Belles Soloist 1 Integrated Amplifier Review

April 10, 2012

I have noticed Belles preamplifiers and amplifiers at most of the shows I have attended. They are most often used by loudspeaker manufacturers to demo their latest offerings. Yet Belles itself has, to my knowledge, never sponsored a room and has otherwise kept a low-profile. I wondered why. I was really knocked-out by the aesthetics, build quality, and level of fit and finish of the silver versions of its components at AXPONA 2011 in Atlanta. Since an integrated amplifier is the centerpiece of virtually any entry level system, I was interested in auditioning the Belles Soloist 1 integrated amplifier ($2995). David Belles, who handcrafts each and every Belles component, was kind enough to lend me one for review.

FedEx delivered my review sample. Although there were no signs of shipping damage to the box, my heart sank as I removed the Soloist 1 from its Styrofoam shipping inserts and heard a rattle. I knew immediately that the box had been dropped and that the transformer had been dislodged from its mount. That was confirmed when I plugged it in and heard a mechanical hum emanating from the chassis. With Dave’s permission, I removed the top and reseated and tightened down the transformer. Powering it back up, the hum was gone, but further use revealed that the mute circuit had been damaged as well. Not knowing what else might have been impacted, I returned the unit. In due course, Dave made the necessary repairs and shipped the unit back to me. It arrived in perfect shape the second time around.

The first thing you notice when you unpack the Soloist 1 is that it is one substantial unit. Weighing in at close to thirty pounds, you need to make sure you have a sturdy rack to support it. Although not a universal sign of quality, the heft of the amplifier does inspire confidence that the power supply will be linear in design and up to the task. Such confidence is warranted in the case, with the amplifier rated at 125 watts per channel into 8 ohms, doubling to 250 watts per channel into 4 ohms. Its peak current capability is 30 amperes. Power was never an issue with any of the speakers I paired it with during its three month sojourn in my listening room.

The front panel has an array of seven LEDs, five indicating which input has been selected and the other two indicating the status of the monitor and mute circuits. It has four small toggle switches. One cycles through the inputs, the others engage the monitor, mute and power circuits. The large remote infrared eye is located dead center,and the volume control, which is smooth as butter, is on the right. Although the front panel sounds busy, the unit appears almost spartan.

The rear panel is straight forward, having unbalanced RCA jacks for the five inputs, monitor inputs and outputs, and preamplifier outputs, a pair of five-way binding posts for speaker connection, and a combination IC inlet and fuse holder. All of the input and output connectors are gold-plated. One nice touch is that when you power on, the mute circuit is automatically engaged, so that no current is sent to your speakers in the process. It also allows you to make sure the volume is turned down from your last listening session. Trust me, you will have turned the volume up the last time around. All functions are available from the palm-size remote as well.

Let’s get something out of the way. Different amplifiers sound different. This should come as no surprise. Each employs a different design, uses different parts, and has different specifications. If measured, the results would be different. Sometimes the audible differences are subtle, other times the audible differences are quite distinct. None of them is “broken” – just different. Yet some maintain all amplifiers sound the same. Perhaps they haven’t listened carefully to enough amplifiers in the same system to experience it for themselves. That aside, let’s turn to the music.

I first selected an album with which I am very familiar – Anna Magdalena Notebook – a Teldec recording on which the group Tragicomedia performs works by J.S. Bach – to get a sense of the sound of the Soloist 1. Anna Magdalena was J.S. Bach’s second wife. A soprano at the Court of Kothen, she was 17 years younger than he and bore him 13 children. The Anna Magdalela Notebooks were collections of keyboard and vocal music, primarily written by Bach himself, which he presented to her. You can read more about them here. I chose this album first and foremost because it is a recording of acoustic instruments and vocals – the prototypical recording to demonstrate “the absolute sound”. It also contains delicate as well as dynamic pieces, though none which would tax the Soloist 1. The keyboard works have been transcribed for a variety of harps and lutes.

From the outset of the recording, the amplifier impressed me with its clarity and detail, and the precision with which it located the instruments and the vocalists in the performance space. This was particularly true with the distinct plucking of the nylon strings of the lutes, and the airiness of the resulting note decays. Notwithstanding such clarity and detail, I would not characterize the amplifier as bright or analytic. The clarity and detail emerged without grain. In addition, the male vocals were reproduced naturally, without undue emphasis on the upper registers. The soundstage on this recording was wide and deep. The recording engineers obviously worked hard to capture the ambiance of the recording venue, and the Soloist 1 didn’t let them down.

Shifting to a large scale work, I played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Toward the end of the third movement, there is a forte section where the strings and brass reach a fever-pitch and the tympani are continually struck with enormous force, creating huge dynamics. It is exactly the kind of moment when, if insufficient, the reserve capacitors are drained. Even at loud levels I could detect no distortion – just the sort of bass that whacks you in the chest – which is a testament to the amplifier’s design. Immediately following that section, the music regains its composure and there is a lovely melodic interchange between brass and strings.

Shostakovitch’s string quartets also provide a good test of the sound of an amplifier. I have the performances by the Fitzwilliam Quartet originally recorded for L’Oiseau-Lyre 1975-1979, and reissued on Decca CDs in 1998. Although a harsh string tone is never welcome, it becomes particularly annoying when the music takes an atonal turn. Fortunately, string tone with the Soloist I is anything but harsh. In the second movement of String Quartet No. 12, Op. 133, for example, tone rows, often played at a frantic pace, are challenging both to play and to listen to. On this recording played through this amplifier, the strings are essentially neutral, without added warmth, and the effect is exhilarating rather than fatiguing.

Conclusion

The Soloist 1 at $2999 places it a the upper range of entry-level components, though it would fit very nicely in a $5000 computer based system using a Music Streamer + ($349) or comparable USB DAC, with the remainder of your budget allocated to loudspeakers. Nevertheless, I think you would be hard pressed to find another comparably priced integrated amplifier, or preamplifier and power amplifier combination, with the same power and finesse, and the same construction quality and level of fit and finish, as the Soloist 1. You could easily build a first class system around it, and it would survive the inevitable upgrade of other components. Don’t pass up the opportunity to audition one if you get a chance. It’s a winner. Did I mention the five year warranty?

- Frank Berryman

Contact Information

Power Modules
479 East Street
Pittsford, New York
(585) 586-0740
http://www.powermodules.com
info@powermodules.com

Associated Equipment

Analog Source: VPI Scout; Dynavector 20X2; Musical Surroundings Phonomena II
Digital Source: Windows 7 music server with ESI Juli@ soundcard; Halide Design Bridge
Preamplifier: Meridian G68ADV; Benchmark DAC1 HDR
Power Amplifier: Meridian 557, Acurus A2002
Loudspeakers: Meridian DSP5500, B&W 683s, DALI Ikon 6 MK2s, Focal 807Ws
Cables: Digital: Meridian; Analog: Mogami/Amphenol (RCA), Mogami/Neutrik (XLR); Speaker: Mogami/Audioquest (BFA/banana); Power: Volex/Marinco
Headphones: Etymotic ER-4S
Accessories: GIK acoustic treatments; dedicated 20 amp circuit; Audience aR2p power conditioner, Target HR speaker stands