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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog Source: Rega P9 turntable, RB1000 & Hadcock GH Export arms, Benz Micro MC Silver, Rega Super Elys & Garrott Bros Optim FGS Cartridges
Digital Source: Accustic Arts Drive 1/Audio Aero Prima SE DAC
Preamp: Bel Canto Pre2P
Power Amp: Art Audio Carissa, Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and Canary CA 160 monos
Speakers: Hørning Perikles, Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3, Ohm Acoustics Walsh 4 with 4.5 mk.2 upgrade; Thiel CS2.4
Cables: JPS Labs Superconductor and Superconductor FX interconnects and speaker wire, Furutech Digi Reference digital
Power Cords: ZCable Red & Black Lightning, JPS Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC and Kaptovator power cords
Powerline Conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with ZCable Heavy Power Cord
Sundry Accessories: Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Ultra & ZCable Extra Heavy ZSleeves, Viablue QTC spikes under speakers, Auric Illuminator
Room Size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review Component Retail: $1,990/ea.
Whether I'm at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, various Rock concert venues or even at the country club where I make my living and regularly get to hear all manner of live bands and orchestras, I find that I get regular doses of live music to keep me honest as a reviewer. And if there's one thing I learned a long time ago, it's that there's no such thing as the absolute sound. Sit in one seat of any concert hall and take an aural snapshot of what you're hearing. Now move ten seats away. Take another snapshot and compare it to the first. You'll be looking at two very different pictures. Now move to the other side of the hall. Take another picture. It won't look as though it was taken in the same hall. Let's not even get into how those compare to what you'd hear at the city's other hall, the Lyric.
That's not to say that if you were to place a microphone at any one of those seats, make a recording and take it home, the goal shouldn't be to have what you hear match as closely as possible that what you heard in the hall. It should. But when judging gear by recordings whose birth I did not witness, there's little point in judging them against some unfathomable standard of absolute truth. Not where it concerns characteristics such as tonal balance or even bass authority just to name two. Give me a speaker -- any speaker -- and I'll find you a seat in the hall where you'll hear comparable bass and another where you won't. There's that much variation within a hall.
But there is one overriding characteristic that you get from live music which you don't always get in the listening room. If you don't, you may not even notice its absence because its something that you may not know is possible. If you haven't yet experienced it, you probably don't know to aspire to it. I'm talking about something that I'll simply call presence.
I guess it was in 1979 when I bought my first system. It was cheap and it was terrible. I didn't complain about a lack of deep bass or crystalline highs though it certainly lacked both. What bothered me about that system was that the music was always over there when I was over here. I could never get close enough. It got loud just fine. That wasn't the problem. But there was this barrier between the music and me. The cause of that impediment to intimacy was beyond my comprehension back then. The results were both uninvolving and frustrating. It was only passion for the music that kept me coming back for more.
Before I knew it, I'd spent the next 25 years trying to get closer to the music. While I'd taken a misstep or two along the way, every move served my goal of removing another veil from between the music and me. Transparency seemed to have become my Holy Grail. Once in a while, though I'd achieved a higher level of transparency, I seemed to have taken one step forward and two steps back. My old Martin Logan Sequel IIs were amazingly transparent but lacked body and warmth. The JMlab Mini Utopia was an astoundingly transparent speaker but also amusical. As far as amplifiers go, the Art Audio Carissa was a milestone for me. Transparent? You bet. But so were the Bryston 7B-STs I had as were the Herron M1 monos also in residence at the time. What I got from the Art Audio with its 845 tubes was presence. I got warmth without excess. I got body. I got gravitas. Not only was there nothing between me and the music, I achieved a connection with it that I'd never experienced.
Such presence and gravitas isn't just about power. The 16-watt Carissa is my least powerful amplifier. So what is it then? I recently discovered that the $8,750/pr Canary CA160 monoblocks with their banks of EL34 tubes and 140 watts have it, too. Is it a tube thing? No, not all tube amplifiers have it. Yet now, the solid-state Bel Canto e.One REF1000 amplifiers have it as well. And man do they ever.
