300 and ARC REF1, primarily because this allowed me to use cabling that was a well-known quantity in my system. When I did try single-ended ICs, it was from a different manufacturer and I could not ascertain if the sonic changes were due to the connection method or the alternate wire choice. Ah, one more mystery of life!
My evaluation of the S300 occurred while the PMC IB2 speakers [previously reviewed] were exclusively in my setup and they both got along very nicely.
Neutrality is a tricky word. For any who have ever glanced at a gray scale of the sort that photographers or paint experts fuss over, it seems that defining neutrality is largely a statistical pursuit. In audio and sound reproduction, it is common to hear people speak of seeking the nirvana point of perfect neutrality, but how do we know if we've gotten there? Certainly as a result of my recording experience, I have attempted to acquire serious pro-gear quality microphones, mic preamps, recorders, headphones, editing software, CDR production tools and so on, each of which comes as close to sonic neutrality as my budget and desires can accommodate. In general terms, my assessment of those finished discs, along with opinions of seasoned audio friends, conclude that above-average end results contribute to gratifying listening. Things seem close to neutral there, especially when compared to most commercial recordings.
This is part of the rationale for incorporating that music in my equipment review regimen. I do actually listen to the performance when it is happening, btw. Yes, every part of the reproduction chain, including the room and one's mood, affects the listening experience, but that is part of the game we accept as audiophiles.
The S300 is strong on neutrality, at least as I understand it. After establishing the best possible positioning of the IB2 speakers, I settled into running through the usual litany of test CDs which comprise the battery of musical styles and performances I am accustomed to hearing during equipment evaluations. Of course, some added time for potentially enhancing any circuit burn-in did come into the equation, but I am not so sure that a great deal changed after the initial 50 hours of use.
If I were asked to give a succinct, initial evaluation of this amp based on those early days of use, it would run like this. The S300 provides clean, enjoyable, powerful sound including a tonal balance leaning toward the slightly cool side of life. Build quality is high and, in today's marketplace, it offers value and real-world pricing.
I find this issue of the tonal balance a factor worthy of further discussion. My Naim CD2 player originates from the time frame when that manufacturer was noted for creating spirited sounding gear, managing those PRaT things [pace, rhythm and tempo] especially well. The toe tapping phenomenon practically became the calling card for components of that style. Yes, imaging and soundstage took a second seat to these timing parameters, but it was possible to extract respectable dimensionality in my room by attending to several other variables beyond speaker positioning and vibration control. When the Naim CDP was in the system, I felt the S300 produced excellent extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum but that a degree of mid-bass warmth eluded me. Lyle Lovett's voice from Joshua Judges Ruth lost some of the chestiness that I had become accustomed to enjoying. This was also true for the marvelous gospel singers, the Fairfield Four from their Standing in the Safety Zone. I can say that were it not for knowing how these discs sounded to me from years of listening, the overall balance from the S300 would not have been a glaring issue. Happily the amp never felt bright, etchy, hyper detailed or shouty. There was an ease to the presentation that surprised the heck out of me, especially considering the $1,395 price.
On symphonic material, I sensed a good soundstage with instrument placement rendered naturally. Even when driven hard with big bombastic stuff, the S300 behaved in a well controlled, unflappable manner. Of course, since pipe organ is a big deal for me, the range of performances from Marie Claire-Alain, Jean Guillou and James Welch to E. Power Biggs and others received their fair share of playing time. Clean, nicely detailed and smooth music prevailed. Only that slight hint of midbass thinness held me back from applauding.
|Well, the time came to shift to another disc player and the highly modified Underwood HiFi Denon 3910 Ultimate entered the picture [review link here]. This excellent unit, with masterfully created fully balanced tube output stages, as well as many other meaningful modifications, brought new and valued information to the fore. The increase in spaciousness was the very first thing to notice and it impacted the music in a glorious way. The ability for the sound to now go beyond the walls of my listening room was as nectar from the gods. Furthermore, the issue of mid-|
|bass thinness became less obvious. I won't claim that it disappeared completely, but it was no longer the thing that caught my attention. It was possible to focus on the music in a refreshing, uncluttered way and that was helpful for me to witness and understand.
This speaks directly to the issue of how complex it becomes for any reviewer to pass opinions while operating in something akin to a relative vacuum. The S300 now had the opportunity to do more of its intrinsic good stuff. Let me note that the amplifier produced satisfying bass extension, even before the tweaks I am about to describe. I tried three other power cords on the amp and found differences that were useful to observe. Again, from a technical standpoint, I would not dare venture an explanation, but the Cardas Cross Power piece brought an ease and wholeness to the table in an enjoyable way. I think any audiophile needs to take this relatively easy swap-out into account whenever the opportunity arises. One choice will usually fit the picture better than others and that is part of the fun of pursuing this hobby.
Since I had several pieces of vibration control equipment on hand, especially those kindly on loan from Peter Bizlewicz of Symposium Acoustics, I undertook some more fiddling. The long and the short of it is that when I used the Svelte Shelf plus the Fat Padz directly between the amp chassis bottom and the Shelf surface, it seemed as though the music was more energized. Not a radical change, mind you, but beyond the "lifting of a veil", there just seemed to be a touch more power on hand from the S300 this way. Granted, 300 watts per side into 4 ohms [and the IB2s are 4-ohm speakers] is not a trivial dose of the juice, but this easily-implemented exploration helped to get that extra little bit of the amplifier into my room.
If there is a need to see the broader range of music I used during this evaluation, feel free to look at my 6moons reviews of the PMC IB2 speakers and the Underwood HiFi Denon 3910 Ultimate Disc player. I can happily say that the S300 helped me grin through it all.
Parenthetically speaking, I was recently clued-in to a fascinating essay by Hal Galper, a music educator and jazz artist/improviser who talks to his students in directions that should appeal to both audiophiles and music lovers alike. If you need to stimulate a few neurons, take a peek at his March 2003 Jazz Education Journal submission Practice and Performance Goals. Reviewers should find much to cogitate upon as well.
With all the tweaking and settling-in steps aside, I am pleased to report that the Bel Canto e.One S300 stereo amplifier delivered clarity, musical effectiveness and a satisfaction coefficient that makes it a readily recommendable product. I consider this ICEPowered unit to be a success. Yes, I do give a small nod to the DNA500 for its warmer, let's say more liquid presentation, but the S300 [at less than a quarter of the cost of the McCormack] is a solid contender. John Stronczer and his colleagues at BCD can be proud of this amplifier and the adoption of this new technology.
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