July 2009

Bel Canto e.One Phono3 Phono Stage

The traditional way to begin a review of a phono preamplifier is to lament the need for a standalone device. While it’s true that in decades past most preamplifiers and integrated amps featured a built-in phono stage, these were mostly a matter of convenience; serious vinyl lovers were already looking for better performance than these devices usually offered. Many phono preamplifiers are now available for a few hundred dollars, but these deliver performance roughly equivalent to what you’re likely to find with a built-in stage. The subject of this review, the Bel Canto e.One Phono3 ($1595 USD), is squarely aimed at the vinylphile looking for better performance at a reasonable price.

The Phono3 measures 8.5"W x 3"H x 12"D and weighs a substantial 10 pounds. In appearance, the Phono3 matches the other components in Bel Canto’s new e.One series. The front panel is a piece of 1/2"-thick aluminum, with a long, wide slot with rounded ends milled out of its center. If you have other e.One components, you’ll appreciate the uniform look, but I found that, in a rack of mixed components, the Phono3 just looked odd.

On other e.One components, the central slot frames the display and controls, but here it’s occupied by only a single blue LED, which lights up whenever the Phono3 is plugged in. Everything else is found on the rear panel: high-quality, chassis-mounted RCA terminals for input and output, and a screw-terminal for tonearm grounding. Power is supplied to the Phono3 by your choice of IEC terminated cord -- I used the one provided.

The Phono3 is designed around high-quality audio amplifier chips, and runs entirely in class-A. Signal bandwidth is specified as 1Hz to 50kHz -- any wider would be pointless for a phono preamp. Accuracy to the RIAA curve is within +/-0.2dB, 20Hz-20kHz. The signal/noise ratio is stated to be a respectable 80dB at the 40dB gain setting, referenced to a 5mV input. Self noise (i.e., the Phono3’s output with no input signal present) isn’t specified, but I found the Bel Canto to be, subjectively, as quiet as other high-quality phono stages. The Phono3 consumes 10W at idle -- since it has no power switch, that means whenever it’s plugged in. The constant power keeps the circuitry operating at the proper temperature and always ready to play. Fortunately, that 10W will add less than $10 to your annual electric bill.

The Phono3 has two sets of DIP switches, one per channel, for adjusting gain and cartridge loading. Rather than the user having to remove the top panel to make such adjustments, these switches are conveniently located on the rear panel. There are 14 choices of resistive loading, including the standard 47k ohms, and eight choices of capacitive loading. While I’ve seen phono preamplifiers with more settings, the selection offered by the Phono3 should meet the requirements of all but the most esoteric phono cartridges. Somewhat more constraining is the choice of only two gain settings, 40 and 60dB.

Most moving-magnet and high-output moving-coil cartridges have a nominal output voltage of 2-5mV. If the Phono3’s 40dB gain option is selected, the output will then be 200-500mV. An input signal of that level will be sufficient when used with an active preamplifier, or integrated amp with preamplifier stage, but may not be enough to drive a passive preamp. The same consideration applies to the use of low-output moving coils, which typically put out 0.2-0.5mV when used with the 60dB setting. More gain may be needed for some low-output cartridges, and it would be useful to have some intermediate gain settings. If, for example, the output of your cartridge is 3.0mV -- as is that of my Shure V15XMR -- the output of the Phono3 will be, nominally, 300mV. That’s not a problem when used with a preamplifier of 500mV sensitivity, but it’s too low for one with a sensitivity of 1–2V. Increasing the gain to the 60dB setting for that same 3.0mV-output cartridge will result in an input to the preamplifier of 3V. Now the driving voltage is sufficient, but with a substantial increase in noise. This doesn’t mean that the Phono3 is a bad design, but it does suggest that consideration be paid to the equipment with which it is to be used.

