Listening #17 Page 2

Things I liked least: The DNM system had a heroically smooth yet precise sound that was beguiling on most music but wasn't a perfect fit for everything. It loved Joan Baez, Doc Watson, Eno's brilliant, early solo albums (such as Here Come the Warm Jets, a perennial Mikey fave), Purcell, Scarlatti, Schütz, all of Beethoven's and Schubert's and Brahms's music (even the symphonies), and a great deal more. But Russian music? Very early Roxy? The Replacements? The DNM rig was never quite as big and coarse and melodramatic as I wanted it to be. But I'm open to the suggestion that power-supply upgrades could improve this aspect—especially since those are the sorts of things that, in my experience, have improved in response to power-supply upgrades in similar systems.

Also, I found that the DNM system was less capable of shrugging off non-musical noises—record surface noise, in particular, but also tape hiss and soprano Emma Kirkby. (Joke. Sort of.) Those things were a shade more noticeable, more difficult to overlook, compared with other systems, albeit not by a huge margin.

The positive side: The DNM system played notes and beats so well I'm almost embarrassed to write about it—like devoting a whole paragraph to the notion that cows enjoy eating grass. But I'll say it anyway: No gear in my experience is better at communicating pitches, pitch relationships, rhythm, momentum, and flow. The DNM system also sounded different from virtually everything else I've heard in my home.

Does Denis Morecroft's amp sound like a single-ended triode? Not really, in spite of DNM's having blazed a trail that, in some ways, runs parallel to that technology. Distortion or not, SETs have a pleasing way of pulling solo instruments and voices a bit forward, spatially and musically. SETs also tend to be smooth—the decidedly non-musical adjective liquid is perfectly appropriate, I think—and, except for the bottom octave or two, they tend to have good rhythm and flow.

The DNM electronics had superb rhythm and flow, and their presentation was certainly smooth—but in a different way. They were clean, clean, clean. And quiet—dead quiet. And while they imbued real music with real textures, there were no other textures to be heard. Their spectral balance was superb, being neither bright nor dull. Don't let the skinny wires scare you: The amplifiers had plenty of deep, fast, impactful bass when called for.

Listening to orchestral music, I was delighted at how different brass instruments sounded more different from one another than I was used to hearing. The French horn was more like its live self—not just because the DNM gear seemed less colored, but also because every aspect of the instrument's character was thrown into starker-than-usual relief against a quieter-than-average background. By this same token, tubas, Wagner tubas, euphoniums, and other horns whose ranges overlap to at least some extent were all more distinct. Trombones were trombonier.

Yet as good as the DNM products were at reproducing sounds, I kept coming back to their strengths at reproducing music. I've never heard their better when it came to sorting out different lines in orchestral music—while playing those lines with accurate pitch and believable flow, and while still holding the whole together (what I think of as poise in orchestral music, if not in orchestral sound). That rightly famous Scheherazade with Fritz Reiner and the CSO (LP, RCA LSC-2446) is a model of orchestral precision, and the DNM gear honored that aspect as has nothing else I've heard. Lines were taut and musically clear and unambiguous. And this was accomplished in a manner utterly lacking in harshness or brightness. If you want an amplification system that, above all, can put across every nuance of the composer's and performer's ideas, this may be it.

Big Star's "Ballad of El Goodo," from Big Star (LP, Ardent ADS-2803), sounded no less crisp through the DNMs than anything else I've tried, but it was cleanly crisp and not at all fuzzy—more like hearing a really good open-reel copy of the recording, I found myself thinking. The hi-hat was more rhythmically insistent through the DNM gear, as were the many well-picked, trebly guitar lines. Most impressive of all, the DNM gear was more silent in the spaces where, at any given moment, nothing much was happening. This is hard to explain, but toward the beginning of "El Goodo," when most of the music is happening in the right channel, drummer Jody Stephens enters with a roll that's panned from the left—which is to say, the "quiet" channel. Through the DNM system, the roll came as more of a surprise. In fact, prior to the drums' entrance, I was close to wondering if the left channel had gone dead for some reason.

In so many ways, the DNM system just sounded different. The presentation was, as observed, clean and smooth. It was also precise and detailed without being fussy. And stereo imaging was fine, especially in the lateral plane, where images were pleasantly distinct from one another and convincingly whole. (For whatever reason, other electronics create a greater sense of spatial depth than did the DNMs.)

The matter of power
Then there's the matter of output power. For the past several weeks I've been remodeling my main music room (12' by 19'), and I've been doing most of my listening in our large guest room, which measures a whopping 21' wide by 32' long—schlepping a rudimentary, partial system into the smaller, unfinished room only occasionally, to check my conclusions. Even in the larger setting, the 23Wpc DNM amp drove my insensitive Quads to satisfying levels, without a single instance of mushiness, bad scale, spatial blur, or fuzz (let alone low stool, seat cramps, or shortness of pants).

