HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



November
2004

Reviewed by
Wes Marshall
REVIEWERS' CHOICE 2004


Bel Canto Design
PrePro
Surround-Sound Processor

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: PRePro

Price: $6490 USD
Dimensions: 17.5"W x 7.5"H x 12.5"D
Weight: 29 pounds

Warranty: Two years parts and labor

Features

  • Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital Surround EX, Dolby Pro Logic II, DTS 5.1, DTS-ES, DTS Neo:6 decoding

Features (cont'd)
  • 7.1-channel analog input
  • Full-color TFT display
  • Eight differential 24-bit/192kHz DACs
  • Upgradeable DSP/DAC module
  • Eight balanced XLR outputs
  • Three 250MHz component-video inputs
  • Five TosLink and four coaxial digital inputs
  • AM/FM tuner
  • Second zone
  • RS232 port
  • 12V trigger
  • IR input
  • Learning remote

The term bel canto is most often used in opera, where it means "beautiful singing." It takes some courage to give such a name to your company, but Bel Canto Design has developed an enviable reputation for making sweet-sounding components. They began with a group of single-ended-triode products that had some serious muscle to go along with their delicate sound. After a lot of research and, I’m sure, much soul-searching, they decided to move away from tubes to develop a new series of solid-state products. Their first power amplifier that was not a SET won the SoundStage! Network’s 2001 Innovation in Design award for combining great sound with ultra-high efficiency at a reasonable price. And when Bel Canto finally decided to get into the home-theater arena, they didn’t mess around, but aimed at the very top.

A beautiful design

I was somewhat amazed when the Bel Canto PRePro ($6490) arrived in its stout box, which, even after the gentle attentions of FedEx, still had eight square corners and no gashes or dents. In general, equipment boxes show up here looking as if someone had written "kick me" on the side, but Bel Canto’s box looked as if it might break someone’s toe. Nice job.

Inside, the PRePro was snugly packed and well protected. Getting it out of the box required some heavy lifting; the PRePro weighs a very un-preamp-like 29 pounds. And at 17.5"W by 7.5"H by 12.5"D, it’s a big boy -- almost 2" taller than the Fosgate FAP T1 pre-pro it was replacing in my system, and more than twice the size of my Lexicon MC-1 pre-pro. Once I had the PRePro on the shelf, the first thing I noticed was my wife’s cooing. Design is her profession, and the PRePro is a work of design art -- all sleek, curvy brushed metal and black tones, with a 5" color LCD screen sitting right in the middle of the front panel. When I install a new piece of equipment, she usually shrugs and says, "It is what it is." Very Zen, but not very enthusiastic. The PRePro excited her design mojo.

I was more interested in getting it hooked up. One nice thing about the PRePro’s size is that there’s a lot of real estate on the back -- a boon for my big hands. There are plenty of inputs, including a DVD input slot with component, S-video, and composite for the picture, TosLink optical and coaxial digital inputs, as well as a 7.1-channel analog input with full analog-domain bass control. There are two more component-video inputs, four more S-video inputs, two tape loops, and an analog and a coaxial digital input for your CD player. There is also an unexplained but potentially exciting FireWire input/output and an eVoLINK, "for future expansion." The 7.1 outputs are available in balanced XLR or RCA. A Zone 2 output and an AM/FM tuner complete the package.

The remote control is the same learning model used by Fosgate Audionics, Outlaw Audio, and Atlantic Technologies for their pre-pros. It fits nicely in the hand and offers all the control you could ask for. However, the important buttons are stacked in five identical rows of four buttons each. And while the remote is backlit, most of the button labels are in blue on a black background. You’ll need a fairly bright light to be able to see them.

Setup and use

The manual is written in clear English, and though you can get the PRePro up and running pretty easily, I recommend keeping the manual handy -- there are a few eccentricities. You can perform most of the tasks using the screen and the buttons on the front of the PRePro, or you can use the remote. Speaker size is the first setting, with Small and Large settings offered. The crossover can be set anywhere from 60Hz to 220Hz, in 10Hz increments. Speaker distance can be set from 1’ to 30’, in 1’ increments. If you have an odd component, there’s a Bass Trim control for each input. The VCR1, VCR2, TV, LD, Aux, Sat, DVD, and CD inputs can be set to Analog or to any one of the eight digital inputs. The ninth input, Tape, is defaulted to an analog input. The tuner settings include a number of different regions, and you can set the TV for NTSC or PAL.

Speaker calibration follows the normal manual procedure, although I wouldn’t be surprised to find Bel Canto soon joining a lot of other high-end firms in offering some form of auto-setting. Your last choice is whether or not you want the 7.1 audio input to use bass management. If you choose to use the bass management, the filters are fixed at 80Hz.

