This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad is displayed above
What's in the new pudding?
If I may backtrack a bit, Dared Audio was officially Dared Musical Instrument (Shenzhen) Co. Ltd., established in 1995 and primarily involved in transformer design and manufacture. The following year saw the company venture into vacuum tube amplifiers and soon Shenzhen Dan Yi Gao Audio Equipment Ltd. evolved, with chief designer Zhou Yin Zhi at the helm who would later join Shanling. Shenzhen is the industrial city just north of Hong Kong and Dan Yi Gao (胆艺高) means superb tube art (or tube art superb, in that order). It has been suggested that the English trading name Dared is an acronym for Dignified Artistic Reliable Elegant Decent. To a Westerner, perhaps. My understanding is slightly different. I think the name Dared is a derivative from a Chinese saying "Daring are those who have the superb art" (艺高人胆大), which ties back to the company name. Very clever, whoever thought of the name. Not me. The physical appearance of the Dared amps at the time was definitely daring and the sound quality was superb enough to garner awards at Chinese audio shows. The Dared VP-20 for instance won the Expert's Choice in the 7th Chinese AV Show 2001. (Dared's SL-2000 tube preamp won the same award the previous year.) Looking through the archives, the VP-20 has retained the basic design look since then and the 2005 model looks exactly like its award-winning predecessor. The change of the 2006 model would go unnoticed unless you put it side by side with a predecessor. The only two visual modifications are on the front wood panel and the computer-etching on the chrome side panel. It is the inside that has received the glittering makeover. (It's not without difficulty that one pries off the bottom cover which is secured with two screws and two awkward hooks. Why can't they just make it four screws like everyone else?)

For the first time, Dared is using gold-printed circuit boards and gold-contact tube sockets on all its 2006 models. Resistors are upgraded to US-made Allen Bradley NOS. Even prior to these changes, I considered my 2005 model excellent value for the money. It's one of the most no-nonsense, efficient 6L6 circuits aiming for fast transient and detailed resolution by streamlining the preamp and drive stages using only one tube each (12AU7 and 12AX7). The signal path -- extremely short already and using shielded silver wire -- flows through only one Auricap coupling capacitor and one BlackGate bypass cap in the preamp stage. Some people might think more capacitors would equate to better regulated current and cleaner filtering of unwanted noise. Still, the VP-20 proves simplicity at its best. High volume playback is authoritative and background noise is one of the lowest for tube amps. Perhaps the combination of a separate power supply with oversized toroidal transformer and a high-quality OFHC/Si-steel output transformer further account for it. So then - what added value is there in the gold appliqué?

Interestingly -- but without correlation -- Dared's investment in gold coincided with the bullish comeback of the commodity. The first thing I did after receiving the 2006 pair was to use it in bi-amp configuration with the 2005 model driving stacked Loth-X BS-1 in a D'Appolito array. The result wasn't a strictly mathematical 1+1=2. Grandeur and point-source imaging went far beyond that. It proved so enjoyable that I didn't make an effort to A/B the two until I couldn't procrastinate writing the review any further. So I broke up my stacked array. From a dollar angle, Dared loaded the amp with gold but didn't raise the price. From a sound quality point of view, Dared has definitely sweetened up the deal. I love the old version even with the stock tubes in their sockets. The new version makes me love them more. Full spectrum coherence; dynamic potency; the deep, wide, uncluttered open soundspace – all these intrinsic qualities of the 6L6 are further enhanced by the faster response of gold. It's like driving a new model year car with improved torque and otherwise the same drivability and behavior. The response is instinctively alert and direct, as quick as prompting knee-jerk reactions with the tap of a sledgehammer.

Two is better than one
Combining the two models in bi-amp configuration is far from ideal but worth the try. (It's fair to assume that the result could only be better if both amps were the 2006 version.) The circuitry has not been changed. The specs are 100% identical: 18wpc, 20Hz to 20kHz (< -1.5 dB), 87dB S/N, 350 mV input sensitivity, 100K ohm input impedance. I teamed up one 2005 monoblock with one 2006 monoblock per channel to drive the D'Appolito Loth-X pairs with 2005s on top, 2006s on the bottom.

