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Red Dragon S500 stereo amplifier Review

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Hunting the Red Dragon

At the start of my search for a class D candidate to demo, I scanned the scuttlebutt online and saw a reference to the “Pascal module,” followed by several positive user comments that compared experiences with the Pascal module versus other class D modules. I determined it was worth a listen, so I asked Ryan Tew at Red Dragon for a “no strings attached,” that is, no promised review, listen. If I didn’t like it, the amps would go back. If I did like it and bought them, I would write an owner’s review. This is fair, as neither the manufacturer, nor publisher of Dagogo approached me; I exercised my right as an audiophile to pursue an unknown, unheard component.

Ryan seems to know intuitively that customer service is of paramount importance in today’s consumer climate. I found him to be candid and completely inoffensive, timely in delivering on his promises and paying attention to my requests. For not having met him in person it was a comfortable introduction and purchasing experience.

Ryan had tried several Ncore modules when designing his amps but turned to the Pascal module for the S500. I can hear why. I do not recall being impressed more favorably at audio shows by pricey Ncore-based amps than now by the S500.  One very serious barrier to the Ncore world is the high price for upper level amps. That has left the door open for other alternatives, and Pascal seems to be walking right through that door. Why spend several thousand dollars for a modular amp when products like the S500 exist? At shows, I was hearing $100K plus systems with Ncore amplification and thinking, “Ok, it’s nice, but…” Whereas when I fire up the system I detail below, my mind says, “Now this is serious audio!” Would I have reached the same conclusion had I heard the S500 at a show? It’s impossible to tell, but the fact that it outpaced so many lofty amps in my home settles the matter for me.


Detox time

Just a few nights ago I had some seasoned audio friends over to hear my latest rig:


Mac Mini with HQPlayer software
Verastarr Nemesis USB
Exogal Comet DAC with upgrade power supply
Verastarr Grand Illusion II Power Cord to the Exogal Comet
TEO Audio Liquid Silver Splash Interconnects
Clarity Cable Organic XLR Interconnects; used for the Legacy Audio XTREME HD subwoofers
Red Dragon S500; two units in Mono mode
TEO Audio Liquid Standard Speaker Cables, two pair for bi-wiring
Vapor Audio Joule White 3, with bass impedance circuit engaged


I was paid a lofty compliment when one of these listeners, an ardent analogue fan said he had to “detox” when he returned home to his system. The sound of this particular setup was intoxicating, and he found it memorable. Some systems are like aural drugs; they get you “high” on the sound, and you never forget the experience. When that happens you may be listening to a perfect system.

It should be noted that the heart of this system is comprised of two components costing a total of $8K. The Exogal Comet is an integrated DAC and the amps being reviewed are class D. When was the last time you read of such a system with extreme capabilities? Perhaps never. If you were waiting for a sign that the audio world has changed dramatically, this is your sign! I have had gear that cost tens of thousands of dollars more in my room not outshine this setup. If you have ever dealt with ridiculously heavy amps perhaps you understand my decision. An audiophile who is after the best attainable sound must be willing to separate himself from gear that may carry extreme recognition factor, but simply is not as good sounding as a competitive technology. To that end I have personally and publicly warned makers of class A and A/B amps that they had better board the class D train because it’s leaving, and if they are not on board their company could suffer long term.

Yes, I understand, you tried class D several years ago and it “wasn’t there,” not on the level of other SS and tube amps. I had concluded similarly. But, in reviewing I have learned that technology is developed continually. Technology does not “evolve”. I consider it an affront to the manufacturer to say a technology evolves. The target for state-of-the-art sound moves; what is considered the best today is not the best in three to five years. In the three years since I explored class D it has changed dramatically. My prediction at the time has come true; class D has matched other classes of amplification. It was only a matter of time, but I am surprised at how quickly it has come! Despite nostalgia and preference, the future largely belongs to class D.


Perfect systems

The system mentioned above is one of a handful in ten years of reviewing I would refer to as a “perfect system.” Just as there are perfect storms (The Vapor Audio Perfect Storm, the top model, is simply too large for my room – Drats!) created by the convergence of weather events resulting in an abnormally powerful storm, so also there are “perfect” audio systems created by the convergence of abnormally capable electronics in an ideal listening room. Price is not the sole determinant of a perfect system, however, I have never heard an economical, perfect system. I do not recall hearing a perfect system costing under $40K.

It should not be surprising that a perfect system is so rare. Consider the variables that must be in place:

  1. Room with exceptional construction and acoustic properties
  2. Outlier equipment with extreme performance
  3. Cables with radical design and construction to outperform the norm
  4. True full range speakers (and/or use of subwoofers)
  5. Extreme technology and/or build quality of speakers (i.e. upgraded internal components, radical cabinet design, top end drivers, etc.)
  6. Optimized system configuration
  7. Fine-tuning of the system via positioning, front baffle slope, etc.


