During my listening tests, I used the Bel Canto to drive two excellent but also challenging speaker systems: the superb Usher Mini Dancer Two’s and the classic Magnepan MG 1.6’s. The Ushers are highly revealing speakers that reward amplifiers rich in subtlety and finesse, but tend to expose amplifiers that have even faint problems with edginess or glare. The Maggies, in turn, are planar magnetic speakers that also reward sonic subtlety and refinement, yet that also demand seriously muscular amps—wimpy amps need not apply. To its very great credit, the S300iUSB did a fine job with both speakers—a result not all integrated amps could achieve (either because they lacked sufficient refinement, power, or both).
The only very minor limitation I noted was that the S300iUSB didn’t reproduce very high frequency harmonics or the elusive sense of “air” surrounding instruments quite as effectively the my reference hybrid tube/solid-state integrated amp (which, admittedly, costs about four times what the Bel Canto does). Given that the Be Canto costs thousands less than my reference amp, I thought its performance was thoroughly admirable—good enough that, if my reference amp were ever taken away, I could easily see using the Bel Canto as a long-term substitute. One thing is certain: the S300iUSB 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 stop to consider that the Bel Canto also has a “secret weapon” most other integrated amps don’t provide; namely, a built-in, high-quality USB DAC.
USB/DAC: The Bel Canto’s USB DAC offers taut, rock-solid bass and smooth, articulate mids, and when fed lossless digital audio files it produces 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 may become).
Some of my colleagues at The Absolute Sound have questioned whether USB DACs are capable of doing a good job of capturing the rhythmic and timing-oriented aspects of music, but I found absolutely no such problems with the S300iUSB. 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, meaning that it does a fine job of teasing out the intricacies of complicated musical lines, or of rendering subtle textural details that define the voices of instruments. One small drawback I noted, however, is that the Bel Canto’s DAC section sometimes exhibited a somewhat hard-edged, spitty, and occasionally splashy sound on abrupt, vigorous upper midrange or treble transients—a problem I’ve encountered with many other USB DACs as well. But don’t get me wrong: the S300iUSB does not by any stretch of the imagination sound bright or characteristically harsh or edgy. It is just that sounds such as sibilant “S’s” in vocals, vigorous cymbal strikes, periodic reed noises from wind instruments, aggressive violin bowing changes, etc., occasionally disrupt the DAC’s otherwise smooth, articulate sound. I found I could greatly mitigate such transient problems, though not completely eliminate them, by using a high quality USB cable, such as the Furutech GT2 cable I used during most of 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, the use of 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 that it is characterized both by its sheer dynamic punch (those slapped low-frequency notes hit with the force of a hand slap to the face) and—paradoxically enough—by its delicacy (Peer’s high frequency techniques give the bass an almost gamelan-like quality where harmonics and fundamentals mix and merge in exquisitely complex ways). Somewhat to my surprise, the Bel Canto just waded right in and flat out owned this track, providing sufficient bass control to enable 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 S300iUSB really came into its own, keeping up with Peer’s blazingly fast, rapid-fire techniques without skipping a beat, and beautifully delineating and displaying his high harmonics in their full glory. The Bel Canto really takes hold of the material it’s fed, creating a compelling sound that makes you want to stop what you are doing and just listen.