Okay, this is started out as a speaker review but I see precious little by way of public posts discussing the Brown Electronic Laboratories BEL 1001 MkV amplifier that has consistently and continuously wowed me for the past three years. When I was running one in single-ended stereo mode I proudly considered it the gem of my system. Now that I have two hooked up as balanced output monoblocks powering a pair of truly outstanding loudspeakers I am more certain than ever before that there is something very, very special about these amps. Barring any radically disruptive audio amplifier technology (read: beyond vacuum tubes and transistors) I would be surprised if I ever replace them.
I’ve just finished a three year project to put together a two channel (stereo) sound system that could satisfy me for years or perhaps even decades to come. I must confess to no small relief at having achieved this goal. Only a maniacally obsessive music lover who can relate to optimizing each piece of audio hardware to the point of having every note of several different reference recordings etched into one’s brain from relentless and repetitious comparisons can appreciate the feeling of freedom that comes with disembarking from the merry-go-round. I believe that no system is identical to a live performance (I have attended hundreds and play a couple of instruments myself) any more than a television can fool a person into thinking that they are in the scene but the system I have now creates a very convincing illusion rich with satisfyingly accurate detail, texture, and dynamics that provide a sense of realism palpable enough to be eerie at times.
While every component influences audio character and quality it is perhaps the speakers that, more than any other single component, define how a system sounds. Conventional wisdom is to put your money into the speakers and amplification. Regarding amplification I’ve had the BEL 1001 MkV for three years now. I had owned about eight others previously and have never been tempted upgrade from BEL (though I did get a second one so I could run monoblocks which brought me from merely excellent to truly world class in that department). My three year quest spanned countless changes but began and ended with a speaker upgrade as the intervening upgrades had rendered my Vandersteen 2Ce Signatures (a great value in their price range) the weak link in the system.
I ordered a pair of Merlin VSM MXe’s after exhaustive research and a long conversation with designer Bobby Palkovic. I had just auditioned another pair of speakers in the same price range and found that they fell a little short of my expectations. Like many high quality durable goods the VSM’s were made to order and it took a couple of months for them to arrive. Though they sounded fine and detailed straight out of the box, thorough break-in required a good 200 hours. After that the bass in particular was fleshed out and tonal balance more satisfying.
Bass took on even greater weight and realism after upgrading from a very good FET/tube hybrid preamp to the excellent Joule Electra LA-150 MkII preamp. The bass output (quantity and quality) this speaker design achieves with a 6.5” driver and SBAM bass EQ module is astounding and will cause educated listeners to look for side-mounted drivers or even a subwoofer, but it will not rattle your teeth like a 12” or 15” woofer. What you get instead is refinement, elegance, delineation between instruments and voices, imaging, and sound stage that add up to an intriguing sense of sheer credibility that is, for lack of a better term, fascinating. It’s detailed yet smooth, intriguing but not fatiguing, entertaining and toe-tapping. Female vocals are silky and seductive, and various instruments including drums, piano, upright bass, acoustic guitar, brass and strings all seem to sound just right. Jazz, classical, acoustic, and female vocal music all sound very realistic, drawing the listener in to *feel* the emotion behind the performance. Of course with electronic/highly processed music or distorted rock and roll accuracy can be difficult to judge but even there the speaker's resolution and imaging are spellbinding. Vocal harmonies are not all melded together but actually sound like distinct voices (another nod to the fantastic BEL 1001 MkV monoblocks is due here). Listening to these speakers in my system is truly a remarkable experience. They are not inexpensive given the componentry but in my mind the physical implementation is only a means to an end; a five-way speaker system for the same price that has more bass but sounds less convincing is NOT a better deal than this outstanding two-way in my humble opinion and by my yardstick these are a great value.
Finally this review would not be complete without giving due credit to Bobby at Merlin for his relentless and tenacious efforts in optimizing the VSM design over the past 15 or so years, his contagious passion and enthusiasm for music and its proper rendering in reproduction, and last but not least the patient, generous, and responsive coaching and sharing of wisdom that I sought out and which was invaluable in choosing an efficient path in optimizing the system upstream of the speakers. We agree on at least 90 percent of what we have both auditioned and I am forever in his debt for his having spent long, tedious hours auditioning all sorts of components, tweaks, and ideas so that I will never have to and can enjoy listening to music instead!
