Bel Canto e.One S300iu Integrated Amplifier 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Integrated Amplifiers
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Thursday, 01 November 2007

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.

I kicked things off with one of my favorite rock albums of recent memory, Audioslave’s self-titled debut (Epic/Interscope). Beginning with the track “Cochise,” the e.One S300iu’s almost out-of-the-box performance can be summed up in a single word: damn. The first time I heard “Cochise” was at publisher Jerry Del Colliano’s house some years ago. Jerry was spinning the now out of print 20-bit stereo DualDisc release through a complete Meridian, Mark Levinson and Wilson Audio set-up. Needless to say, it was amazing and ever since then, I’ve been chasing that sound. Well, my day had come. With the e.One S300iu in my system, “Cochise” sounded every bit as real, visceral and involving as it was played back through Jerry’s reference system. However, there were a few things my e.One S300iu could do that Jerry’s system could not. For starters, the e.One S300iu has the blackest background I’ve ever heard; it’s not just quiet, it’s nonexistent. I’m talking no noise, no hum nothing, just darkness, which adds to the e.One S300iu’s strengths in the dynamics department, where it excels on every level. Vocals were clearer, with a greater sense of presence and weight through the e.One S300iu. The vocal track was so clear and precise that I could actually hear Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell swaying behind the microphone. The sound was subtle, but very present. Through other systems, Morello’s guitars sound raunchy, but through the e.One S300iu, you can hear exactly what he is doing to make them so. Each punishing chord change and scratchy strum came through with reckless abandon through the e.One S300iu.

Switching to the track “Show Me How to Live,” I could hear further into the guitars and technique than ever before. Even when playing back at ear-splitting levels, the e.One S300iu didn’t bully me by simply being loud. Instead, it built up the intensity layer by layer making for a very live, in-room sound. The e.One S300iu’s dynamic prowess isn’t explosive the way some amps are; instead, it is immediate. “Explosive” implies a build-up before an inevitable release, whereas the e.One S300iu’s dynamics happen instantaneously. The music can truly start and stop on a dime. The entire spectrum, from the highest highs to the lowest lows is rendered truthfully, naturally and so sweetly you swear you’re hearing the music for the first time. The amount of sheer detail and resolution, both in the micro and macro realm through the e.One S300iu, is staggering.

I decided to calm things down a bit and cued up Matchbox 20’s debut album Yourself or Someone Like You (Warner/Atlantic). Starting with the track “3am,” the opening seconds of the song appeared as if from nowhere. Rob Thomas’ vocals were rich, warm and carried with them tremendous weight and presence that placed him well into my room, giving me a front row-like performance. The high frequencies, especially the cymbals, were pristine and smooth, with zero signs of grain or glare, and exhibited copious amounts of air and such natural decay I would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the real thing. The bass is the e.One S300iu party piece, reaching depths I didn’t think were possible through my Paradigm Signature S8s without the help of a sub. The bass was tuneful and agile and tremendously musical. Speaking of musical, the e.One S300iu’s entire performance was about as involving as it gets without inviting the band over to the house to play live. When I fired up a few other amps I had on hand for comparison, the same tracks played back through traditional amplification sounded a bit closed in, distant and subdued.

Skipping ahead to the track “Push,” the rim shots, drum kit and surrounding space conjured up images of a bad high school prom. I could almost smell the fruit punch and hear the rustling of the cheap streamers. This is what the e.One S300iu does best: it doesn’t play back music so much as it transports you into a performance. The e.One S300iu’s uncanny ability to extract every nuance from the music is not only amazing but at times eerie, for you’re going to hear things (provided your source is good enough) you’ve never heard before. For instance, with the song “Push,” what I once mistook for a spot of reverb on Thomas’ microphone through other systems is, in fact, several of his band mates singing backup vocals.

