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MP 5 integrated amplifier
as reviewed by Mike Peshkin
"Hey kid! Get yer butt in here an' take a listen! Ya, ya, stick that thingie in there (yer music box, kid, not yer… ). Now, take dese headphones or I'll give ya another hole in yer head. Ya, ya, lissen to yer music, you dense er sumpin'?"
"Whadaya think, kid? Ya, ya, I got some opera. Of course I got some opera, why is a little rat like you wanna listen to opera? So whadaya think?"
"Jimmy! I think the kid's died and gone to heaven! No I didn't plug him, all I did was make him plug his little bitty music box in my little Dared integrated amp! Nah, I didn't turn it up, he wuz lisennin' at da correct volume!"
"Jimmy, I can't get dis kid to move. He's talkin' in some kinda gibberish. Keeps sayin' he needs more. What I wanna know is, more what?"
"Oh, I got it figgered, Joe. He wants different music. I'll really torture him! He asked for opera. I'll play some Coltrane!"
I swear that I overheard the above colloquy before I opened the box that FedEx had just brought to my door! Inside, after removing around 26 tons of packing material (no, I'm not exaggerating), is this teensy-tiny, cute-as-a-bug amplifer. At least it looks like it COULD be an amplifier, but can they make them that small? It is part of a family of drop-dead-gorgeous electronics, and pretty as it is, it's the ugly duckling of the Dared line (go to www.daredtube.com to see the others). The pictures in the brochure sent with the amp made my mouth water and my wallet sweat.
My son David connected the little thing up to my CD player and to the planar speakers. "I run that system with a 22-watt amp. Let's see what 13 watts can do," I said to myself. David turned everything on, looked at me, and said, "I think I like this!" He's a man of few words, unlike his Dad.
I had let the amp get to room temperature before asking David to plug it in, but it was freezing cold in my living room. It was in the 20s that week—the only winter weather we'd had until February. My CD player hadn't been used in days, and the Dared was fresh from the box, but the system was pumping out pure beauty, and I do mean pumping, as one of the tubes was boogying to the music! There’s a green tube that glows brighter every time there's a change in loudness. COOL! I was a bit concerned, but a friend assured me that it was part of the circuit design, and not a problem. The magic-eye tube (EM87) will provide a light show every time you listen to music, and you don't even have to pay a lighting effects man. Of course, the two ECC85 tubes glow warmly and lend that tube-glow ambience that is so mesmerizing. For REAL audiophiles, the cage is easily removed with a Philips screwdriver, but the problem is, real audiophiles won't believe that something this inexpensive can sound so good.
As soon as a CD ended, I put another one on. When's the last time you did that with a new addition to your system? Usually it takes time to figure out its sound, but I didn't care about that, for two reasons—one was that the amp needed burned in, and the other was that I was enjoying myself tremendously. As the amp warmed up, so did the sound, but only slightly. My planars are not very revealing speakers, but they do sound very pretty. They're not capable of thunderous lows, nor can they climb into the stratosphere, but they have midrange warmth like a blanket on a cold night, your honey pie snuggling up close and the two of you keeping each other warm. That, in fact, was the MP 5's biggest weakness. Thunderous lows lend drama to the music, and the amp didn’t have them, but in spite of that, the music was dramatic. Although strings sounded wonderful, I didn't hear that first moment of contact on the string (or the drumhead, or on the bar of the vibes) that I do with my Monarchy amps. Still, the decay was awesome! If it was in the recording, the Dared revealed it beautifully.
I listened to everything I had handy, mostly jazz and rock. Janis Ian's voice on Breaking Silence (Analogue Productions CAPP 027) sounded a bit more powerful than it does when the Scott/Mapleshade amp is in the system. I don't mean that as a criticism. The message of each song was more powerfully wrought. Perhaps "clarity" is the word I should use, but that doesn't fully describe the effect, and remember, this was a brand-new amp! I played a lot of very different music while burning it in, listening to the sound closely as music washed my brain clear of the flotsam and jetsam that had floated through it during the day. "I can't believe this!" was a sentence I used pretty often while the Dared was in the upstairs system. While Andre Previn and the Royal Philharmonic's Planets (Telarc CD-80133) did not have the power I hear downstairs on the big system, it wasn't wishy-washy in any way, and remember, this amp was amp designed to be used as a headphone amp or as a computer-based amp for the small speakers that tend to be used in an office—NOT planars, even ones designed to be used with low-watt tube amps.
