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Positive Feedback ISSUE41
red dragon audio
as reviewed by Jim Merod
Partners in audio crime think alike. Let me put this another way: kindred listeners hear with remarkably acute resemblance. There's good news and bad news tucked inside such entanglement.
Recently, responding to a reader's sympathetic outreach, I stopped by Acoustic Zen's spacious quarters in Rancho Bernardo to harass my old friend Robert Lee. The sonic maestro had been missing in action for nearly a year—missing, at any rate, my action just as I missed his. Robert was surprised at my unannounced invasion of his digs and so he did what Robert Lee might be expected to do on such a presumptuous occasion.
"Have you heard my improvements on Crescendo speakers?" he asked. Since those behemoths were precisely why I'd dropped by, I broke the good news. "I'm here to request, formally and in person," I told him, "an opportunity to slap my paw-prints on your enhanced Crescendos and find out what you've been up to this whole year!"
Robert laughed at my gruff levity despite the fact that 2008 was not a good year, as we all know. The economy tanked worldwide. High-end audio took a plunge along with everything else. Reviewing expensive audio gear has become a little bit like handicapping gunnysack races at an old folks home. Nevertheless, in pursuit of Wallace Stevens' fatal the—the "the" that defines all others—I plow on as I reported to Robert because it's still there. Great sound, great music, great audio equipment is there to be heard. Great sound has not taken a holiday or put its vibe underwater... yet. The world will regain strength and focus I hope. But, for the interim, I need fresh audio reproduction and new audio possibilities. Why? Because, that's what I do to keep my spirits high. Sound does it for me: elusive sonic details awaiting discovery; gorgeous layered harmonies recorded well and reproduced with sonic love... those are particles of a world not to be overlooked or abandoned merely because some bloke in New York ran $50 billion through a Ponzi sieve or Wall Street laid an egg ...again.
Superior sound keeps a fellow safe inside himself when skies are falling. At least that's my mantra and it's worked for two-thirds of a century.
If part of my bad news for Robert Lee was a strident reach out to assume temporary possession of his giant sound boxes, the other part hinged on our uncoordinated sonic agreement. There before me, in broad interior daylight on the Acoustic Zen campus, was the very set of Acoustic Zen Adagio speakers that I'd been listening to daily (for months) in the company of the no less impressive Red Dragon "Leviathan Signature" mono-block amps.
"What's with this pairing, Robert? How come you've hooked your great little Adagios to those sexy wood-enclosed thing-a-ma-jigs?" Robert looked at me with that look of bemused inscrutability that I've sometimes accused him of offering in lieu of explanation. "Why not," he enthused, "they sound fantastic together."
And so they do. And that's the bottom line of my beflusterment upon finding that kindred listeners truly are (against other odds) partners in the audio crime of hearing with acute similarity. And that's the inner truth of my long listening months with these genuinely powerful, truly musical Red Dragon amplifiers.
Therefore, my covert confession: that I've indulged myself in far too much listening with (and "to" or "through") these beautiful creatures—and the Red Dragons ARE, in fact, "creatures" of a different sonic sort, given their raw animal power—more like panthers than somewhat scary old "dragons." But I digress for the sake of truth-telling here because I find these amps, strapped with Kubla-Sosna's Emotion speaker cables, to be magical.
The word that came to me as I received these drop-dead seductive amp-sculptures was that they were "quite good," not the final statement on micro-dynamic precision or upper register detail, but impressive and lovely audio companions that match up more than fairly well with many speaker loads because of the somewhat unusual raw power they deliver at (gulp) 500-watts per channel. These are digital amplifiers that can be, and have been, accurately compared to "the best SET amps" - touche!
What, then, was this sense of slight reservation scratching at the underground assessment of their glory?