= = = Associated Equipment = = =
Transport: Music Hall CD25.2 w/Underwood HiFi T-mod
Digital Cable: Cardas Lightning 15
DAC: Audio Aero Capitole SE (tube output)
Preamplifier: Joule Electra LA-150 MkII (tube)
Interconnect Cables: Brown Electronic Laboratories (BEL) The Wire P1
Speakers: Merin VSM-MXe
Speaker Cables: Audience Au24e
AC Cords: Audience PowerChord & PowerChord “e”
AC Power: Dedicated 20 amp circuit w/hospital grade receptacles
I've been through at least eight amps in the past 30 years and there's never been one in the same laegue as the BEL 1001 MkV. The first time I heard the BEL in my system was when I borrowed one to compare to my 180 Watt Odyssey monoblocks. I was dumbstruck by how much better a single 50 Watt BEL could perform throughout the sonic spectrum with less than 1/3 of the power.
The most dramatic improvement was in the bass. I had harbored the intuitive belief that an amp with a higher power rating would generally put out more, cleaner, and more dynamic (punchier) bass. In this instance I was wrong on all three counts. In addition to the bass and overall tonal purity the imaging, micro-dynamics, and depth of soundstage were all vastly improved. The difference was not subtle - the BEL 1001 MkV made the Odyssey amps sound like children's toys by comparison. I proved incapable of returning the BEL amp to its owner so I sold the Odyssey gear and bought the BEL. I expect to own it for many years to come.
I soon discovered that the BEL amp performs exceptionally well with the BEL S-24 speaker cables. Once again the bass tightened up and became even better defined with the use of the S-24 cables. Given the positive experiences with BEL gear I also tried the P-1 interconnects and found them to be excellent and an exceptional value. My system is now completely cabled in BEL low-inductance Wire. The sound is detailed, neutral, and smooth with none of the harshness sometimes associated with solid state amplification. My speakers are Vandersteen 2Ce Signatures - neutral character, not particularly efficient, and not the last word on resolution. The 2Ce Signatures positively came to life with the BEL amp. The midrange is effortlessly transparent and the bass is solid, detailed, and under control at all times. Highs are clean without being overly crisp or etched sounding.
Overall my reaction was similar to the way I felt the first time I drove a BMW 3-series. Here's a smooth, powerful, well designed and crafted unit in an unassuming package that's also amazingly nimble and quick. It prompts realizations like, "Behold the state of the art - so THIS is what the others were striving for."
That's the best way I know how to say that...this amp comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Have owned several high end amps, and have sold many high end amps since I have worked at a couple of high end stores in the houston area. krell, mark levenson,VTL, and others I have sold and heard of are all very good amps, but Im here to tell you the Bell is an amp you would just love to have I know there is no absolutes in any thing but the Bell might be that amp that has everything you could want in an amp. the only amp that comes close to it might be a jeff roland. But the beauty of the Bell is it can always be upgraded if the creator of the amp ever upgrades.The amp is a fifty watt amp but don,t worry it will drive anything, and I mean anyspeaker, If you want more you can buy another and go mono and get two hundred watts per channel.I preveously owend two high end amps that were mono blocks they were 600 watts at 8 ohms and 1200 watts at 4 ohms,I really did like those amps untill I heard and felt the unbelevable control of the Bell. It is not just the control but everything else The new MK V bell does sound much better than the MK IV and that amp sounded unbelevable on its own.The thing about this amp is it has less watts than my previous amps but it has alot more contol you don,t have to have megga watts with this amp ,it has alot of current more than the others, but hey don,t take my word go and audtion one of these amps and you well see what I,ve been talking about.It will be the last amp you will ever have to buy. Look at the back of stereophile you never see any body trying to sell one, but you see all those other high end amps that go up for sell all the time. Humm wonder why you don,t see a Bell up for sell.