Black by Bel Canto

Bel Canto, Minnesota’s manufacturer of quality hifi equipment has kicked its already wonderful digital line up a notch with ‘Black’. Black is a deceptively simple digital/amplification solution for your high end needs — described by Bel Canto as: ‘elegant simplicity. Three boxes. Two connections. One coveted musical result.’

I’m not usually a fan of ‘closed’ high end systems, but Black will cover all of your digital/amplification needs for some time to come. Bel Canto usually provides an upgrade path, too, should your needs change. With Black, I’m not sure it will. Every digital and analog outcome has been covered. Sure, it can be as simple to use as you like, but there is some head spinning complexity in the delivery. 

The précis: ‘Black is a highly-tuned, highly-optimized audio system with more than a dozen proprietary designs and circuits that ensure near perfect signal transfer from any input to the loudspeaker. Only a proprietary StreamLink fiber cable is needed from the Asynchronous Controller to Black’s Mono PowerStream Chassis. Add a pair of speaker cables, and Black is ready.’

And with the delivery format taking a step sideways this year with streaming becoming the format of choice, you’ll be wanting a streamer of the highest quality. But if you still have a stack of CDs, LPs or digital downloads, no worries. Black can do it all.

Black consists of three boxes — the ASC1 (Asynchronous Stream Controller) and two MPS1s (Mono Block Power Streams). The ASC1 is a magic box that can dance to anything digital (and includes an ‘analog in’ — more about that, later).

The MPS1 is much more than a mono block amplifier. It includes a ULN Master Clock with Asynchronous Interface which: ‘When the signal arrives at the PowerStream Mono Blocks a final Asynchronous ULN Master Clock controlled circuit re-times the digital signal before converting it to analog.’ There’s even an AC Pre-conditioning and Power Filter Stage. In short, Black is a staggeringly well made audio system designed with care and with a serious eye on the digital horizon.

The heart of the system is the ASC1 (Asynchronous Stream Controller). All boxes are solid billet aluminum chassis’ and look sleek and sophisticated. A bright red LED display on the ASC1 tells you the digital information you need to know. Inside the box are proprietary designs such as ULN Master Clocks, StreamLink ST Fiber Inputs and Outputs, Custom Time Optimized FIR Filters, Dedicated Asynchronous Processor Core, Custom USB2.0 Asynchronous Processor Core, Blackfin Ethernet UPnP Asynchronous Processor Core, and Asynchronous AES/SPDIF Interface Architecture. Many months of research and development went into making the Black the most advanced digital system on the planet.

The Black System can be controlled by the ASC1’s control wheel atop the unit or a custom metal IR remote. It can also be controlled by iOS and Android apps. The system accepts 9 inputs including Ethernet UPnP/DLNA, Streaming up to 24/192, PCM and DSD.

As for the MPS1s (Mono Block Power Streams)? I have not been a fan of Class D amplifiers. I love the compactness, the power — all the good stuff — but many have left me emotionally cold and distant. That has been changing over the past few years as designers have become more familiar with the technology and how to get the best out of it. No such fears with the MPS1s. The amplification sounds like the best in solid state — a ton of reserve power but with detail, musical flesh and bone. It was so good, it reminded of the Burmester 911 Mk. II, a monster of pure solid state and my non-tube benchmark. High praise. And both PowerStream Mono Blocks precisely mirror the ASC1 in form and hold the critical analog circuitry. When the signal arrives at the MPS1s yet another Asynchronous ULN Master Clock controlled circuit reclocks the digital signal before converting it to analogue.

Setup

Setup is idiot proof. You’ll spend far more time with speaker position and tweaking your turntable. Placement of the three boxes in a ventilated rack or on flat surface will do just fine. My Black system was in heavy rotation at shows and well broken in. Packaging is professional as you would expect from brilliant Bel Canto.

