Bel Canto Design has been producing terrific sounding gear for over twenty years. Based in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, the firm began as a tube specialist yet has evolved into a premier solid-state shop. Founder John Stronczer is a dedicated engineer and passionate audiophile who examines the benefit of every part to ensure it is a necessary component of sufficient quality to add meaningfully to the whole of the piece. I have had a couple of opportunities to spend time at Bel Canto HQ and I can attest to the measured approach and high standards used to infuse a bit of audio magic into their gear. John’s attention to both the engineering and sonic benefits of each part create wonder and once again I am privileged to enjoy their latest work.
The Bel Canto Black series was a mighty leap into ultra-high-end audio a few years ago. The Black is a three-box system that was not exactly a dual mono amp and preamp combo. The third box was so much more than a preamp and more of a convergence control unit. Imposing, with black anodized aluminium glowing with HAL 9000 inspired red LED’s, the Black system was a high-end coming-out party for the company. At around £55,000 it was by far the brand’s most expensive and sophisticated offering. Indeed, it has been hailed by the press for the impressive sound quality and the digital and analogue convergent tech. Fortunately for the rest of us, the last few years have seen some ‘trickle-down’ from this system; first to the impressive Black ACI 600 integrated at around £25,000 and now the Black EX Integrated, the subject of this review, at £15,000.
Upon opening the box, you find the manual, a hefty remote control, and a BNC to RCA adapter for S/PDIF use. The Black EX is encased in thick foam underneath. First impressions of the unit are, for me, strongly favourable. It is a beautiful industrial design of black (naturally) aluminium with a display, one control wheel and a headphone jack on the front. This spartan layout belies the incredible level of customization over the sound and input options found within the Black EX’s control software. The headphone jack has its own independent circuitry that utilises a dedicated 112dB dynamic range DAC to supply its own separate output buffer stage. I found it is a more than credible device, albeit one that does require its own break in time to achieve best quality.
The Black system; The Original Black, the ACI 600, and the Black EX all are centered around two proprietary technologies. One is the AMiP platform. What is it exactly? AMiP stands for ‘Asynchronous Multi-Input Processor’. It is a multi-processor based system that manages the Ethernet interface, audio, DAC’s, and inputs to coordinate with Roon and DLNA based servers, streaming services like Tidal and MQA encoded files to access digital music in virtually any form from anywhere they can connect to. It can accept files up to 24/192 via its many digital inputs such as S/PDIF, Toslink, and AES and up to 24/384 and DSD128 via USB 2.0. As usual for these devices Mac computers require no driver. Windows machines can download the Black EX specific driver from the Bel Canto website.
The second cornerstone is Bel Canto’s HDR-II (High Dynamic Resolution) core. HDR is a result of twenty years of refinement to a DAC technology Bel Canto has chosen to refine due to the “rightness” of its D to A conversion. The DAC wars created several camps of adherents to certain DAC approaches, R2R, Delta-Sigma, Multi-Bit… so many approaches. What many audiophiles fail to grasp is the chip is a start. What the engineer does with it is likely more meaningful to good sound than the base approach. Bel Canto describes what they have achieved as the, “highest levels of analogue purity and uncompromised performance,” which basically translates to a more musical result. No digital edge or rounded off highs from the digitizing of an analog signal then converting it back. Or making the file more musical as analog if it was digitally recorded. To me the Black EX via it’s HDR-II tech has a rightness to the sound. It is not artificial. Audiophiles can debate the engineering greatness of a particular approach strictly from an engineering perspective; I frankly only care which approach yields better sound from my speakers.
Another aspect of achieving this sonic quality is the pure Class A differential analogue output from the DAC working in tandem with the balanced analogue section. The goal is to preserve all of the original dynamics from the recording regardless of the quality of signal being fed via the digital or analogue inputs. The key to this part of the processing is using constant current and voltage to bias all parts in the analog output chain. Essentially Class A is being imposed on the signal from all contributing factors. This facilitates the maintenance of all original signals and dynamics.
This now fully realised signal is passed on to the 250W into 8 Ohms or (500W into 4 Ohms) Bel Canto custom NCore Stereo amplifier that delivers of clean and ultra-quiet Class D power.
