Audio friends, you have heard it before and here it is again: for good sound from your home music system, the synergy between amplifier and speaker is critical. In my experience, if you get a correct match between the two, you are half-way to audio heaven. (Which in musical terms is somewhere on cloud nine.) It is possible to have the best set of speakers your credit rating can muster, along with a similarly superb amp. But the bottom line is this: if they do not mesh, you are headed for hi-fi purgatory. That is why I am excited about this review of two very different amps mated with my fairly efficient Soliloquy 6.2 floor standing speakers.
Let’s begin with the Cary since it is the more venerable and better known of the two units under review. The $3,000 SLI 80 Signature is the brainchild of Dennis Had deep down in North Carolina. It is a beautiful unit. I emphasize the word beautiful. If we chose gear with our eyes alone (don’t!), we could stop right now. Compared to the Cary, the Bel Canto S300i is a sleek, functional, but rather nondescript brick. The SLI 80 is a push pull design with 40 watts of class A triode or 80 watts of ultralinear power. The flip of a switch on top of my Jaguar black model allows me to easily change from one mode of operation to the other. The Cary uses either KT-88s (reviewed) or 6550 output tubes. I have not rolled glass bottles yet, but as we will see, the sound is pretty good with the stock tubes, a whole set of which costs around $400 to replace. Dennis’ design comes with a simple remote, headphone jack, three inputs and a balance control. But forget the rather simple features, when you light this thing up at night and turn down your room lamps, it is a sight to behold. Nothing, friends – in my humble audio opinion – can rival the visual pleasure of the soft luminescence of a vacuum tube amp sweetly glowing in the dark.
The Bel Canto e.One S300i has cutting edge technology. For a company that began with tubes, the S300i’s class D circuitry is about as far as you can get from those hot little glass cylinders. The new Bel Canto series, including this model, are switching amps using various Bang and Olufsen ICEpower modules which some audiophiles consider a nefarious invention foisted on unsuspecting ears. I’ll simply say, not so fast. This unit is tremendously compact. It is about as green as you can get in terms of the current it draws in and the heat it puts out. Conversely, on our cold upstate New York winter nights, I can feel just a pinch of heat from the Cary at my typical listening location. (The Cary gets quite warm at full-bore). The S300i takes up almost no space in the rack, uses top quality WBT speaker connections, and has a fairly intuitive rotary digital volume control that also runs off a simple and equally Spartan remote. (This thing is so tiny, a Spartan could take it into battle and not break a sweat.) Though it weighs just a hair over ten pounds, it manages to feel more substantial in use. And at $2,000 for the non USB version, it is actually less costly than John Stronczer’s previous integrated amps. Cost savings in the era of the diminishing dollar are nothing to sneeze at. Think of the Cary design as elegance personified versus the sheer simplicity of the Bel Canto’s outward appearance.
Before I get down to the nitty-gritty of how each piece sounds, let me report a few changes to the main system. As noted above, I have stuck with my Soliloquy 6.2 two-way floor standing speakers. This is interesting since, as some of you will know, Dennis Had participated in the start up of Soliloquy in the late-90s as a SET-friendly transducer company. There is much I like about my 6.2s and I have had no inclination to swap them out the last few years. More recently, I am running Audience Au24 speaker cables – the original version, not the “e” series that Jerry just reviewed on this site. They are clearly superior to my Speltz Anti-cables, in particular in the top to bottom seamlessness the Audience brings to music. (The Speltz are a bit spotlighted in the upper mids by comparison and can seem grainy on some CDs.) I’m also running a Custom Power Cord Company (now defunct) model 11. This is a fine, albeit stiff, power cord in use from my amps to a new Panamax M4300ex power conditioner. The combination of the model 11 cord and Panamax produces a much more relaxed yet spacious sound in my system. The model 11 is well worth seeking out on the used market. Sources are my Rotel 1072 CDP and Roksan Radius V with Denon 103R MC cartridge. For long term listening pleasure, I preferred my Roksan turntable over a VPI Scoutmaster, which I reviewed here. Some will gasp, why, audiophool? Truth is, I could never warm up to the more clinical sound of the VPI, which I attribute to the use of Valhalla wire in the tonearm. Monolithic Sound remains my phono preamp of choice. I have not been inclined to switch in my Velodyne subwoofer with either of these new amplifiers, despite my comments below regarding the bass performance of the Cary.
Let me start with the Cary SLI 80. How to avoid clichéd descriptions when writing about this amp? In triode mode in particular, it has many of the attributes we associate with tubed models. (No complaints here; I have never been one for convergence in solid state and tube amp sound. If I want an amp that sounds like solid state, why buy a tube unit which mimics it, and vice-versa? Such logic defeats the intrinsic strength of each.) The Cary lives in the midrange. Male or female, anything that has to do with vocals is seductive and absolutely lifelike. I have trotted out all the recordings of singers I know well to confirm this: Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Greg Brown, Chan Marshall. The Cary insistently demands you revel in the sheer naturalness of its presentation of the human voice. On trumpet and finely recorded guitar pieces (try the Naxos collection “Manha De Carnival” and the amazing work of Graham Devine), the SLI 80 gives you the whole note. From the initial pluck to the final decay, this amp balances out the harmonic envelope and simply produces the purest of tones. If the Cary was a musical instrument it would be a Stradivarius from the master’s “golden period”, no doubt.
