Dana Audio Model 1 loudspeaker
During this review of three inexpensive speakers in this issuethe other were the Tannoy E11 and the NHT 1.3I had an opportunity to listen at length to a system that is the antithesis of this oft-espoused thinking. I drove the $179/pair Dana Audio Model 1 loudspeakers with $4200/pair tube monoblocks, an $8000 CD transport/digital processor combination, and a passive control unit. What's more, it was all connected with some of the most expensive cable and interconnects money can buy.
The result? An astonishing level of musicality. Surprisingly, I was able to spend time with this system enjoying music for its own sake and never felt it was a reviewing chore. Furthermore, the differences between the digital processors used (the Esoteric D-10, D-2, and the Theta DSPro Basic) were readily apparent through this system.
In my opinion, it makes absolutely no sense to put high-resolution loudspeakers at the end of a chain of mediocre electronics, and worse, mediocre front ends, whether analog or digital (especially digital). This setup will only reveal just how bad the upstream electronics really are.
A much better approach for the audiophile on a budget is to buy good electronics and source components, but inexpensive loudspeakers like the ones reviewed here. Then, as resources permit, there is a clear upgrade path to a truly high-end system. I don't advocate inexpensive loudspeakers for everyonethey have obvious limitationsbut it is far better to invest in electronics that won't end up in Audiomart six months later and loudspeakers that will.
Dana Audio Model 1: $179/pair
How on Earth can anyone sell a 6" two-way loudspeaker with name-brand drivers and gold binding posts for about the same price as a set of three Goldmund cones or a pair of decent interconnects? Dana Audio has done just that by keeping their overhead low, trimming their profit margins, and most important, selling factory-direct. Dana Audio, run by John and Dana Fish in Austin, TX, is the prototypical cottage industry: When you call to place an order, Dana answers the phone, processes the charge-card slip, goes in the workshop and builds a pair of speakers, then ships them to the customer. It is hard to imagine a less corporate-type business.
Although both John and Dana are avid audiophiles, for some reason they had a desire to build a speaker business based on making a musical loudspeaker that was ridiculously inexpensive. The result is the Model 1. The speaker's one-year development was a process of trial and error, with the design constantly compared to the sound of live instruments. John Fish is a musician, and his and Dana's home is filled with musical instruments, recording equipment, and hi-fi. Typically, a design variation would be asked to reproduce John's miked Sonor drum kit or piano, the success or failure of the design judged by how accurately it reproduced the live instrument.
The Model 1 uses a Polydax HIF17JVX woofer (ostensibly the same driver found in the Spica TC-50) and a Polydax titanium-coated dome tweeter in a sealed enclosure. The cabinet is made from 5/8"-thick MDF and covered in black vinyl. A single pair of gold-plated input terminals is provided on the rear panel. Crossover frequency is 3150Hz, with first-order slopes. SEAS inductors are used and all connections are soldered instead of using push-on connectors. The Model 1's construction is surprisingly good for a loudspeaker at this price (but then, everything about it is surprising considering its price). However, it understandably falls short of the NHT 1.3's or Tannoy E11's fit and finish.
The 24" Celestion stands placed the Dana Model 1s' tweeters about 1" below ear level. After some experimentation, I settled on the Model 1s toed-in slightly so the listener was just off-axis, and the loudspeakers 39" from the side walls and 53" from the rear wall. A little experimentation goes a long way toward getting the best spatial presentation from the Danas.
After listening daily to the extremely neutral Hales System Two Signature loudspeakers, I was not looking forward to switching to a pair of $179 boxes. Nevertheless, I began the auditioning with Dick Hyman Plays Fats Waller (RR-33CD), a favorite of mine for getting a good overall picture of a loudspeaker's tonal balance and presentation.
