Bel Canto REF1000 MKII Amplifier

Bel Canto REF1000 MKII Amplifier


 April 2009



“Fundamentally, the amplifier should make people happy.” 
-Nelson Pass

Like many audiophiles, I have an ongoing desire to make my stereobetter. Unlike many audiophiles, I do not actively pursue that goal, for the simple reason that I cannot afford the things I’d like. The full-range floor-standers. The elaborate acoustic room treatment. The staggeringly expensive cables. But significant things do turn up from time to time, wire and equipment come my way for review. And the generosity and good will of fellow travelers, particularly Clement Perry, encourage and support my participation in this hobby of ours. There is nothing in the world quite like the experience of changing out a component, dropping on a favorite CD, and hearing music that’s closer to the real thing. 

The Bel Canto REF1000 came my way for review not all that long ago. In my research then I found that the Bang & Olufsen 1000ASP module, on which the REF1000 and REF1000 MKII are based, was being used in a number of other high-end amplifiers, some much more expensive, some with CNC machined aluminum cases, some incorporating audio-grade transformers on the input, some even modifying the circuit and/or components (voiding the B&O warranty). Bel Canto’s implementation was relatively modest, heavy gauge steel case, good quality wire, silicon caulk on critical components, a vibration absorbing panel, good quality input and output connectors. I found the REF1000 to be an excellent performer, and every review I read agreed with that conclusion. There was much praise and awarding of editor’s choice. I was, in addition, quite taken with the technology that went into the design, particularly the switch-mode power supply. I’ve always felt that the intelligence that goes into the design of a particular piece of equipment is just as much a part of its intrinsic value as how well that design is executed. Bel Canto care about sound, but this seems hand and glove with the quality that’s inside the box. The Bel Canto products I have heard are sonically superior and their workmanship is first rate. 

Now, Bel Canto too is in the business of making things better. Excellent as it was, the REF1000 was no exception. Bel Canto’s engineers found areas for improvement in the 1000ASP implementation, in both the on-board switch-mode power supply, and in the analog input circuit. They developed two proprietary, fiberglass printed circuit boards using premium components, managed to fit them inside with the 1000ASP module, and released a MKII version of the amplifier.

The native B&O 1000ASP has low input impedance and is optimized for balanced input. It so happens I use balanced cables, but a majority of home audio systems do not. A majority of audiophile equipment does not even provide XLR connections. There was also a problem driving the REF1000 with preamps that had high output impedance. The new input board solves these problems.

John Stronczer, Bel Canto owner/designer, was kind enough to send the following description of the new board: “The input circuit does two things: it presents higher input impedance to the drive circuitry, thereby improving common mode rejection in typical balanced hookups, and reducing the potential for ground loop noise in single ended connections, this also makes driving from higher output impedance preamps easier. Also the input circuit drives the amplifier module [1000ASP] with low, well defined impedance and also presents a well-balanced differential drive into the module. The sum total of these features is that the module works less and is more optimally driven than in the previous design. It also interfaces to the outside world better and behaves more predictably with different drive sources.”

The Bel Canto input board is a small active circuit having its own regulated power supplies and amplification stages. It uses premium parts including Caddock resistors and low-ESR solid electrolytic bypass capacitors. In addition to solving the two problems I mention, it was also designed to be dead quiet, utterly transparent. And the MKII is measurably quieter than the REF1000, undoubtedly one of the factors contributing to the MKII’s apparently greater dynamic range.

I have previously summarized the basic operation of switch mode power supplies (see my review of the REF1000 here). The on-board SMPS in the 1000ASP is designed for AC input (obviously), therefore it uses a bridge rectifier and filter capacitor to generate DC necessary for the oscillator (chopper)/controller stage of the SMPS. The MKII adds another circuit board here, using expensive low-noise rectifiers and high quality capacitors as well as additional RF filtering. The output of this board (320V DC to match the on-board circuit) plugs directly into the power input socket of the 1000ASP, where the AC line used to go. DC from the Bel Canto power board flows unimpeded through two legs of the on-board bridge rectifier. There is no modification whatever to the 1000ASP. Greater filtering capacity and superior components enhance the bass performance, lower noise, and increase headroom.

When I asked if the MKII measured any better than its predecessor, I was told, “The MKII has better noise and distortion measurements but they are not huge. Once again human ears prove more sensitive than electronic measurement tools.” 

Howbeit, sending in my REF1000s for upgrade was concerning: in writing a review of the REF1000 MKII I would lack anything to compare it to. And of course I’ve read many times that sonic details begin escaping memory within minutes. Not an ideal way of doing a review, but I accepted assurances that the sonic differences between the two would be obvious. So out of necessity I trusted that the attention I had given the REF1000s over the better part of a year would stand me in good stead. And I believe it has. Certain sonic differences are obvious.

