Every once in a while a piece of gear comes along that makes you re-evaluate everything you thought you knew about hi-fi. Thomas Kuhn called such tectonic disruptions between one worldview and another (such as that between Aristotelian and Galilean understandings of the universe and our place within them) paradigm shifts: a time of such sea-change in thought that the previous world view or Weltanschauung was unintelligible to those that came after. (Somehow, these rules never quite seemed to apply to Kuhn or his followers though).
The Dared MP-5 Vacuum Tube Amplifier (or should I more accurately say, USB DAC, Headphone Amplifier, Hybrid Tube and MOSFET Single Input Integrated Amplifier with Magic Eye, for it is all these things) I am afraid to say is not such a product. Exhale. That said, however, the DARED MP-5 amplifier is quite simply one of the most whimsical, fun and useful pieces of good sounding gear that has crossed my desk in a long while. Indeed, it is so oddball in function that I don’t even know how to classify it.
Perhaps a word about DARED is in order. DARED Tube Audio, I understand, has a ‘history’ and, I also understand, some difference of opinion, with the people of Shanling, makers of some of the best sounding and best looking audio gear to come out of China since, well, forever. A truce, however, was brokered, engineers went their separate ways, and DARED was born out of the divorce. I would add what I found on the DARED website, (which I suggest everyone should visit so that they may enjoy the splash page with its laserbeams), about the company:
To quote DARED at length is of course a rather cheap and arrogant shot at a manufacturer half a world away doing their best to introduce themselves to Western Markets from basically a standing start, but that said, the text above and the name of the amplifier are the only serious faults I can find with DARED’s MP-5 for I don’t believe I have ever come across a better turned out product in all my years of playing around with hi-fi in terms of fit and finish. In terms of reliability, this diminutive hybrid has run for hundreds of hours with nary a hiccup and I can’t imagine that things will be any different with a few thousand more hours.
But what does 'DARED' mean? Dared to be different?
I don't know.
What does MP-5 mean?
I am not very sure about that either.
(Steven sez DARED means Dignified, Artistic, Reliable, Elegant, and Decent. MP-5 means, ummm... Multiple Personality 5 is my best guess)
The name doesn't, to me anyway, give much indication as to what the product is or does. In fact, I have come almost to associate anything with the letters mp before it as a sign of something less than hi-fi, of lossy codecs, IPODs, and a woman with unfeasibly large forearms named Frau Hoffer. Call this amp what you will, and the naming of the product is the one lacunae of imagination and execution on the part of the designers, but the MP-5 would seem to belong to a whole new category or categories of hi-fi component because not only is it a USB DAC, a single input integrated amplifier, a headphone amp, a user of one of my favorite amplifier topologies (lush tubes upfront and creamy MOSFETs out back) it even has a brand new, Chinese sourced magic eye which is there for no other reason than I can see than to provide a light show. The MP-5 is a veritable Swiss Army knife of a hi-fi component that I didn’t even know I needed.
I was smitten as soon as I opened the box. What was in the box (for there was a lot):
White cotton gloves;
A decent mini-jack to stereo RCA cable;
A nice real, long USB cable;
A nice pair of Sennheiser Headphones. (Although these certainly were not to be mistaken for STAX, I understand that retail versions of the MP-5 may come with a different model than the one I received);
A mini to 0.25-inch converter for users of headphones from before IPOD nation;
An average IEC mains cable;
A nice manual that said nothing about how either to remove the tube cage or how to install the software driver – the two things that I looked to the manual to find out – but had lovely pictures of amplifiers cavorting around with bottles of wine and fine stemmed glassware;
A simply gorgeous bijou integrated amp in silver, black and copper with lacquered piano gloss wood side cheeks that also sounded great.
The picture does not show the detailed filigree around the tube bases, which was only visible after I removed the tube cage with a long screwdriver after receiving instruction from the manufacturer. But it also shows what a huge amount of care has gone into making this amplifier not simply functional, but also, well, pretty. This is something sadly lacking with much hi-fi. Indeed, I would almost suggest good looking hi-fi is almost universally discriminated against by the vast majority. On removing the amp from the box, I also soon learned why the gloves were included. Even just thinking about laying hands on this amplifier will cause fingerprints to appear on its highly polished surfaces.
Set up with the computer was slightly odd. I connected the MP-5 to my PC (an older Dell Box running XP with Service Pack 3) and not a note was heard nor did that pesky little balloon come up saying new hardware was found. I started to fool around with the settings in control panel but my attention was diverted and I did not get back to the PC until several hours later. When I got back to the PC, perhaps after a reboot, all was hunky dory and installed (the MP-5 uses an Onkyo sourced Burr-Brown compatible DAC, Windows tells me). More or less the same thing occurred on another computer with which I used the MP-5. I even got to hear the MP-5 work once and only once on a new SUSE 10 Linux box until the next reboot. In future editions of the instructions for the MP-5, a note on how to remove the tube cage and install the drivers as well as an installation CD would not go amiss.
