Bel Canto PRe2
|Bel Canto PRe2
Tonal Accuracy and Musical Purity
Over the past couple of years, the folks at Bel Canto Design have been working hard to create new high performance electronics for both the high-end audio and video markets. A number of their more recent products have garnered praise and accolades from various organizations in the high-end audio industry. For example, their PRe6 multi-channel line stage received runner-up to ‘Product of the Year” in 2004 by Stereophile magazine, their PrePro surround sound preamp-processor received the “Innovation Award” in 2003 by CES and finally their highly acclaimed eVo series amplifiers were also recognized in 2004 by Stereo Times as one of their “Most Wanted Components of the Year.”
Fortunately, Bel Canto hasn’t rested on its laurels but instead has continued to design other products to meet the needs of demanding audio/videophiles. The focus of this particular review is on the company’s newer two-channel solid-state line stage – the flagship PRe2. Based on my experiences to date, this unit is a real winner. In addition to its superb sonic performance, its retail price point is very competitive.
The PRe2 is actually derived from the company’s previously released, and highly praised, multi-channel line stage known as the PRe6. Initially, I was introduced to this particular unit and had the opportunity to audition it in my reference system. Early versions were quite good but not quite to the level the folks at Bel Canto were striving for. As a result, they continued their work to further refine this product with subsequent revisions bringing noticeable improvements. Now with the latest Generation II series improvements, this particular unit actually performs beyond my initial expectations.
However, at the time I had this unit in my system, I wasn’t really in the market for a unit with multi-channel, surround capability as the Pre6 was originally designed. Fortunately, chief designer John Stronczer was considering the development of a two-channel version of the Pre6 – something that would be aimed directly at the two-channel user market. As a result of continued research and development, by the design team at Bel Canto, the PRe2 was born and now represents Bel Canto’s finest effort for a line stage ever. This unit clearly stands heads and shoulders above all previous line stages from this company and is a perfect companion for the exquisite musicality of their award winning eVo series amplifiers. In my reference system, the PRe2 has raised the overall level of performance and has enhanced my listening enjoyment considerably.
Just so you know, my previous preference has been for tube preamps. For me to admit satisfaction and happiness with a solid-state unit is really saying something. I can also honestly say that with my previous bias for tubes, I really wasn’t expecting such a high level of performance from a solid-state unit. However, once the PRe2 was in my system and fully broken in, it didn’t take long for me to realize there was something very special about it. As a result, I’ve literally had a change of mind (and possibly my heart as well). For the most part, the PRe2 is an overachiever especially when considering its superb musical reproduction and its relatively modest retail price.
Ironically, Bel Canto’s earlier designs were basically grounded in the use of tube technology. Essentially, Stronczer was convinced that tubes were the way to go at that time. However, as the saying goes … “that was then and this is now.” Today, Bel Canto is focusing their design and development efforts exclusively utilizing solid-state technology. The highly acclaimed tri-path technology, which is incorporated into their eVo series amplifiers, has provided a platform for further technological innovation in some of their other products as well. For the most part, most of Bel Canto’s electronics are now designated as Generation II – signifying incorporation of the company’s latest technological developments.
For me folks, it’s all about the music. Whether it’s tubes or solid-state, as long as the unit serves the music, I’m there. I’m also very much a proponate of products that provide a solid value proposition by having a favorable price-to-performance ratio. This certainly doesn’t mean I’m opposed to higher-priced products, I’ve owned many and will likely continue to do so. But I also hope to see more audiophiles having greater access to higher performance products without having to break the bank.
In further discussions with John Stronczer, president and chief designer at Bel Canto, I learned that the research and development phase for the PRe2’s predecessor, the PRe6, actually took more than 2 ½ years. The PRe6 was designed primarily to address both audio and video enthusiasts alike. Despite the overall success of the highly competent multi-purpose PRe6, Stronczer said that his company also recognized that many serious audiophiles were actually looking for a high-performance two-channel preamp and didn’t need the additional functions provided by the PRe6. Additionally, Stronczer wanted to produce a less expensive unit. As a result, the Bel Canto PRe2 comes in at only $3,490 ($4,490 with optional phono stage).
