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Nicholas Bedworth
Financial Interests: click here
Source components: MSB Technology Universal Music Transport, Weiss Engineering DAC 202 digital-analogue converter; Audiophilleo1 USB-S/PDIF transport-processor; Toshiba Qosmio laptop; HP HDX 18 laptop; Seagate 1.5 TB external digital media storage
Amplifiers:  Odyssey Audio Kismet monoblocks; Technical Brain TBP-Zero version 2 monoblocks
Speakers: KRK Rokit 8 bi-amped powered speakers; Wilson Audio Specialties Sasha W/P
Headphones: Ultrasone HFI 780, with custom Lux-FEP OCC cable and plug by 32 Ohm Audio
Player software: J. River Media Player 15
Cables: AudioQuest Wildwood single bi-wire speaker cables; AudioQuest Sky, Silent Source Audio Music Reference; WireWorld Equinox 6 line analogue interconnects; WireWorld Cable Platinum Starlight, WireWorld Cable Gold Starlight, AudioQuest Eagle Eye, AudioQuest Raven S/PDIF and AES/EBU digital interconnects; WireWorld Supernova 6 TOSLINK optical digital interconnect; WireWorld Cable Starlight, AudioQuest Carbon USB cables; AudioQuest NRG-10, AudioQuest NRG-100, Silent Source Audio Music Reference power cables
Accessories: WireWorld Cable The Matrix power distribution block; Audience adeptResponse aR12-TS power conditioner; Red Wine Audio Black Lightning battery power supply; MasTech HY 1502D linear power supply
Room 18’ deep, 12’ wide, 8’ to 11’ ceiling; room 2 12’ deep, 9’wide, 8’ to 10’ ceilin.
Review component retail: $1395 including remote control; $495 for LNS1 power supply

: Despite the narcissistic dismissal by the bi-coastal twittering classes of the American heartland as fly-over states—whose benighted citizens are presumed to dwell in perpetual insignificance—the more enlightened souls in the audio enthusiast community have another perspective. Being both catholic and learned sorts, they know there’s much more going on even in that epitome of unfashionable obscurity Minnesota where the nine-month long bone-cracking cold winters are followed by mud, tornadoes, ferocious mosquitoes and scorching heat.

Minnesota is not just home to the amiably eccentric longsuffering rustics of Lake Wobegon but also the birthplace of media celebrities such as the late Bullwinkle J. Moose (a native of Frostbite Falls, MN and a summer resident until his tragic demise) and Bob Dylan. The climatic extremes and cultural confines of the northern prairie have also given birth to a subculture of inventors, entrepreneurs and merchandisers with a knack for using technology in innovative ways. Minnesota is home to global brands such as Cray Research, Medtronic, Best Buy, Mayo Clinic, Target and 3M among others. And it turns out, it’s also one of the fountainheads of high-end audio as we think of it today. Two pillars of the industry—Jim Whiney at Magnepan and William Johnson of Audio Research—started from modest beginnings to become dominant and enduring players in a market they helped create. These firms started up in 1969 and 1970 respectively and have continued to raise the bar for audio performance over more than 40 years.

More recently yet another Minnesotan, John Stronczer, founded Bel Canto Design in 1990 and began selling his first Aida DAC a year later or over 20 years ago. Unlike the eponymous loyal but doomed slave-girl heroine of Verdi’s opera, Bel Canto products are still making beautiful music in 35 countries around the world. His original tube-based products gradually evolved into today’s range of advanced solid-state digital and analogue electronics.

The subject of this review, the DAC 1.5, launched in late 2010 and is $1395 with remote control and a 12V switching power supply. It’s the baseline product in the company’s present DAC range. Be sure to consider purchasing the optional LNS1 external supply ($495), which does wonders for the 1.5’s performance. Next up is their mid-range DAC 2.5 at $1995 and the highest-end model, the DAC 3.5, weighs in at $3495. For the 2.5 and 3.5 there’s an even higher-spec external power supply called the VBS1 or virtual battery supply ($1495).

Out of the box experience. One’s introduction to a company’s DNA starts naturally enough with opening the box. In the case of the Bel Canto DAC the company’s idea of suitable packaging would perhaps better be characterized as a portable vault. Inside the outer shipping container, matryoshka like, one finds another box, flat black, with a pull-out handle that allows what is in effect a presentation case to be slowly extracted for further investigation.

After removal of even more protective coverings, the Bel Canto DAC 1.5 reveals its Minnesotan modern i.e. Nordic glory. The cosmetics are plain but obviously custom designed, solid and rather dense. The overall appearance is polished, simple, even a bit austere but attractive. There’s just one control apparent on the front panel, a 1.5"/38mm black knob near the right side of the case, with a beveled edge and a small circular indent for one’s index finger.

Over on the left there’s a headphone jack but apart from the engraved lower-case Bel Canto logo there are no labels, Euro-cryptic glyphs or other indications of how it might work. How taciturn. What do you expect from a Minnesotan? The rear panel by contrast is relatively verbose and has clearly labeled analogue XLR and RCA outputs, a fixed/variable volume mode push button and the digital inputs. There’s AES/EBU on XLR; S/PDIF on two RCA, Toslink and USB for a total of five. There’s also a jack for the 12 VDC external power supply about which more anon.

As soon as power is applied, the rather large ¾"/19mm lime-green seven-segment four-digit display looms into view. The indicators appear to float against a jet-black background for a nice effect. Once again it’s plain but visually engaging and the high contrast of green on black makes the indicators easy to read from across the room. The display is full brightness only when making selections, then drops automatically to a much lower level after a short delay.