Or try the orchestral works of the underappreciated Erich Korngold on the WDR label from the early 1990s. The “Sinfonietta” is superb through the Cary, though the ability to distinctly hear the individual instruments arrayed across a soundstage is much better on the Bel Canto. The SLI 80 does not go in for pinpoint imaging, which, frankly, is another sign of its natural, unforced, presentation. Can the SLI 80 seem a bit fulsome on some pieces of music? It depends. Can you ever get too much Lindt chocolate at Easter time? There is a slight tendency for the Cary to come off as a little too cloying on some music that might be better suited to a rougher presentation. That said, this tube amp had me listening to music longer and in a more relaxed state, music which I might have otherwise passed over. Remember Frank Sinatra’s foray into bossa nova with Antonio Jobim in the mid 60s? A quiet, subtle collection. I have a great mono pressing of that LP, an original. I put it on last night and warmed up the triode amp, then sat stapled to my chair. No way I wanted to remove the vinyl, too good, too lovely. Thanks, Frank. Thanks, Cary.
What about the SLI 80 at the frequency extremes? Better in ultralinear, but you lose some of the midrange magic of triode, which the owner’s manual indicates that Dennis prefers with this unit. The highs and lows on the amp are undoubtedly truncated. Not in an unpleasant way, but they are definitely AWOL. (In my listening to a different unit, I found the lower bass and upper treble to have a typical tube amp sound. I would use the term “reticent” instead of AWOL. – Ed.) So, too, the sense of pace, the speed, that comes with the Bel Canto or other quality solid state amplifiers. Listen to the SLI 80 for a few weeks and you adapt to its stately pace – think a royal procession of sound. But as soon as you A/B this device against one with transistors, there is no doubt it lacks much of the snap and rhythmic propulsion of solid state. A drawback? Perhaps not, but you will certainly have a preference for this type of sound over the other to get the most pleasure from the contender from North Carolina.
And now for the Bel Canto. There is definitely more truth than Cary-style beauty here, though this class D product can sound lovely in its own right. The S300i clearly gives you the leading edge of the note. The initial pluck of a guitar; the first blat of a trumpet; this amp latches on to that part of the harmonic envelope like a Bluetick coonhound. There is nothing mellow about the Bel. If it is on the source, this amp will reveal it. And yet with all the detail, the paradox of the S300i is that it sounds good with a wide variety of CDs and LPs. You know what I mean: some revealing amps leave you reaching for only the most pristine recordings in your music collection. Not so with this little guy. This is emphatically not the case, and perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the Bel Canto. It is neutral to a fault, yet this neutrality never shades over into sterility. It does not make you want to stop listening and go for a long walk in the back forty. It is definitely not a unit you kick back with. The Bel Canto has a way of demanding your attention with the music. It is insistent. I played one of my favorite folk artists, Bill Morrissey, and there was simply more insistence to his voice – the lyrics, the intent of the music – with the S300i. By that I mean Bill was all there, a musical apparition straight out of a Dickens novel, the ghost of music present. Quite startling!
The frequency extremes are wonderful with the Bel Canto. It produces some of the most natural, yet tight and tuneful bass I have heard from solid state. I have no qualms with ICEpower at either extreme. There is, subjectively, better bass with this amplifier than my discontinued Belles 150A. Certainly the bass of the Cary – even in ultralinear – can’t keep up with the S300i. Speaking of keeping up, this amp is fast. The pace and rhythm it brings to music is astounding. One of the S300i’s great strengths is how nothing seems to perturb it. Try Adam Clayton’s chugging bass on the classic U2 track from the “Joshua Tree”, “With or Without You”. The Bel absolutely nails this down as a rhythmic foundation to the tune. Or slow the tempo with the opening aria to Glenn Gould’s performance of the “Goldberg Variations”, and the S300i is right there to compliment it. The amp’s ability to respond with lightning speed when the music requires it is clearly one of its most endearing traits. Truly a unit that will never catch you napping. Combine that bass foundation with a pristine, but never in your face, treble range and you have the makings of one fine machine. The S300i is really well balanced from top to bottom, and does not unduly accentuate any part of the frequency spectrum. For my first foray into this technology in amplification, I am quite pleased. More than that, the S300i has the ability to surprise. After months of listening, and hundreds of hours on this unit, I’m still hearing new and pleasant things.
Put the critical midrange of the Bel Canto up against the Cary, and this is perhaps the single area where the latter is distinctly preferable. The Cary exhibits more humanity in the mids, in particular with the human voice. There is something plaintive about the SLI 80 that leaves you wanting little, if anything, more in this area. In that respect, the neutrality, the cleanliness of the window on the music that the Bel Canto opens up, can sometimes be marginally less involving. I say marginally because the difference is slight and so much grounded in the kind of sound you prefer. For those who think all amps sound alike, or even similar, I defy them to listen to these two models back to back and maintain that opinion. The differences are there for all to hear.
In the end, I think it comes down to one last audio cliché: truth versus beauty. If you prefer your sound with a heavy dollop of cream, and like to revel in the sheer beauty – the lusciousness – that so much music can provide, then the Cary is your clear choice. If you prefer truth – honesty to the source – the Bel Canto pulls no punches. It is a great tool for understanding music, and even more, is essentially unflappable with all genres. Me? For now, I’m keeping both. There are days when I prefer one, and days when my mood demands the other. A copout? Not really. I am just glad that people like Dennis are preserving the best of tubes, while John is working hard to advance the art of solid state.
Cary SLI 80 Integrated Amplifier: 8.5 LPs
Bel Canto e.One S300i Integrated Amplifier: 8.5 LPs