Additional discussions with Stronczer helped me to also better understand his company’s philosophy of continually seeking ways to improve the sonic character of its products while at the same time holding down the cost to the consumer. Basically his design goals are to make products that provide as clean an electrical signal as possible. In turn, this allows the listener to experience a much higher degree of accurately reproduced music.
A Look Inside
The PRe2’s design is based on the PRe6’s established architectural platform and has the same power supply. Additionally, the PRe2 sports separate analog and digital control supplies, has 2-stage regulation for the analog stages and a new ultra-low noise power regulation stage for the final analog power supplies. Beyond this, the PRe2 has upgraded parts and a tighter layout that provides peak performance for dedicated 2-channel music systems.
These design features have brought about enhanced inner detail, improved dynamic contrasts and greater nuance in the musical performance. Subtleties that were barely audible before are now quite evident and allow the listener to perceive greater depth of the performance. It also allows the listener to clearly hear the intentions of the musicians as they move along the musical continuum. As a result, recordings that I’ve heard many times before now seemed to have more life and expressiveness.
In particular, one of my all-time favorite recordings sounds absolutely fabulous through the PRe2. I’m referring to the renowned singer Shirley Horn and her highly acclaimed recording titled Here’s To Life [Verve – 314 511 879-2]. This recording has some of the most subtle and seductively juicy tonal shadings that I’ve ever heard. Horn’s style is often to mix straight-out singing with somewhat of a lightly whispered approach. At times, her voice can easily get buried in the mix of the recording or mired in low-level noise residing within your cherished electronics.
With the Bel Canto PRe2, Horn’s subtle vocals are extracted with ease and tonal shadings are rendered with clarity and ease. This is just as you would imagine hearing her in a live setting. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to hear Horn perform live. The biggest challenge then was hearing her clearly and distinctly due to the higher ambient noise of the room (people talking, glasses clinking and other distractions). Although there’s nothing like the emotional expression that comes with a live performance, it’s also rewarding to be able to recapture the glorious beauty of your favorite artists musical performance in your home. With the PRe2, I can now simply go downstairs, fire up my audio system, slip Shirley’s little silver disc into my CD player (or any other artist), hit play and quickly be transported to a heavenly world of authentic sounding music.
In terms of style and appearance, the Pre2 is housed in an attractive outer casing and is quite similar in appearance to other newer products in the Bel Canto family (including the PRe6). The PRe2’s looks are attractive, basically understated, clean, cool and with a soft contemporary appearance. Functionally, whenever one of the many different commands is signaled to the unit, via the remote or manually, including volume, mute, balance or input selector, the faceplate becomes illuminated. When this occurs, you instantly see the latest volume reading as well as input setting. You also have the option to keep the faceplate lit at all times by simply pressing a button.
Lifting off the cover and peering inside, the circuit board is very tidy and efficiently designed. According to Stronczer, all parts used are of high quality standards to provide the level of performance expected. Additionally, the PRe2 sports the latest generation of digitally controlled analog attenuators. This precision level control provides accurate 0.5 db steps plus it won’t wear out. The newly designed balanced output stage is an ultra wide-band, low-noise and low distortion sporting a buffer section with Caddock resistors.
The single-ended outputs are designed with high performance Op amps including a unity gain buffer with Burr Brown OPA 627s. Dual RCA and balanced main outputs are included for easy multi-amplification or sub-woofer connection. Additionally, there are 7 inputs providing flexibility. These include 1 pair of (XLR) balanced inputs, 5 pairs of (RCA) single-ended inputs and a buffered tape loop.
According to Stronczer, the PRe2 was designed using an uncompromising modern approach to preamp design, which included using a short signal path that is critical to achieving a high level of fidelity from the source. Additionally, there is a single sealed, small signal relay in the signal path plus a parallel record signal path with buffered tape record outputs. Latest generation high voltage, wide dynamic range (120 db) digitally controlled analog gain control ICs keep signal paths short and near to the I/O connections. Also included is 100 db of precision gain control in 0.5 db steps with 0.05db of accuracy.
