Bel Canto Design DAC3.7
Bel Canto Design is currently on a roll with its emerging product line of newly developed electronics – specifically digital components and amplifiers. The products covered in this particular review focus on the updated digital products that are born of the company’s continued innovation and implementation of leading-edge technological advancements. My interest (and excitement) for having the opportunity to audition and evaluate these newer components was due in large part to the fact that I already had, in my reference system, the respective predecessor products of each of these three devices from Bel Canto. As such – my familiarity with their overall sound would provide me with a baseline of understanding as to what the sonic (and operational) differences were with the newer products.
While both the DAC and external battery supply unit (i.e., VBL) are designed to operate as a pair, the newly developed REFStream unit (i.e., asynchronous Ethernet renderer) can be used independently and in any system. Specifically, the primary benefit of this newer unit vs. the company’s REFLink (i.e., USB converter) is an improved process for digital streaming specifically by addressing various inherent limitations in the USB streaming process. According to John Stronczer, Bel Canto’s President/Chief Designer and technical guru, there are numerous benefits embedded in these newer designs due to trickle down technology from the company’s highly acclaimed flagship electronics, known as the Black System. Stronczer further stated that Bel Canto’s overall approach is focused on incorporating the very best of what’s possible in digital reproduction/playback, throughout its product line, and at varying price points for greater consumer accessibility.
By providing a true upscale, flagship product, such as the Black system, Bel Canto Design has stepped up its game by introducing an innovative design that excels in overall music reproduction and in terms of electronics is a serious contender for best of the best. Impressively, the company has made a sincere effort to hold the line on pricing for many of its’ newer digital products with essentially minimal or no increase in cost from their preceding products. In fact, in one instance, the redesign of the Virtual Battery Supply (VBS1) to the newer Virtual Batter Linear (VBL), the company was able to lower the price and at the same time improve the performance. That’s what I consider a definite “win-win” approach, and a blessing for potential users.
INITIAL AUDITIONING & PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT
Once these newer products were in my possession – my level of excitement was quite high to get started. Initially I focused primarily on switching out my existing digital system including the Bel Canto DAC 3.5 MKII and Virtual Battery Supply (i.e., VBS1). This allowed me to do a quick initial comparison with the newer products even though I wasn’t expecting to do any sort of serious assessment due to the lack of burn-in time for the newer components.
First up I swapped out the external battery supply VBS1 for the newer VBL. Much to my surprise, with the newer VBL installed, there was an immediate and quite noticeable impact. The effect of the newer technology was clearly obvious and anything but subtle. At a macro level, the sound stage took on a more open and engulfing perspective with an overall clearer, cleaner presentation. So far – so good. Next, I replaced the DAC 3.5 MKII with the newer DAC3.7. Again, without any burn-in time on the newer unit, there were observable differences. However, this time it wasn’t quite so easy to say everything was noticeable improved. Through the newer DAC, the sound was smoother, more relaxed and with a more natural sonic quality. Additionally, there was a slightly improved organic feel to the music with enhanced body to each note. Dynamic energy also came forth a bit more clearly as well. For the most part, any preconceived notion that I had about how much difference these two units might provide was actually exceeded and my level of enthusiasm had definitely increased.
However, knowing that both units lacked any burn-in time, I followed the typical approach I use for new products such and left both components powering up with music signal running continuous. According to Stronczer – with these units, it’s actually more about thermo-conditioning of the circuits and he suggested simply leaving them powered up continuously. He further advised that it would require approximately 3 to 4 days for the DAC to fully settle in. However I’m the kind of person who sometimes finds it challenging to lay down a bottle of really good wine that might need a year or two before it’s ready for consumption. As such – I let these new components settle in for about 24-36 hours before coming back for an observation. At that point – I was instantly better able to capture the essence of the newer DAC’s sonic performance and was able to very much enjoy listening to music even without full break-in. After about a full week of continuously being powered up and with music signal running through this unit, it became quite evident that the newer DAC 3.7 and companion VBL were a significant improvement over my previous units.
With this accomplished and significant progress made thus far – it was now time to introduce the newer REFStream (i.e., asynchronous Ethernet renderer) into my system. Essentially, this newer unit would replace my existing Bel Canto REFLink (i.e., USB converter). This particular unit has served as my primary digital streaming device for several years and its overall performance has provided me with many, many hours of listening enjoyment. To say that I was a bit skeptical about switching to a different format/approach is putting it mildly. Plus – switching from a high-performance USB converter to an unknown Asynchronous Rendered sounded complicated and confusing. So with the User’s Guide and formidable hands-on assistance provided by the designer to walk me through the installation process, I was finally good to go.