I'd always wanted to hear the Infinity speakers with a flea-powered amp, and though the Dared's 13 watts doesn't really qualify it as flea-powered, it IS tubed, and certainly has less power than the 100-watt Monarchy amps. But since getting my son to do anything for his no-healthy-joints-left-in-his-entire-body father is like getting a Republican to stop talking about Clinton's sexual antics, the Dared stayed upstairs for quite awhile. This really didn't bother me, because the sound of the Dared with the Planex speakers was awfully nice, if not the match made in heaven of the system with the Scott/Mapleshade amp. The only time that the Dared showed any real weakness is when I played that Holst CD, and later a Brahms LP. Although the soundstage was wide (the Scott doesn't usually throw a soundstage in that setup), the imaging wasn't three dimensional (though not cardboard-cutout either), and the powerful feel of the orchestra could not be portrayed in that large room by that small amp.
When the Dared finally made its way downstairs via some help from a friend, the efficient (96dB) Infinity speakers did some things that the planars had not been able to do. With the Eastern Electric MiniMax CD player that was here for review, and the silver cables that had waited nearly forever to be listened to, the Dared really strutted its stuff. I've said it before, and say it again, that I am incredibly happy that CDs did not sound like this in the mid 1980s. I would have tossed my LPs and never looked back! Enveloped by warmth, soothed in exactly the way I like to be soothed when I listen to music, the Dared, connected to the MiniMax CD player and those Infinity speakers, made me smile.
Van Morrison's growl was just as gruff as I thought it should be on No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (Mercury CD 830 077-2), and perhaps as clear as I have ever heard it on this recording. On the first cut, "Got to Go Back," I heard something I'd only learned to listen for quite recently (always learning as audiophiles, aren't we?). At a friend's house, I heard Ella Fitzgerald form a "k" on his Soundlab speakers. I actually heard the back of her tongue contacting the soft palate. I never expected to hear the same sort of thing in my home, but on this occasion I heard Morrison forming a "g!" Only then did I realize just how good this little amp can be.
Joni Mitchell's voice was as pure and pretty as anyone could expect on the CD Chalkmark in a Rainstorm (Geffen 1026693). If I find myself lusting for Joni when I hear one of her CDs or LPs, things are just as they should be. When I played Linda Rondstadt's Heart Like a Wheel LP (Capitol ST11358), I got just as choked up on the title cut as I do when I listen with my larger amps. (Okay, now you know what a wimp I am!) As we all know, female voices can reveal things we don't normally notice, such as the garbage needing to be taken out. BUT, those female voices revealed something I hadn't expected—a softening, if not a total absence of sibilance. I don't want to hear Joni spitting across the stage, but some sibilance simply suffices sometimes. When the right amount of it is not there, the reality of the moment suffers. Once I had discovered the absence, I listened for other discrepancies in the sound, but never heard any.
One of the very finest, if not THE very finest sounding CD I own is Music for a Glass Bead Game (John Marks Records JMR15). I keep telling myself to order more of Marks’ recordings, but always succumb to buying vinyl when I have a few extra bucks. The sound of Rosen's cello was wonderful. I did not hear the chest-rumbling sense of power that my Monarchy amps deliver when I play this CD, but the sound was quite good. More than real enough to put a smile on my face!
When I connected the Anthem's phono section to the Dared (using the tape-out RCAs), I got to hear the magic of an all-tube vinyl system. I know that plenty of folks will disagree, but to me, vinyl and tubes are a match made in heaven. As long as I only play CDs, I am enthralled by the sound of a CD-based system. Yes, I've heard SACD, and I am impressed, but the second I begin listening to an LP, I realize just how great analog sound is for my tastes in music and sound. I can listen to CDs and then to LPs, but feel discomfort if I listen to CDs after listening to LPs. As good as CDs can sound, vinyl sounds different, and I prefer vinyl. I'll end this subject by saying that it doesn't matter. Because most new music is only available in the CD format, I listen to CDs and enjoy them.