Setting up the Phono3 was quick and uncomplicated. Pull it out of the thick packing foam, and adjust the DIP switches on the rear to best match your cartridge (whose manual should include recommendations for loading). Place the Bel Canto on a convenient shelf on your equipment rack, connect the inputs and outputs, and plug it in. The whole operation took me less than five minutes. At that point, you’ll probably want to start spinning records, but Bel Canto recommends letting the Phono3 burn in for at least 100 hours. To me, it sounded fine after having had a few hours to reach thermal equilibrium.


True to its manufacturer’s name, the e.One Phono3 presented music in bel canto style. It was sweet and fluid. I’ve heard thankfully few analog front-ends that have been harsh or fatiguing, but the Phono3 distinguished itself with an exceptionally inviting sound that led to some of the longest listening sessions I’ve had in quite a while. I heard an ease and naturalness with the Phono3 that was intoxicating. This fluidity and sweetness didn’t seem to be something covering the signal, but rather the result of its adding very few artifacts.

At first I thought the Phono3’s high frequencies somewhat curtailed. But as I listened more to it, I decided that its highs just weren’t drawing undue attention to themselves. Many designers will tip up a component’s frequency response to create an impression of more extended highs. At other times, what the listener perceives as high-frequency extension is actually a slight bump in the mid-high frequencies. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but the Phono3 evidently wasn’t designed that way. Its frequency response extended smoothly into the highest treble in perfect proportion to the rest of the range.

I didn’t notice the highest frequencies as such -- they became evident in the harmonic textures of voices and instruments. Whether it was John Coltrane’s saxophone, massed strings, or Alison Krauss’s angelic voice, the presence of such harmonic information -- in the proper proportions -- was a better representation of the sounds of real instruments than I’m accustomed to hearing from analog or digital.

From my initial comments about the sweetness of the Bel Canto’s sound, you might think it had a lush midrange. However, I heard "lushness" only when the recording itself was particularly lush. Rather than a sweetness resulting from sonic syrup poured over everything, the Phono3 had the clean sweetness of spring air. In fact, the distinguishing characteristic of the Phono3’s midrange was its lack of character. It wasn’t lush or lean, highlighted or recessed. Although what I heard through the Bel Canto was usually pleasing, it changed with the recording -- which is exactly how any component should behave.

The Phono3 did have a particular character in the low frequencies. Its bass didn’t give an impression of exceptional depth or power; rather, it was articulate and tuneful. Walking bass lines in particular were served extremely well by the Phono3. Each note had a precise pitch and tonal structure, and occupied a defined interval of time. The decay of each plucked note was rendered naturally, with no additional bloom or overhang.

Many classical recordings, particularly of large-scale orchestral works, can benefit from a little more bass depth and weight. While such a sound is not always strictly accurate, a bit of extra bloom can add to the grandeur of such music. Absent such grandeur, you gain the ability to hear clear articulations from the double-basses. The difference is akin to hearing an orchestra in a large, reverberant hall vs. a smaller, drier one. In this respect the Bel Canto Phono3 fit my priorities, though it may not fit yours. Alternatively, if your speakers have weightier bass than my minimonitors, the balance may be just right.

Rock recordings can go either way. Additional power from the bass guitar and bass drum can help make a recording sound more physical. In one way, that boosts the energy level, but too much bass can also make a song feel slow. The quick, taut bass of the Phono3 lent rock recordings a different sort of energy that propelled the music along.

One aspect of analog playback that I’ve found to be greatly dependent on the quality of the phono preamplifier is soundstaging. Most preamplifiers can preserve the left-right spread very well, but there are significant differences in depth among the various designs I've heard. To be sure, not all recordings have a sense of depth to portray, but when it was there -- as on any of the RCA Living Stereo recordings of the Boston Symphony or Chicago Symphony -- the Phono3 could produce a cavernous sound. Such a natural sense of depth isn’t to be found and appreciated only on classical recordings. When listening to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells’ Drinkin’ TNT ’N Smokin’ Dynamite (LP, Blind Pig BLP 1182), it was easy to close my eyes and imagine that I was there at the Montreux Jazz Festival, so natural was the sense of space.


