Vive la difference

In a somewhat odd, running-against-the-grain or even quirky kinda way, some companies do things differently - not for the herd, you know? Like Maserati, Porsche or Lamborghini, their products aren't meant as fodder for the masses, but revered by the cognoscenti and accepted by the adventurous and open-minded.

Think nerdy kid, perpetually bullied by his mediocre peers for being too smart. Most design-based industries have one of those - designs that stand the test of time, transcend the flippancy of ever-changing fashions. Years later, what was thought quirky, odd, ugly -- or worse yet, cute -- is re-discovered and celebrated as "ahead of its time" or "timeless classic".

Take a look at the US$15,500 [act:eve] 108:dB. The company Dan A. Digital most likely belongs to that rarefied group.

Note, however, that this oddity of the loudspeaker world is not different for the sake of being radical. Rather, decisions affecting visual style have been made based on uncompromising function, with a view to an ultimate goal of sound quality above all else.

Dan A [His:Tory]

Strangely enough, for a company that produces a complete range of very enticing speakers (all the way up to a top-of-the-line US$75,000 model); its own line of silver cables tested by Boeing Aerospace Labs; high-tech isolation platforms and a modular, upgradeable high-quality preamplifier; Dan A Digital is not so well known even in its native Australia. Not that I know one and all, but I can think of several other Australian audio manufacturers of very high-quality products that induce a "Huh, say what?" from many self-respecting Australian audiophiles. Yet these companies seem to survive and indeed prosper, obviously from sales outside their native soil. Halcro, Duntech -- and to a lesser extent Krix -- are household names in Terra Australis and indeed, throughout the world, though the Australian High-End audio industry per se remains a very strange animal. A platypus, perhaps?

Dan A Digital is headed by designer Goran Velimirovic. As Goran delivered the speakers personally, I asked him for a little Goran/Dan A history:

"My history is not too special. I was interested in audio from the early days and the first loudspeakers were passive, using only Dynaudio drivers and various passive crossovers. That was back in the early 1980s, with a lot of attention to details: Box design, vibration dampening, inductor coil design and paper/polypropylene capacitors.

The only way to further improve the sound was to go active. This prompted active crossover design in 1991, again using very close attention to design details so the results would be great. It involved FETs, polypropylene caps, organic semi-conductive caps; stepped attenuators with gold-over-silver contacts; fully balanced passive stages that completely null all distortions that are created by the parts elements; star earthing; and about 10 fully regulated power supplies: Great performance!

Then came the design of the amplifiers where three distinct design criteria were laid out. This led to three completely different amps, one for the very low frequencies, another for the low-mids to low highs, and one for the highs. Again, the same attention to detail. Some stats:

The 22-watt Class A treble amp has 2 bipolar transistors and a fully regulated PSU with organic semi-conductors; the 40-watt main amp for the midrange driver runs in 2-stage triode class A, with dual C-core 10-layer output transformers in balanced single-ended configuration using polypropylene caps, KT90s in triode mode and 6FQ7/6CG7 drivers. The bass amp provides 140 watts in Class A/B and uses a high-pass filter with a -3dB point of 13Hz at 12dB/oct, combining with a system filter at 19Hz at 24dB/oct to create a total slope of 36dB/ oct to steady cone movement at very low frequencies.

From 13Hz to 80Hz, the Q-factor is continuously variable to reproduce bass sounds realistically. The pleasant, natural bass quality originates with this Q-factor design which doesn't target a specific low frequency cut-off but realistic sound. In-room, we expect to get 20Hz to 20kHz bandwidth in fairly linear fashion if the room doesn't introduce severe resonance problems. Independant testing at a respectable HiFi lab returned figures of 23Hz to 20kHz +/-2dB and "appreciable" output down to 15Hz. Then came the box design, vibration isolation etc. Anyways, it's all just great attention to details.

I studied mechanical engineering and then completed medical engineering B Sci, which combines medical, mechanical and electrical fields. Later, I attended lectures by Neville Thiele at the University of Sydney. These have inspired all my designs.

I have made some interesting designs for the process control industry, some with international patents. Dan A Digital was created in 1999 to explore better ways of reproducing music -- or sound in general --and to design, manufacture and market products that are the result of that exploration. So far it's been pleasant to the ears."

Modesty is the colour of virtue, n'est še pas? Goran helped schlepp the speakers into place, stuck around for a song or three and cordially left me to my own devices.

