Dared Audio LP-100 Phono Preamplifier Review
Dared Audio is a Hong Kong based designer and manufacturer founded in 1995. Its self-expressed mission, is to “design and manufacture the best and most widely affordable, yet technologically advanced High-End, High Fidelity audio equipment.”
It’s a big call to claim “the best”, but as for affordability there’s no doubt that Dared’s range of products are right on the money. One thing is clear, Dared Audio feature vacuum tubes in all their designs and product range. Dared Audio’s Chief Sound Engineer, Dr.Harley, we’re told, is a passionate audiophile and is universally recognised as an innovator in valve as well as hybrid amplification design.
Dared Audio are certainly not about high volume sales. They’ve conservatively served their own local Asian market, and the U.S. via an international sales office. Only recently have they appointed their first agency outside of Asia and the U.S., Craig Wu, who has been steadily growing the brand name here in Australia since.
Craig personally delivered one of the flagship products in the Dared Audio range, the LP-100 Tube Phono Preamplifier for review. I’ve used or owned quite a number of phono stages in the last couple of years. I’ve ultimately been looking for an outstanding performer at a reasonable price, while highly configurable (both MM/MC, with selectable loading) for the various turntable and cartridge configurations that I get my hands on.
My most recent reference has been the Soulines Kubrick DCX turntable, as supplied with a Jelco 9” tonearm and fitted with a Triangle Art Zeus MC cartridge. While one might suggest that as a ‘reference’ there is an absence of exotic or proven brand names in the above, this combination offers outstanding performance for less than $10,000. For most enthusiasts this is still a considerate budget, ex-phono stage.
Dared Audio (AU) actually orders stock ex-tubes. Craig actually prefers to source his own valves after auditioning each product with various options.
The LP-100 is fitted (locally) with 1 x 6N1P-VI Russian (new, old stock) dated 1978. Craig has sourced a very large quantity of these to ensure their future availability. There’s also 1 x Shuguang 12AX7B tube fulfilling the compliment of valves.
COMPARING APPLES WITH APPLES
The Eastern Electric Minimax Phono Preamplifier has been a popular contender for many which can be picked up for around $1200. Also an MM/MC preamp, it only has fixed loading options via three pairs of phono jacks (MM - 47K ohms, MC High - 47 Ohms, MC Low - 100 Ohms). For the price, the Minimax is fantastic, although many forum users report audible ‘hum’. Results from this phono-pre can certainly be improved through an alternative choice of tubes, and with careful selection and good interconnect cables, I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the dreaded hum.
The LP-100 offers MM and MC connection via phono jacks, however loading (and gain) are selectable via rotary knobs on the front panel. A good range is available (MM Capacitive 10pF, 20pF, 47pF, 100pF, and MC 20ohms, 50ohms, 75ohms, 100ohms, 200ohms, 500ohms) as well as selectable gain for MC, 0db through -18db). There’s also a 25Hz and 45Hz selectable subsonic filter.
While there are many phono preamps on the market with selectable loading, predominantly using internally mounted dip switches, many could argue it’s a set-and-forget process. But I do appreciate the front mounted selectors.
It seems fair to make a comparison between the Eastern Electric Minimax and Dared Audio LP-100 given they both fall into a similar price bracket and country of origin.
I’m no engineer (actually in a previous life I was, but not in the electronics field!), but the LP-100 is actually a ‘hybrid’ design. It uses solid state amplification for the gain and RIAA equalisation, and valves for the output. This is not unusual, as to be a true valve phono pre-amplifier for moving coil cartridges would require multiple valves and a much larger box.
Mechanically the LP-100 is well laid out, with the transformer located outside the box, well insulated from the electronics.
I could bang on with audiophile clichés and track lists, but the truth is I’ve lived with the LP-100 phono preamplifier in my system for some months.
