Belles Statement SA-30 Stereo
Loudspeakers -- MaxxHorn Lumination
Preamplifier -- Audio Research LS26
Power amplifiers -- Audio Research VS115, Bel
Canto e.One REF 500 monoblocks
Analog sources -- Linn LP12 turntable, Graham
2.2 tonearm, van den Hul Frog cartridge, Audio Research PH5 phono stage
Digital sources -- Meridian 508.24 CD player,
Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player
Interconnects -- Audience Au24 e, Blue
Marble Audio Blue IC, Clarity Cables Organic, Crystal Cable Piccolo, Purist Audio Design
Venustas, TG Audio High Purity Revised
Speaker cables -- Audience Au24 e, Blue Marble
Audio, Clarity Cables Passion, Crystal Cable CrystalSpeak Micro, Purist Audio Design Venustas
Power cords -- Audience powerChord e, Blue
Marble Audio Lightning, Clarity Cables Vortex, Purist Audio Design Venustas
Accessories -- VPI HW-16.5 record cleaner,
Walker Audio Talisman LP/CD treatment
I hate vacuum tubes. They break, become noisy, gradually
wear out, fail -- sometimes catastrophically -- and are generally a pain in the posterior.
However, I have heretofore found that tubes have advantages in audio applications that
make putting up with all those drawbacks worthwhile. Some say that tubes produce better
tonal and spatial images, and a warmer sound free from the harsh, sterile characteristics
of early solid-state amplifiers. The bandwidth of solid-state amps is usually wider than
that of tube amps, although better tube models may have bass that sounds more like
real instruments. There are lots of opinions on the relative merits of glass (tube) and
sand (solid-state) amplifiers, all strongly held and defended. Me, I believe that what
sounds good is good -- glass, sand, even digits.
Solid-state amplifiers can drive speakers directly without
the need for distortion-causing output transformers, and can exert much better control, or
damping, over the motions of a cone loudspeaker -- a good thing for dynamic speakers with
large, heavy cones that need lots of help. But for inherently self-damped speakers such as
horns, high amplifier damping factors can actually be a detriment, making bass sound lean
and dry. Thats one of the reasons that users of horn speakers often prefer tube
When David Belles offered his Statement SA-30 amplifier for
review, I was intrigued by his claim that this 30Wpc, class-A amplifier ($4695 USD) was
designed as a solid-state alternative to tube designs, competing with them by offering
sonic excellence, lower distortion, solid bass, clearer highs, and excellent reliability.
Belles also claims that the SA-30 will enhance the performance of any high-efficiency
speaker, particularly horn designs. If these claims are true, it could be a panacea for us
horn-speaker fans. Of course, Ive heard such claims about other solid-state
amplifiers, and still have nothing but tube or hybrid amplifiers. But Im always
ready to give another contender a shot, especially one from such a distinguished builder.
David Belles is an enduring star in the audio firmament. He
has been in the audio business over 30 years, designing preamplifiers, amplifiers, DACs,
even tuners. Ive heard most of his designs of the last five years, and while
Ive liked some better than others, I can tell you that they have steadily improved
sonically. Belles says hes been working on this class-A design for many years, and
its finally ready for production. Its part of his Statement line, which now
includes the VT-01 tube preamp (review in progress) and the SA-100 100Wpc power amplifier,
built on the same chassis as the SA-30 but running in class-AB.
With a shipping weight of 48 pounds, just a couple of
pounds less than the 300Wpc Bryston 4B SST2 amplifier so favorably reviewed in
our July 2009 issue, the SA-30 measures 17" inches wide by 5.25" high by
13.5" deep, excluding binding posts and feet. Its circuits are exclusively
unbalanced, meaning that a single circuit amplifies both the positive and negative halves
of the signal. Some amplifiers use two sets of circuits to separately amplify the positive
and negative signals, then either combine the signals into a single output at the output
stage, or possibly even drive the positive and negative speaker terminals from the
positive and negative sections of the amplifier. Belles feels that using differential
balanced amplifier sections gains nothing sonically, while nearly doubling the parts cost.