At the risk of making a summative judgment on the state of a global economy badly needing faith in the collective integrity of its best clients, borrowers, markets, creditors, banks, regulative mechanisms (and, most of all, its teenage kids who want a first loan to buy a good old jalopy to kick-start life's carnival of delights), let me prevaricate. Or pontificate a moment by adding a quick revision to the wide-eyed optimism of a sentence past. Let' scrap the whole faith in humanity thing and just move on to Todd Six-pack's oldest boy's first car. The kid needs a loan, so let's pony up and keep the wheels that grease young love moving nicely along. Where's your g'damm'd romance, anyway? Who the hell are you (you stingy SOB) to deny this kid bread to purchase his ride with a built in CD player or a Bluetooth hook up for his iTunes?
Like I was saying, before I prevaricated, why the reservation (however faint) about amplifiers that kick ass and put a smile on everyone who's not your neighbor Joe-the-plumber? Doubtless Joe does not like Mahler's Tenth or late Shostakovich played at hellacious volumes of slam and boisterous musical rowdiness. I never liked this crotchety neighbor guy, anyway. I'm not really sure he's a plumber, after all. So the hell with him not getting the fact that these drop dead gorgeous wood-cased behemoth amplifiers genuinely MAKE MUSIC. They give sound a tactile truthfulness, part suave lyric grandeur, part strum und drang.
Echale juevos! That could be their moniker. So my theory about audio reviewing quibbles in the presence of such beguiling "real" music reproduction—global economic meltdown; global warmth; global Armageddon; global anything, notwithstanding—is simply this: that high-end sonic reproduction equipment reviewers have been conditioned by the largesse of their innate, professional audio pulchritude to differentiate at ever more refined levels of discrimination. The state of the art Bugatti Macro-Tube ZX Hi-Rev Amplifier has an ounce more upper level "juice" than all other not quite so well-juiced amp engines, you dig? So, come on. After all, really! You've got to hand it to those ZX Hi-Rev audio engineers. At $50,000 a mono-block set, those amplifiers take the nod for sheer juiced up audio shock value. A bargain, to boot, given their sonic horsepower and unrivaled je'ne sais quoi ….
Perhaps I josh at my own expense, but my investment in such jest has a point not merely polemical. The most elusive (potentially enigmatic) quality of music-making, audio recording, and alert listening and accurate reviewing is designated by the troublesome term musicality. Any word can become a bastardized ideological coin. Try these. Patriotism. Love. Freedom. Loyalty. And so, too, in the world of audio reviewing. Words are slippery when you have to press them hard to perfectly describe sound—how, say, Art Farmer's flugelhorn sounds when compared to Miles Davis' sound on the same instrument. But, wait! They're not the "same" instrument. Art had horns made for him by Conn, including his infamous "flumpet" (half flugel, half trumpet) three of which I saw him receive one late afternoon in La Jolla several hours before he took the stage at Elario's to try out. Miles usually used a Selmer, though he experimented with many trumpets and flugelhorns across the decades. Dizzy Gillespie did not like the feel of a flugelhorn, though Clark Terry virtually defined the most seductive and winsome (almost comic) use of that instrument. And there it is in naked brass. One horn does not "sound" like another for at least two perennial reasons. First, the manufacturing of any instrument shapes its tonal range as well as the scope and reach of its overtones. Second, each horn player's embouchure defines an intrinsic sound that becomes that one musician's sonic personality.
My point is that any piece of audio gear approaching the elusive quality worth calling (i.e., accurately designated as) "musicality" has an advantage over reproduction equipment defined by extremes of sonic performance—speakers that "stage" beyond all others or that owns that apparently final dollop of dynamic "slam". Consider, in contrast, what you hear in a very good acoustic environment when a single instrument or ensemble (or, for that, an orchestra) plays with well-rehearsed musical integrity. That sound is difficult to snare exactly as you hear it, naked and "live" in the room, on recordings. Not impossible, but (believe me) more elusive than you might think since choices of (i) microphones; (ii) mic placement; (iii) associated recording gear (mic preamps and cables; hard drive, disc-based or tape-based reception and storage) all influence multiple parameters of the music captured.