I opened the four volume control knobs fully and let the volume control of my Restek Radiant player take command, RCA interconnects laced through a pair of Y-splitters. Don't say I didn't warn you. Once you try this, you can never go back. There's no doubt in my mind that high-efficiency speakers work better with tube amps under 20wpc. I personally prefer bookshelf monitors to floorstanding horns or back-loaded horns for their sharper imaging. With two monitors in a stacked/inverted D'Appolito array, not only is the imaging augmented to a point-source level, I could easily reclaim the full-blooded impact and presence of floorstander without paying their heavy price. Of course, one could first try the D'Appolito scheme with only one pair of monos (be sure to make a parallel connection to the 4-ohm taps). But two is definitely better in this case. With two sets of VP-20, music making becomes effortlessly beautiful.

What if your CD player isn't equipped with a volume control? You could use the individual attenuators on the VP-20s or insert the Dared SL-2000A preamp, which I also received for review. This preamp, as mentioned earlier, is another award-winning entity. Since it's also a member of the Dared Mini series, the chassis design matches that of the VP-20 and it has two sets of output to hook up two pairs of VP-20s. While I've read some reviews that mated the SL-2000S to the VP-20 with very good results, I am personally not convinced. I suspect an impedance mismatch and redundant gain in that I was getting very audible hum and microphony effects from my high-efficiency setup. I tried to solicit some explanation or information from the factory but didn't hear back by the time this review had to be finalized - other than to turn down the volume on VP-20. Anyway, I'm very happy without any preamp. Nevertheless, once I replaced the SL-2000A with Audio Zone's Pre-T1, a transformer-attenuating device, I hit pay dirt. Hum and microphony effects were gone. Clarity and resolution reigned once more. To be fair to the SL-2000A, I shall deal with it in a separate review because, though deceptively tiny, it is a great preamp for a humble price - and with remote volume control. And I did find a few power amps that match it for stunning performance.

Getting caught in the middle
To the well-seasoned classical music lover, Robert Fine is a legend. His Mercury Living Presence recordings, which date back to the late 50's and the 60's, were all done on 3-channel 35-mm film or half-inch 3-track tape using three Telefunken 201 microphones. These jaw-dropping lifelike recordings have always been appreciated under the guise of 2-channel re-mixes - until recently when Mercury remastered some titles in 3-channel DSD and released them as hybrid SACDs. With these titles, I embarked on the discovery journey of all-tube 3.0 multi-channel.

Since I was already obsessed with my bi-amp/D'Appolito tour de force, I couldn't possibly do anything other but add another pair of Loth-X BS-1s in horizontal D'Appolito layout. I carefully aligned the imaginary middle line of the drivers with the gap between the top and bottom speakers on either side. Ideally I should have driven them with a third set of VP-20s but I didn't have one. In lieu of that, I used my VP-16 integrated, using a Y-adapter to split the center channel into two feeds. This 6V6 push-pull stereo amp with 18wpc and 99% matching specs with the VP-20 was the closest I could manage. I tried my best to equalize sound levels by means of test CDs and a Radio Shack digital sound level meter. Stone-age low-tech but reliable enough. The left and right speakers were toed-in slightly while the center speakers were set back 16 inches to create more depth. After some manipulations, I sat down and listened.

The most arresting impression was the overall musicality with its sense of concert hall credibility. Some people fault the Mercury recordings for being harsh and grainy. Though that always strikes me as immediacy and meticulousness of details on my solid-state setup, the Dared all-tube interpretation has undoubtedly mellowed out the edges and warmed up the air. Switching the Philips DVP-9000S back and forth between 2-channel and multi-channel SACD, I could easily compare the two with the flick of a button on the remote control. Everything
seemed to work splendidly well in the diagonal setup of this room. In either mode, the soundstage expanded beyond the walls and conjured an illusion so vivid that I'd swear the speakers virtually disappeared. The difference between 2-channel and 3-channel is subtle but discernible. The Rodrigo Guitar Concertos SACD [Mercury 475 6184] feature the popular "Concierto Aranjuez" and the not so popular "Concierto Analuz", the latter written for four guitarists. With reinforcement in the center channel, three-dimensionality becomes more articulated, carving out a proportionately defined image of the soloist in the Aranjeu, as well as a punctiliously spacing out the quartet of instrumentalists in the Analuz. But such improvement were not confined to concerto recordings with multiple soloist or soloists taking centre stage. The six orchestrated Hungarian Rhapsodies by Liszt [Mercury 475 6185] demonstrated just how accurately a full orchestra could be reassembled in a tiny room, with all the players precisely in place. The dialogue between the lower and upper strings, the crossfire between brass and drums, the interplay between triangle and cimbalom all occurred with undisputable precision under three-channel command. In fact, there's not a single Mercury recording that could deter my commitment to 3-channel superiority. My only complaint is that they have not reissued every recording in 3.0 SACD yet. Try Byron Janis' legendary performance of the Prokofiev and Rachmaninov Concertos [Mercury 470 639-2 and 475 6607], or Dorati's command performance of Respighi's Ancient Dances and Airs [Mercury 470 637-2]. Even the most fastidious audiophile extremist would be taken by the music and forget what fault he was hoping to find.