And hes passionate about parts selection; after trying out numerous expensive
designer capacitors in the SA-30, he had custom Teflon capacitors designed to meet his own
sonic preferences. Another indication of Belles insistence on using the best parts
can be seen in the feet he chose for the SA-30. Instead of the usual nondescript rubber
feet found supporting so many amps, the SA-30 has Stillpoints OEM feet. Im a big
Stillpoints fan, having used their aftermarket supports under most of my equipment because
they work better than anything else Ive tried. Including Stillpoints as a standard
part of the amplifier is a big plus for me.
Input jacks are a pair of sturdy gold-plated RCAs, while
output jacks are a pair of all-metal, gold-plated, five-way binding posts -- both pretty
standard for solid-state amps. Input and output jacks are on the rear panel so that the
speaker and input cables have plenty of space and dont overlap each other. If you
use unshielded interconnects, its a good idea to keep them away from speaker cables;
the SA-30s thoughtful layout makes that easy.
As should befit a member of
any manufacturers Statement line, the SA-30s casework qualifies as genuine
audio jewelry, making many far more expensive products look cheap. A thick front panel
with beveled edges sports Belles hallmark keyhole design, which also appears on the
top plate, where its perforated with ventilation holes. The case is available in
silver (the review model) or black. I thought silver showed off the chassis contours
better than black, but if black is what you prefer, its available.
Class-A amplification circuits run quite a bit hotter than
the class-AB circuits often used in other push-pull designs, so in addition to cooling
vents similar to those seen in other recent Belles designs, heatsinks along the side help
rid the SA-30 of the considerable heat it generates.
Internally, the circuit is laid out in dual-mono fashion,
each channel having its own toroidal power transformer. The only parts shared by the two
channels are the power cord and the IEC jack it plugs into. Although the IEC socket lets
you use the power cord of your choice, the standard, 14-gauge, heavy molded power cord is
not a throwaway (although I suspect most audiophiles will treat it as such).
The SA-30 has an extremely high damping factor of 5000, and
needs only 0.74V input into its 100k ohm input impedance to produce its rated output.
Those specifications predict that the SA-30 will have a lively yet well-controlled sound,
and will easily be driven by solid-state or tube preamps. In view of the SA-30s high
input sensitivity, even a passive volume control should work with it.
The relatively compact SA-30 slid easily onto the bottom
shelf of my equipment rack. Grasping the amplifier from the front and rear panels made it
easy to lift and maneuver it into position. The side-mounted heatsinks arent
razor-edged, so you could pick the amp up from the sides, but I try not to handle amps by
their heatsinks, to avoid damaging thermal connections between the output transistors and
The SA-30 was connected to my Audio Research LS26
preamplifier via Clarity Cables Organic RCA interconnects. I tried the stock power cord,
but, like most audiophiles, I found that an aftermarket cord, in this case the Purist
Audio Designs Venustas, produced much better sound. This represents a switch from my
former practice of using only stock cords in reviews. Aftermarket cords almost always
yield better sound, and I believe our readers want to know just how good a component can
really sound. All too often, its stock power cord just doesnt let a component reach
its true potential.
Although the SA-30 is rated at 30Wpc, Belles amplifiers
have traditionally produced way more power than their rated output. It will be
interesting to see what the SA-30s actual measured power output turns out to be.
Since my MaxxHorn Lumination loudspeakers are rated at 103dB sensitivity, they were no
challenge to drive, although, into their impedance of 16 ohms, the actual power delivered
would be lower than the SA-30s 8-ohm specification.
Since I received the review sample from my local Belles
dealer, Blue Marble Audio, it was already broken in, eliminating that unpleasant but
necessary task. Just to be sure, I gave the SA-30 another 100 hours playing time.
The dealer had been driving Reference 3A Episode speakers with the SA-30 -- to my ears, a
The SA-30 starts playing as soon as you throw the switch,
but it definitely needs a good bit of time -- around 45 minutes -- to reach thermal
equilibrium every time you turn it on. While its warming up (in the literal sense),
it sounds muffled. Thats not a problem, just an observation. Like most class-A
amplifiers, it runs hot; I doubt that touching it would cause third-degree burns, but
youll want to let it cool off -- or use oven mitts -- before trying to pick it up.
