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My initial setup was deliberately simple: Restek Radiant CD player as the source, with Clear Audio Silver Line Interconnects and a pair of Blueroom Minipod speakers on Artech Prisma time-compensated cables. In order to evaluate the full potential of the VP-16, I decided to restrain myself and refrained from hooking up the paired Yamaha subwoofers to use them merely for speaker stands. The first CD I took for a spin was Respighi's Ancient Dances and Airs with Antal Dorati conducting the Philharmonia Hungarica [Mercury 470 637-2]. Dynamics were fine, mid and bass a bit shy, soundstage horrible. And I knew why. The Minipod defies all speaker placement principles we know of. In the past, I tried to be smart by experimenting with different speaker stands, camera tripods included for their adjustable height and mounting screws that fit perfectly onto the base of these cute little Sputniks. In fact, when I purchased the Minipods many years ago directly from the UK factory before they'd even set up their dealer network, I had a conversation with them and one of their designers already warned me not to put them on stands. But curiosity ruled. Time after time, I kept experimenting - even up to this moment. Time after time I lost, they won. Not only was the bass castrated, the sound image was as flat and stiff as a steam-ironed, starched canvas.

So I had to let them stand on their own feet or the sputnik spikes as the factory calls 'em. A three-dimensional soundstage then unfolded in front of me. Well, not quite the usual one though. You see, the Minipods, once set on the floor, lower the soundstage by about 20 degrees. But it gives you an amazing perspective of the orchestral hall as if you were seating on the mezzanine floor. My Minipods were placed 4 feet away from the back wall, but the center back stage extended by at least another 4 feet. Not only the mid-to-low range extension resumed its rightful course, the layering of instruments became far better defined. Take the "Passacaglia" of the Respighi disc for example. The counterpoint dialogue between the four-part string instruments was as holographic as you can get. It began with the first violins and the second violins on the right in the 9 o'clock and 11 o'clock positions respectively. Then the celli joined in from the 2 o'clock direction, before the introductory passage finished with the pizzicato double basses from behind the celli. Wow, that's what I call layers. The VP-16 had the capability of re-mapping the long, deep concert hall of the Groβer Saal. And the 6V6 tubes surely were instrumental in making the string texture velvety smooth when bowed and punchy when plucked: a riveting, intense performance from start to finish, synonymous with Dorati.

Let's get some more challenging music: Stravinsky's Petrouchka. My favourite interpretation is Skrowaczewski's 1977 recording with the Minnesota Orchestra [MMG/Vox Prima MWCD 7133]. Sonically as of today, this is still one of the most airy, LP-sounding CDs I've ever come across, with awesome breath and depth. Here, Stravinsky's inventive orchestration was not at all compromised by the humbly priced Dared VP-16. A few check points. Every change of scenery was signified by a loud roll of drums - yes, I could hear both drummers, not just one, from far back center stage. The clash of tempi and timbre -- for example, the elegant Ballerina represented by the trumpet jarring with the clumsy Moor represented by clarinet and bass clarinet -- were meticulously rendered. Delicate balance as in "Scene One", the clarinet and piano cadenzas before the curtain fall; as in "Scene Three", the trumpet and the side drum in the "Ballerina's Dance".

Time for some hammered strings to see how this guitar amp handles Hungarian Gypsy violinist Roby Lakatos and his ensemble spicing up Classical delicacies with their Gypsy Tabasco and Jazz dressings. Live From Budapest [DGG 459 642-2] is their second triumph with the German yellow label, recorded in a live concert in the historical Tháila Theatre. Living presence and instrumental separation prevailed throughout the entire recording. A track of particular interest was Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2. The spotlight was on Ernest Bangó, the cimbalom player who works wonders with his hammer-struck folk
instrument and Oszkár Neméth, the double bass player who usually employs his fingers to pluck but here also eloquently uses his bow. The ever-popular Liszt orchestral work was enlivened with vitality and zest despite the outnumbered musicians.

