The $750 Belles Soloist 3 preamp and $900 5 power amplifier from Power Modules embody the time-honored audiophile tradition of minimalist, no-nonsense electronics. Even their austere exteriors reflect a bottom-line mentality—that form should follow function, that it’s all about the sound. In that regard, I should preface this review by stating that my current reference system has attained a level of musicality and resolution that it’s never before approached. It has never been as revealing of even the smallest changes, any of which will skew its sonic equilibrium. This could be bad news for many modestly priced electronics. But, in fact, the Soloist Series separates were quite comfortable on this playing field. They were balanced and extended across the tonal spectrum, possessed little in the way of colorations, and when paired with a suitable speaker were dynamically quite lively. But first I had to get over my shock when I unpacked them.
For a reviewer whose expectations are calibrated to preamps and amplifiers that weigh at least half of what he does, you can imagine my disbelief upon first laying eyes on the tiny boxes containing the Belles Soloist separates. Unpacked, the Soloist 3 is a mere nine pounds; the 65Wpc Soloist 5 amplifier tips the scales at a featherlight fifteen. Not that Power Modules, the thirty-year-old company founded and run by designer David Belles, only makes electronics in miniature. Far from it. Belles has also designed the 350A Reference, a 250Wpc (500Wpc into 4 ohms) behemoth and various other Class A and Class AB designs in stereo and multichannel. The Soloist Series, however, is tailored for a specific niche. And that is for the home-theater/multichannel maven who might have pulled the trigger prematurely and ditched his stereo rig and now finds himself pining for the purity of two-channel but needs to keep it simple and small. Together, the Soloist 3 and 5 displace less room than a typical integrated amp.
The Soloist 3 preamp may be small, but it’s certainly well-dressed. It features Class A discrete-component circuitry, a home-theater bypass, and a fullfunction remote control. And “full-function” it needs to be because (oops) without it there’s no changing inputs from the front panel. (Keep some fresh batteries handy.)
Don’t be deceived by the small footprint. The Soloist 3 has no trouble laying down imposing sonic tracks. The preamp delivers easy-going midrange neutrality, solid low-frequency punch, and rich, honest timbres. The treble region has good extension, even if it’s not the last word in effortless bloom and air. The Soloist doesn’t editorialize the music or maneuver it in awkward directions. Rather, it tends to be subtly subtractive, lightly muting transparency and micro-dynamics and softening focus of low-level detail— fairly predictable shortcomings in this price range. An example would be Mary Chapin Carpenter’s title song Come On, Come On [Columbia], which is sung in the hushed whispers of a prayer and comes alive through the vibrancy and delicacy of Carpenter’s voice and of the acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment. In this instance there is a slight loss of the guitar body’s resonance and of the weight of the piano’s enclosure and soundboard. The Soloist 3 sometimes smears the lowest-level transient details, too, like the lightly struck single notes of the keyboard or the gentle tick of the guitarist’s flatpick. And then there’s the quirky whistle that Chapin-Carpenter inadvertently adds to the occasional sibilant, like the word “lose” at the end of the bridge of “Come On, Come On.” The Soloist couldn’t quite manage the extended burst of air hitting the microphone from this hard sibilant.
On the other hand, it does a solid job of soundstaging—width and depth are good, although the finer gradations of front-to-back layering and player placement are somewhat obscured, and height cues in large halls suggest a mild sense of a lower ceiling having descended over the stage. Taken on balance—and in spite of my incessant nitpicking—this was strong overall performance, more than commensurate with the Soloist 3’s modest price.
The Soloist 5 amplifier is the musical sweetheart of the pair, maintaining a strong yet mellow sense of midrange refinement even while it smooths out music’s rougher edges. It’s got a forgiving character and good soundstage dimensionality and depth. During the Marriner rendition of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella [Argo], it summoned forth a realistic volume of air from flutes and winds (superior in this respect to the Soloist 3 preamp). Massed strings, however, lacked the collective power and character that I’ve heard from this recording. What really caught me off guard was the terrific extension and resonant energy it reproduced during the trombone and double-bass duet. The transient “blat” of the trombone was especially rewarding and exemplified the nimble nature and control of the Soloist. When paired with the new Vienna Acoustics Haydn loudspeaker, it displayed firm control of the lower frequencies during Slatkin’s reading of Pictures at an Exhibition [Mobile Fidelity]. The resonant decay into the hall—largely based on low-frequency reproduction—wasn’t reproduced with as much detail as I know exists on this recording, but the Soloist 5 captured the hall’s flavor, nonetheless. (Note that since the Soloist 5 offers 65 watts a side, firm bass definition is going to depend on intelligent speaker selection. I’d imagine that a speaker with a sensitivity north of 88dB is probably where the Soloist will be happiest.)
Lateral soundstaging was excellent in all respects, and there was a good if not grand impression of depth. In terms of image focus the Soloist was superbly articulate. Elton John’s track “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy [Island SACD] is revealing of this. The ride cymbals and hi-hat are panned hard right and left, the cymbals splashing and flaring with increasing intensity as the song crescendos. A snare drum of legendary proportions fills the center stage when it enters midsong, and huge drum-fills thunder across the soundstage. With the Soloist, not an image felt out of place.