Reviewers in TAS are supposed to focus on sound quality and not on style and engineering. Fair enough, but if the sound quality is excellent in virtually every respect, then style and engineering should be given their due.
The Bel Canto Black EX DAC/control preamplifier and Black EX amplifier both provide outstanding sound. What makes them particularly striking, however, is that they also provide outstanding features and achieve this in exceptionally compact packages with equally exceptional styling. This makes for a welcome change in an era where having the largest box and shiniest front panel often seems to be a key design goal for power amplifiers, and where putting the elements of a high-end system into as many expensive containers as possible—with as many connecting wires as possible—seems to have equal priority in the design of front-end components.
The Bel Canto Black DAC/Control Preamplifier
The Bel Canto Black EX DAC/control preamplifier provides a particularly nice mix of functions and features, as it should for some $13,990. It combines an analog preamp, a phono preamp, and a DAC. It also makes it very easy to access and operate streaming services such as Tidal. In addition to being Roon-ready and offering full MQA decoding, the Black provides a full complement of digital inputs, an Ethernet connection, three RCA analog inputs, a headphone jack, XLR and RCA analog main outputs, as well as special provisions for using a subwoofer. All of this comes in a single slim box, weighing 25 pounds, that is built about as well as any piece of electronics I’ve seen.
The unit has a well-designed remote control that is simple to operate, and an app called Seek that allows you to control the preamp with an iOS device. Programming the unit for the very first time may force you to actually RTFM, but minimal patience and a quarter-hour of your life should leave you in total mastery of the Black EX DAC.
Programmable features include phono gain and cartridge loading, controls for integrating a subwoofer-based system, bass EQ to help fine-tune the low end, volume and phase controls, and firmware updates via Ethernet. You can let the DAC perform the MQA unfolding step rather than having Roon do it, which may slightly improve the resulting sound quality. You can also disable all DSP presets except sample-rate conversion. The unit supports DSD64 playback directly.
One additional control option that I was particularly impressed with may become a feature you’ll use far more often than you think. The Black EX DAC has a “tilt control” centered around 775Hz that tilts the entire frequency spectrum up or down relative to bass or treble in 0.6dB increments. This tilt control is similar to the one that Quad pioneered more decades ago than I can care to remember, and the version in the Black DAC is outstanding. Just a touch or two can open up the sound with extra air or life, or restore warmth and bass energy. It not only can help reduce room and component sound problems; it can also often correct for problems in the timbre of a given recording.
As for providing all of this technology in one moderately sized unit, I asked John Stronczer—Bel Canto’s chief engineer—to put together a layman’s summary of this aspect of the Black EX DAC and to directly link his discussion of the unit’s technology to its impact on its sound quality. His response in the sidebar to this review will give you a much clearer picture of how Bel Canto has been able to provide so much in one box.
Three points about operating the unit: First, you probably won’t be able to guess your way into a proper setup without actually reading the manual. If you accept the fact that RTFM is sometimes useful advice, however, and do carefully read the manual’s programming section before you attempt a setup, you’ll find the Black is truly easy to program and use.
Second, the Bel Canto has no XLR audio inputs. If you hear any hum or noise it will almost certainly be a ground-loop problem—an issue that audiophiles who rely on XLR and optical cables have largely forgotten. For me, this hum and noise only occurred when I hooked up the Black EX DAC to some older AV electronics, and the problem vanished when I fitted a ground lifter to the AC plug of the problem component, or ensured that all electronics drew on the same AC socket for power.
Finally, the built-in phono preamp is quite good sonically, though I did hear some noise with very-low-output/high-load-impedance moving-iron cartridges. I did not hear this noise as audibly with higher-output cartridges or ones with loads well below 47k ohms. In any case, hearing some noise was often worth it because of the Bel Canto’s exceptional sound quality overall.