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Reviewer: Edgar Kramer
Source Digital: Sony XA-5ES as transport; Bel Canto Design DAC 2, Bel Canto Design DAC 3 [in for review]
Preamp/Integrated: Supratek Sauvignon with NOS RCA and Bendix tubes
Amplifier: NuForce Reference 9 Special Edition monoblocks
Speakers: Wilson Audio Specialties WATT/Puppy System 6
Cables: Cerious Technologies Digital; Harmonic Technology Magic Digital; Cerious Technologies; Harmonic Technology Magic and Truthlink Silver; DanA Digital Reference Silver; Eichmann eXpress 6 Series 2; Bocchino Audio Morning Glory interconnect cable; PSC Audio Pristine R30 Ribbon [on loan]; Cerious Technologies and Harmonic Technology PRO-9+ loudspeaker cables; Cerious Technologies AC; Harmonic Technology Fantasy; Shunyata Research Diamondback, Eichmann eXpress AC power cables; PSC Gold Power MKII AC cable [on loan]
Stands: 3 tier double width, partly sand filled metal frame/MDF shelved equipment rack
Powerline conditioning: PS Audio P-300 Power Plant (digital equipment only)
Sundry accessories: Burson Audio Buffer, Bright Star Audio IsoRock Reference 3, Bright Star Audio IsoRock 4 isolation platforms and BSA IsoNode feet; Bocchino Audio Mecado isolation diodes; Black Diamond Racing cones; Stillpoints ERS paper in strategic positions around DAC, Shakti On Lines; Densen CD demagnetizer; Auric Illuminator CD Treatment; ASC Tube Traps
Room size: 17' w x 35' d x 12' h in short wall setup, opens to adjoining kitchen
Review component retail: $2,495
|The tight rope
He's mired in trepidation. Hesitation soon turns apprehension and mounting fear. The rope, the path ahead, stretches out unfocused into a cloudy distance. Grey. Oscillating. Vertigo. The tight-rope walker demonstrates an abiding passion for the task, courage to go out on a limb and an impeccable sense of balance.
Enter audio. That's how we sometimes feel in this HiFi journey when challenged by a new piece of equipment. By perseverance or sheer luck, we've managed to dial our systems to sound -- for the time being at least and pre next upgrade -- just so. Right and dialed. To our biases. Then our relentless pioneering spirit (or greed or lust depending on your perspective) awakens. Again. Our restlessness is revitalized (in the case of reviewers, the new assignment at hand) and we introduce a new preamplifier or CD player or interconnect to our rig. In today's case, the new Bel Canto DAC 3 was to disturb my hard-fought stereophonic equilibrium.
Balanced perturbed with the DAC 3 at hand and staring at the abyss below, would the aid of the balancing pole (cables, tube rolling) save me from tumbling into the cushioning safety net of my resident DAC 2?
Men in tights
The DAC 3 is an evolutionary step from the now classic and highly respected DAC 2. In keeping with the new Bel Canto house aesthetic, the DAC 3 is a half-width component of far superior build and cosmetics than its predecessor. The package as a whole has the feel of a sturdy product that has been designed and engineered with efficiency and quality as priorities. The layout in my opinion is also far superior, the DAC 3 having a more conventional and therefore practical connection bay as opposed to the DAC 2's rather awkward two-sided orientation. The DAC 3's heavier mass is also preferable when using stiff and heavy connecting cables. The DAC 2 gets levitated when mated to such cables unless weighted down.
The DAC 3 sports a thick aluminium face plate with the marque Bel Canto deeply etched into it. In the centre of the recessed face you'll find a clear and large numerical and textual read-out that informs of the various settings and functions at hand. Just to the right sits the large rotary multi-purpose control which is used to select sources, navigate, change volume and power up or down. Around back a comprehensive array of connections starts with the IEC power inlet and continues with a USB input, Toslink, S/PDIF with RCA, S/PDIF with BNC and AES/EBU with XLR. For outputs, the DAC 3 provides balanced XLR and single-ended RCA.
As the DAC 3 can double up as a preamp with amplifier-direct connection, fixed and variable outputs are selectable via push button. A palm-sized and neat remote control rounds out the package and features essentials such as stand-by on/off, volume up/down, mute and input select.
As for the technology behind the DAC 3, Bel Canto's John Stronczer and his designers accomplished further refinements in design and thinking. The main attraction is Bel Canto's use of an Ultra-Clock master reference clock and dual stage de-jitter architecture for a claimed jitter reduction performance up to 50 times better than other clocks and a quoted figure of 1 picosecond RMS with a superb frequency accuracy of 0.0001%. There is an on-board 24/192 DAC, separate power supplies for the digital and analog stages, class A biased fully balanced audio circuits, 4 layer PCBs and select grade audio components throughout. All digital inputs are transformer coupled so as to isolate and shield against noise. Even the USB input is transformer shielded to protect the DAC 3 from the noisy computer environment. For further information on the multitude of technical features used in the DAC 3 and a very interesting white paper, I would encourage you to visit the Bel Canto website.
