Belles 22A users yet?

Have any of you listened to this new unit yet and compared it to your 21A Auricap?

I lived with the 21A w/Auricaps for 4-5 years (Mullard tubes). I can unconditionally say it is one of the great values out there. I had used it with the Belles 150A Ref. until last year when I upgraded to the MB200 Mono-blocks. WOW. Even though Dave voiced the 21A with the 150A Ref, the 21A still matched up pretty well with the MB200's.

About 2 months ago I felt a need for a change. I wanted the VT-01, but couldn't afford it, so I settled for a 22A. The first thing I noticed is the bass through the 22A is a lot more pronounced and punchier, but the mids seemed a bit congested and the highs were rolled off. It just didn't have the "sparkle" of the 21A. My speakers are Dyn Special 25's, and believe me, with the Esotar tweeter and the unforgiving nature of the 25's, if something ain't right, they let you know. But when everything comes together, the treble of the 25's can be truly "special".

I let it run in for about 200 hours or so, and then gave a serious listen again. My initial impression of the bass was still there and the midrange had sorted itself out somewhat, but the highs were still rolled off and lacked that sparkle. I was still disappointed with the soundstage and the imaging. Although the dynamics had come in, there was still something missing. One thing I noticed though, was how incredibly quiet the 22A is. Much quieter than the 21A. You would think that with how black the background is, that it would image better. But not yet.

Through this whole break-in period I had been communicating with Dave, as he wanted my impressions of the difference between the two. He suggested new tubes, because he said he used inexpensive tubes so he could hit a certain price point. I said "I thought you designed your new circuitry so different tubes makes less difference." He said that different tubes will still make a huge difference but his new circuitry is "designed to remove variances between the pair and to changes as the tubes age". Aha.

I called Upscale Audio for a recommendation They told me for what I was after to try the Radiotechnique Vintage 1965. So i ordered a pair. They have been in for a month. These are my new observations:
The bass is incredible, much deeper than the 21A. But is the bass more accurate than the 21A? I can't say for sure as I no longer have the 21A so I can't A/B them and my aural memory is starting to fade. But I can honestly say the bass is deeper and very, very good. The midrange now approaches the 21A. The soundstage has become wider and more 3-dimensional. Vocals and instruments now image more realistically throughout the soundstage, instead of everything vying for space in the middle. Most important to me is the "sparkle" is now there. It is really amazing the transformation the new tubes created.

How would I rate them?
Bass: Definitely the 22A
Midrange: very close, but slight edge to the 21A.
Soundstage and Imaging: 21A
Treble: although the 22A has pulled a dramatic turn-around here, I have to go with the 21A.
Overall the 21A is slightly superior.
I believe the quietness of Belles' new circuitry is what allows the 22A to come as close to the 21A as it does, as the 21A has more expensive components.

To be totally fair, the 22A was designed to hit the $2500 price point. If the 21A w/Auricaps were to be manufactured today and include Belles' new casework, the price would probably be $3500.00 or more and at that point you move up to the $4700 VT-01. The VT-01 is another one of those miracle performers from Dave Belles that betters preamps costing 2 and 3 times more.

While Dave maybe didn't hit a home run with the 22A, with a little bit of scampering you can turn it into an in-park homer. Considering it's $2500 price, it is a bargain! And the 21A w/Auricaps at $1500 on the used market is an insane bargain.

Thanks for taking the time to give your observations on both units. I know it was probably a hard decision to get rid of the acclaimed 21A with Auricaps but I hear the 22A has so much potential as you have outlined in detail on tube rolling. I'm wondering if the tubes I already have, vintage GE BP triple Mica 5814A, which are very neutral and I also have the CV4003 Mullards would compliment this unit.

How would you describe the layering or space between the instruments compared to the 21A?

