|Bel Canto e.One REF1000 Digital Mono Power Amplifier|
|Home Theater Power Amplifiers Mono Amplifiers|
|Written by Andrew Robinson|
|Saturday, 01 March 2008|
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Music and Movies
I’ve been on a bit of an iPod kick of late, so I decided to start my evaluation with some Apple Lossless CD rips, beginning with Tool’s “Eulogy” from their album AEnema. Before you go screaming for the hills over an iPod listening test, you should know that Bel Canto is one of the few high-end companies that have been on board with the digital music scene since its inception, and it shows. In Apple Lossless, “Eulogy” sounded pretty close to its CD brethren. Through the REF1000s, the treble was rather smooth, with impressive texture and air. The midrange was a bit thin through the iPod, but it wasn’t offensive, just a touch lean. The bass was solid, poised and plunged fairly deep, with exceptional control regardless of the volume. There was a good sense of impact and dynamic swing, but it was here that I felt the iPod was coming up just a touch short. In comparison, when driving the REF1000s via my Mac Book Pro, the dynamic envelope opened up a bit and allowed the lower midrange and bass to reach the basement a bit easier. When I put my Hovland HP-100 into the chain between the REF1000s and my iPod, the midrange filled out and opened up a bit and the treble became, near as makes no difference, indiscernible from the CD. In terms of soundstage, there was little difference in the width. However, with the Hovland in the mix, the front to back presentation opened up nicely and made for a more three-dimensional and natural presentation. Let me add that I am nitpicking here, and would not be ashamed in the least to mate a pair of REF1000s directly to an iPod and call it hi-fi. The REF1000s, while revealing, don’t do it in an overtly offensive way the way most high-end products do by shouting, “Hey, I’m better than your CD player … hey, you should do something about that.” It’s just not the case with the REF1000s; they take what they’re given and find ways to make sweet music with it.
I decided to put the iPod away for a while and drug out Tori Amos’ box set, A Piano: The Collection (Rhino), and cued up the demo of hit single “A Sorta Fairytale.” This particular recording is raw and full of imperfections, but the REF1000s didn’t seem bothered by it, as it cooked up one of the most intimate and lifelike performances I’ve ever heard through any of my systems. Tori’s vocals were palpable, with the sort of weight and resonance that you swear you can just reach out and touch you. There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of anything between her lyrics and me, other than the distance from my speakers to my listening chair. The piano was lifelike in both tone and scale and was so rife with texture I could hear the mallets bounce off the strings and the sound of her feet shifting across the pedals. I cued up “Sugar” from the same compilation and was treated to more of the same on a much larger scale. The opening bells and miniscule twinkling sounds were absolutely pristine and completely free of glare or digital harshness; instead, they shimmered for days as they seemingly danced around my room. Again, the midrange was to die for and possessed that sort of “it” quality that, once you hear it, you know you can’t live without it. The bass rolled along with tremendous control and heft, yet there was a lot more detail there that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing through my previous amps. I want to get back to this issue of control, for the REF1000s have loads of it, yet unlike their traditional counterparts, they don’t feel as if they’re beating the speakers into submission. Instead, the REF1000s have a sort of Zen-like peace with the gear around them, as if there is some sort of understanding and everyone has agreed to play nice with one another and give it their all. I know it sounds a bit cheesy and not altogether sexy, but with the REF1000s in my system, it sounded as if I had actually subtracted components, bringing me that much closer to the source itself. Do the REF1000s have a sound of their own? Of course they do. They’re not the fullest-sounding in the midrange, nor do they possess that last ounce of slam you’ll get from the likes of a Krell Evo amp, but none of that matters, for they integrate seamlessly into nearly any system and make it better, yet never call attention to themselves.
It was time to move the two REF1000s into my reference home theater rig, where the three others were patiently waiting. I kicked things off with Peter Cincotti’s Live in New York from Monster Music (Monster). Chaptering ahead to the track “Sway,” the REF1000s proved you can’t have too much of a good thing. Cincotti’s piano was natural-sounding and even more firmly placed within the soundstage with the help of my large center channel being powered by its own REF1000. The cymbals were nimble and airy and crashed with such impact they bordered on the real thing. The double bass was well balanced, with a taut and firm grip of the lower registers, yet still possessing tremendous air and decay as each pluck resonated as long as the musician would allow. Beyond these attributes, the REF1000s brought a greater sense of rhythm and a touch of swagger to the music that I just wasn’t accustomed to. Also, they recreated a seamless sense of space and atmosphere that placed me more or less amidst the action, although the images onscreen were of a sun-drenched summer’s day and outside my window it was cold as hell and raining. Skipping forward to “I Love Paris,” the REF1000s dished out more of the same. While “Paris” is a bit driving, with a fairly complex bridge, the REF1000s never lost their footing. The speed in which these amps can perform, starting then stopping only to start up again all in nearly an instant, is nothing short of amazing. With dynamic swings from the loudest fortissimo to the subtlest pianissimo, every note matters to the REF1000s, and you’re going to hear it how the artist intended it and yet you’ll never get the sense that anything mechanical is responsible for it.
I ended my evaluation of the REF1000s with the Tim Allen comedy Wild Hogs (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) on Blu-ray disc. Within moments of the film’s opening, you’re treated to the boisterous engine roar of a Harley Davidson motorcycle. With the REF1000s in my system and the volume south of sanity, I was able to recreate what it would’ve been like to physically start up one of those bad boys in my living room. No lying, I felt my walls flex, yet the REF1000s didn’t skip a beat. I truly felt as if my speakers were on the verge of crapping out, but the REF1000s didn’t seem to break a sweat. Stand next to a Harley starting up in a parking lot. Now imagine that sound trapped in your living room and that’s what it was like. Every raunchy detail, throaty growl and chainsaw gargling pop was present as the bike materialized in my room over and over. As my girlfriend yelled “Enough already,” I allowed the rest of the film to play. Dialogue was clear and natural, regardless of what was happening around the actors. Truthfully, it was all very good, but what the REF1000s did manage to do that other amps fall short of was truly convey the sense of space that existed onscreen. For instance, in Martin Lawrence’s first scene in the convenience store, the clerk is clearly a fair amount of distance away from Martin’s character, yet through most amps, the distance between the two is compressed, almost as if they were next to one another, which messes with your mind. However, the REF1000s kept that visible space intact. Given the REF1000s propensity for speed, the space remained consistent, even when the editor cut between the two actors, so there wasn’t the jarring shift that occurs with some traditional amps. The same sense of scale held true on wide shots, as it did with more intimate moments. There just seemed to be so much more subtlety to the sonic landscape through the REF1000s than through most of their competition, though when the moment called for it, the REF1000s could throw down with the best of ‘em. The REF1000’s are, without a doubt, special amplifiers in every way.