Bel Canto C7R DAC Integrated Amplifier

For audio fans who believe sonic reproduction should be heard but not seen, a large-scale component system just isn’t practical.  Many component systems require significant space and can be obtrusive in a main living area or in a small room. For those individuals, Bel Canto’s e.One series just may be your entrance ticket. The e.One series makes available components of substantial capability but petite form factor.

We had the opportunity to test the C7R. It’s a bit challenging to categorize this unit given its versatile combination of features and functionality. While Bel Canto’s website labels it a “DAC Integrated Amplifier,” the nomenclature proves understated since the unit offers quite a bit more functionality than the name summarizes. If “under-promise and over-deliver” represents the goal of the product name, Bel Canto has set itself up well to exceed user expectations.

Under the big top?

Well, perhaps a better descriptor for the C7R is the “small top.” Unboxing, examining, and reading the manual for this Bel Canto leaves a user with a degree of amazement. Like a multitude of circus clowns cascading forth from a Volkswagen Beetle, the capabilities of the C7R just keep emerging. How could such a small box host such an array of functionality?

The C7R measures a placement-friendly 8.5” (216mm) wide, 12” (305mm) deep, and 3.5” (88mm) high. The entire package weighs in at a mere 13 lbs (6.5 kg).  Inside, the Bel Canto’s amplifier offers 60 watts at 8 ohms, and double that into 4 ohms.

The C7R’s back panel is a marvel of space usage and planning, enabling a generous number of input options. For the digital realm, this Bel Canto packs five digital inputs into the back panel including two SPDIF and two TOSLINK connections supporting 24/192 resolution. Complementing those is a USB input enabling 24/96. All of these signals are converted with its built-in DAC.  An AES/EBU digital input option would be a welcome addition, but it’s not available on the C7R. Perhaps there just wasn’t space for it!

Analog fans will also appreciate how the Bel Canto delivers. The expected RCA input is flanked by an MM phono input. While an MC input is not included as part of the package, it’s still hard to fault the C7R too much considering all the versatility it does offer.  On top of this, somehow, the team at Bel Canto managed to squeeze in an FM tuner with 10 user-chosen presets.

In addition to the rear panel speaker outputs, the Bel Canto features an RCA line output which can be configured to enable home theater bypass capability. As a really nice bonus, C7R includes a quarter-inch headphone output on the front panel.

Three rings? No, just one!

Controls on the unit body are minimalistic. After power is connected, a short boot-up process leaves the C7R ready for action. A single wheel on the right side of the front panel, with a handy indentation for one-finger speed-spinning ease, controls both volume and input selection. An inward push on the wheel center brightens the left-side input selection display, and the subsequent wheel movement glides through the input options making selection a breeze. Another push of the wheel switches to the volume control, and that transition is acknowledged with a brightening of the digital volume readout. For such a small unit I applaud Bel Canto for making the display large enough to read from across the room.

The digital display assigns each input a default abbreviation for easy identification as a user toggles among them, but the C7R does allow the user to create personalized four-letter words – well, perhaps I should say ”abbreviations.”

The need for a large display becomes clear once the user examines and uses the remote control. Like the back panel of the C7R the remote has a well-executed layout which makes many options adjustable from a favorite listening chair. In addition to volume, mute, input selection, phase selection, and digital source controls, there’s an option of FM station scanning and a few extra buttons enabling balance adjustment.

Taming those lions

With so much functionality to choose from, it’s easy to assume the setup process for such an animal bears some sharp claws and pointy teeth. Therein lies the irony of the C7R.  The experience is mostly plug-and-play with intuitive labeling on the back panel.

Connecting a USB computer music server, a digital coax input from a CD player, a line-in from a Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC, and a Marantz TT-15 turntable with a Clearaudio Virtuoso MM cartridge, the back gets mighty crowded. With the addition of large, braided Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables, the C7R‘s rear panel transforms in appearance from a few-vined garden to something resembling wild shrubbery.

Impressively, unlike many DACs I’ve experienced, the Bel Canto’s DAC requires no special drivers to install. Once the USB connection is made from the computer to the C7R, Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center recognize it immediately. Once the C7R is selected in JRiver’s playback, music starts without delay.

It took some assistance from the user manual to become familiar with all the setup features and to get everything working. All things considered, though, the learning curve never feels steep. The trickiest elements are saving FM radio presets and custom labeling inputs. Once completed, though, the user isn’t likely to make too many changes. Consider it a tiny amount of pain resulting in a lot of pleasure.

