• Bel Canto Design DAC 1.5 e.One Processor Review

    Pleasantly surprised right from the first note is one way to describe my time with the Bel Canto Design DAC 1.5. I was initially drawn to the DAC 1.5 because of its price ($1,395) and features. I wasn't sure what to expect sonically from the least expensive DAC in the Bel Canto Design lineup. What I heard was very good. Comparing the DAC 1.5 to a very popular product in this competitive market segment lead me to place it on the Computer Audiophile C.A.S.H. Listlink immediately. DACs of this ilk must be good to survive the onslaught of Internet chatter, reviews, and endless comparisons. The Bel Canto Design DAC 1.5 is clearly the best value in the Bel Canto DAC lineup. This DAC worked very well in my system whether connected to Windows, OS X, or Linux music servers. Plus the characteristic that matters most to me, sound quality, was the real standout. It's tough to beat a value like the DAC 1.5, that works well, and sounds this good.


    The Best Value In The Bel Canto LIneup

    The new Bel Canto e.One series includes three processors, or DACs as they're frequently called, the DAC 1.5 ($1,395), 2.5 ($1,995), and 3.5VB ($3,495). Not surprisingly the cost and performance increases as the numerical name of the DAC increases. Bel Canto's John Stronczer first introduced me to what would become the new series of x.5 DACs while visiting him at Bel Canto's headquarterslink in Minneapolis, MN. This visit to Bel Canto was over one year ago. I simply do not remember what model of DAC I heard and saw during the visit. I was impressed by John's no nonsense engineering approach to component design. Being the engineer that John is he had to mention the name Nyquistlink at some point in our discussion about computer based sources and high resolution audio. As our conversation continued John and I discussed the importance of clocking and the unfortunate fact that everything matters when it comes to high performance audio. I say unfortunate because life would be so much easier and less expensive if components were simple to design and all internal components were commodities. The reason I mention my conversation with John Stronczer is because readers should know as much about a company as they do its products before spending hard earned money. Purchasing an audio component is much more than a simple add-to-cart process. Bel Canto's products are driven by solid engineering principles and are backed by a great group of people.

    Coming in at $1,395 the DAC 1.5 is the best value in the entire Bel Canto lineup and one of the best values in high end DACs. Best value does not equate to the most inputs, highest sample rates, or anything else that goes along with the misleading numbers game. Best value to me means the product as a whole, including the company designing and supporting the product, has the best price to performance ratio. That said if the product doesn't sound good it doesn't matter a bit if the company is great and giving the product away for free. I don't think any audiophile, myself included, would happily listen to a substandard product while enjoying the comfort of a well supported product from a great company. Hopefully my point has been made. Performance is king, but all things matter.

    The DAC 1.5 is going to make some armchair engineers uneasy. It sports an adaptive USB interface as opposed to asynchronous USB. Some of these armchair engineers consider adaptive USB a nonstarter and rule out the possibility of a very good sounding adaptive USB DAC before they finish reading the spec sheet. While we're at it I might as well mention the DAC 1.5 ships with a switch mode power supply. I can see the spec sheet buyers running for the exits right now. Bel Canto has developed its Virtual Battery technology with the goal of bettering the standard linear power supplies. BC uses switch mode supplies even in its VBS1 virtual battery unit. This enables Bel Canto to lower the audio band noise and move low frequency noise to very high frequencies where it can be easily filtered. The DAC 1.5 does not feature all the benefits of the full VBS1 power supply but some critical VB technology was implemented in the DAC 1.5. The biggest differences between the DAC 1.5 and it's more expensive siblings is the increased technology and performance put into the power supplies of the other units.

    Bel Canto designed the DAC 1.5 and 2.5 with the Burr Brown PCM1796 DAC chips. The DAC 3.5VBS includes the BB PCM1792. This PCM1796 chip achieves 122dB dynamic range in the DAC 1.5. The 1.5 has a very successful implementation of ASRC (Asynchronous Sample Rate Conversion) for jitter rejection. The filter and digital PLL combat jitter starting at 2Hz with a rejection of over 80dB by 100Hz. All of the new x.5 DACs feature the Master Reference Ultra Clock™ that enables designers this level of filtration and low jitter clocking.

