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PMI Belles Aria Preamplifier and Monoblock Amplifiers Review

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PMI Belles Arias Monoblock Amplifier

Not a bells and whistles amp

The Belles Aria Monoblock Amplifier is not a “bells and whistles” amp. The topology is classic, the signal path short, the parts quality high, and that makes for very good sound. In appearance it’s a plain, satin finish black box with one button and one green LED on the front. It has one set of solid, gold plated RCA inputs, two pair of smallish but sturdy and superbly gripping speaker posts, and the requisite fuse protected 15 Amp IEC socket.

There is a reason that classically simple designs tend to have staying power. They work exceedingly well and are heroically reliable. The Aria product sheet online (http://www.powermodules.com/products/ewExternalFiles/Aria_monoblock_lit.pdf) states, “Faithful to the Belles design philosophy, the amplifier circuit is laid out in a straight-line path. Yes, it’s physically understated. In fact it looks attractive, but plain. But wait until you hear it!” Looking internally at a few amps over the years it can be disarming to see how little is inside the case! On minimalist designs the dominating feature is the toroid transformer. Audiophiles would be shocked at how often in over-wrought designs the transformer is diminished and the rest of the chassis stuffed with all manner of circuitry for enhancements, modes, and protection. Obviously, if a company splits the production costs on four times as many internal components, the cost-to-performance may suffer and the buyer may not get nearly the sound they could through a simpler design.

Be forewarned, however, as a simple design is not a bargain if it is not well made. I remember the disgust I had at a demo of a French point-to-point hand wired amplifier that was supposed to be oh-so-upper-crust, but it rang like a doorbell through the speakers. Due to poor design the volume knob was microphonic, and every time I touched it to change the volume (no remote for this uppity product) a tone was emitted through the speakers. It was perhaps the most unimpressive demo I have experienced since visiting a big box electronics store.

I put the finishing touches on the Benchmark Media AHB2 Amplifier review this past year, and that is a complex amp! It uses a new technology developed in conjunction with THX called Class AAA. It has several operational features and coordinates with the DAC3 DX, a companion component with its own features as well as some that operate in conjunction with the AHB2. For all that complexity it’s a wonder that the performance of the AHB2 clocks in very well. But, with proper setup the Aria Monoblocks could be made to perform at a similarly high level of quality.

I put together several “no bells and whistles” systems for this review that were conceptually simpler than one with an active preamp. First I will report on the results of using the Aria Monoblock Amplifiers, and then discuss the addition of the Aria Preamplifier.

 

With the Kingsound King III electrostatic speaker

Kingsound King III electrostatic speakers

Prior to the arrival of the Aria Preamplifier I had several weeks with the Monoblocks , and that allowed some streamlined rigs. One of these systems consisted of the Small Green Computer sonicTransporter AP i7 4T in combination with the SONORE Signature Rendu SE as the digital source, Clarity Cable Supernatural USB Cable (1M), Border Patrol DAC SE (note: The BP DAC SE has no volume control. I set the output of the RoonReady software of the Signature Rendu SE to “fixed”, and used the Roon music management software’s Volume control with my Samsung S3 Tablet to attenuate the system), TEO Audio Kronon Liquid Cable Interconnects, AriaMonoblock Amps, Clarity Cable Natural Speaker Cable (bi-wire), Kingsound King III with VAC Royal Power Supply. Silnote Audio Anniversary Speaker Cable supplied speaker level input to Legacy Audio XTREME XD Subwoofers. All components utilized Anticables Signature Reference Level 3 Power Cords (under review). Note the absence of dedicated preamplifier in this system.

With the Aria you don’t get peanut butter and jelly, or Vegemite, with your bread; you get butter, period. I tried Vegemite while on a construction mission trip to Haiti in 2011, but that’s another story. The takeaway from that experience related to Vegemite was to never eat it again. But there is something wonderful about fresh, warm bread and butter that I am tempted to eat again and again. The sound of the Aria is straightforward, full, smooth and without a sense of editorializing the signal.

