NO ORIGINAL BOX OR MANUAL
"The S300i is a 150Wpc integrated amplifier, and the 'u' suffix means it's been outfitted with a USB-input-only DAC (a $200 option)," Stronczer explained. "We're pretty excited about it, and we think it's a logical first step for someone who has never seen the point of high-end audio before. It's good enough to be demonstrably better than mainstream stuff, and it's affordable enough to attract music lovers who don't 'get' high-end. Plus, it's 150Wpc, which is pretty impressive even to people who might scoff at something sounding better."
What makes him think that?
"I beta-tested the prototype on my 15-year-old daughter. She couldn't believe how good her music on her computer was—and neither could any of the adults who heard it. It wasn't easy getting it back from her."
Sounds like a win/win for the consumer and for Bel Canto, right?
"You'd think so," Stronczer said. "Unfortunately, some listeners become upset when they hear their MP3s through the S300iu—they're not happy to learn that they've ripped all of those files to a compromised storage format and that they need to start over again. Some of them blame us, rather than the people who promised them 'CD quality' at 128kbps."
Ain't it the truth? I've gotten the same reaction for simply suggesting that.
The trees' stories
The S300iu looks remarkably similar to the DAC3. As members of Bel Canto's e.One line, they share the same shape and appearance: a half-width front panel, a central green display, and, on the right, a single black knob for controlling the volume and selecting the source, framed within the faceplate's radiused recess.
On its rear panel, the S300iu has an IEC mains jack, four analog RCA stereo input jacks (input 4 has a home-theater bypass function), a tape loop, line outputs, and, in an accommodation slot, the USB digital input. (You can substitute a moving-magnet phono section for the DAC.) There are two pairs of substantial five-way binding posts.
Despite the S300iu's cosmetic similarity to the DAC3, they are very different critters. The DAC3's 24-bit Burr-Brown Delta-Sigma processor is far more sophisticated than the 300iu's more basic 16-bit Burr-Brown chip. "The 'u' module is a $200 DAC," Stronczer said. "It's a very good $200 DAC—the latest Delta-Sigma architecture offers a lot of bang for the buck, and we can get a noise floor of around 93dB out of the chip. That's not quite at the limit of what can be done with 16-bit, but it's up there."
Another difference from the DAC3 is that, other than the knob digitally controlling the resistor ladder, the S300iu's volume control is analog all the way. "At 16-bit resolution, you throw too much data away if you attempt volume control digitally," Stronczer said. The volume control also serves as the source selector: pressing it in sharply brightens the display; you then can dial through the five inputs. Pressing the knob for two seconds toggles the amp between Standby (outputs muted) and On.
Another interesting aspect of the volume control is that it responds very quickly, in downward changes of level, but in upward changes, it responds quickly until it reaches an indicated "50.0," when the display dims and there's a momentary pause before proceeding up to "60.0," above which it responds even more slowly. Stronczer said this was intended to make high-volume accidents less likely.
The simple six-button remote controls all of these functions, and adds Mute.
The S300iu's dual-mono ICE amplifier modules have dual-mono regulated switch-mode power supplies. "We've done a lot of research into switching power supplies, from the time we were working with Tripath-based amplifiers," said Stronczer. "I was impressed by what a well-executed switching supply could do in terms of midband clarity. If implemented correctly, it brings a lot to the party."
Fit'n'finish are first-rate.
I tend not to comment on how components are packaged. It's such a nerdy-reviewer thing. Yet I remember when my income finally allowed me to move out of the deep-used and mainstream ghetto and I bought a very slightly used Audio Research preamplifier. The box was rugged and the manual was no-nonsense, but I felt a little let down. That's it? I thought. This feels more like buying a washing machine than finally joining the High End. So with John Stronczer's aim of the e.One S300iu serving as a gateway product, I thought I'd look at the amp's packaging and documentation.
The handsome black box includes a carrying handle and durable foam cutouts—it's made to be a keeper, and it's more impressive than your average brown die-cut shipping box. The manual is well written, clear, and comprehensive. If I were coming to the S300iu from Circuit City components, I'd definitely feel I had arrived. Well done, Bel Canto.