Is this really that different? Are we embarking on a Tour de Force?

Well, yes and yes. I'm referring to active speakers after all, designs with amplifiers housed within their enclosures. Although very common in professional audio -- both studio and sound reinforcement -- the consumer audio examples of the breed are rather few and far between. After spending a good few minutes thinking of current examples, all I could come up with were the Meridian models, the Applause by Nova Audio with built-in Threshold amplification, the Bang & Olufsen actives, models by the Canadian Paradigm firm and ... well, I gave up.

Now what's really different here is that the [act:eve] 108:dBs are the only speakers I can think of that sport a built-in valve amplifier. Indeed, the configuration is quite unusual; ditto for its looks with those tubes and (removable) mesh grills sitting atop. In this actively networked 3-way design, the neodymium-magnet fabric tweeter (which is assembled by Dan A Digital from various French components) is powered by a 22-watt class A solid state amplifier; the 5.5" mineral-filled polypropylene midrange driver -- or main driver as Dan A Digital prefers to call it -- is powered by a class A valve amplifier; and the 8" fiber-pulp side-mounted bass driver is powered by a potent class AB solid state unit. Six amplifiers per pair of speakers. That's lots of amplification and, for the money, plenty of material value.

Said midrange driver is referred to as main driver due to the frequency range it covers: An enormous 92 Hz to 4096kHz which spans the vocal and fundamentals' range of a wide variety of instruments. In other words, when reproducing the crucial midrange, there are no driver transitions or audible crossover deficiencies, no different diaphragm materials overlapping, no driver lobing and concomitant distortions. For all intents and purposes, the crossover frequencies are completely outside the band where human hearing is notoriously sensitive to spot even subtle discontinuities.

Why go active, you may ask? Why bother? After all, there are plenty of high-quality amplifiers on the market, with all the sonic flavors and design styles/ideologies imaginable represented in countless choices. Naturally, this question is open to debate as is just about any design philosophy, decision and/or criteria implementation of a given product. I don't believe there is a right or wrong answer, just a potentially right or wrong outcome. As for Dan A Digital's perspective? They point at perfect matching between amplifiers and drivers; signal path proximity to the drivers; reduced use of cable and its sonic degradations; no inductive coil windings in the cross-over, again to avoid signal degradation; multiple amplifiers allowing the use of specific class A operation where demanded by a driver's unique requirements, Class A/B amplification for different applications. In light of the speakers' design parameters, conscious efforts have been made to isolate components from vibration, to optimize DC power supply isolation and RF rejection.

As visible on the stills, the rear of the speaker is no less uncommon than the front. A beautifully sculpted, black piano-gloss protrusion houses 3 small flared ports, one per driver; the switchable XLR balanced/RCA single-ended analogue inputs; and a visually stunning back-lit control panel Ó la car dashboard that houses the bass/treble sealed stepped attenuators featuring gold plated contacts and audio-grade resistors to offer +/- 2.5dB cut/boost provisions in 0.5dB steps. Of course each speaker features the necessary IEC input but then adds a final user-friendly ergonomic touch: a 4-pin XLR socket for remote turn-on via 24 VDC (+/- 12 VDC). This allows power-up from anywhere you may wish. Further, the master-slave option can power the speakers up via an assigned master such as your CD player or preamplifier. Just fire up your CD player and the 108s come up in unison.

Great, lots of technology, but what about the good old enclosures that weigh in at 87 lbs and measure 47" x 9" x 15.6" HxWxD each?

They felt as solid as brick outhouses and the attention to detail -- given the price and what you get for your investment -- borders on the maniacal. The baffle is completely decoupled from the main enclosure and a solid 2" thick. The gorgeous and flawlessly applied African Rosewood veneer (standard, with others available by request and for an upcharge) was chosen not just for appearance but also its sonic qualities. Apparently percussive musical instrument makers favor this particular type of wood as their preferred material based on its inherent natural and pleasing sound quality.

Options? Silver-plated printed circuit boards and silver internal wiring in either pure silver or silver-clad copper variations. All standard units use silver solder, and all units built after July 2003 sport a tweeter-to-amp silver-clad copper Litz connection in Teflon dielectric to, as Goran put it, "freshen up the top end a bit", with my traveling review loaner still using the older internal copper cabling. As far as all of the above goes, I believe that I have only skimmed the surface of how uniquely these speakers incorporate numerous technological advances. About that nomenclature, you ask? The company specifies up to 96dB of average continuous playback levels as measured at a common listener distance of 3-4 meters, with attainable peaks far in excess of this number. For larger rooms, there are the 110:dB and 112:dB models, the former eschewing the valved output stage.

