The Keith Jarrett At the Blue Note, Saturday, June 4th, 1994, 1st Set CD is one that I like both for pleasure listening as well as reviewing. Track 5 "When I Fall in Love" is always telling. The BCD amp revealed how well the cymbal work of Jack DeJohnette compliments Jarrett's piano; likewise for the upright bass efforts of Gary Peacock. The spacious percussive effects are exaggerated in the recording, at least on every system I have tried it with, but it is still fun. With both the Gibbon 8s and the Blue Heron 2s, all of that was delivered in a transparent, smooth and convincing fashion. I noticed early on that the top end of the amp is really well extended, open and properly in balance with the rest of the spectrum. Solos are accurate, properly scaled and compliment the other musicians beautifully. Other tracks on this disc are almost as engaging, so if you don't know this ECM disc, I think you might want to explore it, not necessarily as a demo piece but just because it is fine music.

Keith Johnson is a top-flight recording engineer and through his extensive series of Reference Recordings releases, you can readily appreciate the depth and seriousness of his craftsman-ship. I probably own close to a third of the discs in that collection. One that never fails to get my attention is Exotic Dances from the Opera featuring Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra [RR-71CD]. The sonics and music are quite captivating, especially if you wish to just relax and be washed over by dynamic and colorful sounds. In Track 1, "Dance of the Tumblers from the Snow Maiden" by Rimsky-Korsakov, the sense of depth and width are striking as various instrumental sections and soloists emerge from the expansive soundstage. Powerful bass lines and big-time crescendos make for excitement and your attention is drawn to the energy of both the music and the musicians. The eVo2i GenII rendered all of this cleanly, clearly and naturally. I can say that with my tubed REF 1 and the DNA500 amp there is more bloom to the presentation, but the integrated amp gets my juices flowing without any problem.

Another classical piece that involves a lot of animated sonics is the Noyes Fludde, op.59, The Chester Miracle Play Set to Music by Benjamin Britten. I happen to own both the LP and CD as identical versions of this novel piece and occasionally play each sequentially when a friend asks for a digital vs. analog comparison. Yes, the LP does work better for me in overall sonic terms but the CD [London 436 397 2] is no slouch - and it does offer a lot of convenience. There is no cleaning, destatisizing or other time-consuming ritual required to play the silver disc version. This record contains a large cast of singers and musicians who portray an absolutely bizarre story that combines Noah, Jesus and many other historical figures who come from vastly different time periods into a fantasy play which is compelling and fascinating. The singers (and children's orchestra) under the direction of Norman del Mar move about the church interior providing a real test of how a system can handle dimensionality, spatial positioning and sonic tracking. There is one particular marching segment which really takes the cake. The eVo2i delivered all of those layers, with richness and beauty on top of it all! Vocalists include small children, teens and adults. It's a real treat to follow their actions and words as the story unfolds. I don't think this material is the kind of stuff anyone would be playing a lot but I am surprised at how often I do put it on, especially when I feel the need to forget my worries, reduce oddball stressful crap or just escape the challenges of the day. Weird, eh?

With Jazz material like many of the wonderful piano discs from Bill Evans -- or Scott Hamilton's fine tenor sax work -- or for instance, some early Diana Krall CDs, the BCD amp, without calling attention to itself, showed all of the positive attributes already mentioned. [As an aside, I've been listening to a pre-release version of Krall's latest, The Girl in the Other Room. I think it is the best thing she has done in a long time even though it carries darker sentiments than we normally see from her. It seems like Elvis Costello has been a significant influence in more ways than one.]

I'll spare you by not running through a long list of other album titles and merely note that lots of additional musical styles of average to above-average recordings were utilized in the evaluation process and the eVo2i GenII met all their challenges. As for findings based on my own recordings, auditioned via either master DAT tapes or the CDR transfers, I am pleased to see consistency in the performance of this amp through the available speaker options.

Since I use no processing and run a purist approach in making these tapes, I don't have to second-guess what happened to the end product as a result of interventions created by a recording engineer, record producer or the artist's best friend. For me this means a great deal. Yes, these are 16-bit recordings, and no, they don't have the ultimate sonics of what $1,000,000 worth of esoteric studio gear might offer. However, the simplicity and directness of the outcome carries insightful information that helps me to hear into the performance and that generally carries the day. The eVo2i GenII revealed its own competence in transparency, dynamics, ambience retrieval and most of the parameters we expect of high-end sound reproduction. Whether the music came from pipe organ, choir, string quartet, piano, small orchestra or jazz quartets, this integrated amp showed a lovely sense of balance in portraying a view into the musical event.

