A new year brings the Consumer Electronics Show, and the opportunity to review the latest audio designs. Right now, I have no less than three 300B amplifiers crowding my listening room and competing for my attention. The DA08SE’s were first to arrive just a few days after C.E.S. ended, courtesy of C.C. Poon, proprietor of Monarchy Audio. Mr. Poon is well-known in audio circles as the creator of the Monarchy SM-70 full-Class-A solid-state amplifiers, the DIP upsampler and the latest M-24 Tube DAC.
He is also profiled in an interview conducted by our own Constantine Soo.
According to the Monarchy website, the Dignity Audio amplifiers feature “permalloy output transformers for highest energy coupling from tube to speaker“, “Z11 silicon steel laminates for both the AC transformer and the filter choke”, “sophisticated output impedance selector switch for 4-8-16 Ohms”, and “high sensitivity (200mV) and a volume control, no line stage needed”.
The unusual packaging of this amplifier is due to its intention to be the heart of a 5.1 surround system. The size, 3 3/4”x8”x15”, means that 5 of them can occupy the space taken by just one conventional 2 channel amplifier.
Dignity Audio is referred to as a transformer manufacturer, so it’s no wonder the power and output irons are constructed of high quality materials. I had a quick look “under the hood” albeit without the aid of a schematic: all the parts are high quality, the solid state power supply is quite large with lot’s of capacitance, and the layout first rate. The hands that wired the parts to the boards and each other were certainly not new to the task! The input signal goes directly to an Electro-Harmonix 6SN7 which in turn drives an E-H 300B. The latter is a good sounding, well-known tube choice, while the former, the 6SN7 is, at least in this design, problematic.
I feel safe to say that the two largest influences on the “sound” of a tube component are the transformers and driver tubes. One sees more comment on the merits and faults of capacitors and resistors on the various audio bulletin boards but the fact remains that the really gross differences are the province of the iron and drivers. And we shall see that the choice of driver tube has a profound influence on the sound of the DA08SE.
Connecting these units with their I.E.C. power sockets and single input RCA’s is as simple as it gets. The speaker terminals are standard plastic-nut 5 ways and tightened down nicely on 14 gauge bare copper wire. They are not spaced for banana jack pairs, a feature I would have preferred, for reasons known only to the builder. I like the ability to make quick changes; perhaps the folks at Dignity prefer spades or single bananas.
The front panel has a really lovely blue LED to indicate power on and a volume control. Why can’t everyone source this LED? I hate bright red lights! And what was Mr. Yamamoto thinking about when he put that white, incandescent bulb on his other-wise excellent ‘45’ amp? Sorry (deep breath)….
Be careful twisting the volume control first time out of the box. This little amplifier is sensitive! And dynamic! With my 95dB sensitive speakers, I seldom went past 10 o’clock to get realistic (loud) listening levels.
I “broke-in” the amplifiers by using them for background music and home theatre for over 100 hours. One reads over and over about this or that component that “didn’t really begin to sing” until 100 or 200 or even 1000 hours. I certainly don’t want to upset any audiophiles but I put little credence in this “break-in” thing. While there is little question that the internal components change electrically over time, I strongly believe that the overall character is only briefly glimpsed at initial turn-on and that “break-in” is a function of our brain becoming familiar with the sound and modifying our perception of it to its stored memory of similar sounds. The careful reviewer has to listen for, store and be able to recall this initial sound. It’s also extremely valuable to enlist the aid of other ears that are hearing the component for the first time. That is why one of the best ways to judge a modification is to listen for the difference when it is removed, rather than when it is added to a system. Or put another way, banging one’s head against the wall, over and over again, is such a great exercise because it feels so good when you stop!
This first perception of the Dignity DA08SE consists of strong attacks and bass, clear mid-range, and that single-ended intimacy with the performer but a strangely caramel-colored upper mid and treble. I say strangely because one does expect the 6SN7/300B combination to be sweet and even euphonic. More so, than for example, the 300B driven by a 6N1P which would be at the opposite, more neutral extreme. But the first qualifier that jumped into my mind was “nasal”. Both male and female singers had this singing-through-the-nose quality. I wondered if it was related to the transformer issue.