What's it sound like, man?

I'll start with the midrange purely because the top- and bottom-end are user-adjustable and therefore more prone to added subjectivity. Having said that, the very sensible advice given by Dan A Digital? That correct in-room placement should be determined prior to frequency level-control tweaking. Indeed! At the outset, I should mention that the hard-working "main driver" is a little beauty indeed, very detailed and without a hint of hardness but a capacity for resolving complex musical layers akin to my Watt Puppy System 6.

The breathy opening count-down effects on Curandero's "Segue" [Aras, Silverwave Records SD911] sounded like real voices in real space. Instrumental timbres rang true, a side benefit of all that resolving power. The interplay between Bela Fleck's famous banjo and Miguel Espinoza's virile Flamenco guitar with their classical music reminiscences played out with superb speed and inner detail. And in the deep background, Ty Burhoe's percussive tabla whacks filled out the great rhythms of Kai Eckhardt's slap bass. This CD -- and this track in particular -- are a tough test for midrange drivers and tweeters. There's an enormous amount of musicianship exploding simultaneously from four instrumental masters - banjo, guitar, background and foreground voices, tablas and electric bass weaving around one another with agile virtuosity like wild tendrils.

Your system damn-well better be highly resolving lest this complicated music degrade into a confused, unintelligible mÚlange. The 108s succeeded admirably, separating all the strands out of this complex mix without a hint of struggle. Of course, all this high level of midrange/treble resolution and clarity means naught if it came at the expense of a neutral balance. Hyper-detail can equate to a bright -- or worse, harsh -- sound. Not the 108s. The tonal balance always remained smooth yet ultra-clear. What may this be due to? In my opinion, we owe it to that glorious midrange valve amplifier and wide-bandwidth driver. In the crucial midrange, the 108s are comparable to my reference Wilsons. Treble extension could have initially been thought a potential Achilles heel but as you will read later, this had a quick and convenient remedy.

I recently acquired some loud rock CDs from the White Stripes and Queens of the Stone Age. Their in-your-face character demands explosive midrange macrodynamics, especially in the rhythm-driving snare, toms and explicit vocals. The 108s compared favorably with other good designs I've heard, yet didn't dance to the level of dynamic extremes that my Watt Puppys are renowned for. Don't get me wrong, the 108s could rock. Still, their sophisticated rendition of space, detail, resolution and timbre somehow diminish the all-out assaultive brutality necessary for raw Rock'n'Roll. I felt a slight sense of compression, or perhaps more accurately, a reticence, a homogeny and loss of impact when things got really heavy.

On to the divine Tori Amos. Her close-mic'd voice on Boys for Pele's "Way Down" [Atlantic 82862, 1996] sounded superb, with loads of presence and detail - though physical presence with this pretty lady would have been better yet, mate. Microdynamic transients were well defined as Tori's vocal salival effects -- for want of a better term -- arose in a natural and unexaggerated manner. But bloody WOW! for sheer presence. Vocals sounded almost in-the-room. As the chorus softly faded in towards song's end, that keen resolving power once again shone through. Treble detail and air on cymbals and such seemed a little reticent, however, not quite as extended as I fancy. Here's where this design proved to be oh-so versatile. Reaching 'round back, I clicked the treble dial to position 2 (+1dB). There, done. The expected extension was delivered, with an added sense of detail and top-end dynamics.

The bass could be similarly tweaked to suit the room, recording or personal tastes, with its respective level control once again proving to be supremely versatile. What made this adaptability even more impressive? Both treble and bass controls had no discernable effect whatsoever on midrange performance and quality.

When you dialed-in the bass just so, what you got was deep, tight and powerful stuff that hit you in the chest like a cardiac arrest. Just try Primus' "My Name is Mud" from the excellent Pork Soda [Interscope 92257-2, 1993]) but keep your finger at the ready - on the wireless' 9 for 911 (0 for 000 in Australia). The kick drum whacks and electric bass dexterity of Les Claypool had most realistic displacement and impact, with speed that didn't rob this CD of its tremendous rhythm and pace. Quite remarkable for a single 8" driver per box. The generous bass was taut, suitably massive, deep and robust. Excuse me, I think the ambulance is just outside ...

