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Reviewer: David Kan
Source: Micromega MicroDrive; Assemblage DSD-1 sample rate converter and DAC-3; Restek Radiant
Preamp/Integrated: Symphonic Line RG3 preamp; Song Audio SA-1 [on review loan]
Amp: Symphonic RG4 140wpc monoblocks; Song Audio SA-300MB [on review loan]; Dared VP-20
Speakers: Apogee Centaur Minor; JMlab Micron; 2 x Loth-X Ion BS-1; Loth-X Aura [on loan]; Yamaha SW-80 subs
Cables: Swiss OCOS speaker cables and Canadian Luscombe SR-14 silver interconnects
Stands: custom
Powerline conditioning: Tice Power Block IIIC
Sundry accessories: Symphonic Line Audiobase
Room size: 13' x 15' in diagonal setup; 30' x 16' x 9' in short-wall setup
Review component retail: $3,500

Power is sweet
On the Dared product list, the VP-845 ranks second from the top down in the hierarchy and is branded Flagship Series, with the only other denizen there another 845 SET design that, justifiably enough, uses monoblock configurations. Apparently there's no question in the designer's mind that the 845 triode is superior to the much-adored 300B. But can an integrated amp convincingly fulfill its mission as a flagship model? That's exactly what I set out to explore.

While the classic 300B SE amps have their unparalleled magical appeal, their small output power -- usually under 10wpc -- deters some people. The 845, apart from being a physically bigger power triode, is robustly built as a radio transmitting tube, with the plate machined from solid graphite to accommodate extremely high current dissipation and voltage. Not only does this give you nearly the most power from a single triode [with the 211, 1610, GM70, 806, 838 and 833 even more powerful - Ed.], it is also reputed to be one of the most linear. When music signals are entrusted to an 845, a three-dimensional soundstage can be recreated in a most effortless way.
The Dared VP-845 is rated at a conservative 2 x 18wpc Class A maximum output power. Some 845 amps manage to squeeze out more (as high as 30wpc) with an even beefier power supply or by running their valves hotter. But that's more realistic in a monoblock scenario. The Dared designer definitely knows when to stop. With three huge transformers, the VP-845 already clocks in at 75 lbs, making it one of the heavy weight integrated amps on the market. Its designer, Mr. Zhao Ying-Zhi, is also the mastermind behind what has rapidly become an internationally acclaimed brand - Shanling. Considering the unique look of Shanling and Dared's very different but equally original styling, one has to give credit to the creative minds that put together this aesthetically pleasing champagne/copper/wood signature look for Dared. The champagne cosmetic was first introduced by Accuphase and Denon in the 60s and has since been taken up by Conrad-Johnson. Dared takes this concept to the next level.

The two champagne transformer covers are 20mm thick solid copper-steel alloy. The top panel echoes the elegant design theme with the same material and thickness yet is precision-machined into dual-tone sweeping sand dune curves that gracefully engulf the small signal valves and the two control knobs - one input selector, one volume control. As a final touch of pizzazz, a pair of chrome railings wrap around the waists of the 845 tubes more for style than actual protection. The driver tubes too are ensconced by matching champagne cages that give away the connection to Dared's sibling Shanling.

The 2005 model VP-845 claims to have optimized the classic SET circuit to deliver improved linearity and dynamics. It faithfully follows the classic coalition of three tubes per channel: a 12AX7 for voltage amp, a 6SN7 for driver duties and of course the 845 triode for output power. From the power tube onwards, the signal is fed directly into hand-wound, oxygen-free high-conductivity copper transformer windings around a low-distortion silicon-steel core. A trustworthy Japanese Alps potentiometer handles volume. Coupling capacitors include Auricap and bypass capacitors for the signal tubes are by Blackgate.

While the sound of SET amps has always been referred to as exotic, there's nothing exotic about the circuitry. The Dared VP-845 is no exception. The only possible way to refine the means to the end is by choice of components, meticulous wiring and shielding, something Dared has been doing for years since this model's predecessor (the MP-845) garnered the prestigious Grand Awards in the 1997 National Show and the 2001 International Show in China. From the company's website, we learn that "Dared Musical Instrument (Shenzhen) Co .Ltd was established in 1995 and originally majored in transformer design and manufacture. In 1996 and with the support and encouragement from HiFi loudspeaker fans, we brought a series of vacuum tube amplifier to market."