Making music behind your back
When stereophonic sound first came out, record companies didn't have to reach deep down into their bags of tricks to impress. Remember an LP entitled Persuasive Percussion? The ping-pong effect of musical notes bouncing between the left and right speakers was great novelty at the time. How about bouncing between five loudspeakers? TACET of Germany was probably the first recording company to tackle that seriously. The engineers of their 5.1 recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals [TACET S74] put a wicked spell on the narrator and changed him into an owl. The owl flies from one branch (loudspeaker) to another as she talks. The animals -- or rather the instruments representing them -- come at you from all directions. It's rather fascinating on first listening. But is that strong enough a reason to go through the trouble of setting up an all-tube 5-channel system?

I moved the testing ground to another room and set up only three VP-20 monoblocks to drive the front and center channels while keeping the VP-16 for the rear channels. In other words, I cut down the total number of loudspeakers to five, using only one Loth-X BS-1 per channel. I connected a pair of Yamaha subwoofers to the 2-channel output of the Philips DVP-9000S,
not the subwoofer output. Most of the time, I didn't turn the subs on but I had them on reserve for recordings that really called for more deep bass. After a full week of serious listening -- serious but enlightening -- I began to understand why the multi-channel arena is a no-man's land for hardcore audiophiles. It's not because it's no good. It's because it's at least double the trouble to make it good. It's a completely new ball game. You cannot judge it with what you've been brought up with as a 2-channel connoisseur. For an audiophile who has already arrived, it's time to reap the crop and enjoy the success. Why bother?

To be honest, the improvement one gains from adding just the center channel is easy to notice and comparatively easy to accomplish. It is the rear channels that heat up the debate. The make-it or break-it point of the rear channels involves more variables. These variables, when carefully monitored and controlled, do add to one's musical enjoyment and experience. One fundamental variable is the recording itself. Since I am only concerned with classical recordings here, I can say with confidence that in most symphonic recordings, the rear channels do give you that concert-hall being-there-among-the-audience feeling even when some of these recordings are matrix remixes from 2-channel masters. The core of the matter is whether you need that concert hall-ucination to appreciate music. In most cases it is the genuine 5-channel recordings that really make a difference. The bonus SACD that came with the Philips player was such a live recording. It's not my kind of music (I hate Chinese pop concerts) and the fans screaming and shouting around me is so real that I never regret what I miss. A bad good example that is.

However, in the classical repertoire, labels like Decca and Philips will put a logo on the back cover stating that it's "an original multi-channel DSD recording" or "a multi-channel 48 kHz/24 bit PCM recording". Another key player and devoted champion of multi-channel classical music is BIS Records of Sweden. A short note on the inside back cover of their SACD inserts carries this message: "Our surround sound recordings aim to reproduce the natural sound in a concert venue as faithfully as possible, using the newest technology. In order to do so, all five channels are recorded using the full frequency range..." Listening to these recordings on the Dared
VP-20s + VP-16 + five full-frequency speakers was a revelation. Living presence had never been so complete. Before I put too big a laurel wreath over these tube amps, I should confess that another important variable had been altered. And that is speaker orientation as related to room size and measurement. When I moved everything to the other room, I followed the official SACD multi-channel guide to set up the speakers as precisely as my protractors and measuring tape allowed. All five speakers were placed at the same distance from the listening position, spaced apart and toed-in at the designated angles.

Before this, I had two systems that let me savor the taste of multi-channel SACD and DVD-A. The first is an assemblage of Restek Vector preamp, Simaudio Celeste W4070se and three Restek/Thorens MMA-5 monoblocks with volume control. The second is a Panasonic 6.1 home theater receiver. In both cases, the speakers are front-left and front-right dominant, normal for home theater applications. The sound could be best summed up as sonically interesting (or even mathematically correct) but musically not as involving as I would hope for.

