Not long ago, Minnesota-based Bel Canto Design seemed like a technically innovative but otherwise traditional high-end audio company, complete with top-tier products that sold at decidedly upper-crust prices. With the advent of the firm’s e.One-series components a few years ago, however, Bel Canto reached a turning point of sorts, where it was able to offer very high performance products at much more manageable, real-world prices—a welcome turn of events for budget-minded music lovers. For the past few months I’ve been getting to know one of Bel Canto’s most versatile e.One models: the S300iU integrated amplifier/USB DAC, which sells for $1995.
Like other e.One models, the S300iU is housed in a compact enclosure that is deeper than it is wide, sized so that pairs of e.One components can fit side by side on typical equipment racks. Pictures, I discovered, don’t do justice to the S300iU, which is solidly built and blessed with the exquisite fit and finish reminiscent of old school, metal-bodied cameras. So, while small in stature, the S300iU nevertheless pushes all the right high-end pride-of-ownership buttons.
The S300iU is simple in appearance and in use—its only visible user controls are an illuminated display window (which shows amplifier status, input channel selections, and volume settings) plus a single, ingeniously designed, multifunction control knob. By pressing or rotating the knob, users can select inputs, invoke mute or home-theater bypass settings, or adjust volume levels. A full-function remote is also included.
The S300iU’s integrated amplifier consists of a low distortion, wide-bandwidth preamplifier coupled with a potent, 150Wpc, dual-mono Class D power amplifier based on modified ICEpower modules. The amp provides four line-level analog audio inputs plus a fifth modular input bay that—in the case of the S300iU—provides a digital audio input in the form of a 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC (Bel Canto offers other input modules, too, such as a phonostage).
The input side of the DAC incorporates a built-in version of the circuitry from Bel Canto’s well-regarded 24/96 USB Link, which is said to reduce jitter and noise for improved sound quality. Interestingly, though, the USB Link circuitry probably performs better in the S300iU than it does as a stand-alone product because it is positioned on the same circuit board as the DAC—eliminating the Link’s traditional outboard housing, digital audio cable, and connectors as possible sources of noise and jitter.
Judged solely as an integrated amp, the S300iU was simply excellent, producing a tight, punchy, well-defined sound that was unfailingly well controlled—a “take charge” sound, if you will. When I first installed the Bel Canto in my system, I was surprised by the powerful, expressive way in which it handled dynamic swells, vividly conveying the sense of energy and life in the music. It also did a great job of resolving subtle, low-level sonic details and of navigating tricky passages featuring densely layered transient information. Compared to many ICEpower-based amplifiers I’ve heard in the past, the Bel Canto offers a noticeably more lively, open, and transparent sound, conveying qualities of immediacy and focus that make it a blast to hear in action.
During my listening tests, I used the Bel Canto both to drive two excellent but challenging speaker systems: the superb Usher Mini Dancer Two and the classic Magnepan MG 1.6. The highly revealing Ushers reward amplifiers rich in subtlety and finesse, but tend to expose amplifiers that have even faint problems with edginess or glare. The planar magnetic Maggies, in turn, also reward sonic refinement while demanding serious muscle—wimpy amps need not apply. To its great credit, the S300iU did a fine job with both speakers, offering up power and refinement in equal measures.
The only minor limitation I noted was that the S300iU didn’t reproduce very-high-frequency harmonics or the elusive sense of “air” surrounding instruments quite as effectively as my reference hybrid tube/solid-state integrated amp (which costs nearly four times what the Bel Canto does). Given this huge price differential, I thought Bel Canto’s performance was thoroughly admirable—good enough that, if my reference amp ever failed, I could see using the Bel Canto as a long-term substitute. One thing is certain: The S300iU is thoroughly competitive with—and in some respects superior to—other fine integrated amps I’ve heard in this price class. This is really significant when you consider that the Bel Canto also has a “secret weapon” most other integrated amps do not provide: a built-in, high-quality USB DAC.