You may not associate electronics with a company called Coincident Speaker Technology. The speakers they make are high efficiency designs (92.5 to 95 dB sensitivity) and proprietor Israel Blume began by designing tubed amplifiers and preamps electronics specifically to complement those transducers. Today there's a range of five speakers from the Triumph Extreme II ($2999 without stands) up to the Pure Reference Extreme ($26,800). Coincident cover preamp needs with their Statement Phono Preamp ($5999), Statement Line Preamp ($5499) and Statement MPC Step-up Transformer ($2499). The Dragon power amplifier on test today is their high power offering and is offered alongside the M300B Frankenstein Mk II singled ended triode design ($5999 per pair) which put out a maximum power of 8 watts per channel. Israel will also be happy to sell you cables to hook this all up, and I used a pair of his CST Power Cords ($609 each for the 10' lengths I needed).
The Frankenstein is the very best amplifier Israel knows how to make, and he claims it is the best amp on the market, period. But 8 watts is not enough for some speakers. The aim here is to provide amplification that could measure up to the very high standards of the Frankenstein amp, but with the grunt to drive a much broader range of speakers, and to extend the grip over the low frequencies to compete with powerful silicon based power amps. The Dragon shares much of its design with the Frankenstein but uses a pair of directly heated triode output tubes (211) in a push-pull configuration for greatly increased power (75 watts). The driver tube used is a directly heated 300B. Israel claims the Dragons maintain 95% of the Frankenstein's finesse. In the first iteration of the Dragon, a single transformer was used in each chassis, while in the Mk II twin transformers are used, requiring a substantially larger and heavier chassis with greatly increased structural strength. This chassis now sits on six ceramic isolating feet. The twin transformers run at only 25% of their specified capacity, reducing operating temperatures and extending reliability and stability. The same push-pull circuit configuration, tube types and maximum power are specified but the quieter circuitry increases the signal to noise ratio by 5dB. The dual 211 output tubes which were standard Shuguang devices before are now the superior Shuguang Pevane tubes, cooler running and more durable. Tube life for all tubes should exceed 5 years of listening. Israel has also added a ground lift which proved useful during the testing in reducing but not entirely eliminating a left channel hum.
Besides the dual transformers, what is special about the design of the Dragon monoblocks? Rather than any unusual circuit design, it's the purity of the design, the high voltage (1200V) high current power supply and the quality of the components and wiring that set the Dragon apart. The 6EM7 Super tube I n the input stage gets its own power supply and provides high current capacity. No coupling caps are used in the signal path and all wiring is point to point. Power supply caps are 1500V polypropylene designs while Teflon caps are used in the cathode bias circuit. There are no coupling caps because Israel elected to use the sonically superior but vastly more costly interstate transformer to couple the input to the output stage. The driver tube is the well-known 300B. Even the binding posts are 6N copper with a 0.25" solid post. A high quality discrete resistor potentiometer is provided for direct connection to a digital source if you wish to reduce your component count.
Now before the listening tests, a few words about
my personal bias. I like transparency, presence, realistic dynamics and stable
imaging and I don't give a damn how we get there. Tubes, transistors, push-pull,
single-ended triode, Class D, fully balanced, analog, digital – all of these
contribute to the sound but in my experience, the way the technology is
implemented matters more than the choice of technology itself. I've heard superb
digital sound and superb analog sound, and dogs from both camps. There, the
cards are on the table. Fussy controls drive me nuts but strong aesthetics and
an immaculate finish press my buttons.
Lucky for me, the Dragons feature auto biasing so
there's nothing to set there. There is no soft start mechanism. "Not necessary"
says Israel, and also not easy to implement on this topology. Instead there's a
few seconds of tube rush and then it's off to the races. The amps take about 30
minutes to get to full working temperature, and unlike the first iteration, the
chassis stays cool to the touch, although the tubes put out quite a bit of heat.
Only RCA jacks are offered, and due to the simple topology of the input stage
the amp is less sensitive than my other power amps, by a factor of about 6dB.
This is not an issue with the preamps on hand (EMM Labs Pre2, Parasound JC2) but
it could limit maximum volume available in some systems, especially with low
For the bulk of my listening I had the Dragons at the end of an EMM Labs System (XDS1 CD/SACD Player + Pre2) all wired up with Nordost Valhalla cabling, apart from the power cables to the Dragons which were the aforementioned CST cords. The Dragons drove the YG Carmels and despite the somewhat low input sensitivity of the Dragons, there was little problem reaching seriously loud volume levels.
A really tough test is represented by the stunning new
recording of Shostakovich Symphony No.10 by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal
Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra [NAXOS 8.572461]. Run (don't walk) to buy this
inexpensive disc. The Carmel is relatively easy to drive but not that efficient
(87dB/W/m). You get a full orchestra driven to stunning levels of power and
precision, and if an amp can keep all this together at realistic volume levels,
each instrument in its place and none hidden by its louder neighbour, then you've
got a contender. Do the dynamics hold up? Is instrumental color realistic? How
quick are the reflexes? The reviewer's job is to note down the answers to these
questions and others as the music plays, but that proved very difficult here.
