August 2009

Bel Canto e.One DAC3 Digital-to-Analog Converter and e.One CD2 CD Player

Reviewers' Choice LogoSpeaker cables and digital sources are two of my least favorite component categories to review, and for the same reason: In my system, any differences I hear between different products within either category tend to be relatively small and tough to pinpoint. It just takes more work -- although it’s still a labor of love.

But once I have identified those differences -- however much smaller they may be than the differences between, say, two different models of loudspeaker -- they become very important: now they’re always there, and I can always hear them. And that’s the crux of high-end audio: Because any chain, including an audio signal chain, is only as strong as its weakest link, that smallest, weakest link becomes, in a crucial way, the most important in the chain. We audiophiles are forever trying to identify and replace that weakest link.

So on the heels of reviewing the admittedly excellent Stello DA100 Signature DAC ($995) and Stello CDT100 transport ($895), I was not extremely excited about the prospect of reviewing two more digital components to pick through yet more nits and bits. That said, Bel Canto has built a good reputation in all things digital, and, not previously having had any of their gear in my system, I was looking forward to hearing what all the hubbub was about.


The subjects of this review are Bel Canto’s e.One CD2 CD player ($2995 USD) and e.One DAC3 digital-to-analog converter ($2495). Despite being small -- both components easily fit side by side on a single audio-rack shelf -- the Bel Cantos were deceptively heavy. The DAC3 measures 8.5"W x 3"H x 12.5"D and weighs 14 pounds; the CD2 is 8.5"W x 4.5"H x 12.5"D and weighs 18 pounds. They look simple and industrial, neither overly attractive nor unattractive. They look purpose built. Both models have Fixed and Variable output modes that allow them to be used with a traditional preamplifier, or they can be plugged directly into a power amplifier, skipping the need for a separate preamp altogether. This, like the components’ sizes, is in keeping with Bel Canto’s theme of less is more. And speaking of less -- for those of us concerned with the environment and energy consumption, at idle the DAC3 and CD2 draw a mere 5W and 15W, respectively.

The user will need to spend a little time with the manuals to get the most out of the CD2 and DAC3, especially as inadvertently setting the output of either to Fixed when plugging it directly into an amplifier could make for a very bad day. Controlling each device with the single knob on its front panel works well after you’ve gotten a basic familiarity with their operation, but I much preferred the remote controls -- all major functions and more are available from these, and I didn’t have to hoist my butt out of my listening chair. The remotes for the two models are identical, and worked flawlessly throughout the review period (except when I mixed them up), as did the CD2 and DAC3 themselves. I didn’t really like that the transport-function buttons for the CD2 were small and spaced so far apart, and there’s no shuffle-play function, but other than that, it was fine.

The DAC3’s five digital inputs are AES, S/PDIF RCA, S/PDIF BNC, TosLink, and USB. All employ two jitter-rejection stages: an analog PLL stage at the S/PDIF input, and a digital PLL stage at the sample-rate-conversion/filter stage; Bel Canto’s new Ultra-Clock is used for the D/A conversion. The DAC3 uses Burr-Brown’s PCM1792 dual-differential multi-bit delta-sigma DAC chip, which gets its datastream from the CS8421 Cirrus sample-rate converter chip; digital signals are upsampled to 24-bit/192kHz. The DAC3 accepts all common digital streams up to a native 24/192 digital signal, except for the USB input, which accepts only up to 16/44.1 (Bel Canto’s USB Link 24/96 can be used to kick it up a notch). The result is a claimed 129dB of dynamic range (A-weighted, 20Hz-20kHz), with a frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz, +/-0.5dB. Maximum output is 4.5V RMS from the XLR outputs, 2.25V RMS from the RCAs; the total harmonic distortion plus noise (THD+N) is claimed to be <0.001% (4.5V RMS balanced out, 1kHz). The DAC3 is said to be class-A biased and fully balanced, and offers one pair each of balanced and single-ended outputs. Although Bel Canto strongly encourages the use of the balanced connections, I couldn’t take advantage of them in my system. There’s also a jack for an IEC power cord to permit the use of aftermarket cords; I stuck with the stock unit.