As expected, piano music was a forté with the VP-16. My showcase CD was Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet Transcriptions by Polish pianist Marek Zebrowski [Apollo AR 179301]. Once again, I was handsomely rewarded by the Dared-Minipod partnership. What's candidly bared in front of me was is three-dimensional Steinway, set back 5 feet behind the speakers, its exquisite tone faithfully captured by three tube microphones - a stereophonic AKG C24 and two monaural Neumann M269c. I listened to the delicate, sensual touch in "The Young Juliet", holding my breath. The crystalline polished upper register mimicking mandolin playing in "The Morning Dance" was augmented by Zebrowski's economical use of the pedal and fast transient of the 6V6 tubes. The micro dynamics were evident in "Mercutio" wherein Zebrowski's fingers deftly bounced and leaped across the keyboard with various levels of shades and attacks, lavishly decorating the entire piece with staccatos. In the "Dance of the Knight", the ff chords were delivered with well-mannered stamina, yet every constituent note was well proportioned.

Moving on from the 90dB/4Ω Minipod to the 94dB/8Ω Loth-X BS-1, the soundstage was restored to eye-level and I felt more like moving down from the mezzanine to the main floor. The subwoofers still weren't switched on and merely static as speaker stands. Most everything remained unchanged but fuller, richer sound and an improved midrange and bass were apparent. Soundstage was just as impressive. Hummel's chamber arrangement of Mozart's Piano Concerto in D minor No.20 [BIS CD-1147]
was an easy winner. With only four instruments, a three-dimensional ensemble effortlessly reassembled, with the pianist far back in the middle, flanked by flautist and violinist on the left and cellist on the right. Japanese pianist Fumiko Shiraga uses a Bösendorfer, the intrinsic quality of which was further enhanced by the Klavierbase Plateaus used in the recording to give richer resonance and sweet timbre.

Another instant pleaser was Gidon Kremer's Happy Birthday [Nonesuch 7559-79657-2]. Mr. Kremer is the greatest of living violinists for the sheer fact that he never stops training, brings up young musicians and always finds time for expanding his repertoire. And he's definitely the greatest master of musical jokes. This CD proves all of the above. With his protégé chamber ensemble Kremerata Baltica, they recorded the most whimsical music a classical audience has ever encountered: Peter Heidrich's Happy Birthday Variations (in which the style of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Dvorak flows into ragtime, tango and gypsy), Teddy Bor's McMozart's Eine Kleine Bricht Moonlicht Musik (in which Mozart's popular tune weaves in and out with "Scotland the Great", "Auld Lang Syne" and other "what's that" tunes) just to name a few. The sonic quality really had me going: Was it the CD or the amp?

Apparently, this test was too easy. Let's get brutal then with this 12wpc amp: William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience [Naxos 8.559216-18]. Naxos, indeed. Before you sneer, hear me out. I reviewed this CD album in October for Audiotechnique, a Chinese magazine in Hong Kong, and was absolutely ravished by the music and the sonic quality. In December, this album earned three Grammy nominations among a total of 15 nominations for Naxos, the most for any classical labels. Bolcom's music is not quite the easy listening type and his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, based on the 18th Century English poet William Blake's publications bearing the same titles, are eclectic to the bone. They're a mixture of contemporary classical,
cantata (with dissonance!), reggae, country pop, Broadway and something else. The recording was cut live from a concert on April 8, 2004, with Leonard Slatkin and five choral conductors leading a cast of close to 450 musicians and singers. The Dared VP-16 was not at all intimidated by the scale of this project. Together with the bookshelf Loth-X, it exhibited grandeur and resolution. It was not only the big picture that was impressive. I was equally amazed by the lightly orchestrated miniature numbers in which the sparingly appointed instruments and soloists were spot on like pin-points on such a grand soundstage. Like the electric guitar and euphonium in "Little Black Boy", the delicate, whispering percussions in "Nocturne", the piano and the narrator in "A Poison Tree", the lovely mezzo-soprano Joan Morris in "The Divine Image". I could go on and on.

