Listening #17 Follow-Up, March 2005

Art Dudley returned to the DNMs in March 2005 (Vol.28 No.3):

Unconventional audio products have almost always attracted me, few more than the DNM electronics I wrote about in my "Listening" columns of April and May 2004 (Vol.27 Nos.4 & 5). The DNM 3C Primus preamplifier and PA3-S amplifier are, in fact, the closest I've found to a complete rethink of what audio amplification ought to be, in materials as well as design, being, as they are, the sum total of everything that Denis N. Morecroft has discovered over the years about low-voltage music signals.

But is odder always better? I live in the countryside, and spend more than a little time setting traps for the field mice who stumble, pathetically, into our house, looking for a handout, while our useless cat tries to guess their names. And the thing is: Nothing gets the job done quicker and more humanely than a good old-fashioned Victor mousetrap—essentially, a piece of copper wire stapled to a scrap of wood. (Isn't that the same as one of Peter Belt's accessories?) Maybe the joke is that there really isn't any such thing as a better mousetrap.

It's difficult to know in a field like ours, because audio electronics are sometimes only subtly different from one another, and the reviewer, like the enthusiastic consumer, ought to be forgiven for confusing "newer" with "better." (Forgiven, but not excused.) But uncertainty is the disease for which time and thought are the cure—and the DNM electronics are more than original enough to deserve lots of time and lots of thought.

After their whirlwind tour of the Northeast that followed my auditioning—one thinks of Abraham Lincoln's final journey, from DC to Springfield, with viewings along the way—the DNM 3C Primus preamplifier ($3495) and PA3-S power amplifier ($4695) made their way back here for another listen. Having looked forward to this for some time, I rushed them out of their neat wooden crates and into my main system, where I found one channel dead as a doornail, while the other zizzed in and out.

Because the latter problem could be altered by moving the preamp slightly, I had no trouble tracing it to a faulty interconnect cable, summarily fixed. The former was not so obvious, but I found it after an hour of looking. All of the preamp's active circuitry is on removable (hence updatable) subboards with multipin sockets of the usual sort. But the largest of these—the main line-level boards—have one additional solderless connection each, in the form of a subminiature pin and socket that carry the audio signal to the volume control's wiper contact. On my left-channel board, the metal of that pin had fatigued and broken off entirely.

That was easy enough to fix, or would have been for someone who doesn't require trifocals just to butter his toast. I wound up replacing the connector altogether by soldering in a piece of very fine silver solid-core wire, left over from one of my DIY interconnect projects.

So I've gone back to the DNMs a few times in recent weeks, sometimes together, and sometimes on their own, in use with other, very different preamps and amps.

I'll cut to the chase sequence. (Do aficionados of Jane Campion films say, I'll cut to the scene where the angry young woman drinks a cup of tea?) The DNM PA3-S amp is a reliably musical thing—an extremely smooth-sounding and pleasantly insightful amp that's always easy to listen to. There are some amps I like better with my Quad ESL-989 loudspeakers (the Lamm ML2.1s, for two), and some I like better with my Lowther Medallions (the Fi 2A3 Stereo, for one). But the PA3-S always pleased me, and always rewarded me with better-than-average sound and music.

For its part, the 3C Primus is simply one of the finest preamplifiers I've ever used. And once I overcame my initial shock at how well it worked with even single-ended tube amplifiers—dare I say especially with single-ended tube amplifiers?—I realized that this is one of the few preamps on Earth that I could imagine having and using as my own, for the long haul. Even its styling, odd though it may be, is timelessly odd.

The 3C's sound was open and very explicit, yet utterly lacking in lightness or brightness: Through this preamp, music simply was. The 3C played it in a manner that did not encourage analysis.

And I loved using it. The dual volume controls suited my style of listening, letting me dial in the side-to-side balances I wanted, without the need for an extra control in the signal path. My only real complaint is the usual one: I wish it had a mono switch.

I don't doubt for a second that the DNM preamp's low mass has something to do with how good it sounded, but there were a few times when I wished it were physically heavier, as when I had to hold the enclosure still with my left hand while turning the knobs with my right. And I never did get used to the Mute control—a stiff pushbutton that also required holding the enclosure still with the other hand, lest the poor thing get pushed off the back of the shelf. I took to just turning down the volume knobs, instead. I can at least be thankful that DNM supplies their own interconnects, which defy convention by being neither heavy nor stiff—so they don't bully the lightweight gear as other modern cables certainly would. (I didn't try any others because I couldn't see the point, and because DNM's own cables are almost as inexpensive as they come.)

The DNM preamp's first visit here preceded my discovery, if you want to call it that, of the superb performance available with Linn's top-of-the-line phono cartridge, the Akiva—especially when used with a moving-coil step-up transformer, such as the Tamura TKS-83 or my own Audio Note AN-S2: My experiences had led me to expect better, more musically natural performance with a trannie as opposed to loading the cartridge with an active circuit, but the phono boards in the 3C Primus kept me quite happy. All in all, it was a fine match.

But the Primus is only the entry-level 3C preamp: The others in the line, especially the new 3D, may well sound even better. And I'm told the 3D does have a mono switch.

Toward the end of the year, the 3C Primus was at the heart of a system that gave me more pleasure than any other: an all-Linn record player driving the DNM preamp, driving the Lamm monoblocks, driving the Quad ESL-989s: the best combination of musical accuracy, color, drama, scale, and texture I've ever enjoyed in my home, framed with superb stereo imaging—and all quite fun to use. The DNM once again impressed me as extraordinary in virtually every sense—and more than worth the asking price.—Art Dudley

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