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PMI Belles Aria Preamplifier and Monoblock Amplifiers Review

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Comparison to Cambridge Audio Azur 840e Preamp

In order to compare another active preamp with the Belles Aria Preamp, I assembled a simple system consisting of the sonicTransporter AP i7 4T and SONORE Signature Rendu as source, Eastern Electric Minimax DAC Supreme, either the Aria Preamplifier or the Cambridge Audio Azur 840E Preamplifier, the Aria Monoblock Amplifiers, and the Kingsound King III electrostatic speakers.

Sonore Signature RENDU

I had reviewed the Cambridge Audio Azur 840E back in 2009 and I was surprised to see how much time had slipped by as the unit still seemed current in my mind. I had bought it following the review to have a well-built, reliable and good sounding preamp on hand for reviews. This was a more “bells and whistles” preamp that features several more inputs and outputs than the Aria Preamp, as well as both XLR and RCA inputs and outputs. The Azur 840W Amplifier was designed for use with it. I had employed the 840E for a while in both audio and video related systems.

For this review, I focused on several newer pieces of music I have added to the reviewing list, the first being ‘Space Dive’ by Daniel Pemberton, an epic sounding piece that is part of the soundtrack to the BBC/National Geographic film that recounts Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking free fall from the edge of space to earth.

Via the Azur, terrific amounts of LF pummeled me with lengthy, sustained waves and slow decay to create a sense of vastness. Lower level instrumental doodling captured the feel of an eternal void swallowing a small visitor. I thought the Azur 840 handled the track well, until I replaced it with the Aria Preamp. In comparison, the strength and firmness of the LF grew as heard through the Aria. The Aria did a better job of conveying endless depth to the pulsing LF, and the doodling stood out more clearly against the void.

I use Checkfield’s ‘Shenandoah’ as a quick glimpse of contemporary symphonies featuring a well-recorded solo instrument, in this case acoustic guitar. As heard through the Azur 840 the massed strings were more congealed and tipped up toward the upper frequencies, while the Aria Preamp added gravitas and a clearer view of the massed strings. The Azur 840E presented the music more as a recording, while the Aria presented it closer to the real event. Was the 840E’s performance stiffer, more brittle due to being an older or more bells and whistles design? In any case, the focused design and simplicity of the Aria Preamplifier showed better with the Aria Monoblock Amplifiers. There have been a fair number of times when separates meant to be optimized were actually superior when paired with a component from a different manufacturer, but not in this instance.

 

Comparison to TEO Audio Liquid Pre

TEO Liquid Pre

There is also a fan base for passive preamps, and these folks insist that the passive is the only way to go. The audiophile world is divided on the subject of passive versus active preamps. Some feel so strongly about their chosen type that they know the other is invalid as a means to superior sound. I find myself undecided; I can set up a very satisfying system with either one given the right ancillary equipment. The reader is not to take what follows as a declaration of one preamp’s superiority over the other, because they both are superb in the right setup.

Back when I reviewed the Music First Audio Baby Reference Preamplifier, a transformer based passive, I learned of the validity of the passive preamp as a valid way to set up a rig. I no longer have the Baby Reference on hand, but I do have the reviewed TEO Audio Liquid Pre, one of the finest passives I have heard.

One would think that the simplicity of design of the Belles Aria Monoblock Amps would meld well with the TEO Liquid Pre, and they did. It begged the question, would an even simpler setup with another preamp usurp the Aria combo? The honest answer is that the TEO Liquid Pre neither usurped, nor was dominated by the Aria Preamp. The outcome was characteristic of the use of either a passive or active preamp in a system.

Passive preamps in my experience are leaner sounding with slightly more definition than active preamps. Conversely, active preamps have more headroom and dynamic range, and are weightier. As an example, the larger drum, perhaps a tympani, in Brand Brauer Frick’s ‘Bop’ through the TEO Liquid has less overtones filling in to add heaviness to the kettle’s reverberation, and the mallet strike is snappier. The skin of the drum is more easily discerned with the Liquid Pre, but the ‘boom’ of the instrument’s note is less powerful. The sense of the thickness of the kettle portion of the drum is realized more fully with the Aria Preamplifier.

