Review: Red Dragon M500 Amplifier

Category: Amplifiers

Thought I’d relate my experience with some of Red Dragon’s products that have shown up on Audiogon recently. Hope that my notes here might help someone else discover these excellent amps. The world of amplifiers is chock full of great products including quite a few based on newer technologies that have started to upset the conventional wisdom of how to amplify an audio signal. If you’ve convinced yourself that Class-D amplifier technology is not your cup of tea or that it’s not really a viable option for a quality audio system, then stop reading now. There’s probably little that I, or anyone else for that matter, would be able to say to convince you otherwise. However, if Class-D (or “switching” amp technology) is of interest, then this may be a worthwhile browse. Or, if you don’t really care about amp topology and care more about the music an amp can produce, read on!

Let’s set the stage a bit. A few months back I picked up a pair of Acoustic Zen Adagio loudspeakers (astonishingly good by the way!) and decided that it would be interesting to try some different amplification as well. I had been running a pair of Aleph mono-bloc clones for quite some time that were built for me by Tim Rawson. For those familiar with the Rawson/Aleph amps, you know they have incredible midrange purity and are supremely musical; pretty amazing for a DIY product. I loved the Rawson’s but thought they may be the slightest bit reserved at the frequency extremes, and they run HOT! No trouble with heat in the room in the winter but a little toasty for the rest of the year. So, with the typical audiophile upgrade disease firmly in place, I decided it was time for a change to complement my new Adagio’s. Long story short, I discovered after some research on different amps that Red Dragon Audio utilizes the Adagio in their show set up and in their testing process as well. I had the opportunity to converse with Red Dragon’s owner Ryan Tew along the way as well. Ryan was supremely helpful and knows how to take care of a customer; always nice to see that in a manufacturer. Anyway, Ryan’s been running a special on his M500 and M1000 mono-bloc amps that’s pretty hard to beat. Try ‘em at home for 45 days and if you don’t like ‘em you can return the units and get your money back, no questions asked. Without telegraphing my own experience too much, I’ll just say that I’ll bet Ryan hasn’t received any of his amplifiers back!

The only difference between the M500 and M1000 is their power output. The M500 produces 250 watts into 8 ohms and 500 watts into 4 ohms. Just double that for the M1000. Other than that, you’ll see little difference. Both utilize B&O’s ICE amp modules which are the aforementioned Class-D variety. Most ICE based amps are very similar in all actuality. The biggest differences in implementation between manufacturers is usually in the realm of power supply design and the low pass filter section that’s needed to filter out the switching frequency that lies way above the audio pass band and is at the heart of how switching amplifiers work. I have actually had a couple of ICE based amps previously (both Bel Canto’s) so had some familiarity with them. In my communication with Ryan I asked what makes his amps different. He explained that what he attempts to do is keep all of the associated circuitry as simple as possible while using the highest quality parts. Good answer in my book as I usually find that simpler circuits almost always sound better. So, I took the plunge.

I decided that for my purposes the M500’s would be more than sufficient. When the amps arrived, I was immediately impressed with them right out of the box. Like many Class-D amps, they’re not big beefy things, only about shoe box sized but they are hefty little devils and feel substantial for their size. Nothing flimsy at all here, and their level of construction and fit & finish are first rate. I’ve seen plenty of very expensive equipment over the years, that don’t begin to compare to the quality and care put into these. You can order them with either a Neutrik XLR input jack or a standard RCA jack. I opted for the XLR and also ordered up a pair of Ryan’s XLR to RCA adapter plugs so I could go either way with the amps. Since my current preamp is single ended only, I’ve been using the adapters exclusively. At least I have the option to go XLR in the future if I ever want or need to. The back panel also sports a standard IEC power input jack and the very nice, single knob, Cardas binding connector for the speaker wires. The front panel has the Red Dragon name machined into the aluminum and their dragon’s head logo emblazoned right in the center with a power-on LED right below it in the dragon’s flames; the things just look really cool!

