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February 2006
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
The Nearfield
CEA survey news plus the PS Audio GCC-100 and Bel Canto S-300 under review.
Article By Steven Stone

 

CEA Survey News
Audio DeskToday I received a thought-provoking press release from CEA (Consumer Electronics Association). To paraphrase the missive, "New research shows that consumers remain interested in a high-quality audio experience for their home... however, survey results show that the vast majority of consumers don't have much on which to base their assessments of quality. More than 56 percent of potential audio buyers say they have never even heard what they'd consider a great sounding audio system." Poor beggars.

By now you've probably read so much about the 2006 CES that your eyeballs are sore. I too have wasted more than enough electrons in other on-line publications on the spectacle, but I will just say that if you went there seeking to be among the 44 percent who have heard a great-sounding audio system you would have had to do a lot of walking at CES to achieve that goal. Forget about anything in the Convention Center. Even at Alexis Park and Saint Tropez great sounding systems were scarce. The best "rooms" I heard were at VTL, Halcro, and Wellborne Labs. Unfortunately none of these systems fit comfortably into my life due to either their price or ergonomics, which brings me back to desktop nearfield audio. I saw a number of wonderful, affordable audio products that could nestle beautifully into a state-of-the-art desktop system. But before I can review any of this new stuff I've got to finish writing about the gear I already have on-hand, so here goes...

 

The PS Audio GCC-100 Control Amplifier
PS Audio GCC-100 Control AmplifierWhat is a control amplifier? It's an amplifier with provisions for gain control and input selection, sort of like an integrated amplifier. But to call the GCC-100 just another integrated amp would be like calling a Toyota hybrid just another high-mileage car. Although the GCC-100 has the same functionality as a regular integrated amp, it achieves this goal by harnessing together innovative and proprietary technology.

First on the list of Paul McGowin's new tricks is something called a "Gain Cell™." For a full description I recommend a trip over to PS Audio's website. I'll give you a quick and dirty synopsis. A gain cell™ replaces the traditional volume control. Instead of adjusting the voltage through a resistor network the gain cell™ adjusts the current. This analog circuit has the ability to seamlessly adjust the gain anywhere from -100dB to +30dB. Control functions such as balance and volume level are manipulated by a simple digital control. This control can also switch inputs and invert absolute polarity.

The PS Audio gain cell™ is attached directly to the GCC-100's amplifier stage. This digital PWM (pulse wave modulated) class D amp does all the heavy work. Detailed technical descriptions can be seen on the company's website. Suffice for me to say this is a very elegant solution to the vexing problem of creating an efficient low-distortion amplifier circuit.

 

The Ergonomic Tour
The GCC-100 amplifier is the least expensive ($2,795) and lowest powered control amplifier in the PS audio line. For a desktop system its 100 watts RMS is more than enough power. In addition to full front panel controls for volume, balance, input selection and phase, the GCC-100 sports a credit-card remote. The brightness of the display LED readout can be adjusted from either the front panel or the remote, but if you wish to rename the inputs you can do that only from the front panel. The back panel, or business end of the amp, has only one pair of five-way heavy-duty gold-plated speaker outputs. But it does have variable-level Auxiliary RCA outputs so you can easily connect a subwoofer or second amp. With four single-ended RCA and one balanced XLR input the GCC-100 has more than enough inputs to handle any desktop configuration.

Fit and finish on the GCC-100 is first rate. A sliver of blue light along the bottom of the front panel accents the satin finished cabinet and dark gray front and top plate. If you aren't a fan of ethereal blue light you can turn it down or off via a three-way switch on the rear. The front panel personifies simplicity with only one volume knob, a mute button and a pair of up/down input selector buttons. The on/off button is stealthily disguised as the PS Audio logo above the LED read-out panel.

The supplied credit card remote works reasonably well as long as you don't use too light a touch. Many times when I went to turn the GCC-100 on or off I found I had to push the control twice since the first press didn't do anything. It wants a more manly push. The heat level of the GCC-100 chassis, even after a full day of constant use, never gets more than luke warm. Although I wouldn't recommend putting it into a space with no air circulation, you can probably get away with placing it into a pretty tight space with no ill effects. 

During my review I used both the Perpetual Technologies P-1A digital processor and Perpetual Technologies P-3A D/A combo as well as the Stello DA100 D/A. Digital sources included the EAD P8000 Pro DVD player, Pioneer MJ-D707 minidisk recorder/player, and i-Tunes in my Mac G4 via both M-Audio's Delta Audiophile 192 soundcard and USB. I also ran the EAD directly into the GCC-100 via its balanced XLR and single-ended RCA analog outputs. Speakers included the Aerial model 5s, Role Audio Kayaks, Aperion 422s, Dali Royal Menuet IIs, and Naim n-Sats. Goertz M2 Veracity speaker cables, MIT AVT1 and Goertz Alphacore TQ 2 silver interconnect tethered everything together.

