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The Sound of Power: Bel Canto Design EVo 200.4 Amplifier
Imprints shape strong expectations
I was 16 and she was oh so lovely. She was a symphony orchestra, comprised of prize winners of Germanys national music competitions and dubbed BJO for Bundes Jugend Orchester, or Federal Youth Orchestra. Because of my ranking as a clarinetist, I was invited. Montreux, Switzerland was that first magical summers destination. The program was anchored by Antonin Bruckners Fourth Symphony, surnamed "Romantic." To call the experience formative would be an understatement. Sitting inside an orchestra at full tilt is beyond ready description. First-rate musicians -- in this case between 16 and 30 years of age and filled with unadulterated pre-wage-earner passion -- fused their personalities into one living, breathing organism. With his unique architectural style, the haunted German composer fashioned ethereal cathedrals of sound entirely suffused with spirit. Underlying this otherworldly charge are very tantric fluctuations that build from one climax to the next in a seemingly endless arc. Performing Bruckners heady mix of the sacred and erotic made me feel like a fearless surfer ripping along the crests of massive breakers -- part of something uncontrollably powerful, thrilling and inspiring.
Upon my return home, I needed to immerse myself again into this work, so feverishly under my skin had it gone. The trouble was finding the right recording. Having rehearsed this symphony for 6-8 hours a day for ten days straight prior to the actual tour, I had become thoroughly imprinted with our conductors very particular rendition, down to the finest of details. Anything diverging from his tempi, from his emotive inflections, from his way of laying bare certain secondary counter motifs -- anything too different now sounded alien and plain wrong. I think I eventually ended up with a Wolfgang Sawallisch recording. It made a close enough match to allow forgetfulness of comparisons and be once again consumed by the sheer oceanic power of this music.
Audio is no different
Assembling your personal audio system turns aural imprint just the same. Though a system performing from a different spatial perspective will play all the right notes -- as did all the available recordings I sifted through before hitting upon Sawallisch -- itll still rub you the wrong way. Many listeners, especially of classical music, instinctively prefer a mid- or far-hall presentation, say row 15-20 or first row balcony center. Thats because the sound of a 100-head orchestra in a concert hall requires room to develop and blend. Sitting in the first row gives a radically different flavor. If youre used to the expensive seats, you wont tolerate sitting that close unless you first undergo a serious restructuring of expectations. Nearfield transients are much sharper and more ferocious. The relative precedence of strings versus woodwinds versus brass versus timpani changes with distance. Individually separated orchestral voices soften their distinctive edges and blur the further away you move. In short, the nearfield is characterized by energy: brash but exhilarating, sharp and distinct, an in-your-face triple espresso. The farfield is mellower: softened and relaxed, blended and mixed, espresso with half milk or decaffeinated altogether for weaker hearts. Mind you, neither is right or wrong! Yet, theyre so different that depending on what your primary musical fare has conditioned you to, admitting in public that both are right might still cause you a very private notion that one of them is very wrong indeed.
All this by way of describing the essence of what the Bel Canto Design components under evaluation might demand of you. I confess I had to submit to a process of cerebral dry-cleaning first, to meet them on their own terms rather than complain that they did things differently than Im used to. Incidentally, this old dog does learn new tricks -- just dont call me a convert quite yet. Or actually, do, as long as it doesnt require relinquishing my SET religion altogether but runs along the lines of discovering, one fine day, that youre bi -- not sexual but aural. Am I bi-aural? Heck, lets find out -- worse things have happened. Before we proceed, heres another finger pointing at the same moon as the opening. A very good lens, say by Zeiss or Leica, will allow you to take wide-angle landscape shots that render the most faraway details with the same exactitude, sharpness, contrast and image-outline precision as those closest. Thats not how the human eye works unassisted. Distance incurs a softening of contrast, a bleaching of colors that become more saturated the closer you get. While such hi-rez photographic images may be accused of hyper-realism, they allow fantastically complete studies of complex detail.
And that, in short, is what you get when you mate the four-channel Bel Canto EVo 200.4, bridged to dual-mono for 360Wpc continuous, with the Bel Canto PRe1 solid-state remote-controlled preamp. Youll hear things you havent heard before, guaranteed. The resolving power is absolutely astonishing. It also makes for some unique discoveries. Take the famous "Battle" track from Gladiator [Polygram 467094] that by now has become everyones substitute torture track for The Planets "Bringer of War." When you unravel the complexity of this track to the extent the BCD components allow, you might at first suffer sensory overload. Each detail, no matter how buried in the soundtrack, becomes a highlight unto itself. It morphs into the simultaneity of superior contrast regardless of distance into the soundstage.