Gravitas as in bass power, right - all thousand watts of it? Nope. We're not talking about bass weight or power though these amps do have bass. Excellent bass. Crushing bass. A bigger soundstage then? No, we're not talking about a larger physical presence though they have that as well. What I'm talking about is a density of the music, a presentation that makes other presentations sound like a mere projection of the event rather than the real thing.
"Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope." Remember the holographic image of Princess Leia regurgitated over and over by R2D2 in Star Wars? Compared to the Bel Cantos, that's how a lot of other amplifiers sound. You know who is speaking, you understand the content as well as the intent but you can plainly tell that nobody's really there. The e.One REF1000 amplifiers make music sound as if it's really there. They lend music an almost physical presence. And they go a long way toward making the music sound more real and certainly more involving.
If the purpose of a system is to saturate you and the room with the energy and excitement of a live performance, I'd liken the sound of other amplifiers to that of a garden hose. They'll deliver lots of cold water and you get wet. The Bel Cantos are more like a fire hose. They're capable of saturation like few other amplifiers are; saturation with the energy normally associated with a live performance. Granted, the effect of the e.One REF1000 isn't quite as pronounced as the difference between a garden and a fire hose but work with me here. I'm trying to make a point. No matter the volume level you choose, the e.One REF1000 amplifiers serve up something that's not only transparent, detailed and free of all manner of errors of either commission or omission but they also sound more real than any solid-state amplifier I've ever heard. The presentation is so dense with presence and tonal colors that you don't hear through it as you'd normally expect. It's simply got too much presence for that. Their bravado will nail you back in your seat.
At only 13 lbs each, the e.One REF1000 amplifiers don't look the part. Keep in mind that these are analog switching amplifiers and that the ICEpower platform trades away those costly and bulky power transformers in favor of high efficiency. Each amplifier measures 8.5 inches by 3 inches with a one-foot depth but packs 500 watts into 8 ohms, 1000 watts into 4 ohms and remains stable into a 2-ohm load. Frequency response is 20-20 kHz +/-.5 dB. THD is .007% at 1 watt at 1 kHz. Dynamic range is said to be 120 dB, damping factor greater than 1000.
|They may be small but they have a solid feel as the compact footprint and relative weight combine for what Bel Canto declares is an enclosure less susceptible to resonance. Inside a sheet of SoundCoat stabilizes the top panel of the case. Upfront there's not a lot of flash as the e.One REF1000 is Spartan in appearance yet simply attractive. The aluminum face is deeply engraved with the Bel Canto logo. Attractive and distinctive, the single blue power LED amidst the ovoid black field is functional and not so bright as to blind you when the lights go dim. Around back are a single pair of shrouded WBT binding posts, a single RCA as well as a balanced XLR input and a beefy power switch. Incredibly efficient, the fully balanced e.One REF1000 draws only 15 watts at idle and the amp never gets much more than barely warm. The rear-mounted power switch indicates that the amps are intended to be left powered up and an IEC power inlet awaits your favorite power cord.
Pop the top of the e.One REF1000 for evidence of Bel Canto's strength of conviction. As almost everybody knows, Bel Canto's eVo series of amplifiers utilized the Tripath analog switching amplifier module and was Class A rated in just about everybody's book - certainly the books of all who reviewed it. That Bel Canto would so publicly depart from its chosen path in favor of Bang and Olufson's modules takes a lot of guts. John Stronczer's convictions notwithstanding, in the world's eyes the eVo amplifiers weren't broken. You know what they say about fixing what ain't broke. But then, Stronczer is used to the proverbial jumping out of a perfectly good air plane. It was a move from producing tube gear at the turn of the century that brought about the production of their first solid-state digital amplifier, the eVo 2000.2. If for nothing else, give the man credit for blazing his own path and not being afraid to follow it.