So, in the end what is "musicality"? It's what we hear most accurately at the beginning, when music is performed live "on location" in decent or superb sonic space. Someone can write about this fractious sonic terrain at great length, but for now my intention is to reflect simply on two mono-block amplifiers with extraordinary heft and delicacy. The Red Dragons may not have dynamic force often associated with VTL tube amps. They may not throw a sound stage as wide and deep as the best Manley tube amps. They do not extend to a top range of transient detail in the way that my mono-block pair of KR amplifiers accomplishes. But what the Red Dragons offer—both relatively, in comparison to these and other refined amps; and absolutely without the invidious tug of comparison—is a touch of musical magic which sounds and feels utterly right in the subjective but totally palpable "there-ness" of music in real space and time.
Over the years, I've had the good fortune to own and to review some of the most alluring Conrad-Johnson amplifiers. They have never been characterized by the ne plus ultra of some "last and final" top-to-bottom sonic definition. Yet they have always been happy partners to loving musical expression. In some ways, I can affiliate these remarkable Red Dragon music engines to those truly engaging Conrad-Johnson sonic machines. The footprint of both is at once sonically delicate and texturally convincing... as if well-recorded music (music made in superior acoustic halls and grottos) appeared to inform one of the joyful uniqueness of Bach's melodic brilliance, of Beethoven's harmonic arrogance, of Duke Ellington's improbable tonal palette, and of the spooky beauty of a Sarah Vaughan's voice—that loveliest and most intriguing of all recording challenges, the sound of a solitary voice with its generous mystery. Comparisons aside, the Red Dragons own a degree of musical and sonic transparency in the service of a necessarily "tactile" bulk of harmonic layering. Together they create an illusion of being in the room "with" the men and women who made it. Among audio illusions that conspire to craft the sense of (re-created) "musical reality," this one is the most fragile but satisfying.
I'll end by saluting Robert Lee's good sense to match his wonderful Adagio speakers to a pair of amplifiers that, on one hand, vividly exemplify the timbral beauty of well-voiced speakers while, on another hand, removing themselves from the long signal chain of potential distortion, exaggeration and sonic error so frequently the source of musical blues.
I mean there, most of all, my blues when music I've recorded, with all the love and attention I can muster for this wonderfully trying art of "on location" sonic re-creation, is mishandled by the over-kill of showboat components more dedicated to sonic drama than to musical truth. I'll admit that I enjoy the very large, sonically astonishing MBL speakers usually on display at the Consumer Electronics Show early each year in Las Vegas. But—for all their mesmerizing cartoon enlargement and romantic audio excess (something worth beholding, I'll assure you)—no recording engineer who seeks to get his work right will long succumb to their blandishments. Give me a speaker like SP Tech's "Timepiece" line of brilliantly tuned boxes. Let me at the Acoustic Zen Adagios with their innate musical coherence. Despite their bottom-end lightness, the old Apogee Stage ribbon-tweeter speakers delivered music as if you were in its presence as it was created ...when it was recorded.
Therefore, give me these Red Dragons. They combine the most virtuous tactile qualities of tube audio reproduction with the drop dead no nonsense "dig all the rhythm out of the basement" of the strongest, most seductive non-tube amplifiers you can reach for. Are they perfect? Of course not. Do they make you think that your expensive and blasphemously luxurious sound system has climbed all possible sonic mountains? Nope. Do they bring you music of every sort as any experienced concert and club veteran should lust for in his private listening den? Without equivocation, absolutely yes!
At $6000 a pair, the Red Dragons are not door-buster, cyber-market bargains. But, they're worth every dollar of their price in an audio universe that boasts $6000 plus one meter pair cables, and, alas, power conditioners that approach (and surpass) that price point. Do I want to keep these teasingly crafted softly-glowing boxes? Yup.
I dare anyone on a restricted budget, now de rigueur in our dried-up economic cosmos, to build a world-class audio system, beginning with superior amplification, to find a better price/value ratio than these hot rod audio engines with their sweetly purring silence locked on music brought to truthful glory for those who truly listen. Jim Merod
Red Dragon Audio