Bel Canto Design e.One REF500M Mono
Thinking of a 500W amplifier conjures visions of a behemoth
squatting between the speakers, its weight and bulk requiring a pair of weightlifters to
muscle it out of its shipping carton. And when that monster is only half of a pair of
monoblocks, the imagination drifts to forklifts maneuvering them into place. But with the
Bel Canto Design e.One REF500M monoblock ($3990 USD per pair), such nightmares are
replaced by a more benign reality. This amplifier measures only 8.5"W by 3.5"H
by 12"D -- and at 15 pounds, it qualifies as a featherweight in the world of high-end
brawn. Add to the virtue of small size its svelte appearance and excellent sound, and you
have to wonder how Bel Canto has defied expectations that every high-end product must be
an outsized example of "bigger is better."
John Stronczer was a research scientist working on advanced
integrated-circuit technologies. More relevant to audiophiles, he was one of us: a tube
enthusiast whose passion for music led him, some 15 years ago, to found Bel Canto Design,
of which hes still the CEO. Since then, the companys award-winning products
have won a following among discerning audio buffs.
I came late to the game; the first Bel Canto products in my
system were the e.One CD2 player and DAC3 digital-to-analog converter, both of which I
reviewed favorably in the August 1, 2009 issue of Ultra Audio. The e.One
models, Bel Cantos line of premium electronics, emphasizes the companys
cutting-edge technologies and their environment-friendly production and use -- two
REF500Ms, coupled to the companys CD2/DAC3 source, use less power than a 40W light
About the e.One REF500M
When the REF500Ms arrived, I had some misgivings. The
REF500M is whats popularly labeled a class-D amplifier, and while I had no prior
experience of the breed, Id read and heard enough negative comments about class-D
amps to arouse my suspicions. Those initial uneasy feelings soon gave way to the
realization that such labels matter far less than the way designers use the class-D
architecture to maximize its strengths (speed, power efficiency, size) and minimize its
weaknesses (noise, audible artifacts, dynamic compression) -- something that holds true
for other classes of amplifiers, including the highly vaunted, current-gobbling,
hot-running class-A amps Im used to.
Bel Canto eschews the term class-D, preferring the
more descriptive switching power amplifier. Class-D amps switch their output
devices on or off at very high speed, thus converting over 90% of the input current to
output power. But what counts is how Stronczer has implemented the concept.
Like its sibling monoblock, the REF1000M, the REF500M uses
the newest version of Bang & Olufsens ICEpower module, which contains its own
switching power supply, but Bel Canto cascades its proprietary 300V DC power supply ahead
of the ICEpower module. This is claimed to cut noise, store more energy, and produce a
cleaner, weightier sound. Another factor in Bel Cantos version of class-D
amplification is its custom input stage, which uses premium parts -- Caddock resisters,
low-ESR decoupling capacitors, low-noise regulated power supplies -- to reduce the
REF500Ms sensitivity to power-line effects and to achieve lower noise, better power
delivery, and increased dynamic capability. The result is a small footprint, and an
amplifier claimed to put out 500W into 4 ohms or 250W into 8 ohms, with a damping factor
of over 1000 and a measured dynamic range of 121dB.
As observed above, the REF500M has Bel Cantos
minimalist house look: a rectangular silver box with a black oblong window centered on its
faceplate. When its switched on with a rear-panel toggle, a small blue LED lights up
dead center in the window. The rear panel is similarly simple: the power switch above the
AC socket, a pair of binding posts for the speaker-cable connections, and a clearly marked
section for XLR and RCA inputs.
I installed the REF500Ms in my reference system, alongside
a Cary 306 SACD Pro player, a Reimyo CAT-777 line-stage preamplifier, modified Jadis JA80
monoblocks, Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen.III HSE speakers, and a compatible mix of wires that
included Nordost Quattro Fil interconnects as well as Siltech G3 AC cords, interconnects,
and speaker cables. My listening room is about 21L x 18W by 8.5H, with
the speakers about 8 apart and 3.5 from the front (shorter) wall. My listening
position varied; much of the time I sat in the sweet spot, about 9 from the
speakers, but sometimes moved forward for nearfield listening, and sometimes back against
the bookcase-lined rear wall.
Even during an extended run-in period of more or less
casual or background listening, it became apparent that questions about the efficacy or
quality of class-D amplification would not arise. The REF500Ms sound was free of
edginess, glare, noise, and other gremlins I feared might raise their ugly heads. When it
was time for critical listening, I turned to a new recording of Verdis Requiem,
with Antonio Pappano conducting the crack Santa Cecilia Academy Rome Orchestra and Chorus
and an all-star quartet of soloists (CD, EMI 98936). Id listened to it often through
my Jadis amplifiers before the Bel Cantos arrived, and since this is far and away my
favorite choral work, as well as being a killer challenge for audio systems, I wanted to
hear whether the REF500Ms, with about eight times the claimed power output of the tubed
Jadises, would deliver more punch and sheer thrills.