As an added feature, the DAC 3 can be used as a digital preamplifier when the rear switch selects the variable output position. The digital volume is controlled by the rotary switch which turns smoothly in 0.5dB steps numerically displayed on the central information panel. This of course is a great feature for those who want a simplified system. The DAC 3 eliminates an external preamp for claimed improvements in transparency and dynamic contrast.
I first tested the DAC 3 as a substitute for my usual DAC 2 between the superb team of Supratek preamp and NuForce amplifiers via Cerious Technologies digital and analog interconnects and Bocchino XLR interconnect. This would compare old guard to upstart, my system's bias toward the DAC 2 notwithstanding. From the get go, listening sessions demonstrated profound differences between the two converters.
And here is where my balancing act begins. Straight out of the box and plonked into my system as tuned for the warmish DAC 2, the DAC 3 sounded a tad too upfront, sometimes bordering on the bright. Out came the balancing pole aids to counter-balance and restore neutrality. The Sovtek 5AR4 regulator was first to go from the Supratek power supply and was replaced by the sublime and newly arrived Bendix 5Y3GT, a change that was imminent anyway with the DAC 2. Better indeed but more was needed. Out went the very good but brutally neutral Cerious Technologies speaker cables and in came the warmer and fuller Harmonic Technology PRO-9+. With this DAC, much better. So as my heel crossed over onto the platform at the end of the rope, my anxiously held breath escaped in relief. I was back on terra firma.
Now I can tell you that the main sonic signature of the DAC 3 is total neutrality as far as that concept is identifiable or indeed honestly recognizable within any system. As already indicated, that includes my system. No frequency band stands out in relief. In fear of overusing the term, the DAC 3 is utterly balanced. In comparison, the DAC 2 is accentuated in the upper bass/lower midrange, giving it a sense of added warmth as opposed to the DAC 3's precise evenness. And there's the rub. My system was tuned to the warmer sounding DAC 2, with ancillaries that diminished that unit's walk on the darker side of neutral.
|The Bel Canto DAC 3 serves oodles of detail and superb dynamics with a sense of speed and tight control of the whole frequency gamut. Put on an acoustic piece like Tom Brosseau's "How to Grow a Woman from the Ground" from the wonderful CD Empty Houses are Lonely [Fat Cat Records CD41, 2006] and the life of the performance is delivered realistically and with its full helping of string micro detail, transient attack and life-like presence. Given my observations of superb detail delivery, the DAC 3 is not a soulless minutiae freak living outside the fringes of the mythical municipality of Musicaville. Indeed, Tom's longing for a soul mate is very touching, confirming the DAC 3's ability to communicate in a way that connects the listener to the emotive content of the music as would be the song writer's intention.
|Bass in general is very tight and again detailed but a little lean. Such a tonality would be invaluable for those with mid-bass heavy speakers. The DAC 3 will wipe your bloated bottoms clean if you know what I mean. The midband excels in clarity and dynamics. Simultaneously occurring instruments are clearly resolved and individualized and images are precisely placed in a wide and deep soundstage.
|Apart from what has by now become obvious if you own the DAC 2, the differences highlight the importance of system synergy and preference. The DAC 2 is warmer yet subjectively transmits nearly as much detail as the DAC 3 though being overall a little slower in the midband and fuller in the bottom. Bass is tighter and leaner with the DAC 3, its older brother being less in control and showing a bigger pot belly. The DAC 3 also had a slight edge when it came to ambient room reverberation and air. Musically to die for, on the absolutely superb live CD from The Waifs, a brief history... [Jarrah Records 743942, 2005], the band and audience actively interact between and even during some of the tracks. The DAC 3 powerfully conveys the impression of the event, transporting the listener into the multiple and acoustically varying venues and communicating the concert in an emotive and involving manner.
|The walk ain't over yet
A feature of the DAC 3 that will appeal to many is the ability to connect directly to a power amp. Usefully, the DAC 3 caters to up to 4 digital sources, most importantly of course a CD player transport or DVD player. Just as useful though would be an analog input. I suppose that would have made the DAC 3 a full-blown DAC/PRE 3. Quite the mouthful. However, since the volume is digitally controlled, such an input would necessitate an A/D converter, adding cost and complexity and thus probably explaining why there is no analog input.
Common sense would tell you that removing an additional set of interconnects and the complex circuitry that is your preamp should render tremendous benefits in transparency, detail and signal purity. After all, our entire high-end ideology is built on the idea of simplicity, short signal paths and minimalism. Having said that, most of us seem to prefer whatever it is that's inherently added to the signal by a preamplifier's circuitry, namely a sense of body and drive to the music, not to mention deeper and more powerful bass. In my experience, most good active pres don't lose much in the way of detail, transparency or anything else to a passive unit or source-direct connection. I was therefore very curious what would ensue when bypassing my beloved Supratek Sauvignon.