The CD2’s transport mechanism is the CD-Pro2M, which I believe is made by Philips. Like the Stello CDT100, the CD2 uses a magnetic puck to stabilize a disc on the spindle. The Stello has a cover for its laser mechanism; Bel Canto decided to leave its laser pickup alfresco, save for a metal arm that protrudes over the laser assembly. The company recommends that you leave a blank CD in place to protect the sensitive bits, but I couldn’t help thinking they could have come up with a more elegant way to safeguard those most critical elements, which are no doubt expensive to replace. The other little disadvantage of not having a cover was that, in my room, light reflected off the exposed disc and the spinning CD projected a little flying-saucer pattern on the front wall that I found a little distracting if not exactly disturbing. Another little quirk I found during use was that while the CD2 could display both track number and elapsed time, it can’t show both simultaneously, and it can’t show the track time remaining at all. The good thing is that the display itself can be turned off entirely via the remote; if you want to listen in the dark, such issues of time and spaceships should pose no problems.

As shipped, the CD2 outputs 24/96 from its digital outputs, despite being able to upsample all data to 24/192 for its analog outputs. At the 24/96 setting, the digital output is still enabled, while at 24/192 it isn’t. So those looking to use the CD2 strictly as a transport are pretty much good to go (assuming the Fixed/Variable button is in the correct position, of course). To get the most from the CD2’s analog outputs, however, it must be reset to 24/192 using a series of keystrokes on the remote. To upsample to 24/192, the CD2 has an integrated DAC chip with a dynamic range of 112dB, A-weighted (a little less than its DAC3 brother), and it, too, uses Ultra-Clock technology that, when the CD2 is used in transport mode, is said to work synergistically with that of the DAC3. Output levels are 2V RMS from the RCAs and 4V RMS from the balanced XLRs, and the THD+N is stated as <0.0002%, with a frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz, +/-0.1dB. Around back are one pair each of balanced and RCA analog outputs, and AES/EBU XLR, S/PDIF BNC, and TosLink digital outputs, along with the Fixed/Variable output button and an IEC jack.

Bel Canto recommends 100 hours of power-up before the components stabilize and offer optimum performance. I did no critical listening to the CD2 or DAC3 right out of the box, so I can’t comment on how much change occurs during that first century of operation. But I detected no change in performance after that critical mark was reached; 100 hours seems a safe bet.


My strategy for this review was to use the CD2 as a starting point, then build on that with comparisons to other gear I had on hand as well as to the DAC3, and finally compare the Bel Canto duo hooked up to each other, to see what, if any, synergies might emerge.

When I began listening to the CD2, I heard nothing remarkable -- it sounded like pretty good, standard digital sound -- and my fear of reviewing yet more digital source components reared its ugly head. Then I realized that I’d never gone through the remote-control sequence to switch the player’s internal DAC processing to 24-bit/192kHz from its factory default mode of 24/96. I did so, and that seemingly small change brought the performance of the CD2 to a significantly higher level. Thank goodness.

The first two things that came to mind in listening to the CD2 were linearity and tonal richness. I thought that was a promising start, for a couple reasons. First, I find that components that deliver a ripe tonal presentation often do so through some artificial augmentation that almost inevitably results in bulges at certain points in the frequency response. Second, many digital components have the reputation of sounding a bit on the lean side, and that wasn’t the case here.

Following this initial impression, my next impulse was to evaluate the treble region, because sometimes tonality is enhanced by shelving down the higher frequencies. This proved not to be the case either; cymbals, usually the first tip-off that some sort of HF rolloff is going on, had a nice, metallic bite. Not only that, but there was a cleanness about the reproduction of all types of cymbal sounds that, far from sounding shelved down, was an area of absolute strength for the CD2. In fact, the CD2 did something no other digital player has done in my system, capturing what I’ll call the cymbal’s underside tonal properties: an appreciable depth and weight to the character of the instrument, in addition to the lighter, brighter, shimmering qualities that I usually hear.