The REF1000 MKII steps through a veil I didn’t know was there; it creates an image of solidity, nuance and harmonic richness. Dynamic range is great, dynamic palette detailed. I’ve struggled without success for a descriptive phrase or metaphor to convey my overall impression. Phrases pop into mind and I’m not even sure just what they mean. “Image specificity” is one. “Dynamic nuance” is another, as is “dynamic speed.” The MKII takes an exponential leap ahead of its predecessor. I’ve never actually been around one of those super-amplifiers costing the price of a new automobile, never had one tied into my stereo for review, but I am so impressed with the MKII I can readily imagine it matching or besting one.

Everything I play sounds better than I remember it.

Orchestral music is reproduced with the most precise and stable imaging I’ve ever heard on this system. At no point on this, or indeed on any solo or ensemble music I’ve played, are the loudspeakers less than utterly transparent. For the first time it is possible to listen to symphonies without a constant annoying awareness of the limitations of the room and the equipment. Of course some of those limitations are still there, the room and loudspeakers are still very imperfect, but it is much easier to ignore the imperfections, to hear past them and immerse myself in the music. No other amplifier has accomplished this. An exceptional disc like Mercury D 106727, Mussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition, is goose bump material, so visceral is the orchestral experience. The dynamic delineation of the MKII is a major component of its remarkable capacity to sound close to real music. 

I do not mean to imply that everything I play sounds great, but if good sound engineering went in, the MKII will bring it out in spades. In this sense, the MKII is a more accurate and sensitive reproducer. Decent recordings sound better, but great recordings sound way better.

I have used the Borodin String Quartet’s recording of Beethoven’s Opus 74 (Chandos CHAN10191) many times in my reviews because I am extremely familiar with it. With the MKII not only is venue ambiance more obvious, but there is a kind of “bloom” to the individual instruments, a front-to-back solidity better than I’ve ever experienced on this system. The tactile quality of bow on strings, the resonance and decay of the instrument cavity, are far more obvious. And though the instruments are clearly out there behind the loudspeaker plane, the music envelopes one. As if one is listening with more senses than just hearing. Exactly, I might say, like real music, though it would be rare to get a seat this good in an auditorium.

Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata, played on the Stuart & Sons piano (Gerard Willems, ABC 465 077-2), is a superb CD that was superbly reproduced by the REF1000. So what adjectives can I use to describe the difference of the MKII? There is just so much more. The piano is more real, more present. The crystalline tone of this extraordinary instrument, the percussive detail of hammers striking strings, the ringing overtones enabled by the Stuart’s unique agriffe, are breathtaking. The sound is simply awesome. 

I remember writing that with the REF1000, in a darkened room, you could actually see Clifford Jordan standing there in his only recorded vocal (“Lush Life” from Live At Ethell’s, Mapleshade 56292). Note that it was Jordan alone that I spoke of as “actually there;” the piano,drums and bass did not grab the same attention. Not so with the MKII. The whole quartet is right there, not just the soloist. You could get up and put your drink on the piano. It’s that real. 

Adjectives to one side, I’ve long had the impression that what you don’t hear can affect what you do. it may simply be that quietening the input circuit further – despite the fact that any noise it had was below the threshold of hearing – was the key improvement. A quieter device means more detail comes through, and detail could well be the common denominator underlying the improvements I’ve enumerated, including the vivid imaging.

I could go on but I’m afraid I’ll just be repeating myself. The truth is, I suspect, that one cannot be quite certain just how and why an amplifier works well, only that it does or it doesn’t. If the job of an amplifier is, as Nelson Pass says, to make people happy, the REF1000 MKII is doing a terrific job.

A word about price. The REF1000 MKII costs 50% more than the original REF1000. In assessing value, I refer to my former amplifier, a Spectron Musician III ($6000), which I exhaustively compared to the original REF1000 ($4000). My loyalty to Spectron goes back years to the original Digital One, but suffice it to say I sold the Musician III and bought the REF1000s. On the basis of this logic, the MKII’s are something of a bargain at $6000.

I’ve not repeated most of the information already covered in my review of the REF1000. For a more comprehensive description of the Bang & Olufsen 1000ASP as used by Bel Canto, I refer you there.


Bill Wells has an opinion on the sonic improvements of the Bel Canto Ref-1000 Mk II.

Having been a long time user of Bel Canto products, my journey with this company’s electronics includes a variety of their amplifiers, line stages and digital gear. Many of these products have received high praise by the High-End Audio press as well as many of these same products being included in any number of exhibits at CES, RMAF and other audio shows around the globe and often with very good results. My acquaintance with the Bel Canto REF 1000 mono block amplifiers actually dates back several years when they replaced the much admired and highly musical Bel Canto eVo2 MK II mono blocks in my reference system. My reaction to the original REF 1000 was one of surprise – more so due to their significantly diminished physical size rather than their sound.

