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Set Up and Listening:
Set up was a five minute process which included the usual, hooking up sources, speaker cable, and power cord. From the get go, several things were very apparent. First, there was a bell-like clarity, a beautifully neutral midrange, and an overall coherence, which for me is essential, that had me stuck in my chair for hours. Compared to my Audio Research SP 16 and VS55 tubed combo, images were sharper, better defined, and bass articulation was superior. On the last item, that never surprises me, as most solid state gear I have reviewed has bettered my tube combo in bass accuracy and punch. Usually the ARC gear comes out ahead specifically in regards to “midrange magic”. But here things were much, much closer than I had anticipated.
The high frequencies were extended, airy, and very smooth. The Belles was a great match with the Thiel CS2.4 speakers, which is exceptionally neutral and musical. Individual instruments were perfectly framed and soundstage depth was superb. There was power to spare and the Soloist 1 barely broke a sweat driving these 4 ohm speakers. I could itemize the usual audiophile checklist, but ultimately the Belles Soloist 1 was very difficult to find fault with sonically. The presentation was as rock solid as the case work.
Amazon's exclusive Queen box set, featuring the iconic British band’s first five albums remastered by the great Bob Ludwig, arrived during the review period. Through the Soloist 1 it was easy to hear huge differences between these and the previous set of remasters done by Hollywood Records ten years ago. There was quite a bit more detail, way more bass, separation of instruments, and more gain. Ludwig certainly used compression, but I would say judiciously. The Hollywood versions sounded a bit dull, low in output, and flatter by comparison. Through the Belles it was easy to hear the micro details, and to identify previously buried parts and overdubs, and even distortion inherent to the master tapes.
A new favorite of mine is Street of the Love of Days (Merge Records, 2011) the debut album by Amor De Dias, the new side project by Alasdair MacLean, the leader of one of my favorite bands, The Clientele. He is joined by Lupe Nunez-Fernandez, of the band Pipas. It is a gorgeous, impressionistic album, filled with acoustic back drops, catchy melodies, and a laid back, summery feel. Having seen them recently live, I was mesmerized. The Soloist 1 presented one of my favorite cuts, “Season of Light”, in all its autumnal glory, with beautiful Spanish guitar, and hushed vocals.
The new project from rock legend Robert Plant, Band of Joy (Rounder Records, 2010), is a triumph across the board. Well recorded, with a mix of excellent covers and originals, played by a superb cast of veteran musicians. The album features great songs from Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Low, Townes Van Zandt and more. Plant is in great voice, and master sidemen like Buddy Miller, and great vocal accompaniment by Patti Griffin, a recording artist in her own right, make this different than any other album Plant has done. The sublime version of Minnesota based band Low’s, “Silver Rider”, pulses with sensual melancholy, and a beautiful version of “Harm’s Swift Way”, one of the last songs Townes Van Zandt every composed, sounded just immaculate. Plant’s vocal nuances and his ode to the late, great songwriter shines through.
A few notes about living with the Belles Soloist 1. First, it ran mildly warm to the touch. It was dead quiet in operation, I loved working the toggle switches, and the volume knob was very precise. Which brings me to my one or two minor quibbles (no component is perfect right?). I wish the supplied remote control allowed for more precise volume changes. Secondly, and lastly, I wish there was a way to to directly select inputs, instead of toggling through. But obviously, this is nit picking!