The S300iu is completely straight-ahead in terms of setup. It doesn't produce much in the way of heat, so placement isn't a problem—and the remote means you can even put it where it's hard to reach. Bel Canto suggests that its "performance starts to stabilize after about 100 hours of continuous power up." Perhaps it did, but the difference wasn't as drastic as some I've heard—primarily in components with Teflon capacitors.
I installed the S300iu in my smaller dedicated listening room, driving the Usher Be-718 speakers (reviewed in the May issue), using my Apple G4 iBook as a USB source, and the combo of McIntosh MS750 and Bel Canto e.One DAC3 driving a line-source input. I also used the DAC3's USB input with the iBook, just to compare its performance with that of the S300iu's DAC. All digital files were encoded in Apple Lossless Coding (ALC) or non-DRM 256kbps MP3.
From the outset, the e.One S300iu impressed me with its robust, coherent sound. The Ushers need to be pushed around a bit and the Bel Canto was up to the task, extracting taut, explosive bass in good quantity—always good news in a "starter" amp. More impressive, the S300iu exhibited a balance from top to bottom that was very natural—and its midrange had a clarity that was immediately appealing.
Patricia Barber's Café Blue (CD, Premonition/Blue Note PREM 737) floated a soundstage that was more than credible, with Jim McLean's processed guitar cutting sharply through to the fore.
The music was dynamic and uncolored. After completing Café Blue (I'd meant to dip into only a song or two), I assayed an experiment. Listening to an unused line-level input, I cranked the loudness control beyond its "50" midpoint setting, beyond a volume-control setting of "60.0," then higher. The speakers remained silent until I entered territory I doubt I would have ventured into with a signal. The S300iu was impressively quiet. When I attempted the same experiment with the USB input, I ran into noise at a lower—albeit still quite high—level.
What to make of this? Not much, really. As John Stronczer said, the S300iu has a $200 DAC. Its 93dB noise floor is quite good, especially for a component designed to introduce consumers with less-than-state-of-the-art digital front ends, such as the average computer or personal digital player (PDP), to a true high-fidelity component.
When I played ALC files of Pat Martino's Footprints (ripped from a copy of 32 Jazz CD 32021), I was unaware of any noise, instead hearing dynamic, constantly shifting cascades of notes. Billy Higgins' drumming was sharp, incisive, and nimble as all get-out. Richard Davis' double bass had heft and propulsive slam. The interplay of Martino and rhythm guitarist Bobby Rose on "The Visit" was intricate and breathtaking.
From such an affordable DAC add-on, this was impressive performance. In fact, I've heard DAC separates that were less detailed and less involving. Well played, Bel Canto.
However, Cassandra Wilson's atmospheric "Death Letter," an ALC ripped from her New Moon Daughter (CD, Blue Note 32861), sounded a bit less rich in the midrange than I remembered it. Wilson's husky chest tones have such rich timbre that her voice is a superb test for any system. Brandon Ross's guitar and Kevin Breit's tenor banjo came through sharp and unsullied, so the higher frequencies sounded superb. It was time to try some comparisons.
I connected my iBook to the e.One DAC3's USB input and repeated "Death Letter." Ah. Wilson's voice was now more full-bodied, less bleached out. It wasn't really a big difference—but it made all the difference in the world. Alert the media: a $2500 DAC can still sound better than a $200 one. The question was, how big a difference would there be between the e.One S300iu ($2195) and the 60Wpc Ayre AX-7e integrated ($3500), which I reviewed in March 2008? There lies a tale.
In my review of the Usher Be-718 speakers, I noted that they responded better to amps with more power than to the 60Wpc Ayre integrated—specifically, to big brutes like my 300Wpc Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300. No big surprise, but in my smaller listening room, at sane volumes, the Ayre gave the Be-718s presence and an ineffable rightness that were difficult to cavil with.
Through the Ayre, an ALC of Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic's recording of Einojuhani Rautavaara's Symphony 7, Angel of Light (CD, Ondine ODE 869-2), filled the room with clouds of high strings floating on a heavy cushion of brass and basses. When I say "filled the room," I mean it almost literally. As I sat in the sweet spot, it felt as if the sound was pouring into the room like water, rising higher and becoming more immersive as section after section joined in. Around the four-minute mark of the first movement, when Rautavaara introduces his first major dissonances, underscored by rolled timpani, I almost felt I should surface for air.