    Computer audiophiles can interface with the DAC 1.5 four different ways each galvanically isolated from the computer. The first three inputs AES/EBU, electrical S/PDIF x 2, and optical S/PDIF support all sample rates from 16/44.1 kHz through 24/192 kHz. The fourth input is USB which supports 16 and 24 bit files at 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 kHz. It's important to note the ability to send audio to any input is dependent on the source computer and the DAC interface. For example a Mac computer can easily send audio out a USB port to the DAC 1.5 at 24/96 or 24/88.2. The built-in optical port on all Macs may not be able to send audio at 24/88.2 and will unequivocally not be able to send audio above 24/96 while running the Mac OS X operating system. 24/88.2 support on Macs depends on the vintage of the hardware. Readers can easily discern the capability of their Macs by entering Audio Midi Setup, selecting Built-in Output on the left, and selecting the down arrow next to Format on the right side. All supported sample rates will be listed in the drop-down box whether or not a DAC is connected. On the output side of the 13 lbs. (8.5” W x 12.5” D x 3.5” H) chassis the DAC 1.5 offers single ended RCA and balanced XLR connections. Like all Bel Canto components the DAC 1.5's build quality is very good. The flawless faceplate and smooth multi-function control knob are very refined. Readers in favor of a black faceplatelink should contact their dealers to inquire about availability.

    bel-canto-dac-1.5-remoteOne of the more sought after features in DACs right now is volume control. The DAC 1.5 features a .5 dB step digital volume control. This allows the user to bypass a preamp and extra set of cables to connect directly to a power amplifier. All audio systems perform differently. I highly recommend trying the DAC 1.5 with and without a preamp. The DAC 1.5's included remote control is capable of far more than most DAC remote controls. Users with additional Bel Canto components should be able to operate all of them with this single remote. The most critical functions on the remote (for me), input select and volume control, are simple to use prominently featured at the top of the handheld device.

    The DAC 1.5 certainly boasts a plethora of features with the absence of a high performance price tag. These features alone are not solely responsible for this DAC's placement on the C.A.S.H. Listlink or its position as the best value in the Bel Canto lineup. The DAC 1.5's very good sonic qualities are what really separates it from some competitors and make it a true value.


    The DAC 1.5 In Use

    Working well may sound like a given for audio components but I assure CA readers this is not often the case. A simple search of the CA forum will reveal many examples of DAC related frustrations. I'm not completely against DACs requiring software/drivers. The fact is DACs that require driver installation have issues where driverless DACs do not. Period. The DAC 1.5's driverless USB implementation is plug n' play every single time without question. Whether connected to Windows 7 or Mac OS X 10.6.7 the DAC 1.5 simply worked very well.

    In my system the DAC 1.5 was connected directly to my McIntosh MC275 power amp via Balanced (XLR) cables. Bypassing a preamp required me to enable the variable output via a button on the rear of the unit. The other button setting is for fixed output and is used when the DAC 1.5 is connected to a preamp that handles the volume control. Connecting straight to my power amp has worked well in my system with the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC, Weiss DAC202, and dCS Debussy. All of this could easily change if in the future I insert a preamp that improves the sound. It hasn't happened yet, but I won't rule it out.

    The two main computers used with the DAC 1.5 were a C.A.P.S. Serverlink and a Mac Pro. The C.A.P.S. server is a minimal Windows 7 solid state fanless design capable of outputting via USB, electrical S/PDIF (coaxial), and AES/EBU. The only Windows based consumer application I used was J River Media Center version 16. I set the Audio Output Mode to WASAPI - Event Style to remove an unreliable Microsoft layer and allow for a more direct data path to the driver / hardware. The WASAPI - Event Style hardware buffer size was set to 100 milliseconds. When outputting AES/EBU I used a Mykerinos audio card and Pyramix software. This configuration is not for the faint of heart. The Mac Pro is running OX S 10.6.7 and has four spinning 1TB disks at the moment. Applications used on the Mac include Amarra, Pure Music, Fidelia, and Audirvana. Most files were pulled from a Thecus or Synology NAS in either FLAC or AIFF format. Files played through Pyramix software were loaded on the local solid state drive. All music played through the DAC 1.5 was output as a bit perfect audio stream from each computer.

    Control of music playback was done via Apple's Remote iPhone/iPad application, Audiofile Engineering's Fidelia Remote iPhone app, Apple's Screen Sharing, Digibit's Bit Remote, and Microsoft's Remote Desktop.