An ultra-low noise, wide bandwidth power supply is included to insure an optimum-operating environment for active gain and buffer stages. Dual stage regulation, with second stage ultra-low noise regulators, is incorporated into the design along with separate analog and digital power supply transformers and regulators. Nine separate power regulator stages insure lowest power supply noise and best regulation. Additionally, a four layer PC board layout and wide band decoupling insures low supply impedance to over 100 MHz with reduced sensitivity to RFI/EMI and inter modulation of RF energy.
Sounds Like …
All of this technology sounds great but how does it affect the sound of the PRe2? As with many good preamps/line stages, the PRe2 excels in letting you easily hear differences downstream in your system. In the case of cables (both interconnect and speaker), the PRe2 quickly revealed the different sonic character of whatever cable I had connected to it. During this review, I had the opportunity to experience a variety of different sets of well-known and highly respected cables. By doing so, I was able to gain additional insights into the PRe2’s overall performance. Clearly, this line stage’s high degree of transparency enabled it to reveal the sonic character of each installed cable set (see list at in the Associated Equipment section of the review).
The overall character of each of these cables was not only interesting but also quite instructive as well. For example if the cable had any sort of deviation in the tonal balance, the PRe2 revealed this as either an overemphasis or slight change from neutral. This was especially noticeable through the midrange and into the higher frequencies. Additionally, if the low-end reproduction of the cable was on the mark, lows came through in a full, robust, deep and organic manner. Again, the PRe2 let me know instantly.
Each of these cables also exhibited differences in imaging and sound staging. Again, the PRe2 allowed me to readily observe this. If there any were sonic artifacts within the cable, this became exposed immediately. Additionally, clarity, articulation, resolution and inner detail became issues I focused on more so than previously and each cable set seemed to have its own inherent sonic character. With the PRe2’s overall extremely neutral character, I found this to be intriguing with my listening even more closely focused on the overall affect of cables than ever before.
In terms of specific strengths and/or weaknesses of the PRe2, let me tell you first and foremost, the Bel Canto PRe2 is a killer line stage being not only excellent sounding but highly refined as well. This is important insofar as often you can hear something that sounds good but isn’t particularly refined and ultimately not all that convincing musically. Not so with the Pre2. Overall, its performance in reproducing recorded music has caused me to rethink my previous position about solid-state units versus those units sporting tubes. No doubt, Bel Canto has a real winner in their new two-channel PRe2 line stage. Fortunately, I’ve been able to live with this unit for an extended period and have been able to assess it character as well as continuing to enjoy its highly musical performance immensely.
In terms of bass quality, the Pre2 reaches deep into the lower frequencies with outstanding authority, control, clarity, articulation and finesse. As the music moves into the mid bass and higher, this same quality of performance is evident. Through this unit, the midrange is rendered tonally pure, neutral and accurate. Additionally, the midrange and higher frequencies are open, extended, liquid and sweet. Fortunately, the PRe2 does not exhibit any of the so-called dreaded threadbare character that has sometimes been associated with solid-state preamps and/or line stages.
The midrange of the Pre2 is close to, if not better than, much of its competition – regardless of price. In fact, performance in this area likely equals the superb performance of some of today’s truly exquisite, and considerably more expensive high-end preamps – regardless of whether tube or solid state. Additionally, where the PRe2 excels is through its overall tonal balance and neutrality. This is something where it may in fact beat out some of its tube brethren, even those costing quite a bit more. As such, coupling it’s superbly rendered midrange with the strong, solid, dynamic bass and extended, open high end makes for a compelling musical sound produced by the Pre2.
Another superb quality of this unit is its high degree of quiet. With its overall noise floor being quite low, the PRe2 allows subtle musical clues to come forth with ease. Sounds emerge from a black background and are rendered clear and distinct. As a result of this, imaging, focus and sound staging are all enhanced with music emerging effortlessly out of a dark, black space. Additionally, the listener is able to look deeply into this black space with ease. In this regard, the PRe2 holds its own when compared to other higher priced units.