Upon initial hook up I was immediately impressed with the fact that the Red Dragon’s definitely have the frequency extension I was looking for. I noticed that they sounded a little “hard” in the mids and the bottom end wasn’t quite as fleshed out as I’d like, maybe a little lumpy in the mid-bass frequencies. I turned on some internet radio via my Squeezebox Duet (see my online system for more of the associated equipment) and let them cook for a couple of days. After a little burn in I sat down for a more serious listen. I threw on one of my favorite test CD’s, Mark Knopfler’s excellent “One Take Radio Sessions” and realized before I knew it that I had listened through the entire CD! The M500’s had taken on an exceptional character after being given some time to get their legs under them. One of the things I’ve always noticed with ICE amps is that they seem to get the basic tonality of music right and the M500’s have this ability in spades. There’s no smearing or otherworldly sound to any note, every one is spot on and where it belongs in the overall spectrum. They have a sweet, yet crystalline character in the upper registers that allow you to hear all the fundamentals as well as discerning all the shimmering overtones and harmonics of something like a cymbal crash. They produce lots of “air” around individual instruments that adds real credibility to the presentation of strings and higher registers of the piano, like in a Schumann symphony conducted by Maestro Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra or some of the Zenph piano re-performance recordings. Now, I’ve been a drummer & percussionist for most of my life so I key in on drum and percussive sounds that seem “right” and the M500’s nail this. Listen to Vinnie Colaiuta’s kit in “Bird on a Wire” from Jennifer Warnes “Famous Blue Raincoat” and you’ll see what I mean. Some amps get this right, but fall down in the dynamic whack that a live drum kit should give, not the M500’s. One of my favorite examples of this is from the Dire Straits album “On Every Street” in the cut “Heavy Fuel”. If everything’s right and your system can reproduce the dynamics of this tune, you can crank it up and it should split you in half! I was also happy to find that the purity of the midrange was still there as it had been with the Rawson Class-A Aleph’s. The M500’s may not have quite the richness of the Aleph’s, but this is a minor quibble because they are very close.

They also throw an exceptional sound stage. Instruments are clearly delineated in space and rock solid. The upper energy air allows things to stand out and keep their place within the mix. Plus, they also portray great depth as well, something that many amps that sound good otherwise just don’t seem to do. How Mr. Tew has been able to pull this off without tubes in the mix somewhere is pretty amazing. There are few solid state amps of any variety that can get this right until you spend a lot more money.

Music would not be what it is, at least not in my book, without a solid bottom end. The fundamentals of most music is actually found in the lower and mid-bass registers of the spectrum. For me, if you don’t get this right, fuhgedaboudit! This is an area where the Red Dragon’s really shine. Their bass performance is just outstanding in my system. They not only plumb the depths and reproduce truly subterranean notes, they control them properly as well. The bass you hear is not just a rush of rumbling air. The amps have the ability to delineate the notes and let your hear into the instrument that created them. Stand up bass sounds natural with the ability to hear the body of the instrument as the wood resonates as well as the raspy pluck of the player’s fingers on the strings. One of my favorites to test a system’s bottom end capability is the cut “Digging in the Dirt” from Peter Gabriel’s “Us”. This can sound like complete mud on a system that can’t properly articulate the bottom end. You should hear not only the wash of the bass line as the notes resonate into one another, but you should be able to catch the fundamentals of where they start. In listening to this via the M500’s, I suddenly realized some sliding notes within the mix that I hadn’t heard before, and I had previously believed that I was getting it all. And, yes, they will pummel you with the pedal tones from the pipe organ in whatever version of Saint Saens symphony No 3 you care to spin.

Do I like the M500’s? I’d say that’s a huge affirmative if you haven’t caught on to that fact yet! I can’t seem to shut the system down and just want to keep listening and that’s a real testament to the quality of sonics the Red Dragon’s afford. Are they perfect, no. They may not have the last bit of detail and they may just slightly (and I mean VERY slightly) color the sound a bit to the darker side of neutral, but these are very minor in comparison to the whole. For the price of these amps, I would say you just about can’t go wrong. One of the best buys I’ve ever made in my long audio journey… oh yeah, I kept ‘em!

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Good stuff Dogmcd. Thanks for taking the time out to write such and in depth review. I have the older, lesser powered Red Dragon Amp-1 (M100) monoblocks as part of an amp rotation in my secondary system and I enjoy them. My Amp-1s have similar charactaristics to your M500s.

"They may not have the last bit of detail and they may just slightly (and I mean VERY slightly) color the sound a bit to the darker side of neutral"

Also I have to say Ryan Tew is great with customer service all around. I enjoyed my dealings with him.

One last thing. The Rawson clone monoblocks you had previously were based off designs by the one and only Nelson Pass. He designed and created the Aleph line of amps. Sorry if you knew that already. I just wanted to mention that because some readers may miscontrue parts of your review thinking that the Aleph amps came from Rawson. A lot of members are very touchy when it comes to Tim Rawson's clones too.

Anyway Thanks again for the review.