Anyway, I would like to take credit for installing the drivers for the MP-5, because of course, like you, I am a computer genius, but I can’t. Like a watched kettle that refuses to boil, the Dared MP-5 needs its privacy to get ready to sing from your PC.
Once up and running and driven from my PC with the included extra long USB cable, the first thing I noticed about the MP-5 was that it never stuttered unless you bogged down your PC so badly that you could barely type. On the prior occasions, I had connected an outboard DAC to a cream winbox that had RCA coaxial out in back. Without any applications open, it sounded great. But as soon as I started doing something, answering email, surfing, even thinking about surfing, the DAC would stutter. It was worse than useless and it was not too long until I put the DAC to other use, but the MP-5 only let me down under the most extreme of conditions and this is only after I deliberately opened every application I could find and then proceeded to render a movie onto DVD.
Running the amp either through a USB cable or by way of the single pair of analog inputs in the rear was always a delight. From this diminutive 13 watter poured out a creamy, mellifluous, absolutely non-fatiguing sound that was equally at home driving a pair of insensitive bookshelves on my computer desk as it my was largish multi-driver Tannoys or my tapered quarter wave pipes without a crossover. Unsurprisingly, it soon revealed itself as somewhat of a jazz champ, and was particularly kind to the female voice. This is not, however, an amp to play AC DC on with the volume turned to 11. So if your taste in poetry runs to...
But the walls were shaking,
You Shook Me All Night Long (AC/DC, "Back in Black")
You might want to look elsewhere, but I would doubt if an amp like this would let you down playing almost anything else. The majority of my use of this amp was on my computer desk with Itunes set on shuffle through a pair of older Axioms, and even I was surprised at what dross Itunes found on my computer. I also used it in a number of other systems, sometimes with a wireless notebook attached so I could listen to the music on my PC as well as BBC over the Internet, and the MP-5 never seriously mis-stepped. Listening to Internet Radio did perhaps highlight the amps greatest failure and/or depending on how you look at it, benefit, i.e. making Real Audio, Windows Media and their like listenable and not particularly fatiguing, particularly at low bit rates.
I would say that ultimate resolution on the MP-5 was a little gross, transients were a little rounded, a certain mid-range prominence was evident, and dynamics and bass was not quite up to that which a couple of hundred watts of solid-state can do. But although you were in no mind that transistors were not in the signal path, every time and everywhere I used the MP-5, I was, basically, happy, nay, delighted with this delightful confection of an amplifier.
Perhaps the most delicious and least useful feature of the MP-5 is the magic eye. And when you start winding out the MP-5, something not too hard to do with all of 13 watts on tap, the eye boogies to the music. I can see no function for the eye (it does not help you tune and audible distortion sets in well before the eye maxes out) other than pure adornment and I love it. Closer inspection of the magic eye even shows off a beautiful engraving of laurel leaves around its base. Clearly form doesn't always have to follow function. Even the housing on the rather sizable power transformer has little extensions on the side that give it slight art-deco flair. This beats Hammond spackle electrical tape over transformer windings and countersunk screws into stainless steel chassis any day of the week, for me at least.
A few minor quibbles: tape out, or pre-out, would be nice. That way, you could use it as a stand alone DAC. Of course, you can do this with the headphone output – by the way, the supplied Sennheisers sounded very good powered by the MP-5 and easily beat the same headphones attached directly to the IPOD that was feeding the MP-5 and that I was using as a source for comparison – but by doing so you are bringing the volume control into play, silencing the speaker posts and there may well be impedance problems. Perhaps the greatest fault of the MP-5 is how kindly it treats bad recordings – though this may appeal to some. It certainly appealed to me at my desk.
The MP-5 may not be the last word in hi-fi. But it’s certainly the first word in utility, fit, finish and whimsy. Defects and all, I can’t recommend the MP-5 more highly for use with a PC or in a small second system where you can set, forget and enjoy the music.
Type: Vacuum tube stereo amplifier
Power Output: 13 watts per channel at 8 ohm
Tube Compliment: two 12AX7 and one 6E2 (EM87)
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz (±1.5dB)
Distortion: 0.5 percent
Signal to Noise: 86dB
Input Sensitivity: 300mV
Input Impedance: 100K ohm
Output Impedance: ohm/8 ohm
Dimensions: 260 x 145 x 130 (LxWxH in mm)
Weight: 4.3 Kg.
Dared Tube Audio
United States Distributor