Switching to an all-tube, all-full-range speaker setup tips the balance to the other side in an instant. The five discrete channels seem to be joining hands, weaving the digital signals into a musical garland that gently wraps around me. (That's why both SACD and DVD-Audio specify full-range same-spec loudspeakers on all channels.) In lieu of a proper term, omni-horizontal coherence is the closest word to describe it. The tubes are obviously doing their job (I'm using the Philips 7581A, Westinghouse 5814A/12AU7 and Sylvania 7025/12AX7) and the fast-transient Dared VP-20 is making sure that they are up to speed. The blending of expansiveness, musicality and resolution is just perfect. The far distant trumpets pierce abrasively through the air and then fade naturally into echoing resonance that corroborates a sense of depth and breath [Rimsky's Scheherazade, Philips 470 618-2]. Yet the most incredible of all has to be Georg Gulyás' guitar recital [Proprius PRSACD 2030]. Don't think for a minute that it's just one guitarist, hence who needs five loudspeakers. The holographic presence of the guitar and the guitarist is so real that I could sit anywhere and both were still there in the same spot. As for skeptics, nothing is more convincing
than Prokofiev's Cinderella Suite transcribed for two pianos [DGG 474 868-2]. The compelling interpretation and mesmerizing virtuosity of Pletnev and Argerich are nowhere complete until you hear them in multi-channel or at least 3-channel. For the first time, I can hear so clearly and vividly the two pianists working on two pianos. Each of them has its own 3-dimensional width and depth in meticulous proportion instead of lumping together into one blotch of piano sound. Before this review wanders off, I should stop proceed straight to the conclusion. I hope to share more of my SACD findings in another review on the Philips DVP-9000S.

Are we on the same channel?
As a 2-channel tube amp, the Dared VP-20 is a strong all-round contender. It's designed to operate only in ultra-linear mode, supposedly trading the detail and resolution of triode mode for dynamics and power. In reality, I never find the VP-20 to compromise detail and resolution. If one day I have to sell all my tube amps, this will be the last one to go. The monoblock configuration empowers it with expandability and versatility: bi-amp, 3-channel, 5-channel. Considering its affordable price -- the lowest bidding price for a brand-new VP-20 I've seen on AudiogoN or eBay starts at $600 -- it's probably the lowest entry fee to an all-tube, highly musical multi-channel setup.

Dared has opted for auto-bias circuitry across the board (except in their VP-16) for reliability and user-friendliness. That means a small reduction in output power - usually, 6L6 push-pull with manual bias would yield 30 wpc or more. However, the sacrifice in output power is compensated for by the ease of operation. Even rookies like me can enjoy the fun of rolling tubes without the chore of fiddling with multi-meters and tiny screw drivers (though
veterans would see it as part of the fun). If you are primarily concerned with only one source component, don't bother with a preamp. Each monoblock is equipped with an audio-grade Taiwanese-made HT volume control. In multi-channel setup, I actually have more freedom in adjusting balance/fade between different channels to suit my taste and the recording with these volume control knobs than from the digitized on-screen menu of the home theater receivers. The only complaint I have is that Dared doesn't make a tri-amp version. They should if they are serious about promoting this model in the multi-channel arena.

New roads to high fidelity keep opening up everyday but none of them is toll free. If you are not completely out of orbit with multi-channel, try it with three channels first. Apart from Mercury, RCA too has reissued their original Living Stereo 3-mike/3-track recordings on 3.0 SACD. Listen to them and you'll realize they were recorded that way for a reason. But look carefully for the recording data on the back label: some RCA Living Stereo SACDs are original 2-channel recordings and play back only in 2.0. On the whole, I find the RCA sound to be more rounded off and less vibrant than the Mercury sound. The three I really like are Franck's Symphony w. Stravinsky's Petrouchka conducted by Monteaux [RCA 8287 6-67897-2]; Reiner's rendition of Scheherazade coupled with Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale [RCA 8287 6-66377-2]; and
Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony w. Debussy's La Mer and Ibert's Escales conducted by Munch [RCA 8287 6-61387-1].

Are we there yet? Yes, this is the end. For today...
Manufacturer's website