What I experienced with the newer technology in the REFStream was another immediate and incremental level of improvement. With several veils dropped and the entire soundstage opening up, the sound had become just that much more musical with more information evident and coming through in a more relaxed, unconstrained, naturally dynamic and more organic manner. At this point – the cumulative effect of introducing this suite of newer digital playback units, including the DAC (3.7), power supply (VBL) and now the Renderer, literally had my head spinning.
Cosmetics for newer products = same size and similar overall shape but more refined appearance (front panel edges)
DIGITAL STREAMING - A WHOLE NEW WORLD AWAITS YOU
Folks, I consider myself somewhat of a neophyte when it comes to digital streaming and am not at all familiar with the technology, jargon and find it difficult to keep up with the myriad of products available these days. Having been a long-time user of analog playback (i.e., mainly turntables/tonearms), I felt I had a pretty good handle on the various hardware issues associated with this medium including such things as wow & flutter, speed stability, pitch control, isolation and much, much more. For the most part – these were tangible items that I could see, touch and intuitively understand. However, now with digital playback, especially streaming, I find myself dealing with a whole new set of issues that are often well beyond the hardware aspects and are much more focused on software. No such thing as standardization of software code to decipher the ones and zeroes – it’s just not that simple. It’s at this point where switching from the USB conversion process to the more advanced Ethernet process that I basically felt it more appropriate for this review to seek advice and counsel from the designer of the products under review.
The following represents the summation of a series of questions that I’ve posed to John Stronczer in my quest to better understand the newer digital streaming process and to hopefully pass along to the reader of this review some very interesting and important information. Hopefully you will find this both informative and worthwhile:
Me: What were your primary goals for upgrading from the highly regarded DAC 3.5 MKII to the 3.7? Without divulging any specific proprietary information, what are the types of hardware changes made to the newer DAC?
Stronczer: We took the solid architecture of the DAC3.5 MKII and improved the clock’s phase noise/jitter profile. We further improved the power supply architecture to take full advantage of the new clock along with improving the type and specification of the critical analog stage resistors. The rest of the design remains unchanged. These small but important improvements came out of our research that informed the design of our flagship BLACK system.
Me: What was the purpose for changing from the already superb Virtual Battery Supply (VBS1) to the newer Virtual Battery Linear (VBL)? What did you hope to gain sonically?
Stronczer: Interestingly, the design and development of the VBL actually started as an exercise in scaling back the VBS1 to a single output dedicated DAC supply. In the process of doing this - we tried a new ultra-low noise linear regulator that offers very high Power Supply Rejection through the audio band and beyond. The sonic improvements from this new supply were profound, resulting in improved dynamic resolution, ease of the playback and rendering the final result more musical and engaging.
Me: What are your overall goals for continually advancing your digital products? What types of innovation and technological developments must occur for you to reach these goals?
Stronczer: The state of the art performance of our High Dynamic Resolution (HDR) digital products is very high. We are able to achieve 126dB of dynamic range with extremely low levels of noise and distortion. Advances in Master Clock phase noise and jitter, power supply and analog circuit architectures and selection of critical analog components insure that our PCM1792 based architecture achieves extremely high levels of performance. The custom Finite Impulse Response (FIR) filter and high performance analog circuitry in our flagship BLACK system point the way to future enhancements. This improves the time domain performance, rendering the sonics more naturally, especially for 44.1.
We will be incorporating more technological aspects of the BLACK system into our newer downstream products. A major improvement in sonic realism occurs when using an Ethernet Renderer which avoids any USB issues from coloring the audio playback path. Our newer REFStream unit (i.e., Asynchronous Renderer) is the ideal front end to the DAC 3.7/VBL system and provides the final piece in our compellingly musical front end digital reproduction/playback system.
Me: Please describe what your motivation was for developing the new REFStream and what is the primary purpose of this component vs. the previous REFLink? Also, how close is digital reproduction to analog today? What are the holdups technically and/or otherwise?
Stronczer: We wanted to bring the compelling sonic and operational qualities of the Black Renderer to a broader audience. We have found that the best, most transparent digital audio comes from the Asynchronous Renderer built into the Black system. The ultra-low phase noise clocks coupled with our Ethernet based Renderer presents the purest signal path possible for digital audio playback. The sonic difference is striking.
