10 January, 2012

Review: Dared MP-5 Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM Yamaha NS-10M

pic of cheap metal steaming rack akin to the ones I used; call me insane.
CAS Talk: My New Desktop System
My Corner: My Study - Two Systems
Review: Dared
膽藝高 MP-5
Review: Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM
Review: Yamaha NS-10M
Tweak Talk: Steaming Rack

As you may have guessed, I spend a huge amount of time on the main computer in my study typing away. While writing or surfing, I always listen to music, mostly stuff newly borrowed from the library. Let me describe a little the 2 very different setups in my study in HK. This article is like a monster from the Ulysses, I cut off something only to have more pour forth! :-) But then, only equipment that brings you fun can do that, right?

pic of my traditional system. Click to enlarge.

My Study - System 1: Traditional with a Twist
Since the very beginning my study in HK has had, for lack of a better term, a traditional system, with a CD player as source. I have never liked near-field listening, and I wanted to avoid that in the small space; as a result, my speakers are placed near the ceiling corners.

This is not as crazy as you think. It has to do with making use of potentially harmful room excitation and avoidance of room limits. For a more complete espousal of my rationale, click here. If I want to listen to rock or anything loud, this system is what I go to. And it does fine by anything else too.

The system has had many permutations, but the speakers have always remained in the same positions - there is no better spot. Currently the system consists of: --Cambridge DV-87; Cyrus I; Yamaha NS-10M. The CDP and amp are leftover items chosen for their sound quality and small size. The system has served me very well for background listening.

System 1 - Enter the Yamaha NS-10M
These legendary speakers need no long-winded review on my part. They have long been cherished by all the who's who in the recording industry, and even has a wonderful dedicated website. Another must-read article is this one at soundonsound. Come to think of it, I'd not be surprised if some of the rock/pop albums I mentioned below were originally mastered on the Yamaha! :-)

In the Study - System 1 I must say with the arrival of the NS-10Ms I think this system has attained full potential. Even more than the speakers I have previously tried, including the estimable Proac Response 1 (original, and still the best version) and the Pioneer I am about to review, the Yamaha NS-10M is wonderfully suited for this purpose. The wall reinforcement lends a little extra warmth in the bass to the "studio" balance that is very welcome. Even then, bass is still not what you would call rich.

I also toyed with the idea of using them in the near-field system I am about to cover, but they are simply too big. Maybe if your desk is bigger.

In the Living Room Mind you, although a little lean in the bass, the NS-10Ms work also fantastically well in my living room with the proper tube gears. Placed in the middle of the room, their wonderfully clear sound and imaging were quite enticing, but in the larger room, some augmentation of the bass by a subwoofer would perhaps be even more desirable, though it didn't cry out in this aspect like the Airtight Bonsai did. Even without, the sound, to say the least, was as good as the Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand SE or B&W CM1. Compared to the venerable LS3/5A, I prefer the Yamaha's for their more revealing bass and ability to play louder.

The important thing is, no matter where they are used, their wonderfully fast, revealing and articulate sound is not a bit out of date. An evergreen, a star and a bargain!

Pioneer Pure Malt S-A4SPT-PM
These rear-ported speakers have an interesting genesis, for which you can consult the Official Description. Together with their more upmarket sibling, the S-A4SPT-VP, they have caused quite a stir in HK, where many audiophiles in small apartments are forced to use small bookshelves. In HK, some even use a stacked pair! In the AV community they have also received quite a bit of attention (re: Audioholics, cnet). Even the mainstream press Stereophile has noticed it. I have serious doubts about John Marks and don't usually like his column, but here I do agree with his assessment.

In the Living Room I first tried the PMs in-room. These are good speakers with surprisingly strong bass for the size but, unlike the Yamaha NS-10Ms I described above, they lack the coherence of many of the aforementioned speakers (B&W CM1, Vienna Acoustics Hadyn Grand SE, Airtight Bonsai) I have tried in the same position. Neither do they have the mellifluousness of the venerable LS3/5A. So, of limited appeal in a larger room.