For the most part I just put down the notepad and rejoiced in the music. Only
afterwards would I record my impressions:
These notes reveal a truly excellent amp and had me reaching for my current reference power amp (ModWright KWA150SE) for comparison. On this particular disc, the ModWright delivers a similar strength in the midrange, but is more open and detailed at the top while maintaining its biting definition all the way into the deep bass. This is what you expect of a great transistor amp. Actually you expect a fine tube amp to have a certain magic in the midband, and the Dragon has that in spades. Unusually for a silicon based component, the ModWright has similar midrange magic and maintains it across the full frequency range. I hear greater clarity and rhythmic strength in the deep strings, giving a more threatening feel to the music in the portrait of Stalin that constitutes the second movement. It sounds like I'm listening to bigger speakers. The sound holds up better at peak output. Muted violins maintain a wonderful full sound and the overall balance is better. It seems the Dragons may not be ideally suited to the Carmels in such large scale music, maybe because of the more limited power output of the Dragons or their lower damping factor. However while the ModWright has the better balance here, the Dragons have a slight advantage in instrumental color, especially in the plucked strings, and also have the edge in layering the instruments of the orchestra.
try another hard test – the piano. Gilels playing Beethoven's Tempest sonata
[DG 00289 477 6360]. The Dragons offer an amazing muscular clarity combined with
enormous dynamic range. The sound is crystalline, the imaging entirely
realistic. The top end is unbounded and completely consistent in speed and color
with the piano's midrange and bass. You get a very real sense of the piano in
the room. In the third movement you get tremendous power and projection – like
a lion kept in check by a lion tamer with a whip. There is not a hint of warmth
in this recording. The bass is very tight, somewhat harsh and metallic, and you
feel a tremendous rhythmic thrust couple with very fast reactions. The pianist
and the music are there for you to touch. The ModWright sounds very similar
indeed, with perhaps a touch more bloom in the third movement, but it is easier
to detect a certain ringing in the piano itself.
Staying with Beethoven, the Cello Suites with Brendel père et fils [DECCA 475 379-2] is a much warmer more resonant recording. The Dragons portray a rich cello with an almost human voice, with a slight softness to the piano sound. This is very enjoyable and spatially coherent picture. We are lucky to have a performance of such rare quality captured in such sympathetic sound. The ModWright presents a slightly different perspective, equally enjoyable, where the piano has greater presence and dynamics.
Joan Baez visited Toronto recently, and sadly her voice is not
what it once was. This meant she had to be careful in her selection of songs,
but there was no such caution in her political expression. The Occupy
movement was high on her agenda. The musical highlight for me was a jazzy
rendition of "Diamonds and Rust". On her original recording [Vanguard
VCD3-125/27] the Dragons reveal an excellent 3D image with every detail
precisely located and rich in color. The deep bass is at a low level but still
tuneful. Very intimate. The ModWright again offers an alternative vision,
bigger, bolder, more forward and open. A different perspective on the same
performance, and equally beguiling.
The Beatles Love album [Capitol 0946 3 79810 2 3], the
soundtrack to the superb Cirque du Soleil show in Vegas, sounds wonderful when
powered by the Dragons. You can make out all the voices in the choir on "Because",
"Blackbird", brief though it is, sounds superb. "Yesterday" is slightly tight in
the midrange, suffering from a slight lack of the bloom evident through the
ModWright. "Something" is also a touch dialled back but "While My Guitar Gently
Weeps" sounds ideal, the cello sweet but resolute set in a fully-fledged
soundscape. Every part is crystal clear in an enormous and coherent whole.
George's voice is most realistic, the strings rich, the acoustic guitar well
What's In A
With the solid-state ModWright KWA150 SE taking on the best qualities of tube amplification, and the tubed 211PP Dragon Mk II extending traditional tube strengths into a wider frequency band and lowering distortion levels across the board, we are seeing a convergence of sound ever closer to the ideal of a straight wire with gain. This is a trend I hope to see continued throughout the industry. Let's say goodbye to pro-tube or anti-tube bigotry and let the equipment stand or fall purely on its merits just as the ever improving performance of digital and analog sources may also lead to the discarding of similar and long lasting prejudices.
For an uncompromising amplifier as ambitious as the Dragon,
now in its Mk II status, with a high level of finish, long tube life, unfussy behavior,
powerful performance, lack of traditional tube euphonics (read distortion), the
asking price of $10,999 a pair is not out of line. The onus is now on more
expensive power amps to be measured against these benchmarks and justify their
extra cost. I was sad to see the Dragons go.
My highest compliment to Phil for a thoughtful and articulate
evaluation conducted in a very professional manner.
Israel Blume - President