Belles 28a/150a (£3750/£2750)

With a reference preamp offering two phono stage inputs, and 125W of stereo power amp, can this combo break free of the crowd?

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Americans have this phrase – probably politically incorrect – for those areas you never hear about. They call them the ‘flyover states’, a perfect description for anywhere that isn’t New York, California or Florida. Which is not to say that places like North Dakota, Idaho or Nebraska are totally without charm. They’re just not on everyone’s radar.
   So, too, does hi-fi have its equivalent of the flyover states, literally hundreds of brands that soldier on year after year in semi-obscurity, attending show after show. Occasionally, one has to ask: when did you last enter a shop that carried Lumen White? Klimo? FM Acoustics? This is not to say there’s anything wrong with the products, only that, well, I sometimes wonder what the hell they’re doing out there. And Belles is one of those  brands that has a spot barely in my peripheral vision.
   Which is a shame, as the combination I’ve tried these past few weeks does not deserve anonymity. The 150A Reference power amp is a beefy, true dual-mono solid-state unit rated at 125W per channel, with only one quirk: it has an XLR input only for use in mono mode, which I’m assuming is balanced. Given that the 28A preamp has balanced outputs, it was a shame not to be able to use them. (This, of course, is a nifty way to get you to purchase a pair of 150A References.)

But balanced outputs aren’t the 28A’s primary source of appeal. It has the de rigueur home theatre throughput, and it also accepts a balanced source. Operation is slick, the parts for both this and the power amp are all audiophile-grade, the socketry adheres to the status quo, I love the dinky little toggle switches, the behaviour is impeccable, the neat remote controls Power On/Off, Mute, Volume, Input and Mono – yadayadayada. No, what makes this one sit up and wag its tail like an eager-to-please puppy is the comprehensive phono section.
   Instead of a few coarse settings, Belles has provided a pair of phono inputs that will accommodate any moving-magnet phono cartridge, plus a head amplifier for moving-coils. The latter can be tailored to most cartridges through separate RCA inputs for cartridge loading, with supplied plugs covering 0–1000ohm and adding 26dB of gain; the moving-magnet input has 40dB of gain. With the exception of freaky cartridges beyond the norm, you’re unlikely to find one this unit can’t exploit to the fullest.
   Additionally, the 28A has three line-level inputs and a line-level balanced input; the latter is buffered with a discrete, differential Class A amplifier. Outputs are plentiful, too: two pairs each for balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA), as well as a home theatre bypass which routes the signal directly to the preamplifier outputs with unity gain. Integrating this into systems from vanilla stereo on up will never be a problem.
   In my case, the Belles siblings were fed from the Marantz CD-12/DA-12 and Musical Fidelity kW CD players, with analogue courtesy of the SME 30 turntable, Series V arm and cartridges including MCs from Lyra, Blue Angel and Transfiguration. Speakers included Sonus faber’s Auditor Elipsa, the Guarneris and PMC’s DB1+. Wire? Acrolink between the 28A and the Ref 150A, with Yter for speaker connections.

First impressions being about as revealing of overall ‘feel’ as any amount of lengthy study might unveil, the Belles were subjected to a weekend run-in, even though the review samples had as much mileage on them as a Chicken Ranch hooker. And, as I found out later, the Belles should be classified with those components that, even after run-in from new, need a reasonable warm-up time from ice-cold. This being one bitch of a winter, I found that out when I left them off in an unheated  studio for two days. My advice? If you want a demo in a store, ask them to switch on the Belles at least three hours before your appointment.

That first impression told me that the ’150 sure has a way with bass control. I’d spent a day swapping between Led Zep on vinyl and the new Mothership CD, so thunderous lower registers were a major part of my diet. The Belleses (is that the plural?) ticked every box, especially evident in Bonham’s percussion as much as through Jones’ bass playing: deep, tight and smear-free when the speed picked up. Above them, Plant’s vocals maintained their requisite ability to cut through the rumbling, while Page...
   ...aaah, Jimmy Page. Torn as I am between Page, Beck, Clapton and Hendrix in my Killer Guitarist League Table, it’s always wonderful hearing a system that resolves the textures Page brings to the party. And while my tendency is to lean toward Hendrix, I have to credit both Zep’s eponymous debut and Led Zeppelin II with guitar moments that cause countless chills, with tweeters quivering in fear. Belles applied the same rules to the upper frequencies as it did to the bass, and those of you who like to be dazzled by transient attack followed by realistic decay will find the Belles amplifiers more than capable. And the dynamic swings are impressive enough to cope with every track from ‘Good Time Bad Times’ to ‘Kashmir’.

Dial ahead three decades, and Robert Plant’s duet with Alison Krauss provides enough subtlety, atmosphere and ‘air’ to test the Belleses capacity for delicacy. As with pairings such as Ella/Satchmo, Lou Rawls/Dianne Reeves and, yes, Sonny and Cher (don’t laugh), Plant/Krauss is a showcase of contrasts. Aided and abetted by the calibre of musicians that populate the most in-demand studios, the duo has issued an album I’m betting will clean up at the Grammy Awards.
   Here, the Belles reveals that wonderful balancing act that allows you to alter your focus from a lone voice to the harmonising. Better still is observing the call-and-response nature of the finest duets; dig out your copy of Rawls’ At Last, select the track ‘Fine Brown Frame’ and try not to grin.
   Is there a downside? To varying degrees, I’ve heard better transparency and observed wider soundstages. Conversely, the Belles are easy to listen to for hours; I was reminded of the legendary Classé amplifiers of 20 years ago. But that was then and this is now. So a proper audition is mandatory.

‘Spin’ means a glass is either half-full or half-empty. The Belles’ strength is that they do nothing wrong, they sound better than merely good, and they are – lack of balanced inputs on the power amp aside – supremely flexible. Equally, that applies to dozens of amp packages for £6000+. But if LP playback is a priority, the 28A must go on your shortlist.


Originally published in the March 2008 issue