Bel Canto e.One REF1000 Digital Mono Power Amplifier 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Mono Amplifiers
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Saturday, 01 March 2008

Introduction
I had my first real introduction to high-end audio back in high school. This consisted of a brief listening session with an entire rack of Krell electronics and a pair of Wilson Watt Puppy Version 5.1 speakers. Not since then has a company or product come along that has single-handedly changed the way I view two-channel audio and the paradigm of what’s possible quite like Bel Canto did late last year with their e.One S300iu Integrated Amp. I loved the S300iu so much I gave it my endorsement as one of the products of the year in our annual Gear We Love list. Truth be told, the S300iu came very close to capturing the top spot, which ultimately went to the magnificent Revel Salon2 loudspeakers.

However, the e.One S300iu review almost didn’t happen. When I contacted Bel Canto about doing a review, I had requested review samples of their REF1000 monoblocks. At the time, none were available but, rather then make me wait, Bel Canto shipped me their S300iu to tide me over. Halfway into my review of the S300iu, the REF1000s arrived and further cemented my views of not only the S300iu’s greatness, but of Bel Canto’s as well.

So here we go with Round Two. Bel Canto’s e.One REF1000 monoblocks visually fit into the rest of their lineup of products like peas with carrots, only better-looking and far tastier. Measuring in at eight-and-a-half inches wide by three inches tall and 12 inches deep, the REF1000s occupy the same amount of rack space as the rest of the Bel Canto e.One line of products. Unlike most traditional monaural amplifiers, the REF1000s aren’t going to blow your back out or require you to bribe a friend or two to move them from room to room, for they only weigh a scant 13 pounds. The faceplate has the e.One series’ trademark silvery white bezel with brushed black metal laid underneath. Gone is the large LCD display and rotary knob of the S300iu; in its place is a single blue-glowing LED, letting you know the REF1000 is ready to play. Turning my attention aft, the REF1000 has all the standard connections you find in a top-flight mono amp. A single pair of WBT binding posts and balanced and unbalanced preamp inputs, as well as a master power switch and detachable power cord, round out the REF1000’s list of connection options. All in all, I’m not sure you’re going to find a simpler or easier to live with amplifier than the REF1000. The REF1000s aren’t the cheapest amps on the market, especially amongst digital amplifiers with their retail price of $1,995 each. However, one must take into consideration the REF1000’s total power output, which is 500 watts into eight ohms and a whopping 1000 watts into four. That breaks down to roughly four dollars per watt, which in ultra-high-end terms is an absolute steal.

Getting back to what makes the REF1000 unique among traditional amplifiers is its use of a fully regulated switching power amplifier and power supplies capable of driving low impedances down to two ohms with a 120dB of dynamic range capability. In a nutshell, the REF1000’s internal architecture insures maximum speaker and driver control for purer musical playback.

Setup
For two-channel playback, I had intended to mate the REF1000s to my Bel Canto S300iu integrated amp via its preamp outputs. However, due to circumstances resulting from the fires in Southern California, my S300iu (and a few other components) were damaged. Luckily, I had recently purchased one of my all-time favorite preamps, the truly spectacular Hovland HP-100. The HP-100 (for the uninitiated) is a tube preamplifier with an optional tube phono stage. I connected my HP-100 to the REF1000’s unbalanced inputs via Transparent Cable’s MusicLink Ultra interconnects. For my sources, I utilized my ever-ready Denon 3910 universal player and my Apple iPod connected to my HP-100 via Transparent MusicLink Ultra interconnects. I connected the REF1000s to my reference Paradigm Signature S8 v.2 loudspeakers via Transparent MusicWave Ultra speaker cables. Power filtration came by way of Transparent’s PowerWave 8 (review pending). I also went ahead and swapped out the REF1000’s stock power cables with a pair of Transparent’s PowerLink Plus power cords.

For multi-channel and movie playback, I connected the REF1000s to my reference home theater rig, consisting of an Integra DTC 9.8 processor (review pending), Toshiba HD-A35 HD DVD player, Sony BDP-S1 Blu-ray player, AppleTV and Dish Network HD DVR fed to my trusty Sony VW50 “Pearl” projector. I used XLO Reference and UltraLink Reference cables throughout for both audio and video, with power conditioning coming by way of Monster Cable. I should note that, for multi-channel and movie playback, I did not replace the REF1000’s stock power cords, since I did not have enough on hand for all of the separate amplifiers.

Bel Canto recommends a minimum of 40 hours of continuous power on for the REF1000s to sound their absolute best and I’ll second that remark, but since the REF1000s are scary energy-efficient, leaving them on 24/7 isn’t going to tax your electric bill the way beefy traditional amps will. The REF1000s are truly set ‘em and forget ‘em amps, and I mean that in the best possible way.

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.

The Downside
While I absolutely adore the REF1000 mono amps from Bel Canto and find little, if any, fault in their sonic capabilities, there were a few ergonomic issues I have to mention.

For starters, the WBT binding posts make it difficult to connect certain types of spade lugs to the REF1000, due to their plastic safety enclosures. My Transparent speaker cable’s spades fit the WBT posts, but the angle in which they had to go into the tight slot made positioning the amps on my rack a bit of a chore. Luckily, a couple of spade-to-banana adapters from Transparent made my life a whole lot easier. Those of you with banana-style ends on your speaker cables will love the WBT binding posts on the REF1000s.

Also, due to the size and weight of the REF1000s, and the fact that I had to somewhat “hang” them off the back of my two-channel rack in order to accommodate my reference cables, the amps were prone to tipping a bit. Careful amp and cable placement eliminated this minor drawback, but, alas, it was present.

Lastly, while the REF1000s’ size makes for a sleek and stylish appearance, it also makes them a bit more difficult to rack-mount. Unlike traditional components that sit comfortably on most standard shelves or racks, the diminutive REF1000s require a bit more finesse and/or specialty shelves to achieve that professionally installed look. However, there are no better products than Bel Canto’s for an ultra-high-end system on the down-low, for they can be placed almost anywhere, even in tight spaces, due to their nearly total lack of heat production. You can even stack them, which is something I almost never endorse for any hi-fi product.

Conclusion
With a retail price of $1,995 each or just under ten grand for a complete five-channel system as tested here, the Bel Canto REF1000s are a sizeable investment, considering you can buy a traditional multi-channel amp for far less. While you can definitely spend less for power, you’re also getting less: less power and less quality. However, in comparison with some of the best amplifiers available today, the REF1000s are an absolute steal and compete favorably with, and often best, the traditional competition. I can count on one hand the number of traditional amplifiers for sale today that I would go on record as saying are outright better than the REF1000s, for they truly are that good.

The REF1000s are as good as your equipment and source material will allow and each incremental upgrade, from power cords on up, will be met with equal fervor from these mighty mites. However, unlike most high-end products, the REF1000s sound good with even budget gear, for a lot of what makes them great can be unlocked with components as simple and inexpensive as an iPod. They truly are an upgrade junkie’s paradise.

Without a doubt, Bel Canto makes some of the best-sounding and best-looking audio equipment out there today, and their REF1000s mono amps represent the pinnacle in an already stellar lineup. They are among the finest amplifiers I’ve ever heard and have had the privilege of auditioning.
Manufacturer Bel Canto
Model e.One REF1000 Digital Mono Power Amplifier
Reviewer Andrew Robinson





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