|Bel Canto e.One S300iu Integrated Amplifier|
|Home Theater Power Amplifiers Integrated Amplifiers|
|Written by Andrew Robinson|
|Thursday, 01 November 2007|
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While the debates rage on over the newest HD formats and the subsequent gear and accessories needed to render beautiful images, I decided to detour my attention for a bit to focus on something that makes a bit more sense: two-channel audio. It’s been a while since I’ve sat down with a strictly two-channel component in my otherwise home theater and multi-channel audio-dominated home. While the Bel Canto e.One S300iu integrated amp is far from being just another two-channel component, my return to seeming simplicity was not only welcome, but eye-opening.
My last foray into strictly two-channel fare was a few years ago, when my system comsisted of a series of boutique-style SET tube amps and a pair of incredibly efficient loudspeakers. Since then, I’ve gone on to build not one but three dedicated home theater spaces in my house, all but eliminating not just my investment in stereo, but my need for it as well. In fact, the only strictly two-channel system I keep is at work, in my office, with my primary source being my computer playing iTunes. That is, until the Bel Canto integrated arrived on my doorstep.
Bel Canto, for the uninitiated, came to prominence some years ago with their line-up of tube amps and DACs, which were not only excellent-sounding, but also outright bargains. While Bel Canto has dabbled in the multi-channel and home theater realms with equal success, their new line-up of products, the e.One series, is, more or less, a return to their core audience and beliefs. But don’t call the e.One a throwback or retro. No. The e.One series, especially the e.One S300iu reviewed here, is two-channel audio for the twenty-first century.
The e.One S300iu is unlike any integrated amp I’ve ever come across, in that it doesn’t look like an amp at all. It’s small in comparison to most of today’s audio components, and looks more at home with an Apple iPod than with a turntable, due to its sleek industrial design. Seriously, this baby belongs in the Museum of Modern Art, for there isn’t a sleeker, sexier component on Earth than the e.One S300iu. It’s very Bond … James Bond. Measuring eight-and-a-half inches wide by 12-and-a-half inches deep and three inches tall, the e.One S300iu is nearly half the size of the competition. Retailing for a manageable $2,195, the e.One S300iu is about half the price of the competition, too. Even more impressive is that the e.One S300iu weighs in at 12 pounds, which when you consider its total power output of 300 watts per channel into four ohms, is astonishing.
The front panel is simple yet functional. Carved out of the brushed white aluminum façade is a large, oval-shaped digital display that shows the listener the volume as well as the input selected, although once the input is selected, the screen defaults exclusively to volume. To the right of the display is a large circular dial, which when rotated clockwise controls the volume. Press the large dial and you can shuttle through the e.One S300iu’s four inputs, including its single USB DAC input, which I’ll get to later. A simple press and hold of the dial brings the e.One S300iu in and out of standby mode.
Turning my attention aft, the miniscule e.One S300iu is chock full of options, including a few not normally found on integrated amplifiers. Working left to right, you find the e.One S300iu’s detachable power cord and RCA-style line outs, as well as a pair of RCA record outs. The line outputs can be used to drive a separate powered subwoofer, if your two-channel speakers aren’t quite full-range, or a separate amplifier for more power. By the way, the e.One S300iu makes an excellent pre-amplifier. There are four pairs of RCA style inputs, labeled simply input one, two, three, and four. The fourth input can be used as a home theater bypass, should you want the e.One S300iu to power your left and right mains in a multi-channel set-up. Next to the standard inputs is a pair of robust, five-way binding posts laid out in a stacked configuration. Resting nearly dead center on the rear of the e.One S300iu is its USB DAC input, which allows users to connect a USB-enabled music device, such as a digital music player or computer, directly to the e.One S300iu, which is beyond cool. In the near future, the e.One S300iu will be able to be ordered with a moving magnet phono card in place of the USB input if you’re one of those still rockin’ the vinyl.
The reason the e.One S300iu is so small is its use of digital amplification. Digital amplification has been with us for a while now, and while it’s growing in popularity in the receiver markets, it’s also now starting to come into its own as a true contender against the more traditional audiophile solutions out there. The e.One S300iu is a true dual mono design, each channel getting its own regulated switching power supply, as well as a low-distortion, wide dynamic range fully balanced switching amplifier, allowing the e.One S300iu to churn out 150 watts per channel into eight ohms and 300 watts into four. In fact, the e.One S300iu’s amplifier section is identical to Bel Canto’s own S300 stereo amplifier. The e.One S300iu’s use of digital amplification also means it runs cool to the touch, as well goes easy on your electric bill, for it is very efficient. The e.One S300iu’s power draw at idle is a mere 15 watts and, although it can draw as much as 600 watts completely maxed out, Bel Canto states that even at loud playback levels for extended periods of time, most users will fail to see even a fraction of that power draw. Indeed, most users will never exceed a 50 watt draw from their AC line. A high-end audio product that’s easy on your electric bill, imagine that.
Which brings me to the remote. It’s terrible, and by that I mean terribly functional. Its understated simplicity and ease of use fits the e.One S300iu perfectly. Okay, so there is no back-lighting, but this is a two-channel product, so the rules are slightly different. Also, with only six buttons, the thing is easy enough to memorize. It is a bit plastic-like and doesn’t quite have the pizzazz of the e.One S300iu itself, but nevertheless, I kinda dig it.
Setting up the e.One S300iu was an exercise in simplicity. I had originally planned to use it in my office system, but after a night of listening, I knew that it had to go in a dedicated two-channel system, which I no longer had. Luckily, a pair of Paradigm Signature S8s arrived for review within days of the e.One S300iu’s arrival. I connected the e.One S300iu to the S8s via my Transparent Reference speaker cables. Next, I brought out my Denon 3910 universal player, as well as my new Mac Book Pro. I connected my Denon 3910 to the e.One S300iu via Transparent Reference interconnects, while my Mac Book Pro took a simple USB cable into the e.One S300iu’s USB DAC input. I ripped a few discs onto my Mac in lossless compression and played them through the latest release of iTunes version 7.4.2. I let the entire system play for a day or so before truly sitting down to begin my evaluation.