How do they stand up against the competition? Well, they might lack the sublime tonal delicacy and dynamic dexterity of the Hovland RADIA - but they deliver considerably more power and generally handle awkward loads with consummate ease. Likewise, they lack the absolute stability, substance and top to bottom continuity and presence of the Ayre MXRs – but they deliver a quicker and more obviously transparent sound that many might well prefer. And the point about the Belles is that they stand comparison with those amps in spite of the fact that the cost considerably less, less than half in the case of the Ayres. No, the Belles MB-200s aren’t better than the RADIA or the MXRs – but they are snapping at their heals which makes them an absolute bargain in monetary terms. Besides which, they also bring their own special quality to proceedings.
All those adjectives I’ve used up to know might just sum up a classically controlled yet ultimately, musically sterile solid-state powerhouse. But the Belles have that necessary ability of any really good amp – invisibility. They are so devoid of grain and dynamic constraint that music flows from the soundstage completely unimpeded. It’s a skill they share with the Hovland and Ayres, but in combination with their astonishing transparency and sheer clarity, it producing some quite breathtaking musical moments, a host of captivating instrumental detail. Listening to the (normally murky) opening passage of the Stewboss classic ‘Wanted A Girl’, the wash of sound behind the picked guitar and bass lines – which starts out as thunder and rain – is effortlessly revealed as a shimmering array of differing and carefully melded percussion. The count-in has an intimacy and quietly convincing breathiness that conjures singer Greg Saffarty with an almost physical presence, preparing a path for his eventual vocal entry, adding an allimportant humanity to this desolate song.
But it’s sparser tracks like the Duke Ellington/Ray Brown ‘Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me’ (from This One’s For Blanton) that reveal the MB-200s’ inner workings. There is a slight vestige of Mosfet softness to leading edges, which robs the plucked bass notes of that last ounce of immediacy and attack. But at the same time there is an easy flow to the difficult lines, absolute pitch security and precision spacing of the notes, that makes what can be a difficult and somewhat staccato track on the wrong system sound fluid and engaging, even catchy – and I never thought Id say that about what amounts to extended bass solo. The gently tailored leading edges have their upsides too, and the occasionally strident interjections from the Duke take on a less aggressive tone without losing any of their rhythmic urgency.
In fact, as well as getting out of the way of the music just like any good amp should, the MB-200s almost seem to give it a quick brush and tidy up and a gentle shove to help it along. They are wonderfully even top to bottom, and if they err tonally it is ever so slightly to the lean, clean side of things, making sure that the signal is never burdened with unwarranted dollops of extra weight, slowing or slurring its progress. It’s a quality that also makes the Belles mono-blocs remarkably transparent to source components and quality, another reason that they’ve become something of a fixture around here. I used them with both the Connoisseur and their own matching pre-amp with excellent results, and sources as varied as the Grand Prix Audio Monaco and Kuzma turntables, and Goldmund, Wadia and Zanden CD players. Their surefooted and confident delivery never once let me down. The particular qualities of the Monaco have rarely been as apparent, the differences between the Wadia and Zanden players rendered clear and distinct. The MB-200s mark a seriously impressive debut for Belles, at least as far as Hi-Fi Plus is concerned. But like all good stories this one saves the best bit for last. At around £5K, there should be plenty of takers for the MB-200, but if that’s a little rich for your blood then there’s a lineintegrated on the way, whilst moving up in price you have a choice of 500 or 80 Watt Class A mono-blocs – none of which I’ve heard. Yet! But what I have heard is the LA-01 line-stage and if you think the MB-200s are a bargain, just wait until you hear this sucka…