The latest touch
I noted earlier that the only serious pickable nit I could find was some leanness in what I would call a midbass or warmth zone. This made some discs come across in a slightly analytical fashion but not so cool or threadbare as to be a big worry. [I am comparing, once again, to my resident ARC REF 1 + McCormack DNA 500 amp combo.] Happily, the latest iteration of the eVo2i Gen II has fixed that. Yes, those simple output capacitor substitutions have handled this single reservation quite readily. There is now more body to the overall sound and the already terrific attack and decay characteristics noted before remain steadfast. Smooth and natural are definite descriptors that I can use comfortably in talking about the upgraded amp.

The additional week of use of the latest eVo2i on both speaker systems has allowed me to pick up on a few other details that may be useful. If anything, all of the multiple fine performance traits of the amp seem even a touch better now. The dimensionality, extension at the frequency extremes, transparency, dynamics and tonal balance have been enhanced by the upgrade. I am not talking about a night-and-day phenomenon but do like how all of this has come together. It's fair to say that this circuit change has done much for the overall BCD sound as a pleasure delivery system, and it is my understanding that this improvement will be found consistently throughout their product line now.

Hesitatingly, I am going to say something which might be regarded as heresy in audiophile circles - but what the hell. I think a fine integrated amp like this BCD eVo 2i GenII, coupled to a solidly performing affordable speaker system like the Devore Gibbon 8s, could go a long way toward satisfying lots of folks who currently have very complex, expensive, perhaps even cumbersome sound systems. Add a decent source signal, whether analog or digital, respectable cabling etc. and there is much to enjoy and discover in this kind of package. I think it could all be done on less than $10K and the satisfaction offered would be surprising and welcomed.

If the budget were tighter than that, I suspect that the Reference 3A Dulcet speaker system which impressed me a great deal at the Montreal Festival Son & Image 2004 show would work really well, too. There are many pricier speakers that could fit the picture as well and I'd speculate that the Gradient Revolution [also a winner for me at Montreal] should take things to an even higher level if the cash allocation allowed. Considering some of the obscene price tags we see in today's audio marketplace, this type of combination could deliver much pleasure, ease of operation and sensibility. That, as Martha used to say, is a good thing.

Closing thoughts
The Bel Canto eVo2i GenII integrated amplifier is a revelation in many ways. Flexibility, build quality, sonic performance, good looks and judicious pricing combine to make for a terrific piece of audio gear. Having liked it in its basic GenII version, i.e. prior to the filter cap changes, I was ready to submit this review feeling comfortable in categorizing the amp as a solid, effective and desirable product. Now I am all the more convinced that it is a special creation.

The amp sounds neutral - in fact so much so that it wasn't easy to characterize. Being a tube guy for a long part of my audio life, I was concerned about just how the eVo2i GenII [improved] would impact my listening preferences and pleasure. Many strengths surfaced immediately, followed by unexpected but welcomed surprises. Let me explain.

In an uninspiring prior encounter with another [unnamed] digital amplifier, I was bothered by the sterility and lack of character to its sound. This was, by the way, a product of high repute, excellent build quality and modern circuitry. Please understand, I am not asking for colorations, distortions or other aberrations in my music - but I do seek dynamic, tonally correct, spatially honest, full-bodied involvement. That other unit had oodles of power but suffered from such analytical tendencies that it felt like Dragnet's Sgt. Friday at work - you know, "just the facts m'am" stuff. Real music in concert settings, especially acoustic performances, always gets my attention. That is true even if the musicians are not of the highest caliber or if the repertoire deviates from my usual preferences. Happily, the Bel Canto integrated delivered facts along with involvement while avoiding any nasties. The sound could be bold or gentle without feeling locked into either extreme. There was warmth without any murky or cloying excesses. The amp delivered texture and articulation naturally which was especially evident on vocal material, especially of the sort I record or enjoy within my larger record collection. Occasionally in large choral works, words that are not always articulated well with other gear became more intelligible and emotive here.

Bass was reproduced effortlessly, in proper scale and with just enough oomph to round out instruments that generate low notes. Also, a sense of room feel that many of us enjoy when we hear a system capable of conveying this almost non-musical sense of space, came through well. The midrange was resolving and transparent without suffering from hyper-detailed edginess. Treble qualities were airy, extended and sweet.

Ultimately what the amp could really do was to get out of the way. I know that's an overused cliché but it also turned out to be valid. Yes, even a tube guy can find gratification from this approach to sound reproduction - and that is not an easy thing to say.

Bel Canto Design has hit the bull's eye with the eVo2i GenII integrated amplifier. It deserves much praise along with serious consideration and could be the successful and satisfying audio solution in a number of applications. For music lovers wishing to avoid undue equipment complication and fuss, it would be an effective time- and money-saving acquisition as a point of initial investment. Likewise for those seeking to modernize an older sound system. Anyone planning to downsize or reduce the complexity of an existing system without compromising sonic performance would do well to put this amp on his or her short list of strong candidates. The Bel Canto eVo2i GenII is a winner on all fronts. Congratulations, Mr. Stronczer.
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