The Aria is the amp I can use to make any of the speakers on hand strut their stuff. The Kingsound King III, a less efficient electrostatic speaker I have paired with no less than 10 amps, is a good example. In most cases the amps used with the King III were more powerful, but none more beautiful. One of the most pleasing setups with the King III was with the BorderPatrol DAC SE, a “NOS” or non-oversampling DAC. With the DAC SE’s unadorned signal and the King III’s lack of cabinet editorializing, the sense of precision in the music was extreme.

Things took a turn upward with the insertion of the much-used Exogal Comet DAC. The Comet takes all input signals and uses its own algorithm to make its own analog signal. It is a very refined DAC that balances detail and smoothness deftly. With the Comet I did extensive comparisons of this system, switching out the Aria Monos and the Benchmark AHB2 in Mono setting. With the Aria, Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele strings were thicker sounding, if one can say that of a ukulele, than with the Benchmark AHB2. The initial damped notes of “Low Rider” carried more resonance and fullness, while they were tighter and thinner with the AHB2. Even the tick of the fingernails contacting the strings was thicker as presented by the Aria. It is amazing how such seemingly inconsequential moments add up to a sensation that the performance has more body.

But there was a dynamics trade-off to consider. Marcus Miller’s “Blast!” on a capable system presents his electric bass as a formidable, powerful instrument. The Aria could not produce the same degree of Miller’s formidable slamming bass as could the AHB2, even though tonally the roundness of the notes was better. There was more meat on the bones with the Aria, but the musculature was in favor of the AHB2.

Realize then that the mating of the King III electrostatic speaker would never be considered optimal for the Aria Monos. I do such systems to discover the outside parameters of performance. One can certainly use the Aria Monos for such speakers without concern, unless attempting to listen at “live” or concert levels. For this speaker I would like Belles to give me another 100+ watts in an ideal world, perhaps a “Belles Aria 300” with 300 wpc would be a fantasy, but when push comes to shove I would not trade off the Aria’s fullness for a leaner amp with more macrodynamic impact. There are so many attributes of excellence in sound quality with the King III that I have returned to the combination several times over the extended review period for the joy of hearing it again. I prefer the slight listening level cap (perhaps down 4-5 dB) with the Aria/King III pairing over a more bullish amp with less dexterity.

 

With the Legacy Audio Whisper DSW Clarity Edition

Legacy Audio Whisper DSW Clarity Edition

With more efficient speakers, even grandiose ones such as the Legacy Audio Whisper DSW Clarity Edition, the Aria does not come up short. In fact, in terms of macrodynamics it competes very well with more traditional setups such as source/DAC/preamp/amp/speakers. The output of the Whisper was so forceful using this 112-watt amp that I had to remove the Legacy Audio XTREME XD Subwoofers, as they were entirely unnecessary! I had been at a similar point with the Pass Labs X600.5 Monoblocks or the AVM Ovation SA 6.2, but never with a sub-200 watt amp into 4 ohms.

I was impressed at the lack of stridency in the ribbon tweeter and super-tweeter when using the Aria Monoblock amps. Particularly sweet were female vocals, especially husky voices such as Melissa Manchester, Paula Cole and Alison Moyet. Moyet is turning to jazz vocals and it is worth hearing her rendition of classics on Voice. I highly recommend the pairing of Belles with Legacy Audio, as the transducers took exceptionally well to the amps.

The experience of using the Aria recalled the time I had spent with the Wells Audio Innamorata. The Innamorata is a more aesthetically pleasing amplifier with its illuminated analog meter, but it cannot be said that it is holistically a more welcoming amp in terms of listening. During my time with the Innamorata I could put together seemingly any combination of components and speakers, and settle on a most pleasing sound. So also the Aria lent itself to many different systems’ sounding pleasurable. No wonder, as both are minimalist designs, the Aria being even more streamlined than the Innamorata.

 

Addition of Belles Aria Preamplifier

The review of the Aria Monoblock amps was getting along quite well; I was ready to wrap things up when Dave Belles called and asked if I would entertain adding the Aria Preamp to the review. We had discussed the preamp initially, but he was unsure whether it could be prepared with my desired remote control functionality during the review period. Dave was gracious and did not push me on the time schedule. As a result, the preamp was completed with remote functionality and it is included in this article.