In the Study - System 1 In the traditional system in my study, the PMs did not work as well as the Proac Response 1, not to mention the Yamaha NS-10M now resident. Sound was rather grey and sterile. Perhaps it was due to interaction between the rear-port and close-by wall, but then that didn't bother my Proac's. You never know. So, no go, and they were left unused for quite a while.

pics: L, atop my Wavac MD-300B amp, click to enlarge.
Dared 膽藝高 MP-5 USB Headphone Amp

Dared is a well-established Chinese company in nearby Shenzhen, said to be an early spun-off from Shanling 山靈, that makes products only for exports. You'd not find their products in China proper! To see a lot of pics, you may want to browse this wonderful Site Visit Report in Chinese 推薦! 膽藝高專訪. This report provides much interesting info not available elsewhere. In common with some other Chinese audio companies with past or present military ties (e.g., Spark 斯巴克), the boss of Dared, the funky man pictured with the military tube-tester, is a retiree from the military 高總是退伍軍人.

Dared also does OEM for many foreign enterprises. Thus you may find products that look very much like Dared but bearing other brand names. The MP-5, in its various iterations, has been in existence since 2006 and, with more than ten thousand units sold, remain by far the product most people associate with the company. It first came to prominence as Fatman (UK company; closest product now is the iTube), and I have always liked its looks.

The MP-5 has long been marketed in the US as Dared, and has been very well received by the earphone community (despite their pretensions, I don't regard them as serious audiophiles) as well as more mainstream audiophile press like enjoythemusic and positive feedback. For comparison with similar products and more scoop on Dared, read the excellent overview in Sonic Flare. When it comes to Asia, the MP-5 has also been very popular in Taiwan (here's a review in Chinese, with a few errors, as we shall come to them later), less so in Hong Kong.

Comparison of the Different Versions; Pay More, Get More?Although cosmetically identical, comparison of the US and my HK Dared MP-5 reveals more difference than obvious at first glance.

Price The price for the US version is quite a bit more than the HK one, which is sold by the dealer 深水埗聯興 at a list price of HK1, 980 (~USD 255). It should be noted that in Taiwan (a typical seller here) the MP-5 sells for TWD 6800 (~HKD 1,760), cheaper than in HK even after bargaining. Considering that HK is much closer to China, and that HK has no import tariff, the dealer charges too much in HK. 注意:其他地方也有售,但都是行貨而開價可能更高 Price Advantage Taiwan/HK. So the question is, is the US version worth the extra price?

Tubes Used The display tuning-eye tube is for fun and is the same in any version. For the preamp section, the US version uses 12AX7 and the HK/Taiwan version uses 6N1. As we shall see later, this has import when it comes to tube rolling. Tube Rolling Advantage US.

Internals Here lies the greatest difference - they are almost like two different machines, so different is the built. The left pic of the US version is from Gainphile
's Blog. The right pic (click to enlarge) is my unit. The main differences between the US and HK versions are: (1) the US version has the better gold-plated circuit board, as claimed; (2) the HK version uses surface mount components whereas the US version uses discrete components. Built Quality Advantage US. Caveat: imho SM components sometimes can sound better, if properly implemented (think: Linn).
In the Living Room After consulting with Dared (see below), I confirmed what I suspected, that the MP-5 has either a passive input or one of low gain that it can be used as an amp with the volume maxed. I tried it out briefly in my main system (Digital: Sony R1 combo; Preamp, Leben RS-28CX; Speakers, Tannoy Canterbury HE). Serious audiophiles may laugh at this, but remember audio is for fun and for music. People who use audio for fun and serious music listening more often than not get much better sound out of even their cheap systems than anal audiophiles who spend more time being distracted by audio rather than listening to music. Sound? Exactly what I expect, not up to the level of SET amps (what is?) but surprisingly musical and satisfying. The ultimate resolution is not quite there, but the music is conveyed with little loss. As a matter of fact I think using a tube preamp and the MP-5 as amp will hands down musically outperform most of the expensive Accuphase I have seen used with Tannoy in HK (because they have the same dealer).

pic of my USB desktop system. Click to enlarge.

