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Having forgotten to include the PRe2's remote control while returning the full-width pre to the Minneapolitans in trade for my new PRe3, I found out that its bigger metal remote works just swell on the PRe3. In fact, this adds the nice features of display off and direct input selection. Both are MIA without that remote. Those certainly aren't essential features. Still, they're nice to have. Alas, it's not completely comprehensive arm chair creature comforts the PRe3/S300 combo is about. It's sonics so highly resolved and capable of digging way deep into the digital grooves that it'll come as quite a shock to those shoppers who haven't hit the aisles in a few years. They'll have assumed that this level of data retrieval would have to cost a lot more. Rightly so. It did until not very long ago.

On that very subject, another distracted professor confession. As it turned out rustling through my pile of luggage, I hadn't returned the PRe2 owner's manual either. Comparing published specs between PRe2 and PRe3 on a midnight lark, I couldn't fail to notice that the latter's S/N ratio is listed as 105dB A-weighted, 20Hz-20kHz. At 100dB, the PRe2's is 5dB lower. Dynamic range for the PRe3? A claimed 120dB. For the PRe2? None given. One assumes that the inexorable advances of performance specs in new parts have marched on since the PRe2's launch. Hence the newer PRe3 benefits from a further lowering of its noise floor over its more feature-laden, still available bigger brother. Same circuit, newer parts?

At 20dB or with a x10 gain factor, it also amplifies a bit more than the PRe2. That does 16dB and tops out its digital display at 120. The PRe3 hits its max output ceiling at 100dB. While I confirmed that without applied signal, I
noticed only the faintest ocean surf over my 88dB Gallo Ref3.1s. And that only when standing really close. In other words, way excellent noise performance for this Bel Canto duo. In particular for a 150wpc high-power amp that cleanly doubles into 4 ohms. It underscores why the magnification power of small details is so uncannily high with these components. Call it a testament to not only high-performance modern parts but also overall circuit implementation and effective grounding schemes. It's something John Stronczer with his past in high-speed telecommunications always pays close attention to. That and keeping a constant eye on advances in surface-mount parts. More so than many, Stronczer appreciates that it's the giant scale of telecommunications which funds such ongoing advances. It surely ain't tiny and insignificant audio. Though audio can most certainly benefit if you're not stuck on old-fashioned so-called point-to-point wiring.

Via an open dialogue with Stronczer over the years, I know that he'd have no hesitation calling his firm's house sound modern. Modern sound. Like Linn, that means circuit miniaturization, not merely in two but three planes: multi-layered circuit boards; integrated circuits; SMPS or switch-mode power supplies. It means measurably lower distortion and ultra low noise floors. That's nearly synonymous since noise as a non-data artifact is distortion. But distortion exists well outside of noise. Just think total harmonic distortion or intermodulation distortion for example. No wonder that tubes by now lie far in Stronczer's past. They'd simply no longer fit into his overall aesthetic and specific priorities as a designer.

It thus was of particular significance to him that our own John Potis with his self-professed preference for tube amps (Art Audio's 845-based Carissa SET and Canary Audio's EL-34 push/pull CA-160 monos make up his resident arsenal) fell so hard for the PRe2P/e.One Reference 1000 combination. He made it into his solid-state reference rig and bestowed a Blue Moon award on the S300's bigger ICEpower siblings. In fact, he's since declared that they deserve a Lunar Eclipse award. It's something we have never before bestowed on any amplifier yet. In John's mind, his new Ref 1000 acquisitions break new ground in high-power transistor amplifiers. This from a man who's owned his fair share of sand amps over the years, Bryston's colossal ST-7Bs included. Having briefly compared the Ref 1000s with the S300, Potis feels that as good as the S300 is, the 1000s play in a different league yet. The agreement between us thus became that if I felt the S300 to be a really good amp based on today's review, we'd retroactively upgrade the Ref 1000s' award status. John knows how much better still they are - "blacker, denser, smoother and more liquid, though certainly cut from the same cloth" he calls 'em. I take his word for it. He voted with his wallet after all. Plus, he's one of my most experienced writers.