Another example comes from Michael Hedges’ Aerial Boundaries. Gentle pickingwith contrasting slamming of the fingers against the strings was differently by these preamplifiers. The Liquid Pre placed the event in space more distantly, and the contrast between the plucking and the slamming of the fingers into the strings on the fret board was less pronounced. The venue was perceived as vast. In contrast, the Aria presented more power to action, with a tighter focus, the energy of the plucking versus the slamming of the hand more noticeable than the spatial extension of the notes decaying as they reached the outer perimeter of the venue.

Which one is correct? I can see either one receiving a vote of confidence. In general, if you want an experience that makes you perceive you are closer to the stage, with a character to the sound that may strike you as more head-on versus laid back, then you will want to consider an active preamp, and the Aria is superb at doing so.

 

No nonsense, high-end sensibility

Dave Belles is a seasoned veteran of design, and though he could come out with a budget busting set of components to wow the world, he has chosen as he approaches retirement to give a gift of simple, elegant design in the Aria Preamplifier and Amplifier combo, which will give classic, timeless, gorgeous sound and should last the owner perhaps a lifetime.

The truth is that as an audiophile, I don’t use half the features that exist on complex preamps. I am a two-channel guy first and foremost, and how a preamp does surround is a distant second to how it does stereo. You don’t get pristine two-channel sound from a mass-market surround preamp. You can go passive preamp, but you will have to be very, very careful in your component selection not to give up the attributes the Aria has. You can go direct from a source with attenuation into the Aria Monoblock Amps – if you want a super defined sound. If you want an audiophile’s keeper of a preamp, with the capability to pass through an AV signal, the Aria is the one for you.

The only weakness in this combination was the inability to drive a difficult speaker load in an unlimited fashion. All other speaker types, no worries! I have been happy to use the Aria stack with some mighty fine speakers, like the Legacy Whisper and the Vapor Joule White, to name two. There is not a much better single-brand stereo separates setup to be found under $10K. If you desire a clean solution for electronics that will never let you down in terms of performance and will showcase even upper end speakers, the PMI Belles Aria components are a wise choice.

 

 

Associated Components:

Source: Salk Audio StreamPlayer Generation III with Roon interface
Streaming Music Service: Tidal
DAC:  Eastern Electric Minimax DSD DAC Supreme with Burson, Dexa NewClassD and Sparkos Labs Discrete Opamp Upgrade; Exogal Comet DAC and upgrade power supply
Preamp: TEO Audio Liquid Preamplifier; Cambridge Audio 840E
Amps: First Watt J2 (two); Exogal Ion (PowerDAC); Benchmark Media AHB2 (two); Belles AriaMonoblocks
Integrated: Redgum Audio Articulata
Speakers:  Legacy Audio V Speaker System; Kings Audio Kingsound King III; Legacy Audio DSW Clarity Edition; Kings Audio King Tower omnidirectional; Vapor Audio Joule White 3; PureAudioProject Trio15 (Voxativ and Horn 1 versions)
Subwoofers: Legacy Audio XTREME HD (2)
IC’s: TEO Liquid Splash-Rs and Splash-Rc; TEO Liquid Standard MkII; Clarity Cable Organic RCA/XLR; Snake River Audio Signature Series Interconnects; Silent Source “The Music Reference”
Speaker Cables: TEO Cable Standard Speaker; Clarity Cable Organic Speaker; Snake River Audio Signature Series Speaker Cables;
Digital Cables: Clarity Cable Organic Digital; Snake River Audio Boomslang; Silent Source “The Music Reference”
USB: Verastarr Nemesis; Clarity Organic
Power Cables: Clarity Cable Vortex; MIT Oracle ZIII; Snake River Audio Signature Series; Anticables Level 3 Reference Series
Power Conditioning: Wireworld Matrix Power Cord Extender; Tice Audio Solo

 

Copy editor: Dan Rubin

 

Manufacturer’s Comment:

I would like to thank Doug Schroeder for his fine review of the Belles ARIA Preamplifier and the ARIA  Monoblocks. Also, I would like to thank DAGOGO for their interest. The ARIA products have been met with great acceptance in the audio market, especially the ARIA Integrated Amplifier. I have designed these products for the Audiophile customer so that they may appreciate their music.

Sincerely,

David Belles
Power Modules Inc.

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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