What a surprise! Although the Model 1's shortcomings were readily apparent, real music managed to emerge from these humble boxes. The tonal balance was smooth, with most of the midrange fairly uncolored. The left- and right-hand lines were clearly differentiated, without the homogeneity one often hears from cheap boxes. On the down side, I noticed a lack of air and high-frequency extension that took some life and sparkle from the Bösendorfer piano. In addition, bass peaks were clearly audible on some left-hand notes and the bass seemed underdamped, somewhat on the tubby side. There was also a tendency for the midrange to be pushed forward in the presentation. All things considered, however, the Dana Model 1 was off to a good start.
Moving on to my guitar and bass recording on the Stereophile Test CD, I again had the impression of a relatively uncolored midrange, but with a loss of HF extension that lessened this recording's spatial information. However, the Model 1s conveyed the essence of the music and some of the acoustic space in which it was recorded. The bass was more prominent in the presentation than I am accustomed to, somewhat bloated and definitely underdamped.
Throughout the rest of the auditioning, these impressions of the Dana Model 1 were reinforced. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed listening to music through them. Female vocal (Diane Reeves on David Benoit's album This Side Up, ENP 0001) appeared between the loudspeakers and detached from them, but the image was large and diffuse, rather than a pinpoint spot directly in the soundstage center. The tonal quality of the voice was surprisingly pure and free from severe coloration for such an inexpensive product. However, some notes in Reeves's lower register could clearly be heard to excite resonances, giving a chesty or husky character to her voice. There was also a measure of hardness to the vocal, with a forward quality. Pitch definition in the low end was fairly good despite the somewhat tubby midbass character and cabinet colorations. It was easy to follow Stanley Clarke's bass lines on Light as a Feather (Polydor 827 148-2). The Model 1s never sounded thin or threadbare in the midbass, but lacked LF extension.
To sum up the Model 1's overall tonal balance, it tended to be a bit forward in the midrange, laid-back in the treble, and with a loose, over-warm upper bass that added a tubbiness to the presentation.
The Model 1s' imaging abilities were quite good. They could throw a sense of depth and space that was surprising for their modest price. On Jazz at the Pawnshop (Proprius PRCD-7778), the brush work on the snare drum was clearly behind the other musicians. In addition, the vibes, spread somewhat unnaturally across the soundstage in the recording, managed to have good lateral placement. Although there was some tendency for the notes to clump around the loudspeaker positions, the Model 1s were still able to present images between the loudspeakers. Nevertheless, the Danas lacked the precision and pinpoint localization of the best minimonitors. Images tended to be big and diffuse, without a firm anchor in the soundstage.
The Dana Audio Model 1 loudspeaker offers a far more musical performance than one would imagine possible at this low price point. Despite its obvious shortcomings, it nevertheless manages to convey the music in a way that is enjoyable and musically satisfying. It is free from the spitty treble and severely colored midrange one often hears in inexpensive loudspeakers. In addition, the pair throws a fairly credible lateral soundstage, with some feeling of depth. This is an amazing feat for a $179/pair product. Although the Model 1s manage to present instrumental images outside the loudspeaker positions, these images tend to be diffuse and somewhat lacking in focus. However, what is truly remarkable about the Model 1 is its relative freedom from severe colorations through most of the critical midrange.
My criticisms of the Model 1, which should be taken in the context of its price, involve an underdamped and somewhat bloated bass, a subdued treble that lacks life and air, and an aggressive, forward upper midrange.
Although the Model 1s will not satisfy most audiophiles as their primary loudspeakers, they do have a variety of other uses: video surround speakers, a bedroom system, or for someone who is on a tight budget. This last use brings up a good point. We audiophiles should encourage our non-audiophile friends to buy inexpensive but musical products like the Dana Model 1, the $25 Grado ZTE+1 cartridge, and the $400 Rotel RCD-855 CD player, rather than amusical mass-market products. Not only would this support the companies who care about the musical enjoyment of their customers, but would also give the non-audiophile a glimpse of what a hi-fi system is supposed to do. Who knows, today's Dana Audio Model 1 customer may evolve into a WAMM owner in ten years!
Because of its $179/pair price, the Dana Audio Model 1 is a unique and interesting product that manages to squeeze the most music out of the least money. On that basis, it earns an enthusiastic recommendation.