Q&A with John Stronczer of Bel Canto Design

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio
Q&A with John Stronczer of Bel Canto Design

What ignited your interest in the high end? Did it come from the music side or the electronics side?
It may seem counterintuitive for an electrical engineer, but my high-end audio interest has always been based on a love of music. It is my passion for engineering that motivates me to develop better electronics that improve the listening experiences and how we live with audio.

What gear made up your first high-end system? 
After graduating from the University of Minnesota, I worked with a local dealer to purchase a Mark Levinson ML11/12 amp/preamp, Spendor SP1s, and a Denon DP80 in a VPI base with a Souther ’arm and Koetsu Black cartridge. It was the first big investment made after college, priority in check!

When did audio develop from a hobby to a career?
I worked in advanced semiconductor research and design (DARPA programs) at Honeywell Research for the first 10 years of my career. Around 1986 I designed my first 20-watt 845 single-ended triode amplifier, calling it my “physics experiment” that powered my Spendors for many years until I went off the deep end with my custom Altec horn speakers. In the early 1990s the Honeywell Research center was undergoing a reorganization and my wife had just started a tenure position at Southwest Michigan. This was my opportunity to take a chance on something I was very passionate about, and now looking back it’s hard to believe that was over 25 years ago.

What education did you receive?
I finished my BS in Electrical Engineering in 1983. My primary focus was in analog design. This set me up well for my early audio design work but lately I find myself acting more as a system architect, coordinating the complex digital and analog designs that make up a modern audio system. I am very glad to have the analog design foundation, as the most critical issues surrounding digital audio design still have their roots in the analog domain.

How do you define the difference between hi-fi and high-end audio?
Hi-fi meets certain specifications for noise, distortion, bandwidth or power. High-end audio goes beyond the simple specifications to encompass the feeling, impact, and emotion of the musical presentation. Specification and measurement are important to ensure a design is working as expected, but the final arbiter for musical performance comes from informed listening.

Analog or digital? Do you have a personal listening preference?
I enjoy both analog and digital sources through the Bel Canto Black system. I stream Tidal or Qobuz when I want to experience a large variety of content or discover new music, and LP playback on my Micro-Seiki turntable when I’m in the mood, usually listening to the complete album or comparing recordings. I feel it’s the best of both worlds, each source communicates the musical expression in a very compelling way and when you add MQA to the mix it’s a new experience.

What interesting fact or aspect about Bel Canto might surprise audiophiles?
The fact that a DAC was our first commercial product. Our design focus was primarily on an effective jitter-filtration system and a low-noise master clock. Both issues are still relevant for digital audio today with our latest ultra-low-noise master clocks and asynchronous jitter rejection techniques bringing uncompromised sonics to the digital domain.

Looking towards the future, how will high-end systems change in the next ten years or so?
Integrated electronics offer more performance and features, both single chassis and in speaker systems. I also see DSP becoming more prevalent for transparent subtle tone controls and room correction to optimize in-room sound quality.

Going forward, what are the greatest challenges confronting the high end?
Living with music began for me with my parents’ old Zenith console. I grew up listening to music; it was always on in the house and that remains the same in my home today. Our biggest challenge is staying relevant to a younger market; high end will always be a niche proposition so how we build pathways into high end is critical. Most of us didn’t start with our dream audio system; it is a process, possibly never ending, but still a process.

Outside of audio, what do you do for fun? 
Live music concerts, jazz, classical, and a bit of opera. Also, I enjoy getting on a bicycle regularly, playing a little jazz piano, and traveling with my wife.

What inspires you about your work?
I keep coming back to the music and the satisfaction of experiencing an emotional connection to the recorded event. Also, I have never enjoyed music in the home more than through my exploration of the myriad options offered by Tidal/MQA, Qobuz, and even Internet Radio like FIP from Radio France. Streaming pulls you in and along a path to discover more music.