Power Amplifiers

Bel Canto S500 Stereo Power Amplifier

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

Let me first state "I like this amp, I really do." What does "Class A, A/B, D, ICEpower" mean to the average audiophile? Will there be an audible benefit by upgrading to the newer technology? If I am making an initial purchase will this technology satisfy me? Does the amp du jour really make a difference in the listening experience for the average listener?

For the uninitiated listener, the simplistic view of ICEpower is the controlled application of house power to your speakers. This is done without the usual need for a large inefficient transformer, large capacitors, large numbers of high current capacity switching transistors and the the associated heat sinks. This method is extremely efficient: in size, weight, materials and power generation and therefore minimal heat is generated. According to B&O literature, ICEpower modules are 90% efficient (they are switching amplifiers, or Class D, often called "digital" amplifiers), and use 5 to 10 times less power at idle than equivalent A/B amps. You could say ICEpower gives you the power you need only when you need it. Bang and Olufsen owns the patent and techology rights and is the sole source for ICEpower modules. Currently, there are competing switching power modules available using similar technologies but ICEpower remains unique to B&O.

Bel Canto S500 Specifications

  • Design: Two-Channel Power Amplifier
  • Dual 125ASX2 ICEpower Modules
  • Power Output: 200 Watts x 2 into 8 Ohms
  • Speaker connections: 1-set WBT 5-way Safety Binding Posts
  • Inputs: Both Balanced (XLR) and Un-balanced (RCA)
  • Weight: 15 pounds
  • Dimensions: 3.5" H x 8.5" Wx 12" D
  • Price: $2999 USA
  • Bel Canto

I jumped at the chance to review this product when asked. As a retired regular type guy I couldn't wait to begin the review process. As a long time legacy class AB amp owner(except for my class D sub amp), I have shied away from an upgrade and have stuck with my 3 class A/B stereo amps. Although energy inefficient, they have satisfactorily provided 6 channels @ over 350+ watts/channel for the last 6 years and I was anxious to try the latest in amplifier technology to see if I was missing out on an enhanced listening experience.

Bel Canto is no new comer to the world of ICEpower module power amps. This was obvious from the very beginning. From packaging to production and on to application it is obvious that Bel Canto builds a quality product. I expect this energy efficient amplifier, with its clean looking minimalist and functional design, will have a high spouse approval factor; especially when multiple amps are configured in a home theater system.

I found the soft blue LED power light unobtrusive and inconspicuous, even in my bat cave home theater. I quickly dismissed my initial negative reaction to the rear mounted power switch once I realized this very green friendly piece of gear would always remain powered up.

With great anticipation I opened the shipping carton. It was immediately apparent that Bel Canto takes great pride in securing a positive first impression. The inner container has a convenient handle and opening it presents no mystery or unusual challenges. The straight forward and elegant method of packaging is impressive. No knuckle busting, low loss, inventory control tough plastic here, only a soft well fitting foam bed and cover containing all the necessary pieces, placed in a logical, easy access configuration. This is one packing box you won't mind saving in the attic if the unlikely event arises that you would need it again.

Bel-Canto-S500 Power Amplifier

The Design

Bel-Canto-S500 Power Amplifier

The photo shows the clean inter layout of the S500 with its ICEpower modules and accompanying proprietary input conditioning boards. Bel Canto's modular design with quick connect twisted wiring harnesses are of optimal lengths and strategically placed to minimize any induced noise, distortion or crosstalk; and it looks good too. The high quality rear panel connectors and switches also lend themselves well to gear in this price range. I was most impressed by the fit and finish of the cabinet. The abundant use of allen head screws and threaded inserts in place of the usual self-tapping screws was a pleasant surprise as was the 0.10" extra heavy gage (12) metal cabinet. The solid 0.50" thick face plate and heavy black textured finish gave the unit an elegant look and quality finished feel. The sturdy cabinet construction contributes significantly to the S500 total 15 pound. weight.