    If It Sounds Good, It's Good

    On to my favorite part, the DAC 1.5 listening sessions. The bottom line is the Bel Canto DAC 1.5 sounds very good. When compared to the Benchmark DAC1 PRE in my system I much preferred the Bel Canto DAC 1.5 with all types of music. Listening to Jack Johnson's newly remastered debut album Brushfire Fairytaleslink at 16/48 kHz the DAC 1.5 did everything right for me. The sound was very clean reproducing Jack's acoustic guitar like he was sitting between the speakers. Playback of this album through the Benchmark DAC1 PRE caused fatigue fairly fast. The DAC1 PRE sounded bloomy and tube-like. The guitar plucks, using the DAC1 PRE, appeared rounded-off when there should have been clear delineation between different stings starting and stopping. Through the DAC 1.5 this unnatural, far too full, acoustic guitar sound disappeared. Moving on to other music including Christina Aguilera's Save Me From Myselflink really showed off the DAC 1.5's lack of grain and crispness. Hearing Christina's lips and tongue between verses sounded like she was right there in the room. Switching to the Benchmark I thought the fullness in the mid range was again too full and changed the pitch of her voice. Again, this is evident when comparing two components head to head and may not equate to an individual's listening experience with only one DAC in the system. Some readers may prefer a fuller sound or better yet some readers may think the Benchmark sounds perfect depending on the other system components. It's all subjective and dependent on many variables. Listening to Shelby Lynne's Just A Little Lovin'link track from the album of the same name indicated the Bel Canto DAC 1.5 did have as much bass as the DAC1 PRE but the bass through the DAC 1.5 was likely more controlled down to its lowest levels. The Benchmark bass was more pronounced and possibly overdone when directly compared to the Bel Canto DAC 1.5 in my listening room. The DAC 1.5 was simply more coherent across the entire frequency spectrum when placed in my system. Comparing the reproduction of transients between the DAC1 PRE and DAC 1.5 I again preferred the Bel Canto DAC 1.5. Listening to the Kansas City Symphony's Grammy winning performance of Britten's Orchestra track 6. Passacaglialink at 24/176.4 the DAC 1.5 clearly had the edge. Again with the Dallas Wind Symphony's Crown Imperial track 8. Niagara Fallslink, this time at 24/96, the Bel Canto reproduced the transients without memorializing the events to the best of its ability. This ability was better than that of the Benchmark DAC1 PRE. Neither DAC is an all-out-assault nor as refined as some in the $5,000 + DACs on the market, but the Bel Canto DAC 1.5 may be competitive with most DACs south of 5K. It's simply a great solid state design.

    I also compared three of the digital inputs on the DAC 1.5 to each other. My suspicion was that the inputs would sound incredibly close to each other because of the implemented jitter rejection and ASRC. My conclusion was that the sounds from each interface was surprisingly similar with the AES/EBU edging out others buy a single, subjective, non-double-blind, hair. I can't say the AES/EBU input is treated differently by the DAC 1.5 but I do know I've heard some incredible results when using the Mykerinos audio card and Pyramix software in other systems as well. Part of my preference for AES may be do in part to the source more so than the DAC 1.5.


    DAC 1.5 Wrap Up

    CASH-ListThe Bel Canto DAC 1.5 is unequivocally a great value at $1,395. The DAC works every time and its sound quality is very good. I have no doubt the DAC 1.5 will do very well in this extremely competitive market segment. No longer should audiophiles consider adaptive USB a non-starter. Readers must remember a DAC is the sum of all the parts not solely a DAC chip, a single interface, or a specific USB transfer mode. Bel Canto's John Stronczer has proven that a very good sounding DAC doesn't have to include asynchronous USB, a linear power supply, and dual fixed crystal oscillators. The DAC 1.5 isn't the be-all end-all of DACs. It's simply a really good sounding DAC that's a great value and will satisfy many computer audiophiles around the world. I enthusiastically welcome the Bel Canto DAC 1.5 to the C.A.S.H. Listlink.



    Product Information:

    • Price - $1,395 (Sliver or Black)

    • Product Page - Linklink

    • User Guide - (PDF)link

    • Data Sheet - (PDF)link

    • System Configuration - (PDF)link


    Associated Equipment:



