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Positive Feedback ISSUE 64
as reviewed by John Hoffman
The success of Dayens in the world audio market should be at the forefront of inspiring stories regarding small scale audio manufacturers. A start-up audio company that concentrates on hand crafted components faces a daunting challenge for survival, as many companies of this stature either fade away, or fail to gain any prominence in a competitive environment. Yet Dayens has succeeded, and has established itself as a well respected company, offering products that cater to the value conscious audiophile.
Founded in 1991, Dayens is located in Serbia and produces a full line of amplification, loudspeakers, and cables. Recently Michael Gill, the US importer of Dayens, contacted me regarding a review of the Ampino mono-block power amplifiers. Although the Ampino name is typically associated with a wonderful integrated amplifier that Dayens sells, these mono-block amplifiers are a more sophisticated and refined offering. Certainly I was interested in having these amplifiers in the house for an extended listening session, especially since my system is optimized for moderate sized amplification. The Dayens mono-block amplifiers sell for $1399 a pair, which is an attractive price once you get the opportunity to listen to them in action, and take a peek under the hood.
The Ampino mono-block amplifiers are built in a compact chassis, with a selection of materials that is attractive and steers clear of the current audio trend of trying to sell products based on the visual appeal of a component. Each chassis measures 6" W by 12.25" D by 4" H, and weighs in at 9lbs each. The Ampino amplifier uses aluminum sheet metal for the chassis, and an acrylic front plate. The case is sturdy, yet it is obvious that money was not wasted here to give the amplifier that eye catching appeal that is so common with products coming from East Asian manufacturers. The body is finished in a black satin wrinkle paint that is offset by the high gloss acrylic front panel. The Dayens logo and on/off lettering is lightly etched on the front plate, and a single green LED serves as the indicator for the power toggle switch. On the back is a pair of gold binding posts, single RCA input jack, and an IEC power connector.
Each Ampino amplifier contains a 150VA toroidal transformer and this component is a critical piece in the overbuilt power supply of this amp. Not to be overlooked are a pair of 10,000uf Mundorf Mlytic audio grade power supply capacitors that complete the power supply section. That is not the only pair of Mundorf capacitors in these amplifiers, on the input stage there are a pair of Mundorf MCap ZN tin foil capacitors also. The power supply and audio portions of the amplifier circuit are separated by a large section of heat sink that runs the width and height of the amplifier. The location and size of the heat sink is a clever way to provide shielding between the signal path and the power supply of the amplifier, and is one example of the smart engineering that has gone into this product. The output stage uses two pair of Japanese bipolar output transistors, allowing the amplifier to drive speakers with complex crossover networks and low impedance dips. Power output is 50-wpc into an 8 ohm load, and 100-wpc into a 4 ohm load.
The input impedance of the Ampino mono-blocks is 100K ohms, and has enough gain to be successfully paired with a passive pre-amplifier. This amplifier is a wide frequency bandwidth design, as it is rated from 1Hz to 200kHz and has a signal to noise ratio of greater than 100 db. This is a classic A/B amplifier circuit, and the designers at Dayens have gone to great length to balance all the tradeoffs that are made in creating an affordable high-end amplifier. There is nothing drastically new inside of this amplifier, as this is a well executed product that does not employ short cuts or a gimmicky circuit in an attempt to stand out in the market. The principals at Dayens are using an old fashioned model of product development. Design an amplifier with solid engineering principles, use good quality parts, and present it to the market without a great deal of hype. Knowledgeable hobbyists can discern for themselves what is an excellent product is, and this pair of mono-blocks is targeted at them.
Since these amplifiers are well suited to being used with a passive per-amplifier, I paired them up with the transformer based Electra-Print PVA passive pre-amp. The Sachiko Double Horn speakers are a back loaded horn design that uses a first generation Fostex 208 Sigma driver. These speakers are 97db efficient, so the Dayens amplifier is more than enough power for this application. However, the Sachikos are extremely revealing, and will lay bare any anomalies an amplifier will have, and this is usually bad news for moderately priced transistor amplifiers. Source duties are handled by an EAD T-1000 transport and Audio Magic Kukama DAC. Components that require AC power are connected to an Audio Magic Mini-Reference power conditioner, which happens to have two receptacles designed for power amplifiers. All cabling is from the ZU Audio Mission series of wire.