Purists might frown that the VP-845 is not 100% point-to-point wired. True, about 60% of the circuit is via circuit board, a high quality double-sided PCB that allows shorter signal paths. I can't complain about that. The VP-845 has an unusually wide footprint of 500 mm x 260 mm. I set it up on the Symphonic Line Audiobase, which according to its creator Mr. Rolf W. M. Gemein is "a must for tubes." The audition room was my tube room, a small (13' x 15') fully carpeted room in a diamond-shape layout (one corner has been built out for storage).

With the audio gear lined up against that wall, all sound waves (direct or reflective) will hit any other wall at ca 45°. That seems to please my gears and ears. Bearing in mind that the VP-845 offers 18 watts per channel, there really is no need for special high-efficiency speakers. A good rule of thumb for watt/dB combinations is 4w/93dB where every 3dB decrease in speaker sensitivity requires double the power wattage from the amp. Hence, 8w/90dB, 16w/87B, 32w/84dB and so on. The first pair of speakers I hooked up was the Apogee Centaur Minor.

Those not familiar with the Centaur Minor model might shudder upon hearing the word Apogee. Rest assured, the Centaur was the first easy-to-drive hybrid from Apogee, featuring a 26" aluminum ribbon for the high frequencies and a 6.5" dynamic cone for the mid to low bands. Nominal impedance is 6 ohms and efficiency 84dB. According to the above guesstimate, they fall short of the Dared by just a couple of decibels. Anyhow, I put 'em to the test.

The first thing that got my attention was that tube noise (hum) from the speakers was unexpectedly low, so low in fact that it was almost like a solid-state amp. (I normally use the Apogees with a Symphonic Line RG3 preamp and RG4 140wpc monoblocks.) The mechanical hum from the voltage transformer was more noticeable, however. Music reproduction was relaxed and spontaneous. There was no sign of insufficient power or curtailed dynamics. On the first few tracks of Réjane Magloire's Forbidden
Opera [Virgin 7243 5 45658 2 3], the bass was skintight and the rhythm clean cut. The bottom end crunches were awesome, rather unthinkable for a tube amp on ribbons - well, hybrids. The soundstage was very three dimensional and exhibited extraordinary depth. The lead vocalist seemed to be standing 5 feet behind the audio rack in life-size proportion.
Time for some serious music listening. I picked Schubert's Trout Quintet [Virgin Classics 7243 5 45563 2 6]. Schubert must have been a HiFi buff in his days because instead of the usual first and second violin, viola and cello formation, he opted for violin, viola, cello and double bass to counteract the piano. The lower strings are not restricted to accompaniment and rhythm only. They actually play an active part in the melodic lines and musical
dialogue. I heard imaginative nuances from the interaction between the players and jaw-dropping micro dynamics from the interplay between the hammers, bows and strings. The VP-845 captured them very vividly and the staccatos in the 5th movement were particularly enticing.

The piano timbre from Stephen Hough's Piano Collection [Hyperion Hough 1] was faithfully reproduced with life-like ambience and scale. Exquisite pedal work in Franck's "Choral" brought forth the depth of church organs while the ornamental phrases in the Swan Lake transcription ("Dance of the Four Little Swans") amused this audience with dazzling virtuosity. In fact, it was so satisfying that I almost wanted to do my entire review based on this setup, which included a German Restek Radiant CD player, Swiss OCOS speaker cables and Canadian Luscombe SR-14 silver interconnects.

After spoiling myself for a few days, I decided to disconnect the Centaur Minors from the VP-845. The replacement became a pair of humble but theoretically easier-to-drive two-way bookshelf speakers, the JMlab Micron rated at 86dB/8-ohm. I put them on top of my Yamaha SW-80 subwoofers, wired through the subs' high-level outputs. In other words, I was using the subs' internal high-pass filter. The gain in decibels turned out to be a loss in detail. The superb resolution I had been enjoying earlier was now handicapped by the intrinsic limitations of the modestly priced bookshelf speakers.

I tried re-connecting the amp directly to the Microns, bypassing the subs. The resolution returned, now at the expense of soul-touching deep bass. On certain less challenging recordings like my favorite Menuhin/Grappelli Jealousy [EMI CDM7692202) and Barenboim's Tangos Among Friends [Teldec 0630-13474-2], it wasn't bad at all. After all, these recordings have the widest frequency range built-in and yield exceptional sound no matter what - even from a JVC micro system. However, big orchestral sound was a bit out of range for these small speakers and it didn't took me long to move into the real high-efficiency arena.