You are absolutely correct, the Aleph design was actually one of the Nelson Pass DIY designs. That's what I get for assuming folks would know what an "Aleph Clone" is. :) I've actually always been of the mind that Pass is one of the greatest solid state amp designers alive today. I had a Threshold 400A many moons ago and it was awesome! One of the BEST amps I've EVER heard was actually a Pass Labs driving Apogee Duetta II's.

Something else I probably should have detailed a little more is some of the amps I've had in my stable over the past three or four years as well as the Rawson's so you know what some of the other things my sonic recollection is comparing the Red Dragons to (in no particular order): Forte Model 3 (another Pass design), BelCanto S300 & S300i, Classe CA100, McCormack DNA100, Musical Fidelity 3.5, Perreaux PMF1850 and a Rawson built gain clone GK100.
By the way, one more minotr little thing that I left out of my original comments; VERY minor nit to pick... one thing that could be improved on the amplifier is the power switch. Nothing wrong with the quality of the switch or anything like that, it's a matter of where it is and its size. The power input socket and power switch are a single assembly and the switch is relatively small and just above the input socket. If you put a big after market power cable into that socket (like my Pangea 9's) you can't get your finger into the switch! I use the end of screwdriver to reach in and flip the switch. Not a big deal as I said but may be something that could be improved in the overall design.
Hi Dogmcd

You bring up a valid point about the power switch and larger aftermarket power cords. Have you spoken to Ryan about it? I'm sure Ryan will address the issue in the overall design of the amps next time. Also since the Red Dragon amps are Class D do they require the larger Pangea power cords? Do you hear an improvement in sound with the larger power cord vs the thinner power cords with smaller connectors? For some reason I always thought the smaller Pangea cords would do with the M500.

Now my older Amp-1s don't have an on/off switch. They power up when a signal is passed to them and turn off after about 20 mins. The only minor nitpick I have to deal with is that when I play a CD or LP the first second or 2 gets cut off while the amp powers on. I just repeat the track or let the LP play. One previous Amp-1 owner told me he just had the signal sense feature bypassed and left his Amp-1s on all the time. They didn't consume much electricity and to his ears sounded much better.

Well enjoy the M500 monos you have. I hope more members see this review and give Red Dragon amps a chance.
I want to be careful opening up the power cord can of worms and that's not my intent here, but yes, I do believe the Pangea's improve performance over the stock cords. My opinion on power cables is that a good replacement power cable definitely improves any system, but I also believe that the rule of diminishing returns is VERY prevalent in this space... nuff said.

And, again, the power switch issue is EXTREMELY MINOR. It's really no big deal and presents no safety or operational issues to slide a small screwdriver blade into the switch cavity to flip the thing.

I actually leave the amps on almost all of the time. I listen to my system almost daily; I have a hard time keeping my psyche intact without some music going! Only time I shut them down is when I'll be away for a couple of days or more, or when storms rumble through here in the beautiful midwest; then EVERYTHING gets shutdown and unplugged... :)
Thanks... that was a good reaed.

Would you say due to the greater power capacity of the Red dragons, this feature alone might well be responsible for a better overall presentation?

I recently heard the Adagio speakers driven by EAR tube amps, Einstien preamp, MSB Platinum DAC, all Isoclean power conditioning and I felt the AZ speakers could have used more power at times. Albeit, I was impressed by the AZ A's bass output via it's transmission line tuning and just 100wpc total power on tap.

I only mention it as I quickly scanned thru your previous amps and noticed throughout most were under the 250wpc variety. Power, control in other words does convey itself as an important aspect in contributing to the reality factor music presents to the listener.

I'm curious as I'm considering making a move myself to D class amps.

Your comment about power may have some truth in it, but the discussion of "how much" can be dicey at best. You have to take into consideration things like what "class" the amplifier is running in (A, AB, D, T, etc...), how much current it can produce into a given load, how much voltage gain it has, what the rise time is, what the damping factor may be; all of these parameters can have a bearing on how an amplifier sounds with a particular speaker. The way the industry advertises and talks about "watts" is ok, but can be a little misleading because it doesn'e really equate much to an amplifiers sonic characteristics when properly utilized.