The Stillpoints feet must be adjusted to ensure that the
SA-30 doesnt rock back and forth, but this onetime adjustment took all of a minute.
Its upside is that you wont have to obsess about finding a good support system for
the amplifier -- its built-in!
I attribute the SA-30s particularly vivid sound to
two related traits: extremely wide dynamic swings, and very fast reproduction of
leading-edge transients. Music seemed to leap from the speakers. I dont mean that
the sustain and decay parts of musical notes were slighted; they, too, were quite
accurately portrayed, so that the whole envelope of a musical note sounded very realistic.
The dynamic strength of the SA-30 was illustrated by the title track of Jennifer
Warnes The Well (CD, Music Force SD8960). Ive always thought this
recording has quite realistic-sounding percussion instruments, but the SA-30s
stunning transient wavefronts and explosive dynamic punch made them particularly dramatic,
as if the drummer was whacking the drums harder than usual. (Incidentally, I recently
compared the CD version of this recording to the CD track on the SACD version, and the
former sounded considerably better.)
One might expect a solid-state amplifier to have a wide
frequency response, and the SA-30 lived up to that expectation. It extracted the best bass
response Ive heard from my MaxxHorn speakers. When I say best, I mean fast,
relatively deep, and supple bass; not the overly lean bass I feared the high damping
factor would produce, but not fat and shapeless bass like some tube amplifiers, either.
At the other end of the spectrum, the treble was extended
but without sounding dry or bleached. This is an area where I still find some sand
amplifiers lacking, but the SA-30 produced realistic highs. They werent excessively
sweetened or rolled off, as they are through some tube amps, but neither were they a bit
threadbare, as through lesser solid-state devices. It seemed to me that the SA-30s
reproduction of high frequencies struck a near-ideal balance. Warnes own "The
Panther," from The Well, begins with a glissando from the chimes, and the
SA-30 reproduced it realistically, without any extra emphasis.
Even more important than the frequency extremes is the
all-important midrange, and the SA-30s midrange didnt disappoint. It was fast
and detailed, yet replete with the luscious tonal richness usually found only in better
tube amplifiers. It didnt fatten the sound with extraneous second harmonics, but
neither did it skimp on displaying a rich tonal palette. On Hilary Hahns performance
of the Barber Violin Concerto (Sony Classical SK 89029), the SA-30s vivid musicality
made this music sound more coherent than it sometimes does. Of course, Hahns
performance had a lot to do with that, as did the accompaniment by the St. Luke Chamber
Orchestra, directed by Hugh Wolff. Hahns burnished tone perfectly complemented this
autumnal 20th-century composition, and the SA-30 portrayed it superbly, without extraneous
So far, the SA-30 was batting a thousand -- but what about
another popular audiophile parameter, soundstaging? Into the CD player went my current
fave soundstage evaluation disc, a collection of masses and motets by Gregorio Allegri,
including his famous Miserere, performed by A Sei Voci (CD, Astrée E 8524). The
sound was spacious and open, but there was a slight tendency for the voices to
clump together in the center of the soundstage. It didnt sound like a mono
recording, but Ive heard amplifiers that spread out the individual voices more
precisely, with better localization of individual singers.
I hate noise. Fortunately, the SA-30 more than lived up to
the Belles reputation for total silence. My tube amplifiers arent noisy, but
the SA-30 just seemed to deliver blacker backgrounds from which music emerged unsullied by
noise -- just the way I like it.
Like the SA-30, Atma-Spheres S-30 Mk.III is a class-A
amplifier rated at 30Wpc. It costs $3750; add $500 to upgrade it with VH Audio V-Cap
Teflon capacitors. Also like the SA-30, the Atma-Sphere has first-rate parts: those V-Cap
capacitors and two toroidal power transformers. But thats where the similarity ends;
the Atma-Sphere has a fully balanced circuit with 6AS7G triode tubes for amplification.