Another bass favourite of mine is Brian Bromberg's Wood [A440 Music Group 4001, 2002]. This is a very well-produced CD in which Brian plays various types of upright basses, sometimes solo and on some tracks accompanied by a tight ensemble of Jazz cats. The way the 108s reproduced his various basses was quite outstanding, the timbral qualities of each instrument clearly discernable thanks to superb detail, transient fidelity and tonal accuracy. The leading edges on notes and forceful plucks were clean, fast and hellaciously dynamic. By comparison, my Watt Puppies had slightly more weight and power -- direct hot-line to the triage nurse -- but, believe it or not, at the expense of speed in this comparison. In addition, the 108s elicited a smidgen more apparent detail.

A CD superb for appraising imaging, ambience and soundstaging is Astor Piazzolla's Luna [IRS/EMI 25595]. "Hora Cero" is set inside the ambience of a large live venue when Piazzolla enters with some subtle effects created by hitting and scraping the side of the bandoneon, the double bassist following suit by scraping his strings and knocking on the instrument's body. It's these fast transient effects which a good pair of speakers must reproduce accurately (the 108s already covered this ground in the preceding paragraphs). However, the Aussie speakers also recreated the sense of venue ambience as buried deep within the reverberant trails and post-note decays of said transients. The sense of a cavernous hall became evident in the audience noises and general reverberation. This reinforced the impression that the 108s were erecting a wide and deep virtual soundstage with steady, precisely placed images without drift.

Another expansive recording -- Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica with Kees Bakels conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for Naxos [8.550737] -- had all the immensity and menace of the icy wilderness it depicts, with the choral voices in the latter part of the Prelude seemingly floating deep in the soundstage. The feeling of desolation which this piece can convey ought to be quite chilling - and the 108s did not fail to communicate that forlorn emotion. I don't usually find much to like in demonstration/compilation CDs though, of course, I can also think of ample exceptions. One such exception? The "Serenade" of Wilson Audio's Ultimate Reference CD Track 5. This is a well-recorded, lovely short piece I take to audiophile friends' places to ascertain how their systems reproduce cello and piano.

The cello, you say? What about it? Well, in one word: Superlative, what with that elusive rosin sound of bow scraping string, while the instrument's physical body and presence came voluptuously alive! Once again oodles of detail and timbre revealed the exact nature of this particular instrument, all beautifully balanced from the highest to the lowest register. Ditto for the piano which simply rang true.

I also spun diverse violin pieces such as Bach's Violin Concertos (David and Igor Oistrakh), Vieuxtemps' Concerto No 5 (Heifetz) and some other shorter ones. I found the same faithful recreation of their instruments as I already found with the cello. Another great strength of the 108s then is the peculiar yet harmonically rich timbre of strings with their challenging attacks. Coincidentally, my findings were vindicated by Goran's revelation that the 108s have found favor with certain members of the string sections of the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras. Well, wouldn't you know it?

It's good to be king

Let's summarize. For your money, the 108s reward you with a superbly-built design of high levels of technology, with built-in, perfectly adapted solid-state and tube amplification and the sonic fireworks to match. Just use your preferred preamplifier, run either single-ended or balanced connections to the relevant rear panel input, turn your CD player on and away you go. No more big, black and bad mono blocks hovering menacingly on either side of your speakers - or consider it an additional free shelf on the rack. No more big and expensive speaker cables. No more late-night tossing over whether your expensive wires and amplifiers actually match the particular electrical requirements of your chosen speakers.

In addition, the 108s' user-adjustable treble and bass settings make for extreme versatility that caters to different rooms, recordings and musical tastes. In the context of the High-End, that's what I call value for money!

"He is north, I am south. There is nothing to discuss." (Versace on Armani)

I've had the pleasure of enjoying the 108s in-house for quite a number of weeks. Being a member of a wide audiophile circle has meant that in said period, I've had numerous visitors chez Edgarrrrrr's. With amusement, I've studied friends' reactions to these pieces of Art Deco. Some smiled with pleasure, others sniggered in disapproval. Some loved 'em, some hated 'em. On looks, polarized describes their combined opinions - two tribes on opposite sides of the river.

"Yeah well, never mind the visuals, just take the sweet spot", I prodded the nay- and yay-sayers alike. The music then simply gushed forth freely and dissenting opinions evaporated without being noted in the passing.

D'Artagnan my friend, repeat after me: "All for one, one for all!"

Manufacturer's website