Needless to say, the other John -- John Stronczer -- knows of my diehard allegiances to the vacuum of tubes only too well. He's often ribbed me for my ongoing attachment to this high-distortion scheme of music reproduction. For my sake, he hopes that I'll see the light one day to finally join the 21st century. Ever cheerful, he's never been afraid to approach me for a transistor review until then. It's become somewhat of a long-distance arm wrestling match between us. When would I stop complaining that his stuff doesn't sound exactly like tubes and simply judge it on its own merit? Today's assignment will then do exactly that, with the only tubes in the review system those I can't eliminate (either the ones in my Zanden D/A converter and its outboard power supply or the lone bottle in the Opera Audio Reference 2.2 Linear). I simply don't own a non-tube source component. But that'll be the only concession to my valve bend. I promise - to John and other solid-state devotees who are getting tired of being compared to glowing glass.

The PRe3/S300 duo excels at revealing the inner game of music. The better the recording gets, the more you hear the interactive stuff - between the performers; between instruments or voices and recording venue and mic position; between fingers and keys or strings. Because there's no spot-lighting or unrealistic outline edging, this level of detail doesn't distract. It simply is extraordinarily precise and telling. Percussion work such as on the Peruvian box called cajon shows you the size of the box. It shows you the guy sitting atop it, how he occasionally inserts foot stomps or repositions his ass. The beats and clicks, the sharp and hollow ones, aren't simply noises. They are full sounds with a clear signature of player and instrument. The initial impact of drum sticks on skins are cleanly separated from the subsequent enclosure resonance.

A bass clarinet gives you the reed spittle, the key clacks, the hollow roaring inside the blackwood, the ghosts of miniature echoes surrounding the notes in space, the diaphragm vs. lip support of the player and whether the instrument is spiked to the floor or worn on a neck strap. This level of immediacy, of having both the ears and the mind's eye catered to by so many visual cues, can be quite spooky. It's the kind of sound you only hear close to the stage in real life. In a really good seat. (It's thus a sound many of us won't be familiar with. After all, such seats tend to be the most expensive ones.) It includes awareness of non-musical events as well. You'll notice how certain loud tones affect the microphone diaphragm to approach overload. You'll hear how certain sounds cause faint room lock in the recording venue; how certain simultaneous sounds interact and cause spectral offshoots.

This up-close perspective on the music lacks the fuzzier kind of mid-hall warmth one may get with increased THD. However, this modern sound isn't bleached or lean per se. It's simply that on relentless recordings, the margin for tolerance shrinks. I'm thinking about certain modern Jazz outings with their free-form shrieks, electronic violin stridency and bat rustles such as are on the mind-numbing Jeff Gauthier Goatette and Bennie Mauplin Ensemble CDs just in for review. Higher fidelity includes higher fidelity to warts and cancer cells as well. From John's Ref 1000 review descriptions, I assume that one area where the big boys go beyond the S300 is in the image density and textural department. That's not a quality the smaller stereo amp seems unnaturally endowed with. There's no added midbass energy which often enhances that aspect.

Absent too is the unnatural leading edge behavior in the bass noted with the triangular Acoustic Reality ICEpower amps from Denmark. The S300 is admirably even about its handling of transients top to bottom, avoiding chiseling or overdamping. Over my Gallos, it exhibited very fine control of their lower bottom end. As I primed the pump, the lower register scaled with the remainder to get mighty impressive on the right kind of fare. I kept coming back to percussion, what with its myriad sound effects so very intelligibly and crisply reproduced. This combo definitely had it there - the "Aha!" effect when percussion gets under your skin as sounding... well, real, jumpy and alive.

In terms of general tone color, I did feel that the Bel Cantos mixed in a wee bit of white - very clear, very clean but also a bit cool. With the eVo4 departed, I'll avoid definitive proclamations except to suggest that the S300 strikes me as harmonically somewhat richer. That doesn't transform its intrinsic soul but edges it closer to the meaty part of the spectrum, relatively speaking. That aspect definitely gains from using the amp's balanced inputs. Running XLRs in should nearly be considered mandatory to hear the S300 at its best (the preamp seems far less picky in that regard).

I should return to the S300's prowess down below. From the
ICEpower specs, it appears that one particular strength of its Class D implementation is current delivery and exceptionally low distortion in the bass - lower distortion by quite a margin over what's common. While I once again must assume that the monstrous 4-ohm output of one whopping kilowatt with the Ref 1000s would have to go farther still, the S300 is quite spectacular in that department, especially on a non-threatening load like the Gallos. It's likely why the particular ICEpower modules of this amp also make appearances in subwoofer applications elsewhere.