Well, they did and they didnt. The Bel Cantos
supplied marginally more incisive transients -- the leading edge of soprano Anja
Harteross voice was slightly more coherent, and the tremendous bass-drum thwacks
in the Dies Irae may have been ever so slightly more impactful -- but such marginal
differences were below my expectations. This could be explained by two things: First, that
a 60W tube amp actually can hold its own in the thrills department even when up against a
vastly more powerful solid-state amp; as the saying goes, most music is in that first
watt. And second, when I focused on the music rather than on thrills, I heard that the
REF500Ms were handling this awesomely powerful music with aplomb. The massive climaxes in
this work werent only forceful, they were transparent (a credit to EMIs
engineering), with the words in the descending choral opening of the Dies Irae
section clearly audible -- a rarity in recordings of the Requiem. The REF500M also
had delicacy; the extraordinarily beautiful Recordare duet for soprano and
mezzo-soprano gave full due to Harteross and Sonia Ganassis respective
timbres, the differentiation allowing me to note each singers nuances of phrasing
and coloration. Against such musicality of reproduction, the possibility of being
figuratively knocked through the back wall by waves of bass-drum heroics faded into
A byproduct of the Verdi experience was that it led me to
listen more closely to the REF500Ms mid- and low bass in large-scale music, which
often confirmed the slight congestion I heard in the Requiem. Reproducing the
two-channel layer of the SACD of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestras
recording of Brahmss Symphony No.1 (SACD/CD, Channel Classics 28309), the REF500M
failed to deliver the midbass clarity of my reference Jadis, nor did it fully conquer the
touch of congestion in my old standby for judging transparency in the reproduction of
large-scale works, the Te Deum scene in Pappanos terrific recording of
Puccinis Tosca, with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
(CD, EMI 57173). I dont want to make too much of this, because its not an area
of special sensitivity for me -- unlike, say, mid-treble glare.
But the e.One REF500M excelled with one of my favorite
discs of 2009, Michael Daughertys Fire & Blood (CD, Naxos 8.559372),
which offers plenty of challenges for amplifiers and systems -- it does triple service,
providing musical truth, stirring transients, and a test of system transparency.
Daugherty, one of Americas most creative composers, gets his inspiration from pop
and jazz -- his works are infused with rhythmic life, accessible melodies, and imaginative
orchestrations, all splendidly captured in these live concert recordings by the Detroit
Symphony conducted by Neeme Järvi.
The three works on this disc feature violin and timpani
soloists, wailing trumpet and brass sections, and lots of opportunities for glare in the
highs and congestion in the lows. The REF500M showed nary a sign of either, delivering
transparency and punch in music that demands both. The last work, Daughertys aptly
titled Raise the Roof, boasts precise placement of instruments (e.g.,
trombones in the right rear, bells in the left rear), and both the background and
foreground of the aural picture are filled with activity. The REF500Ms demonstrated good
depth -- the timpani soloist, at the rear of a wide soundstage, came alive as instrumental
groups kicked rhythmic motifs from section to section. That said, the soundstage was a bit
less deep and wide than when I listen to this disc with my reference amps, but it was
while playing Fire & Blood that I felt I understood just how well the e.One
REF500Ms were delivering the goods.
After the high excitement of Daughertys music I
turned to more intimate fare -- another extraordinary disc, Neharót (ECM New
Series 2065), featuring violist Kim Kashkashian in haunting works by contemporary Armenian
and Israeli composers. In Eitan Steinbergs Rava Deravin, for viola and string
quartet (here the Kuss Quartett), Kashkashians wide leaps between registers --
wailing in the treble, plush velvet in the lower range -- were true to the violas
timbre, with no hint of harshness at the top or untoward gruffness at the bottom.
With Schuberts "Trout" Quintet (Pentatone
5186334) the REF500Ms further demonstrated their prowess in conveying the subtleties of
chamber music. The playing of an all-star group of renowned European soloists -- Martin
Helmchen, Antoine Tamestit, Christian Tetzlaff, Alois Posch, and Marie-Elisabeth Hecker --
is enhanced by Pentatones superb engineering, which, heard via the stereo SACD
layer, offered wide dynamic range and sweet violin timbres. The double-bass part, an
indistinct low-register rumble in too many recordings of the "Trout," is a solid
presence here, Poschs bowing easy to follow as it lays down a firm foundation for
the other strings. In Schuberts Variations on "Trockne Blumen," a
welcome bonus here, the mellifluous timbres of Aldo Baertens wooden flute were
captured in perfect balance with Helmchens piano accompaniment, reinforcing my
impression of the REF500Ms excellence at conveying intimate music.