In the course of an evening I quickly established that the Ampino mono amplifiers were not a typical pair of solid state amplifiers. For there was a notable absence of the slightly etched and rough high frequencies, or a dry and monochromatic midrange region that have typically plagued mid-priced solid state gear. Well executed solid state amplifier designs are typically far more expensive than the Ampino's, so it is a bit of a surprise that these mono-blocks are able to present music in such an even handed manner. On "Battle of Waterloo" by Skweez The Weezle [A Celtic Band; Self Released STWCD01] the opening drum beats are spot on for tone, and are remarkably textured. You can hear each hand strike, and the distinctive characteristics of the drum skin. The bag pipes and fiddles are vibrant, radiating a huge amount of upper midrange and lower treble energy. Even with all that dynamic tone in these two instruments, the sound never becomes harsh, nor do the upper registers become overly aggressive. The Ampino amplifier keeps these instruments in proper tonal balance, and keeps this group of instruments properly sorted out due to its lithe and quick presentation. Perhaps these attributes can be associated to its massive bandwidth and remarkable noise floor specifications, yet in the end, how these amps portray this wonderful Celtic music is what really matters to me. I could listen to this combination all night long, and actually I spent the rest of the evening sorting through the various Celtic and Irish music I have in my library.
The previous music from Skweez The Weezle provides hints that the Ampino amplifiers are transparent and tightly focused in the midrange area. My reference system uses a 300B based tube amplifier, and this pairing with a single driver speaker excels at reproducing vocals. This is a stout challenge for the Dayens amp, and I certainly was curious to hear how this aspect would play out. Into the CD transport went my favorite disc from Hiroshima, and from it I chose "Save Yourself for Me." [Another Place; Epic EK 39938] I will say that the Electra-Print 300B Custom amps I use and the Dayens sound significantly different, although there are aspects of each amplifier that will entice many a listener. The tube amp is darker and has a slightly more robust lower midrange to Barbara Longís vocals, while the Ampino portrays the singer in an airy and extended manner. These mono-blocks recreate the strength and range of Longs voice, and still dig out all the inflections and subtle texture that is contained in these passages. As time goes on, it becomes readily apparent to me that Dayens has a well executed circuit on their hands, and these amplifiers are capable of high performance audio playback.
Normally 35 watts per channel is not a lot of power, so it becomes important to select a speaker with a higher than average efficiency rating. Since the Sachiko Double Horns are rated at 97dB efficiency, this amp/speaker combination should be able to knock out some respectable SPL's and have strong dynamic slam. Jeff Healey was a gifted guitarist who left this world far too soon, and he was a serious student of blues history. The album Cover to Cover spans traditional blues to contemporary rock and roll music that has undergone a blues infusion. This is high energy music that still maintains an expressive dimension, which means the audio system it is played on must be capable of creating the raw, kinetic energy of the band, yet present detail and shading in a manner that is different than acoustic music. On "The Moon Is Full" [Cover to Cover; Arista ARCD 8770] the Ampino amplifiers create a solid bass line from the Sachiko speakers, which is far more controlled than what can be had with a typical lower powered tube or chip amplifiers. Throughout the song the drum set has a visceral kick, and the bass riff is relentless in the drive. The Dayens amplifier gets to the heart of this kind of music, temporarily shedding its genteel and mild mannered persona, and revealing a wild and hard rocking side to its makeup. Further into the Jeff Healey disc is a blues infused cover of "Communication Breakdown" that is an inspired rendition of this Led Zeppelin classic track. A judicious twist of the volume knob on the PVA per-amplifier unleashes every watt the Ampinos can muster, and the result is impressive volume levels that send both the cat and our Border Collie scurrying for the basement. While the system may not hit the volume level experienced when Green Day or any other modern rock band stops in town, it certainly was more than adequate for my needs. As a respite to all the guitar shredding solos, Healey closes the disc with an acoustic cover of "Me and My Crazy Self" that requires the amplifier to rein in all that power and show, once again, how capable it is with presenting detail, tonal shading, and transparency. Jeff turns in a remarkable performance on acoustic guitar and vocals, which the Ampino amplifiers faithfully reproduce. If reasonably efficient speakers are paired with these 35 watt per channel mono-blocks, then every style of music should be well served by this amplifier.
