Bel Canto e.One Phono3 Phono Stage
The traditional way to begin
a review of a phono preamplifier is to lament the need for a standalone device. While
its true that in decades past most preamplifiers and integrated amps featured a
built-in phono stage, these were mostly a matter of convenience; serious vinyl lovers were
already looking for better performance than these devices usually offered. Many phono
preamplifiers are now available for a few hundred dollars, but these deliver performance
roughly equivalent to what youre likely to find with a built-in stage. The subject
of this review, the Bel Canto e.One Phono3 ($1595 USD), is squarely aimed at the
vinylphile looking for better performance at a reasonable price.
The Phono3 measures 8.5"W x 3"H x 12"D and
weighs a substantial 10 pounds. In appearance, the Phono3 matches the other components in
Bel Cantos new e.One series. The front panel is a piece of 1/2"-thick aluminum,
with a long, wide slot with rounded ends milled out of its center. If you have other e.One
components, youll appreciate the uniform look, but I found that, in a rack of mixed
components, the Phono3 just looked odd.
On other e.One components, the central slot frames the
display and controls, but here its occupied by only a single blue LED, which lights
up whenever the Phono3 is plugged in. Everything else is found on the rear panel:
high-quality, chassis-mounted RCA terminals for input and output, and a screw-terminal for
tonearm grounding. Power is supplied to the Phono3 by your choice of IEC terminated cord
-- I used the one provided.
The Phono3 is designed around high-quality audio amplifier
chips, and runs entirely in class-A. Signal bandwidth is specified as 1Hz to 50kHz -- any
wider would be pointless for a phono preamp. Accuracy to the RIAA curve is within
+/-0.2dB, 20Hz-20kHz. The signal/noise ratio is stated to be a respectable 80dB at the
40dB gain setting, referenced to a 5mV input. Self noise (i.e., the Phono3s
output with no input signal present) isnt specified, but I found the Bel Canto to
be, subjectively, as quiet as other high-quality phono stages. The Phono3 consumes 10W at
idle -- since it has no power switch, that means whenever its plugged in. The
constant power keeps the circuitry operating at the proper temperature and always ready to
play. Fortunately, that 10W will add less than $10 to your annual electric bill.
The Phono3 has two sets of DIP switches, one per channel,
for adjusting gain and cartridge loading. Rather than the user having to remove the top
panel to make such adjustments, these switches are conveniently located on the rear panel.
There are 14 choices of resistive loading, including the standard 47k ohms, and eight
choices of capacitive loading. While Ive seen phono preamplifiers with more
settings, the selection offered by the Phono3 should meet the requirements of all but the
most esoteric phono cartridges. Somewhat more constraining is the choice of only two gain
settings, 40 and 60dB.
Most moving-magnet and high-output
moving-coil cartridges have a nominal output voltage of 2-5mV. If the Phono3s 40dB
gain option is selected, the output will then be 200-500mV. An input signal of that level
will be sufficient when used with an active preamplifier, or integrated amp with
preamplifier stage, but may not be enough to drive a passive preamp. The same
consideration applies to the use of low-output moving coils, which typically put out
0.2-0.5mV when used with the 60dB setting. More gain may be needed for some low-output
cartridges, and it would be useful to have some intermediate gain settings. If, for
example, the output of your cartridge is 3.0mV -- as is that of my Shure V15XMR -- the
output of the Phono3 will be, nominally, 300mV. Thats not a problem when used with a
preamplifier of 500mV sensitivity, but its too low for one with a sensitivity of
12V. Increasing the gain to the 60dB setting for that same 3.0mV-output cartridge
will result in an input to the preamplifier of 3V. Now the driving voltage is sufficient,
but with a substantial increase in noise. This doesnt mean that the Phono3 is a bad
design, but it does suggest that consideration be paid to the equipment with which it is
to be used.
