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Reviewer: David Kan
Source: Micromedia Microdrive/Variodac; Restek Radiant; Philips DVP-9000S
Preamp: Dared SL-2000A; Audio Zone Pre-T1
Power amp: Dared VP-20; Dared VP-16
Speakers: JMlab Micron; Loth-X BS-1
Cables: Ensemble power cables; Aural Symphonic Missing Link power cables; Luscombe LBR-35 interconnects; Clearaudio Silver Line interconnects; Dared OFC speaker cables; OCOS speaker cables; Ultralink Excelsior 6N speaker cables
Power conditioner: Monster Cables HTS-1000 MkII; Tice Power Block IIIC
Stands: Custom
Accessories: Symphonic Line Audiobasis; JMlab Focal spikes
Room sizes: 11' x 23' x 8', long wall setup (2-channel); 15' x 15' x 8' diagonal setup (3-channel); 12' x 24' x 9' opens to 12' x 17' x 9' L-shape, short wall setup (5-channel)
Review component retail: $1,300 (Buy-it-now new from US importer on eBay as low as $600)

April 3, 2005, 10:30 PM Eastern Standard Time. The bidding was closed on AudiogoN for item number 1112581977. Eureka. I'd just won my first ever on-line auction. It was exciting for me as a first time bidder and the congratulatory email that followed coaxed me into feeling smart, smug and victorious. The item was a brand-new 2005 Dared VP-20. I hadn't joined 6moons yet and with this auction opened the first page of my continuing education into tube amps. Before that, my only tube experience had been a humble set up of Japanese Elekit TU-875 stereo tube preamps and four Antique Sound Lab Wave-DT monoblocks, driving a pair of bi-amped JMlab Microns. With the VP-20, I began to seriously pursue my tube amp safari. My quest was to own as many different kinds of tube amps as my wife and my wallet would allow. Juggling to be a complaisant husband and a complacent retiree at the same time, I have to sharpen my balancing act to not falter on either side. Dared allows me to walk the line because they have a good, comprehensive range of products at affordable prices. A few months later, I bought the Dared VP-845. I was so impressed with its performance that I had to write down my feelings before I even knew where I might publish them.

Though I did then join the 6moons staff, I didn't write a review on the VP-20. Yet. Its story for me wasn't that straightforward because, as it will unfold, the amp is so versatile and offers so many opportunities for different setups. For starters, the VP-20 comes in three separate miniature chassis - a power supply and two monoblocks, all in the name of better channel separation and no interference. But these monoblocks are really a pseudo-integrated amp in disguise because on their wooden face plates, there's a volume control. The diminutive back panel is more congested than the front. A seven-pin DC cable socket to connect to the power supply where the power on/off switch is located; gold-plated 4/8 ohm speaker taps; and only one RCA line input which eliminates the convenience of switching between various source components.

To start at the source, I connected my Micromega Microdrive and Variodac to the VP-20. I fully opened the Dared volume pot, sat back and enjoyed the comfort of the Variodac's remote-controlled
variable outputs. Though the VP-20's conservative output rating of 18 watts is quite adequate to drive the 89dB JMlab Micron, the unrestrained open space and dynamics of the 94dB Loth-X BS-1 proved to be a more competent match. The soundstage was exceptionally wide and deep, considering how the speakers are placed 10 feet apart and the big screen TV in the middle doesn't seem to pose any audible obstruction.

The VP-20 is a classic 6L6 amp employing two Shuguang 6L6Gs per channel in ultra-linear push-pull operation. I don't know how well the 6L6 fares with tube connoisseurs but I personally find this tube most rewarding. Like the more popular KT88 and EL34, the 6L6 is a beam power pentode. You might have heard of the all-time classics that used them - the McIntosh MC30/MC40/MC240; the Harmon Kardon Citation V that used 7581s (a military-grade 6L6 variant); and the Stromberg-Carlson AP50 monoblocks that used 4 x 6L6 in parallel push/pull. Though not as popular as the KT88 or EL34 in today's market, the legend of the 6L6 continues. It reincarnates in the Sound Valve 100SE, the Melody SP-3 (which uses 5881s, another 6L6 variant), the Elekit TU-879R (which can roll between 6L6GC/KT88, KT66 and EL34) and, of course, the Quad II Classic.

For some hard-to-explain reasons (but I'll try my best regardless), I prefer the 6L6 to KT88s and EL34s. Though these tubes are all associated with guitar amps for their ability to handle heavy loads and forge beefy output power, the 6L6 to me seems to have a more linear, wider bandwidth and to pack more punch and bounce. It's particularly noticeable when playing back piano recordings. This same punch and bounce transmutes into breathtaking attacks and exploding air molecules discharging from hammers and strings rebounding off the sound board. Not only that, the high-to-mid frequencies seem sweeter and richer, the mids-to-lows more potent and clean, the lowest bottom end permeated with pathos. In short, it sounds just like a musical instrument. Once a concert pianist friend of mine came over when I had the VP-20 playing some Rachmaninov Ampico recordings realized on a modern Estonia concert grand. She thought my wife was practicing (our piano happens to be an Estonia). That's how convincing the piano could be on the VP-20, perhaps more so than over my other Dared amps. And that was just using the stock Shuguang tubes. In fact, it's not just with the piano. For me, the 6L6 is the best all-around tube for any kind of music, with wide dynamic range, rock-solid bass, crystal clear highs and plenty of headroom in terms of energy. It might lack the richness of the KT88 or the midrange magic of the EL34 and certainly won't compete with 300Bs and 2A3s for that warm honey-dew coloration. Yet if I could have only one tube amp, I will take one with 6L6s without the slightest hesitation.

