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Equipment Review
September 1999

Bel Canto Design DAC 1 Digital-to-Analog Converter

by Marc Mickelson

Reviewers' Choice Logo
"…we should all rejoice that this  level of sound quality is available  at a price more people can afford."
Review at a Glance
Sound "Sweet, smoothly detailed, involving, organic, engaging"; "it has some serious bloom happening too"; makes listening to music a pastime, a pleasure.
Features Upsampling and jitter reduction; coaxial and TosLink digital inputs, one set of RCA outputs; lifetime warranty; can be ordered as an internal upgrade for Bel Canto SEP1 and SEP2 preamps.
Use Small size means it will definitely fit almost anywhere; TosLink input is acceptable, but does not sound as open or resolving as coax.
Value Provides sound that would have cost many times its price only a few years ago -- and still does in some instances today.

How many CDs do you have? I have over 1000. How many of these am I willing replace in whatever new format is around the corner? My answer is a quickly derived "very few." About the only CDs I’m willing to buy again are those I know can be improved greatly with remastering -- the Dylan catalog, certain Prestige discs, maybe some Johnny Cash. As with many LPs, some CDs will never make it to whatever is next, so I’ll be listening to those discs forever. And in terms of new music, I suspect it will be years at the very least until labels like HighTone and Rounder move to the new format, whatever it will be, and so I’ll still be buying CDs, and happily too.

For all of the crowing in print or pixel about 24/96, SACD and DVD-Audio, we in the audio press are not representative of the buying public -- or even fellow audiophiles. As we’ve come to learn over time, there are audiophiles who are not interested in the super-duper formats to come, and they are far closer to being adopters than the bulk of average buyers who will be the ones to drive the next format. Given this, what have we in press wrought? Are we spending too much time writing about smoke and mirrors, and should we be covering more products that have utility in the here and now?

Well, the only new digital story isn’t the impending format, but something that the new format has put in the minds of designers and buyers alike: higher sampling rates. The CD is limited to 44.1kHz -- or is it? dCS has had a professional upsampling digital-to-digital converter on the market for some time and has just announced the availability of a consumer version of that product -- at $4995. You still need a DAC, of course, which increases your cost even more. The results are reportedly very significant, as the upsampling technology digitally transforms a CD into a 96kHz -- or above -- recording, albeit at a price.

Bel Canto to the rescue with its DAC1, which upsamples too, but at a more reasonable cost: $1295. And it doesn’t require an additional DAC, handling the digital-to-analog conversion too. The technology used in the DAC1 is very new, perhaps newer than any of the high-rez alternatives, but makes sense even to a technical novice like me.

Petite

You can’t help but notice the size of the DAC1 when you see it. It’s a mere 3.6"H x 3.6"W x 9"L and weighs only three pounds. But don’t let this fool you; inside it is packed with high-quality parts (Caddock and Roederstein resistors and Wima caps among them) and its small size allows Bel Canto to offer the DAC1 as an internal add-on for the company’s two preamps, reducing the number of boxes on your equipment rack and the number of pairs of interconnects you have to buy. The side of the DAC1 opposite of the faceplate has no connections on it. These are handled on each end -- left for the IEC power cord and RCA outputs, right for the coax and TosLink digital inputs and phase-inversion button. As long as your interconnects are flexible, you should have no problem tucking the DAC1 just about anywhere on your rack and still displaying its faceplate for everyone to see. The DAC1 has no on/off switch -- when it’s plugged in, which should be all the time, it’s on.

The technical centerpiece of the DAC1 is its sampling-rate converter (SRC), which adds 8 bits of dither to the incoming 16-bit digital signal, increasing the apparent data depth to 24 bits. This information is processed at 96kHz and then rolled off to 48kHz via the DAC1’s special slow roll-off filter, which eliminates the time smear of standard brick wall filters used in virtually all CD players and digital processors. The DAC1 addresses jitter as well, using a new digital-to-analog circuit architecture to eliminate the possibility of jitter finding its way into the signal-processing path. Finally, the DAC1’s small size is said to eliminate internal EMI by reducing the clock- and data-line lengths to fractions of an inch and using isolated analog and digital ground planes. The DAC1 does not use the Pacific Microsonics PMD-100 digital filter, so it does not offer HDCD decoding. However, it can handle 24/96 signals from music DVDs, and Bel Canto maintains that the 48kHz slow roll-off filter has exactly the same advantages whether it is used for normal CD playback or for 24/96 playback. Bel Canto has a white paper that lays out the technical concepts behind the DAC1 in much greater detail than I’ve done here; they are guarded about internal components, however, because of the proprietary brainwork that went into creating the DAC1.