The StreamLink ST fiber cable links the ASC1 to both MPS1s. Bel Canto suggests ‘…this means perfect signal distribution: complete Galvanic Isolation, Zero Interference from ambient noise and zero noise radiation. This proprietary interface also means Black’s ASC1 can be located anywhere you like: from a few inches to meters away from the Mono Blocks with no loss in signal purity.’

Sound

I always find digital sound difficult to describe compared to tubes, where the varying topologies have their usually distinctive sound. Not with Black. The system’s sound was easy to describe. Every time.

I first heard Black at the Toronto Audio Show. The session was hosted by Michael McCormick of Bel Canto, a charming and erudite man who is a perfect front for this progressive company. Bel Canto does not shout, does not shill, does not blare. It designs outstanding digital devices in simple, Scandinavian–like boxes. Like a Volvo, nothing added, nothing deleted, and everything on it and in it directing the listener to the finest sound. Along with Magnepan and Audio Research, Minnesota’s best.

Bel Canto’s equipment get uniformly good reviews, and for obvious reasons. But the company has taken a bit of a gamble with Black. It’s a big step musically and digitally from their very best DACs to the complexity and sophistication of Black’s boxes. The advertisements stress the simplicity of use, and it is very easy to use, but there is a lot of proprietary design and aforethought that handle the signal so elegantly. Sure, it’s expensive, but you’re getting everything but the speakers and speaker cables. You have to pay to play — just like Bulgari and Bugatti, the pride of ownership will be palpable.

I listened to the Black system through my wonderful Raidho X-1 Loudspeakers, but also heard it on larger speakers from Vienna Acoustics and Focal. Each time, the clear, liquid beauty of Black shone, with the speakers out of the way, and for that matter, Black, too. What was evident from all well recorded digital sources was an incredibly low noise floor and a crystal view into the soul of the performances. Whether Tony Joe White (Homemade Ice Cream) singing his specific type of blues, Ann-Sophie Mutter playing Beethoven Violin Sonatas (DGG) or full orchestra, nothing fazed Black technically or musically.

Almost all but the very best equipment has some sort of tradeoff or compromise. I guess the big picture tradeoff here is ‘digital’, for those still against the topology. There’s certainly no compromise in Black’s digital DNA. I heard hours of loud orchestral music without any traces of glare or fatigue. Mutter’s incredibly emotional violin playing, which is only hinted at on many other systems, was unadorned. In fact, her playing was so scrutinized from within (in the very best way), did I hear a few very subtle errors? Yes, digitally, Black is a knockout. I’ve heard the best — dCS and Esoteric — and Black matches or exceeds both.

And for even more good news, it does vinyl right. I did not spend anywhere near as much time playing LPs (primarily a new CBS print of Rampal trying his hand at jazz in Bolling’s charming Suite for Flute and Jazz Trio and a 45 Classic Records of Reiner’s legendary Scheherazade) but the two LPs I did play sounded incredibly good.

I used a Bergmann Audio Signe turntable, which is an absolute stunner and Ron Sutherland’s 20/20 phono stage, so I did have the vinyl upper hand, but hell, what an insanely joyful noise. Everything I listen for from the very best analogue — presence, low noise floor, deep, accurate bass, the best mids in the business and a heavenly, sweet treble — were all there. The setup portrayed LPs in superb detail and with the most gorgeous hues. As such, Black’s analog in will enable those still madly in love with their LP rigs and collection.

Conclusion

Black is brilliant. Sure, Black is expensive (US$55,000). But you get a lot. Black is for your system now and in the future. I heard the most magnificent sounds conjured easily via its digital complexity. But for ham–fisted musicians like me, Black is as easy to use as plugging in a couple of wires and messing about with a remote control.

You should find a dealer and audition Black if you are thinking of upgrading your digital domain and/or amplification. The components are available separately, but I would not break up what is obviously a beautiful partnership. It’ll coddle you for many years to come and will give you the very best in digital sound. Certainly, the best digital sounding components I have heard in my many years of reviewing. Very highly recommended.

Further information: Bel Canto Design