The model IA-01 from Belles is a part of the Statement series. I never heard about the company or the series. I mean, I maybe saw some advertisement or read some text, but I do not remember when, and if for sure. Belles is a small enterprise – the brand is owned by Power Modules Inc., owned by David Belles. The company web page states, that the company manufactures amplifiers since 30 years, and most of them work in class A. During the test of the IA-01 I learned how much it costs (after the listening session, but…), how it is named and that the power section works in class AB. There is no manual in the box, and no information on the company page about it. A tad more information is supplied by its US distributor, who states, that the new integrated amp is based on the power amplifier MB200 and the preamplifier LA-01, that it has a power of 180W (at 8Ω), is capable of producing a current of 40A and that it has a very wide frequency response from 0.2Hz to 125kHz (without fall-off stated). The look inside confirms that it has a very short signal path, except for long cables conducting the signal to the potentiometer, and is based on discrete solid state components with MOSFETs in the power stage.
Looking at its size and power, it is easy to guess that it works in class AB. It is very well crafted, looks nice, and is made in USA from the beginning to the end. The amplifier is rather sparse on bells and whistles, we have four line inputs and a preamplifier output. But it is sufficient for purist systems. All functions (volume, input switching and mute) are accessible from a small remote. This is really a very nice amplifier, already at first glance. As you will see it had tough competition, from renowned companies like Pass, Accuphase and Luxman, which, while more expensive, are its direct competition.
Discs used for testing:
The integrated amplifier Belles IA-01 is a very nice sounding, prepared with love, device, who had the luck/misfortune (cross out the unnecessary) to fall into the price category (a broad one, about 15000 – 25000zl) occupied by many other, much better known, better present in the audiophile mind, brands. Using my memory and the HF archives I would like to recall a few amplifiers, that are splendid (within their limits and presented aesthetics) with which the IA-01 will have to compete:
I would like to point your attention to two things: one of them is the presence of the Polish amplifier JAG 300B in this group, four times cheaper, and twice cheaper German Trigon. The first device is based on 300B tubes and works in a SET configuration. It is not as good as the Belles in absolute categories, but it presents qualities like: resolution of the midrange and space in such a way no other mentioned device can match. It is similar with the Trigon – it is a fantastic, inexpensive amplifier, which coherence, timbre, etc., are so good, that having 20000 euro to spend we surely have to consider it on our quest, and spend the money saved on a top grade or almost top power cable (no, I’m not joking).
First things first. Belles plays with a very smooth sound, devoted from harshness, with a very good tonal balance (I am thinking about the whole picture). The upper treble and the lower bass are not especially strong and resolved, and in both cases the reference system (Leben RS-28CX + Luxman M-800A) showed much more information. On the other end of the price list only the C.E.C. AMP6300 (which can be added to the list above) played the treble in a comparable (but not the same) league. Maybe against appearances, you can have reading what I wrote, the Belles has nothing in common with cut frequency response, dullness, or similar. Trigon and JAG are much warmer. Both Accuphase amplifiers also. The transparency of the IA-01 is very good, and the vividness splendid. And although I reach a conclusion, I might have done earlier, it is clearer after those two sentences: the American amplifier shows the vocals very well. The midrange is drawn with a very light line, without hardening and thickening of the contours and still very nicely the three-dimensionality of the vocals is shown, the accompanying reverbs are splendid, etc. I noticed that already on the first disc listened - On Every Street Dire Straits, but the feeling of a job well done, a kind of comfort, was with me until the end of the session, through discs like Maria Awaria Maria Peszek or Silver Solveig Slettahjell. The sound combines clarity and warmth. But this is no “warm” amplifier, in sense of describing for example the E-450 Accuphase, INT-150 Pass, Energy Trigon or 300B JAG. This “warmth” in case of the IA-01 is only a manifestation of the lack of harshness, and not amplification of a part of a frequency spectrum. A part of the midrange, somewhere below 1kHz, is slightly stronger than the surrounding part, what makes the attack of the ‘t’ and ‘k’ sounds stronger than, the placed higher on the frequency band, ‘s’, ‘c’ and similar sounds. This gives no harshness, we are lower, but it did dynamise the sound, and you need to be careful with the loudspeakers attached. It is not about finding bright, or vivid loudspeakers, but just very even. I would not fight for “opening” the sound, as the Belles is not “closed”. It just plays treble in a delicate and soft way, without “cutting” it away from the rest of the sound spectrum and without damping it.