A nearfield rendition then? Yes, except for one unusual element: the fidelity to instrumental localization is absolutely uncompromised. Rather than a left/right spread with compressed depth thats typical of a close-up rendition, youll hear a positively huge three-dimensional layering of performers far out into the distance. The nearfield resolution and sharpness do not cause any parallel spatial compacting. You perceive the timpani perched behind the trombones and trumpets sitting behind the French horns that sit behind the woodwinds which sit behind the strings, all as they should. What you wont hear are the expected softening effects that arise in a live setting. Those instruments that, due to distance, should be reduced in amplitude and sharpness of attack arent. Obtaining the superior depth perception of a farfield perspective together with this nearfield immediacy all across the range is very startling.
Truth be told, I was originally much disturbed, especially with certain orchestral fare. Then I reflected upon the reality of multi-tracking and the multitude of microphones stuck at an orchestra either suspended from above or strategically planted on stands. If the Gladiator track was indeed recorded and mixed this way -- and being a movie product, chances are high -- it actually should sound this way. If it doesnt, your gears resolving power isnt high enough. Dont blame the equipment then; blame the recording engineer and producer. To validate this conclusion, I went through a stack of classical recordings. While none of them made reference to microphone placement in the liner notes, it was very easy to distinguish close-miked multi-tracked recordings from more minimalist farfield schemes. The EVo showed off these differences to a more-drastic-than-usual extent due to its superior resolving power.
The bridged EVos bass control is absolutely state of the art and massive fun with challenging electronica. Itll have you pull out all the stops and go on a trance/techno binge. However, the solid-state duos impact was nearly too much of a good thing. It over-pronounced the proximity of bass lines, bringing them acoustically forward. Instead of remaining foundation material in which the thematic action roots to rise into the foreground, the bass register became main attraction. In effect, it vied for prominence with the soloists and tilted the amplitude balance. This was to some extent volume-dependent and could be minimized but not eliminated by choosing more subdued levels.
I happened to also have the Gill Audio Design tubed Alana preamp on hand. I hitched it to the EVo to see what would happen. Now the bass, without losing any intelligibility or extension whatsoever, retracted in amplitude to what I sensed were realistic proportions at any level -- proportions, to be clear, not referring to physical size. Rather, bass lines with the PRe1 had been too loud by comparison, causing an acoustical rather than spatial foreshortening. With the Gill Alana in the loop, this imbalance reverted back to nearly normal, still giving much more intelligibility to even very subdued and seriously extended bass lines than most systems ever manage, but no longer in extreme close-up. Detail and gestalt now combined in a highly addictive fashion. In fact, so outstanding was the balance between superior resolution and organic coherence that I felt -- and still feel -- compelled to go bi-aural.
You see, my SET-based system emphasizes the farfield/gestalt perspective. Its exceptionally accomplished in the bass but honestly couldnt compete with these silicon warriors. Surprisingly, the difference was not, as you might expect, in extension except for the most rare of subterranean shudders of synthesizers. If you think about it, thats phenomenal praise for a 6Wpc amp compared to one 60 times as potent. It only reinforced my prior assessment of the Art Audios magnificence. Rather, the difference was like that between a kettledrum whose skin is stretched to the point of splitting open, versus one whose skin has just slightly more give to avoid pitch change. When you pound on the first one, the mallet will bounce back faster and the tone will be tighter and drier. When you pound on the second one, the tone will be fatter and warmer and the attack a mite slower. The EVos bass is like the first drum, the PX-25s like the second.
Another difference between my reference rig and the EVo/Alana combo is the added detail. Now dont mistake added detail for getting more trees in your forest -- you dont. The distinction is admiring this forest in the early morning sun versus later in the day at high noon. Early on youll have to contend with some full and half shadows. They smooth over the very finest of subtleties. The areas of half light create depth, richness and a certain romanticism. Once the sun is at its zenith, the shadows disappear altogether. You get exceptional but blunt detail with absolutely nowhere to hide. With the Alana in the loop, the sun passed its zenith by a few hours, to arrive at just the perfect mixture of nearfield detail and the greater relaxation of row 15. This shaved off a distinct edge that the EVo/PRe1 combo exhibited -- edge here, not high-frequency sizzle or glare but simply the starkness of too much resolution. This caused a tense reflex in this here listener, as though he needed to shield himself against the unyielding onslaught of too much razor-sharp and microscopic revelation.