The flying trapeze

Once hooked up and configured the Bel Canto is ready to swing. Starting with the analog output of Light Harmonic DAC connected to the C7R, in my initial impressions of the Bel Canto I noted its smooth, non-fatiguing and refined sonic signature. It would be a mistake to classify it as laid-back, though. The sonic portrayal is one of energy and drive when the music dictates. Even when pushed to maximum volume, C7R shows little strain or stridency.

Pink Martini’s song “Una Notte a Napoli” begins minimally with piano and spoken vocals, later exploding in crescendo adding more vocals, harp, horns, guitar and percussion. The Bel Canto allows all instruments to sing out from the mix, while keeping vocals very present and out front. China Forbes’s vocals render beautifully, preserving the recording’s detail and delicacy.  Compared with my reference, the soundstage width and depth truncated somewhat, and some detail like cymbal decay, or the subtle sound imparted by the recording space, are reduced. But then again the C7R is one-fifth the cost of my amp and preamp combination, demonstrating Bel Canto’s extremely good price–performance ratio.

My Piega P-10s are normally fed 500 watts into 4 ohms, so I reduced my expectations of bass punch, heft, and control with the C7R’s 120 watts swapped in. Even in this system’s context the Bel Canto performs admirably with deep, tuneful, and defined bass. With less power-hungry speakers like NHT Super One bookshelf model on hand the C7R offers quite a bit of punch. Albeit in this case, the Bel Canto reveals all the NHT speakers’ shortcomings. Clearly, the C7R can encourage and enable great sound from high quality loudspeakers and deserves to be paired with them.

Using the Bel Canto’s built-in DAC, the sound remains quite impressive. While 16/44.1 material piped in from a CD player’s coax output portrays some digital glare, better quality digital sources reward the listener. USB sound though the C7R emerges detailed, with a rich and pronounced presence.

When I listen to radio stations at home, it’s usually a digital stream from the computer and not a native FM broadcast. So it’s a lot of fun to fire up the Bel Canto’s tuner and listen to Portland’s KGON and KNRK as a radio station was first intended to be heard. With the included antenna, the C7R has no problems getting a solid lock on FM signals and filling the living room with opulent sound.

As Queen’s “We Will Rock You” started pouring forth from the radio, I ran for the Sennheiser HD-650s to give the C7R headphone output a test drive. The Bel Canto’s sound is very engaging and one I could listen to for many hours with minimal ear fatigue. It’s a fantastic bonus to the C7R’s great all-around package.

Spinning plates

The MM phono stage is another welcome surprise.  Listening to Eric Clapton Unplugged, or Beck’s Sea Change MoFi pressing, the Bel Canto demonstrates its ability to expand the soundstage beyond the speakers. Music retains a non-fatiguing quality with the preservation of detail. The C7R’s sonic rendering provides very good bass and highs, and a very satisfying overall musical experience. Green Day’s “Holiday” shows that the C7R can get up and go when pushed, transmitting the energy of the performers.

In absolute terms, compared with my reference phono stage, the Bel Canto has a few limitations. The overall sound is slightly veiled, and instruments are not separated as well across the soundstage. It just doesn’t sound as close to a live music experience. I need to keep reminding myself that the Bel Canto – of which the phono stage is just one facet – costs $2,995 in total. Especially if you listen to digital sources primarily, the included phono stage is a big bonus for those with a vinyl collection or those about to start one.

You pay for the whole seat, but need only the edge.

Mated with the right set of speakers and a good source, the Bel Canto is a stellar performer, especially from a price–performance point of view. For $2,995 the C7R gets you a high quality amp, linestage, DAC, FM tuner, MM phonostage, and a headphone amp. It’s a phenomenal value. The task of finding all those components, near this quality, for under that price tag would prove exceedingly difficult – if not impossible. On top of that, the C7R wraps everything in an attractive, compact, and user-friendly package. Given all its versatility and fantastic sound, for the price the Bel Canto C7R is easy to recommend.

Bel Canto C7R DAC Integrated Amplifier

MSRP: $2,995


Speakers Piega P10    NHT Super One
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier/Phonostage Coffman Labs G1-A
Analog Source Marantz TT-15 Turntable with Clearaudio Virtuoso MM Cartridge
Digital Sources HP Desktop computer with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19   Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    EAD 9000 Professional Mk 3
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables    Cardas Clear USB cable
Headphones Sennheiser HD-650
Headphone Amplifiers ALO Rx Mk 2   Coffman Labs G1-A
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley    Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose Power Cords
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Bel Canto e.One FM1 Tuner

We live in an era of audio contrasts. Digital disc players and music servers coexist with vinyl playback systems like lions and lambs. Reel-to-reel and cassette tape decks appear headed for white elephant status. FM radio, the only other major analog holdout, remains under siege from satellite and Internet broadcasting. So why bother with a new analog FM tuner?

