During my years at The Absolute Sound I’ve often had manufacturers approach me, after a review was published, to offer their “next generation” product for evaluation. I usually demur and point them toward a different reviewer for their newest devices. Why do I do that? The answer is simple: I don’t wish to fall into the trap of being “the guy who reviews all the product from XYZ.” Too much of one particular manufacturer’s product is not a good thing for a reviewer, since it tends to turn them into a fan instead of a journalist.
Having said that upfront, I admit that I have reviewed a number of products from Bel Canto, starting way back with its first generation of switching amplifiers, the EVO-1 and EVO-2, well over twenty years ago. Since then I’ve reviewed the company’s 300S stereo amp, 300M monoblocks, 1000M monoblocks, and, most recently, REF600M monoblock. I’ve also reviewed several of Bel Canto’s DACs over the years, with the 3.5 being the latest.
While I have reviewed a goodly amount of Bel Canto gear, there have also been multi-year gaps when I didn’t have any Bel Canto in my systems. However, my familiarity with the company’s products has, I hope, given me some perspective on the progress and growth of its technology.
The $8000, 180Wpc E1X is the first integrated amplifier I‘ve looked at from Bel Canto. It combines principal designer John Stronzcer’s ideas not only on power amplification, but also on analog and digital circuitry. Its sleek exterior encompasses an extraordinary amount of state-of-the-art technology. Let’s dig into it.
According to Stronczer, “the E1X integrated shares its architectural approach with our Black system. We use a unique architecture, combining asynchronous interface re-timing, ultra-low-noise master clocks, 32/64-bit DSP, and proprietary digital link technologies to achieve superior analog performance.”
The architecture of the E1X starts with Bel Canto’s asynchronous multi-input processor (AMiP) board. It’s fed from its own dedicated linear DC power supply. This AMiP board contains the digital and analog input interfaces as well as a pair of ultra-low-noise master clocks that re-time the digital data. The analog inputs are all digitized to 24/192 via a high-dynamic-range ADC located within centimeters of the analog inputs. John Stronczer says that “all audio signals travel through the same digital path and benefit from the advantages of our unique system architecture.” For some audiophiles the very idea of digitizing their analog sources would be blasphemy. But unlike many designers, who keep an analog signal “all-analog,” Stronczer’s design philosophy is strikingly different.
Another idea in the E1X flies in the face of current thinking. Many designers feel that any device using something other than the newest and most powerful DAC chip must be inherently inferior. Stronczer doesn’t. He states that “our top products are based on the [venerable] PCM1792A 130dB-dynamic-range, current-output DAC. This is an inherently high-performance and musical DAC whose performance we have refined over 15+ years. While newer DAC technologies have come along, none has provided the ultimate performance and unique analog characteristics of the PCM1792A. Continually refining the circuitry, design, and parts choices surrounding this DAC core has resulted in highly dynamic and musically revealing performance.”