HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



March
2003

Reviewed by
Roger Kanno
REVIEWERS' CHOICE 2003


Bel Canto Design
PRe6 Multichannel
Preamplifier

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: PRe6 multichannel preamplifier

Price: $3800 USD
Dimensions: 17.5"W x 4.5"H x 14.5"D
Weight: 24 pounds

Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Features

  • Configurable for multichannel (six- or eight-channel) and/or stereo use
  • 12 stereo and two multichannel inputs

Features (cont'd)
  • Balanced XLR and single-ended RCA outputs for all channels
  • One balanced XLR stereo input
  • Level adjustments in 0.5dB increments
  • Second-zone capable
  • Two mute modes
  • User-definable input names
  • Dot-matrix display
  • Rear-panel LED indicators to aid in setup
  • Aluminum faceplate
  • Full-function remote control
  • Detachable IEC power cord

John Stronczer, head engineer at Bel Canto Design, describes the PRe6 multichannel preamplifier as an evolutionary progression of the PRe1, their well-received solid-state stereo preamplifier. However, the PRe6 is more than just eight channels of the PRe1 incorporated into a single chassis.

Multichannel preamps are designed take full advantage of the high-quality analog outputs of DVD-Audio/Video and SACD players. And as others have discovered, they make excellent home-theater components when used with the built-in Dolby Digital and DTS decoders of today’s DVD players.

Description

At the heart of the PRe6 is a new analog stepped volume attenuator from Burr-Brown. This device has better measured performance than the highly regarded Crystal CS3310 used in many high-end preamplifiers, including the PRe1, according to Bel Canto. Other modern audiophile design features include four-layer circuit boards for optimum routing of signals and sealed gold-plated silver-alloy telecom relays for input switching. The power supplies are highly regulated and isolated, and all of the parts are of very good quality, Bel Canto claims. The PRe6 appears to be designed and built like a high-end stereo preamplifier, and Bel Canto Design considers it their finest preamplifier, whether it is used in a two-channel or multichannel system.

The PRe6 shares the same basic appearance as all of the new Bel Canto products. It features a distinctive convex, silver fascia, with buttons and a display situated on a recessed black panel. The buttons appear to be machined out of stainless steel and have a positive feel to them. The display has a relatively large and easy-to-read green dot-matrix readout. The remote is a heavy, metal unit with buttons and labels that are a bit on the small side. However, the buttons are laid out in an organized manner that makes them easy to use. Once the PRe6 is configured, you will primarily use the remote to select inputs and control the main volume. Otherwise, many home-theater enthusiasts will opt to use a learning remote to operate the PRe6 as part of a larger audio/video system.

Around back, a multitude of connections should suffice for all but the most complex multichannel systems. Fortunately, the layout of the inputs and outputs is quite logical and there are even LED lights above each set of inputs to indicate when they are active to aid in setup and installation. There is an IEC receptacle for the provided power cord and dual triggers for powering up two amplifiers as well as an RS-232 port.

There are separate sets of balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) eight-channel outputs (for 7.1 mode), which are both always active. There are also two banks of single-ended multichannel inputs. If the 5.1 mode is selected, there are also four single-ended stereo inputs available. If the 7.1 mode is selected, that number is reduced to two. One neat thing about the PRe6 is that one or both of the multichannel banks of inputs can be configured for stereo use to provide up to 10 single-ended stereo inputs. Also, in the 5.1 mode, the unused "Surround Back" outputs can be used to control the volume for a second zone, with independent level control and source selection. Finally, there is one set of balanced stereo inputs and a single-ended tape loop.

It doesn’t end there. There are two mute modes. The first, "Soft Mute," is factory preset to 20dB below the main volume setting, but you can also define any level for each input. Pressing the mute button once places the PRe6 in this mode, and pressing it a second time within three seconds will fully mute the volume. The PRe6 also remembers the last volume setting for each input as you cycle through them so that there is no need to reset it every time you change sources. For multichannel sources, you can adjust the center, left surround, right surround, and left and right back surrounds (if applicable) all individually from -20dB to +10dB. A balance control can be set with up to 6dB of offset, and you can adjust all of the aforementioned settings in increments of 0.5dB. Finally, the PRe6 allows you to name each input with up to eight upper- or lowercase letters or numbers. Performing all of these functions on the PRe6 is straightforward and simple, but you will need to consult the instruction manual for the required key combinations.

