Bel Canto Design e1X Integrated Amplifier | REVIEW






bel canto design e1X

The Bel Canto Design e1X integrated amplifier is yet another modern, feature-filled box in a slim and attractive case—and by modern, I mean in a very different way than twenty or thirty years ago. If you travel back to that time, you’ll find a split between integrated amplifiers that were minimalist and stripped down and optimized for sound quality, and much bigger boxes with all the lights and bells and whistles and meters and, most importantly, big power. Ever since I traded my last ‘70s Japanese receiver for separates, back in college, I’ve been more of a purist. I’ve eschewed tone controls and all-in-one boxes and even watts per channel to keep my signal paths short and my parts quality high. But that opinion is evolving.

That split has changed in fundamental ways in recent years, mainly due to the latest digital technologies including hi-rez streaming. You can still buy a minimalist integrated amplifier without those fancy technologies, or without analog features such as phono stages that take up real estate inside the amp. I can think of several wonderful integrated amplifiers that still don’t have a remote control, amps that I could still easily own, even though I admit I’ve been spoiled by technology and convenience in the last couple of years.

But this new split is more of a spectrum, one where you still have those simple, minimalist little amps, and one where you have everything in one box. (It’s a spectrum, since there are plenty of points in-between.) We audiophiles are starting to call this latter product an “all-in-one” because you might find novel additions such as phono stages, or DACs, or network streamers, or even a CD transport. While the idea of the all-in-one is certainly not new to audio in general, it is rarer in high-end audio because we believe that packing a bunch of components in one box, with a shared power supply and an ample amount of RF energy, is not the optimal solution.

bel canto design e1x

Now, you no longer must choose between minimalism and sound quality, and modern features and conveniences. These all-in-ones I’ve reviewed in the last couple of years are sounding better and better to my ears. Why? The answer, strangely enough, is class D.

This’ll be the last time, I promise, that I discuss my acceptance of—and enthusiasm for—the latest generation of class D amplification. The Bel Canto Design e1X integrated, however, may have been the class D product that finally made the point moot. This slim, attractive and light (glory be!) nearly-all-in-one amplifier performed in a quiet, flawless manner, and it did so while offering fantastic sound—without any qualifiers about its class D pedigree. What is there to complain about? Nothing, I tell ya!

The Bel Canto Design e1X then asks the more relevant question of what you need in a compact single box that slides easily into most spots in your home. Yes, that’s the definition of “lifestyle” but it’s also a class D question. Class D amplification modules are small and light and don’t need transformers, so that leaves a lot of room in your chassis for fun things—like DACs and phono stages. I’m not so sure I need Bluetooth or room correction or a built-in network streamer at this juncture, but I see the value in the inboard DAC and/or phono stage if it sounds very, very good. I’m starting to think that “all-in-one” might even be a long-term option for me; I’m a person who hates clutter.

The Bel Canto e1X has a built-in MM/MC phono stage and a network player with a DAC. Both were easy to set-up—programming was done in minutes with the remote control. Both sounded great in my system—especially the DAC, which is no garden-variety inboard unit. But it was more than just ultimate sound quality with the e1X, it was about competence. I’m not talking about competence as in yeah, it’s a competent little integrated, but. I’m talking about a seamlessness in operation, a feeling that the e1X is in charge and responsive to your requests. It worked, it worked well, and there was a consistency in the way it moved between different sources and never seemed to break a sweat.

back panel

Inside the Bel Canto Design e1X

The Bel Canto Design e1X is an integrated amplifier in the truest sense of the word. The design team has taken the 200wpc e1X power amplifier and the e1X DAC and streamer, added a preamplifier and phono stage, and integrated everything into a compact box.

The e1X integrated isn’t that small, but it isn’t very high. (If you’re still thinking of Bel Canto as a “small box” company, you’re thinking of the entry level e.One line, which still exists.) The width and depth of the e1X, however, are still substantial. It looks stackable, but I wouldn’t. That top plate, with its restrained yet sizeable logo, isn’t something you necessarily want to hide. Plus, there are some nicely finished cones underneath that would probably scratch up other cases.

The Bel Canto Design e1X remote control is efficient and ergonomically sound. I enjoyed using it, which is something I don’t think about often when I’m reviewing. It’s nicely made and all that, but it’s judicious with the number of buttons, and you can utilize the more complex programming functions, such as cartridge loading and initializing the DAC and streamer, without even consulting the owner’s manual. (YMMV, but I was amazed at how much I could accomplish with just that remote.)

Although I became, over time, attached to the e1X remote, I should talk about the nifty, multi-function knob on the Bel Canto’s faceplate that mirrors most of the remote’s functions. Through a combination of pressing and turning the knob, added by the display on the front panel, you can adjust input and volume, and initiate programming. Through the programming menu you can edit inputs, switch to the headphone jacks, fire up a low pass filter if you’re using a sub, adjust the sub gain in 6 dB increments, set a maximum volume level and access the EQ features such as tilt, bass and main—which adds a high-pass filter to your main speakers.

remote control

These last settings are what makes the Bel Canto Design unique among integrated amplifiers at this price point. Described by the people at Bel Canto as a “57-blade Swiss Army knife,” these settings represent the new digital breed of EQ. Historically I haven’t had much of a use for EQ, and the last graphic equalizer I’ve owned was the one I put in my 1982 Honda Accord–in 1982. But I really see a need for this type of feature, and for a couple of reasons.