As stated earlier the available controls are minimal on both the front panel and via the remote. Yet all user adjustments of the system can be done with either. To save new settings you hold the program button or press the wheel for a few seconds to complete the save. You will initially use the save function quite a bit because the Black EX has the capability to incrementally tailor the sound to your room and personal preferences in fine detail. The first interesting feature used to customize the sound is the Tilt function. Similar to Quad’s Tilt system in the old 34 preamp, this boosts bass and cuts treble – or cuts bass and boosts treble – around 775Hz. You can adjust the tonal balance in 0.6dB increments up to a maximum 3dB variance. This is more than an EQ effort to assist with both room and loudspeaker management to personal taste. I found it to be a fun exercise that does allow for specific compensation for room anomalies.
Another very useful feature is the Bass management customization. The Black EX has one pair of RCA outputs. Each can be used to feed a powered subwoofer a mono signal. The Black EX offers a BASS EQ (Shipped in the Off position) that features a 2nd order Butterworth Low and High pass filter set. These filters allow a + or – 3dB range in 0.6dB increments up to 250Hz. Many of the newer high-end subs have their own adjustment DSP but for a simple powered sub it allows for fine integration within the system and room. The bass-management 2nd order low pass filter allows adjustment from 40Hz to 120Hz in 10 Hz increments. The High Pass filter you can deploy for your loudspeakers to tailor them as well from 40Hz to 120Hz in 10Hz increments to add even more assist to subwoofer integration. If that is not enough there is also a bass gain setting from -6dB to +6dB in one step stages. It may take some time to work through your sub setting, but your room, sub, and speakers will be in harmony. I spent a fun afternoon with the Black EX and my SVS PB12+ subwoofer finding and experimenting with the best settings. In the end I could make the sub disappear in seamless coordination with my Vandersteen Treo CT’s or I could pump up the volume with some EDM tracks and annoy my wife. Who knew she did not appreciate Basshunter?
The Black EX provides a MC/MM Phono preamp with a strong selection of settings even for low output moving coil cartridges. The curve choice is RIAA only but that should cover the majority of listener preferences. An afternoon’s listening with my VPI Prime Signature and Ortofon Cadenza Bronze MC cartridge proved to be very enjoyable. There was some depth missing compared to my reference Moon 610LP phono pre, however, considering the Moon costs half what the Black EX does the presentation was certainly a worthy one. Changing cartridge settings was a simple task via the remote control. It was overall an impressive effort for something usually underwhelming on a multi-function device.
Bel Canto has provided an IOS certified app called SEEK which allow for iDevice control over your playlists and source access. I found SEEK to work well and it was very good at searching out audio files from anywhere between my far flung networked computer system and on line streaming services. Entering my login for Tidal was simple and opened up a huge library of CD quality tunes. The Black EX as noted previously, is also in the process of becoming Roon certified. I am a Roon fan and I used Roon for most of my library control as it is much more comprehensive to music curation than SEEK. If you are not a Roon subscriber, then SEEK will serve you well.
When I reviewed the Bel Canto Ref600 Monos and the 2.7 DAC I was struck by the naturalness of the presentation. The Black EX takes that naturalness to another level. This was not what I would normally expect from a digital device and Class D amplifiers. I was enjoying an analog experience. I started with Tidal via the SEEK app on my iPhone 8 plus queueing up the FM radio 70’s staple ‘FM’ by Steely Dan from the FMmovie soundtrack [MCA]. This 16/44.1 was as clear and clean as I can ever remember hearing it. The opening guitar work had a spangle (a technical term) that cut through the bassline. The tenor sax was tone filled with just the right amount of rasp. Having listened to this song for over forty years it is one of those soundtracks of your life songs. To hear it in such a quality “analogue” presentation was incredibly satisfying. This was a great start demonstrating immediately what Bel Canto said they were striving for with their twenty-year quest to incrementally improve on their chosen DAC technology.
Next up was Murray Perahia performing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 in B Flat Major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier” 1. Allegro also via Tidal. Piano can be tough for digital, subject to brightness and sometimes brittle tonality I approach it with trepidation. The Black EX delivered with full tonality and a complete lack of brightness or edge. Listening to the performance I am struck by the feeling of joy and playfulness. There is an uplifting energy to the piece that was magnified by the correctness to the piano’s tone. The precision and nuance of Mr. Perahia’s playing carried through with wonderful fullness. The Black EX made this an almost live experience with its tone and dimensionality. Very well done.