The New Desktop System
Lest you have the impression that I don't have desktop experience, you are not quite right. It is just that I mostly prefer not to listen near-field and favor the traditional System 1 described above. But for things like sampling music and watching youtubes I do use the desktop speakers.

System 2 Before - Audioengine A2 In NYC When I first bought them, I briefly used these with the M-Audio Firewire Solo in my study/bedroom to great effect (write-up here). I brought both back to HK, but in my study the M-Audio could not be used as my computer does not have firewire output (I shall wait till my next one). In HK Even just using the analog output of my computer's sound card (generic), I did have a wonderful experience with the A2 (my best-buy of 2011). About a year ago I gave them to a dear friend as gift, and since then have missed them greatly and even thought of buying them again. I substituted some cheap computer speakers on hand (Filand) and they were barely adequate. Time to move on.

System 2 Now - Use of USB Although some of my DAC's have USB capability, I have never tried them out in HK for the simple reason that I have yet to set up CAS in my living room and it is too much trouble for the study. Since I am not a great CAS fan, although I have listened to a LOT of USB-based CAS in other people's homes, my own experience have been rather limited: (In NYC) limited to a brief trial of the execellent HRT Music Streamer in the main system (hooked up to a good DAC); (In HK) this time marked the first time I used the USB out of my computer in the study. Using the supplied cheap USB cable (not so nice as described for the US version), connection between my computer and Dared MP-5 worked without a hitch. Using iTunes my lossless AIFF files played without any hitch.

Sound of Dared + Pioneer (USB)
I am happy to report the sound via USB, which is certainly not perfect, does manage to have quite a human face. The Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM has finally found its niche on my desktop. The sound as a whole bettered that of my previous setup of Audioengine A2 driven by the computer's analog output. Some observations:
  • Corresponding to my finding in the living room, the Dared MP-5 does not offer the last word in detail (although it does well enough). Its errors are minor sins of omission.
  • The system has above average rhythmic finesse, something very rare in even very expensive CAS. Have you ever listened carefully to the renowned Benchmark DAC? It is a clean but bland DAC with a significant weakness in PRaT (pace, rhythm and timing). Weiss does not have it either. On the other hand, Naim digital and the cheap YBA WD-202 do! Get it? Professional digital/recording gurus, no matter how talented, more often than not leave out more of the soul in their designs than designers from a strong AUDIO base. As the Pioneer is not an especially articulate speaker in general, I attribute this wonderful quality to the Dared.
  • The Pioneer performs on the desktop much better than in-room or in the study's traditional system. The rear-port on the desktop appears to be not only not a burden but an asset: close to the rear boundary and at desktop listening level, perhaps that is what makes the bass sound like it goes deeper than it does, without incurring the cost of muddying things up. Even the bass instruments in the rock tracks sound fleshed out and have good definition.
  • Although euphonic, I cannot help to notice a little grain in the treble once in a while. For example, tape hiss on older recordings are easily heard. As this was not at all present when either the Dared or the Pioneer were used in the living room, I attribute this to the USB output.
  • Speaker Cables definitely makes a difference. Ditch the cables that came with the Pioneers for something better. I first connected the system with Gotham 50025. When I later found and installed the stock generic cables I instantly felt an undefinable loss. After all of the tests above I switched to Belden 9497 and it was a significant improvement. For a check, I compared again Elman's violin. Yes, the sound has indeed improved, smoother and better microdynamics.
Tweaks Platform I improved the balance and imaging by raising the system with a piece of surplus shelf (made of particle board, yuk), supported by 4 water glasses, horror of horrors. When I get time I shall try to source some cheap but better alternatives. No, TAOC and Finite Elemente don't make shelves for the desktop, and even if they do why should you even think about buying such over-priced and colored stuff? Speaker Support Hoping to improve coupling of the speakers to the (lousy) surface they sit on, against my better judgement I first tried spikes under the speakers (see pic), but alas, they made the sound worse and were promptly removed after the pic was taken. The experience reaffirms my belief that spikes under non-floorstanding speakers more often than not work against the sound. As I write, I continue to tweak. I just tried cheap metal Steaming Racks, the kind you find in 10-cent stores (pic at top of article), and they work a treat! Just one example to illustrate what I am talking about. Take "The Mercy Seat" from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' Tender Prey, the spikes made the heavy going unlistenable; removing them made things better; but with the steaming racks everything improved!

