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Bel Canto E1X Integrated Amplifier

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.

Tech Tour
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.”

 

The E1X utilizes a multi-circuit board layout. Multiple processors reside on the AMiP board and control the USB, Ethernet, AES, SPDIF, TosLink and analog input functions, while a dedicated processor handles the MQA decode and rendering function, as well as the MQA-derived filters for PCM and DSD inputs. The processed and de-jittered digital signal from the AMiP board is sent to the HDRII DAC board through a proprietary interface. This HDRII board is driven from an isolated power supply that is shared with the third-generation Class D amplifier stage. According to designer Stronczer, “this isolates any digital noise from the multiple digital processors on the AMiP board from the critical digital-to-analog conversion core and the amplifier.”

The HDRII DAC board also includes its own asynchronous clock, re-timing using a locally located ultra-low-noise master clock. This and the AMiP board provide two series stages of jitter rejection for all sources. According to Stronczer, “the use of this two-stage re-timing process, isolated DAC core, and ultra-low-noise clocks are critical to the purity of sound from the E1X integrated.” 

The I/V (current-to-voltage converter) and voltage-gain stages both operate in full Class A mode. This includes the passive RC components, which are biased with constant DC current. All the architectural design choices were focused on avoiding unnecessary analog stages in order to preserve signal integrity. Toward this goal, the E1X uses a 32-bit digital control for volume and balance, in order to take full advantage of the >126dB dynamic range of the DAC core. The E1X’s architecture also allows Bel Canto to embed a powerful 32/64-bit DSP core for fully transparent implementation of useful controls such as tilt, bass EQ, and subwoofer crossover functionality, as well as any future DSP functions.

The switching output stage, which Bel Canto modifies, produces 180Wpc into 8 ohms, and 250Wpc into 4 ohms.

Setup
I used the E1X in two systems in my home. For the first month or two of operation, it was tethered to a pair of Elac Adante AF-61 loudspeakers (reviewed in Issue 290) and a pair of JL Audio Dominion d110 subwoofers (review in progress). A Vizio P-65 TV was connected via TosLink. The only external audio source was the Sony HAP-Z1ES player; everything else went directly to the E1X via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or hard-wired Ethernet. During the second part of my review I moved the E1X into my main system where it was connected to the Spatial X-2 loudspeakers (review in Issue 302) and a pair of JL Audio Fathom f112 subwoofers. Once more, the primary source was the E1X’s Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth inputs. Analog sources were my VPI TNT 3 with Graham 1.5 ’arm and Clearaudio Victory cart and VPI HW-19 with a Souther ’arm and Denon 103 with van den Hul stylus. Wiring was from Audience, Kimber, and Wireworld.

Initial setup was simple—connect all the necessary wires, download Bel Canto’s “Seek” app, put in the passwords for your Internet and streaming services, and you’re set to begin the fun part. Seek supports not only Tidal and Qobuz, but also will play files from your Dropbox, OneDrive, or iCloud Drive sources. For old-school radio fans, vTuner is also included in the E1X’s source options. The Seek app had no trouble finding all my local NAS files, as well as the Twonky media and Minim Sever apps on my NAS. 

The E1X’s built-in phono preamplifier has provisions for both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges. Adjustments allow for cartridge loading of 47k ohms for mm and 50, 100, 500, and 1000 ohms for mc. Gain is 70dB with RIAA accuracy of 0.25dB from 50Hz to 15kHz. All adjustments can be made from either the Bel Canto Seek app or the supplied remote control.

 

Ergonomics
After the initial setup, an E1X owner has several options for day-to-day use. If you are Roon subscriber, you will likely be using the Roon app to run a Roon core application on your main computer or properly configured NAS drive. The Roon Core app will “see” the E1X and you can designate it to be a Roon zone. If you are not a Roon devotee, you can use the Bel Canto app or even a third-party app such as mControl.