The only connection problem I ran into seems to be more and more common: you can use only a few sources with Zone 2. In the case of the PRePro, you’re limited to the Tuner, Tape, analog CD, and Zone 2 inputs. That means that if you want to listen to DirecTV’s 5.1-channel Dolby Digital signal but also want to hear their music stations through Zone 2, you have to use two inputs for your satellite, or go through the setup menu and change the inputs every time. Bel Canto probably offers enough flexibility for most people’s systems, but I found myself wishing for a few more inputs that I could direct to Zone 2.

Sound and vision

The PRePro arrived just at the end of the NBA season, and it was all I could do to drag myself away from watching Detroit make fools of the Hollywood Lakers. I can tell you this -- the sound of the Wallace twins shutting down the showboaters was especially nice through the PRePro. During the games I tried the bypass test, running the DirecTV video signal directly to the projector and also through the PRePro, and saw absolutely no difference. The same was true using the component outputs from the various DVD players I had in-house. Whether running the lines straight to the projector or though the PRePro, the picture looked the same -- there was no discernible degradation, which means you can safely use the Bel Canto as your source selector without concern about signal loss.

Sonically, the PRePro was simply the best-sounding processor I’ve used. Finding Nemo has amazing sound design that really puts a processor through its paces, especially the scenes in the fish tank. While the PRePro handled the boom and bang as well as any other processor, the real beauty was how it handled the big transients while still allowing the refined orchestral soundstaging to shine through. I also loved its round, plummy reproduction of the blend of low-end synthesizers and orchestra in the opening of Dinosaur.

Keeping with the animation theme, one of my favorite films of the last few years, Les Triplettes de Belleville, has a brilliant score and a fascinating soundscape. The PRePro even got the sound of the scratchy 78rpm record down perfect, which makes me wish Bel Canto could shoehorn their Phono 1 phono stage into some of the open space. When it comes to pulverizing sound, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World can rattle your house down around your ears, especially during the close battle scenes. The PRePro handled all the explosions with composure, maintaining in proper proportion the sharp transient attacks and their aftershocks.

As you would hope from a company named for a style of operatic singing, the PRePro handled music beautifully. Operas on DVD seemed limited only by the recording venue. A good recording, such as Franz Welser-Möst’s of Berg’s Lulu, had bite and drama, while the PRePro ruthlessly revealed the soundstage anomalies of Kent Nagano’s traversal of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or. The SACD edition of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue [Columbia/Legacy 649359], run through the 7.1-channel analog inputs, sounded open and clean, the soft air around the cymbals and piano reminding me of my "six-eye" Columbia LP. A more modern recording, such as Andrew Litton’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony 2 [CD, Delos DE 3237], also sounded open, spacious, and coherent.

I’ve had four preamplifier-processors in my system over the last year and a half: my own Lexicon MC-1 ($5999), as well as the Fosgate Audionics FAP T1 ($2500), the Sunfire Theater Grand III ($3500), and the Bel Canto Design PRePro. In terms of sound quality, removing the aging Lexicon because it is long discontinued, you get what you pay for. The Bel Canto was the most transparent-sounding and -looking of the remaining three, closely followed by the Sunfire and then the Fosgate.

Style is a matter of taste, but I think the Bel Canto is a work of art, something that would look good in any equipment rack. Finally, all of the processors are easy to use, but I think the screens on the Fosgate and Bel Canto are truly useful additions for programming functionality.

Bel canto indeed

Bel Canto Design is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On a hunch, I checked the Minnesota Opera’s website for their definition of bel canto, which they say "is defined stylistically by the effortless and expressive delivery of tone, a mastery of appropriate musical style and the natural beauty of the voice." That’s a pretty good description of the Bel Canto Design PRePro. It does indeed sing sweetly.

Review System
Speakers - ATC SMC 50A (mains), Sonance Symphony (surrounds), KEF Model 100 (center), Sunfire True Subwoofer Signature
Amplifier - B&K Video 5
Sources - Pioneer DV-434, Sony DVP-NC685V, Integra DPC 8.5 DVD players; Panasonic DMR-E60S, Panasonic DMR-E55S DVD recorders; JVC HM-DH40000U D-VHS recorder; Rega P-25 turntable, Rega Super Elys cartridge, Musical Fidelity XLPS phono stage; Tascam CD-RW4U CD recorder; Philips DSR6000 DVR
Lexicon -  Lexicon MC-1, Fosgate Audionics FAP T1, Sunfire Theater Grand III
Cables - Canare, Straight Wire
Projectors - Epson Cinema 500, Runco Cinema 750, InFocus ScreenPlay 5700, InFocus ScreenPlay 7205
 

Manufacturer contact information:

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

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

 


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