This is a very uncommon combination, which will make a part of the music sound better, than with other mentioned amplifiers, and even nicer (although this is a step away from neutrality, but acceptable) than with the reference set. Although the resolution may be better, but the timbre and the mentioned properties of the midrange and treble of the American amplifier allowed discs with rock and electronic music sound really nice. It is not that jazz sounded bad, or that classical music suffered, but that those set of characteristics promoted slightly worse recorded discs. And this without warming and dulling! I started the listening session with the mentioned Dire Straits disc, but Maria Peszek played just after that confirmed my observations. Similar to the On the Sunday of Life… Porcupine Tree and …Calling All Stations… Genesis played one after another. Each disc had its own character, and the bad quality of the recorded Ray Wilson vocals on my, otherwise beloved, disc was uncovered with scrutiny. But the tested amplifier did not kill off any of those recordings, did not shred it, even if – like Genesis – the disc deserved it. In absolute categories this is a departure from neutrality, because more expensive systems show that more precise, also reaching deeper, but looking at the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’, we can easily agree to such playing.
I mentioned resolution. The amplifier can do much, and even the equally nice, but completely different, E-450 Accuphase, is not able to show so many things at once clearly. The emphasis in the Japanese competitor is placed on a kind of sweetness, slight warmth, what was reflected – of course in absolute terms, we are very high on that axis – on the background, second plane elements, low signals, which are handled very nicely by the Belles. From the mentioned amplifiers only the Aaron No.1 was a bit better in that aspect. Anyway, the American amplifier shows the character of the recordings without making a massacre out of them, in a completely satisfying way. I mentioned about that already HERE, but I’ll repeat: I recently bought a new version of the disc Nirvana Harbie Mann & The Bill Evans Trio. This is a beautiful, almost contemplative disc, I’ve never owned before, but I knew partially from many different listening sessions. After receiving the shipment from the Internet shop CD Japan (banner below), and opening it, I was enchanted by the way the disc was issued – a beautiful reproduction of the cover, new material for the disc itself (SHM-CD) – only advantages. The sound was not as good as I remembered, but I got accustomed to it and just listened to the music. Until I listened to the ordinary version from a German pressing by Rhino, from 1996. This issue is much better than the Japanese one in terms of the sound. The mix is different, it can be heard like a monophonic recording, but it has much better dynamics, is much less muffled than the Japanese re-master. The latter shows some things better, like the slight hum accompanying the contrabass, but this can be heard better because the contrabass is not in the middle of the stage, with other instruments, but placed far into one channel. In general, the German version is much nicer to listen to. Belles showed those differences very well. The resolution of the amplifier, the ability to differentiate recordings are good enough for me to know, which version (because those are two different versions, and not only pressings) I want to choose for me. This is not the last word in this aspect, the reference set differentiated timbre better, but showed that the Japanese version is muffled without a trace of doubt. Not that there is less treble, that can be the case on much less expensive systems, but that the individual instruments are “damped”. But no other amplifier from that price range can reach so deep into a recording.
I would like to summarize this text in a nice way, show how the Belles IA-01 sounds in one sentence, but this is not that easy. On one hand the American amplifier plays with a smooth, not brightened sound, with which less well prepared discs, like rock and electronics, sound better than on other amplifiers from this price range. The whole is coherent and has a very nice timbre. On the other hand the resolution of the top and bottom of the frequency range, their presence can be better, as shown by Aaron and Accuphase. Pass, on the other hand, presented a fleshy, full, dynamic, etc., etc., bass, to which other amplifiers can only look at from a distance. In defense of the IA-01 lets tell that the E-450 Accuphase is also not very resolving, and that the Aaron is an exception, but we need to tell what we just told. The lower bass is rather signaled than fully played, but this is a remark relative to the reference system and Pass. Vividness is top notch and discs like for example Mulligan Meets Monk sound in a very nice , expressive way. There is no talking about ultra-three-dimensionality within the boundaries of a given sound source (instrument, voice, reflection, etc.). That is why the music played from the best re-edition I know, the Analogue Productions made 45rpm vinyl, was not as much better from the XRCD version, as on the reference system. And again – Aaron showed the differences better, but it had not such a smooth, nice and saturated midrange like the Belles. The latter comes always handy, and for example with one of my late purchases (I recommend it, available on CD Japan), the disc Feel Like Making Love from the Korean jazz vocalist Woong San sounded in an incredibly sensible and intimate way. As always not without shortcomings, with a clearly shaped sound (and we should add a slight composure of dynamics), the Belles shows the nicer side of the discs, without clear warming or emphasizing on any of the frequency ranges. Splendidly built, nicely looking amplifier from USA, environment friendly (it does not heat up when idle, what means low bias of the output transistors). It is worth a try.