On first power up, both units exhibited loud hum and vibration of the metal casing. After a few moments the hum and vibration diminished but were still present. I immediately e-mailed C.C. Poon about the “problem”, asking if he would prefer I not review these units. His reply:
”I have tried more than 10 of these amps and all the AC transformers hum a littlebut not audible at listening distance. Sometimes using a Cheater Plug (converting 3-pin to 2-pin) will reduce the hum somewhat. The most dramatic improvement is when I used an AC frequency doubler (that converts 60Hz to 120 Hz) by a unit similar to the PS Audio AC Doubler.
The manufacturer has an earlier version with damping material around the transformer but out of concern for heat dissipation I asked him to remove the damping , since the hum would not interfere with normal listening.”
It’s true that, once warmed up, the hum is not heard over the music or even in quiet passages of movie sound tracks. Still, the prospective purchaser should be aware that, had I built these amps myself as a DIY project, I would still be looking for better grounding combinations and/or vibration isolation for the transformer mounts. Rating: 5 of 10.
I enlisted the help of my friend, Steve, to deal with the nasal upper mid-range sound. Without telling him anything about my perception, I played the well-broken-in amps for him. He immediately commented on the “unusual tonal balance of the mid-range”. “Why don’t we try some other driver tubes?” he suggested. So out came the Electro-Harmonix 6SN7’s, and in went a pair of ‘old stock’ RCA tubes. “That’s much better!” Steve exclaimed. And it was true. There was an immediate change to a more ‘natural’ sound of Jacintha singing the tunes of Johnny Mercer. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is something wrong with E-H 6SN7’s as a class but, at least in this circuit, they are to be avoided. How nice for one’s Dignity (excuse the double entendre) that it’s so sensitive to tube-rolling and the result, on just the first try was so beneficial.
To continue the subject of trying other tubes, the construction of the amps makes choosing between different makes of 300B difficult. While the octal socket for the driver is flush-mounted, enabling it to be grasped by the base, the UX4 socket board is deeply recessed in the chassis and one must grasp the tube by the bulb. Not a good practice if you value your tubes, and especially expensive 300B’s. The purchaser would be well-advised to decide on a driver tube and then button up the amp.
I did all of my critical listening with the RCA 6SN7’s in place except for right at the end when I replaced the stock drivers. This was done over a 3 week period when I would listen and make notes, then abandon the amps for 5 or 6 days and come back to them hopefully without the mental adjustments I believe our “ears” make.
My first test for that “they are here” single-ended quality is ‘One Flight Down’, track 11 on the Norah Jones CD Come Away With Me. The opening bars portray the drum kit as well back and setting on a wooden, suspended floor. I’ve had the opportunity to A-B-C this cut on an EL-34 push-pull amp, a single-ended EL-34 in faux triode mode and my own single-ended Audio Note Kit 1 300B. The otherwise very good P-P amp couldn’t get this intimate character that only the single-ended could do. The DA08SE is a surprising 8 on a 1 to 10 scale on this test. In case you’re wondering, the Audio Note is a 7.
Freddy Cole, Nat’s brother, provides the test for vocal realism on his SACD Merry-Go-Round. According to Steve, Paul Klipsch held the belief that male vocal was the true test of speaker tonal balance. My collection leans heavily to female vocalists but I do find that male vocals reveal more about nasality, chesty-ness and the reality of breathing. Freddy’s (we’re on a first name basis) voice is real-sounding on the Dignity amps. Attacks and transients weren’t up to the standard of the Audio Note, but still good. Now before you wonder how I can be judging that when listening to voice, consider that glottals and dentals involve the tongue hitting either the teeth or the palate. Then there’s the ever-so-soft popping of the lips as they part to form a sound. No, I don’t enjoy listening to these masticating sounds but they say so much about the ability of the component to convey all the music. 6 of 10, and 8 of 10 with the E-H 6SN7. Now there’s a trade-off!