The final question I have for the Dayens amplifiers is this: can you be fun? At the end of the day when all the audiophile tests are given and scorecards are tallied, are these components that can bring home the fun and joy of listening to music? From my perspective, there is no greater sense of fun in music than the Beach Boys. While those early albums leave something to be desired in terms of recording quality, Telarc did happen to release a disc of songs called the California Project. It features Papa Doo Run Run, the finest Beach Boys cover band in the world. This is a remarkable disc from Telarc that combines state of the art recording techniques with music that is timeless in its appeal. The opening track is "I Get Around", [California Project, Telarc CD-70501] which generates a huge sound from my system. The bass guitar and drum set are tactile and kinetic in their transfer of energy. The backing vocals are smooth and refined, with a blending that is a classic representation of the Beach Boys sound. The Ampino amplifiers have an easy flowing quality on "Warmth of the Sun" with the music being languid and carefree in its sound. "Fun Fun Fun" closes out this listening session, and the Dayens amps shows that they know a thing or two about having fun, well at least the kind of fun a good audio system can bring. The guitar solo and opening passage is quick and well defined, with an uplifting feel that reflects on a less complicated period of American life. These amplifiers have shown themselves to be well versed in playing all types of music, and this is the underpinning of what makes them worth owning.
There are a couple of limitations regarding the Ampino mono-block amplifiers that are worth discussing. The first point needs to be addressed is the conservative power rating in relation to the selling price. There are many solid state amplifiers in the market place that offer at least a 100 watts per channel into an 8 ohm load, and sell for roughly the same price as these mono-blocks. There are many solid state amplifiers in the marketplace that offer at least a 100 watts per channel, and sell for roughly the same price as these mono-blocks. The issue that needs to be answered is the inevitable balancing act that the manufacturer makes between power output and sound quality. In this case, Dayens has chosen the path of sound quality, and this overall philosophy has led to an amplifier whose sonic prowess is on par with many of its well heeled brethren, but it is held back by a lower power output capability than many of the heavy hitters in the audio world. From my perspective, I would prefer to have the best sound quality possible, and make sure that I match the amplifier up with a speaker that is fairly efficient, so that both sound quality and overall energy output can be maximized.
If there is an area where the Ampino mono-block amplifiers are average it is the creation of front to back depth in the sound stage. With these amplifiers in my system I found a consistent shortening to the overall depth of the stage. Instruments and performers were tightly focused, the overall width and height of the stage was just fine. In this area the Electra-Print 300B Custom amplifier handily exceeded the capabilities of the Dayens amplifier, although I must point out that it costs roughly four times the price and has one fourth of the power output. While the Dayens are not exceptional in regards to front to back depth in my system, that does not mean they are inadequate. I have heard other solid state amplifiers perform worse, and better, than the Ampino mono-blocks in this regards. I can easily live with the way these amplifiers present music; however it is my duty to bring these differences to the readerís attention. Now there are other types of speaker systems that may allow these amps to turn in a different performance in this regards, and this is a point that is worth exploring for those interested in this product. Perhaps a well designed stand-mount speaker such as the Reference 3A MM Decapo series, or the Eminent Technology LFT 16 would be a synergistic pairing with the Dayens amplifiers.
Up until the 2000's small high end audio manufacturers were focused on building the best possible sounding products at a given price point, and the cosmetics of the units were usually of secondary importance. Certainly the aesthetic appearance, and the fit and finish were of importance, but they were firmly entrenched behind sound quality. The Dayens Ampino mono-block amplifiers echo this type of philosophy, for the performance of these amplifiers give testimony to the effort and hard work that has gone into refining this circuit. The Dayens amps are a wide bandwidth design with a high signal to noise ratio, and these attributes become very evident with an in-depth listening session. I found the Ampino amplifiers to be well balanced, detailed, refined, and yet never boring or stodgy. These amps have the ability to engage the listener for extended period of time, and perform at a level that is typically reserved for products that sell for significantly more. The fit and finish of the Dayens products are quite nice, although it is easy to tell that only the required amount of money was spent on cosmetics, and no more. So in the end, the consumer gets a product that offers legitimate high performance and sound quality, yet has a reasonable price tag because the manufacturer spent the money allocated for cosmetics wisely. For those hobbyists looking for a high quality mid-powered solid state amplifier, the Dayens Ampino mono-blocks are worth checking into. John Hoffman