Given all these attributes, the real joy of the PRe2 is how it renders the full musical plate. A new favorite recording of mine is Regina Belle’s most recent recording titledLazy Afternoon [Peak Records, PKD8524-2]. Wow – talk about layering, dimensionality, openness, clarity and great jazzy R & B music, this lady has literally outdone herself on this particular effort. Interestingly, this straight-ahead R & B recording (versus more traditional classical or chamber music), became a big hit during last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest held in Denver (fall 2004). Part of the reason for the high level of musical excellence for this recording is no doubt due largely to the superb production and arrangement by mastering genius George Duke. Duke’s work is well known and has been evident on various other outstanding jazz vocalist recordings (i.e., Dianne Reeves and others).
Like the Shirley Horn recording, this CD is loaded with subtle amounts of reverb but usually only enough to spice things up a bit. The PRe2 captures this in a most enjoyable manner. Similarly, moving on to another favorite straight-ahead jazz recording, Brian Bromberg’s CD entitled Wood [A440 Music Group] (awarded Best Jazz Recording by Swing Journal Magazine in Japan) also became a big hit at the show mentioned above. This recording is closely mic’d and has a big, bold, clear sound. Bromberg’s bass is strong and expressive and the PRe2 renders the bass as it should be – tight, articulate, clear and without overhang or looseness. Piano is likewise rendered authoritatively and sounds like a piano should sound. Same for the drums and cymbal work that are also done quite naturally.
In the final analysis, what I can say is that the PRe2 is a significant accomplishment for Bel Canto and a magnificent piece of work. Its essential musical character is quite chameleon like and accurately reflects what’s on the recording. Basically, the PRe2 won’t pretty up the sound – what goes in, comes out. From my long-term listening experiences with this unit, I can honestly say that the PRe2 is capable of rendering musical purity in such a way that listening to recorded music is big time fun and very easy to listen to through this unit.
Is the Bel Canto PRe2 the ultimate preamp of today? Who knows. Can its performance be improved upon? Well with the folks at Bel Canto continually evolving their products, anything’s possible. Does this unit offer a good value proposition for the audiophile/consumer? Absolutely! My suggestion is for you to check it out for yourself. As they say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Plus you can’t beat having direct, first-hand experience of hearing this wonderful unit for yourself. And by all means, if you can audition it your system, you should definitely do so.
Should you find yourself in agreement with me; that’s great. I’ve done my job. However, if you find yourself in disagreement, I suggest you check further into your system for something that the PRe2 has likely exposed. The PRe2 is an outstanding unit, totally revealing and deserves very high praise indeed. Not only does it receive my highest recommendation, it has also become my reference unit and is easily one of the best preamps I’ve had the pleasure to use in my reference system. Also, for those of you who take my advice, you will likely experience the joy of listening to music much in the way that I have since putting the Pre2 in my system. Likewise, I wish you many days and evening of pure listening pleasure. After all, isn’t this what high-end audio is all about?
Inputs/Outputs: RCA and XLR
Volume Setting for Unity Gain: 100 (factory default setting)
Signal to Noise Ratio @ 2 volt RMS > 100 dB A weighted, 20Hz-20KHz
Distortion @ 2 volt RMS/ 1KHZ <0.003%
Input Overload: 10 V RMS
Output Impedance: 50 Ohms
Input Impedance: 10K Ohms
Maximum Gain: 16 dB
Maximum Output Level: 10 V RMS
Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 20KHz, +/- 0.5 dB
Idle Power at Draw: 21 watts
Power Requirements: 110-120 VAC 50-60 HZ or 220-240 VAC 50-60 HZ
Dimensions: 17.5”W x 4.5”H x 14.5”D
Net Weight: 24 lbs. (13kg)
Price: $3,490 retail or $4,490 with optional phono stage
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