[SoundStage!]The Vinyl Word
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October 2003

Belles 20A Phono Stage

 

Review Summary
Sound "Ever-so-slightly-darker-than-real tonal characteristics," along with a "wonderful way with…detail" and the "ability to separate instruments spatially -- thereby allowing all of that detail to bloom within its own acoustic space."
Features "Each Belles 20A phono stage is custom built to match its owner’s cartridge -- high or low output"; "despite the single faceplate, it is actually two separate enclosures that are attached by the faceplate and an umbilical."
Use "Due to the 20A's custom-built status, there are no internal switches or resistors that need to be fiddled with by the owner."
Value "The Belles phono stage…could at times transcend its modest price and fool me into believing I was listening to a more expensive unit."

The passage of time seems to have clouded over the manner in which this hobby of ours got its start. Some of the original cornerstones of high-end audio, companies like Marantz, Fisher, Scott, Audio Research, and Magnepan, began life as one person’s vision for better sound, which was developed and constructed in a basement, garage, or kitchen. But the high-tech business environment of today seems to have obscured much of what made this hobby so special at its inception.

But there are some people whose vision hasn’t dimmed -- men such as David Belles. He is the man behind the company Power Modules, maker of the Belles lineup of audio equipment. And when I say the man, I mean he's the only man. When you order a piece of Belles equipment, Dave hand builds, tests, and listens to it just for you. There's no assembly line, no factory, no big warehouse -- just David Belles doing what he loves to do, bringing enjoyment to audiophiles and music lovers alike.

And what better way to evaluate the wares of the modern day against those of the past than to listen to the Belles 20A phono stage ($1195 USD) -- what with vinyl being considered a passť medium by so many. Just how far can a handcrafted, built-one-at-a-time phono stage allow a person to hear into the music that is at the heart of high-end audio? Can a designer such as Dave Belles compete sonically and financially in the mass-production world of today?

Build quality

The first thing that I noticed about the 17"H x 2 1/2"W x 7"D 20A was that despite the single faceplate, it is actually two separate enclosures that are attached by the faceplate and an umbilical. No, the 20A is not a dual-mono design, as the inputs and outputs are grouped together on the right side (as you face the back panel). No, for the 20A, Dave Belles has completely removed the power supply and separated it from the audio-signal circuitry -- which can be only for the good when you’re dealing with signals as low in level as those from a phono cartridge. This was easy to figure this out, as the three-prong IEC power cord is connected to the opposite section from that of the audio input and output jacks, and there’s that thick umbilical that connects the two halves.

Each Belles 20A phono stage is custom built to match its owner’s cartridge -- high or low output. As the 20A is a solid-state unit, there are no worries as to seating tubes, tube noise, or the sonic degradation that can come as tubes age -- sweet! And due to the 20A's custom-built status, there are no internal switches or resistors that need to be fiddled with by the owner, so the 20A is good to go right from the moment it’s dropped into place and connected. I found that the 20A presented no special placement problems -- there were no noise issues due to any of the places I set the unit. The sample I received for review was set up with 34dB of gain for the Clearaudio Aurum Beta S moving-magnet cartridge (the moving-coil stage has 60dB) that I use on my VPI HW19 Mk IV turntable and Butternut Audio-modified Rega RB300 tonearm, and an impedance of 47,000 ohms (same for the moving-coil version).

The balance of the system was my Audio Research SP16 preamp (I also used the new Belles 21A line-stage preamp -- review to come), Sunfire Stereo power amp, Magnepan MG1.6/QR speakers, and Alpha-Core TQ2 interconnects and MI2 biwire speaker cables.

The results

The purpose of any component is to reproduce the music -- hopefully in as accurate a state as possible. In this regard, the Belles 20A fulfills its goal wonderfully. Never anything less than musical, the Belles phono stage, while not perfect, could at times transcend its modest price and fool me into believing I was listening to a more expensive unit.

The initial sonic characteristic that caught my attention when I finally sat down to do some critical listening (I’d allowed about two weeks worth of record playing to loosen things up first) was the 20A's way of allowing detail of all kinds to shine through. Dave Bailey’s One Foot in the Gutter [Classic/Epic BA 17008] was made all the more believable due to the manner in which the 20A brought the chatter at the beginning of the Thelonious Monk tune "Well You Needn’t" on this recorded-live-in-the-studio album to life. I could almost believe that I was in the studio with the musicians, laughing and joking as they prepared to record.

I followed the Bailey album with the self-titled debut record from It’s A Beautiful Day [CBS LP 63722]. Again, the Belles 20A's ability to allow all the acoustic instrumentation used on this album to be reproduced in a fully realistic manner made the listening experience much more enjoyable. I’ve listened to this album many, many times over the years, but my time listening through the 20A gave me a new appreciation for just how good a recording it is.