For the past five years, my phono stage has been the Trigon Vanguard II with Volcano power supply. The Vanguard II is relatively inexpensive ($600), but on its own is only a modest sonic improvement over many built-in stages. Though the Volcano power supply doubles the cost of the package, to $1200, it catapults the Vanguard II’s performance into a different league, and still costs $395 less than the Bel Canto e.One Phono3.

Although both stages employ chip-based, class-A amplification, there are some notable design differences. The German-made Trigon is a much more flexible design than the US-made Bel Canto. The Vanguard II has more choices of resistive and capacitive loading and, more important, its gain is adjustable in 16 steps from 42 to 66dB (as opposed to the Phono3’s mere two choices). While there may be cartridges that the Trigon can’t accommodate, the vast majority of buyers will have no trouble fitting it into their systems.

Another key difference between the two designs is their power supplies. The Phono3’s supply is entirely within the unit, and accounts for its greater size and weight. The Vanguard II’s external transformer can be upgraded to the Volcano battery supply. Trigon’s approach has two theoretical advantages over Bel Canto’s. First, moving the power supply outside the chassis can reduce electromagnetic interference between it and the stage’s sensitive amplification circuits. Inside the Phono3’s rather large case, Bel Canto has placed the power-supply board as far away as possible from the signal board, but obviously, an outboard supply can be placed at a much greater distance. Second, using a battery power supply rather than plugging directly into the wall should result in cleaner power being supplied to the phono stage. While I can hear a tremendous difference between engaging and disengaging the Vanguard II’s battery supply, it didn’t seem to confer any significant advantage over the Phono3 with respect to the noise floor. Cleaner power could also reduce signal distortion, but it’s impossible to separate those effects from other design differences between the two components.

Contrary to what one might expect from a battery-powered component, the Vanguard II’s bass performance seemed actually slightly fuller than the Phono3’s. Bass tunefulness and articulation, on the other hand, were not as good. On violinist Christian Ferras and cellist Paul Tortelier’s recording of Brahms’ Double Concerto, with Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia Orchestra (LP, EMI ASD 549), the double-basses seemed a bit larger through the Vanguard II, but not as precise in their playing as through the Phono3.

Neither component unduly emphasized the highest frequencies, but the Phono3 was slightly more subdued and slightly more refined than the Vanguard II. Listening to the woodwinds on the same Brahms recording, I heard more lifelike harmonic textures through the Bel Canto than through the Trigon. At the beginning of the second movement is a beautiful legato passage played by both soloists. The sounds blended well through the Vanguard II; through the Phono3, they blended just as beautifully, but were also more clearly two instruments -- the way one hears it in a concert hall. The midrange was also sweeter through the Bel Canto than through the Trigon. With the Vanguard II, I noticed a slight grit that just wasn’t present with the Phono3.

There was a difference in soundstage perspective between the two phono stages. Both did a very good job of positioning instruments properly from left to right, and both could convey a sense of depth. There was always a bit more depth with the Bel Canto, even when a recording probably didn’t have much depth to begin with. This added depth will likely please most classical listeners, but for other genres, the Trigon’s more up-front perspective may be preferable. In fact, the combination of the differences in soundstaging and tonal balance made the Trigon sound more energetic, the Bel Canto more laid-back. Which you will prefer will ultimately depend on your system, personal taste, and the music to which you listen.


At $1595, the Bel Canto e.One Phono3 is only for the audiophile who is serious about vinyl reproduction, but considering its sound and build quality, it’s not unreasonably priced. Its sound may not be right for all listeners, and its rather narrow range of settings, particularly of gain, means that it won’t fit all systems. For me, though, the Phono3 was an excellent fit. I found that its articulate and tuneful bass brought life to recordings of small-ensemble jazz, its sweet midrange captivatingly reproduced voices, and its depth of soundstage imbued many classical recordings with a concert-like feel. Bel Canto’s e.One Phono3 did its part to make possible the most satisfying listening experiences I’ve had with my system.

. . . .S. Andrea Sundaram

Bel Canto Design e.One Phono3
Price: $1595 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

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

E-mail: info@belcantodesign.com
Internet: www.belcantodesign.com