PReliminaries

I used the PRe6 in my reference system with Bel Canto’s excellent eVo amplifiers in both standard and bridged-mono configurations. Because the PRe6 has both balanced and single-ended outputs, I was able to run balanced cables for the left and right front channels to the power amps, and single-ended cables to a subwoofer to augment the main speakers. I set the delays for the center and surround channels on my JVC XV-D721BK DVD-A player, set all of the speakers to "Full Range," and used the channel offsets of the PRe6 to balance the output levels of all the channels.

When using a multichannel source player and preamplifier combination, you will have to consider the requirement for cables to connect the six analog outputs of the player to the preamplifier, and the preamplifier to the power amplifier (and, typically, a powered subwoofer). While good interconnects are necessary to get the most out of a high-quality system, purchasing six or more sets of interconnects can be an expensive proposition.

PResentation

The combination of my JVC XV-D721BK DVD-A player and the PRe6 provided me with the best multichannel sound that I have yet to hear from my system. The advantages of the PRe6’s high fidelity were evident. Both movies and music took on a transparent and detailed sound that could be delicate and refined when called upon, or powerful and robust as required. I could hear things in complex soundtracks that had previously been hidden, while the size and depth of the soundstage increased significantly. Bass was plentiful, yet surprisingly tight, and the highs, although detailed and extended, never became fatiguing.

The level of realism in the richly textured soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Special Extended Edition) was totally engrossing and drew me into the world of Middle Earth. Typical demo scenes, such as chapter 36, "The Bridge of Khazad-dm," exhibited thunderous bass and frighteningly realistic sound effects. But earlier in the film, when Gandalf first arrives in the Shire, the PRe6 distinguished itself with a more subdued scene. It exquisitely reproduced the ambient sounds of the Hobbits’ pastoral home, with chirping birds and buzzing insects emanating from the surrounds, and Celtic-inspired music creating a totally immersive, coherent 360-degree soundfield.

The sonics of chapter 28, "Asteroid Chase," from Star Wars: Episode 2 -- Attack Of The Clones, were reference quality, with the shock wave of the seismic charges rolling smoothly and powerfully past the listening position. The lasers from Jango Fett’s ship moved aggressively from speaker to speaker as they tracked Obi-Wan’s ship. However, again, the subtler aspects of the PRe6’s presentation impressed me the most. Inside Jango’s ship, the droning of its engines and the sounds of the instrumentation created a realistic sense of the confined space.

The sound of the PRe6 was just as transparent with complex movie soundtracks like that of Blade II. The crushing bass that is present in many scenes was exceedingly clean and responsive, and exhibited very little of the overblown quality that often plagues lesser home-theater systems. In chapter 10, "The House of Pain," the driving rhythm of the dance music hit hard and fast, but still filled my listening room with enough bass to provide that throbbing dance-club atmosphere. Not only was the bass of that scene impressive, the extraction of low-level detail was amazing. The shouting of the people on the dance floor was easily discernible from the music and emanated clearly from all channels. The PRe6 reproduced other subtleties, such as humming fluorescent lights and the hushed creaks and groans from the building, with a heightened sense of realism.

Music from CD

When I switched to two-channel music using my Teac/MSB digital front-end as the source, the PRe6’s neutral character became even more apparent. Well-recorded CDs, such as the FIM Audiophile Reference IV [FIM SACD 029], were simply exquisite. From the wonderfully recorded choral and orchestral pieces to the small jazz ensembles, the soundstage was expansive and the imaging extremely precise. Instruments sounded natural, and Jacintha’s vocals on "The Look of Love" were sultry and flowed with an effortless quality.

Although the character of the PRe6 was smooth and composed, it never euphemized the sound and added little of its own sonic personality. Lesser recordings were reproduced with all of their deficiencies intact, but without exacerbating their shortcomings. For example, Bryan Adams Unplugged [A&M 31454 0831 2] is generally a good recording, with Adams’ raspy vocals having plenty of bite and the string section sounding coherent and natural. The pipes, however, especially on "I’m Ready," do become a bit spitty. In short, the presentation of the PRe6 was exactly what I expected from a reference-quality preamplifier with a consistent and uncolored sound no matter what the recording.

Multichannel music

There is usually some sort of sonic penalty to pay when playing back multichannel music through a system built around a surround-sound processor or receiver. These components, in my experience, are typically lower in overall fidelity when compared to a high-quality, two-channel preamplifier. This was not the case with the PRe6 multichannel preamplifier, whose sound on multichannel music was just as neutral as it was with two-channel sources.

