From time to time you will meet someone of your preferred gender who seems to sparkle in your eyes. Maybe its looks, maybe its brains, maybe its brawn, and possibly all three. Even the most rational among us lose grip of our sense of empiricism at such moments. A whole category of English literature is devoted to the subject, although it tends to prefer words such as "blinded" and "swept away" over, say, "empiricism." When so moved we tend to filter the objects of our passion through a perspective so favorable it may defy logic. Often this is fine, and even cute -- "Youre beautiful when youre angry."
But its all too easy to go overboard -- "Im sure that when she embezzled the million dollars and poisoned the CEO she had a good reason." This is probably too far. "Youre beautiful when youre throwing antique vases at my head," is also a stretch. Its not always easy to know how much irrationality is enough, especially when youre the one under its spell.
So as a serious-minded audiophile and critic, I am prone to worry about the intoxicating effects of a particularly sexy piece of gear. Irrational exuberance is easy to come by, and we all know how that bubble can burst. In a perfect world we would be immune to sonic voodoo, draped in our white lab coats coolly arranging double-blind A/B comparisons in a cozy anechoic chamber. A reviewer should remain grounded, objective, fair and balanced.
But then the Bel Canto eVo2i Generation II pops out of its carton, all long legs and batting eyelashes. As a critic, you brace yourself. Must resist . Feeling woozy .
Formed in 1990, Bel Canto Design was originally inspired by the single-ended-triode craze. But in recent years, the Minnesota-based company has made its name by focussing on ultra-contemporary design philosophies, represented especially by the eVo series of digital amplifiers. The basic technology behind the highly regarded eVo2 amplifier has been combined with Bel Canto's PRE6 preamplifier to create the eVo2i Generation II integrated amplifier, which comes standard with remote control and costs $2990 USD.
The eVo2i II is said to deliver 120Wpc into 8 ohms and 200Wpc into 4 ohms. The eVo, or "eVolutionary" design as Bel Canto puts it, is based around the Tripath class-T digital-amplification module. This relies on two N-channel MOSFET switches between power-supply rails, which is what gives digital amplifiers their commonly known tag: switching amplifiers. Unlike traditional switching amplifiers, however, the Tripath module is said to avoid typical drawbacks of class-D designs such as high switching noise and frequency-response changes across loads. The module's noise-shaping algorithms are said to eliminate these compromises. With greater than 90% operating efficiency, Bel Canto's eVo design generates very little of the excess heat one expects from a high-powered amplifier.
Preamplification inside the eVo2i II is designed to minimize noise. Rather than utilize a traditional potentiometer for volume control, Bel Canto has combined an analog stepped attenuator with a digital micro-controller. As a result, volume ranges across 100dB in 0.5dB increments with the shortest signal path possible.
The eVo2i II has five inputs, including one set of balanced XLR connections, one set of tape inputs, and three RCA inputs. There are single sets of tape outputs and line-level outputs as well, the latter of which can be used to extend the signal to a subwoofer, a second amplifier, or a signal processor. There is no phono stage. A rear power rocker switch is intended to remain in the on position at all times -- the unit can be placed in standby mode from the front panel or remote control. It draws just 29 watts at idle.
The rear connections are laid out in a categorical fashion, with the removable IEC power cord on the right side (a two-meter power cord is included), the inputs across the center, and both sets of speaker outputs at the left side. Some may prefer the alternative layout seen in other integrated amps, where the speaker outputs are on the left and right sides respectively, but this did not prove to be a significant issue. The five-way binding posts are slightly on the small side and feature clear plastic nuts that are not as easy to grip as some other designs. A center pin can be removed for use with banana plugs. Despite the plastic nuts, it was easy to achieve a tight clamp down over thick spades with manual pressure.
The eVo2i II is handsomely housed in a sturdy black chassis with a brushed-steel faceplate. Buttons are kept to a minimum, with only Mute and Enter on the left side of the display, and a four-way selector on the right (which doubles as volume control), plus the standby button. All of the buttons are small, steely and click confidently. A large, cool-blue LED display fills the center of the face. It is unusually detailed for audiophile gear, but also tasteful and not at all similar to the crowded and garish displays one often finds on mass-market stereo equipment. The display can be disabled via the controls. The sculptural remote is a thick hunk of aluminum that has a very high fondle factor. Whats more, it duplicates all of the face controls, including discrete input selections. The eVo2i II measures 17 1/2" x 14 1/2" x 4 1/2" and weighs 36 pounds in its shipping box.
