This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Although there’s no way to control the dimming of the front panel from the front panel, the display brightness is never bothersome even with minimal room illumination. From the remote just press the Display button to select an alternate mode in which the panel stays black except when the volume or inputs are changed—another nice creature feature.

Around and around it goes. The control knob works in mysterious ways*. Physically it’s not nearly as ergonomic as it looks unless one has rather tiny fingers, perhaps equipped with gecko-inspired nano hairs. Functionally it’s really quite clever although the somewhat limited description of its operation in the manual means that in the tradition of Isaac Newton, you’ll have to make observations and deduce the fine points of its operation on your own. Initially the operation of the knob flummoxed me. The presumably infallible manual said, ‘Pressing the control knob in briefly will toggle the input selection mode’. Nothing happened. But after a little trial and error it turned out that one does not press the knob briefly, one instead gives it a quick almost instantaneous tap. Now as one rotates the knob, up come the inputs ad seriatum, which are AES; SP1 and SP2; OP(tical) and USB. Except for the USB input which is limited to a sample rate of 96kHz, the other inputs handle up to 192kHz. All inputs accept 16 or 24 bit data.

* Owning the visually identical C5i integrated with the same knob, I think Nick needs to go out more. I found it perfectly intuitive and never once referred to the owner's manual to sift through its various menu options. - Ed

As one changes between tracks with differing sampling rates, the Bel Canto responds immediately, another example of its polished and refined nature. Other products, some much more expensive, seem to take their sweet time figuring out what the sampling rate is, or on occasion can’t figure it out at all. Another nice feature is that as one changes inputs, pops or ticks are minimal or non-existent: With amplifiers capable of putting out 1400 watts each, this is an important consideration. At power on there is a slight bump but its amplitude is low.

Using USB the hardware buffer length (as set in JRMC) is apparently limited to 250ms. Toslink and S/PDIF support 500ms. If USB and 500ms are selected, the media player will appear to be working normally but there won’t be any output until the buffer is set to 250ms or less. From the remote control one may also cycle through the available inputs with the CH/SCAN up and down or achieve random access by pressing, respectively, numerals 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. Once the concept of how this all works is understood, it’s very slick and easy to use. Offering three ways of changing the inputs reflects understanding of the fact that consumers have a range of user interface preferences. Inputs that are not active have a flashing decimal point prior to the first character of the acronym or the volume setting. As one changes inputs, the volume ramps down a ways and then ramps back up—yet another refined touch.

The black plastic remote has a comfortable tapered shape that’s narrower where it rests on one’s palm and broader closer to the fingers. Another function that’s likely to be used frequently is the mute button, which one presses to toggle between off, soft and hard. The soft mute drops the output level about 20dB, from for example an indicated 70 down to an actual 50. The hard mute chops it entirely. Going into hard mute creates a soft but harmless pop, possibly because my Technical Brain amplifiers were DC coupled.

Compared to the similarly priced Lavry DA-11 reviewed earlier, the Bel Canto has a clearly superior user interface. The Lavry’s phalanx of switches works to be sure but the Bel Canto’s functionality and aesthetics are better thought out and much easier to use. Integrating the DAC 1.5 with the rest of one’s system is quite simple. If there’s a downstream preamplifier or integrated amplifier one can match the DAC’s output to their gain structure. Assuming they have balanced inputs, a 2Vrms output from the DAC corresponds to a volume setting of 94; 4Vrms is 100 or 6dB higher. Once the appropriate maximum level is determined, depress the fixed/variable output level switch and everything is set. In this configuration the inputs may still be selected with the knob or remote but the volume level adjustment is no longer available except when using headphones.

With the fixed/variable switch out—the variable position which one would use for driving amplifiers or powered monitors directly with the DAC—a volume setting of 100 corresponds to 0dB of attenuation, 100 minus the number displayed is the dB down from 0dB. Given that all of my other digital gear uses the attenuation paradigm, it would be nice to have this option available on the DAC 1.5. The knob translates the motion of your hand in a somewhat unusual possibly quirky manner. This control is both level and rotation-rate sensitive. At levels above 50 a quick 360° rotation in either direction in say a second reduces or increases the level by about 6dB in 0.5dB steps. If the knob is rotated very slowly or in small steps the level doesn’t change nearly as much or at all - which was a little confusing. Volume steps are always 0.5dB regardless of rotational speed. At low levels the control becomes highly rotation-rate sensitive. A quick twirl of the dial will change the level by 20-30dB. This of course allows one to ramp the level up or down very quickly.

Plugging in your favorite headphones—I enjoyed the Ultrasone HFI-780s provided with custom Lux-FEP OCC cabling and plug by Ken Ball of 32Ohm Audio in Portland OR—immediately mutes the main outputs through a digital control rather than interrupting an analogue circuit. There’s a dedicated DC-coupled amp for the ‘phones without any intervening capacitors. Regardless of whether fixed or variable output is selected, with headphones the volume is always controlled by the knob or remote. If one needs channel balance or polarity reversal, these functions will have to be provided by a preamp or integrated amplifier. With respect to polarity the lack of a control is a bit unfortunate as the Bel Canto is quite capable of making the difference between normal and reversed polarity apparent.

Sonic foundations. How does it sound? Through the bi-amped KRK Rokit 8 monitors in my office, the Bel Canto and the LNS1 power supply deliver a rather pleasing presentation that certainly helps redefine what desktop listening can be. Using a laptop to drive the Bel Canto through its USB input, there’s a wide soundstage extending from speaker to speaker and for orchestral pieces the usual layout of the performers is apparent and correct. The timbre in the midrange is reasonably accurate, with the recorders of the Bach Harpsichord Concerto No. 6 Allegro conveying their hollow cylindrical nature. The violins are quite easy to take and lack any offensive steeliness or edginess. The bass and continuo parts are readily heard through the mix. There’s not much sense of graininess or other obvious digital artifacts. Although the high treble is rolled off, the triangles in pieces with energetic percussion parts—such as the "Act IV Overture" from Sullivan’s music for The Tempest, on a Reference Recordings high-resolution sampler—have a realistic coherent metallic tone and, wonder of wonders, some sense of action, primarily horizontally radiating through the soundstage. Deep bass extension is actually quite good with decent transients. Differentiation of the low notes is relatively limited but overall the musical foundations are in place.

There’s not much sense of air and the soundstage is limited vertically and shallow, with a limited amount of hall reverberation. But dynamics are good and the absence of compression that one often hears in this price range is a welcome relief. Wood blocks, flutes and horns along with subtle drum effects are surprisingly well preserved. While trumpets have a bit of an unnatural bite to them, the brass section definitely has snap and that most coveted of audio attributes, authentic blat! Speaking of which, the decadence, modernity and amiable vulgarity of Weill and Brecht’s Die Drei Groschen Oper overture from the same sampler come across in spades. This piece allows us to travel in time and glimpse through a musical portal, the Berlin gestalt of the late 1920s. Something about the music sends the message: This is all a little too easy. The transformation of Metropolis to Untergang is already well underway.