The other virtue of the 6L6 is the sheer fact that they are not as popular. That means low prices, good supplies and that you won't have to join the madding crowd of NOS nuts who pay more for tubes than you paid for your amp in the first place. What's more, the 6L6, to my knowledge anyway, has a rather extended family of plug-ins compared to KT88s and EL34s. This means more colors for your palette. While some 6L6 amps are designed for a particular 6L6 variant and while some 6L6s have different plate ratings/screen specs to not be interchangeable, the Dared VP-20 is more roller-friendly.

Whether you view this as a pro or con, the Dared VP-20 is auto-biased for one. It ships with Shuguang 6L6G tubes, which share the 360V/19W plate rating of the basic 6L6 as well as 6L6GA and 6L6GB. It is those amps factory-fitted with 6L6GCs, 5881s or KT-66s you should pay special attention to because those 6L6 variants have 500V/30W plate ratings and the amp's circuitry might work at just that high a rating. On the Dared VP-20, though you might not fully utilize the potential of the higher-rated tubes, they are perfectly safe and, theoretically at least, will give you longer tube life.

The abundant choices of NOS substitutes is mind-blowing. I really have to rein myself in. I have finally settled on three decent but affordable variants: Philips/ECG 7581As, Sovtek 5881s and the Russian PAДИO 6n3cEs. All of them have higher plate ratings than the Shuguang stock tubes.

The 7581 is a very uncommon substitute for 6L6GCs - or KT66s, its European equivalent. The Philips/ECG 7581A is a JAN (Joint Army Navy) military tube produced around 1985-87 that has an even higher rating of 35 watts on the plate. A lot of guitar players like them for their crunchy sound, a kind of palatable distortion when pushed to early breakup. When fitted to the Dared VP-20, the 7581A translates into a clean punch, a swift kick and lightning-fast transient response that commands definite layering and imaging within a deep and wide soundstage. It offers the best resolution and almost denies
any tube characteristics. It could turn out to be a sort of love-hate reaction but for me, it's undoubtedly my favorite.

Originally known as the 6L6WGB, the 5881 was designed and made by TungSol for U.S. military applications and is now mostly found under the RCA, GE and Sylvania brands. The fellow at a local store who sold me these rare Russian Sovtek 5881s (and the Philips) reassures me that these were original NOS and better than the new-production Sovtek 5881/6L6WGC available online. He knows, I don't. Still, once inserted, the Dared VP-20 became richer in harmonics and fuller in the bass. There seemed to be more air - flute sounds echoing in the Argentinean Andes and timpani in the Notre Dame cathedral. While everything was sweetened up, the transient slowed down a bit yet the volume seemed a tad higher. I'm not surprised if more listeners favored this kind of sound.

The PAДИO 6n3cE is another uncommon Russian tube. Pronunciation help, anyone? When I searched for these online, I noticed a few stories about this tube that were all contradictory. I think the confusion derives from the fact that some online stores are selling 6n3cEs in similar blue packing as the PAДИO brand which are in fact Sovtek 5881WXTs, which could be the same except for the standard large base. One thing is certain, more and more people are discovering the well-hidden secret of this unusual 6n3cE with its distinctively small base. On the VP-20, it seems to maintain a fine balance between fast transients and rich harmonics. While perhaps a shade less meticulous than the Philips/ECG 7581A, this tube still bites.

I love the VP-20 so much that when I purchased these tubes, I bought eight tubes though I only needed four. A year later, these 'overstock' bottles came in handy when Dared's North American importer inquired whether I wanted to compare the 2006 VP-20 with my 2005 model and possibly write a review using both amps in a multi-channel setup. That's how this review began to run the risk of verging on triviality and digression.

I was advised to use the two sets of VP-20 to set up the front and rear channels and forget about the center channel. Most die-hard 2-channel audiophiles would probably tell you that multi-channel is redundant. So I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people thought that the center channel is the least important even in the multi-channel arena. Don't we already hear the soloist standing in the middle of the soundstage without a dedicated center speaker? If I may apply one fundamental rule of philosophical debate here - unless one can prove non-relevance, don't deny relevance. Thus it remains perfectly legitimate for me to assume that one cannot rule out the center channel without first proving its non-importance on performance.

Through the years, I have reviewed no less than thirty multi-channel SACDs and three DVD-As for a Chinese magazine. To a lot of audiophiles, multi-channel SACD is the antithesis of high-end audio. It's a dead issue before the book is even opened. Some even believe it's the embodiment of poor taste that downgrades music appreciation into digitized surround gimmickry. Personally, I like to open my own book and read every page of it. When I reviewed those SACDs, I owed it to myself and the readers to determine the true value of multi-channel before I joined the condemnation rally. The 5.2 system with two subwoofers I have been using is all solid-state amps with a cheap Pioneer universal player spinning the polycarbonate. I gladly took on the Dared mission and invested in further Loth-X BS-1 speakers and Ultralink speaker cables. I also bought from Hong Kong a Philips DVP-9000S SACD player which is a true DSD decoding machine capable of upgrading CDs to bit-stream DSD. I was all set.

To discipline myself, I mapped out a plan of attack for this review. Please treat the above 1700 words you've read thus far as mere preamble.
  • Section 1, VP-20 2006: the improved version
  • Section 2: VP-20 bi-amp
  • Section 3: VP-20 + VP-16 3-channel
  • Section 4: 2 x VP-20 + VP-16 5-channel