While the e.One S300iu is only a two-channel integrated amp, that didn’t stop me from dragging out a SACD or two to see what it could do with the higher-resolution format. I spun up John Mayer’s Heavier Things (Columbia) on SACD and set my Denon’s SACD settings for stereo. Most of the time, the addition of higher-resolution material results in an increase in quality in one or two areas, usually the treble and/or bass lines. When feeding the e.One S300iu an SACD, everything got better, and I do mean everything. The opening “snaps” to “Split Screen Sadness” were not snaps at all, but rather digital composites of several sounds that I can only describe as Galaga-like rocket and laser gun sound effects. Mayer’s vocals were simply sublime, and at no point did I get the impression that I was listening to a piece of audio equipment so much as I was listening to the real thing. The midrange the e.One S300iu is capable of producing is so seductive and sexy that you want to take it to bed. The treble was excellent, as was the bass, both independent and free of any slurring or bloat. The texture and detail to the guitars and drum kit were astonishing, allowing me to hear the ridges along the strings themselves, and even whether or not the string was plucked or strummed.

I ended my evaluation of the e.One S300iu with the track “Daughters.” I honestly don’t have the words. Beyond the technical, beyond the soundstage, even beyond the frequencies themselves, the one thing the e.One S300iu excels at more than any other amp that has come before it in my system is the emotion it draws, not just from the music, but from the listener as well. I’ve heard plenty of amps that are involving in one way or another, but you can always tell there is a big, heavy box working hard, whereas with the e.One S300iu, I never got the sense that anything technological was at work. Every element – the the strum of a guitar, strike of piano chord, decay from a cymbal – is completely un-audiophile-sounding and borders more on the real than anything I’ve heard this side of stupid money, and perhaps beyond that. I won’t classify the e.One S300iu as analog-sounding, or digital, nor would I call it warm or cold. To my ears, the e.One S300iu is none of those things. To my ears, the e.One S300iu is music.

The Downside
It’s hard not to love the e.One S300iu and, in the case of my experience, it’s even harder to criticize it. I found nothing overtly wrong with the e.One S300iu’s sound. In fact, I even prefer it to many of the other reference amps I have in my system.

The e.One S300iu is capable of driving most loudspeakers to their breaking points. However, if you have inefficient speakers or a very large room, you may want to step up in the Bel Canto line for more power, or simply add an additional stereo amp, such as the Bel Canto e.One S300 or Reference Monos, to the e.One S300iu’s line outputs for more power.

There is a slight learning curve to the manual control of the e.One S300iu. There are no direct selectable input controls and sometimes the volume/input dial can be a bit finicky when you’re trying to get out of the volume control and into the input selection menus. Obviously, adding input buttons would’ve spoiled the e.One S300iu’s good looks, but nevertheless, one has to get used to the e.One S300iu’s manual operation.

When coming out of standby mode, the volume controls are a bit sluggish to respond to either the remote or the manual dial. This is just a minor inconvenience, but it is present.

Lastly, while I love the physical size of the e.One S300iu I couldn’t help but think of how I would rack-mount it if I wanted to integrate it, or any other current Bel Canto product, into my reference home theater system. I have a Middle Atlantic rack and the Bel Cantos use about half the space (width-wise) as a normal component. While I could place two Bel Canto amps side by side, it would require me to get a specialty faceplate to make their appearance in my rack a bit more professional. Again, not a major flaw, just a slight cost one has to consider if you plan on rack-mounting any Bel Canto products.

The e.One S300iu integrated amp from Bel Canto is one of those products that comes along and doesn’t just threaten to change one’s perspective on what is possible, but delivers on the promise. It is every bit as much a high-end product as its more traditional counterparts, i.e., Mark Levinson, Krell, Audio Research, Conrad Johnson and the like. However, unlike most of the competition, the e.One S300iu is rather obtainable with its retail price of $2,195. More than any of the technical and monetary mumbo jumbo, what makes the e.One S300iu truly one of a kind is just how effortlessly and completely it reproduces music and movies, regardless of genre. It is the only amplifier that seemingly doesn’t stray to far in any one direction, favoring one thing over another; it is, for lack of a better word, neutral in more ways than one. The bass performance is rock solid, and among the best you’ll ever hope to hear outside of, say, the Krell Evolution mono blocks. The midrange is an absolute delight, while the treble is as smooth and refined as anything costing 10 times more. Moreover, it’s the e.One S300iu’s complete mastery of not only the musical elements but of the surrounding space that makes its presentation so damn real. You owe it to yourself to check out this tiny giant, for I cannot recommend the e.One S300iu highly enough for anyone serious about modern two-channel audio.
Manufacturer Bel Canto
Model e.One S300iu Integrated Amplifier
Reviewer Andrew Robinson

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