I posed the question to John Stronczer, CEO of Bel Canto Design. A self-confessed FM fancier, he sees the creation of the FM1 as a “challenge,” a device that applies his company’s advances in digital-signal processing to taming the occasionally wild analog FM signal. Stronczer wisely resisted the temptation to “throw in” HD Radio because of its inferior compressed sound.  He’s convinced that there are enough audiophiles who will appreciate the fruits of Bel Canto’s labor and prefer the superiority of honest analog FM sound. The performance of the FM1 should prove him correct.

The Wonderful World of FM Radio

My long love affair with FM radio started with a Dynaco tuner in the 1960s and was fueled by stations like Chicago’s WFMT. Leaving the city’s bitter cold for Augusta, Georgia’s humid heat, I found that my FM options had also gone south. To fulfill the need for high quality cultural programming, I turned to two local public radio stations.  Unfortunately, they reside in the low rent district of the FM band. Their weaker signals led to the acquisition of quieter, more sensitive FM tuners—including those from Magnum Labs, Fanfare, Day Sequerra—and supporting them with excellent antennas.

Of course, listening habits change over time. After discovering digital music servers, I started spending more time with Internet radio and less with my beloved analog FM tuner. The good news about digital music servers is that they access thousands of radio stations that cover all genres. The bad news: highly compressed signals (usually 128 kbps or lower) that reduce frequency response and channel separation. While I didn’t miss analog FM’s snap, crackle, and pop, I missed its air and dynamics. Enter the FM1, Bel Canto’s first serious foray into the world of analog FM tuners.

FM1 Crosses My Threshold: The Magic Box

Aesthetically, the FM1 shares the compact, understated façade of its e.One stable mates.  A multifunction knob selects broadcast mode, station frequency (call letters and program data when available), and signal strength. The supplied remote can store 10 preset channels and controls other compatible Bel Canto equipment. Pushing the “tuner” button enables forward and reverse channel selection, operation display, and forced mono for noisy stations.

On the back, the rear panel is cleanly laid out. From left to right, there is a power switch; an input for the basic outboard power supply or optional VBS1 (virtual battery) and LNS1 (line power supply); XLR or RCA analog ouputs; an antenna input; an RS-232 control port; and bank of digital outputs (SPDIF/BNC, Toslink, and AES/EBU). The “magic” in this little box comes from its sophisticated digital signal processor (DSP) that massages the raw FM signal. After digital processing, the signal can be routed to analog or digital outputs (as a 96kHz/24-bit data stream). This onboard technology is an offshoot of Bel Canto’s extensive DSP research. I listened through both balanced and unbalanced analog outputs feeding my Pass preamp, and through the digital coaxial outputs into a PerfectWave DAC.

The most critical and time-consuming part of setting up the FM1 is described in the concise user’s guide under the heading “Choosing Your Antenna.” The supplied wire antenna is intended to ensure proper functioning of the FM1, but not for critical listening.  As my housing subdivision falls between rural and urban in terms of broadcast signal strength, I followed the company’s recommendations to the letter. I also placed a Magnum Labs Signal Sleuth between the antenna lead-in and the FM1. The Sleuth greatly aids the cause of public radio stations found at the far left of the FM band.

The Listening Sessions: The Sounds of Silence

It took nearly two hours to set up my two antennas. A Fanfare FM-2G antenna took turns with a Winegard multi-element Yagi, the latter as ideal for single-family homes as the former component is for apartment dwellers. The FM1 is more sensitive to antenna selection, orientation, and placement than just about any tuner I’ve used. I regretted not being able to use an oscilloscope to assist in the tedious but essential process of antenna adjustment. Fortunately, the FM1’s signal strength display readout on the front panel offers considerable help with antenna orientation.

Greater Augusta sports 18 analog FM stations that have Internet counterparts, enabling a direct comparison of both broadcast methods. The Fanfare whip antenna retrieved 12 stations suitable for listening; the Yagi got all 18 and was used for most of the critical sessions. While the FM1’s signal strength indicator ranges from 0 to 100, a reading of at least 40 is needed to prevent the tuner defaulting to Blend (reduced channel separation) mode. With either antenna, only 8 stations hit the necessary target: My two public radio favorites and six popular music stations.