Traditional vs Desktop
Comparison is absolutely fascinating. It sheds light on both systems as well as some of the components. I shall not go into great depth, but a few example should tell you the difference.

General Observations This means I believe these observations are valid, in my case AND yours:
  • Despite the use of highly uncolored Yamaha NS-10M, the Traditional System is more expansive and has an easy quality. Take the aforementioned "The Mercy Seat", the ability to project even very dense music into the room effortlessly is something the desktop, mine AND yours, shall never achieve, and that is also why I continue to have one such system in my study.
  • With simpler music, like Elman's violin playing, the Desktop System can sound airy and focused, but there is no denial its smallish, somewhat myopic nature. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either not a real audiophile, or paradoxically too much of one, someone who dissects music into meaningless parts, things like soundstage etc. Yes, the Desktop System has a soundstage whereas the traditional one does not but which one sounds more like music? I conjecture if the desk is far from room boundary the sound can be much better, but then that would not be the usual desk in the usual study, would it?
Other Observations: This means the findings may be due to the properties of different equipment, so my observations may not be applicable outside my environment. I am just reporting on my systems.
  • The Desktop System has a tighter, more bassy delivery but paints with broader strokes and less accuracy. In "The weeping Song" and "The Ship Song" from Nice Cave & The Bad Seeds' Good Son, the music feels "richer" and moves quicker on the desktop but Cave's distinctive voice is a little too bassy. Through the Yamaha, Cave's voice is more correct in timber and the music is cooler. When it comes to string texture, the Yamaha is much more accurate. On the Yamaha, you could hear every minutiae as the instrument vibrates in Ry Cooder's "Paris, Texas". In Elman's "Meditation" and "Ziguenerweisen", the subtle tonal variations are not fully brought out by the desktop, and his trademark portamenti sounded more of one piece on the Yamaha, on which you can hear much more of the bowel sound. However, though much smaller in size, the piano sounds fuller on the desktop.
More on the Dared MP-5
The Dared MP-5 has a switchable RCA auxiliary input, which I connected it to a spurious cheap DVD multiplayer, 步步高 DV997, made by the people who OEM'ed Oppo. I think it uses a 24/96 Burr-Brown chip.

CD vs USB The MP-5's DAC is said to be an Onkyo USB based on the BB PCM2702 chip, making the comparison quite a valid one. As it turns out, the sound is audibly different. The USB has a higher output and is definitely, as noticed previously, a little grainier in the treble (the DVD player is not the smoothest thing to start with). As noticed before, the USB paints with broader strokes. The CD player recovers some of the microdynamics glossed over by the USB. I think this is more attributable to data corruption by USB rather than difference between the two DACs. The CD player also has better definition and details.

Tube Rolling 換膽疑雲
Now we come to the tricky part. The US version uses 12AX7, which means there are a lot of possibilities, as even the closely related 12AU7 and 12AT7 varieties can be used without much harm (美版用 12AX7). But the HK/Taiwan version uses the unique Chinese/Russian 6N1, a tube with no exact equivalent (港臺版用 6N1). On the internet, there is a lot of debate on what would be a close cousin. Most commonly regarded as a possible substitute is ECC85/6AQ8, but others refute that vehemently. Lots of Chinese tube gears use 6N1, so these questions get asked and debates arise all the time. No wonder the US version switches to 12AX7.