Some specific examples: I recently acquired a copy of Blues for Bighead, by Andy McCloud’s Gentlemen of Jazz (CD, Mapleshade 7832), and the title track proved a useful tool for gaining insight into the CD2’s sound. In addition to the characteristics mentioned above, what became very apparent was the CD2’s ability to capture and communicate the energy produced by individual instruments within their own space. It was as if each performer existed fully and completely within his own bubble. This went beyond simple imaging, which many components can do very well -- the CD2 seemed to combine outstanding imaging and tonal characteristics with an inner resolution that brought sounds more to life within their own defined spaces. In the end, it all still hung together in an organic whole that made complete sense, sounded right, and made listening easy and effortless.


I compared the Bel Canto e.One CD2 as a standalone CD player with the Stello combo of DA100 Signature DAC and CDT100 transport. When I listened to "Signe," from Eric Clapton’s Unplugged (CD, Reprise 45024-2), it was immediately obvious that the guitar and vibraphone were more physically present in the room through the CD2 than through the Stellos. The overused but best terms for it would be greater image weight and/or density. When I then played Blues for Bighead, it was also apparent that the CD2 had superior slam and impact when the sax kicked in or the snare drum was whacked (as it turned out, this also manifested itself in a later, more surprising comparison).

But while the CD2 carried the day in terms of greater tonal depth and weight, the Stello duo countered with a bit more focus, clarity, and image specificity. On the Clapton track, the woodblock at the back of the stage was positioned farther beyond my front wall, increasing the overall sense of depth, but whether this was real or more of a hi-fi gimmick will likely be a matter of taste and personal preference.

Next, I compared the Bel Canto e.One CD2 with internal DAC and the Stello CDT100 feeding the DAC3 (since the DAC3 is supposed to suppress jitter I didn’t think that the transport should make much difference -- I was wrong as you’ll read later). What I heard was an interesting and surprising tradeoff in strengths between the two units, despite their, not surprisingly, sharing many sonic traits. While both units exhibited excellent linearity throughout the audioband, neither exhibiting any trace of digital nastiness, the DAC3/CDT100 went even further in portraying instruments and voices within their own dimensional spaces, and made the CD2 by itself sound just a little flatter in comparison. The DAC3/CDT100 also revealed a bit more light and flesh on the instrumental bones, such that I could not only clearly identify the violin section, but also the layers within it. The DAC3/CDT100 also seemed quicker apace than the CD2, despite both being completely warmed up and battle ready.

It’s not that the CD2 was a slouch in any of these areas -- in fact, it held its own very well. But the devil is in the details, and with respect to these particular details, the DAC3 edged out its disc-spinning brother. But it wasn’t a shutout -- the CD2 still had the edge in dynamic impact and slam. Whether it came from a whacked tom-tom or a bombastic orchestral burst, the CD2 had more oomph in certain circumstances than its non-spinning brother. These weren’t night-and-day differences, and it took me some time to identify them with any certainty or consistency; overall, the two, as would be expected, exhibited many sonically similar traits. But when you’re looking at the differences between digital sources, these types of differences make all the difference, so there it is.

There were two other ear-opening experiences during the review process, one of which was when I hooked up the CD2 to the DAC3. My experience prior to this was that DACs have a significantly greater impact on sound than do disc transports, so I didn’t expect much by tethering the two siblings together. Brother, was I wrong. What emerged from the pairing was an unmistakable and superior synergy that brought everything into greater musical focus, with a heightened sense of realism and sonic rightness. With both Bel Cantos working together, the soundstage opened up and expanded even farther -- there was more of a surround-sound effect. Just as impressive was the increased robustness of the overall sound, which was much more visceral to the point where the performance could be felt more, as well as heard. There was also an improvement in perceived depth that erased the Stellos’ slight advantage in this area, while the CD2’s advantage in dynamic range was maintained.