First, we come back to the whole class D debate, which shouldn’t still be a thing but still is. But I do know there are people out there who are okay with the sound of class D amplification but maybe have one or two reservations. Sounds like a judicious touch of EQ might quell those concerns. Second, it’s obvious that the Bel Canto Design e1X is somewhat of a Swiss Army knife already and can be used in nearly unlimited system configurations. Dealing with so many sources, especially all those digital options, can get complicated. An EQ device, again, might level the playing field. (This is also where that “maximum volume setting” is incredibly useful.)

eq settings

I found the bass equalization functions especially helpful while reviewing a couple of larger speakers such as the Sonner Audio Legato Duos and the massive-yet-still-technically-a-bookshelf-speaker Qln Signatures. I do have a periodic problem with bass nodes in my listening room when I stretch beyond the realm of two-way mini-monitors, and employing the bass EQ was like snapping my fingers and making it disappear. This function operates over a +/-3dB range, at 0.6 dB increments. The tilt control “centers at 775 Hz and tilts the frequency spectrum” in the same 0.6 increments. Here’s a genuine audio rabbit-hole for you, where you can play around with settings until the end of time. If you’re the type of person who loves to play with EQ, this is a gift. For me, the one who hasn’t touched a tone control in forever, it’s like changing your VTA with every LP. Should you do it? Yes. Should you devote large chunks of your day to doing it? YMMV. But these EQ settings truly distinguish the Bel Canto Design e1X from its competitors.

As Bel Canto Design’s John Stronczer adds, “Because the 64 bit DSP is integrated into our unique architecture, it comes with no extra ADC/DAC stages and is, by design, transparent.”

Finally, the phono stage is accessible through the same menu. You can add gain for cartridges with four settings that are marked by the output voltage of the cartridge (5.0, 2.5, 0.5 and .025mV) and not the level of gain (40, 45, 60 and 66dB, respectively). I got into a huge argument with a dealer many years ago—he said the phono stage I was importing needed to have the gain marked according to the output, and I told him that feature didn’t exist. Well, here we are. Five impedance settings are included: 47K, 1000, 500, 100 and 50 ohms. Since I used the ZYX Ultimate Airy D, which has an output of 0.25mV, I chose that gain setting with the loading at 100 ohms.

Then we get to the digital side, where the Bel Canto Design e1X really got fancy. Since it’s a network player, you connect to your network in a number of ways—UPnP, mobile device, tablet, NAS drive. The e1X is also Roon Ready, and you can connect the Roon Remote if you want. (The e1X also supports MQA.) The Bel Canto SEEK app helps you to organize your digital sources on its own, and it mates easily with Qobuz and Tidal as well as your computer files. At first I balked about diving into another network streamer or server—I’ve felt abandoned by smart phone apps in high-end audio before—but I was able to work through the menu and features without hitting a single brick wall.

In addition, the Bel Canto Design e1X has plenty of connectivity options such as RS232, AES XLR, S/PDIF, TOSLINK, USB, an ethernet input and a USB A input for a storage device. And yes, there is a home theater bypass feature. The Bel Canto Design e1X is fully prepared to handle all your music for you. Consider it a prime objective.

marc phillips system

Set-Up

The Bel Canto e1X visited my home at an ideal time when I had several pairs of loudspeakers in for review, but nothing new in terms of amplification. I’d been using my reference Pureaudio separates, and I even played around with a vintage Ayre V-3 power amplifier that nevertheless sounded excellent. I needed something new and fresh and modern.

When I say I had several pairs of loudspeakers on hand, I meant it: Credo EV 350 Reference, NEAT Acoustics Ministra, Qln Signature, Sonner Audio Legato Duo and Allegro Unum, and the GoldenEar BRX monitors with the new SuperSub X subwoofer. Most of these designs are medium strength in terms of sensitivity and impedance, and I had no issues with any pairing. Then again, when your amp has 180 watts per channel, you have that flexibility.

The phono stage of the Bel Canto Design e1X, as I mentioned, is easy to program. The DAC and streamer are also straightforward when it comes to initializing and setting up—the Bel Canto passed the magical Phillips DAC test by streaming music off Qobuz less than five minutes after I made the connections. After that, the e1X quietly did its job, and did it well.

bel canto design e1X

Bel Canto e1X Sound

I said I wouldn’t talk about the Bel Canto Design e1X integrated amplifier’s sound in terms of Class D amplification—those qualifiers have been abandoned by this sorting-out of the rest of the chain around the module. But I do feel like I’ve identified this new class D sound. The “old” class D sound, which I probably first met in 2006 or 2007, sounded unusually dry to me. I heard it in the upper midrange, a hardness that kept the sound from opening. Sometimes that dryness moved up into the treble, where it transformed into a grainy sound. That’s probably why I moved on—to single-ended triodes, of all things.