The REFStream now becomes the best quality digital source, surpassing disc spinners, USB interfaces and dedicated servers as the most compelling quality digital audio source. Essentially, the REFStream is the best digital source component possible, a memory player/ultimate CD transport performance or beyond – the lynch pinch for State of the Art digital playback. It also opens up options for streaming Tidal with no compromise, as well as your own dedicated audio library.
Me: What is required to set up an Ethernet platform in your home? How does this work with Wi Fi and what's the difference of this versus Digital streaming via a PC, laptop or similar device?
Stronczer: You will need a robust Ethernet network, using a recent good quality router and/or switches. We do not recommend using Wi-Fi for streaming the audio so a wired connection will be needed. Using an Ethernet-Over-Power device such as the low cost TPLink device is an option (see link below). You could also go with similar devices from Netgear/Linksys etc. These basically use your powerline to transmit Ethernet traffic and avoid the need to run Ethernet cables throughout your house. You place one module on a power outlet near the REFStream and another on an outlet near your Router and you have a wired connection. This works very well and avoids the dropouts that can occur with any wireless connection.
You could also place a Synology or QNAP NAS (Network Attached Storage) disk drive near your Router and use this to store your music library - they have built in Music Sever applications that work well. The NAS can be controlled using an Android Application called BubbleUPnP. This can also integrate Tidal and Qobuz into the network and stream their contents to the REFStream. Once it is all setup and working it becomes a very liberating and compelling music source.
BubbleUPnP on an Android Pad will use your Wi-Fi just to connect and control the streaming-but the stream passes directly through the wired network to the REFStream. Alternatively a MAC or PC can be used with River as a Media Server on the network and control it using JRemote. However-this requires a computer running at all times and does not integrate Tidal or Qobuz streaming. One great feature with the networked audio is that you do not need a computer based PC or MAC music server-a simple NAS drive, or in the case of Tidal just a network connection to the Internet and BubbleUPnP on an Android is all you need to stream millions of CD quality songs. USB is a dedicated point to point link that requires drivers and a dedicated computer. In practice - no USB connection has the fundamental transparency of the Ethernet interface for audio streaming.
At Bel Canto Design, we stick with the classic PCM1792 DAC because it represents the best DAC performance achievable today. This holds true for every aspect of the DAC - noise, distortion, dynamic performance and even the way the analog output electronics interfaces with the PCM1792 DAC is superior to other options. The analog electronics operate completely in Class A mode, even the critical signal path resistors are operated Class A, with high average current flow through the entire analog signal path. This insures that transient thermal effects cannot influence the signal dynamics.
Many new feature-rich DAC products rely on newer devices that have inferior analog performance and inherently produce complex non-harmonic distortion effects that increase as signal levels decrease. The PCM1792 has distortion components that are very low, and decrease linearly as signal levels decrease. This is inherently analog behavior with resultant natural sonic characteristics, as opposed to the overly light, overly detailed ‘digital’ sound quality that many newer DACs exhibit.
IT’S REALLY ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC
OK, got that!? Seriously – my intent for sharing this lengthy detailed technical information is to hopefully enlighten you and help bring a better level of understanding and appreciation around the digital streaming process. And if you’re anything like me – you too may find that your journey from the former days of vinyl playback or even standard CDs, the newer approach to digital streaming can be a bit daunting. Also, what I hope to share with you, with these products and beyond the technology, is my observation of how today’s technology has impacted the sound of digital reproduction/playback to such an extent that if done properly, digital streaming can provide as musically engaging a sound as likely just about anything you’ve ever experienced. And, no – I won’t get into a debate regarding claims of analog’s overall superiority to digital but I will share with you that as someone who grew up with analog playback, and loved every minute of it, my current experienced with today’s improved technology with digital streaming – I have no angst towards digital and in fact, find it very easy to embrace as my new preferred playback medium.
This brings me back to the components under scrutiny for this review and my assessment of their overall sonic performance. Based on my experience with these components, over the past several months, my listening enjoyment has definitely increased and not by just a small margin. In fact, the performance of these newer digital components excel in their ability to dig deep into the musical performance and reveal the expressiveness of the artists in a very convincing and authentic manner. Additionally, they provide a full, rich sound that is loaded with texture and organic feel. Along with that – the level of transparency, openness and clarity are truly noteworthy. Beyond that – there is a heightened sense of dynamic thrust with speed, finesse and agility to the music.