The E1X comes with a very solid remote control. My wife, who passes judgment on all things ergonomic, hated it, saying it was “too heavy.” While I enjoyed the opportunity to get in a few elbow crunches while listening to music, the “standard” remote could be considered too much of a good thing. Fortunately for those who hate heavy remote controls Bel Canto has a second option—a much lighter plastic-bodied remote that comes from an earlier Bel Canto model that uses the same codes. It got much higher marks from my wife. My only complaint is that it didn’t light up. So, heavy or light, Bel Canto has you covered.

While my wife was happy with the lighter second remote, I relied primarily on a Sony Experia tablet to control the E1X. I have Roon and the Bel Canto Seek apps installed on it, and except for the occasional “battery low” warning it worked without a hitch with both. If I did not have Roon, I could be quite content using Bel Canto’s Seek for control functions. No, it doesn’t have the rich metadata and search functions of Roon, but it does offer a well-designed and easy-to-navigate tool for day-to-day operations.

The headphone output on the front panel must be turned on via the “program” menu. At first, when I plugged in a headphone and got no output (and the loudspeakers did not automatically mute), I wondered if the headphone amplifier was defective. But a dive into the program mode revealed that the headphone output must be turned on! After that, I was rewarded with a serviceable headphone feed. It had enough drive and gain to mate well with my Beyer Dynamic DT-990 600-ohm headphones, which require a certain amount of push to sound optimal. The DT-990s sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them when tethered to the E1X. The same was not true of the 115dB-sensitive Empire Ears Zeus IEM. Even with the signal muted there was some hum and buzz from the headphone amp (which vanished when I went into the program mode and turned the amp off); so I would not recommend this combination, or any other 100dB+-sensitive earphone, with the E1X.

Sound
I’ve been writing about music and audio gear for over thirty years. During that time, I’ve been asked if I ever suffer from “writer’s block.” And while I’ve been very fortunate in that writer’s block has never been an issue for me, “reviewer’s block” occasionally has been. Let me explain.

I have four audio systems in my home (not counting portable and personal). The most-used system is undoubtably my nearfield desktop one. It is also hosts my Roon core; so it’s on 24/7. I listen, on average, for a couple of hours per day through it. My second-most-used system is my living room system that houses the Elac Andante loudspeakers. Almost every day it sees at least an hour of audio and video. My third system is the bedroom system run by a PS Audio Sprout II. Every night it lulls me to sleep. My fourth system is the main review system with the Spatial X-2s, which sometimes isn’t used for weeks at a time. So why is arguably my “best” system used the least? Because when I listen to it, I’m working and lately my “let’s get down to work” ethic has been somewhat affected by outside events. The ironic thing is that when I finally do kick myself downstairs and put on my reviewer’s propeller-beanie, listening always turns into a positive, powerful, and intensely musical experience. The main system is certainly not for background or “casual” listening.

Why have I revealed this failing to you? Because I was unusually hesitant to place the E1X in my main system. The reason for the reluctance was that I was putting a $8000 integrated amplifier into a system that had previously housed separate components that cost over twice as much—a $6750 Pass Labs X-150.8 power amplifier and a $5695 Mytek Manhattan II preamplifier/DAC. What if the E1X didn’t cut it? To find out would require buckling down for some serious auditioning.

 

After putting in multiple weeks of listening time, I came to the conclusion that the E1X is capable of producing sonics that were the equal of my current reference gear. My primary sources were digital files, either from Qobuz, Tidal, or my NAS drive. On these I found the E1X capable of producing a level of sonic quality that gave me little, if anything, to complain about. 

Beginning with the lowest frequencies, the E1X was able to retain all the sonic information I was hearing through my separate reference components. On difficult pop recordings that combine synth bass with electric bass, the E1X had no difficulty retaining all the tone, timbre, and texture of the instruments, while also preserving the individuality of each bass line. In addition, dynamic attack and transient response in the bass was every bit the equal of my references.