Initially I was impressed with the LP-100, but after time I couldn’t help but feel (or not, ironically) a lack of engagement in the mid-range bandwidth and particularly with female vocals. This was predominantly in comparison to the Minimax, but to throw an orange into the apples vs. apples argument, I clearly recall the emotion and musicality conveyed on reference material when living with a Pure Audio phono preamplifier recently, albeit at double the price of the LP-100.
To get some perspective (and a second opinion), I lugged the LP-100 over to a colleagues place to hear it in another system. It was also a good opportunity to make comparison with the highly regarded Golden Age Audio GA Reference valve phono pre-amp. Perhaps another unfair comparison, as the GA Reference is $1000 more than the LP-100, with no flexibility and built to order based on the phono cartridge being used, but hey you can never have too much perspective, right?
Listening to the LP-100 on a high-efficiency horn speaker system confirmed my initial feeling. The phono pre-amp is doing absolutely everything it should, and very, very well, but female vocals felt compressed and lacked a little pizazz.
Craig Wu was very receptive to my thoughts and quickly shipped out the now supplied as standard new, old stock 78’ 6N1P-VI tube. Originally it was supplied with a Tungsram ECC85, which itself is well regarded, but hey whatever works?
After a week of run time on the new valve, I was satisfied that the LP-100 was performing likely as well as it could and a fair comparison had been made; improvement had been found.
The LP-100 is touted as ‘audiophile grade’ by Dared Audio. In my approach, everything is relative to a price point, and commenting on pure sound quality and performance, the LP-100 is great value. It is accurate and portrays a realistic sound stage, and covers a broad frequency response exceptionally well.
I could live with the LP-100, albeit tube-rolling would most likely consume all my available time with the plethora of vintage valves out there.
Dared’s LP-100 is more refined than an Eastern Electric Minimax. It’s more flexible with loading and configuration, and it’s certainly silent. Three ticks.
At $1799 RRP, it’s probably hard to justify for any cartridge under $1000. Otherwise you’ll likely be content with an integrated amplifier’s on-board pre-amp, or even the more affordable Dared Audio LP-1 ($599 RRP). This phono stage is much better than that however, and screams out for the highest quality cartridge that you can afford.
Certainly, better results can be achieved climbing a few more rungs of the ladder, but with the law of diminishing returns in mind, the LP-100 is a great investment that allows future cartridge upgrades without the need to purchase another suitable phono pre-amplifier.
The Dared Audio LP-100 Phono Pre-Amplifier is available now for $1799 RRP.
For more information visit Dared Audio (Australia).
- Power Supply Input: 50W
- Voltage Range: 100-120V, 220-240V
- Max. Current Draw Indicated: 50W
- Power Consumption: 50W
- Distortion Spec.: 0.07% (1kHz)
- Tube compliment: ECC85(6N1), 12AX7
- Inputs: one pair MC (RCA); one pair MM (RCA)
- Outputs: one pair RCA outs
- MC gain: max. 63dB (adjustable to 66dB and 60dB)
- MM Capacitive Loading: 10pF, 20pF, 47pF, 100pF
- MM Resistive Loading: 47K fixed
- MC Resistive Loading: adjustable 20ohms, 50ohms, 75ohms, 100ohms, 200ohms, 500ohms
- Frequency Response: 10Hz – 25kHz (±2dB)
- Power sequence: Mute delay power up sequence with soft start for improved tube life
- Dimensions: 380x280x125mm / 14.96”x11.02”x4.92” (WxDxH)
- Weight: 8kg / 17.64lbs
- Soulines Kubrick DCX Turntable
- Jelco SA-750D 9” tonearm with Triangle Art Zeus MC Cartridge
- Dared Audio LP-100 Phono Preamplifier
- Elektra Audio PNYX Preamplifier
- SGR Audio EL60M Mono Amplifiers
- Lenehan Audio ML2 Reference Speakers
- Aurealis Audio Interconnects & Speaker Cables
- Gigawatt PF-1 Mk2 Power Filters