Bel Cantos contemporary touch carries through to the units interface design. With one of the more advanced user interfaces in the integrated market, the Bel Canto eVo2i II is highly configurable via a hierarchical menu system. Especially nice is the ability to customize source labels (perhaps for SACD and DVD-A) and to define initial volume levels for each source. Furthermore, the unit itself can adjust the volume downward when switching sources to prevent a jarring surprise. The degree of configurability and intuitiveness in both design and behavior of the eVo2i II is a refreshing example for other manufacturers. While audiophiles are often rightly suspicious of clutter, Bel Canto has achieved a smart design that's more Mac than PC.
The eVo2i II was mated to a pair of ProAc Response Two S speakers. These loudspeakers are normally driven by a Primare A20 70Wpc solid-state integrated amplifier. Cabling includes Canare 4S8 speaker cables terminated with large spades at the amplifier and bare wire at the loudspeaker, and DH Labs BL-1 interconnects. Source is a Marantz CC65SE CD player fed through an Audio Harmony TWO harmonic filter.
Shortly before receiving the eVo2i II, I bought a copy of The Very Best of The Eagles [Warner 73971], the band's most recently released two-CD collection. This is approximately the 100th Eagles compilation released over the years as part of the industrys conscientious recycling effort. Those of us who were only small children during the Eagles period of relevance appreciate the rare opportunity to re-live this forgotten era. Because Id already been listening to these discs on my Primare integrated amp as well as an Ayre AX7 I recently reviewed, I gave them the honor of being the first test for the eVo2i II.
The differences were striking. On the slinky "One of These Nights," the bottom end came alive with a sliding bass line and growling guitar lying in wait well below the vocals. "Life In The Fast Lane" opens the second disc with a kick drum way back at the rear of center stage. Its authoritative slam and three-dimensionality breathed a surge of life into this well-worn radio staple. In fact, even "Hotel California" as heard for the eight-millionth time was reanimated all over again. The Eagles may now be dinosaurs of rock, but the eVo2i II created a Jurassic Park out of what otherwise might have been museum dioramas.
The "Alligator Crawl" on Red Rose Music Volume One [Red Rose Music RRM 01] swings exuberantly from low to high. The eVo2i II acrobatically grooves along, both bouncy and sprightly, simply full of energy. It carries this high-spirited energy into "Recitativo in Scherzo For Solo Violin," a piece always somewhat frantic and edgy, but now almost frighteningly so. Imagine its performer, Adele V. Anthony, maniacally bowing with a Cheshire grin like some kind of mad scientist of the violin. Exhilarating.
Another musician who gives her 110% is Bjork, Icelands most famous (and only?) export, who has brought electronic music out from the underground. Her brave release Homogenic [Elektra 62061] ushered in a kind of symphonic electronica both lush and cold at the same time. On "Hunter," the eVo2i II sounds like a force of gravity, pulling the swirling strings down to new depths. In "Joga," Bjork sings of "emergency," the urgency enveloping the listener of the eVo2i II. Her hard, steely vocals constantly threaten sibilance without going over the edge. You may feel boxed in, like being trapped in an MRI with Bjork screeching directly into your brain -- but in a good way. The eVo2i II is all about heightened senses. Its almost a drug.
The eVo2i II is adept at capturing both delicate and highly rhythmic playing. The guitarist Jesse Cook has found his own way to soar without any vocals at all. He and his band somehow mash together pop, jazz, flamenco, and Middle Eastern influences in a way that completely works without being defined by any one of those labels. His seminal recording Gravity [Narada 63037] captures his instrumental prowess, but unfortunately it lacks a deep soundstage -- its a bit two-dimensional sonically, but has rhythm out the wazoo (biologically speaking). On "Mario Takes a Walk," Cook builds around a very precise, controlled hook that really snaps on the eVo2i II. But when he switches it up and lets it swing, youre liable to find yourself playing along in some kind of air flamenco. On the Moroccan-sounding track "Closer to Madness," the guitar strings reach a pitch where they ring like little bells.