The Dared is not the greatest sounding amplifier in the world, nor should anyone expect it to be. Its soundstage is not as wide as many would like, nor is the imaging at all close to the three-dimensionality I hear with the Monarchy amps, but it's there! Actually, for $560 I didn't expect to hear ANY imaging, let alone a perceivable soundstage. You will not get tooth-rattling bass with this amp, nor are the highs as sweet and airy as that of many of the amps I've heard, BUT the midrange is true to the music. The Dared envelops me in the warmth and comfort I desire when listening to music. Sure, this little amp can deliver the sonic details that audiophiles crave, but I doubt anyone would buy it for that reason. It's definitely not designed for the audio snob! What audiophile would own an integrated amp with a USB port and only one RCA input? Its headphone jack alone would put the kibosh on a sale to any self-respecting audiophile, but if a good-sounding amp for an obscenely low price is what you are looking for, this may be the one!
The Dared is not overly warm, in fact it is quite a bit less so than my Mapleshade-modded Scott 222C. It actually sounds more like my Monarchy amps. I don’t mean to say that it has the solid-state "lock" on the sound that the Monarchy amps deliver, just that I was impressed that something that costs less than a good easy chair could make me want to listen to music. My system has to sound good to make me listen to record after record, and that's what I did with the Dared, whether I was listening upstairs with the Audio Alchemy ACD-Pro and the Planex panels or downstairs with the Infinity speakers and the MiniMax CD player. I even enjoyed a few hours of listening to the Dared with the Fritz speakers (here for review) before I packed them up and shipped them back. The Fritzes are not very efficient, but the sound was quite satisfactory.
The only time I didn't enjoy the Dared amp was when I connected a pair of headphones for a few minutes. I don't like headphone sound, and never did, which is why my parents complained about Bach all the time! However, a friend of my son who listens exclusively on headphones said, "COOL! I'm hearing stuff I never heard on my CD player at home!" I gave up trying to get him to let me listen to MY music, but he made himself into a piece of furniture and listened to his own for two or three hours. I tried asking him some audio questions later, but made the mistake of feeding him, and he fell asleep with a smile on his face. I don't know if it was the food, the kills he'd made playing games on the X-Box, or the good sound he heard with the Dared.
With the amp hooked up downstairs, I played the soundtrack to 'Round Midnight (Columbia 40464). Although I did not hear the wraparound soundstage that I hear when I listen to this CD with the Monarchy amps, I was not bothered in the least. This amp may not be a champion of dynamic attack, but for lack of an audio-reviewer phrase, it sounded "real." I played the CD again a few days later, and had the same reaction. As always, Dexter Gordon blew my mind. In the liner notes, he says, referring to the movie and his role, "Lady Bertrand, how long will it take for me to get over this movie?" Knowing how inexpensive this amp is, I ask, "How long will it take for me to get over having this amp in my home?"
Listening to the Feats Don't Fail me Now LP, by one of my favorite rock bands, Little Feat, I was impressed the way the Dared amp revealed the differences between my German copy of the record and the original American pressing. The American copy beat the German, but not by much! I'm in a Feats mood of late, so I also played Sailin' Shoes. The MP 5 also loves Little Feat, and it is fast enough to show that tight, tight band at their best. I played so many records while listening to this amp that it's almost embarrassing. Ella Fitzgerald's Let No Man Write my Epitaph is an LP that I pull out often when I evaluate a component. The Dared’s thirteen little watts did not thin out her voice—it was as strong as it is with the 100-watt Monarchy amps. As for classical music, Brahms Concerto in D Major with Von Beinum and the Concertgebouw (Epic LC3552) revealed that even listening to an old mono LP can be a great experience with this amp.
I accidentally found out that the MP 5 is built like a tank. Not only did I inadvertently disconnect interconnects while the amp was on, I did it three times! (Well, I did it once, my son did it once, and Chris did it once.) When David unhooked it from the upstairs system, he disconnected the speaker cables while it was turned on. (I shouldn't have to watch a 21-year-old's every move, should I?) The MP 5 didn't even flinch. I didn't try dropping it from the top of the Empire State Building, but I applied for a permit to do so. As a reviewer, I’d love to be able to tell you whether the MP 5 would stand up to years of use, but I guess disconnecting things while the engine was running will have to suffice.
Is this the perfect amp for everyone? Obviously, it won't make an inefficient pair of speakers sound their best, but matching it with a good pair of efficient speakers will allow even the poorest student to have good sound in his dorm room, or anyone else on a budget. I decided that it would make a great bedroom amp. With a petite but lively pair of speakers and a CD player with a small footprint, the Dared MP 5 will make a bedroom a very romantic place to spend one's time falling asleep (or whatever), so I bought it. Even my wife is impressed. Now to find the right speakers! Mike Peshkin
MP 5 integrated