 

Sonic Survey
How does the GCC-100 sound? Like almost nothing at all! Think straight wire with gain. Sure, no amplifier is perfectly neutral, but the GCC-100 gets as close to the razor's edge as anything I've heard. If I had to call which side of neutral it falls on, the GCC-100 would be on the harmonically subtractive side just because it adds nothing in the way of excess warmth to the lower midrange and upper bass. Even with its decidedly non-additive harmonic balance the GCC-100 still maintains an exceedingly musical character.

Definition and low-level detail through the GCC-100 can be downright scary. Even on material streaming from my computer's i-tunes player via USB I was continually amazed how much information was present and how easy it was to listen into the mix. On my own live concert CD's the GCC-100 delivered a full array of subtle musical cues, including depth recreation, three dimensionality, and dynamic contrast. Soundstage width and center fill focus through the GCC-100 is as precise as I've heard through my desktop system.

Easily the most impressive aspect of the GCC-100's performance is its ability to sound right regardless of the volume level. Many preamp/power amp combos just don't have enough guts at lower volumes. It's not just a function of the Fletcher Munson bass level curve - they also don't have the same midrange warmth or upper frequency presence at low levels. The GCC-100 is the only amp I've experienced that sounds equally good when set to 75 dB peaks as it does at 90 dB peaks. Perhaps the new-fangled gain cell™ technology really does make a difference. Unlike most preamps, which have to apply copious amounts of resistance to get the input voltages low enough to play at low levels, the GCC-100's gain cell™ reduces its output levels without messing with the impedance. I can hear a difference, and I suspect you will too.

 

Final Summary
Although it isn't cheap, the GCC-100 still feels like a great value. The combination of superlative sound with elegant ergonomics makes it the kind of product that you buy, set-up and then use happily for many years. If I didn't have a constant stream of new gear that has to be put into my desktop listening set up I would be totally content to install the GCC-100 and leave it there. It is that good.

 

Bel Canto S-300
Having just discovered how easy it would be to live with the PS Audio GCC-100 for a millennium or two, I received Bel Canto's latest compact stereo amplifier for review. Since it's my job NOT to leave well enough alone, I pulled out the GCC-100 and replaced it with the S-300 ($1,600) tethered to my reference Monolithic Sound PA-1 passive/active preamplifier.

Bel Canto S-300Bel Canto is one of the first manufacturers who created a digital amplifier that sounded good. Their first-generation of EVO power amplifiers turned a lot of digital amp-hating audiophiles into believers. I was among them. I used five EVO-2 amps as a reference in my large-room home theater for quite a while. They were utterly amazing. Their great sound, compact size, virtually no heat, and completely reliable nature made me hate to give them back.

When I learned that Bel Canto had developed a completely new series of amps that promised to sound even better and cost substantially less than their first generation Tripath-based products I was eager to give them an audition. Unfortunately for my home theater persona, the first of the new line of amps was not their flagship monoblock but a two-channel amplifier. So I quickly switched from home theater guru to nearfield pundit so I could give the new amplifier a try.

Rather than expend a lot of space describing the technical details of a Bel Cantos eOne ICE based digital amp, I'll refer you to Bel Canto's website. Suffice to say that by switching from the Tripath amplifier output circuit to the B&O ICE circuit Bel Canto was able to reduce both the size and weight of their amplifier while increasing its power output capabilities and signal linearity. Bel Canto is not the only high-end manufacturer to embrace this new technology. Jeff Rowland and PS Audio also use the ICE power amplification circuitry for their products. The Bel Canto amps differ from these other manufacturers because Bel Canto attempts to optimize the input circuitry, and multiple nested feedback loops specifically for the ICE power output modules rather than relying on B&O's stock specifications.

Measuring only 8.5 x 3 x 12 (WxHxD) and weighing a mere 9 lbs, the S-300 hardly seems capable of putting out 300 watts per channel into 4 ohms. Its uncluttered front panel features an inset oval with a centrally located blue light and nothing else. The rear panel has a large on/off switch along with a single pair of 5-way European Union approved terminals and both single-ended RCA and balanced XLR inputs. Since the S-300 generates virtually no heat even during operation, and draws only 10 watts while idling, having no front panel on/off switch is no big deal. I left my review sample on with little effect on my room's temperature or my monthly electric bill.