Initially, in my system, the sound of the REF 1000s represented improvements over their predecessor eVo series amplifiers including improved bass impact, power and dynamics, greater neutrality, cleaner, clearer sound, reduced noise and definitely quieter overall performance allowing instrumental images to emerge from an even darker, blacker background. Yet, after happily living with Bel Canto’s approach to embracing the Tri-Path technology in their amplifiers, I wasn’t sure that by switching to the Bang & Olufsen ICE Power technology in the newer Bel Canto e.One series electronics was a step forward musically. As with any major change in our lives, especially in our cherished audio systems, it was simply a matter of providing sufficient time for the newer REF 1000 amps to completely break in, settle in and acclimate to being in my system. Additionally, I too needed a little time to acquaint myself to this newer sound as well. Since that time, the REF 1000s have provided many hours of splendid musical reproduction with a variety of superb speakers in my system including ESP Concert Grands, Bosendorfer VC-7, Tidal Contrivas and Piega C-10 Ltd.

OK, when more recently I heard from John Stronczer, chief engineering guru at Bel Canto, that the REF 1000 amps will be receiving an upgrade, I was somewhat instantly intrigued but also guardedly optimistic. I’ll spare you a repeat of information regarding what these changes represent since they are already provided by my colleague Russell Lichter in his review above. However, similar to Russ’ experience, I too did not have the opportunity to directly compare my original REF 1000s to a newer pair of the upgraded units. Fortunately, I live in the Minneapolis metro area so getting my units to the Bel Canto factory was a fairly short drive from my suburban home. I’ll focus more on the overall performance improvements that I’ve observed since putting them back in my system.

After some time to break in and settle down, my initial reaction was one of pleasant surprise. First and foremost, there was an immediate sense of greater silence along with a level of cleanliness to the sound. Along with this I quickly observed improved drive and dynamic thrust. These qualities allowed music to emerge with improved fullness along with greater clarity, enhanced image density and focus. The music also had a more complete and fluid feel. In Russ’ comments he mentioned that music sounded “more there” and I couldn’t agree more. With the newer MK II version of these amps, images are not only more focused but come forth with a more tactile, solid feel. Beyond this, to my ears, there is also an improvement in the overall harmonic structure with a more natural richness to the music.

Listening to some of my favorite recordings, with the newer amps, reveals subtle nuances that weren’t nearly as apparent before. In fact, everything about these recordings was improved. The performers appeared right before me – not as though their images were moved forward on the stage but with a greater sense of presence and aliveness. At the same time, image specificity was tighter with the overall recording venue more apparent. Differences between studio vs. live recordings were more readily apparent but as Russell noted – the better recordings became outstanding and the good ones better as well. For me, I listen to mainly jazz recordings. One particular recording that’s great for revealing power, dynamics, impact and finesse in a primarily acoustic setting is Brian Bromberg’s superb recording entitled Wood (A440 Music Group 40010). With the newer REF 1000 MK IIs, Bromberg’s wonderful acoustic bass is rendered with far greater musical authority than what I experienced with the earlier version of these amps.

A couple other favorite recordings include Shirley Horn’s Here’s To Life (Verve 314 511 879-2) and Dexter Gordon’s One Flight Up (Blue Note7243-5 96505 2-4). Both represent much different approaches musically but both are even much more appreciated with the newer MK II version of the Bel Canto REF 1000s. Listening to Shirley Horn is typically enhanced by a quiet, darkened listening room and my preference. With the new amps in place – Horn’s performance is now about as good as it gets. Her subtle ways of presenting vocals comes through the amps with such clarity, intimacy and presence that I felt I was listening to a new amp, not simply one that was upgraded. Similarly, checking out Dexter Gordon’s recording gave me greater appreciation for all the intricate things happening in his 18 minute title track Tanya. On this particular track, there is a lot going on with wonderful solos by members of this outstanding band. With the updated amps in place – each performance was just that much more musically authentic and real. Tonality and harmonic richness improvements were quite obvious and much appreciated. Also, there is now definitely more of a sense of bloom to the music. Fortunately, there is also the type of control that prevents any blurring or smearing so this bloom is very musically natural and much appreciated. Moving up the musical scale – mid range richness and high frequency extension and clarity are all improved and totally rewarding as well.

Bottom-line – in my opinion, the upgrade for the REF 1000s improves these amps in very important ways. Essentially what was before a very fine amplifier is now even better and importantly by a fairly significant margin. As such, anyone owning the original version of the REF 1000s has an opportunity for a major improvement in overall performance for a reasonable price. One the other hand, those looking for a superb musical amplifier, something with power, dynamics, control, finesse and musicality – I strongly suggest checking out the REF 1000 MK II.

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