DNM describes the PA3-S as their best amp (it isn't their most powerful: that would be their entry-level model, the 40Wpc PA3), and while they and I agree that the PA3-S sounds more powerful than its specs would lead one to believe, the company recommends it for use primarily with speakers of high efficiency and sensitivity. Enter my Lowther PM6a Medallion horns, whose 15 ohm nominal impedance didn't matter so much in this one instance, but whose +100dB sensitivity certainly did.

As configured, the DNM system had almost too much gain for my Lowthers—I seldom turned the volume knobs beyond 2 or 3, even in that very large room—but it seemed quite happy with them in every other respect. The Lowthers' bass, such as it is, was exceptionally well controlled, and the sound had fine presence overall. The combination did nothing to mitigate the Lowthers' notorious lower-treble rasp, however: not that I expected any such thing, but hope springs eternal...

The bottom line: One needn't feel confined to horns or other ultra-efficient speakers when building a system around the PA3-S. If the amp can do well with Quads, I see no reason to expect less than fine results with high-quality speakers of medium to high efficiency, such as ProAcs, Spendors, Totems, Meadowlarks, Alóns, and the like.

Some random observations:

• I love the preamplifier's dual-volume-knob approach to balance adjustments, and the skirted knobs appeal to the retrophile in me. But I wish it had a mono switch. On the other hand, I was happy it has a switch that determines the tape loop's signal output: In one position, the Tape Out socket gets a normal tape feed, which is unaffected by the volume control. In the other position, the output from the line amp goes to the socket, for use with subwoofers and other accessories that can deal with higher signal voltages.

• On a related note, the Mute button requires too much effort. Not that I'm a weakling or anything, but with a preamp this light, pushing a too-stiff switch often means pushing the whole darn thing off the shelf, unless you hold it still with the other hand. In my case, that other hand quite often has something else in it (and no, I'm not referring to my draft card).

• DNM is missing the boat by not offering these in different colors—like contemporary Apple computers. I mean, why not?

• Speaking of cosmetics, the logo is well past its sell-by date.

• Although the DNM amp sounded good from the moment it was powered up, it improved significantly over the next half hour—and continued to improve as I left it switched on for several days in a row. In particular, its sense of scale got better over time: Once the system came into its own, bigger music was more convincing.

Wonderful Stuff
I didn't try the DNM preamplifier with any non-DNM amplifiers—or the other way around, for that matter—but I did try the DNM solid-core speaker cables and one set of solid-core interconnects with some of my tube preamps and amps. What wonderful stuff! Both combined a clear, colorful, and softly detailed sonic presentation with apparently perfect freedom from distortions of the musical message: Music remained interesting—which may sound like a dull and obvious thing to say until you've heard what a mess certain very complex cables make of notes and beats.

And while my situation may not be relevant to yours—my house is tucked well away from everything, in a very rural setting—I should also mention that DNM's unshielded interconnect wire gave way to no audible interference, even when used to connect my moving-coil step-up transformer to the input of my preamp. Nor was DNM's own tonearm-to-preamp jumper wire apparently susceptible to noise.

And God knows the price is right: A 1m interconnect pair, terminated with Eichmann's superb (and, evidently, Morecroft-inspired) Bullet Plugs at both ends, carries a retail price of $125. The speaker cable is $5/foot. Our favorite Chinese takeout place charges more than that for extra moo-shu pancakes. I kid you not.

I tried two different moving-coil cartridges with the 3-C preamp and its integral phono section: a Tubaphon TU3 and a ZYX R-1000 Airy S (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). Both did well—which is to say, both sounded as nice as I would have expected, being neither overly bright nor overly damped. As it turned out, the load impedance of the DNM's moving-coil input was 1k ohm, with an input sensitivity of 0.7mV.

Compatibility is hardly the issue, of course: I daresay most prospective DNM owners will come not from the ranks of the restless hobbyist, but rather from the music and sound enthusiast who desires, or at least wouldn't mind, a ticket off the audiophile merry-go-round. I don't mean to overdo the comparison, but, like Naim Audio's, DNM's is something of a bio-dome approach: Everything you need is right here, and while we don't forbid you from leaving the grounds, neither do we encourage it. Some hobbyists may be put off by that; a shame, because although the DNM system sounded different from most other gear, it did so in a way that I think would satisfy a great many music lovers on a great many counts.

You should try to hear this stuff. I think it's brilliant at getting music across—the gears you hear are from the portion of my brain that's plotting out my retirement system, as we speak—and it will open your ears a bit, not to mention your eyes. At the very least, unless you live next door to a radio transmitter or taxi dispatcher, you should try the DNM cables at once, almost regardless of your present system. Just be prepared to unlearn what you already know.