You can purchase the DAC1 from a Bel Canto dealer or directly from the company if you have no local dealer. In either case you have a 10-day money-back trial period with it to determine if it meets your musical needs. The DAC1 comes with a lifetime warranty, which I’ll speculate means that Bel Canto expects the DAC1 to last that long.

Review system

I used the DAC1 in my reference system exclusively: ProAc Response Four speakers, Lamm ML1 and ML2 amplifiers, Lamm L1 line-stage preamp, JPS Labs speaker cables and interconnects, Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect. I also used a melange of power cords from API, JPS Labs, Audio Magic, and ESP. Along with the DAC1, I had my Timbre TT-1 DAC, recently upgraded to TT-1 2000 status, and a collection of CD players to use as transports: CAL CL-20, Mark Levinson No.39, Audio Research CD2 and Linn Ikemi. I used either JPS Labs Superconductor2 or HAVE Canare BNC-to-RCA coaxial digital cables, Monster Cable Interlink Lightspeed TosLink cable, or the terrific DH Labs AES/EBU digital cable (with the Timbre DAC only) to connect DAC and transport.

One of the nice things about the DAC1 is that it fits just about anywhere on your rack, even in some cases on a shelf with another component. So I wouldn’t have to wonder about the electrical effects from other pieces of equipment nearby during the review period, I gave the DAC1 the top shelf of one of my Target racks, where it looked like a power supply among the other components. I began to like it there for this reason. Who says that audio equipment has to be noticed and take over the room? One other thing I thought of: I bet the DAC1 would be easily concealed from the prying eyes of spouses, and even if you were to get caught with it, your alibi would be simple: "It’s a power supply, honey." Ah, the people at Bel Canto are shrewd.

From a small box

As I’ve noted, I used the DAC1 along with a variety of transports and digital cables. Throughout all of this, the DAC1 showed its true colors every time -- with slight variations because of the different partnering equipment, of course. The words and phrases that began to litter my listening notes were ones that I personally hold in very high regard when it comes to digital equipment: sweet, smoothly detailed, involving, organic, engaging. From the very start, the DAC1 did the one thing that great digital does -- it didn’t sound like digital can: grainy, hard, artificially extended, mechanical. Instead, the DAC1 was always easy on the ears, but not veiled or dark. It just had a charming way about it, one that had me listening for hours on end.

Some specifics. Curt Cobain’s voice on "All Apologies" from Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York [DGC 24727] can sound peaky and harsh on some DACs and CD players, especially when the volume is too high. Not so with the DAC1; Cobain’s voice has a very distinct reverberant quality, but always remains composed. Of course, this enhances the experience of listening to this CD -- Cobain seems so much more within his element in the intimate setting of the unplugged set, and his calm, matter-of-fact tone when speaking to the audience makes it all the harder to believe that he was in such emotional pain.

But don’t let the friendly character of the DAC1’s treble fool you -- it has some serious bloom happening too, which is the opposite of rolled off or blunt and an indication of how special the DAC1 is. I’m sure I’m not the only listener to prefer Cassandra Wilson’s Blue Light ‘Til Dawn [Blue Note CDP 0777] to anything she’s done since, and on the Robert Johnson tune "Hellhound on my Trail," Wilson’s voice projects and spreads into the room, as does the guitar, especially when the strings are plucked. But Wilson is at the center of things, and rightfully so, her voice taking over the business end of my listening room and showing ample breathiness and air. Some DACs and CD players, while showing more treble extension, will diminish that sense of bloom, making Wilson appear less three-dimensional. This is the case with the Mark Levinson No.39, which has treble extension galore, but of a different nature. The Bel Canto DAC1 pulls off the illusion in this case with rare dexterity.

The images the DAC1 portrays are a touch lean when compared to those of the ARC CD2 and my reference Timbre TT-1 2000 DAC, but this is not a liability given the DAC1’s software-friendly disposition and graceful resolving power. The very fine remaster of Dave Brubeck’s Time Further Out [Columbia/Legacy CK 64668], the follow-up to Time Out, is slightly less present and full with the DAC1 in use. The CAL CL-20 in particular sounds more filled out, even plump, but it doesn’t throw a soundstage with as much air or lateral spread. The ARC CD2 is just about ideal in this regard and many others, but it’s not as smooth and easy to listen to on the widest possible range of recordings as the DAC1. Oh, and if you love Time Out, you need Time Further Out. On it, Paul Desmond is spectacularly restrained -- inside the framework of the tunes’ varying time signatures, of course.