No review of a 6V6 amp would be complete without playing some guitar and piano music. I hated SubString Bridge [BIS Northern Lights CD-5019] when I first heard it. Not even my favorite guitarist Mats Bergström could help. Listening to it again a few more times on the VP-16 changed my attitude towards this kind of avantgarde guitar music. The title song by contemporary Swedish composer Ake Parmerud in particular was charged with high voltage electroacoustic shocks. The work was written for acoustic guitar and computer interactions. Believe me, this was more electrified than the real McCoy.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk's piano music is electrifying in a different way. A child prodigy born in New Orleans of Jewish Londoner and French-Haitian descendents, Gottschalk was rejected by the Paris Conservatory at the age of 13 on the grounds that "America is the country of railroads but not of musicians". After a few years of study with private teachers, he swung his fate around and captivated Europe, lionizing in the salon and concert halls with his unique Afro-American and Creole-Spanish musical idioms during his ten-year residence on the continent before returning home to win his First American Idol title (of course never formally announced but eternally imprinted in the hearts of every American women during his life time). Philippine pianist Cecile Licad might not be as prolific as the
other Gottschalk specialists like Eugene List, Alan Mandel and Philip Martin, but her 2001 recording [Naxos 8.559145] really stole my heart. With intriguing rubato and dare-devilish speed (as in "Bamboula", "Tournament Galop" and "The Union"), her spirited interpretation passionately embraced the vernacular essence of American dance hall. Even the piano was tuned to a certain metallic tint and nostalgic sepia tone befitting the Civil War era. Gottschalk's virtuosic writing has always been the perfect testing ground for audio excellence because it ventures deep down into the lowest octave on the piano with pulsating rhythms and soars up to the highest octave with cascading ornamentations. Now, don't ever get bogged down by specs. The 20Hz-20KHz ±1.5dB frequency response of the VP-16 is nowhere exceptional but it did cover the entire spectrum with rock-solid bass, heart-warming mids and pearl-translucent highs. The piano image was sharply focused and dimension well defined.

Before wrapping up this review, a thought flashed across my mind. How about using the VP-16 to upgrade an existing AV system? Only one way to find out. I replaced the Restek CD player with a budget-priced universal player, the Pioneer DV-578A. Most universal players around $200 are not meant for serious music listening. The Pioneer is no exception. Alas, the Dared VP-16 seemed to pick up every bit which the Pioneer let down. The thin shallow sonic short-comings were overcome with fuller and richer density. The shattered soundstage were re-composed and consolidated - it had depth! I put on the Respighi SACD again, set the Pioneer
to 2-channel SACD output and played my favourite Suites Nos. 1 & 2. The timpani, woodwinds, brass and harpsichord spread out in a fan shape far back, flanked by the upper strings on the left, lower strings, harp and lute on the right. The separation between the celli and the double basses was well-proportioned. So here you go, a budget-conscious yet music-conscientious setup for well under $2,000 all in all.

What you pay for is what you get. The Dared VP-16 will not give you the commanding authority of the VP-845, which is almost 4 times its price and double its weight. But the VP-16 is definitely a small wonder in its own right. With every calibration on the audiophile's yardstick, from timbre and ambience to transients, from soundstage and dimensionality to detailed action of the instruments, the Dared VP-16 is accomplished in full measure. I racked my brain trying to think of a solid-state integrated amp within the same price bracket that could come close in terms of performance. The answer? None that I know of. To a lot of people, small power seems to be a weakness. The 12wpc figure posted on Dared's website for the VP-16 seems somewhat of an understatement. This amp is in fact capable of a maximum 18 watts. It merely can't hold down the fort then at <1% THD. In the case of massively staged recordings like Bolcom's, I had to turn the volume knob up to the 2 o'clock position to obtain full volume and presence. Texturally, it's just as refined. If there's any stress or strain, that's purely psychological, not audible. According to the importer, it has been a dilemma for the factory whether to turn this model into an auto-bias or manual-bias amp. They eventually decided on manual in consideration of max output power (auto-bias would reduce it). Understandably, few users of this entry-level model will roll tubes and the Shuguang stock tubes are not bad at all. However, being an obsessive perfectionist, I would be much happier to see biasing pot/s accessible from the exterior and a B+ fuse in future production runs.
Manufacturer's website
US importer's website