 

Little Is Good
After describing the PS audio GCC-100 as sounding like almost nothing at all, how can I summarize the Bel Canto S-300? How about a slightly warmer sounding straight wire with gain? Even though these amps both use very similar output circuits, they each have their own particular sonic character. While the PS is slightly on the subtractive side of harmonic neutrality the Bel Canto is additive. Its lower midrange and upper bass are ever so slightly juicier and thicker than the PS Audio amplifier. Let me stress these differences are exceedingly subtle. Using a different preamp could dramatically alter sonic perceptions. It's too bad I couldn't compare Bel Canto's soon to be released S-300i integrated amp to the PS Audio GCC-100, but it won't be available for several months yet.

Rather than describe the Bel Canto S-300 in relation to live music, which I've always felt is more of a literary conceit (as well as a personal one) than a practical touchstone of sonic quality, I will compare it to other amplifiers, specifically the GCC-100. The S-300 is more critical of inferior sources than the GCC-100, but also excels on better material. On i-tunes from my Mac G4 the S-300 doesn't have quite as much upper midrange sweetness, while on CD's from the EAD 8000 Pro the S-300 delivers a trifle more dimensionality and depth. It's odd that a rig that is harmonically warmer is also less forgiving, but that's what I discovered. The PS Audio GCC-100 smoothes out i-tunes, but doesn't deliver quite as much subtle textural differentiation on CD's. 

Both amplifiers have excellent lateral focus and equally large soundstages. On i-tunes I noticed no difference in depth recreation, but on CDs the S-300 presents a slightly more three-dimensional rendition. Both amps had the highest resolution when tethered to the Aerial model 5s or Role Kayaks, but even with the inexpensive Aperion 422s they never sounded bad, merely slightly less revealing.

I can't help but hear the grumbling from the hardcore tube fans in the audience, "How dare he think that any digital amp can hold a candle to a tube amplifier!" I suppose if you prefer euphony to accuracy you may not be entirely enamored by the S-300. But even tubaholics will find that the S-300 and the GCC-100 have more in common with tubes when it comes to electronic texture (or lack of it) than any conventional solid-state design. No matter how deeply you listen into the soundstage and how much you turn up the volume both these amps remain free of electronic grain and grunge. OK, they may not be liquid in that tubey kinda way, but they aren't sandy or gritty either. I'd call it a SOLID texture, like real objects in space.

 

Nothing Is Better!?!
With a headline like that I bet you expect me to claim that the latest Bel Canto S-300 is the best amplifier in the world. Fat chance. What do you take me for? When I interviewed J. Gordon Holt and asked him what reviews he regretted the most, he answered unequivocally that the overenthusiastic ones were the ones he wished he could take back; for example his first take on the premiere Sony CD player, the CDP-101. 

New technology can be tricky. We can immediately hear sonic improvements over the older designs, but our ears haven't yet cued into to the new technologies' imperfections. Less prudent reviewers can unwittingly become simpleminded cheerleaders for the latest thing because they haven't had the opportunity to temper their opinions with enough listening time to hear the new technology's warts. I'm not going there.

I love the sound, or lack of it, of the Bel Canto S-300. I also immensely enjoy the PS Audio GCC-100's not-thereness. If I had only heard one of these fine products I would, more than likely, be claiming it was the best new amplifier product ever. Having experienced both I have a bit more perspective. Obviously the ICE digital amplifier circuit has substantial sonic and ergonomic advantages over older analog and digital designs. Given the sonic differences between these two pioneering products, it's quite obvious that varying even small details in the circuit's implementation creates different sonic results. As good as the ICE circuit can be, it is not a panacea, and all ICE amplifiers do not, and will not, sound the same. Sorry propeller-heads.

So in the best time-tested cliffhanger manner, my final conclusions must be put off till the future. Both the Bel Canto S-300 and PS Audio GCC-100 amplifiers are masterful and important new products. Which is better? Honestly, my dear, I don't give a damn. Both deliver far more transparency and fidelity than older technologies ever could. Isn't that enough for now? Are they perfect? Ha. I'm sure in the fullness of time I'll begin to hear problems. But I encourage you to join me. Give either of these amplifiers a serious listen and you will hear future high fidelity. It just keeps getting better and better.

 

 

Manufacturers

PS Audio
4826 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Voice: (720) 406-8946
E-mail: sales@psaudio.com
Website: www.psaudio.com
Price: $2,795

 

Bel Canto Design, Ltd.
212 3rd Avenue North
Minneapolis, MN 55401

Voice: (612) 317-4550
Website: www.belcantodesign.com
Price: $1,600

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gryphon Audio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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