Wrapping up with the SACD of Alison Krauss + Union Station Live[2002 Rounder Records] ‘The Lucky One’features Alison’s incredibly pure voice accompanied by the impeccable musicianship of Union Station. Female vocals can make or break any system. The Bel Canto Black EX Integrated’s rendering of Alison’s voice was exquisitely pure. The guitar, Dobro, and violin tone were full and full of tone. It was a superb and natural presentation.
Finally, it’s hard not to consider the Bel Canto Black EX without going to the ‘D’-word – Devialet. The slim, shiny box from Paris was the ‘shot heard round the audio world’ when it first appeared at the start of this decade, and the shockwaves continue to resonate through much of high-end audio. In truth, Devialet was and remains more prevalent in Europe and the UK than the US to my mind, but it opened the door for smaller, integrated products that retain high-end performance worldwide. I haven’t logged enough hours with a Devialet to compare directly, but the Bel Canto’s sound stands on its own. It’s not a ‘Devialet killer’ because it doesn’t need to be a ‘Devialet killer’. Audio is sufficiently broad in scope for both to coexist peacefully. But what it has in common with that French fashionista is that people with separate preamps, DACs, phono stages, power amps, power supplies and the rest listen to these one-box wonders… and often trade the lot in for this one superstar. That’s what the original D-Premier did so well, and that’s what the Bel Canto Black EX does so well, too. This is a disruptive product, challenging head on the status quo of high-end audio, and that is refreshing and a much needed catalyst for change in what can too often be an industry hide-bound in convention. Other brands should be worried, but more importantly, other brands should be learning from the Black EX and doing the same thing!
I’m trying a spot of British-style understatement: the Black EX is ‘a bit of’ a game changer. Its older siblings came first to be sure, but to bring the natural and analogue qualities to digital in most any form at this price point is exciting. This is a reference piece that would be at home anchoring any high performing system. It might save some big coin too as one box for amp, pre-amp, DAC, and streamer means a lot of high cost cables that are not needed. It has plenty of power to drive virtually any speaker, too. In the end, I am impressed. People need to hear this device and I know after doing so many will find a way to make it the centrepiece of their system.
- Type: Integrated Amplifier
- Input: Phono – 1 RCA with MM & MC capabilities, Analogue – 2 pr RCA, AES/EBU, S/PDIF, Toslink, USB A & B, RS232
- Output: 2x RCA also can be Mono Subwoofer Out
- Class Operation: Class-D with Class-A internal
- Load Impedance: 8 Ohm and 4 Ohm
- Low Level Outputs: Line Level Analogue 4.5Vrms with Bass Management
- Headphone: 4.5 Vrms maximum, 32 Ohm minimum load
- Maximum Data rates: 24bit/192kHz PCM AES/EBU,
S/PDIF, TOSlink. 24bit/192kHz PCM, MQA, and DSD64 via 10/100 Ethernet, 24bits/384kHz, MQA, and DSD64/128 (DoP) USB2 Audio
- MM/MC Input: Input Sensitivity: MM: 2.5mV to 5mV; MC: 0.25mV to 0.5mV. Input Load MM: 47K Ohms; MC: 50, 100, 500, 1000
- RIAA Accuracy: +/- 0.25dB, 50Hz – 15kHz
- THD+N: <0.01% 1kHz A-weighted
- SNR: >70dB A-weighted
- Dynamic Range: 110dB, A-weighted 20Hz – 20kHz
- Loudspeaker Output:
Maximum Power Output: 500W – 4 Ohm, 250W – 8 Ohm
Minimum Load: 2 Ohms
Peak Output Current: 25 Amperes
- Frequency Response: -3dB 0Hz–50kHz, all loads
- Output Connections: 2 pair WBT Nextgen binding posts
- Dynamic Range: 125dB A-weighted
- THD+N: <0.001%, 1kHz, 4 Ohms
- IMD (CCIF): <0.001% 1W, 18.5:19.5kHz 1:1, 4 Ohms
- Power usage On: 40W
- Power usage Off: 0W
- Power Requirements: 100-120VAC or 230-240VAC 50/60Hz Internally set
- Dimensions (WxDxH): 451 ×394 ×89mm
- Weight: 12 kg.
- Price: £15,000
Manufactured by: Bel Canto Design Inc
Distributed in the UK by: Padood
Tel: +44 (0)1223 653199