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! Associated gear Click to view my Virtual System