I was tempted to despise how lightweight the Belles Arias Preamplifier was; can anything this light be of high sound quality? After all, it is a full size preamplifier weighing only 13 pounds. This can’t be serious, it’s the weight of a DAC, or at least what a DAC used to weigh three years ago. Then again, the more equipment I handle the less I find a correlation between the heft of a component and its performance. Case in point, the Redgum Audio Articulata Integrated Amplifier I reviewed recently is only about 40 pounds, but puts out an arrestingly powerful and robust sound in excess of the weightier monoblock amps I have reviewed.

Operationally, the Aria Preamplifier is straightforward, with controls and corresponding LEDs on the front for INPUT (4), MONITOR (for monitoring recording), BYPASS (allows bypassing the Aria in a HT configuration), MUTE, POWER, VOLUME dial, and HEADPHONE. The full featured, simple, but clearly laid out remote control adds a BALANCE feature to overweight the Left or Right channel. In the rear of the unit are 3 sets of RCA inputs and 1 set of MM Phono inputs, Monitor In/Monitor Out, and the Bypass Input, besides one pair of Main Outputs and the 15A IEC receptacle.

When I spy the internals of the Aria Preamp through the vents atop, I see simplicity, lacking the massive build out that is the rage today. Myriad are the companies churning out heavy, tank-like chassis with massive transformers, banks of capacitors, and pages of explanations of how it is superior. Putting power and signal to the Aria set will disavow the belief that such things are necessary for refined performance.

Back to the Redgum Audio Articulata Integrated Amplifier, the design work of Ian Robinson of Australia. Here, too, as with the Aria components, the case was thin by many manufacturers’ standards, certainly nothing to boast about. And that’s the point; neither Ian nor Dave declares that their chassis is something to tout; it’s the internals that count. I have seen it go both ways, laying hands on monstrously overbuilt components that set a new standard, and ones like the Aria components that leapfrogged the “heavy hitters.”

In comparison to other value-oriented products with similar functionality, the Aria combo is what I would describe as Van Alstine with a slight edge, or punch, to it. Still, my experience with Frank Van Alstine’s offerings was most pleasant, and pleasant would be how the overall sound revealed itself. The outcome of systems using the Van Alstine gear was an unfailing pleasant and warm sound quality; neither definition, nor dynamics were pushed to the extreme as demonstrated by the Belles Aria separates, an aspect of this review I was not prepared to encounter.

I did not expect that kind of sound with any of my speakers, much less all of my speakers. Imagine the immense smile on my face as I grabbed the entire stack of Belles components to place on the amp stand, and they are still lighter than many of the monoblock amps I handle. The half chassis, pro-oriented Benchmark AHB2 Amplifiers weigh as much as the Aria Monos.

I also did not expect the Aria components to exceed the Benchmark Audio DAC3 DX and AHB2 Amplifier in terms of detail retrieval. Pro-oriented components are not necessarily superior to components dedicated to two-channel listening for the home. Fiercely loyal fans of studio equipment insist that the cleanest signal, the truest result comes from the gear the pros choose, or at least gear that is built such that it is compatible with the studio. Well, that’s simply not always true.

A simple, quick test of detail retrieval is to play something with an expansively deep soundstage, such as Just A Little Lovin by Shelby Lynn, or Alison Krause’s New Favorite. Pay attention to how filled-in the acoustic space is behind the microphone’s phantom position; how much energy, echo, even noise, is revealed by the system. Ah, the ‘simple’ Belles Aria stack gets very deep into the recording, and that checks off one of the must-have attributes of superior gear. How can it be that components at multiples of the cost of the Aria set can’t do that kind of depth? Simple: they are unnecessarily complex, whereas the Aria components are not. ‘Simple’ can get the job done exquisitely well.

11 Responses to PMI Belles Aria Preamplifier and Monoblock Amplifiers Review


  1. Allen Edelstein says:

    [Publisher’s note: We received a partial comment in the following. Though incomplete, the comment contains valid points so it is published herewith.]

