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Positive Feedback ISSUE 17
january/february 2005


Upgrading the Bel Canto eVo2
by Ed Morawski


Not long after PFO published my review of the eVo2 amplifiers (Issue 14), John Stronczer, President of Bel Canto Designs, contacted me about their Gen II upgrade. I was quite happy with the eVo2s, so I declined. If you saw my later review of the DK Design Group VS-1 Mk II integrated amplifier (Issue 15), you know that I purchased the review sample. Compared to the VS-1, the eVo2 were veiled in the midrange, and this caused me to change my mind about the upgrade.

The Gen II upgrade consists of a new circuit board and a capacitor upgrade. Depending on your serial number, you may already have the Gen II boards, but you will not have the new capacitors unless there is a "Gen II" sticker next to the unit’s serial number. On their website, Bel Canto claims that the upgrade will provide better low-end weight and definition, more open and expressive high frequencies, and improved midband dynamics and resolution: "We achieve these performance increases through the use of the latest Tripath Processor and Driver devices and a completely new 4-layer circuit board layout. All of our experience and digital amplifier expertise has gone into this major performance upgrade."

The upgrade took about a week, plus the shipping time. My amps were back, safe and sound, in less than two weeks. I reinstalled them in my rack after ensuring that they were set for mono (bridged) mode. Although the amps were cold, it was immediately evident that the midrange was clearer and more detailed. To be fair, I had to let them warm up, so I left them on for the night. When I sat down for some critical listening the next afternoon, the bass had improved substantially, as had the weight and definition. The highs sounded much more extended than they had before the upgrade, but I detected a slight harshness that I attributed to the new capacitors. John Stronz confirmed this, and told me that the amps would smooth out after about 100 hours. I played the amps 24 hours a day for the next week, and the harshness did recede considerably, but it took another 100 hours or so for the amps to completely lose their digital grunge and achieve a wonderful musicality.

As it happened, the original owner of one of the eVos, Brian Kyle of Xtreme Cables, visited over the holidays, and we had an extensive listening session. He had sold me the amp because he disliked its digital sound, and wanted to switch to tubes. He listened for around an hour before he realized he was hearing his old amp! I popped in Patricia Barber’s Café Blue, one of his favorites, and he had little to complain about, possibly because the eVo2s were being fed by my E.A.R. 864, a tube preamplifier. The sound was smooth, rich, and gorgeous. We both particularly enjoyed "Too Rich for My Blood" for its deep, hollow-sounding drum and shimmering cymbals. I played Madonna’s American Life to get a sense of the eVo2s’ bass, and they rocked the house. Brian likes his music loud, so I began increasing the volume, and the louder it got, the better and deeper it sounded, without a trace of strain or harshness. The amps never seemed to run out of power! Our ears gave up long before the eVo2s did.

The next day, I experimented with different cables and speakers. My high regard for the modified eVo2s remained. I find it extremely helpful to take a new component out of the system after listening for a while, to get some perspective on its performance. The exercise was very informative this time around. First I reinstalled the DK Design VS-1 MKII, which had a richer midrange than the unmodified eVos. Now there was no discernable difference. I then tried the Flying Mole digital amps, which sounded much thinner and more laid back than either of the other amplifiers. After hooking the eVo2s back up, I suddenly thought of a great way to describe them. The Bel Cantos are like an American V-8 automobile, with endless, smooth, glorious power. The DK VS-1 MKII is more like a BMW or Audi. It is more balanced and more refined. While you won’t run out of power with either, you don’t have that sense of brute force with the DK. And finally, the little Flying Moles are like Japanese cars—lightweight, high-revving, and a little delicate. While they might get the jump off the line, the other two amps will ultimately pull ahead. All three amps get the job done, but in completely different ways.

Should you get the Gen II upgrade? If you already like your Bel Canto eVo2, you’re going to love it afterward!