This review first appeared in the March 2015 issue of hi-end hifi magazine Audiophile Magazine of France. You can also read this review of Bel Canto Black in its original French version. We publish its English translation in a syndication arrangement with the publishers. As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end shows an e-mail address should you have questions or wish to send feedback. All images contained in this review are the property of Audiophile Magazine or Bel Canto Design - Ed.

Reviewer: Joël Chevassus
Financial interests: click here
Source: Esoteric K-03, Lumin S1, Apple iMac Yosemite/Audirvana, Trends UD-10.1, MacBook Yosemite with HiFace USB bridge
Amp/Preamp: Coincident Technology Statement Line preamplifier, SPL Volume2, Luxman M-800a x 2 (bridged), Trends TA-10.2, Egg-Shell Prestige 20WK [on loan]
Speakers: Magnepan 20.7 [on loan], Vivid  Audio Giya G1, hORNS FP-15 [on loan]
Cables: Skywire Audio 2020 digital cable, Naturelle Audio interconnects Live 8 MK2, Grimm Audio TPM interconnects, High Fidelity CT1 Enhanced speakers, Triode Wire Labs interconnects [on loan]
Power Cords:  Supra, DIY, Triode Wire Labs 10+
Stands & room: Music Tools Alicia furniture, DAAD 4 bass traps, Microsorber room insulation, PYT Panels
Review components retail: €55'000 for the triplets

The transparency of darkness could have been the title of this review on the Black system from John Stronczer, founder of Bel Canto Design. This is a most determined step into the very top of the high end and thus does not really fit into the current Bel Canto product line, hence the special branding to represent the system and set it apart: Bel Canto Black. Although this is not John Stronczer’s first foray into the world of elite products (remember that he designed among other amps those powering the first Spheres for Cabasse), his ambitions are clearly different here. If in Game of Thrones, Black represents the ultimate bulwark against savages and dark creatures from the far north, the Bel Canto Black combo aims to break down barriers to transparency through radically innovative solutions.

Even so, to confine John Stronczer’s previous designs to mid-level equipment is too simplistic. The REF1000 MK2 monos are still very competitive today and whilst his digital links developed in recent years have perhaps not saturated the headlines, they were and are recognized by industry professionals as very effective solutions. Subsequently, the development of the Black system draws from Bel Canto’s deep experience in hifi amplification, D/A conversion and digital interfaces. Beyond the sophistication of what you find inside the beautifully billet-machined chassis, Bel Canto Black is above all an innovative systemic approach. This is actually what makes John Stronczer’s very best solution so intriguing. Whenever one designs an independent unit however sophisticated, there will always be a margin of uncertainty regarding its less than 100% adaptation with other elements of an unknown system. With the exception of the speakers, Bel Canto Black is a system unto itself yet maintains complete openness to the outside world with numerous digital inputs and even an analog line input. Advanced class D power with stability and linearity creates broad compatibility with many speakers regardless of their technology and efficiency. The integration implemented in the Bel Canto Black system eliminates a maximum number of internal or external sources of noise that could affect the integrity of the digital or analog input signals. I had opportunity to host this exceptional system in my home for two weeks through the courtesy of French distributor Audio Focus.

Description. Let’s examine the Bel Canto Black system more closely now. It includes the ASC1 (Asynchronous Stream Controller) digital preamplifier and network media renderer and two ‘digital’ mono amps, the MPS1 (Mono PowerStream). Even if the term digital usually has you cringe, I would advise that you forget your prejudices to consider these devices without any bias. You’ll be happy you did. The ASC1 controller is a rather unique design that includes a number of asynchronous digital inputs comprising Ethernet, AES/EBU, S/PDIF and USB; master clocks with very low phase noise (sub 35 fsec from 100Hz-1MHz, which is on the order of 100 to 1000 times lower than typical); an analog line input digitized to 24/192; as well as ST i/o all arranged in ultra-short circuit paths. All digital inputs are isolated from the chassis to provide complete immunity to ground loops or interference from the power stage. The master clocks show a surprisingly low -170dB noise floor reflected in low phase noise.

DSP running at 64bit/500MHz ensures perfect management of signal processing, namely the 32-bit balance/volume control, input selection and three user-selectable custom FIR filters. These latter proved non-critical with HD files but come into their own with CD/44.1kHz files by removing any residual digital harshness, increasing perceived decay times and the sweetness so dear to lovers of black vinyl discs. Another important detail is the most excellent legibility of the ASC1 display. One can sit comfortably more than three meters distant without having to get up to read the information displayed. This is certainly a rare feature which should be applauded.