December 1998Bel Canto Design SETi 40 Integrated Amplifier
by Marc Mickelson
Perhaps the greatest pleasure I derive from reviewing audio gear is a simple one -- being surprised by a piece of equipment. And surprise comes in a number of forms -- from solid-state amps that offer some of the grace of tubes to small speakers that sound big and big speakers that sound small. Surprises often mean that Im really connecting with a component, that it pleases me, which makes the hard work of reviewing -- listening and then figuring out how to describe what Ive heard -- all the more difficult. Connecting is personal, while an effective review needs to be universal. This is a dilemma.
As my opening to this review has probably given away, I found Bel Cantos SETi 40 a surprising piece of audio equipment. First, its an integrated amp that costs $5200, which puts it in rarefied company. Second, its a single-ended triode design that puts out more than single-digit power -- in its case, 40Wpc -- and can thus drive speakers with real-world efficiency ratings (Bel Canto suggests 86dB/W/m or greater). Finally, the SETi 40 proved to be very enjoyable to use. It is remote controlled and very intuitive; moreover, its a joy to listen to, its sonic characteristics meshing very completely with my own personal tastes in audio equipment, which youll read about toot sweet.
Inside and out
The SETi 40 is not a petite piece of gear. It measures 19.5"W x 15"D x 11"H and weighs in at a hefty 64 pounds. The vast part of its case is a nondescript textured black finish, but the tubes, especially the 845s, dress up the SETi 40 nicely. The front panel is a smoky colored transparent plastic behind which is the receiver for the remote control as well as a numeric LED display that indicates the volume setting for the amp. The remote control allows you to adjust the volume and balance, change the input, mute the outputs, and put the SETi 40 in standby mode. These functions are duplicated on the front panel of the SETi 40 too.
On the back panel are the input jacks, all RCAs; the all-metal gold-plated speaker binding posts; a switch for choosing 4- or 8-ohm taps; an IEC power-cord receptacle; as well as the units master standby/off switch. The SETi 40 can accommodate up to three sources, and the all-metal gold-plated binding posts make stacking spade-terminated speaker cables for biwiring easy.
The SETi 40 uses two 845 output tubes along with a pair of 12AX7 driver tubes. The 845s are serious -- they look like EL34s on mega doses of steroids -- and put out a lot of heat and a fair amount of light. Bel Canto says that the 845s will last 8000 hours, while the driver tubes have a 2000-hour life span. The 845s are big, but dont cost big money, about $80 each; 12AX7s are common and cheap, unless you look at NOS alternatives. The optional gold protection rings ($360 per pair) are the first such devices that actually enhance the look of the equipment theyre used with, so I would strongly suggest popping for them with the amp. Besides, they may save you from a nasty burn if you happen to brush against one of the output tubes -- nobody would purposely touch one -- and they visually bathe in the light of the tubes. All tubes and the rings come packed in their own foam-lined box for safe transport. In fact, the SETi 40 is double-boxed and packed very securely. Bel Canto hasnt overlooked the details with the SETi 40.
Operating the SETi 40 is a breeze, and the standby mode, which keeps the driver tubes at the ready but powers down the output tubes, is a nice feature that makes for quick warm-up -- about 20 minutes. I really liked having the remote control, which is very easy to use even in the dark because of the simple layout of its buttons. I didnt do any switching between inputs, but I did adjust the volume often. In fact, the temptation to adjust the volume endlessly could infringe on the enjoyment of the music, so I learned quickly to find a comfortable level and then put the remote out of reach.
The SETi 40 spent a short amount of time driving Merlin TSM speakers to great musical effect, but I soon realized that it deserved extended time in the reference system -- it sounded very good right out of the box. Hence, I formed my listening impressions while using the SETi 40 to drive my reference ProAc Response Four speakers. The digital source was my Timbre TT-1 DAC/Wadia 20 transport combo, linked with either a JPS Superconductor2 or Marigo Apparition Reference Series 3A coaxial digital cables. Interconnects were either JPS Labs Superconductor2 or the expensive and wonderful Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect. Speaker cables were two runs of JPS Labs NC Series. I used a JPS Digital AC cord on the DAC, and a thick JPS Power AC cord on the SETi 40. The JPS Power AC has proven to be the best cord I have on hand with every amplifier Ive used -- and I suspect one of the very best cords to use with any amplifier, period -- while an API Powerlink works best on my transport (and preamp too).
The SETi 40 is so big that it would not fit on my Bright Star Big Rock 2 base. Luckily, I had just received a larger Big Rock 1 for review, so the SETi 40 rested on this. One in-use issue: the SETi 40 would occasionally produce a low-level "pop" through the speakers, perhaps a tube noise. This was noticeable only when the amp wasnt making music and not any sort of annoying or harmful oddity. So if you hear it too, dont fret.
Ready, SET, go
Were constantly told to believe that the very best audio equipment doesnt sound like anything at all, but whenever I encounter such an argument, I can only shake my head and wonder what this ideal equipment sounds like. I mean, it produces sound, so how do we know that the sound it produces is more like no sound than the sound produced by some other piece of equipment? Even if you were at the original recording session of the CD or LP youre listening to and have perfect aural memory, you would have to allow for some doubt based on the recording equipment and medium, which certainly affect the overall sound reproduced. There are pieces of audio equipment that sound more flat -- fewer variations up and down the frequency spectrum -- than others, but whos to say that this means they have less of an intrinsic sound? We live with recordings, some better than others, and so the sound our equipment makes needs to please us more than adhere to some high audio ideal thats unattainable anyway.
