Belles 22a Preamplifier


Belles 22a Tube/Hybrid Preamplifier

Let me begin by saying that years ago I had pretty much concluded I would never own tube gear… too hot, too fussy, short tube lives, etc….lots of excuses….and maybe deep down inside I thought the “tube musicality” thing was just hype.

Six months ago, I was using a Parasound 2100 preamp. Although modest in price, it provided a decent level of detail, a good low end and a very large two dimensional soundstage. Overall, I’d say it was somewhat musical. I had begun thinking about an upgrade which would improve upon the 2100 by adding more depth to the presentation.


Obviously, I was not considering tubes…. Another Agon member suggested that I should seriously consider a Don Sachs preamp…and while it was “interesting”, it was a lot of money and I had no way to easily deal with the heat issue from all its tubes in my equipment cabinet.


A few months went by and he sent me an email about a Belles 22a tube/mosfet hybrid that had just been listed and with his strong endorsement that the sound would be a big step up and that there would not be a heat problem, I made the plunge.


If you don’t already know much about Belles audio products, google David Belles and you will find he is an accomplished designer who has been making great sounding high quality amplifiers and preamplifiers for 30+ years. In 2003, David Belles unveiled his 21a tube preamp model which was very favorably compared at the time with Audio Research tube gear. Then in 2011, he replaced the 21a with the 22a, which was considered to be a tube hybrid. As might have been expected, some preferred the all tube 21a and others the 22a.  The 22a is still being made but is now considered to be a special order item with a retail price of $2995.


The 22a is a tube/mosfet hybrid preamp using two 12au7 tubes, constant current bias, isolated power supply and very high quality components.  Unlike a fully tubed preamp, the 22a does not get hot and can be used in a semi enclosed area such as a cabinet with doors (my current situation). And, because of its design and cool operating temperatures, the tubes are said to last nearly 10,000 hours.

 

I’ve never heard the 21a and so this is not a comparison…if anything, it’s an encouragement for others who might be skeptical about trying a tube preamplifier to at least put one on their list for consideration.  (I’ve since come to realize that there are many well regarded tube preamps under $2500; Don Sachs, Aric Audio, Rogue Audio, Prima Luna…just to name a few).


The size of the soundstage has always held some importance to me and it’s something I’ll notice right away. When I put the 22a into my system, the first listen was surprising in that the soundstage was equally as wide as the 2100 (extending several feet beyond the width of the loudspeakers) but with much more depth than I was used to. And that was with the stock Electro Harmonix tubes.


Over the next few months, I purchased or was loaned a variety of other tubes that I rolled through the 22a. The Siemens NOS were detailed but a little too polite. The Mullards had a lush midrange and low end but were a little light on the top end. And then before I ordered or borrowed some Brimars, Ciftes or Radiotechniques, I tried a pair of Electro Harmonix Golds ($50 per matched pair) and they sounded really, really good in my system (Oppo 205, Belles 22a, Halo A23, Tekton Lore, Powersound Audio S1500)….deep, large soundstage with sometimes seemingly surround sound dimensionality, tight, tuneful bottom end with definition and punch, extended top end without a hint of harshness…all in all very musical, impactful and fun. (and so at least for the time being, the Golds are my tube of choice).


Compared to the Parasound 2100, the music is richer and more textured and nuanced; individual cymbals are easily identified by the difference in their sound, a standup bass never sounds like a bass guitar, female voices are never harsh and the separation between instruments and voices is very, very good. The background is absolutely black and there is no tube hum or microphony whatsoever. It’s given me a much greater appreciation for those that advocate for a tube front end with a solid state amplifier as yielding a sound that is more musical than clinical.

 

From an operational standpoint, the 22a has a very nice feature, when you turn the unit on the mute is automatically engaged. The unit takes about 45 seconds for the tubes to warm up; turn the mute off, adjust the volume and you are good to go; no thumps.

 

Summary/Conclusion:

 

My overall takeaway is that if you haven’t considered a tube or tube hybrid preamplifier, you may find as I did that you are really missing out on something that is really musical in way that words can’t completely describe. For less than $1500 you can try something new that may be returnable (if you don’t like it) or you can buy $2500-3000 (new) preowned unit that is selling for less than $1500 and will be easy to resell if it’s not your cup of tea.

 

Is the 22a the best preamp you can buy…obviously not, but if you happen to see a preowned 22a hit the market, grab it and be prepared to enjoy the music even more.

 

Below are the specs for the 22a shown in the owner’s manual:

 

Noise . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . over 100 dB A weighted

 

Distortion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . THD and IM less than 0.001%

 

Power Requirements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100-120 VAC or 200-240 AC @ 50/60Hz

 

Inputs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   (5 pair) unbalanced stereo inputs

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .     plus (1 pair) monitor input

 

Outputs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .     (2 pair) unbalanced stereo main output

 

Input Impedance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100,000 ohms

 

Controls . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   Volume and Balance

 

Remote Controls . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   Power On/Off, Mute, Volume, Input selection,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    Monitor and Home Theater Bypass

 

Frequency Response . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  0.2 to 200,000 Hz within 3dB

 

Dimensions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17" W x 3.5" H x 12" D

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   (431.8 mm W x 88.9 mm H x 304.8 mm D)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   (excluding jacks, knobs, and feet)

 

Shipping Weight . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19 pounds (8.6 Kg)

 

Power Rating . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120 VAC 5 A Fuse (240 VAC available on

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .    request)

 

Warranty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   5 years

 


snapsc
The Belles 22a is indeed an excellent preamp! However, trophy-hunting high rollers will prefer an AN Kondo for its snob appeal!
My favorite choice for a tube preamp would be the Bruce Moore designed Precision Fidelity C2 (long out of production)!