Setting up the Phono3 was quick and uncomplicated. Pull it
out of the thick packing foam, and adjust the DIP switches on the rear to best match your
cartridge (whose manual should include recommendations for loading). Place the Bel Canto
on a convenient shelf on your equipment rack, connect the inputs and outputs, and plug it
in. The whole operation took me less than five minutes. At that point, youll
probably want to start spinning records, but Bel Canto recommends letting the Phono3 burn
in for at least 100 hours. To me, it sounded fine after having had a few hours to reach
True to its manufacturers name, the e.One Phono3
presented music in bel canto style. It was sweet and fluid. Ive heard thankfully few
analog front-ends that have been harsh or fatiguing, but the Phono3 distinguished itself
with an exceptionally inviting sound that led to some of the longest listening sessions
Ive had in quite a while. I heard an ease and naturalness with the Phono3 that was
intoxicating. This fluidity and sweetness didnt seem to be something covering the
signal, but rather the result of its adding very few artifacts.
At first I thought the Phono3s high frequencies
somewhat curtailed. But as I listened more to it, I decided that its highs just
werent drawing undue attention to themselves. Many designers will tip up a
components frequency response to create an impression of more extended highs. At
other times, what the listener perceives as high-frequency extension is actually a slight
bump in the mid-high frequencies. These arent necessarily bad things, but the
Phono3 evidently wasnt designed that way. Its frequency response extended smoothly
into the highest treble in perfect proportion to the rest of the range.
I didnt notice the highest frequencies as such --
they became evident in the harmonic textures of voices and instruments. Whether it was
John Coltranes saxophone, massed strings, or Alison Krausss angelic voice, the
presence of such harmonic information -- in the proper proportions -- was a better
representation of the sounds of real instruments than Im accustomed to hearing from
analog or digital.
From my initial comments about the sweetness of the Bel
Cantos sound, you might think it had a lush midrange. However, I heard
"lushness" only when the recording itself was particularly lush. Rather than a
sweetness resulting from sonic syrup poured over everything, the Phono3 had the clean
sweetness of spring air. In fact, the distinguishing characteristic of the Phono3s
midrange was its lack of character. It wasnt lush or lean, highlighted or
recessed. Although what I heard through the Bel Canto was usually pleasing, it changed
with the recording -- which is exactly how any component should behave.
The Phono3 did have a particular character in the low
frequencies. Its bass didnt give an impression of exceptional depth or power;
rather, it was articulate and tuneful. Walking bass lines in particular were served
extremely well by the Phono3. Each note had a precise pitch and tonal structure, and
occupied a defined interval of time. The decay of each plucked note was rendered
naturally, with no additional bloom or overhang.
Many classical recordings, particularly of large-scale
orchestral works, can benefit from a little more bass depth and weight. While such a sound
is not always strictly accurate, a bit of extra bloom can add to the grandeur of such
music. Absent such grandeur, you gain the ability to hear clear articulations from the
double-basses. The difference is akin to hearing an orchestra in a large, reverberant hall
vs. a smaller, drier one. In this respect the Bel Canto Phono3 fit my priorities, though
it may not fit yours. Alternatively, if your speakers have weightier bass than my
minimonitors, the balance may be just right.
Rock recordings can go either way. Additional power from
the bass guitar and bass drum can help make a recording sound more physical. In one way,
that boosts the energy level, but too much bass can also make a song feel slow. The quick,
taut bass of the Phono3 lent rock recordings a different sort of energy that propelled the
One aspect of analog playback that Ive found to be
greatly dependent on the quality of the phono preamplifier is soundstaging. Most
preamplifiers can preserve the left-right spread very well, but there are significant
differences in depth among the various designs I've heard. To be sure, not all recordings
have a sense of depth to portray, but when it was there -- as on any of the RCA Living
Stereo recordings of the Boston Symphony or Chicago Symphony -- the Phono3 could produce a
cavernous sound. Such a natural sense of depth isnt to be found and appreciated only
on classical recordings. When listening to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Drinkin
TNT N Smokin Dynamite (LP, Blind Pig BLP 1182), it was easy to close my
eyes and imagine that I was there at the Montreux Jazz Festival, so natural was the sense
For the past five years, my phono stage has been the Trigon
Vanguard II with Volcano power supply. The Vanguard II is relatively inexpensive ($600),
but on its own is only a modest sonic improvement over many built-in stages. Though the
Volcano power supply doubles the cost of the package, to $1200, it catapults the Vanguard
IIs performance into a different league, and still costs $395 less than the Bel
Canto e.One Phono3.