If the S300 makes a few concessions on vocal sex when you come from the dark vacuum side, its exceptional retrieval of minuscule pixie dust naturally extends to how it puts singers into the room. Those tiny, nearly subliminal things like minor lip smacks, small movements from and to the microphone, modulated deep-throat hoarseness, shifts from head to throat to belly voice and back, reflections off the microphone... they're all presented so clearly as to make the illusion of physical presence that much more believable.

As we climb to the upper limits of the presence region, there's nothing even remotely annoying. The aforementioned minor injection of whiteness is distributed evenly it seems. Sibilants are crisp but not unnaturally sizzly. Flageolet on violin is wonderfully articulate and properly brilliant when performed spiccato-style. Searing Cuban trumpet has energy but doesn't burn off your ears.

Add up what's been said so far. This latest generation of Bel Canto electronics builds on the -- very well -- publicized foundation of the eVo line to add further humanity to the analog switching amp category; shrinks the boxes; and unceremoniously drops not its drawers but prices. Since such questions routinely come up, I wouldn't yet trade for the NuForce monos I had through here for two reasons. One, I don't believe they're technically mature yet. Edgar Kramer's current 9.02SE loaners had one go down already. And we both had issues with previous NuForce loaners. Two, their presentation nearly overdid the detail thing for my tastes. It's something the Bel Cantos keep in check though it is perfectly fair to say that comfort listeners might still fault the PRe3/S300 combo for putting them unduly close to the stage where you can't snooze off because there's too much charged acoustic energy in the air.

By energy here I don't mean treble forwardness or overdone transients but the sense of upfront intimacy with the playback material. It's distinctly different from the kind of fireplace triode intimacy that's often talked about. It is intimate just the same, perhaps the reason why comparisons to single-ended valve amps sometimes crop up in this context. The difference, to my ears, is that the triode intimacy is something that happens off stage where nobody else is watching. This Bel Canto intimacy is out in the open as it were, more exhibitionist, close to the stage with plenty of other folks around. Expectedly, this simile falls short since I'm not suggesting that listening to the Bel Canto puts other listeners in the room that don't belong.
Swapping out the PRe3 for the Music First Passive Magnetic showed that though electrically active, the PRe3 can justifiably be thought of as passive where its audible contributions are concerned. "Pure water" as John Potis and I refer to it - but with remote control. In keeping with Stronczer's philosophy of minimizing impediments to the pure flow of data transfer, the PRe3 is as neutral as imaginable. I in fact performed a true bypass test with the PRe2 once to be convinced that 99 out of 100 listeners wouldn't spot its insertion into a system that could be run source-direct.

In conclusion, modern sound is a very apt term for the present electronics. If your allegiances lie with something more old-fashioned, nobody will judge you for it. By the same token, Bel Canto shouldn't be judged for forging ahead and implementing the most up-to-date, lowest-distortion parts for their successive component generations and removing remaining veils or buffers between you and your music. Because I now own this duo -- and clearly consider it a forward step over the PRe2/eVo4 combo I exchanged for it (suspecting mostly the S300 for the advances) -- I can conduct further experiments in the future. Some of those might involve comparisons to chip amps and valves. But not today. A promise is a promise. And plainly, no valves are needed to know that the PRe3/S300 team is a very high-performance proposition that rather loudly screams killer value, too. That ergonomics and cosmetics are as mature and fetching as they are here is merely icing on the cake. So yes, the S300 is a really good amp and the e.One Ref 1000 thus does deserve its upgrade to Lunar Eclipse status. And the PRe3 is a wonderful preamp for those who simply wish for it to pass the signal without any kind of gas - oops, going first through colored glass.

The moral of this story? Give a talented designer and his team enough time in the market to earn their spurs. If so inclined, they'll be able to improve their products, find ways to streamline manufacture to shave off build costs and turn the savings over to the consumer. That less rather than more manufacturers seem inclined to follow this rationale is something to belabor for another day. Today, props are due the folks from Minnesota - for bucking capitalist greed by making truly high-performance, living-room friendly kit more affordable than ever; and for now winning our first-ever Lunar Eclipse award in electronics for their e.One Reference 1000 monoblocks. Bravo!
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