Bel Canto is an all-American outfit based in Minneapolis, where all its engineering and production take place. Owner and chief designer John Stronczer came to hi-fi through his love of music but had previously been at Honeywell, working on integrated circuits in aerospace and defence, including ultra-low-noise sensor electronics and high-date-rate communications — specialisations which seem to have fed well into Bel Canto’s reputation today in having delivered startlingly high levels of hi-fi based around the latest amplifier technologies, notably converting audiophiles to the merits of Class D through the performance of its full-size ‘Black’ range amplifiers.
But Bel Canto’s very first product after its founding in 1991 was a digital-to-audio converter. Now, 27 years later, we have the e.One (Evolution One) Stream from its ‘compact’ range, below those Black products. This e.One Stream is described not as a DAC but as an Asynchronous Network Bridge, even though it does have digital-to-analogue conversion within, offering line-level analogue output to an amplifier. Its predecessor, however lacked these outputs, offering only digital outputs, its role being to gather your digital music from whatever source you choose — networked files, attached files, files from an online music provider — and to ensure the data is refreshed, retimed, and served up as perfectly as possible to your DAC of choice. From its description as a ‘Bridge’, and the inclusion of three types of digital output, that’s clearly still a primary function of the Stream. And after all, if it’s a DAC you’re after, there’s Bel Canto’s DAC 2.7 in the e.One range.
So what exactly is the Stream providing, together with its partner app, Bel Canto’s Seek?
That Bel Canto is led by an engineer is evident not only in Stronczer’s raft of patents and the company’s dedication to new technologies, but also in the sheer solidity and quality of their external build. This is evident in the e.One series — Bel Canto’s ‘compact’ range it may be, but it shares chassis solidity and strength with all Bel Canto kit, with a heavy-gauge steel chassis and an extruded aluminium front panel a full centimetre thick. And while the front is indeed compact, at 21.5cm exactly half rack-width, it is deeper than it is wide at 32cm plus space for the connections. Stronczer says that this size, strength and weight have more to do with microphonics and vibration than shielding. Meanwhile Bel Canto ameliorates the cost of such solidity by keeping the whole series inside the same chassis — whether phono amplifier, CD transport, DAC or power amp, the chassis is the same, only the rear panel and faceplate within the oval cut-out change.
But what does it do again, exactly? As Bel Canto puts it, the e.One Stream connects your audio system to thousands of tracks of music, whether on the internet or stored at home. It re-times data to achieve ultra-low jitter and isolation from the network environment, using ultra-low-noise phase clocks backed by high-quality power supplies to achieve bit-perfect data transmission of incoming music files with jitter levels that are “nearly unmeasurable”.
So that’s the technical aim of delivering the best signal source for your analogue preamp — via the RCA analogue outputs — or to a DAC using the choice of optical, coaxial digital or AES/EBU XLR digital outputs.
But the other side of the e.One Stream is Bel Canto’s efforts to deliver simple access to all those high-res files, and achieve ease of use through the Seek app. An easily-controlled front-end is as vital to many users as a fine-sounding output.
What can you connect? First Ethernet, to give the e.One Stream access to your home network and to allow the wireless app to act as the controller. There are no physical digital inputs for access to the internal DAC circuits except for a USB-A slot, into which we plugged a hard-drive full of high-res audio tracks and test favourites. All other file access would be through the Ethernet connection, either from the internet, or from the NAS drive of music we have hiding in a cupboard, or from our Mac’s music collection.
It is a mild anomaly that Bel Canto has designed its Seek app only for iOS at present, yet it uses DLNA/UPnP to play from the server, good for NAS drives and PCs, yet not so friendly for Mac-based music collections held in iTunes (or, post-iTunes, in Apple’s forthcoming Music app). Mac users could install a UPnP serving app (such as Asset UPnP), but there is another preferable workaround — Roon. Bel Canto is a full Roon end-point, so Roon software can deliver bit-perfect files from wherever your tunes may lie — including an iTunes collection. Roon can seem a significant investment for what is a mere organising system, but for reliable quality-based serving of music from multiple locations to multiple locations, there’s nothing like it.
However, Bel Canto’s Seek app also integrates Tidal into its own app, and the high-res-friendly Qobuz service as well, though this is not yet officially supported in Australia. Bel Canto was, we think, the very first to offer MQA support in a network player, and it’s supported on the e.One Stream as well, which means that Tidal’s ever-growing MQA ‘Masters’ collection will fully ‘unfold’ (a double unfold) in the player to render at up to 192k. While there is something of a debate over the efficacy of MQA files, there’s no doubting how wonderful these files can sound, knocking Spotify and other sub-CD-quality streams into the proverbial cocked hat.