Although both stages employ chip-based, class-A
amplification, there are some notable design differences. The German-made Trigon is a much
more flexible design than the US-made Bel Canto. The Vanguard II has more choices of
resistive and capacitive loading and, more important, its gain is adjustable in 16 steps
from 42 to 66dB (as opposed to the Phono3s mere two choices). While there may be
cartridges that the Trigon cant accommodate, the vast majority of buyers will have
no trouble fitting it into their systems.
Another key difference between the two designs is their
power supplies. The Phono3s supply is entirely within the unit, and accounts for its
greater size and weight. The Vanguard IIs external transformer can be upgraded to
the Volcano battery supply. Trigons approach has two theoretical advantages over Bel
Cantos. First, moving the power supply outside the chassis can reduce
electromagnetic interference between it and the stages sensitive amplification
circuits. Inside the Phono3s rather large case, Bel Canto has placed the
power-supply board as far away as possible from the signal board, but obviously, an
outboard supply can be placed at a much greater distance. Second, using a battery power
supply rather than plugging directly into the wall should result in cleaner power being
supplied to the phono stage. While I can hear a tremendous difference between engaging and
disengaging the Vanguard IIs battery supply, it didnt seem to confer any
significant advantage over the Phono3 with respect to the noise floor. Cleaner power could
also reduce signal distortion, but its impossible to separate those effects from
other design differences between the two components.
Contrary to what one might expect from a battery-powered
component, the Vanguard IIs bass performance seemed actually slightly fuller than
the Phono3s. Bass tunefulness and articulation, on the other hand, were not as good.
On violinist Christian Ferras and cellist Paul Torteliers recording of Brahms
Double Concerto, with Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia Orchestra (LP, EMI ASD 549),
the double-basses seemed a bit larger through the Vanguard II, but not as precise in their
playing as through the Phono3.
Neither component unduly emphasized the highest
frequencies, but the Phono3 was slightly more subdued and slightly more refined than the
Vanguard II. Listening to the woodwinds on the same Brahms recording, I heard more
lifelike harmonic textures through the Bel Canto than through the Trigon. At the beginning
of the second movement is a beautiful legato passage played by both soloists. The sounds
blended well through the Vanguard II; through the Phono3, they blended just as
beautifully, but were also more clearly two instruments -- the way one hears it in a
concert hall. The midrange was also sweeter through the Bel Canto than through the Trigon.
With the Vanguard II, I noticed a slight grit that just wasnt present with the
There was a difference in soundstage perspective between
the two phono stages. Both did a very good job of positioning instruments properly from
left to right, and both could convey a sense of depth. There was always a bit more
depth with the Bel Canto, even when a recording probably didnt have much depth to
begin with. This added depth will likely please most classical listeners, but for other
genres, the Trigons more up-front perspective may be preferable. In fact, the
combination of the differences in soundstaging and tonal balance made the Trigon sound
more energetic, the Bel Canto more laid-back. Which you will prefer will ultimately depend
on your system, personal taste, and the music to which you listen.
At $1595, the Bel Canto e.One Phono3 is only for the
audiophile who is serious about vinyl reproduction, but considering its sound and build
quality, its not unreasonably priced. Its sound may not be right for all listeners,
and its rather narrow range of settings, particularly of gain, means that it wont
fit all systems. For me, though, the Phono3 was an excellent fit. I found that its
articulate and tuneful bass brought life to recordings of small-ensemble jazz, its sweet
midrange captivatingly reproduced voices, and its depth of soundstage imbued many
classical recordings with a concert-like feel. Bel Cantos e.One Phono3 did its part
to make possible the most satisfying listening experiences Ive had with my system.
. . . .S. Andrea Sundaram
|Bel Canto Design e.One Phono3
Price: $1595 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
212 Third Avenue North, Suite 274
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Phone: (612) 317-4550
Fax: (612) 359-9358