The “new” class D sound, as found in the Bel Canto e1X and other quality switching amps I’ve used recently, is smooth and relaxed and altogether more pleasing to my ears. But if you’re used to a steady diet of pure class A sound, either tubed or solid-state, you may notice something missing from the upper registers. I’m not talking about that sweet hi-rez sound way up there, just at the brink of nothingness, but maybe those quiet little signs that there’s life behind those notes, those simple tones occurring at different frequencies.

This, of course, might be neutrality, or at least what neutrality sounds like after being filtered through my biases. The sound is smooth and relaxed, as I said, but it’s not warm in the least. It’s not tilting the other way, into those badlands, but it’s just not warm. But I was able to season to taste here by hooking up the Qln Signature monitors, which are warm—but nearly perfect for me. Using the Koetsu Urushi Black cartridge and Stepup Transformer, along with the Allnic Audio H-6500 phono stage, also restored just a bit of that mystique, that feeling that musical secrets are just about to be revealed.

novel noel

Listening

If I take away just a single word from my experience with the Bel Canto Design e1X integrated amplifier, it would be “effortless.” In most cases I drag that word out of its carrying case when I’m describing an effortless, easy and unrestrained sound, which the e1X definitely possessed. But I’m using the word now to describe the e1X on a larger scale—I’m talking about living with it and using it for months.

Using the phono stage brought that new class D sound to the forefront. Before the Bel Canto arrived, I’d been using the Allnic H-6500. It’s a very different animal than the phono stage inside the e1X—it’s a two-chassis tube phono pre that retails for $10,000 USD. So while a comparison isn’t quite fair, it did clarify that impression I have of the new class D sound.

Streaming Qobuz was a breeze, especially with high-res files. The DAC in the Bel Canto Design e1X integrated handles up to 24-bit, 384 KS/s through USB, as well as MQA and DSD 64/128. (The other digital connections handle 24-bit 192 KS/s.) That prompted a run through my new thang, BIG electronica from people like Hans Zimmer and Hildur and, of course, “Chocolate Chip Trip.” This is becoming my standard set for trying out new DACs, and to hear that amazing sense of space that almost seems to take the place of musical content while still holding my fascination.

The DAC and streamer of the Bel Canto Design e1X were more than able to project those immense spaces behind and all around the speakers and do so with a profound sense of silence. Chalk that as a big win for class D and its ability to reduce noise from the circuit. If you’re a fan of any type of electronica, the e1X will provide an immaculate and surprisingly dynamic foundation.

On Lyn Stanley’s Novel Noel LP, I hear both a detailed and extremely natural sound which picks up a lot of the physical movement during the performance. At the same time, I hear a slight patina, as if Lyn Stanley wanted to remind everyone about the classic Christmas albums of the past. It’s almost the same type of patina that you hear with really good reissues—it’s a clear rendering, but there is some noticeable color (but not specifically colorations, if that makes sense.) Through the Allnic phono stage, I could hear the difference between the modern fundamentals of Bernie Grundman’s mastering work and that added sprinkle of fairy dust from the past. With the inboard phono stage, that demarcation point is blurred or, more accurately, smoothed out a bit. Not a lot, just enough to make Novel Noel sound more classic without the knowing wink.

(A quick note: thanks to the USB A input on the back of the Bel Canto Design e1X, I was able to compare Novel Noel on LP to the thumb drive that was sent along. The LPs won, of course, but not by a huge margin.)

But here’s the thing—listening to LPs through the e1X, I could really marvel at the quiet pressing, and the beautiful space between the notes. That’s what happens when you don’t have big transformers taking up space. The noise floor lowers. If that’s important to you, then the MM/MC phono stage of the Bel Canto Design will be more than satisfying.

bel canto design e1X

Bel Canto e1X Conclusion

I almost got through this review without one saying, “You can have your cake and eat it, too.” But that’s the feeling I had when I sat back, listened to music and realized that the Bel Canto Design e1X integrated amplifier provides you with so many options, which means that you’ll lose entire weekends listening to whatever the heck you want to with no interruptions.

I’ve had my mind changed permanently this past year when it comes to class D sound, and now I’m changing my mind about all-in-one solutions and their ability to sound like a system made of two dozen separate boxes. I hadn’t thought about these two factors as being connected to each other until the Bel Canto arrived, but the e1X is a product of the future (of high-end audio), and it’s becoming impossible to complain about class D or all-in-one solutions as being impure to a true audiophile.

I haven’t even mentioned the Bel Canto Design e1X integrated as a value proposition. But this well-made and beautiful box costs just $8,500 USD and it offers all these features—integrated, headphone, phono stage, network streamer, DAC—and there isn’t a weak link in the chain. A lot of companies are offering similar products such as this in 2022, but few of these multi-taskers are as balanced and as poised as this one.

bel canto design e1x

bel canto design e1X

bel canto design e1X back panel

bel canto