Belles IA-01 is an integrated amplifier, manufactured by Power Modules Inc. owned by David Belles. This is a rather small, but heavy, device – it is much smaller than the Accuphase E-450 and Luxman L-550A II. Its front cover is a variation on that, what Nelson Pass proposed some time ago. This not a simple copy, but something called “being inspired by”, a modification of the original idea by somebody. The front panel is a 15mm thick aluminum, with strongly phased edges (to a 2/3 depth), with a vertical phased recess splitting the front in two halves. I think this looks very attractive – clean and fresh, in a way of speaking. And at the same time it is not too technical or impersonal. To the right we have a small volume knob. To the left there is more happening, because there are four blue LEDs, showing chosen input and a red one indicating mute. Below those we have three small switches, one for power, one for mute and the last one for input switching. Unfortunately, although all of them have a resting point and can be switched in two directions, the source selector goes only one way, like 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 etc. The back plate is also from aluminum, not very thick, but still aluminum, mostly manufacturers just bend the material used for the bottom and form the back plate from it. Here it is a separate, rigid element. We see there four pairs of nice RCA inputs and one preamplifier output (what suggests an active preamplifier section), an IEC power socket and single loudspeaker terminals. The latter are gold plated, but rather small and too close to each other – using bigger spades we have to be careful to not make a short circuit. The terminals are conveniently placed at the sides of the back plate, this is easy for placing loudspeaker cables. Those will not mix with power or signal cables (assuming placement on a rack). The top plate is also made from aluminum, with ventilation holes cut in it. The bottom plate is also thick, (6mm) and with ventilation holes. The heat sinks are not inside however, those are outside – large elements with many small fins. Their edges are quite sharp, so you have to be careful not to cut yourself. The device does not get hot, so it can be placed in small openings, without having to worry that it will ‘get cooked’.
We get inside by opening 12 Allen bolts at the top and three at the back. We see a quite typical, but nicely made layout. In the middle, close to the front panel we have a big toroidal transformer, with the hole covered in resin. Almost the whole circuit, including the main power supply (we have one secondary winding for both channels, pre- and power sections), found its place on a large PCB. The only exception is a PCB with the potentiometer, logic ICs and stand-by circuitry. From nut tightened RCA sockets we go to a small PCB with relays. From here the signal goes by means of long interconnects made by Alpha Wire to a “Blue Velvet” Alps potentiometer mounted in front, and back again with another long cable. This is similar to the amplifier Integra 275 Anthem and there I have also criticized the solution – it would have been much better to place the potentiometer in the back and elongate the button shaft. That was done in the Aaron No.1.a. The signal is amplified only in transistors. The power transistors are screwed tight to the heat sinks – we have four pairs of very nice EXICON MOS-FET 10P20+10N20 units. Special attention was given to connecting cables, AC power is led from the socket by van den Hul silver coated cables, and the ground – within the star topology – is taken from many places by very thick cables from a different brand. In the power supply we have one rectifying bridge and two splendid filtering capacitors by Panasonic coupled by (to improve linearity) polypropylene capacitors. It seems, that there is no protection circuitry on the loudspeaker outputs, so we have to be very careful not to make any shorts. The device is placed on very good Stillpoint feet, made from two elements, the lower one being regulated. So we can level the amplifier. The remote is small, plastic, but the buttons are very logically placed.
CDs FROM JAPAN
|© Copyright HIGH Fidelity 2009, Created by B|