Instead, I surfaced for the Bel Canto. The basses, brass, and timpani were stronger and had more impact though the S300iu, which made even stronger the sensation that the high strings and woodwinds were floating on their foundation. At the same time, the Ayre had more lushness through the midrange—the Bel Canto sounded a touch clearer in that region, which I initially construed as revealing more detail.
It wasn't that simple. In some ways, I was hearing more detail through the Bel Canto—in the bottom end, definitely. I could hear the basses swelling and diminishing far more clearly with the S300iu. Though the Ayre wasn't as adept at extracting that with the Be-718s, it revealed harmonies and textures in the midrange that the Bel Canto didn't. This became more apparent when I listened again to New Moon Daughter. Cassandra Wilson's smoky voice was a little leaner through the Bel Canto, a trifle less burnished. I was disappointed.
But not for long. As the disc played on, I got caught up in "Strange Fruit," which is pushed along by Lonnie Plaxico's lurching acoustic bass. That the Bel Canto nailed far more definitively than did the Ayre. As it did Chris Whitley's explosive flurries on some form of resophonic guitar—the notes were propelled out of the swirling sonic landscape with impressive dynamic authority. I jumped. And the second time I listened to it, I jumped again, even though I was expecting it.
The slight midrange bleaching I detected in Wilson's voice through the S300iu was less evident on "Strange Fruit," which plumbs the depths of her range. With that track, there was less tonal difference between the Bel Canto and the Ayre.
All of these comparisons were made using the Bel Canto e.One DAC3 as an external converter—I was comparing the two only as integrated amplifiers. Given that restriction, I'd give the Ayre the slight nod for its midrange abundance of detail, although ideally I'd pair it with speakers that required a bit less oomph, which the S300iu handily supplied.
The e.One S300iu is a high-end integrated amplifier constructed to the same standards as Bel Canto's more expensive standalone components, but designed, I suspect, for consumers who aren't necessarily audiophiles. Yet.
That isn't intended as a put-down. I think high-end audio has done a pretty pathetic job of convincing non-audiophiles to take it seriously. Consider the term mid-fi, for instance. What an attractive appellation.
The S300iu is built better than mainstream components, and it sounds better, too. A lot better. If I were used to flimsy, same-old mainstream gear, and an audiophile buddy told me to check out an S300iu, I'd immediately get what made it different—and that would be before I listened to my computer or PDP through the Bel Canto's nifty and oh-so-affordable USB input. At that point, I doubt you could keep me from buying it.
Pretty is as pretty does, and the Bel Canto e.One S300iu does pretty damn well. It sounds good, it'll make its owners feel pretty darn special, and it readily answers the question Why does high-end hi-fi cost more? Because it's better.
Maybe the e.One S300iu isn't perfect—nothing ever is. But show it to a music lover who wants more out of his recordings, and it just might show him his recordings already have it. And once he finds it, he'll want more of it.
If the S300iu can get me that worked up, imagine what it could do for someone new to the High End. In the e.One S300iu, Bel Canto may have made the most significant contribution to high-end audio since 1962, when J. Gordon Holt decided to start his own magazine. STEREOPHILE
Description: Integrated amplifier with optional USB DAC or phono stage. Preamplifier section: Frequency range: DC–200kHz. Signal/noise (A-weighted, ref. 2V RMS): >95dB, Input overload: 10V. Input impedance: 10k ohms. Output impedance: 500 ohms. Maximum gain: 20dB. Maximum output level: 9.5V. Amplifier section: Maximum output power: 150Wpc into 8 ohms (21.75dBW), 300Wpc into 4 ohms (21.75dBW). Minimum rated load impedance: 4 ohms. Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz, ±0.5dB. Voltage gain: 27dB. Damping factor: >1000. Output impedance: <8 milliohms. THD+noise: 0.01% (1kHz at 1W into 4 ohms). Dynamic range: 111dB (no test conditions quoted).
Dimensions: 8.5" (216mm) W by 12.5" (318mm) D by 3" (75mm) H. Weight: 12 lbs (5.5kg).