!!!Misleading statement 雜誌誤導 !!! For those who can read Chinese, matters become more confusing after reading the Taiwan Chinese review I referred you to earlier. It said somewhere: "...二支6N1(ECC85)真空管負責的是前級的部分的小信號放大.....用家仍可享受真空管的換管樂趣,信號管可用12AX7、5751、ECC83、12AU7/ECC82、12AT7/ECC81。..."(translation: 2x 6N1/ECC85 are used as the preamp tubes...users can enjoying tube swapping with 12AX7/U7/T7 etc) Huh? I had never read that about 6N1!

Great Customer Service I emailed to Dared (SZ) about tube rolling. I got an email reply promptly, quicker than I get anything back from many "reputable" brands. The reply asked me to call a certain Mr Zhou. I called and got him immediately. I think he could be the boss himself, though the voice sounds young 我想是高總親自接的電話。How is that for customer service! He is a friendly soul, and here are basically what he said:
  • 6N1 version ECC85/6AQ8 can be used. Should provide a richer sound in his opinion. 12AX7/U7/T7 (and 6DJ8 family) should NOT be used. 香港/臺灣的 6N1 版本只能換 ECC85/6AQ8 膽
  • 12AX7 version Sounds better in his opinion. The 12AX7 version has modification of circuitry and PCB layout, not a simple matter of changing a few parts.
  • Can be used as an amp with the volume maxed 可當後級用。
Advantage USA when it comes to tube-rolling possibilities.
Tube Rolling with ECC85 I don't know where my Teles's are, so I pilfered the tubes from my EAR509, one from each monoblock. I think one is Amperex and the other RFT, though both were labelled Mullard. Certainly the sound is a little airier and more lustrous and there is a bit more detail, though I do think tonally the stock 6N1 is perhaps a tad more neutral. I could not hear any detrimental effects. On the other hand, the change was not as significant as changing the speaker cable, and do you need to go to such lengths on the desktop, especially when most of the time you will not be paying close attention to the sound? For general desktop purposes, I think the stock 6N1 is fine. For me, I put back the 6N1 and with effort re-installed the cage (easier to remove).

Further Conclusions on Dared MP-5 and Desktop System In General
I have already stated my thoughts on the overall superiority of a traditional system in a small room/study. YMMV. A few words on the Dared MP-5 and desktop system in general:
  • The humble Dared MP-5 has brought fun to my desktop, enough to make me spend three days writing this article and testing things. Fun, that is the most important factor for a man who does not have high expectations of his desktop. Make no mistake, I have heard expensive desktop like Weiss202 + active Dynaudio playing 24/192 files and I had failed to be moved. With the Dared MP-5, I also fail to be moved, from my chair that is, as I eagerly await what it will do next.
  • Although not the last word in anything, the Dared MP-5 oozes musicality, the most important thing that consistently eludes CAS. If you ask me, getting the desktop CAS to sound good is harder than even in the main system.
  • Musicality is more important than bits and sampling rate. Don't go chasing after the latest numbers, like those head-fi nerds and audiophiles in general. The Dared is 44.1 and 48 only, but I will take that over something 192 that leaves me cold.
  • It is mandatory to change the speaker cables.
  • Roll tubes with caution; know your version. Even in the US, some people buy from Chinese sources and will get the version with 6N1 instead of 12AX7. Paying more for the US version comes with the benefit of ease of tube-rolling.
  • Power is limited, so I think it is better used in the study or in a second system.
  • The MP-5 can be used as a power amp. Use it with a good preamp in the main system only if you have highly efficient systems.
  • The HK/Taiwan version uses SM components. Not much room for "upgrades".
  • I have yet to try out the headphone output.
Is there a MP-5 MkII?
Yes and no. While there is a so-called MP-5 MkII (another article here), it is not really by Dared. According to the first link, the Taiwanese company YPL 音譜利 , which is curiously also distributor of Dared in Taiwan, either bought or licensed the name and technology of MP-5 from Dared. Curiously, the MkII is listed under products in YPL's Chinese webpage, but not in the English one. You can see from the pics in the first link that it is quite a different machine, using different tubes (6N2) and SM components, with more features. The price as well as output are about double that of Dared MP-5. I'd love to have a chance to hear it.

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