Bass and percussion have excellent power, dynamics and outstanding articulation. For example – check out Ahmad Jamal’s superb recording titled Blue Moon. In this recording – Jamal’s piano is powerful, clear, dynamic and with proper tonal colors. The accompanying percussion behind the piano provides a sense of vitality and life and truly raises the overall performance. What I get with these components vs. my former digital playback system is a greater sense of ease and dynamic flow. Everything sounds just more natural, relaxed and convincingly real. Don’t get me wrong – I lived with, and thoroughly enjoyed my former Bel Canto digital electronics and would not have believed that they would have been bested to this degree. Major kudos to Bel Canto for their continuing research and development and also providing an upgrade path for their existing products.
The midrange of the newer DAC 3.7 is wonderfully open, clear and with a silky smooth quality. This is coupled with texture and a tactile quality that gives instruments a juicy organic feel. Going back to one of my all-time favorite singers, Nancy Wilson, on her wonderful three CD set titled Ballads, Blues & Big Bands – The Best of Nancy Wilson, I found myself marveling at how much better this recording sounded and how much more I enjoyed listening to it. Wilson has a wonderful voice throughout and the wide range of big bands behind her adds to the enjoyment.
The higher frequencies are fully extended, open, airy and sing sweetly with no noticeable digital edginess. This is one particular critical area where critics of digital have laid claims to superiority of analog playback. However, in my more recent experience with these products, I am finding the highs to be not only superior to digital of old but also very much on par with what I hear when listening to vinyl playback. Yes – there are still differences but not to the extent that many naysayers of digital proclaim.
Listening to recorded music with these newer products brings a sense of life and immediacy to the music and is even more rewarding than before. They also provide even more of the illusion of hearing, and feeling, the musical experience closer to that of a live performance. One characteristic of the musical experience that is sometimes missing when listening at home is the separation from the artist and his/her intent for their performance. By revealing more of the subtle cues and inner musical nuances of the music – it is easier to follow along with the artist and literally feel much more engaged in their performance. These newer Bel Canto digital electronics are true winners in this regard.
For the most part, my overall musical preference is in the jazz genre. However, I also very much enjoy R&B, fusion and various other types of music. Many of my favorite artists have been in heavy rotation in my system since installing these newer Bel Canto digital components with my level of enjoyment and appreciation being enhanced considerably. In fact – I am very impressed by how much more I actually enjoy various recordings that previously I felt the quality of the recording to be somewhat ho-hum. Good recordings now sound absolutely wonderful and less than great recordings sound noticeably better being much easier to listen to and enjoy. According to Bel Canto, with the REFStream/DAC3.7/VBL combination, as well as their top of the line BLACK System, digital playback is primarily limited by the quality of the original recording. Even 16/44.1 sources can be extremely compelling, musically. Once the digital source reaches 24/88.2 we are at a point where the playback equipment, amps, preamps, speakers/rooms are the limitation, the digital source is now effectively transparent.
Without question, these newer digital electronics from Bel Canto Design have very effectively addressed a number of vexing issues in digital reproduction and playback. Through the innovative technologies designed into these products - the bar has been raised in terms of overall performance and increased listening pleasure. At the end of the day – these products collectively form a platform for digital processing that has benefitted significantly from the company’s flagship Black system and at a pricing level that makes them more accessible to a wider range of audiophiles and music lovers. Based on what I am experiencing with these products in my system today, I am more than pleased with the increased musicality over an already outstanding digital playback system. Bottom line – the Bel Canto Design DAC 3.7, VBL and REFStream is a killer combination and very highly recommended. In fact – I don’t see these components going anywhere anytime soon and consider them as an immediate replacement for my existing reference digital playback system.
Note: According to the manufacturer, updates are available to convert existing DAC3 units to the latest DAC3.7 configuration. However, depending on the vintage of the unit, the cost of the upgrade will be determined once the owner contacts Bel Canto directly for an estimate.
DAC3.7 - $4,495
Virtual Battery Linear (VBL) - $1,000. Optional upgraded REF power cable -- $495.
REFStream - $2,495
Bel Canto Design
Designer: John Stronczer
Address: 212 3rd Avenue North, Suite 300, Minneapolis, MN 55401
Web Site: www.belcantodesign.com