But I was really blown away by one of the best solo-piano
recordings of the year, Piotr Anderszewski at Carnegie Hall (CD, Virgin 67291).
Im a frequent attendee at Carnegie piano recitals, and it was heartening -- and
impressive -- to hear how accurately the sound of a piano in that big hall had been
captured. In a wide-ranging program of Bach, Schumann, Beethoven, Janácek, and Bartók,
all played with brilliance and stylistic perfection, the resonance of the space bonded
with the bright treble, solid bass, and creamy midrange of Anderszewskis Steinway.
The Bel Cantos easily conveyed the clarity of Anderszewskis articulation, and the
ways pianissimos float and loud passages bloom in Carnegie. If my reference amps
reproduced the piano with a bit more solidity, the REF500Ms came close enough to still
make this set a thrilling listening experience.
Finally, a pair of new releases on Chesky reinforces the
labels reputation for top-notch music and state-of-the-art engineering. The first is
Jen Chapins latest, reVisions: Songs of Stevie Wonder (Chesky SACD347), fresh
interpretations of classic songs by one of our top singers and songwriters, backed by
Stephen Crump on double bass and Chris Cheek on tenor, baritone, and soprano saxophones.
As is typical of Chesky recordings, theres a startling immediacy to the sound. In
both the "Red Book" and hi-rez two-channel layers, Chapin and the
instrumentalists have a presence that compels attention -- and engenders joy in the
vibrancy of their performances. The double bass comes across woody and deep, with a
visceral gutsiness. And Chapins voice was right there in the room with me, despite
the faintest touch of glare at the top on some tracks via the REF500Ms -- though not via
The sheer amount of detail and microdynamic information
contained in reVisions is impressive. The discs booklet includes a diagram
showing the precise location of the trio in relation to the single-point microphone, a
modified Soundfield. But with the REF500Ms in the system, that diagram was superfluous --
I could have accurately drawn it myself just from what I heard from this disc.
The same went for another recent Chesky release, Rough
& Tough (Chesky SACD346), a solo recital by veteran blues singer John Hammond,
accompanying himself on a variety of guitars and harmonicas in songs by Howlin Wolf,
Blind Willie McTell, and Muddy Waters, along with his own takes on the genre. Once more,
there was that "hes in my room" immediacy -- the instruments were vivid,
Hammonds voice grittily present.
My extended time with the Bel Canto e.One REF500Ms put to
rest all doubts or misconceptions Id had about class-D switching amplifiers -- they
could play with the big amps of any class. The REF500Ms displayed excellent transients and
dynamics, legitimate high-end microdynamics, and good depth and soundstaging, among their
other attributes. And for Manhattan apartment dwellers and others with limited space,
their small size is a huge asset.
But if class-D amplification isnt a negative when
implemented with the care and skills Bel Canto has brought to the party, it does lack,
along with most solid-state amplifiers Ive heard, some of the tonal depth and
soundstaging prowess of tubes. Whenever I switched from the Bel Cantos to my reference
tube amps, I was more impressed by the Jadises ability to get right my audio
preferences, among them microdynamics, tonal depth, midrange smoothness, treble ease, and
midbass solidity. Yes, the differences might have been slight to a more casual listener,
but the superiority of the Jadis JA80s was clearly audible to me, and added up to somewhat
greater involvement in the music itself. To put that in perspective, a pair of JA80s
retails for triple the price of the Bel Cantos; if you dont share my enthusiasm for
tubes, this observation need not deter you from putting the e.One REF500M on your short
list of amplifiers to audition.
For me, the bottom line for any audio component, from a CD
player to a loudspeaker, is whether or not I can imagine myself living with it. I
wouldnt want to replace my reference amps with the REF500Ms, but if I had to live
with the Bel Cantos, or if my budget restricted me to real-world price tags for
amplifiers, I would find myself camping very happily with them. The e.One REF500M
represents good value for what, these days, is a reasonable price in high-end audio.
Its hard to go wrong with these beauties; they prove that small can be beautiful,
even in the high end.
. . . Dan Davis
|Bel Canto Design e.One REF500M Mono Amplifiers
Price: $3990 USD per pair.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor (nontransferable).
Bel Canto Design
212 Third Avenue N., Suite 274
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Phone: (612) 317-4550
Fax: (612) 359-9358