Well, I must say that the blurb on Bel Canto's website about dynamics and transparency is no exaggeration. With the DAC 3 directly connected to my NuForce Reference 9 Special Editions, the sound was indeed transparent with what seemed like a tad more detail and information than with the Supratek in line. Guitar notes had a shimmer and transient attack that kept my toe tapping. Overall dynamics were impressive and on the massive scale of the Supratek. The latter however had more bass power and quantity, a more expansive soundstage and lots more flesh on the musical bones where musicians were presented with a more realistic impression of taking up spatial and physical presence within the larger soundstage. On the other hand, the DAC 3 had a little more incisiveness and speed of attack throughout the frequency range. as well as a tighter and more detailed bass range that had bounce and superb rhythmic accuracy. And that's really saying something as the Supratek is no slouch in those departments.
|My last task was to audition the USB mode. This requires a number of things. Firstly, you need a desktop or laptop computer. Secondly, a media player for your computer. If you are a PC man, the standard Windows media player is hardly good enough. Thirdly a good driver, the mechanism that interfaces with the DAC. Again the standard Windows driver is not quite up to scratch. After some investigation at the informative Bel Canto website and the assistance of a computer-savvy audiophile friend, it was established that the audio player software should be from Foobar, a free downloadable program superior to the Windows player. Unfortunately based on my laptop's elderly vintage, I was stuck with the Windows driver. You'll also need a USB cable of appropriate length to connect the computer to the DAC 3.
In theory, this mode of operation holds great promise as the interface between computer hard drive and DAC promises vanishing levels of jitter no optical transport and DAC combination can match. Bel Canto hasn't added the feature as a half-hearted token attempt to keep up with technological trends. On the contrary, John Stronczer appears to have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that the USB connection is of equal quality and can fulfil the same potential as the other inputs on board.
|Comparing USB to S/PDIF, the former sounded marginally constricted dynamically and showed far less separation between vocals and the backing instrumentation. The vocal was also placed further back in the mix and with less presence. In my system, the CD combo had greater dynamic contrast, a wider and deeper soundstage, again more flesh on the bone in terms of body and presence and more powerful and deeper bass. Dimensionality left to right, up|
|and down and especially in the depth plane was more expansive on S/PDIF. Let's just say that the CD/DAC combo was superior in every aspect of music making by comparison. Let me put this in perspective for a second though. The USB combo didn't sound half bad. In fact, in terms of tonality for example, I was quite surprised by how good it sounded. That's no backtracking either. It was only when comparing and switching back and forth between the two that in this instance the superiority of the dedicated transport became obvious.
Bear in mind too how this assessment is based on the mediocre native Windows driver and my vintage laptop. Had time and funds allowed for the purchase of a superior audio driver and a more up-to-date computer, the results may have been quite different. In fact the comparison may have been between two high-end stars. I hear the bee's knees of drivers is the ASIO which Bel Canto highly recommends. Sounds like Australia's version of the CIA. Improvements can also be had by using outboard interfaces such as the Squeeze Box or those available from Empirical Audio and Trend Audio. These interfaces convert the USB signal into a digital stream either Toslink or S/PDIF which then is fed into the DAC 3's input. Computer audio aficionados also talk about upsampling within the computer and tapping the DAC prior to its own upsampling circuitry. I guess it's still early days for the USB avenue, with promise of advancements and user simplification ahead in the not too distant future. [It should also be added that the primary advantage of computer audio is playback from hard-drive, i.e. magnetic data retrieval, rather than using the internal CD/DVD drive in optical mode - Ed.]
So, to summarize, what does this technically complex component bring to the table? The Bel Canto DAC 3 is a nicely built piece of kit and aesthetically simple and pleasing. It is tremendously versatile in features and connectivity and functioned flawlessly. The DAC 3 has an incisive, detailed and fast sound that maintains tonal neutrality and superb resolution. Run as a preamplifier in a single source system, it shines in the areas of transparency and dynamics whilst maintaining its other strengths as shown via its DAC section. That it lagged behind the valved Supratek in terms of body and bass power is no embarrassment considering the latter's standing as one of the planet's best preamps.
The USB feature showed tremendous promise given the fact that I was stuck with the poor native Windows driver. So there's potential for notable sound quality improvements on the USB front. As far as the comparison between the two DACs, I would have to say that in a lean sounding system, the DAC 2 would take the honors. In a system coated with a golden hue and saddled with a loose and muddy bass register, the DAC 3 would be the hands-down winner. In a system where all is in balance, it'll be down to your sonic bias - the resolute, airy, detailed, fast and dynamic sound of the DAC 3 or a large dollop of the same with a smidgen of warmth thrown in and the fatter bottom end of the DAC 2.
HiFi, like life, can be a tightrope walk or a hammock snooze. Give me the rope anytime.