FM noise, the Achilles heel of analog stereo broadcasts, was minimal for the strongest stations. Bel Canto’s latest design is the quietest tuner I’ve ever heard. Public radio stations sounded better than their pop counterparts that typically EQ their signal for “boom and sizzle” aimed at car and portable radios. The FM1 mercilessly exposed such differences in broadcast techniques, just as a good tuner should.

My “aha” moment came when comparing Internet broadcasts from a Logitech Squeezebox Touch connected to a PerfectWave DAC. The analog broadcasts had a slight hiss, but their air, imaging, and warmth easily bested that of the highest-quality digital stations. Voices sounded more natural on the FM1 and lacked the pervasive tubiness of many Internet sources.  After many A/B comparisons, I was hard pressed to detect a consistent difference between the FM1’s digital and analog outputs—both sounded excellent. Best overall sound came from balanced operation.

To further experiment, I retrieved my old Fanfare FM-1A from storage. After hooking it up to the same antennas and playing it through balanced outputs, the tuner picked up all of the stations that the Bel Canto unit captured. The Fanfare did a creditable job with dynamics and imaging, yet its noise level, even on the best stations, registered noticeably higher than that of the Bel Canto and intruded on my enjoyment of the music.

Signing Off

Like a first date, many of us fondly remember FM radio as a gateway to new life experiences. The top FM stations had the best sound and programming capacity that went far beyond that of our home music libraries. These stations also served up rare recordings and live concert broadcasts.

So, before you conclude that $1500 is too steep an admission price, consider that it’s a one-time cash outlay compared to the ongoing and rising expense of annual digital subscriptions with high-speed Internet portals. And, in the end, remember, you’re footing the bill for lower fidelity.

Bel Canto’s FM1 is evolutionary in its handling of FM noise. It breathes new life into your stereo system, regardless of its vintage or price point. Analog FM remains a viable audio option, and will be around for the foreseeable future. If you live in a metro area blessed with strong, clear FM stations and highly varied programming, the FM1 presents one of the best modern arguments in support of the radio medium that I’ve ever heard.

Bel Canto e.One  FM1  FM Tuner

MSRP: $1,495


Digital Sources Esoteric P-03    D-03    G-Orb    UX-Pi    Logitech Squeezebox Touch     Meridian Sooloos   PS Audio PerfectWave
Analog Sources VPI HRX w/12.7 arm, Rim Drive    VPI Aries w/10.5i arm, flywheel, SDS Controllers
Phono Cartridges Clearaudio Goldfinger v.2    Clearaudio Stradivari
Phono Preamplifiers Pass XP-25, XP-15
Preamplifiers Pass XP-20    Lexicon 12HD-B
Power Amplifiers Pass XA-100.5    Pass X-3
Speakers Martin Logan CLX, Stage, Script-I, Descent-I (2), Descent (2)
Interconnects Nordost Odin and Valhalla
Speaker Cable Nordost Odin
Power Cords/Conditioning Nordost Odin and Valhalla    Running Springs Audio Dmitri and Maxim
Vibration Control Black Diamond Racing
Room Treatment Echo Buster, Corner Busters, Bass Busters, Double Busters

Bel Canto C5i Integrated Amplifier

Many of my non-audiophile friends would love to have a great music system, but often ask the same question: “Do I really need that rack full of components?” With the Bel Canto C5i DAC Integrated Amplifier  you don’t. For those who want a serious hi-fi system with a diminutive footprint, the C5i is the perfect place to begin. Add speakers, a source, and you are ready to rock.

At $1,895 the C5i includes a 60-watt-per-channel class-D power amplifier, 24/192 DAC, MM phonostage, and a respectable headphone amplifier.  Bel Canto skips the preamplifier stage, driving the amp directly from  the DAC section, utilizing their 24-bit digital level control.  Designer John Stronczer likes to point out that their approach leaves “no stinky pots to wear out.”  The MM and line level inputs go through a 24/192 ADC into the DAC section, eliminating the traditional line level preamplifier function entirely. And it’s all neatly tucked into a box the size of a Stephen King novel. Thanks to the class -D amplifier, the C5i only draws about 13 watts from the outlet, so your carbon footprint won’t be taxed.