Tube fans often talk in glowing terms about their systems’ warm and natural midrange. The E1X delivers a more linear, uncolored, and still exceedingly musical presentation that avoids being overly romantic, while still retaining the musicality of the source. Also, there is an absence of additive electronic texture or noise riding along with the signal. All signals have noise, but through the E1X that noise is so far down in level that in a properly set-up system the E1X will be silent (no hiss or hums from the loudspeakers even with your ears next to the drivers), and the music will emerge from a space devoid of extraneous noise, so that all those “blacker-black” tonal colors can make their presence known.

I’m old (but not in audiophile years), and have some challenges when it comes to high-frequency perception. Nowadays I only get up to 13kHz, so any detailed discussion of extreme upper-frequency issues will not be done by me. But up to my own hearing limits the E1X produced smooth but incisive high-frequency response. All the weird little high-frequency whizzes and whirs in “What’s Become of the Baby” (from the latest high-def remaster using Plangent Process of the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun) were easy to hear through the idiosyncratic mix. 

I was especially impressed by the E1X’s ability to retain spatial and dimensional cues. Several years ago, I had the privilege of recording three members of the Punch Brothers band during a workshop at the Rockygrass Academy in Lyons, Colorado. The recording was done at 96/24 on a Marantz portable recorder fed from an Audio Technica stereo microphone. The recording not only captured the three players in a quasi-anechoic environment (outdoors), but also the other sounds around them. It is as an excellent tool for determining just how much of the original spatial information can come through a particular reproduction chain. Through the E1X system I was treated to all the spatial cues, laid out with precision. For instance, I could easily track the exact location of the delivery truck, thirty feet behind the players, as it made its way across the soundfield. 

Also, this recording preserves the most accurate sound of Gabe Witcher’s violin I’ve heard—with a presence and micro-dynamic drive that sound like a real violin in a real space. These micro-dynamics, unhindered by post-processing or additional microphones, give the recording a liveness that I rarely hear in a studio session. Subtle details, such as each musician’s breathing, can be heard (in some ways even felt) as the players work through their version of “St Ann’s Reel.” Through the E1X I never felt I had to strain or concentrate harder to hear into the performance—the information was just there for my enjoyment.

Switching over to more standard fare, I compared the phono input to two stand-alone phono preamps that I had on hand for reference, the Michael Yee PFE-1 and the Vincent PHO-500. With the Bel Canto’s two line-level analog inputs, as well as its dedicated phono input, I had all three front ends connected and available. After several hours of comparison, I was forced to conclude that the E1X’s internal phonostage was on a par with the two external ones. My favorite was the Michael Yee connected to the VPI TNT 3/Graham 1.5/Clearaudio Victory combination, which had a slightly more precise and articulate sense of space on some recordings. In background noise and hum the E1X’s phono section was excellent, and while the Michael Yee was a bit more incisive, the E1X’s overall performance was extremely close.

Summary
“Mid-priced” components have a hard time getting the respect they deserve. Budget-seekers see them as overpriced, while “passionate” audiophiles see them as too cheap. In the case of the Bel Canto E1X, both would be incorrect. The E1X is the least expensive and most fully-featured of all the components in Bel Canto’s Black line, and in every respect Bel Canto’s best value. It’s a high-performance piece of kit that delivers sonics on a par with a combination of reference components at double the cost.

If you have limited space to devote to electronics yet desire superlative sound and audio technology, the E1X can do that with style. Recommended.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Integrated amplifier with DAC and phonostage 
Power output: 180Wpc into 8 ohms, 250 Wpc into 4 ohms 
Analog inputs: Two line-level, one phono (switchable mm or mc)
Digital inputs: TosLink, coaxial SPDIF, AES/EBU, USB, Ethernet, Wi-Fi
Input impedance: 10k ohms RCA analog 
Headphone output power: 4.5V RMS, 32 ohm minimum load
Dimensions: 17.5″ x 3.25″ x 15.75″
Weight: 15 lbs. (6.8kg)
Price: $8000

Bel Canto Design
belcantodesign.com

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