Keep in mind that the amps I ran previously with the AZ's were class A amps (the Rawson Aleph 5 clones) and they developed about 60 to 65 watss into an 8ohm load and about 120 watts into a 4ohm load. The AZ's are a nominal 6 ohms, so I was probably able to pull in the 90 to 100 watt range if I wanted to peel the paint off the walls from the Rawsons. But there's more to it than just watts. Is it advantageous to have the extra power on hand, probably. But, there's much more to take into consideration. I think in this case what probably makes a bigger difference is the level of control the Red Dragon's may have over the transmission line bass of the AZ's because of speed and high damping factor. Tubes sound really sweet and swing lots of voltage, but sometimes can lose some control with dynamic loudspeakers, depending on the design of the speaker, and maybe that's what you heard with the EAR stuff... Nothing "bad" or "Wrong" with any of it, maybe just not the best match?

Anyway, I think that my perception of the sound "quality" of the Red Dragon's would be the same even if the rated output were lower. But, it is nice to have the extra "oomph" on hand when I want to listen to Led Zeppelin III! :)
Actually, it was a break up in the upper midrange which I found disconcerting…. And as such attributed it to a need for more power. The bass seemed taut and even handed enough, even if a bit more pronounced than I had either envisioned or care for, as it seemed to draw attention to itself. The room was spacious for sure quite high ceilings and apart from pr of 7ft Acapella speakers standing behind each AZ unit and to their outside facing them, no real hard boundaries were present which could have aided their bass output via reinforcement…. And it was an upstairs setting…. Yet as said, I deemed the bass acceptably tight enough, but too prodigious.

Perhaps the Isoclean starved the EAR amp… or the recording was bad when I heard the speakers breakup or seem to mishandle the song. My perception was however mo’ po’ was the solution for those speakers…. Aside from being better voiced, silkier and less hi fi-ish (tipped up sounding). The space itself come to think of it, in all fairness, was Spartan. Hard wood floors, lots of windows and mostly barren walls…. Or as best I could tell. The room then too could have accounted for what I was hearing out of those AZ units. I heard sharp and distinct…. Predominately. Funny. Looking back on that event from just a few weeks ago, and now relating it here, what stuck in my mind about the sound I heard.

I could see however, in spite of that setup, the AZ speakers were capable units. Remarkably pretty too. For the $$$ were I looking in that arena for transducers, it would not be too difficult a pick to go home with them. A couple hundred watts of good tuneful power, and some tubes in there somewhere, and I could be pretty happy with adagios.

So yep… I do dig there’s more to it, and I’m quite glad you have found the mix you need to be satisfied in your current affair. Congrats. I’ll Keep RD amps in mind as I continue my own search for a ‘hands free’ keeper amp (s). Thanks for all your time.
Based on your review I am going to order a pair. They will replace an Aragon 8008 to drive Arial 10t's via a Bel Canto Pre-6. I was wondering about these amps and given the list of Amps you have owned I think that these will be a solid improvement. Your thoughts?

I think you'll hear a marked improvement in clarity and frequency extension out of the M500's in comparison to the 8008. I met the guys that owned Aragon at CES back in the dark ages when they still had CES in Chicago in the summer (ok, I'm really dating myself now!). I was doing a little work on the side for a buddy of mine that owned an audio shop and we went to the show that year together ad we picked up the line for a while. I think the original Aragon amps that were designed by Dan D'Agostino for Anthony Federici were some of the best values ever... performed WAY above their asking price!

However, that was quite some time ago and amplifier & component technology have certainly advanced and I think you'll be really pleased with what you hear from the Red Dragon's. Would love to know how they sound with your Aerial's. Have fun!
Great review. There seems to be very little discussion on the web about these amps. Wondering what preamps some of you Red Dragon owners are using? I have the M-500's mated with an ARC SP 16 tube pre. I'm using a SCE Harmonic Recovery System Interface between amp and pre to help with impedance issues. The Red Dragons have a very low input impedance rating of 10K. Some have said I may be losing a little bit of transparency by using the interface but I have not noticed any loss. The amps are driving Vandersteen 3A Signatures and the system really sounds wonderful.I've also been using the LessLoss Power Cords on the amps which I find to be a big improvement over the stock PC's.The amps have opened up in terms of dynamics, due to perhaps a lower noise floor.
Also I read that Red Dragon was coming out with new models of their amps. Has anyone heard them if they are out yet? Is the company still in business?
There is a pair of M500 mk 1's for sale near me, I want some beefy amps to power my Tanny M1000 Super Red Monitors with their 15" 3808 drivers. Do you know if there is much difference between the mk's? Because I'm in UK I can't really take advantage of the 'puppy dog' try out due to shipping and customs duty and tax eras etc. Not to mention they are a bit thin on the ground here in any form. I'm also a percussionist so really focus on the drum sounds, particularly Latin, congas etc. Any help or insights appreciated, oh and I like the bang for bucks formula.