Since the Atma-Sphere uses a balanced circuit, I used balanced interconnects to connect it
to the preamp. Fortunately, I had on hand some balanced interconnects from Clarity Cables,
equivalent to the unbalanced interconnects I used on the SA-30; the different
interconnects caused vanishingly little difference.
The Atma-Spheres ten output tubes and six 6SN7 driver
tubes make the SA-30s heat output seem positively arctic. On my equipment rack, the
SA-30 heated up the shelf above the one where it was placed; the Atma-Sphere heated not
only the shelf above, but also the preamp sitting on that shelf, and even the shelf above
the preamp. While the Atma-Spheres output-transformerless circuit wont drive
4-ohm speakers, it delivered extra power into the MaxxHorns higher impedance. But
given the speakers high sensitivity of 103dB, both amps had power to spare.
Thanks to its lack of output transformers, the Atma-Sphere
amp doesnt sound like a typical tube amp. Its beefy power supply results in a wide
dynamic envelope, and without output transformers to round off the leading edges of
waveforms, the Atma-Sphere reproduces steep transients particularly well. So in many
respects, the Atma-Spheres strengths match those of the Belles. Both amps exhibit
superb tonal richness.
Its lack of output transformers makes the
Atma-Spheres bandwidth unusually wide for a tube amp. Bass, in particular, is
outstanding: deep, punchy, and detailed. Treble is also excellent, but on Jennifer
Warnes "The Panther," the SA-30s treble seemed just slightly -- and
I mean slightly -- more extended and detailed.
One area where the Atma-Sphere S-30 outperformed the Belles
SA-30 was in soundstaging. It outlined wide, spacious depictions of performing venues,
with performers existing in their own spaces. This is an area where tubes are reputed to
excel, and the Atma-Sphere sustained that reputation. Thats not to say the Belles
couldnt produce a spacious soundstage; but the Atma-Spheres seemed slightly
more precise, with individual musicians better located within the recording venue.
The Belles SA-30 and the Atma-Sphere S-30 Mk.III proved
surprisingly similar. But the Atma-Sphere has a lot of tubes, which produce more heat and,
like any tubes, sometimes fail. I dont mean to suggest that the Atma-Sphere is
unusually prone to tube failures, just that the tubes in any tube amplifier will,
Style-wise, the Belles and Atma-Sphere amplifiers
couldnt be further apart. Each made a statement in its own way: the Belles is a
finely crafted example of the metalworkers art, while the Atma-Spheres black
crackle finish is defiantly retro. Which appearance is preferable is a matter of taste; I
tend to go with sound rather than looks.
For a long while Ive said that Id love to find
a solid-state amp that sounded as good as my beloved tube amplifiers, but after years of
searching, Id sort of given up ever hearing one. Lo and behold, here it is. However,
the Belles Statement SA-30 doesnt sound like a tube amplifier; its very clean
and distortion-free, with a tonal balance almost as rich as that of a single-ended-triode
Unless you find the romanticism of glowing tubes
irresistible -- and, more important, assuming the SA-30s relatively low power will
drive your speakers -- you owe it to yourself to audition this amplifier. Its price of
$4695 isnt really cheap, especially on a dollar-per-watt basis, but thats not
what the SA-30 is about; its about producing sound equal to or better than that of
low-powered tube amplifiers, with the maintenance-free convenience of a solid-state unit.
If you compare its total cost of ownership to that of tube amps of the same output and
sound quality, its definitely competitively priced. Its easily the best
amplifier Ive heard from Belles, and its the best solid-state amplifier
Ive heard, period.
So: fairly priced, terrific sounding, trivially easy to set
up and maintain -- what are you waiting for? If the family treasury allowed me to add
another amplifier to the seven (!) already in my arsenal, this amplifier would not
go back to the manufacturer.
. . . Vade Forrester
|Belles Statement SA-30 Stereo Amplifier
Price: $4695 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Attn: David Belles
479 East Street
Pittsford, NY 14534
Phone: (585) 586-0740
Fax: (585) 586-4203