But detail without any other companionable attributes will become, sooner rather than later, cloying. The Belles 20A never suffered that problem. Along with its wonderful way with the detail was its ability to separate instruments spatially -- thereby allowing all of that detail to bloom within its own acoustic space. For example, on the track "Mistreated But Undefeated Blues" from Ray Brown’s Soular Energy [Pure Audiophile/Concord LP PA-002], an absolutely superb reissue, each instrument, from Brown's bass to Gene Harris’ piano to Red Holloway’s saxophone to Emily Reimer’s guitar, was placed in its own space on the soundstage, but still part of the whole group effort. And the reproduction of those instruments, with the wealth of detail the Belles 20A imparts, added to the sense of space and made for a most attractive presentation.

And this brings up another couple of the 20A’s more notable attributes -- its way with the soundstage and its overall tonality. In regard to the former, the 20A's prowess was amply demonstrated for me when I pulled David Oistrakh’s recording of Mozart’s Violin Concertos No.3 and No.4 [French EMI C 069-02324] from the darker reaches of my record collection and gave it a spin. There was the orchestra, luxuriously spread out before me, with Oistrakh front and just to the left of center. And due to the 20A's ever-so-slightly-darker-than-real tonal characteristics, the full weight and beauty of both Oistrakh’s violin and the other wood instruments shone brightly as they played these sublime works. I was enchanted.

For those of you who have read any of my previous reviews, you may remember my belief that if any piece of audio equipment fails to adequately reproduce the human voice, anything else it may (or may not) do correctly is gaslight. Well, the Belles 20A is a wonderful reproducer of vocals of all kinds. From Roy Orbison’s creamy-smooth voice (Lonely and Blue [Classic/Monument M 4002]) to Thelma Houston’s powerful soul/blues vocals (I’ve Got the Music in Me [Sheffield Labs-2]), I always felt I was in the presence of real, living human beings. The 20A was fully as good as anything else I’ve heard in this regard.

But the one album that really sold me on to the sonic abilities of the Belles 20A was a near-mint copy of Bill Berry’s direct-to-disc album For Duke [M&K Realtime RT-101]. This album has been rightly praised for its superb sound (and dammed for its less-than-original music). When this album was played back via the 20A, I was struck again by just how real it can sound. Each of the instruments was three-dimensional and presented with bite, snap, weight, and a realness that allowed my mind to move beyond the real-or-recorded quandary and focus instead on the simple matter of enjoyment. And the 20A's ease of presentation allowed the music to blossom to its fullest extent. It made my listening time rewarding and fun.

In comparison

Comparing the 20A to the built-in phono section of my Audio Research SP16 highlighted a contrast in styles, but both reached the same destination -- very good sound. The Belles 20A was a bit darker- and richer-sounding, with a slightly more laid-back presentation. The album that most clearly rendered these differences was Roy Orbison's Lonely and Blue. Both phono stages allowed Orbison’s powerful-yet-creamy voice to shine through. The Belles, though, set Orbison back behind the plane of my speakers, and its slightly darker tonality added a touch of extra richness to the lower half of his voice. This served to enhance the spatial aspects of the music more so than the same music played back through the SP16, despite the album being recorded in mono.

Also, the gain of the Belles 20A was a bit lower than that of the Audio Research SP16's phono stage. I thus had to wick up the volume somewhat more than I normally do when using the SP16's built-in phono section. But when I swapped in the Belles 21A preamp with its significantly higher gain, the 20A’s lower output allowed me to set the volume control more toward the middle of its range, where the signal is most free of sonic contaminants. On a related note, the solid-state Belles 20A is quieter than the tubed Audio Research SP16's phono stage -- no real surprise there; so turning up the volume with the Belles 20A doesn’t become a game of "how much tube noise can you stand" -- which makes listening through it that much more pleasurable.

And finally

Dave Belles proves that it's certainly possible to compete in today’s marketplace by building one-at-a-time electronic components like the 20A phono stage. The 20A merits strong consideration, especially for those who desire a superbly built, custom-made phono stage that won’t require a degree in electrical engineering to adjust for proper playback and doesn't cost a fortune -- or anywhere near it. The 20A's reasonable asking price and solid build will allow it to continue to offer wonderfully enjoyable sound no matter how far up the audiophile ladder you chose to climb.

If all of this appeals to you, give David Belles a call. He can make a 20A just for you.

...John Crossett
johnc@soundstage.com

Belles 20A Phono Stage
Price: $1195 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

Power Modules. Inc.
479 East Street
Pittsford, NY 14534
Phone: (585) 586-0740
Fax: (585) 586-4203

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

 

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