With the Seek app opened and connected to the player, and a firmware update performed, we entered our Tidal subscription details and were playing these Masters through within about 15 minutes of having unpacked the unit. We also tried the few MQA files that we have residing on our NAS drive, and again these were unfolded to 192kHz, the green display of the player giving the read-out ‘DLAN, 192 MQA, analogue out’. One might describe the display typeface as being a little 1990s’ computer tech in its LED-like read-out, but it has the merit of easy legibility across a room. You can change the ‘file quality’ read-out to show ‘track info’ by pressing the toggle button on the back (though hold it too long and you’ll toggle from analogue to digital output instead). And that toggle button has one final trick we’ve never before seen — holding it for a prolonged number of seconds sends the unit off to search for a firmware update. You can do this through the app, but having an actual button is strangely reassuring. After all, you never know for sure that an app will last as long as the equipment it controls.
The ‘Library’ page of the Stream app also offers vTuner internet radio, access to Dropbox and OneDrive cloud collections, and lastly ‘Local Servers’ which include the iPhone or iPad itself, the connected USB drive, and then any DLNA servers on the network.
The Stream proved exceedingly file-type friendly, including DSD, though this was listed on the front panel as ‘88.2k DSD’ or similar, by which we’d assume the player is packaging the DSD as PCM, rather than playing it natively. Mr Stronczer is on record as saying it’s better that way (for his paper, including graphs of comparable distortion, go to avhub.com.au/belcantoDSD), and we wouldn’t disagree; suffice to say that DSD, PCM or DSD-via-PCM can all sound superb, and did through the e.One Stream.
Again, we’re slipping into the technicalities, when the pleasure of the Bel Canto Stream came in being able to access so much high quality music so easily, and with some wonderful listening results. We listened to the solo cello of Yo-Yo Ma opening Cloverfoot Reel (DSD64), its resonance and the room acoustic evident before his Appalachian collaborators swing into the song. This level of delivery is not mere information, given the overabundance of information in a high-res file, but about an impeccable accuracy of timing in the reclocking and jitter reduction. On Stephanie Proot’s Beethoven Sonatas (DSD from Germany’s High-Res Audio site) the piano attack was razor-sharp realistic, the instrument tone impeccably believable.
We used Bel Canto’s own Seek app to hunt MQA albums on Tidal (start at ‘What’s New’ and tap the top right ‘More’ option, there’s a Masters tab available with a selection of playlists of Masters MQA files... otherwise it’s a haphazard search for the small M symbol that appears below Masters albums). We streamed Beatles albums labelled as Masters but noted the app indicating they were AAC files at a mere 97kbps. We found a Tidal setting in the Seek app to select the full HIFI level Tidal streaming, and with a flip of this we were rewarded with 24-bit 96kHz Beatles at 1703kbps — a 17-fold increase in bit-rate!
We enjoyed a playlist of Glastonbury 2019 performers including a few Masters tracks — The Comet Is Coming’s Blood of the Past’s sax solo surging through over a deep and wide trancy backing, the spaciousness and silences preceding Kate Tempest’s poetic Thirsty, the cut beats of Maggie Rogers’ Give A Little stopping dead on the cuts, no overhang, again impeccable timing.
Playing from the USB hard drive felt even more effortless, whether the huge dynamics of a Naxos 24/96 Pictures at an Exhibition or the intimate piano and vocal of Nina Simone’s gentle pleading through I Loves You Porgy on ‘Little Girl Blue’ (24/96). As a bonus we noticed that the USB drive was shared across the network and could be played from DLNA devices elsewhere!
Limitations — we couldn’t work out how to build an ongoing queue of choices from USB or NAS tracks, but you could do so from Tidal. And to get gapless playback you must turn on the gapless option every time you open the app (it’s under Device Information, top right on the ‘Player’ screen). But we can remove one limitation as well — although the Seek app is only for iOS, it’s built on mconnect, and the ‘mconnect control’ app is on Android, and works fine with the Stream. (Its gapless option is under ‘Settings’.)
Sonically, though, and in general operation, we have absolutely nothing but the highest praise; the sounds emerging from the analogue output of the Bel Canto Stream were divine, and the further option exists to add an even better DAC running from its digital inputs. It’s a fine addition to the already highly-regarded e.One range.
Bel Canto e.One Stream
Asynchronous Network Bridge
+ Superb-sounding streaming
+ Accesses local and online music
+ Great build quality
- Queueing not available for local media
- Seek app iOS only (but see above)
Clock jitter: <100fS (100Hz to 1MHz)
Dimensions (whd): 216 x 88 x 318mm
Contact: Absolute Hi End
Telephone: +61 488 777 999