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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC; Accustic Arts Drive-1; Audio Aero Prima [on review]; Einstein CDP [on review]
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe2; Wyetech Labs Pearl [on loan]; Einstein integrated [on review]; Audiopax Model 5 [on review]
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88, Bel Canto eVo 4 Gen.II, Eastern Electric MiniMax
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo; Gallo Acoustics Reference 3; Green Mountain Audio Continuum 3 [on review]
Cables: Stealth Audio Varidig S/PDIF, Stealth Audio Indra (x2), Crystal Cable Reference speaker cable and power cords; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature for source components; Walker Audio Velocitor
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs; Mapleshade 4" solid maple platform under BPT conditioner
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan
Review Component Retail: $3,490 / $4,490 with integral phonostage

Ever since an ex-house mate purchased Bel Canto's SETi40 integrated tube amp with the brightly lit 845 output bottles, something by these crafty Minnesotans has graced my system: the PRe1; the PRe6; now the PRe2; the eVo 4 in Gen I and II iterations. I've reviewed the eVo 2i, the DAC-2 and am currently taking notes on the PLayer PL-1A. You could be forgiven for thinking that I like this stuff. Hmm, let's see - the eVo amp is my high-power in-house solid-state amp for those occasions when speakers under review need more oomph than my tube monos can muster. If not leashed to short-term visitors, it drives my Gallo Reference 3s in our 2-channel-only video system below a high-placed Sony Wega 27 incher.

The PRe1's served preamp duties in the big rig until the PRe6 came along which was the first BCD preamp to incorporate the bulging silver front panel with the rounded-off central black recess. I never employed this analog 6-channel unit for anything other than music. So when the PRe2 launched to replace the older all-black PRe1 as the firm's stereo preamp, John Stronczer asked whether I wanted to trade my PRe6. He promised improved performance plus four pre-outs, two XLR, two RCA. Though also available with an inbuilt phono stage, I opted for the linestage version since there's no vinyl in this household safe for the shower curtain.

My acquisition of the PRe6-turned-PRe2 followed the reasoning that since I was an unapologetic single-ended tube hound with a pair of deluxe and expensive monoblocks, I didn't really want to dilute their very specific tonality by preceding them with a voiced preamp that'd inject the equivalent of "drops of Riesling into my rare La Grange". John Stronczer and I have a long-standing humorous disagreement. He wants to convert me to solid-state which he has embraced exclusively since his early days of the SEP1 and tube amplifiers. I'm quietly hoping he'll revisit his valved competency in a source component à la Audio Aero, Einstein, Zanden or any of the high-class machines outfitted with after-market valve output stages.

His Tripath-based eVo amplifiers sound like neither tube nor traditional solid-state but occupy a middle ground that's since been staked out further by other firms who incorporate their version of digital power processing by way of B&O's ICEpower or T.I.'s Toccata-based modules. At heart, I'm still married to -- modern! -- tube amps and in my Avantgardes, own speakers that are well-matched. However, I'm the first one to admit that the old dividing lines have long since turned blurry or gone partially erased. And while I somehow doubt that Stronczer will ever win our little argument outright, he's already won it by half - after all, doesn't his eVo drive my Gallos without any complaints from my end? On the subject of hornspeakers, by the way, Stronczer and Ebaen see 100% eye-to-eye. On the subject of needing tubes at least somewhere in the system, I'm on my own. But if Bel Canto ever launched a stand-alone CD player, I'd love to see some sub-miniature tubes in it, even if they were relegated to a second output in parallel with a test-bench-approved solid-state one. There's a distinct something that tubes bring to the table which transistors do not. Sez I, of course.

The PRe2's innards reflect Stronczer's IT and telecommunications background, with surface-mount technology used wherever possible to shorten signal paths and relying on BurrBrown's finest analogue volume chip for remote attenuation and balance.

On the subject of the accompanying metal remote, other manufacturers could learn a thing or two about how comprehensively it operates. It includes such amenities as input naming, input gain matching, soft-mute offset, 0dB shift, assigning a specific input to the record output, rec-out disable, display off with intermittent auto on upon new commands, 0.5dB volume steps slow or fast, balance offset, input switching with auto inserts of a volume-down/volume-up transition to prevent surprises. In short, on the feature front, the PRe2 is a poster child for the full-function preamp including a fully balanced i-o path. Meanwhile, its subdued but classy cosmetics are a perennial favorite also with the long-suffering female contingent in audiophilia.

From a design perspective, John Stronczer always pursues the lowering of measurable distortion. When you ask him about model progressions and concomitant improvements, it's nearly a given to learn that a new part or circuit change has driven down distortion components further yet. Besides for obvious musical benefits, another reason why this designer is likely so keen on this aspect? It's knowing that the intrinsic operational noise floor of some of the best current parts like D/A converters (with S/N ratios of up to 140dB) already eclipse the de facto operational noise floor of the final device -- and then system -- into which such parts are installed.

Especially with delicate low-level signals that are inherently less robust than high-level ones (which is why interconnects tend to make more of a difference than speaker cables), the elimination of noise components is vital to a secure passing of the signal complete with the most subliminal data of ambient shadows and overtone ghosts. That's where solid-state has traditionally enjoyed an advantage in the low-level domain. That's why I opted for a solid-state preamp in my reference system to not do anything other than control the volume, switch my inputs and provide every conceivable creature comfort imaginable from the distant chair. Enter the PRe2 and applause.

And everything on that front was signed Peachy In Taos for the longest time. Then the intrusion of the German Klimo Merlin valve preamp began suggesting that perhaps, there was more to ideal preamplification than just doing nothing. What really drove the nail into that coffin was the subsequent appearance of the Wyetech Labs Pearl. Its valves are implemented in such a way as to apparently eliminate -- completely -- the stereotypical colorations and noise issues. "So what?", you mock. "Why use tubes if they don't do nuttin' except wear out?" Fair question indeed. Except I've come to learn that Wyetech-style tube implementation can do something that's rather addictive and completely benign. Since then, the Brazilian AUDIOPAX Model 5 has landed on terra nuevo mexico. It was designed without tubes but by a tube maniac. It was designed with the express demand to do what tubes do - except without 'em. Kinda.

My forthcoming comparison between these three distinct statement-level preamps and their respective design goals will attempt to answer the question implicit in the prior paragraph. I hope to come to a conclusive value judgment about these pieces and how their performance ranks in my reference system.