Well, the SETi 40 has a sound, its own sound, but dont let this worry you. Its collection of traits is consonant with the music and especially with long-term listening enjoyment. The first thing I noticed -- and it would be difficult not to notice -- is the very spacious and airy soundstage the SETi 40 throws. Depth, in particular, is exemplary -- as good as Ive heard with any equipment. The soundstage seemingly starts four feet or more behind the speakers and moves forward from there. Additionally, and Im sure related, is the high resolution of the SETi 40. On Panamonk [Impulse! IMPD-190], Danilo Perezs piano positively rings with life, the notes decaying slowly and far into the background, and his vocalizations -- those points where he hums or even sings softly along with his playing (á la Glenn Gould) -- are very apparent. And on Frente!s Marvin the Album [Mammoth 92390-2], when lead singer Angie Hart takes a breath on the opening cut "Girl," you hear that it is not a casual breath, but a singers breath taken quickly and purposefully in order to continue. Of course, humming and breathing are non-musical details, but they are illustrative of the reality the SETi 40 can portray. The old adage of walking among the performers (as they hummed, breathed, strummed, and sang) came true in my system with the SETi 40 in use.
Perhaps in contrast to its high resolving powers, the SETi 40 is tonally sweet. Im not about to gripe about this because I prefer it to overly bright any day, but if your system already leans this way, the SETi 40 will not cure it. However, its resolution and tonal characteristics make for a gorgeously light-filled and full midrange. Body and air are present in seemingly equal parts, a seductive and uncommon combination. Greg Browns voice on the wonderful Further In [Red House RHR CD 88] sounds full, chesty and very dimensional -- listen especially to "Where is Maria?" Of course, this recording leans toward warmth (and quietude, to enhance Browns poignant lyrics), but the SETi 40 seems to be the perfect match for it, so beautifully does it re-create Browns voice and the ambience around it.
The SETi 40s low end is impressively punchy and taut in the upper-bass region, near where the kick drum resides. In fact, I think I detect a slight emphasis here. The bass does not, however, extend as deeply as that of a really good solid-state amp, but the small trade-off seems reasonable to my ears. The drumkit on MoFis remastered version of James Taylors Dad Loves his Work [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 726] doesnt sound like an indistinct conglomeration, instead thumping impressively. Perhaps even more impressive is the Jacques Loussier Trios Plays Bach [Telarc CD 83411], whose drums are positively percussive with the SETi 40 in use -- it conveys the impression of impact and weight because of how it handles that upper-bass range. Overall, the bass of the SETi 40 meshes well with the body of the midrange, and with the life in the midrange and treble, making it a seemingly perfect-sounding amp.
Head to head
As you may be able to guess, finding another $5200 integrated amp for comparison to the SETi 40 is not an easy task, and the solid-state integrated amps I have here for review dont measure up to it in terms of price or overall refined performance. Its like comparing apples to toboggans; only one has the beauty of tubes, while the others are solid-staters to their cores. But my reference Lamm electronics (ML1 amplifiers, L1 linestage), at over five times the price of the SETi 40, saved the day. In fact, the SETi 40 and the Lamms made for interesting discovery of the characteristics of both, and ultimately embarrassed neither.
While the SETi 40 has some rather distinct strengths, the Lamms seemingly do everything with the same high level of proficiency. They offer more bass depth and impact, an impressive midrange, extended treble without a hint of grain or glare, a spacious soundstage -- this list could go on and on. But I found the SETi 40 equally beguiling in some ways -- and more so in others. In contrast to the SETi 40s wonderful soundstage, the Lamms are more naturally intimate, breaking out of this when the music calls for it with sheer power, especially the M1.1 monoblocks. The SETi 40 is more expansive and cant muster the brute force of the Lamms, which should come as no surprise given its 40Wpc power rating. It is, however, reasonably dynamic up to the point where it runs out of juice -- and the sound just stays at a certain level of loudness.
Tonally, the SETi 40 and the Lamm electronics are rather similar, except that the SETi 40 has a bit more light in the midrange and air in the treble. I can only attribute these characteristics to its single-ended heritage -- Ive heard this combination only with other SET amps. Both my Lamm gear and the SETi 40, perhaps to an even greater extent, made the fabulous Buena Vista Social Club [World Circuit/Nonesuch 79478-2] CD transcend normal "good sound" and take on a life of its own: an especially big soundstage populated precisely with the various musicians and a real approximation of the space between them. Based on my limited listening to this CD, it has to be one of the finest-sounding discs currently available -- Im sure to hear it all over the CES -- and gear like my reference Lamm components and the SETi 40 only make it more alluring.
The SETi 40 is a fine, rich-but-lively piece of audio gear. It offers soundstage light and life, a dimensional and lively midrange, and bass that makes up for what it lacks in depth with energy and punch. It tosses a soundstage with depth thats as good as it gets. I found that I could relax into the sound with the SETi 40 in my reference system and listen for hours on end. While I cant say that it possesses supreme neutrality, its collection of traits tickled me to no end. Its 40 or so watts are enough to drive most speakers to satisfying levels, and the remote control is a welcome feature. But above all of this, the $5200 SETi 40 is incredibly sane -- no similarly priced preamp/power amp combination I know of sounds better, or even as good, and its remote control makes using it fun.
Im not one to be seduced by the single-ended-triode mystique -- from my experience, there are just too many compromises involved -- but the Bel Canto SETi 40 has made me want to explore SET sound further. Using the SETi 40 is an exercise in extreme joy, which is happily at odds with the audiophilia that infects too many high-enders and turns this hobby into a disease -- to which fine-sounding, easy-to-use, and reliable equipment like the SETi 40 is a painless cure.
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