This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad is displayed above

Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio; Hyperion Sound BEC-P25T; Eastern Electric M520

Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S; Canary Audio CA-308s; FirstWatt F3 & F1
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Mk 1.5 Pro version with Rane PEQ-55; Gallo Reference 3
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Zu Cable Varial and Ibis, Zu Cable Birth on Definitions; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber [on loan]; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners; Furutech Reference III interconnects and speaker cables [on review
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room

Review Component Retail: $1,695 PRe3 | $1,395 S-300

Certain brands have become favorites with our writers. For example, Marja & Henk, Jeff and yours truly own -- or until recently owned -- Avantgarde Duos. Linnmann in Hong Kong and moi own Zanden Audio's top-line digital separates. Stephæn, John and ye olde editor own or owned Art Audio amps. Stephæn and I listen to Zu speakers (with Les Turoczi rather seriously contemplating his Definition Pro review loaner pair for acquisition at present). Stephæn, Jim and Jeff own Omega loudspeakers. John and I own Gallo Ref 3.1s. Michael and Stephæn groove to (or used to) Cain & Cains. A number of moonies run their equipment off BTP balanced power conditioners (in Paul's case, the passive CPC version). Les and Chip dig on the mighty McCormack DNA-500. John and Michael run Audio Aero digital. Stephæn, myself -- and Paul if he can free up the funds -- settled on GPA stands. And so forth. This seemingly incestuous brand sharing is easily explained. Once you've identified audiophiles with similar tastes, their recommendations will top your list of upgrade options. If their prior recos become confirmed hits, you feel ever more confident to make future decisions nearly on faith alone. What goes for readers of reviews then also goes for reviewers. They keep tabs on each other's audiophile journeys and those who listen on the same wavelength often end up with similar or identical equipment.
Bel Canto Design is another "moon brand". Edgar Kramer in Australia, Mike Healey and John Potis own or owned BCD's DAC 1 or 2. John Potis bought Bel Canto's PRe2P (with phono stage) and a pair of e.One Ref 1000 monoblocks. Those svelte muscle amps replaced his beefy Bryston 7B STs. I've run my Gallo Ref 3.1 HT 2.0 system off a Bel Canto PRe2 and eVo4 for years. When John Stronczer recently inquired whether I'd trade my trusty two-stack for the newer PRe3 and S300, my ears pricked up. Money wise, I'd be downscaling. This new stuff is significantly cheaper than what it would replace. Size wise, I'd downscale as well. The two new pieces take up less space than just one of the old boxes. Weight wise, I'd downscale, too. Together, both new minis weigh far less than the massive toroid inside the older eVo4 alone. Even if I merely ended up with a sideways trade in the performance arena, my realsizing proclivities would have booked one huge score regardless.

However, it promised to get better yet. John Stronczer is adamant that his PRe3's sonic performance is identical to the PRe2 by using the same circuit architecture, albeit with less glamorous connectors and a simpler layout that eliminates the multiple output and menu naming options of the bigger piece. He is equally convinced that the Danish ICEpower engine inside the S300 dances at a more rarefied level than his tweaked-to-the-hilt 4th-gen Tripath motor of the eVo series. If true, that math would work a rather alluring charm on me. As a non-believer in surround sound, I could easily scrap the two spare bridgeable channels of the eVo4 without ever missing them. "Bring it on" said my terse e-mail to Stronczer. I nearly wrote "bling it on" to be funny but felt it wasn't a very good joke after all. No bling in these components whatsoever. That deserves some respect.

Les Turoczi of course has already penned the formal feature review on the S300. John Potis is set to do a comparative analysis of it against his Ref 1000s (a true pro bono gesture borne on enthusiasm seeing that John purchased the monos unheard for personal use and without any implied review obligation). I'll report on the PRe3/S300 combo and the PRe3 on its own since that hasn't been reviewed in these pages yet. However, don't expect any serious comparisons between new versus old stack. The elder brethren had to be returned to Minneapolis before the light infantry replacements could be dispatched. If anything in this context does strike me as dead obvious by way of unreliable audio memory, I'll mention it. Otherwise, I'll simply report on the new team on its own merit.

Though half-width petites, these newest members of the Bel Canto product family are very chunky. They sport far thicker than usual U-shaped bent-metal covers with a sheet of SoundCoat applied on the insides. Somebody at BCD believes in resonance control. Nicely rounded longitudinal edges add a discrete touch of class to the chassis. The facias are thick, with deeply engraved logos. Both components sport fully balanced paths and the amp in particular is said to be audibly superior when run from its XLR inputs.

As poster children for minimalist restraint, these components eschew redundant bells and whistles yet package their functionality as smartly as possible. The remote-equipped preamp lacks a conventional power switch. It combines volume, source selection and power up in a single rotary knob. Plugging in the power cord kicks the pre into standby, confirmed by the display with two horizontal dashes. Hold in the control and the pre awakens fully as shown in the upper right image. Once the relay clicks, the preamp automatically sets itself to a level of 50. Push the control briefly and enter input selection mode [lower right]. Turning the control left or right moves up or down the six inputs, then reverts back to volume mode on its own. Very clever, very intuitive, with volume levels progressing in 0.5dB increments from 0 to 100. The owner's manual informs us that the PRe3 utilizes 4-layer circuit boards for "superior signal and power supply routing and grounding."

Further, there's the "latest generation of low-noise, low-distortion high-speed audio buffers, level controls and output drivers with independent digital and analog transformers and multi-stage power supplies, precision audio-grade resistors and a capacitor-free signal path with an ultra low-noise second stage regulation for the analog amplifier section." Input 5 can be configured as a Home Theater bypass. The attenuator is digitally actuated but performs in the analog domain. From the designer's test bench, we get bandwidth of DC - 200kHz; unity gain at 80.0; S/N ratio of better than 105dB A-weighted, at 2V RMS full bandwidth; dynamic range of 120dB; input overload at 10V RMS (i.e. exceptionally high); and max gain of x 10 or 20dB (9.5V RMS). Dimensions are 8.5" W x 12.5" D x 3" H and weight is 10 lbs.

The 150/300wpc into 8/4 ohms stereo amplifier utilizes two ICEpower modules and confirms operational fitness with a small blue power LED front center. Voltage gain is 29dB and vanishingly low output impedance (< 8 milliohm @ 100Hz) makes for a claimed damping factor of better than 1000 into the usual 8-ohmish loudspeaker loads (which never sport linear impedances so actual damping factor varies with frequency). Dynamic range is given as 111dB, indicating exceptionally low self noise behavior. 1.5V RMS input voltage equates to full output. Sized identically to the PRe3, the switch-mode powered amp sans the usual power transformer is actually one pound lighter than the pre. That's novel.

The shrouded speaker terminals sport the obligatory angled Euro spade slots that many Yankee audiophiles love to hate. Unless you employ unbecoming anacondas with über-sized connectors, however, you should be just fine. "Back to the sensible" seems the battle cry that's embodied in these components - sleek, small, affordable, purportedly true high-performance contenders. Needless to say, judgment on that latter proposition is still outstanding until listening commences.

But on the aesthetics, build, feature and price front, these lightweight toys are heavyweight sluggers already. If this $3,090 combo does keep the pace with my older iterations (the PRe2 sans phono clocked in at $3,490 by itself; the eVo4 was $3,900 in its day, the 2-channel version $3,290) by not only cramming in equivalent or, as claimed, perhaps even superior performance into half the width and at less than half the cash ... well, by golly and gee whiz, Bel Canto must have just joined my personal crusade of realsization.

More for a lot less? Let's find out what truly gives once I've settled into my new crib in Cyprus.