On the recent Chandos recording of John Efflam Bavouzet, and especially the third part of the pianistic summit that is Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (the Blackamor), the percussion to the left of the soundstage was rendered with great clarity. The cymbals in particular came off very well with natural analog tone and exceptional harmonic structure. Brass instruments dispatched all the necessary energy without any perceptible loss of timbre even at realistic levels. What impressed once more was the definition of spatial planes and the positioning of each instrument, the piano alongside with the orchestra and with no segregation or ‘personal corners’ of and for the different elements of the soundstage. Everything appeared extremely present and continuous yet still very specific, focused and stable. The drums had great impact and separation yet also shared the space occupied by the cymbals without any artificial highlighting. The soundstage retained immovable stability. It became obvious how this was dependent on the quality of the recording. Other tracks from the same SACD appeared less convincing for stereo realism. But when the recording is of a sufficiently high level, one reaches with the Bel Canto Black a certain sonic perfection I had never experienced before. Mind you, there have been many different types of equipment, amplifiers and digital sources through my listening room but none seemed able to compete with the acuity of this American gear.

Still on the same SACD, the third movement of the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments had Jean Efflam Bavouzet’s piano present in the foreground but without excess highlighting. The wind instruments were perfectly positioned, the horns blowing from the rear without sounding overly distant. Bavouzet’s intentions showed beautifully fluid natural phrasing that is rather rare and was comparable to my personal experience of what a great turntable and LP do best. The tutti had amazing ease with no shifts in harmonic weighting. The tonal richness of the Bel Canto Black impressed with its diversity. It didn't oversaturate colours as the Ayon S5 had done which I tested two years ago. The Bel Canto Black system had more neutrality from which came greater variety. And the network-driven Ayon had been a most serious competitor in the field already.

Listening to the latest album of Giuliano Carmignola with the Concerto Köln ensemble of Bach Violin Concertos, I again enjoyed the capacity of the system to render a totally natural three-dimensional stereo image. I'm not a big fan of Baroque music. This doesn’t exclude it but it’s not my favourite genre. The impression I have is that very often Baroque recordings capture many stringed instruments whose tonalities are fairly close yet it is difficult to faithfully reconstruct subtle tonal differences. If in addition the focus of your system is not at a surgical level, it is typical to hear a homogeneous instrumental mass quite removed from what we experience at the live event. Often forté passages make a smaller Baroque ensemble sound like a modern symphony orchestra. Here I find this latest installment of the Italian violin prodigy to be an unusually well-recorded example of the genre. And the Bel Canto Black produced such tonal neutrality and accuracy that the period instruments appeared most highly individuated. The ambient information emerged without exaggeration, the sound of harpsichord and violins without noticeable metallic acidity. Concerto Köln remained naturally proportioned throughout without any hot spots. The result was an almost LP-ian ecstasy when digital dynamics reach your ears with such control, liquidity and stability.

Soprano Renée Fleming offers us a range of different voices with her many duets on the Christmas in New York album. On "Silver Bells," the two voices appear very close yet also very well defined. The height of the various performers and instruments portrayed accurately, hence voice, bass and guitar felt astonishingly realistic and differentiated in this three-dimensional setting. Staying with Jazz repertoire, the soundstage of Brian Bromberg’s Upright/Downright reproduced by the Bel Canto Black was ultra wide, its notes floating free as though the transparency of the system favoured the greater density in the music itself. This transparency also fostered an exceptional ability to hear into the background instruments, where piano, bass and drums remained rooted in their respective positions. The cymbals were once again superb, with plenty of presence and a magnificent openness in the treble. The trumpets were full and detailed without being aggressive. The Bel Canto Black conveyed a very tacit sensation of incredibly low distortion. I could draw a parallel between the beautiful sound from a complete MBL system with large MBL 101 X-Tremes; and luxuriating in the Bel Canto Black experience. In either case it seems that the system is capable of pushing audible distortion thresholds far below what we’re used to, even under SPL that are hard to imagine properly done with most of what the market currently offers.

On the title track of Sara K’s Johnny's Garden, I heard ambient detail in the reverberant field that struck me as completely natural quite as though the guitar were actually present in my listening room. Often this recording gives the impression that the singer was recorded at the end of a corridor. This time however, it was different. The voice still remained behind the instruments but not at the very back of the room, rather at a more realistic distance from the others. Drums and bass appeared in the background with a little more resolution than I usually get from my reference system. Is it worth repeating that the soundstage was very solidly encamped without any perceptible instability even at high SPL?

Conclusion.  Even though here we play in a very elite price zone which is unusual for a Bel Canto badge, I must admit that this was one of the most transparent systems, if not the most transparent, I have ever been privileged to hear. I do not remember having had this sensation of ultimate transparency before except from an AudioNec source, Vitus electronics and giant Mårten Coltrane speakers at a far more prohibitive price.

John Stronczer thus achieves performance of the highest order and shows that digital concedes absolutely nothing to the most extreme analog front ends with prices well above the kit in question. Digital interconnects and integration are likely key to such a decisive success which sends our good old turntables as well as all the latest stratospherically priced audio offerings to the broom closet. Like all high-end systems, Bel Canto Black requires careful choices of cables, loudspeakers and setup. I would still draw their team’s attention to needing to migrate their media renderer functionality to a more open UPnP protocol than is currently the case for the ASC1 controller. It would be a pity to exclude audiophiles wanting to only use their NAS via the DLNA/UPnP protocol—and not a computer—from one of the finest digital systems available today. For absolute audio performance achieved, it is already impossible not to give my very highest recommendation to the Bel Canto Black. Whilst winter may be coming, Black rules!
John Stronczer comments:
We are working on next-generation Renderer platforms with plans to adhere to the OpenHome standard for interoperability. However, we wanted to make sure that the first generation offered uncompromised audio performance above all. I find the new networked audio generation to be very exciting at several levels - offering the best potential audio performance as well as new ways to experience your personal audio library and to discover new musical experiences including Tidal using BubbleUPnP on Android.

Bel Canto Black website