The Bel Canto’s USB DAC offers taut, rock-solid bass and smooth, articulate mids, and it produces—when fed lossless digital audio files—remarkably stable and sharply focused stereo images (each performer simply takes his or her place on stage, and stays put—no matter how complicated the music becomes). Some of my colleagues at The Absolute Sound have questioned whether USB DACs are capable of capturing the rhythmic and timing-oriented aspects of music, but I found no such problems with the S300iU. On the contrary, I thought it had terrific rhythmic drive and that it did a fine job of conveying the sense of “pulse” and “flow” within the music.
The Bel Canto offers higher levels of resolution than some, but not all, competing USB DACs I’ve heard, and its does a fine job of teasing out complicated musical lines, and of rendering subtle textural details that define instrumental voices. One drawback I noted, however, is that the Bel Canto DAC occasionally exhibits a somewhat hard-edged, spitty, or splashy sound on abrupt, vigorous upper midrange or treble transients—a problem I’ve encountered with other USB DACs as well. But don’t misunderstand me: The S300iU certainly does not sound bright, harsh, or edgy. It is just that sounds such as sibilant “S’s” in vocals, vigorous cymbal strikes, sharp reed noises from wind instruments, or abrupt violin bowing changes can occasionally disrupt the DAC’s otherwise smooth, articulate sound. I found transient problems of this sort could be minimized, though not completely eliminated, by using a high-quality USB cable such as the Furutech GT2 cable I used during my listening tests
I’ve spoken about the Bel Canto’s ability to capture the “energy and life” in well-made recordings and to experience those qualities firsthand, try putting on the track “Tommy” from bassist Dean Peer’s stunning Ucross [XLO Recordings]. Peer puts on a dazzling display of bass guitar techniques, including conventional finger-style playing, slapping, lift-offs, hammer-ons, overhand tapping, and perhaps most amazing of all, very-high-frequency harmonics that give the bass an otherworldly, chime-like sound. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing such a performance live, you know it can be characterized both by sheer dynamic punch and—paradoxically—by great delicacy (Peer’s harmonic techniques give the bass an almost gamelan-like quality where harmonics and fundamentals merge in exquisitely complex ways).
The Bel Canto just waded right in and owned this track, providing sufficient power and control to enable my speakers to create a good facsimile of a live bass guitar performance (something that—trust me on this—most amps have a very hard time doing). But it was in Peer’s upper register playing that the S300iU really came into its own, keeping up with Peer’s blazingly fast, rapid-fire techniques without skipping a beat, and beautifully displaying his high harmonics in their full glory.
Another track that shows the Bel Canto’s strengths to good advantage is “Talking Wind” from Marilyn Mazur and Jan Garbarek’s Elixir [ECM]. The song is a percussion tour de force, displaying an astonishingly diverse array of high- and low-frequency instruments performing within a pleasantly reverberant space. On this complicated track, the S300iU captured the distinctive transient signatures and voices of the instruments with surprising realism. As instruments were struck, their sounds and positions on stage seemed so lifelike and vivid that I felt the almost child-like urge to point toward empty spaces between or beyond my speakers and to say, “That gong/drum/chime sounds like it’s right there.” Better still, the Bel Canto beautifully reproduced the slowly decaying reverberant “tails” of individual notes gradually fading to silence within the recording space.
During my listening test, I compared the DAC section of the S300iU to both the Chordette Gem USB DAC ($799) and to the USB DAC section of the Peachtree Nova amp/DAC ($1195). I found the S300iU offered considerably better resolution and delineation of small sonic details than the Chordette Gem, but that the Gem consistently sounded smoother on upper midrange/treble transients and offered more convincing, holographic 3-D imaging. The Bel Canto and Peachtree DAC sections were much closer in character, though a careful comparison revealed that the Peachtree offered even higher levels of resolution, slightly tighter and better-defined bass, and somewhat smoother upper mids and highs.