DVD-Audio discs like the hyper-kinetic Audio [Virgin 77893] from Blue Man Group, Aaron Neville’s Devotion [Silverline 86028-9], and Bucky Pizzarelli's wonderfully natural and atmospheric-sounding Swing Live [Chesky CHDVD222] all exhibited a level of transparency and detail that were worthy of a reference-quality system.

Prior to using the PRe6, I often found myself preferring to listen to stereo CD versions of recordings available as DTS CDs or DVDs because it was clear that my multichannel system could not match the level of fidelity to which I was accustomed with my reference two-channel rig. That all changed with the PRe6.

With the CD version of Diana Krall’s Live in Paris [Universal 065109], her vocals were nicely recorded, but there was limited depth to the presentation. Switching to the DTS DVD, not only did the soundstage become deeper and more dimensional, but Krall’s vocals also took on a whole new character. Her voice was powerful and confident on "A Case of You," but remained silky smooth and full of nuance. The PRe6 was able to extract all of the intricacies of Krall’s voice that were recorded mainly in the center-channel, and also in the left and right channels to a lesser degree, and blend them seamlessly together as a whole.

Comparison

The multichannel sound quality of the Bel Canto PRe6 in combination with my JVC DVD-A player was better than any surround-sound processor or receiver that I have had in my system. It easily surpassed the performance of my Sherwood Newcastle AVP-9080R processor when playing back Dolby Digital- and DTS-encoded sources as well as DVD-Audio discs. Specifically, the Sherwood exhibited a less transparent sound that tended to mask detail, while the bass sounded boomy in comparison to the PRe6’s tightly controlled low frequencies. Whether it was playing the ethereal sounds of the Sacred Feast DTS CD [MAS CD-805] or the natural-sounding foley effects and well-integrated score of Lalo Schifrin from the Rush Hour 2 DVD, the PRe6 simply had a more open sound that was superior in every way.

Equally impressive was the PRe6’s two-channel performance, which improved upon that of my longtime reference Krell KAV-300i integrated amplifier. The combination of the PRe6 and eVo amplifiers had a more full-bodied and natural sound than the Krell, which has a powerful bottom end and a fast, transparent character, but can seem a little thin. With the Krell, Eva Cassidy’s Live at Blues Alley [Blix Street G2-10046] was breathy and airy, but a bit lean, and her vocals had a crispness that was hyper-real. The PRe6 really filled in the midrange and gave a great sense of body so that the vocals were more natural and connected to the rest of the soundstage. Listening to "Fields of Gold" was such a poignant and intimate experience that it seemed as though Cassidy was singing about the frailty of human life as if she knew that her life would someday be cut short.

Conclusion

The Bel Canto PRe6 is my choice to be the centerpiece of a truly high-end home theater. When paired with a good multichannel source and worthy amplifiers, such as Bel Canto’s own award-winning eVo models, the PRe6 will reward you with exceptional multichannel sound and still be up to the task of providing preamplification for any high-quality, two-channel audio system. The PRe6’s sound quality is that good.

For those seeking a simple and elegant solution when creating a home-entertainment system, the PRe6 may be just the right find.

Review System
Speakers - Infinity Compositions P-FR (mains), Boston Acoustics 555x (center), Definitive Technology BP-10 (surrounds), Paradigm PW-2200 (LFE), Sunfire True Subwoofer (subwoofer for mains)
Processor - Sherwood Newcastle AVP-9080R
Amplifiers - Bel Canto eVo6 and eVo4, Krell KAV-300i
Sources - JVC XV-D721BK DVD-A player, Teac VRDS-T1 CD transport, MSB Link DAC III with 24/96 Upsampling, Half Nelson, and P1000 power-supply upgrades
Cables - Analysis Plus, Audio Magic, Nordost, ESP
Monitor - Toshiba CX32H60 direct-view monitor
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Bel Canto Design
212 3rd Avenue North
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Phone: (612) 317-4550
Fax: (612) 359-9358

E-mail: info@belcantodesign.com
Website: www.belcantodesign.com

 


PART OF THE SOUNDSTAGE NETWORK -- www.soundstagenetwork.com

All contents copyright Schneider Publishing Inc., all rights reserved.
Any reproduction, without permission, is prohibited.

Home Theater & Sound is part of the SoundStage! Network.
A world of websites and publications for audio, video, music and movie enthusiasts.