Reviewing power amps can present a particular problem. After all, accumulating material to fill the pages of our august journal isn’t exactly helped by a feature count that could be listed on the back of a Bryant & May box. Of course, you can usually rely on the presence of some enormous, ex-Soviet transmitting valve, smuggled off of Russian spy trawlers, or a transformer hand wound by a castaway, who developed his design whilst wiling away the long years on some misbegotten island, and who is now so inured to isolation that he won’t return to society. What any journalist hopes for, searches for, a few even pray for – is a story; something, anything on which to hang his piece.
The Belles MB-200s are resolutely, almost bloody-mindedly devoid of artifice or embellishment, feature or frippery. They are neat, basic, compact and conventional. They are nicely put together, but no more than that. They are solidly built but a world away from the sort of immovable behemoths that cross my threshold with lumbarthreatening regularity. They offer the bare minimum of connections – and those are far from flash. They aren’t ugly; they aren’t even plain. In fact, to all appearances they’re just plain ordinary. The only characteristic they have that sets them apart is the preponderance of plain common sense that’s informed every aspect of their construction – and that’s hardly a story.
“So why,” you might well demand, “are you bothering to review them?” And I’ll thank you for asking – for that, now, that’s a story, because the thing with these amps is nothing more, nothing less than their musical performance. There’s no other reason to buy them, but believe me, it is reason enough.
Actually, I might have overstated their sheer ordinariness just a little: Class AB; differential circuit topology, eight pairs of Mosfets per channel delivering 200 watts into 8 Ohms and 400 into 4. It’s all pretty text-book stuff, even if it has been executed with an exacting eye for detail and a mind that weighs equally the paper performance of an amplifier and the more, shall we say “subjective?” aspects of the job. Indeed, textbook is as good a term as any to describe the performance specs of the MB-200. Conservatively rated (and I really do mean that), it will deliver a peak current of 64Amps and has a damping factor greater than 2000. It’s also flat from 0.2Hz to 125kHz. All from a package about the size of an Audiolab and which weighs around 14kg – most of which is down to the ridiculously large toroidal transformer employed. In fact, the last time I saw an amp that exceeded the chassis to transformer ratio of the MB- 200, it was the Vitus integrated – and that had two channels!
But that tidy paper performance is reflected in the mechanical detail too. The amp is neatly enough put together, but there’s also ample evidence of an enquiring approach to wider issues. So the aluminium chassis is constructed from plates of three different thicknesses to help reduce dominant resonance, while the surprisingly solid result is perched on four Stillpoints feet, to deal with both the vibrational energy generated by that huge transformer (not to mention the associated power supply components and all those output devices) and also to help isolate the circuitry from external interference. The socketry is simplicity itself, with only one single-ended RCA input (despite the differential circuit) and one pair of speaker binding posts – although at least those come from Cardas. Letting the overpowering sense of Puritanism drop for just a moment, you can have the amps in a choice of black or silver finish, but that’s it as far as luxuries are concerned.
Yet, as soon as you fire the MB-200s up you realise that there’s something special going on. There’s an instantaneous and lucid clarity that revels in instrumental detail without obstructing the musical flow: They’re clean and quick and clear, bold without being brash and crisp without being overstated. They’re also rather more powerful than the 200 Watt tag suggests, and I used them with a host of different speakers, ranging from the Goldmund Logos 1 and Spendor SA1 to the Eben Ayra C1, the Usher 6371 and Gershman Sonogram. The sheer variety on show there should tell you something about these amps’ unflappable character. Indeed, the only time I heard them in any discomfort was driving the ultra critical and clinically revealing MartinLogan CLX fullrange electrostatics, a combination that sounded uncharacteristically threadbare and strained through the upper registers. Neither product exhibits such tendencies in other company, making me wonder whether the Belles are more at home with more conventional loads than that presented by the big ‘stats. Certainly, none of the dynamic speakers presented the amp with any problems and those requiring a tight grip on an extended bottom (yes Gershman, you know who you are) or a little extra welly to wake them up occasionally (yes, yes Logos, that would be you) received exactly what was required – and more besides. Indeed, while they’ve been in residence the Belles have become something akin to the “go-to guys” in my current amp stable, simply because they seem to fit effortlessly into so many system situations.