The Bel Canto Black EX Amplifier
The Bel Canto Black EX amplifier is far simpler in setup and operating features than the EX DAC although you must check the switches in the rear to make sure they are set for the right input, and be aware that the operating color for the front panel light is red, not green. What makes the Black EX amplifier special is not its feature set, but its ability to deliver so much power in such a reasonably sized unit, to do so with such high sound quality, and to justify a price of $11,990.
The Bel Canto is rated at a maximum power of 350 watts per channel into 8 ohms, and 700 watts into 4 ohms before it reaches 1% THD, with vanishingly low harmonic distortion, intermodulation distortion, and noise at any rational level. The EX can handle minimum loads as low as 2 ohms, provide peak output current of up to 27 amperes, and has a damping factor higher than 500, which can be critical to properly controlling certain speakers. Bel Canto indicates that this performance is maintained from 0Hz to 50kHz, at all loads.
Many audiophiles—and I include myself—tend to discount such specifications. I was particularly cautious because John Stronczer’s sidebar made it clear that the EX amplifier uses Class D technology—which I’ve not always found provides particularly good sound. The specified power and performance seemed too good for an amp no bigger than the Black EX DAC, and that weighs just 25 pounds. As the following section on sound quality makes clear, however, this is a case where the unit fully lives up to its hype.
Packing so many features into the Bel Canto Black EX DAC, and so much power into the limited size and weight of the Black EX amplifier, only made me wonder whether their performance would live up to Bel Canto’s claims. Once I did actually push these units to their limits in my reference system, it did not take much listening to confirm that that both these Bel Canto components have excellent sound quality, doing an outstanding job of revealing the details of even the most complex musical passages and the most demanding dynamic contrasts.
The Bel Canto Black EX DAC has two key sound characteristics that represent the best in current digital design. First, its extensive use of digital processing does not add any hint of digital hardness or edge to the music (beyond what’s in the original recording). Second, the unit reveals the exceptional quality of the best new high-resolution recordings, but also shows that older digital recordings and standard CDs have much better sound quality than could be heard through earlier generations of DACs.
The performance of Black EX amplifier is equally good. It proved yet again that the way in which a given technology is executed—along with its quality of design, parts, and construction—is more important than differences such as class of operation, output devices such as solid-state or tube, or the type of tube or semiconductor being used.
In practice, the sound quality of the Bel Canto units simultaneously made them at once easy and difficult to review. Beyond a given point, transparency and neutrality make it hard to criticize today’s best electronics, and I have never been a fan of gear that alters the sound in some special or euphonic way.
One of the things I demand from any modern preamp and amplifier—and increasingly from the best streamers and DACs—is that they be neutral enough that I can clearly hear the familiar colorations of my front-end devices, my reference speakers and their room interactions, and the character of my speaker cables and interconnects.
Don’t get me wrong. Blending in the right mix of coloration and voicing of given components is something that none of us can avoid dealing with. But there is little reason to have to focus on excessive nuances and colorations in components that should have less “personality” than other kinds of gear.
Both the Black EX DAC and the Black EX amplifier passed this excess-coloration test with, uh, flying colors. Moreover, pushing the Black EX amplifier to levels higher than I was prepared to listen at for more than a few minutes showed it stayed neutral at very high volumes, even when I repeated the same demanding track for several hours and only listened briefly to hear if there were differences in the presentation.
As I’ll point out in a moment, the Bel Canto pair still had some minor nuances and colorations, but they were clearly dominated by those of the other components in my system. I couldn’t fault the Bel Canto pair’s performance in every meaningful measure of sound quality. They were neutral in timbre and handled every level of dynamics from low to high equally well, regardless of whether the music was a sonata, an opera, or a symphony. The soundstage was as good as the music, my speakers, and my room permitted. There was no area of sonic emphasis that exaggerated some aspect of the music, and there was no apparent loss of musical information either. Voices, upper strings, organ spectaculars, and low-level musical details were all handled with equal ease.
If there was any residual coloration or voicing in both units it lay in three areas.