the best decorating tip that can be offered with regard to most hi-fi systems is: stick it in a cupboard where no-one can see it. But what if the system isn’t a large black box, adorned with a high-tech glowingblue display and a swathe of incomprehensible controls, but a work of art in its own right? Consider the hi-fi equipment from Dared Hi-Fi. No black boxes here. Instead, the DV-845 mono power amplifiers — $2999 each — have their goldencoloured machined alloy parts softly reflecting the amber light from their huge vacuum tubes. These are not cloned Japanese electronics boxes, all utility and nothing else; they’re devices that invite comment and conjure a sense of the retro-futuristic: they evoke what the people of the past might have thought that the future would hold. Think of Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction classic, Metropolis.
For about half a century, all sound gear — hi-fi or otherwise — used valves. The valve (the “thermionic valve” or “vacuum tube”) was invented in the early years of the 20th century and it alone made all electronics possible. But beginning in the 1950s, it was increasingly replaced by the transistor. Valves used a lot of power, transistors a little. Valves wore out, transistors generally didn’t. Valves were large glass tubes that could be easily broken, and so were fragile. Transistors were robust. So it’s no surprise that transistors rapidly took over. However, some refined listeners of music, even today, a half century later, still prefer valve amplifiers even though it means replacing the tubes (not an inexpensive enterprise) every few years. And even though valve-based electronics are larger than their transistor equivalents and need more care. In fact, that can be part of their charm. So, back to the DV-845 amplifiers: each is a “mono-block”. That is an amplifier which handles one channel of sound only. With stereo music you will need two. Each is a “power amplifier”. That means they have one task only: to take a smallish electrical signal and boost it so that it can drive a loudspeaker, making it produce music at realistic levels. They don’t have a volume control. They don’t have a switch to choose between different inputs. Indeed, the only control on a DV-845 amp is the power switch. People are generally more familiar with “integrated” amplifiers. These typically have two power amplifiers and a “pre-amplifier” built in. The pre-amplifier sometimes amplifies (i.e. increases in level) even lower level signals, but its main job is to control the volume of the sound and to switch inputs, so you can choose a radio tuner or a CD player. Or, in the case of the Dared MP-7P stereo valve preamplifier, you can also switch to “Phono” in order to play back vinyl discs from older times. This preamp has only three controls: a power switch, a four-position input selection knob, and a volume control. There is no bass or treble control, nor anything else that may interfere with the purity of the electrical signal. A concession has been made to convenience by providing a remote control. This is actually made out of wood, with a hollow interior to contain the electronics. It provides only two buttons to turn the volume up or down. It also uses a most peculiar little 12-volt battery, which happened to be flat on the review unit. A replacement wasn’t available from either the local supermarket or the chemist, but required a trip to the Dick Smith electronics retailer.
How things look is an intensely personal judgement, and I would not presume to inform the readers of this journal on such things. But how things sound is my field, and here the results were mostly very good. I wired a CD player to the pre-amp, and it to the two power amps, and them to two different sets of speakers in turn. Valve amplifiers use a matching transformer to make them work optimally with different speakers, and this one had outputs for four, eight and 16 ohm speakers. The first two will be the ones commonly used. If you are old enough to remember valvebased audio gear from your childhood, you may recall the noise — a kind of hiss we call “white noise” — they used to make from your loudspeakers when there was no music playing.
Things have improved since then, and these amplifiers were perfectly quiet in terms of producing noise through the speakers. They did produce a very low-level hum physically from their power transformers which could be heard in a quiet room, but which became inaudible the moment the music started. So it would generally be best not to leave them switched on when not in use, but that would be wise anyway for other reasons. The power amplifiers use an operational design approach called “Class A”. This is common among the very highest-quality gear for reasons that are a little too esoteric to explore here, but it is a technique that causes the amps to use lots of power. In fact, the power consumption varied little whether they were producing sound or not: they were constantly using just under 190 watts each whenever they were switched on. That might not sound like a lot, but between the two of them it was like having a single-bar radiator pumping warmth into the room. The temperature in my 6.5×5-metre listening room noticeably increased within minutes of switching them on. The remote control for the pre-amp was rather touchy. In keeping with the design philosophy of avoiding significant processing of the electrical signal, a standard potentiometer volume control is used rather than some kind of digital processing circuit. This has to be physically rotated to change the volume, so the pre-amp has a motor that turns the volume knob. This tended to jump the volume up and down a little too quickly. For accurate volume setting, the only answer was hands on the knob. But all was forgiven when it came to the sound. Within the limitations of the power amplifiers’ output (36 watts each), they produced sound as good as amplifiers I’ve used in more than a dozen years of reviewing audio equipment. It didn’t make much difference whether I was listening to Holly Cole’s sublime album Temptation, or Pieter Wispelwey performing Saint- Saëns’ A-Minor Cello Concerto, the precision of the sound was simply excellent. Those 36 watts did impose a limitation. For very much less money you can buy very many more watts delivered by transistors, some of them rather high quality indeed. I couldn’t really recommend playing extremely loud rock music. When I did (The Offspring, Americana) things became a little confused as I turned up the volume, with some harshness creeping in. I switched back to my transistor electronics (these offer about 10 times the amount of power) and the order was restored at similar levels. If you also have old-fashioned high-efficiency loudspeakers, this will be irrelevant, but otherwise these aren’t amplifiers for head-banging kids. No, they are for refined music lovers. Well, refined music lovers with a large wallet and a strong back, since each power amplifier weighs about 20kg. Still, I could imagine myself on a dark winter’s evening being warmed both by the rich musical experience and the physical heat delivered by this Dared equipment.