I will add a bit to the above. I have been searching for a replacement for my 21A with auricap preamp for a couple of years. I just feel I should have a better preamp for my system. I am constantly left with a feeling that there is not much to be gained. I am currently demoing a VTL 5.5 series II, very nice pre, but it does not bring a whole lot to the table that the 21A did not bring. Perhaps a bit more in the bottom, and some detail but not as well defined, instrument location is a little more vague with less defined sound stage. I am going to give it some time but as of right not I would be hard pressed to part with my 21A and a handfull of cash for the 5.5 II. I did demo the VTL 6.5 and really like that, very detailed, great sound stage, super bass, better all around. Only problem was the $11.5k entry fee. Be careful before parting with a 21A. PS I am sure a good audio tech could put in the Auricap capacitors on older models, it would just be some money, they are not cheap. I also upgraded tubes and did not skimp, NOS RCA 5814 from vintage tubes. I also noted significant improvement with stillpoints. (the new VT-01 comes with integral stillpoint feet)

This is some good information, any other users with observations?

You would be a strong candidate for the VT-01. It is a giant killer at $4700.
The thing I've noticed most with Belles' new generation of products (including his amps) is the absolute dead quiet background. This all contributes to more "space" between the instruments and better imaging.
I actually had a VT-01 in the house along with the new phono stage that has not yet been produced for market. I did like the VT-01 but did not find it greatly different from the 21A, though it had stock tubes and power cord. I think the case work in much nicer on the VT-01 and would consider it an upgrade, but not a huge one. I am wondering now about the LA-01 though am a little shy of stepping away from tubes for a pre-amp. I am also going to give the 5.5 II another try as I don't think the one I have is working as it should.
Based on Soundstage review, the VT-01 is equipped with 4 CV4003 Mullards tubes but I bet some neutral GE BP triple Micas 5814A or equivilant would really make it shine. The Mullards were ok but they were too rolled off when I had the Vandies 2 Ce Sig II.
Spent the last few days comparing my friends 22A against my 21A and can say without a doubt that the 21A is superior. The 22A has a small advantage in its ability to place instruments in a defined space but the images lack the size and depth of the 21A which is more musical with images that float behind the speakers as if it was the real thing.

I even put my best NOS tubes, fuses and power cord on the 22A and it still didn’t have the finesse of the 21A with Auricaps. I wonder if it’s the Auricaps that make instruments sound bigger with good ambiance and lifelike. I’m definitely keeping my 21A!

How would I rate them?
Bass: No difference to my ears
Midrange: 21A.
Soundstage and Imaging: 22A is a little more precise
Treble: 21A.
Overall : 21A is by far superior in sound quality and musicality.
I did get a chance to audition a VTL 5.5 series II for a week and it was much better. There was a small wiring error in my first one and VTL was very quick to address the issue. The VTL series II as a whole was better than my 21A. The VTL had more information at the extremes, bass was deeper and tighter, the highs were more detailed with more air and my system conveyed more of the music. That being said, my 21A is quieter, the midrange is lacking of nothing and perhaps a little more warm and relaxing, very nice to listen to. If I could choose between the two on a whole I would pick the VTL 5.5 series II, BUT the VTL is $6000 and the Belles half that when new and the diffence is small. I could easily live with the Belles and be happy ever after. So am I going to live with the Belles? I don't know, I am going to try a Herron VTSP-3A as that might be the ticket. I am also going to further consider the VTL with phono as it is a very good amp and I have a hole being burnt into my pocket. But I will not give up the Belles easily. PS mine is the Auricap and I strongly recommend this upgrade as well as a set of still points and a little tube rolling.

Thanks for the update on your experience with the VTL. The 21A is an outstanding piece of gear at its price point. I just upgraded my very good 1960's GE BP Triple Micas to 1960's 12AU7 Telefunken smooth plates and what a difference in bass,imaging and overall musicality. Let us know how the Herron works out?
anyone tried bypassing the auricaps in the 21a with something like platinum sonicaps?
How similiar are the sound between the Ear 868 compared to the Herron VTSP 3A?
I was just thinking that in my situation verses adding another pre it would be better to ditch it and move up to the Ayon CD5. Any thoughts?
imho hybrids NEVER sound better than pure tube design...why? Because they are hybrids!!!!solid state and tube gear should be seperated units and you can use the preamp with a solidstate amp and sacrifice height and width and depth of soundstage....tubes rule and so does analog!!!