Small but fighty mine - er, mighty fine!

Jamaican me crazy. This not from a short-tempered Starbucks server attempting to explain, for the third time, the difference between a Macchiatto and Con Panna. No, this from a perplexed reader who, for the fifth time, sifts through multiple reviews of a piece of gear he's interested in. Valiantly but in vain, he struggles to reconcile diametrically opposed while equally opinionated findings. How can up be down, left be right, bright be dull and boring exciting?

Thankfully, today's write-up of Bel Canto's $1,300 DAC2 won't drive you up that shaky monkey tree. This unassuming box from Minneapolis is as good as its rep on the street. To SoundStage!'s "Reviewer's Choice", add a black eye. No, make that a blue moon from 6moons. The boxing reference? In my native German, it's not a black but blue eye (ein blaues Auge), making one wonder which comes first - black, blue, yellow, green or Frank Sinatra. More importantly, readers aware that one of the SoundStage! Reviewer's Choice awards for the Bel Canto eVo 200.4 has to be blamed on me; that I've used the Bel Canto PRe1 preamplifier for a long time as my reference; that I've pinned another Blue Moon Award on their eVo2i integrated - well, certain such readers, fond of conspiracy theories and evil shenanigans between manufacturers and reviewers, may wish to deck me one. There he goes bestowing yet another award on this firm. What else is new? But seriously, don't diss this dac, deck da writer. It's Wadia sound for far less money than it ever took to play in those elevated leagues.

Why this reference? For two reasons. First, Jim Kinne, involved with Wadia's Digimaster architecture, was involved with the DAC2, too. Bel Canto's John Stronczer likes to surround himself with topnotch talent. Secondly, an audiophile friend with whom I've listened -- to hear things ear-to-ear -- is very familiar with Wadia. She scoffed at the original DAC1. Upon being told one too many times that the DAC2 was a different animal altogether, she eventually caved in and tried it. Back to the loaning dealer went the £1,900 HiFi+ "Component of the Year" Chord DAC-64 while the DAC2 stayed indefinitely. Asked how the DAC1 and DAC2 compared -- being a card-carrying audiophile, she had 'em both in her system at the same time -- her proud owner's comments summed up my own feelings which, admittedly, here rely on memory (it's been a while since I had the DAC1 in my system):

"The original was nice - polite, soft, pleasant, a bit subdued. The new one's both exciting and elegant and of considerably higher resolution. It's still easy listening but now resolves micro detail like the big dogs to fully involve the listener. Actually, it sounds like a Wadia." Exactly. End of story. Buy it and be happy. But of course you expect more from a reviewer than to quote others. What do I think? Jamaican me crazy...

While I gather my wits with some Colombian - coffee, some technicalities. As a 24-bit/192KHz machine, the DAC2 uses Analog Device's asynchronous AD1896 upsampler to take advantage both of its whopping 139dB S/N ratio and integral twin-speed digital phase-lock loop. A Burr Brown, dual differential, multi-bit, Delta-Sigma DSP architecture with 32-bit math is followed by Stronczer's fully balanced current-to-voltage stage. The critical analogue reconstruction filter now is akin to a first-order crossover network. Set at 96kHz, it uses slow roll-off to minimize phase shift especially in the treble while maximizing transient precision. A local crystal oscillator reference clock drives the DAC directly for minimal jitter. Separate digital and analog ground planes with multi-stage power supplies and four-layer board support the claimed 117dB signal-to-noise of the overall circuit.

What carries over from the DAC1 is the 3.75" x 3.75" x 9" three-pound chassis. The gold badge's been replaced by a less flashy silk screen and the original phase-inverter switch now toggles between coaxial and Toslink inputs. A small red power LED turns green with signal lock while the IEC power inlet allows aftermarket experimentation with other powercords. For $850, a DAC1 can be gutted to upgrade to a DAC2. This involves new circuit boards, power supplies and end caps. It's fair to say that little connects the first and second incarnation except for the box, the designer and the price. The DAC2 ran an essentially dead heat against the Birdland Odeon-ag when the Californian was used as a DAC with the volume control set to 3 o'clock; was an equally close call against the Cairn Fog v.2 with its 24/192 upsampler card installed, the DAC2 leading ever so slightly in the image density department; a great leap forward in ambient, spatial and low-level retrieval when compared to the 47lab Model 4716 Shigaraki DAC; a less voluptuous, leaner but more transparent, "faster" alternative to the modified Jolida JD-100.

The following listening impressions were generated in 6moons' new Arroyo Seco haunt. System context? I recently had Chris Johnson of the Parts ConneXion install a BNC digital out to expand on my Cairn's stock Toslink option. This allows use of my reference Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC with the Cairn as transport. For today's evaluation, I fed the DAC2 from the same disc spinner using the same coaxial cable: Chris Sommovigo's excellent i2digital X-60. The Bel Canto PRe1 continues to serve preamp duty until the new PRe6 replaces it in the not-too-distant future. The customary AUDIOPAX Model 88 monos played musical chairs with Blue Note's solid-state single-ended, inductively driven Demidoff Signature 50-watt integrated (review forthcoming).

Speakers were my usual Avantgarde DUOs, all cabling Grand Finale and Energia by HMS Elektronik except for two Analysis Plus Solo Ovals to connect the two DACs to the preamp's two single-ended inputs with identical cables; and Audio Magic Clairvoyants connecting the WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell duplex to the secondary Furutech RTP-6 for spare outlets and the primary Walker Audio Velocitor powerline conditioner. (I couldn't fail to notice how, in triplicate form no less, that Velociraptor has crept into Doctor Bill Gaw's system. He previously was smitten enough with Sound Application's CF-XE to pronounce it "Component of the Century" for EnjoyTheMusic. Hail - to continuous advancements in audio from which us music lovers benefit while our pocket books ... hey, that's good for the economy, right?)

Incidentally, the DAC2 receives our special recognition Blue Moon Award for stellar performance at a real-world price. After all, sending kids to college and making your car payments is good for the economy, too. There's only so far that fancy arguments can be stretched before they rebound and slap you in the face. Time for the real McCoy then - the DAC2's performance.