DACs have made a huge comeback. With the advent of music servers and computer file delivery, a good quality DAC with USB support is now the most invited piece of kit to the cool audiophile party.
In truth, DACs have never gone away. The very best companies made them and then, almost immediately, had to produce a matching anti jitter ‘clock’ to make them work at their best. Why leave all the goodies in the CD player when you can make another box and up sell? Uber high end companies like dCS and Esoteric made these boxes work at digital’s delightful best. Other companies, without the same designer clout, muddied the already dirty digital lake. Then, came the iPod and the headphone. Mobile became hot, and young audiophiles (and a few old ones) wanted to improve the sound of the smaller devices. The Renaissance of headphone amps and small, inexpensive DACS has been instructive and eye opening to much of the audiophile community.
My good friend, and much published reviewer, Mike Mercer, dragged me kicking and screaming into this new frontier during our times at Rocky Mountain’s CanJam. For that, I’ll always be grateful. For sure, there were a lot of cheap and cheerful DACs that made earbuds sound better, but the best made good quality headphones truly sing.
Audiophiles now have the benefit of large storage, low noise music servers and need an outboard USB DAC of quality to match the ease of use and enhance the sound. The result is a veritable flood of new DACs from many legacy companies, like bel canto.
The 2.5 is bel canto’s sweet spot DAC, between the DAC1.5 and DAC3.5VB MKII. I’ve been an admirer of the house style and signature sound of bel canto and the company’s longevity in this fickle and tough business. Recently, I was lucky to review the splendid Antipodes DS1 music server — I wanted to match the server with a DAC of comparable quality and price. This ‘price matching’ turned out to be very fortuitous.
These numbers look impressive, but how do they present in sound? Interestingly, the 2.5 has no sonic signature, which, for digital, is a good thing. You get a totally black background, one where the music exists in its own space and time. No digital editorial as with so many lesser DACS and CD players.
The distributor loaned me the very highly regarded bel canto uLink Asynchronous USB with Ultra-Low Phase Noise Clock to help with the computer/iPad in conjunction with the DAC2.5 As I mentioned earlier, I had the low noise, Antipodes DS1 shackled to the 2.5. Musically, they were in a very happy marriage. I decided not to rock the boat. I’ll ad the uLink another time and report back. I did not use the headphone section of the DAC. I’m sure it matches the excellence of the digital and analogue sections. If so, Mike Mercer should get his hands on one. His beloved Audeze headphones may well sing the sweetest with bel canto.
It’s a wonderful thing that audiophiles can use the DAC2.5 as a preamplifier. Fewer boxes must be good, right? This review was completed in the majority with the DAC also acting as preamp. I found it exemplary and would recommend you audition it this way. Please read the detailed paperwork carefully, though, before setting up. ‘IMPORTANT: If using the DAC2.5 directly into a power amplifier, ensure that the Fixed/Variable Output button is in the OUT (variable) position. Operation in Fixed Mode directly into the amplifier could cause extreme output levels, clipping and damage to the loudspeakers, amplifiers or your ears!’.
With the 10000 tracks loaded onto the Antipodes DS1 Music Server, I was ready for some marathon sessions. I’ve not done so much listening since a Clearaudio Titanium cartridge was in the house a few years ago. On a slow day, I average two hours. I was down in the music studio for many hours at a time. The bel canto and Antipodes combination almost made the time space continuum stop. Audio heaven. And, they both played so beautifully with the Chario Academy S Sovran loudspeakers, which helped in the ignorance of time passing.
Effective dynamics and crystal clarity are two audiophile requirements that one notices immediately when the kit is warmed up (the manual suggests leaving the DAC powered on at all times — the ‘plastic fantastic’ remote control allows for display dimming). But, that would be telling only half the story. For sure, these two tenets are very important, but do the notes have flesh and blood? That’s an easy ‘yes’.
As the Antipodes DS1 server review was put to bed, along came the Brilliant Classics 16 CD Purcell Collection box set for review. After I ripped the CDs to the server, I played the set almost completely through over two days. Do you know Purcell’s music? England’s greatest composer and thought by many to be the equal of Bach and Handel. If not, grab ‘Essential Purcell‘ while it’s available. However, this Brilliant Classics set (including stunning performances and recordings to never less than good) made for an interesting test for the bel canto.
The most difficult sounds/reflections to record accurately are piano imaging (transient and decay), soprano chest tones and french horn (the conical bore and its overtones make it a killer for crappy mic setups). Add countertenor. Basically, a guy singing chest tones in falsetto. You’d think falsetto would be primarily head tones, but Michael Chance rips a few chest tones in a couple of Purcell songs so powerfully that I thought he was coming through the speakers. All held fast. I can guarantee that weaker components in the chain would have failed this difficult test. In fact, the original Hyperion recording (the Purcell Collection CDs are reissues from other companies whose rights now belong to Brilliant Classics) did max out the headroom a smidgen, caught in clear relief by the unflappable bel canto.
Sure, the 2.5 can replicate real life dynamics and pass torture tests with fantastic clarity, but Chance’s gorgeously expressive voice had this musician reaching for the Kleenex. The bel canto does emotion. Brilliantly. And that’s the trick. So many digital devices do slam, micro dynamics, bass and clarity, but miss the emotion. It’s scrubbed clean. Are you listening, Class D amplifiers? For all the music I listened to, the 2.5 simply got out of the way.
My favourite performance in the Brilliant box set is Purcell’s music drama, King Arthur. The famous ‘Frost Music’ is a series of songs and ritornellos at the beginning of Act 3 that will remind you of the stunning musical painting of Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons. You know the part. Teeth chattering. Purcell’s ‘chattering’ is just as fascinating, effective and remarkably similar, except Purcell wrote it thirty years before Vivaldi’s famous work. Trevor Pinnock gets magical and chilly results from his English Concert (1999 recording, originally on Archiv). What I loved about the sound was the ‘resiny’ horsehair on the gut strings. Other systems in my house got the chill, not the bone. The bel canto made this sound jump to life — chill, frost, anticipation, and subtle harmonic changes. Harmonic ‘truth’ is a difficult concept with digital.
I’ve experienced digital done right. The Esoteric and dCS gear I’ve heard are knockouts. And crazy expensive. Got the dosh? Go ahead. You can’t beat them. But this bel canto DAC is less than 2K! It’s a lifetime DAC and worth twice the price. You won’t need anything else for a long time. And, you can sell your preamp to buy it!
I’ve heard about Bel Canto over the years but we never really bumped into each other. I’m glad we did. I’m looking forward to reviewing other Bel Canto products. In the here and now, this exceptional US$1,999 DAC will be staying in my system for a while. And, I’ll enjoy every minute with it. Very highly recommended.
Further information: Bel Canto Design