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I had two pairs of Loth-X speakers on loan from Song Audio, the Toronto distributor for Loth-X. The first pair is the floorstanding Aura, a back-loaded horn capable of delivering 98dB/2.83v/1m. To give you some idea of how this increase in output translated, the volume control on the VP-845 was set at 12:00 o'clock when coupled to the Apogee, now had to be throttled back to 9:00 for equivalent levels. Despite the diamond layout, my
room proved too small for the Loth-X Aura. While they undoubtedly had presence and authority when playing Wagner, Richard Strauss and Mahler, what I found missing were inner detail and orchestral layers.

Before I concluded that hornspeakers weren't for me, I moved them upstairs to the family room, which opens up into the breakfast area and kitchen for a total space of more than 35 feet in length, 16 feet max width and 9' ceilings, enough room for the horns to breathe freely. I could manage the Loth-X all by myself but the VP-845 was a true punishment to move around even for two. I must have schlepped 55 pounds of the load and my wife the remaining 20. To make matters worse, the stairs were of the spiral kind.

Anyway, the labor of love paid off somewhat, not without extra help though. The VP-845 had the benefit of cleaner power from the Tice Power Block IIIC. The digital signal from the Micromega MicroDrive was upsampled by the Assemblage DSD-1 sample rate converter and DAC-3.1 digital processor. The orchestral instruments regained some separation and timbral accuracy. Both the energetic forte movements and the lyrical pas de deux from Delibes' Sylvia Ballet [Decca 425 475-2) possessed entrancing orchestral flair. However, I knew I'd heard better than this. My quest for the perfect speakers for the VP-845 had to continue.

As I said, I had two pairs of Loth-X at my disposal. The other pair was the Ion BS-1, a bass reflex 94 dB 8-ohm bookshelf. What's unusual about the BS-1 is that in addition to the 6-inch full-range Japanese Fostex, there's a 1-inch cloth tweeter for ambience made to Loth-X specifications by Fostex. It's a more or less no-xover two-way. The tweeter simply picks up the high band via a single capacitor unconnected to the Fostex. Back in my diamond-shape tube room, the VP-845 now found its perfect match. The effortlessly spontaneous music-making ability of the amp went hand in hand with the natural dispersion pattern of these bookshelf speakers.

The soundstage was well proportioned with optimum depth and width and distracting reflections were kept down to a minimu due to the diagonal setup. I should have mentioned that this VP-845 was in fact not on loan for review but something I had already paid for. I had bought a pair of Dared VP-20 amps a month prior and since gotten caught up in a Dared-driven impulsive purchase rage. The VP-845 was my second purchase. So you can commiserate why I was so anxious to find a pair of speakers for this buff integrated.

I must confess that I liked this Dared/Loth-X combination so much that I decided to buy two pairs of BS-1. The original thinking was to set up the VP-20 in another room and drive the second pair. Alas, when it was delivered, I could not resist the temptation of stacking them on the VP-845 in the so-called dumbbell configuration (with the top speaker inverted), a trick popular since the days of the Rogers LS3/5a. It's nevertheless a taboo among purists because it's almost impossible to find two pairs of perfectly matched speakers.

Since the BS-1 has no crossover and the risk of unmatched electronic components was largely minimized, I gave it a try. The results? Astounding. First of all, amplifier power was doubled. When you put two 94dB speakers together, you increase acoustic output by 3dB. When you don't have to prime the pump, you get less distortion. The bass of the BS-1 rolls off at 55Hz (whereas the Aura manages to extend to 45Hz) and I had to connect the second set of variable output of the Restek CD player to the Yamaha SW-80s, which conveniently took on the double role of speaker stands. It took me no time to realize that the already well-proportioned soundstage was dramatically improved, most noticeably in the height.

The imaginary line between the two speakers now leveled with my ears, achieving a point source sound image. I tried various tweaks and finally settled on some kind of DIY time alignment by tilting up the bottom speakers and tipping down the top ones, my secret weapon -- maple wood plugs -- strategically placed under each speaker.

I put back on all the CDs I'd listened to days ago and never had I been so satisfied before. I listened to the Sylvia Ballet all over without interruption and still craved more. The next day, I took out a lot of the old Decca ADD recordings, among my favorites more sets of complete ballets conducted by Richard Bonynge, Dvorak's late symphonies and symphonic poems played by Kertez/London Symphony Orchestra, Wagner's Ring Cycles played by Solti/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and Britten's Noyes Fludde. The orchestral colors and concert hall ambience were so accurate that it was like being there. The orchestral layers were naturally defined without any trace of artificial manipulation.

These first-gen CDs -- once wrongly accused of digital sound with signals that followed the ragged saw-tooth pattern -- regained their long overdue self-esteem. Likewise for the Living Stereo series from RCA (Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra conducted by Reiner) and the Living Presence series from Mercury (Bloch's Concerto Grosso, Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances). But the strengths of the VP-845 were not confined to big orchestral sound or decades old recordings. It's an all-around music-making machine with a soul. Try some delicate percussion music, chamber music or vocal recordings and you'll know what I mean.

Aguas da Amazonia [Point Music 464 064-2] is arguably the most interesting piece of work by Philip Glass because, for one, it suffers the least amount of repetitiveness and offers the most tantalizing thematic development, both rare for the minimalist maestro; and for two, it has cantabile melodies, even rarer for Glass. This long piece of work in ten movements (played continuously without pause) was written for the Brazilian percussion group Uakti (pronounced Wah-ke-chee). The group consists of four members, a string player (who happens to also be the artistic director and arranger), a woodwind and two percussionists/keyboardists. Each movement bears a title named after a river in the great Amazon basin, except for the final movement "Metamorphosis I". The magic of this unique ensemble derives from their exotic home-brew instruments fashioned from everyday materials like pipes, glasses, metal, rocks, rubber and even water.