Synergy and taste
Im theorizing that the PRe1 shares the EVos astounding resolving power and ultra-low distortion. Combining the two results in grafting a capital "hyper" onto reality. This, to be clear, is no indictment of either piece. Its simply a matter of taste and compatibility in this particular system. My rigs resolving power has already been dialed quite high -- theres the high-conductivity Cryotech wall socket, the gigahertz RFI/EMI filtering of the Sound Application conditioner, the plethora of high-end power cords by Audio Magic and Acoustic Zen, and the potent Walker Audio High Definition Links (review to follow). Adding two microscopes with the magnifying power of the BCD components creates an imbalance along the resolution/gestalt axis. I will thus report on the Bel Canto PRe1 in depth in another installment, to investigate its interaction with the Art Audio PX-25, how it compares to the tubed Gill Alana in that setting, and how both make out in the bypass test against the simple amp-mounted attenuator. I also want to account for full break-in of the PRe1. I understand that the single Caddock resistor in its signal path takes a very long time to hit its stride. For now, Ill merely go on record to say that inserting tubes into the signal chain feeding the bridged EVo 200.4 creates true no-compromise, reference-level performance. Going solid-state all the way, at least with the PRe1 in the chain, is for now fascinating and educational, but it quickly grows overbearing and a bit relentless.
While were still on the subject of resolution, let me mention another quality very important to me. Certain rez-optimized systems render spatial exactitude such that the performers separate and disconnect as though appearing each in their own enclosed bubble of space. Both the EVo/Alana and EVo/PRe1 combos retained the exactitude but didnt draw bubbles. An image to enhance how this particular effect operates is to envision, in the distance, five people walking holding hands and five others walking on their own. Holding hands creates gestalt without undoing individuality. Walking separately means five different events altogether. I call the hand-holding cohesiveness. It counteracts a tendency for too much resolution turning cold, analytical and "separatist." This cohesiveness is a second major reason why, under different financial circumstances, I would hold on to the EVo 200.4 for good -- preceded by tubes, of course. It would become my alternate reference amp, a second but equally valid take on the music. That the four-channel EVo drives most speakers under the sun would be an added bonus for a reviewer. Its digital circuitry is unconditionally stable into low impedance loads. The only theoretical brick wall is current limiting. This would be a function of combining seriously reactive loads with very high output levels.
Sand versus glass
Overlook for a moment that glass is made from sand. The difference between the digital silicon amp and my low-power glass-bottle unit, besides the already covered presentation of perspective and detail, is, of course, distortion. For all audible intents and purposes, the EVo is entirely free of distortion. Though remarkably tube-like in its 3-D glory and transparency, its reconstruction of gestalt and saturation of tone, this measured superiority, renders it drier than the tube amp that exhibits the kind of harmonic distortion we tube hounds refer to as bloom. I sometimes think of bloom as a kind of dither or subliminal hiss. Dither in digital components is a peculiar type of noise that enhances apparent resolution. This "thermionic dither" doesnt increase resolution. Instead, it makes empty space audible. What bothers me about many solid-state amps is the annihilation of this sense of space -- not space in terms of left/right and front/back, but the immediate psychic space in which the performer appears and which reviewers often refer to as "presence."
The EVo is neither that dry nor thermionically enhanced. It straddles the middle ground. Might neutral be the appropriate word? Thats a loaded question. I remember ex-boss Randall Smith of Mesa-Boogie during the early days of the Mesa Barons market penetration. At a presentation, a Los Angeles dealer commented that the Baron was on the lit-up side of neutral. "Show me neutral then so I can understand," prompted Randy. To his consternation, the dealer admitted that neutral didnt exist, but that he could demo "on the dark side of neutral." From that moment on, Randy didnt put any further stock into dealer comments. He simply voiced the amp in accord with his very own ears.
