Not so very long ago, Minnesota-based Bel Canto Design seemed like a technically innovative but otherwise very traditional high-end audio company, complete with top-tier products that sold at decidedly upper-crust prices. However, with the advent of the firm’s e.One-series components a few years ago the company turned a corner of sorts, offering products that still offer top-tier performance, but that sell for 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 what is arguably the most versatile of Bel Canto’s e.One-series models and the product that is the subject of this review: namely, the S300iUSB integrated amplifier/USB DAC that sells for $1995.
The S300iUSB shares a common chassis footprint with other e.One models, which means that it is housed in a compact enclosure that is deeper than it is wide and sized to allow pairs of e.One components to be placed side by side on a typical equipment rack shelf. Early on, I discovered that pictures don’t do justice to the build quality of Bel Canto’s e.One-series components. When I hoisted the S300iUSB from its shipping carton, I immediately found that it was heavier than it looked, very solidly built, and put together with the kind of fit and finish normally associated with old-school, metal-bodied cameras (think of early generation Leicas or Nikons and you’ve got the general idea). So, while the S300iUSB may be small in physical stature as high-end audio components go, it nevertheless pushes all the right pride-of-ownership buttons.
The S300iUSB is simple in appearance and in use—so simple, in fact, that its only visible user controls are an illuminated front-panel display window (which shows amplifier status, input channel selections, and volume settings) plus a single, ingeniously designed, multifunction control knob. By pressing and/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, which provides a largely self-explanatory suite of control buttons.
The S300iUSB’s integrated amplifier consists of a low distortion, wide-bandwidth preamplifier coupled with a potent, 150 Wpc, dual mono Class D power amplifier that is 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 S300iISB—provides digital audio input in the form of a 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC (Bel Canto offers other input modules, too, such as a phono stage). The input side of the DAC incorporates a built-in version of the circuitry from Bel Canto’s well-regarded 24/96 USB Link module, which is said to reduce jitter and noise for improved sound quality. Interestingly, the USB Link circuitry probably performs better in the S300iUSB than it does as a standalone product (which is how the Link is normally sold) because it is positioned on the same circuit board as the DAC—eliminating the Link’s traditional outboard housing, digital audio cable and connector as possible sources of noise and jitter.
What we have here, then, is a physically compact but nonetheless lionhearted little integrated amp that can do justice to traditional analog source components, yet that offers the flexibility of making great music when fed digital audio files from computer-based music systems. Whether you are looking to build a killer PC-based desktop audio system or perhaps a more traditional audio system that incorporates a PC or music server as a key source component, the S300iUSB could be the ideal amp/DAC for you.
Consider this amplifier/DAC if: you want an amp that makes an ideal “bridge component,” addressing the needs of those who own traditional analog audio components, but also want to make the most of computer or server-based digital audio files. But also consider the S300iUSB because it is powerful, well-priced for the quality-level it offers, and sounds great.