Notice that I said nothing about tweaks. I do not concern myself much with tweaks, nor with the purported phenomenon of “Burn In.” I have found both to be insipid, unworthy of the time and money invested for the outcome. I’m not into marginal or minimal change in systems, but maximal change, and that comes through building with components, cables and speakers. I consider most tweaks to be a distraction from building superior audio systems.

In the hunt for a perfect system it is not necessary to use an actively crossed speaker system. I have been able to build as good systems with passive speakers as with active speakers. I demonstrated this with the unique Legacy Audio Whisper DSW Clarity Edition speaker, which can be configured with either active crossover or passive crossover. So much depends upon the particular components and cables used with the speaker in either mode that it sways the result in favor of one or the other. Over time by switching around cables, amps and sources I have been able to obtain superior sound by using either passive or active crossover.


What does a red dragon sound like?

To the question of what does the Red Dragon amp sound like I quote:

“Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum. You came along and everything started to hum. Still, it’s a real good bet the best is yet to come,” as sung by Peggy Lee. I picked a plum, a real peach of a class D amp to try! Sweet as the day is long, and power I cannot get over, the S500 is dreamy.

However, there is a certain type of audiophile who prefers, yeah, even seeks what I consider to be dull, indistinct, syrupy, overly-warm and less defined sound. These audiophiles typically complain of systems with too much definition and detail. They have tonality as the highest priority, and they faun over vinyl and tubes. Likely, they would not be candidates for the S500, as it simply is capable of too much precision and a sound leaning toward “neutral.” I do not find the amp too cool, analytical or sterile, but those who are used to very warm sounding systems likely would.

Other audiophiles are seeking an increase in refinement, and the S500 is an excellent choice. One does not have to opt for a preamp to gain definition. The S500 can bring a surprising amount of cleanness and detail to systems lacking it. In fact, the amp has the capacity to render as much improvement in this area as an active preamplifier.

The two most notable characteristics of the S500 are its macrodynamics and cleanness. I discuss the use of the First Watt J2 amps with the Vapor Audio Joule White 3 speaker in my review of the speaker. I commend the J2 for being pristine, as it does not sound like a veil is over the speakers. It is also tonally dialed in, with warmth I found lacking in several of the SET amps I have tried. The J2 has enough meat on the bones that the speakers do not sound anemic.

However, in comparison to the Red Dragon S500, especially in Mono mode, the J2 does sound considerably weaker, as would be expected with such a radical power differential. The S500 is actually a slightly warmer sounding amp, not by coating the performance with blubbery indistinctness, but simply by infusing the music with a bit warmer tonality. At first listen, the J2 has more refinement, but once the tonality is taken into consideration I hear as much nuance in the S500. The two are so close in this regard that as I keep building systems with them both it is difficult to say definitively which has the edge in absolute cleanness.

6 Responses to Red Dragon S500 stereo amplifier Review

  1. Terry says:

    After hearing how a well executed class A amp sounds, (Luxman L550AII) I’d be hard pressed to even audition an amp like that. Maybe I’m missing out???

  2. Dan says:


    I recall reading your glowing review of the Wells Audio Innamorata amplifier. Within the review it sounded as if it was your amp of choice and would become a benchmark. With that said, how do you now compare it to these class D amps?

    Best Regards,

  3. Dan,
    God’s peace to you,

    Well, that’s what demo of products is for; Red Dragon offers a demo plan. I did demo with no commitment to buy. That is the ideal scenario if one is looking for a change.

    The situation with the Wells Innamorata was influenced by reviewing. There are situations where I require four or more channels of amplification and I wanted bridgeable amps to do so. I hadn’t reviewed a larger actively crossed speaker in a few years and I plan on it, so that factored into why I switched. The Innamorata is a gorgeous amp, and I still love it. But, in my rationing of money for components and speakers a second Innamorata was costlier and would throw off my allocation for other elements of the system. In addition I had speakers to pay for at the time. I was not able to conduct a head to head comparison between the Innamorata and the Red Dragon S500, but I do know I can build gorgeous systems with both. The Innamorata is more relaxed and supple, and the S500 is more aggressive and intense; different flavors of excellence.

    Douglas Schroeder

  4. Mark White says:

    This a brilliant and informative review of a great new class D amp. Thank you very much for your efforts. Class D is the wave of the future, I am certain of that. I have Spatial Audio speakers and the founder, Clayton Shaw, recommends Red Dragon amps. Cheers, Mark

  5. Mark,
    God’s Joy to you,
    Thank you for the complement; it is encouragement such as yours that makes reviewing a joy.
    I believe the Red Dragon and the Pascal module is gaining traction. It’s a sweet class D sound.

    Douglas Schroeder

  6. Robert says:

    I just don’t agree with your comments about N-Core class D amplifiers being over priced in comparison with Pascal class D. Take Nord for example at around £1700. Or the world class contender Mola Mola Kuluga’s at £9,995. I’m not saying RD is not good, because I haven’t heard them, but my experience with Pascal based amps so far leads me to conclude they are not as good as the N-Core amps I have used.

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