The sound of power
Given that the EVo 200.4 is a single-ended design, bridging turns its circuitry into series-balanced for measurably lower distortion, especially in the intermodulation domain, though the standard version has vanishingly low levels already. It also significantly increases output power by a factor of three, from 120Wpc x 4 into 360Wpc x 2. To go high-power with the standard EVo 200.2 requires two units and $4790. The four-channel EVo retails for $3795. Apparently the Bel Canto boyz missed their main profit math class. Theyre giving you the same performance for $1000 less; never mind the savings of a second after-market power cord and an additional shelf in your rack. Is it the same performance? Its possibly even better. Consider the massive 1500Va transformer in the 200.4 versus the 500Va of the 200.2. Two EVo 200.2 equals 1000Va of power supply. Even here John Stronczer and Michael McCormick miss the boat to make an extra-pretty penny. Instead they throw in a spare one-third transformer power rating. Not having two 200.2s on hand for comparison, I cant comment on whether that makes an appreciable difference. What I can tell you is what happens when you throttle down the bridged four-channel amp into standard mode, to use two 120w channels like a regular EVo 200.2 -- well, regular minus the beefier tranny.
What happens is simply a well-past-high-noon setting on my earlier sundial analogy. In regular 120Wpc mode, the EVo is very much the equal of my SET in its rendition of the farfield perspective -- more relaxed, less apparent detail, a reduction of the enhanced bass output but no loss in bass extension. Id go as far as saying that if you injected some "tube dither" for the bloom phenomenon, youd easily mistake the non-bridged presentation for single-ended tube. Who would have expected this particular difference? In hindsight and considering the further reduction of distortion and tripling of power, its maybe not that surprising that shifting into EVolutionary overdrive turns more up front, more slamming and even more resolved.
I now needed to return to the PRe1 to see whether the EVos shift from nearfield to mid-hall perspective would make it a better match. The brief answer is yes, but the tube preamp was harmonically richer if not as preternaturally quiet and, to my ears and taste buds, the more perfect partner for the EVo. Before you feel Im being unfairly harsh on the PRe1, let me assure you that an in-depth evaluation is forthcoming. The reason for its inclusion at this possibly less-than-fully-broken-in stage was simply my need for a standalone preamp since my reference system is without one. The appearance of the Gill Alana at the same time simply proved fortuitous circumstance. Stay tuned.
In the US press, the Bel Canto Design EVo 200.2 amplifier has garnered a Reviewers' Choice designation from our own editor-in-chief as well as Stereophiles Class A ranking. The advent of the EVo 200.4 compounds these ratings. Its ability for bridging and biamping, plus its very attractive "2-for-1.5" price, are value-added features. So are the two distinct spatial-performance perspectives achievable between two-channel and four-into-two-channel stereo mode. The preferable perspective is entirely a matter of taste and compatibility within a specific system context. Now when was the last time you could go from row five to row 20 and back merely with the flick of a switch, without otherwise leaving your actual seat or amp?
Taking a look at the EVo 200.4s back panel, youll see two push buttons per side. One selects between RCA and XLR inputs, the other between single-ended and bridged mode. A silk-screened print points to the default binding posts for bridging. On the front, four blue LEDs indicate power status. Four adjacent red miniature LEDs turn off the moment the internal protection relay de-mutes the amp into active mode very quickly after turn-on.
The word turn-on now brings me back to my earlier references about going bi-aural. I love the particular combination of resolution, presence and farfield perspective my resident reference system anchored by the Art Audio PX-25 renders. The EVo in regular 120Wpc mode is too similar and a bit drier to cause any second thoughts about transgressing in my marital fidelity to this system. However -- I truly salivate over what the bridged EVo 200.4/Gill Alana combo does. Its a very different perspective, literally a very different seat in the house. But not only does such a seat exist in any real venue, its usually a less expensive ticket, too. Why not enjoy both on occasion? Consider me then of the very recent bi-aural persuasion. I did say worse things could happen. Like what exactly? DiAural for example. I could be all out of phase, fearing complete cancellation between this and my shadow self in a rare incident of internal combustion -- not a good thing for a writer of an essentially brand-new column. Bi-aural it is then, my first conversion experience to a non-tube power amplification component. What next?
I called John Stronczer after this review was penned. I wanted to make sure I hadnt missed any less-apparent technical features of the EVo 200.4. Turns out I did. To ensure accuracy, I requested that he as the chief designer write a manufacturers comment to describe them. I will investigate these features and report on my findings in the PRe1 evaluation.
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