Fortunately 60wpc is also enough juice to entertain a wide range of speaker possibilities  Most of my listening sessions took place with the new Dali F5 speakers with 88db sensitivity. Yet the C5i had no trouble when mated with the 83db Harbeth P3ESRs – perhaps due to the fact that it doubles its rated power into 4 ohms and can deliver up to 30 amps of peak current.

A Plethora of Inputs

Along with losing the stack of gear and pile of cables required by a more traditional setup, you need just one interconnect pair to operate a system based on the C5i—another plus. With the C5i, your computer or laptop is only a USB cable away from becoming a first-class digital front end. In addition to the USB port, the unit boasts a pair of RCA SPDIF inputs as well as a pair of TOSLINK optical inputs. You can connect a cable TV box, game console, or whatever other digital device suits your fancy, turning the C5i into a media hub. The USB port offers digital playback up to 24/96, while the SPDIF and Toslink ports take full advantage of the DAC’s 24/192 capabilities.

In addition to the MM phono input with standard 47k ohm loading, a high-level analog input is available should you add another phonostage or perhaps, a tuner – like Bel Canto’s FM1. Using the phonostage with a handful of MM cartridges delivered excellent results. The Shure V15mvxr, Rega Exact, and Clearaudio Maestro Wood all worked well with the on-board phono, and I was also happy with the sound of my recent LP-12/V15 combo. Quiet, dynamic and musical, the on-board phonostage is equal to if not better than any of the sub-$300 external phonostages I’ve experienced.

The Rega RP1/Ortofon OM5e also effortlessly pairs with the C5i. Listening to a handful of budget 70s rock records revealed enough midrange warmth and depth to feel the analog love. Bottom line: If you don’t already have a turntable, the C5i makes adding analog to your system a painless process. True analog fanatics will want more performance, but they aren’t the model’s target audience.

Love digital? So does the C5i. High-resolution and 16/44.1 files via a Mac Mini, Sooloos Control 15, and MSB Universal Transport transmitted without a hiccup. When you push play and the music begins, the sampling rate blinks on the C5i’s main display.  Since most of my high-res collection is at 24/96 I didn’t audition any 24/192 material.

The C5i’s DAC performance also impressed by holding its own with a number of competitors in the $500-$1,000 category. Listening to my fair share of the BBC’s Bax: The Symphonies box set, I couldn’t help but notice the DAC’s level of tonal purity and separation, even on 16/44.1 recordings. Should these options seem like too much work, the C5i works great with an iPod. Plugging in a little 4GB iPod Nano yields fab results, especially with Apple lossless files.

Serious Authority

A prominent sonic wallop is likely the first thing you’ll notice when firing up the C5i. Bass is particularly well controlled, as is transient attack. The California Guitar Trio’s “Led Foot” demonstrates the C5i’s ability to maintain pace while simultaneously keeping separate and clean the three distinct guitar voices. California Guitar Trio records contain a wealth of musical information in a small space, an acoustic that most moderately priced integrated models fail at recreating.

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks lies at the opposite end of the sound spectrum. A skilled drummer that never hesitates to maximize his kit, Bruford provides a great torture test. The C5i has no problem keeping the cymbals in their own distinct space as the percussionist takes flight on several rapidly paced solos.

Comparing the C5i to the much larger REF500M monoblocks reveals a close resemblance at less-than-earthquake levels, and for good reason: The C5i uses the same power modules, albeit in stereo rather than in a bridged mono configuration. Again, Bel Canto doesn’t sacrifice sound quality at a lower power level, making the C5i an even more attractive proposition regardless of where you sit in the audiophile pecking order. And diversity abounds.

The high-level outputs give it even more versatility for listeners that desire a satellite/subwoofer system. Users that either don’t want or can’t get speakers right now should think of the C5i as a wonderful headphone amp that happens to have a great DAC and phonostage. It adequately drove the new Grado PS500, Audeze LCD2, AKG 701, and Sennheiser 650 headphones. Yes, you can drop another $500-$1,000 on an outboard headphone amp, but this one works well and is miles beyond any pod or tablet.

New Balance

As much fun as it is to listen to the C5i, its seamless integration into any environment means there’s no reason not to have a great hi-fi in your house. You don’t need a pile of gear, massive loom of cables, or gaggle of remote controls. If you’d like to build a system a few marks above the budget level, the C5i awaits your discovery. It combines both functionality and performance in a compact package, underscoring the fact that you don’t need to spend a small fortune to get good sound. More, please.