Will these mono-blocks convey the wonderful girlishness in the voice of Joni Mitchell from the early version of ’The Circle Game’ on the Hits album? Absolutely! This highly sensitive circuit yields excellent dynamics that allow all the music, if not all the detail to come through. So while transients aren’t up there with the best, inner detail is quite good. 7 of 10.
I’ve just completed, and just in time, sound conditioning my listening room. I’ll have a great deal to write about this most important of all components in the future, but for now I’ll just mention how imaging and soundstage are transformed. Yup! Transformed! Have you endlessly swapped speakers, cables, cartridges, etc, searching for that image that floats out independent of the speakers? Me too! And in my case it involved soldering, wiring and re-wiring, twisting wires until my fingers bled; you get the idea. The image was there all the time. The room needed tweaking. Inspired by Laurence A. Borden, I invested $200 in fiberglass panels, burlap and plywood, then a day in moving them around. You won’t believe the difference!
Anyway, I discovered something in the opening of the Second Movement of Sibelius Second Symphony featuring a cross between a grave and a passacaglia played by the double bass and cellos. That something is Sibelius causing the melodic line to move forward and back, forward and back between the 2 string sections. Wonderful orchestration, a great test of imaging as well as texture in the sound of bows on strings. The Dignity units do this quite well. They lack the ultimate depth of the more expensive amps but the essence of the passage is there along with the rosiny texture of horsehair on gut. 7 of 10.
Movie soundtracks come off quite well as they should with the intended purpose of these amplifiers. Here is where the choice of the Electro-Harmonix drivers makes sense. Intelligibility of dialogue is better with them than the old RCA tubes. 8 of 10
Oh my! I haven’t yet mentioned that these amplifiers cost just $490 each. They have some shortcomings. They have some features like speaker terminals and tube sockets I would change. But for less than $1000 dollars you can have a carefully crafted pair of true single-ended 300B amplifiers that do all the things this family of amps can do. For an office system or for readers on a budget, a very respectable music system can be created from a $200 SACD player, a $400 pair of DIY speakers and these amps with their on board volume control and high sensitivity.
Bill Epstein’s system:
CD Player: Sony SCD-CE 775 with SACDMods.com
LP system: Ariston RD-11Superieur/SME 3009R II/ Dynavector 10×5
Hagerman Bugle Phono-stage
Amplification: Audio Note Kit 1 300B; KR Audio VA 240 300BXLS
Speakers: 3 Way Bass reflex/horn combination adapted from a Wayne Parham, Pi Speakers design
* JBL 2226J 15″ mid-woofer to 1600Hz, Altec-Lansing 902B 1″ compression driver on 800Hz Martinelli Woodhorns.com horns, Vifa DX 25 at 13000 Hz
IC’s are those nice blue one’s by AR from Best Buy and speaker cable is Royal Cable, 14ga rope lay copper you get at Wal-mart in the auto parts section – Right next to the goldfish and parakeets.
Dignity Audio U.S. Importer’s Comments:
SOO nice to see the DA08 review. But please note: WE made a mistake.
The MSRP is $799, the dealer cost is $499. Somehow we put the dealer cost at the bottom of the “Features” column (and missed the actual retail price) as our first approach was to the dealers.
I understand the “conclusion” in the review may have to be changed in light of the higher price.
But you might also note that with the new shipment coming in (ETA May), the factory (Dignity Audio) has addressed the hum issue and actually did a number of upgrades to enhance total performance, viz:
*low noise rectifiers
*re-designed and totally hum-free AC transformer
*(he uses the Z-11 material for the AC that other manufacturers use for their OUTPUT transformer)
*overall improvements over the prototype that Bill Epstein listened.
* GOLD version of Eletro-Harmonix 300B instead of the BLACK version in the prototype.
I’ll be happy to send the new version to Bill when the shipment arrives.
and Best Rgds,
Bill Epstein’s Response:
At $799, the current version of Dignity Audio’s DA08SE faces keen competition.
For exactly that price, for example, you may have the DIYHIFISUPPLY Lady Day 300B with a full complement of tubes and expertly assembled, including express shipping from Hong Kong. The Lady Day is one of the best bargains in 300B’s in the world.
(Note: Bill has agreed to review the new DA08SE when it arrives. -Ed)
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