The bass of the DAC1 is good overall, very expressive and able to display detail. And while it goes low, it doesn’t have the bass weight and slam of something like the Audio Research CD2 or, again, the Timbre TT-1 2000 DAC. However, this emphatically does not mean that the DAC1 has trouble pushing rhythmic music along. Quite the contrary. "Slap Leather" from the James Taylor’s New Moon Shine [Columbia CK 46038] is tight and explosive down low, and if you want to turn it up, you won’t be chased from the room by hard or grainy treble, but you will hear more thumping. So turn it up!

The more I listen to the DAC1, the more I am convinced that its real accomplishment is in making the equipment unimportant. I know we reviewers trot this argument out when we want to convey how really special a piece of equipment is, but in this case I offer it as an observation. You can settle into the DAC1 like a favorite chair, put on a disc and unwind -- or listen intently to the music instead of your system. The DAC1 draws me into the music, not itself or the experience of listening to music on an elaborate and expensive audio system. Some listeners will want greater fireworks, a more attention-grabbing sound. Everyone’s tastes are different for sure, but if music comes first with you, the DAC1 is your ally.

Two more performance issues. First, I found the DAC1’s coaxial connection to be superior to TosLink, which sounds smoother still, but also slightly darker and obscured. Bel Canto stresses how good the DAC1 sounds with lesser transports, and I suspect that the TosLink connection may be partially responsible for this as it may tone down the hash that some transports can have. I didn’t have a chance to use the DAC1 with, say, a Pioneer DV-414 or DV-525 DVD player, but if this can be arranged, I will report on my findings in a follow-up review. Also, while the DAC1 can decode 24/96 DVDs, I found that with the CAL CL-20 as transport, these did not sound nearly as good as when played directly with the CL-20. However, CDs didn’t sound as good either, the CL-20 sounding veiled and uninvolving as a transport. Again, a report with another 24/96-capable transport like either Pioneer model mentioned would allow me to make some definitive statements about how the DAC1 sounds with 24/96 DVDs.

Dare to compare

Longtime readers know how zealous I am about my Timbre TT-1 DAC, now updated to 2000 status ($5000). It’s the best digital component I’ve heard, which is why it’s been in my system for over five years. It has a gorgeous, music-enhancing character that’s never hard on the ears, offers potent bass, and has the unique ability to sound both friendly and highly resolving. Although I’ve encountered DACs and CD players that do one or two things better than the TT-1, nothing I’ve heard equals its overall level of involvement.

Nothing, that is, until the DAC1. In fact, I’m surprised that the DAC1 equals the Timbre DAC in the smoothness and resolution departments -- nothing else I've heard does -- while falling just short in terms of bass weight and image fullness. With some software, I was able to switch back and forth, adjusting the output level between, and essentially hear the same thing -- natural retrieval of detail and a clear picture of the sound that draws me in. The latest version of the Timbre DAC costs almost four times the price of the DAC1, and it’s no way four times better. While I still prefer the sound of the TT-1 2000, and I suspect that many other listeners would too, the difference in price makes the two equal in my estimation, and will put the DAC1 far ahead to other people.

Last words

CD sound is getting to be so good, just when some other format is on the horizon. Is there a connection? In the case of the DAC1, perhaps its 24-bit/96kHz heart is responsible for the lion’s share of its beautiful sound. Or perhaps it’s the upsampling and slow roll-off filter. Or maybe it’s the jitter-reduction circuitry. In any case, we should all rejoice that this level of sound quality is available at a price more people can afford. If you hate digital, the DAC1 is worth checking out -- and the same thing applies if you are a fan of the Timbre TT-1 2000 DAC but not its price tag. The DAC1 made reviewing hard because I connected so closely with the music, making the standard audio review seem all the more difficult to write.

But you are not in my shoes, so run out and hear a Bel Canto DAC1. It will hold up to analysis -- and defy it.

...Marc Mickelson
marc@soundstage.com

Bel Canto Design DAC1 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price:
$1295 USD.
Warranty: Lifetime.

Bel Canto Design, Ltd.
212 3rd Avenue North, Suite 345
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Phone: (612) 317-4550
Fax: (612) 317-4554

E-mail: info@belcantodesign.com
Website: www.belcantodesign.com

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