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 headquarters 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 Nyquist 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 faceplate should contact their dealers to inquire about availability.
One 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. List 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. Server 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 Fairytales 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 Myself 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' 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. Passacaglia at 24/176.4 the DAC 1.5 clearly had the edge. Again with the Dallas Wind Symphony's Crown Imperial track 8. Niagara Falls, 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
The 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. List.
- Price - $1,395 (Sliver or Black)
- Product Page - Link
- User Guide - (PDF)
- Data Sheet - (PDF)
- System Configuration - (PDF)
- Source: C.A.P.S. Server, Mac Pro
- Playback Software OS X 10.6.7: Amarra, Pure Music, Fidelia, Audirvana
- Playback Software Windows 7: J River Media Center 16, Pyramix 7
- Remote Control Hardware: iPhone 4, iPad, MacBook Air
- Remote Control Software: Remote, Fidelia, Screen Sharing, BitRemote, Remote Desktop
- Amplifier: McIntosh MC275 amplifier
- Loudspeakers: Verity Audio Fidelio loudspeakers
- Cables: AudioQuest Diamond USB Cable, Wire World Silver Starlight USB Cable, AudioQuest Redwood Loudspeaker Cable, AudioQuest Niagara Balanced XLR Analog Interconnects, AudioQuest Eagle Eye 75 Ohm BNC Digital Cable, Kimber Select KS2020 Digital Cable