The Sound

In order to give the S500 the fair shake it deserved, I used my trusty Radioshack analog dB meter and Elite 94 MACC test system pink noise generator to check speaker levels. Because I usually listen at 75 dB @ 2meters reference, I made sure output levels were at 75 db. Here is where things first got interesting. I found the S500 was consistently 1-2 dB louder @ 2 meters during the MACC test as registered on the dB meter and in the MACC test results when compared to my home system amp. I verified this by checking both the MACC test results and my dB meter. This difference is just enough to subconsciously skew your ear and possibly the listening test results. The appropriate level reduction was made to normalize the amp output. Now, since Bel Canto literature states that all amps are level matched to make balancing multi amp systems simpler, I suspect this is the way they all are configured.


Here is a list of my test system:

• UPS/Line conditioner: APC s15
• Preamp: Elite 94 Txi used only as preamp/processor. I also used Pioneer's MACC test system to set-up the preamp/amp/speaker combination. The setup was stored to memory and used during the appropriate listening session.
• Amp: Rotel 1090, 380 w/ch @ 8 ohms
• Interconnects and speaker wires: 75 Ohm coax and 10 gage OFC copper
• Speakers: Nautilus N804
• Source Material: Various CDs: Dallas Wind Symphony "Pomp and Pipes," Rod Stewart " The Great American Songbook," Pirates of the Caribbean Sound Track "track 16," HTPC lossless HDCD "Gibson Presents Hot Tones in High Definition," other miscellaneous acoustic CD tracks.

When the S500 was first delivered and inserted it into the system signal chain, it was in use continuously (100+ hours) for 3 weeks to give it time to settle in. It is a very quiet amp (very low noise threshold,) and its compact size and low weight made the added equipment install a breeze.

Daily casual listening of both stereo music and home theater began. Random blind switching between amps initially revealed no identifiable difference between my home stereo amp and the S500. I often listened for days without realizing to which amp I was listening. It wasn't until the formal listening samples began were any discernable differences found. The first check was with the "Pirates of the Caribbean" sound track: track 16. Track 16 contains a robust mix of symphonic instrumentation and hearty rhythms. Here the S500 showed its first identifiable characteristic. It sounded as if the S500 was ever so slightly leaving out details of the entire string and percussion sections when compared to my home system amp during the driving rhythm sections.

With listening levels at 75 dB @ 2 meters reference and 90 dB spl @ one meter speaker efficiency the S500 should have provided more than enough power to drive the speakers. Again and again I tried listening to the variety of sources listed above, finishing with the "Pomp and Pipes:" Track 1. Each check revealed the same almost imperceptible minute loss of midrange detail. However my reference amplifiers have almost twice the power which could make a difference in transients during loud passages. Also, switching amplifiers often tend to sound "dry", meaning extremely neutral with absolutely no character of their own. I simply may just be used to the sound of my Class A/B amplifiers and prefer their sound quality.

Remember, in casual stereo music and home theater listening, I could not specifically identify to which amp I was listening, my own or the S500. Overall the bass was solid, midrange clear, and highs crisp and well defined. I enjoyed the imaging, especially during Rod Stewart's vocals. The lossless HDCD guitar tracks were mesmerizing. It was if I was seated center, row seven. After continued listening I completely forgot about the equipment and just enjoyed the music.


Conclusions

In the never ending chase to produce quality goods at affordable prices, audiophiles are about to undergo a transitional period, kind of like the tube to solid state transition. Manufacturers are fighting to survive the rising costs of materials (copper torroids & aluminum heat sinks,) shipping (raw and finished goods,) and competitive labor (fabrication and assembly.) Even Rotel has dumped the trusted 1090 for its own ICEpower module amp. The ICEpower age is showing the way to the future; with more emphasis on all encompassing green products and high wife approval factor. But, tube, A, and A/B amp lovers, don't panic, history has shown an ever existent market for prior art, look at the boutique tube and vinyl equipment market. So, in conclusion, I like this amp, I really do. I wholeheartedly recommend the S500 to anyone looking for a transparent sounding, high quality built amp in a sensible package containing the latest in current amp design.