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 percussion instruments captured in a pleasantly reverberant space. What wowed me was the sheer immediacy of the S300iUSB’s presentation, where the transient attack and well-delineated voices of the instruments seemed just spot on. As instruments were struck, their sounds and positions onstage seemed so life-like and vivid that I felt the almost child-like temptation to point toward empty spaces between or beyond my speakers and to say, “that gong/drum/chime sounds like it’s right there…” What was also very impressive was the way the Bel Canto captured the slowly decaying reverberant “tails” of individual notes as they gradually faded to silence within the recording space. Not many amplifiers could match the intensity, subtlety and fine resolution that the Bel Canto exhibited on this track.
I compared the DAC section of the S300iUSB to both the $700 Chordette Gem USB DAC (which will be the subject of a future Playback review) and to the USB DAC section of the $1195 Peachtree Nova amp/DAC (reviewed in Playback 21).
I found the S300iUSB 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, perhaps as a result, offered even more convincing and holographic 3D imaging than the Bel Canto DAC did.
The sound of the Bel Canto and Peachtree DAC sections were in many respects similar, 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 (without any loss in detail). Another practical point in the Peachtree’s favor was the fact that its DAC module provides not only a USB input, but also two S/PDIF and two Toslink (optical) digital audio inputs, which are switch-selectable. I would like to see Bel Canto equip the S300iUSB’s DAC module with switch-selectable USB, S/PDIF, and Toslink inputs to maximize versatility.
Because the products are conceptually similar, I compared the amplifier sections of the S300iUSB to the amp of the Peachtree Nova and found the Bel Canto amp was hands down the superior performer. Good though the Nova amp is, the S300iUSB’s amp section was audibly cleaner, quieter, more powerful, and capable of resolving finer levels of sonic details. Frankly, you could build a case that the S300iUSB would be a good value even if sold as a standalone integrated amp without a DAC, but the good news is that an onboard USB DAC is included (and a very good one at that).
Bel Canto’s S300iUSB is, first and foremost, an excellent and affordable integrated amplifier that can stand tall in comparison to just about anything I’ve heard in its price class, offering—in equal measures--both sonic refinement and serious muscle (meaning it can drive the overwhelming majority of speakers one might wish to use). The Bel Canto’s built-in USB DAC is very good (though perhaps not as good as its terrific amplifier section in an absolute sense). But the point is that the USB DAC gives the S300iUSB an extra dimension, making it a very serious yet also plug-n-play front end for use with computer or server-based audio systems.
Bel Canto S300iUSB Integrated Amplifier/USB DAC
Power: 150 Wpc @ 8 ohms
Inputs: four stereo analog (one with “home theater” bypass), one digital audio (USB)
DAC Upsampling: 24-bit/96kHz (the DAC in the S300iUSB, unlike Bel Canto’s more costly DAC3, does not upsample to 24/192 but operates at the original sample rate up to 24/96)
DAC signal-to-noise:106dB “A-weighted”
Outputs: preamp out, record out
Dimensions (H x W x D): 3” x 8.5” x 13.5”
Weight: 12 lbs.
Warranty: 90 days, parts and labor (automatically extends to 2 years, parts and labor, if owners return warranty cards within 30 days of initial purchase)