The sound is definitely Amazonian but never crude (there isn't even a single loud crash). The music was mesmerizing to say the least. The ever changing percussion timbres ("Amazon River" for instance employs as many as ten percussion instruments) and the exotic woodwinds projected in life-size 3-dimensional sound holograms with pinpoint definition. The organ-like keyboard in "Tapajós River" sat back at midstage, flanked by xylophone-like glass marimbas on either side, with very light tambourine right next to the keyboard interweaving through the intricate sound fabric. The mysterious and yet playful "Paru River" consists of only three instruments and could well testify to the 'less is more' notion. Here the deep double bass-like grand pan provided an unhurried perpetual rhythm, underpinning the percussive melody ping ponging between the marimba d'angelim and the marimba.

If you were already a believer that vocals have always been the forté of tube amps, be prepared that the VP-845 could well excel in this regard. I could readily verify that with the Swedish soprano Anna-Lotta Larsson singing the "Aria" from Bachiana Brasileira No. 5 by Villa-Lobos [Proprius PRCD 9021], an unusual rendition with solo guitar accompaniment; or the solo and duet excerpts from Spanish Zarzuelas in the José Carreras/Isabel Rey compilation [Erato 4509-95789-2].

The one CD that amazed me most was Swedish Folk Tunes from Dalecarlia, sung by the Upsala Cathedral Choir [Proprius PR SACD 2032]. Layers of voices – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass – were meticulously placed. The harmonics were simply heavenly. The cathedral aura was faithfully conjured up. The bass was so effortlessly rich and deep that I could turn off the subwoofers (and I did). The higher registers were never stressed or shouty, the organ never muffled. As a matter of fact, it sounded more acoustically well mannered than anything I could recall from real life.

String ensemble recordings always feel very much at home with tube amps. If you thought that heart-melting buttery violin sound was all that the VP-845 could manage, you'd be way wrong, however, The VP-845 belongs into what most people would call a new generation of tube amps with a revived uplifting attitude. The Dared is fast in transient response, dynamic in amplitude, versatile in its musical palette and not confined to one particular type of music. Yet its hereditary characteristics of SET tube amps were never lost. Two CDs to illustrate the point:

What's special about Die Röhre | The Tube [Tacet S74] is that the entire recording process involved zero semiconductors. From microphones, mixer to open reel tape recorders, nothing but tube equipment was used. On some tube amps -- which should remain anonymous -- this SACD would be overkill, flooding your room with booming tube sound too exaggerated to be true. I don't care whether the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra is the oldest German chamber orchestra or not - no string player should ever shy away from the bites and attacks in Boccherini's La Musica Notturna delle strade di Madrid or the simulated musket shots in Biber's Battalia (meaning Battle) whereby the composer requires the players to draw strips of paper through the strings and strike the sound box with the back of the bows.

On the VP-845, all these uncommonly explosive string player techniques were faithfully maintained. Different shades of timbre were further exemplified in Sammartini's Sinfonia wherein the ensemble adopts the so-called German constellation with the first violins on the left and the seconds on the right, their backs to the audience. The concomitant nuances were lucid and galvanizing. Czech composer Janacek wrote his two string quartets "Sonata Kreutzer" and "Intimate Letters" during the agony of his ill-fated marriage and, later, his marital infidelity. The Melos Quartet's tormentingly beautiful interpretation [Harmonia Mundi HMC
901380] brought forth the dramatic intensification and emotional climaxes befittingly soul-searching and heart wrenching. In the second and third movement, lyrical legato phrases juxtapose with high-tension sul ponticello playing, the former slow with long bowing, the latter a nasal, brittle effect produced by bowing very close to the bridge. The detailed articulation from the VP-845 had the right balance of abrasiveness and silkiness. By now, you should have a good sense of where the Dared VP-845 stands among SET amps. A conclusion would be redundant but a few pointers are worth reiterating:

  • You don't really need high-efficiency speakers. The 845 tubes have enough power to rock and roll or sing sweetly and low. Surprisingly enough, 84dB ribbon speakers proved a better match than 98dB horns.
  • The VP-845, like any 845 amp, operates on high voltages and radiates immense heat. Make sure it has good ventilation without kids or pets around.
  • The VP-845 seems to be very sensitive to power cords. I tried Aural Symphonic, Song Audio, CryoClear and Ensemble samples. Some seemed to be able to suppress the mechanical hum from the voltage transformer better than others, the best being the Aural Symphonic.

Back to my very first question: Is this flagship integrated amp worth its massive weight in cash? Should you go with 845s or 300Bs? Allow me to stretch your imagination and use the Song Audio SA-1 dual-chassis preamp and SA-300MB 300B monoblocks (which you might have noticed in my tube room) as my reference point. The VP-845 is a very serious contender in one or two classes below the nearly 3 times as expensive Canadian kit which does everything in a more refined way. The Song Audio separates are the best of the best and I have to confess being tempted to own 'em. If you do not pride yourself as a perfectionist, you pay $5,900 less with the Dared VP-845 and merely sacrifice the top-most musical refinement that you probably wouldn't be prepared to pay for anyway. And in consolation, you get more power. That means you might not have to invest in another pair of high-efficiency speakers if you do not already have one. For $3,500, I don't think I could have gotten myself a sweeter deal than the VP-845.

Manufacturer's website
US distributor's website