    Comments 47 Comments
    1. plakey's Avatar
      plakey -
      <br />
      These are almost the same price... any takers to do a comparison? I'd almost decided on the Rega... but now! What to do?
    1. john dozier's Avatar
      john dozier -
      I wonder what kind of galvanic isolation Bel Canto is using? The only Dac that I know of that is using state of the art transformers in the Anedio-part of the reason for its superb performance and SQ.
    1. RankStranger's Avatar
      RankStranger -
      sound unheard and absolutely love love love it. Glad to hear you preferred the 1.5 over the Benchmark though because that was my other (unheard) option.<br />
      <br />
      Cheers for the review.<br />
      <br />
    1. dsnyder's Avatar
      dsnyder -
      Hello Chris,<br />
      <br />
      The 1.5 was on my short-list of ~1K USD DACs. If it had been equipped with an "HT Bypass", there's a good chance I'd have one in my listening room right now. For those like you who are installing the DAC in a dedicated two-channel system, it sounds like a great value. Thanks for posting another great review!<br />
      <br />
      BTW, what's the "Tuner" button on the remote for? Just curious. :-)<br />
      <br />
      -- David<br />
    1. RankStranger's Avatar
      RankStranger -
      was the analogue input for my turntable. It can operate in HT bypass mode. A bit more expensive but maybe worth the extra?<br />
      <br />
      The tuner button is to control a Bel Canto tuner. I guess the remote is a full BC system remote as most of the buttons don't do anything on the DAC.<br />
      <br />
      RS<br />
      <br />
      Edit: Ah, <i>was</i> on your list.
    1. dsnyder's Avatar
      dsnyder -
      Hi,<br />
      <br />
      Quote: <cite>Edit: Ah, was on your list.</cite><br />
      <br />
      Haha. Yes. My Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 arrived just last week.<br />
      <br />
      I'm sure that the 2.5 is great gear...a bit out of my reach this time around though.<br />
      <br />
      Happy listening!<br />
      <br />
      -- David<br />
    1. savjam's Avatar
      savjam -
      Thanks for the great review. I am a big fan of Bel canto products because they present music in a clear, natural and inviting way, i.e., nothing exaggerated. I am considering purchasing their top end DAC 3.5vb in the future.<br />
      <br />
    1. JeffH's Avatar
      JeffH -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Was it plug and play when connected to your Linux server via the USB? Can you share what version of Linux you are using and any other details you care to share?
    1. StateRadioFan's Avatar
      StateRadioFan -
      I just ordered a Bel Canto Dac 1.5 to replace my three year old Benchmark Dac1. I have been eyeing the Dac 1.5 and a few others since last fall and I have to admit this review pushed me over the edge. I realize that this upgrade may be a sidestep rather than a forward step in the upgrade cycle and I am fine with that. I will be using the Dac 1.5 with the Halide Bridge(BNC) so I'm not worried about the USB performance, although I will probably do a USB/Bridge comparison just for fun.
    1. teaman's Avatar
      teaman -
      Is it sound better than Musical Fidelity V-link + M1 Dac as it is my current set up right now? I notice that both are using called ASRC for implemented jitter rejection. The M1 Dac + V-link gives me a punchy and more sound stage feeling when listening Apple lossless file with J River Media Center version 16. The vocal music from M1 Dac feel like a little behind and very silent background. If v-link is not connected, everything feel flatten and v-link is an important add-on for the whole system. Can Bel Canto sounds even better when v-link hooked up to the system? Is it worth just sell the M1 and get Bel Canto 1.5? Thanks.
    1. vortecjr's Avatar
      vortecjr -
      the Bel Canto DACs should be plug and play under Linux so no drivers are required. <br />
      <br />
      Jesus R<br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Thanks Jesus. I was just going to connect the DAC 1.5 to the Sonore Memory Player as a test. You made this unnecessary. <br />
      <br />
      During my review I connected the DAC to a Linux server via S/PDIF not USB.
    1. cantonna7's Avatar
      cantonna7 -
      Hi Chris, Thanks for sharing your experience on the DAC1.5.<br />
      Do you have plan to review Bel Canto C5i DAC+AMP?<br />
      <br />
      Thanks.<br />
    1. Jef Paas's Avatar
      Jef Paas -
      I'd put my MH Dac25.3 with the new V-link inline up against the BC and with the$ 500 i saved i'm going on music shopping spree!!<br />
      <br />
    1. plakey's Avatar
      plakey -
      <br />
      I think I now have a vision of my new computer audio setup: Auraliti into this Bel Canto 1.5 directly connected to my Meridian Monoblocks via XLR...
    1. jrobbins50's Avatar
      jrobbins50 -
      I'm lucky to have the BC 3.5vb with the BC REF500 MkII amps in my system, using the CAPS server to pull lossless files off my Thecus NAS system. The sound is fabulous and compelling. I'm glad to hear that Chris liked the baby of the BC line, but now he should check out the big boy. Cheers. JCR
    1. Part-Time Audiophile's Avatar
      Part-Time Audiophile -
      I've heard nothing but great things about this DAC. Love to see how the entry level stacks up to the top end.
    1. jstamp's Avatar
      jstamp -
      You really have me interested in a review of the C5i now...Please let us know if a review of that unit may be in the near future
    1. Frank Mercurio's Avatar
      Frank Mercurio -
      I am a fan of John and his products. How they look, function and just pretty much everything about them. Bel Canto's offer a lot! I would certainly put the 1.5 on a short list. Wyred 4 Sound would be on there as well.
    1. Elberoth's Avatar
      Elberoth -
      Chris, <br />
      <br />
      Did you try the Halide Bridge or V-link with the BC DAC vs the inbuild USB input ? That would be an interesting comparision. <br />
      <br />
      The MF V-DAC, which also uses ASRC, sounds better via The Bridge than its inbuild adaptive USB input.