But Jesse Cook isnt so popular with the youth. These kids today, they like their music lo-fi, as perfected by those Upper East Siders slumming it downtown, The Strokes. On Is This It [RCA 68101] the Strokes make the old sound hip again. "Soma" chunks along like living inside the world of Welcome Back Kotter but with less attention to personal hygiene. Its low fidelity and high energy, and the eVo2i II doesnt show any hints of being overly polite. Sure, "Someday" is still probably better suited to vehicular use, but thats more a function of speed than any inability of the eVo2i II to stay true to the tracks loosey-goosey spirit.
Whereas its easy to think that these easygoing garage bands dont really care too much about anything, one could also say that solo crooner Sarah McLachlan cares too much about everything. At least she sings it that way. She begins Fumbling Towards Ecstasy [Arista 18725] with "Possession," a track whose opening vocals rush at you like a church organ rolling down train tracks. The intensity of this rush played through the eVo2i II is almost unnerving. Its not realistic, perhaps, but then McLachlan wasnt going for bare acoustics -- this is more Sixth Sense than Roger & Me. Its impossible to judge "accuracy" in this context, but its visceral, moving stuff indeed.
Yet very natural recordings suffer nothing at the hands of the eVo2i II. Neil Youngs old-geezer classic Harvest [Reprise 2277] is proof positive. "Out on the Weekend" is delicate, gossamer and deceptively slight -- a side of Young that that he manages to pull off without sounding at all fey. The track sounds almost fragile, as though each little note is held together by the barest of threads, and yet never remotely sounds like it will fall apart with the eVo2i II. When I bought this disc during my "classic rock discovery phase" in college, I believed there to be something wrong with "The Needle and the Damage Done." Toward the end of the second verse, the vocals seemed garbled. I brought the disc back to the store, but was told thats how the master tape sounded. No refunds. While theres certainly no comparison between my playback gear then and now, it is reassuring to report that the track is not garbled in the least with the eVo2i II. In fact, it's almost silky and honey-toned.
My Primare A20 originally sold for about $1400, or roughly half the list price of the eVo2i II. At twice the price, the eVo2i II should compare well to the A20. And it does -- in every single respect. Its kind of depressing, to be honest, because the Bel Canto integrated is on its way back to its maker. This really isnt a knock against the Primare. In fact, it is a credit to just how much the eVo2i II excels at its game. The Primare can be a bit dry and lean, and it lacks the deep power reserves of the eVo2i II. A direct comparison is not unlike that between a four-cylinder Camry and a six-cylinder Lexus.
A closer comparison is between the eVo2i II and the Ayre AX-7, which lists for $2950. The Ayre is a solid, well-rounded integrated amplifier hampered only by a slightly wonky interface. While the Ayre didnt suffer from any obvious compromises, it also lacked a strongly identifiable personality. For some, that is a real plus.
The eVo2i II, in contrast, is loaded with personality, but not bias. Its confident and cheerful, yet solidly built and muscular. It just seems to love its job. None of this translates into a skewed sound, or a compromise of one characteristic over another. Its a thoroughbred, really. You could name a racehorse after it. It doesnt hurt at all that the eVo2i II sports a fantastically intuitive user interface and lists for essentially the same price as the AX-7.
In the context of my particular system, I could hear no compromises with the eVo2i II. From its deep, authoritative bass to its delicate highs, airy openness, supernaturally three-dimensional soundstage, and confident poise to its classy and highly usable design, this integrated has it all.
And this is exactly why an audio reviewer might feel cautious when a product like the Bel Canto eVo2i II enters his life. One can become star-struck and wonder about his sense of objectivity. Ive listened to this integrated amplifier for two stretches of time -- once in an earlier iteration a year ago, and more recently in its up-to-date Generation II version. Quite simply, it demands an audition. Nothing Ive heard through these months of trials has contradicted the conclusion that the eVo2i II is an integrated amplifier with few peers -- and a Reviewers' Choice to boot.
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