    … with theoretically no ripple or so I absolutely agree in the importance of the power supply. It is the amplifier since the current that is output from an amplifier is directly from the power supply. The circuits that we think of as an amplifier are really just modulators of the current from the power supply. But I do not understand tuning a power supply for musicality (nor do I understand the phrase maximum musicality).

    The goal of a power supply is basically simple and straight forward. It needs to supply the current and voltage demanded by the modulating circuit. This current should be as close to Direct Current as possible with theoretically no contamination at all. This is measurable. I don’t understand musicality in regards to this at all. If I’m missing something I sincerely would appreciate more explanation.

  2. DAVID BELLES says:

    I have been at this for over 40 years. It was one of the early things I learned that the power supply does affect the sound. You are correct on the basics. These are text book truths. When you manufacture a product that the public will buy you must be able to reproduce a good musical experience. My results over the years has proven that.
    Regards,
    Dave Belles

  3. Allen, God’s Peace to you,
    I do not have the chops to discuss an answer in terms of theory, but in experience there has never been a component I have used that has not benefitted from an upgraded power supply. Dave Belles is doing upgrades/tuning when he works with his power supplies, and I for one appreciate it immensely!

    Dave is not going to divulge his secrets; I know, as I asked about what he did with the power supply and the information is off limits. I recommend that if you wish to consider what can be done with a power supply, you procure a couple of decent aftermarket 15A IEC power cables and swap them for the stock ones on components. Theoretically there should be no difference, but in practice there is a significant difference. That should be enough to demonstrate to you that aspects of design which don’t reveal sonic changes that are measurable can indeed influence the sound.

    When it comes to the quality of an audio system there is a big difference between building to spec and building to achieve excellence.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder
    Dagogo.com

  4. Allen Edelstein says:

    Just a closing comment to make my position clear on power supplies. I think they are uber important. They are a very expensive part o an amp that can be cheated on with little or no affect on the classic specs of an amp. Most, if not all power supplies, are under designed on almost all amps. And yet they will have a significant affect on reproduction. I do believe in bigger and better. But I still can’t comprehend how a supply large enough to maintain voltage and current under all conditions can affect the musicality(a word I hate since it means so many different things to many people) of an amplifier.

    And yes I do believe that parts such as wires and feet can have Significant affects on sound even though they do not enter into an EE’s understanding of electrical design.

  5. Allen,
    God’s Peace to you,

    Thank you for the follow up note. I think this is a, “Join the club,” situation, as from what I have heard again and again from manufacturers of cables to components to speakers is that even they do not know all the explanations for why audible changes occur in seemingly inconsequential adjustments to circuits and materials. The idea that a designer understands why every aspect of his/her design is a misnomer.
    Some designers/manufacturers try to maintain a silence on such subjects in an effort to avoid controversy, or to project the image that they are cooly in control of all such variables. But, that is not the reality behind the scenes. Off the record several of them have admitted to stumbling into discoveries, and or not fully comprehending why their design works so well. I am not saying that of David Belles specifically, but of designers/manufacturers in HiFi as a group.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder
    Dagogo.com

  6. Frank Wong says:

    Is the Belles Aria monos better the Wells Audio Innamorata in tonal beauty and definition? Thanks

  7. Frank,
    God’s Peace,

    I was not able to conduct a direct comparison between these two amps, but I would place both of these products very close together in terms of tonal beauty and definition. They both are the kind of product that would accommodate a wide variety of speakers and systems allowing sound that would not be considered harsh or sterile.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

  8. Frank Wong says:

    Thanks Doug! Blessings!

  9. Frank Wong says:

    Hi Doug,

    From your review is it safe to assume the Aria monos are just as full and rich as VanAlstine amps but with more detail and dynamics? Thanks!

  10. Frank,
    God’s Joy,

    I cannot answer your question definitively, but only relatively. The amp I reviewed for Van Alstine was a previous generation, I believe. Consequently, I would say, yes, your description of the Belles ARIA compared to the Van Alstine is correct. However I have not compared the newer AVA gear to the ARIA components.

    Blessings,
    Douglas Schroeder

  11. Joe Franceski says:

    Is Maestro Belles really planning to retire soon? Just wondering since he’s now unveiling a new big product, the Virtuoso integrated amplifier…Just wondering….

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