When all the synergies were added up, what I came to was that ultimate audiophile goal of effortless listening -- that special balance where I stop thinking about how well music is reproduced, or its individual sonic elements, and just enjoy the sound without that nagging sense that anything is being emphasized or smoothed over to achieve it. That’s about the highest praise I can give an audio component, and this Bel Canto pair well deserves it.

While each Bel Canto component can be run directly into a power amplifier, I didn’t expect either to reach the level of performance of my Bryston BP 6 C-Series preamplifier. However, the DAC3 managed to do just that. In fact, while using only the Stereovox Colibri-R interconnects, I thought the DAC3 was slightly superior in terms of overall clarity and tonal completeness. However, replacing the Colibri-R with an Acoustic Zen Silver Reference II between the DAC3 and the Bryston negated that advantage and made the comparison a complete toss-up. Given the high praise I’d heaped on the Bryston BP 6 (I bought the review sample), this speaks highly indeed of the DAC3 as a preamplifier. Given the DAC3’s and Bryston BP 6’s performances with the more lean-sounding Stereovox interconnect and the richer-sounding Acoustic Zen, I conclude that the Bryston is perhaps the leaner or more transparent, the DAC3 the more polite or fuller sounding. Choose your interconnects appropriately and you’ll be rewarded with top-notch performance either way.

Because the DAC3 has a 24-bit digital volume control, I’m sure some are wondering about its resolution, especially at lower volume levels. Going up and down the volume scale, I could detect no loss of or change in resolution at all -- nada. All else being equal, I could easily live with the DAC3 as my preamplifier. However, all here is not completely equal; as a preamplifier, the DAC3 has some limitations. One is that you’re restricted to only digital inputs, and the other is that there’s no balance control. These are deal breakers for someone who plans to soon dust off and crank up his old Rega Planar 2 turntable, and who often fiddles with balance controls. If they’re not for you, I encourage you to give the formidable DAC3 a shot against your favorite preamp and be prepared for an ear-opening surprise.

The CD2, too, fared very well in preamplifier mode, but as mentioned above, there was a slight lack of depth and dimension in comparison with the Bryston. But otherwise, again, I would have no hesitation about using the CD2 as an integrated CD player directly into a power amp. As a matter of fact, for budding audiophiles on a budget, this could be an outstanding way to get deep into high-end territory without having to spend those scarce extra dollars on a standalone preamp and additional interconnects. You can always upgrade to that megabuck preamp later -- or add the DAC3 to take advantage of all the familial synergies of using the two devices together.

Other than the performance differences noted above, when the DAC3 outdid its integrated brother in certain areas, I had just one reservation. Both Bel Cantos exhibited such extraordinary poise and refinement that I just couldn’t get them to sound harsh, grainy, or overly objectionable. That, combined with the fact that they sounded best with the very revealing Stereovox Colibri-R interconnect, means that if they’re used with warmer- or richer-sounding interconnects, some of their formidable strengths will be lost, and they may even sound a bit too rich or ripe.


Despite their half-pint size and decidedly unfancy casework, these Bel Canto e.One products delivered the sonic goods, and have provided the best digital performance I’ve had in my system thus far -- and not by small margin. This is astonishing, because these are digital components, where nuances are touted as huge differences, and because my system’s digital front end was pretty decent to start with (if considerably less expensive). Yes, you do get some significant and tangible advantages by coughing up for the DAC3, and even more if you cough up for the CD2 as well. But given what I heard, the CD2 on its own will far surpass many other digital components; just make sure it’s in 24-bit/192kHz mode when using its analog outputs.

My initial hesitation about reviewing more digital components became a nonissue. In this case, the superior sound of Bel Canto’s e.One CD2 and e.One DAC3 were very easy to hear and, just as important, to thoroughly enjoy.

. . . Tim Shea

Bel Canto Design e.One DAC3 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $2495 USD.
Bel Canto Design e.One CD2 CD player
Price: $2995 USD.
Warranty (both): Two years parts and labor (nontransferable).

Bel Canto Design
212 Third Avenue N., Suite 274
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Phone: (612) 317-4550
Fax: (612) 359-9358