Red Dragon Audio Leviathan mono amplifiers
|Red Dragon Audio Leviathan mono amplifiers|
|Ice (to the 2nd) Power|
By now I think it’s safe to assume that the majority of audiophiles have either heard of class D amplification, or better yet, have actually had an opportunity to hear these digital products for themselves. In case you’re part of the minority, digital amplification promises to provide a more transparent and accurate sound in a smaller chassis with greater efficiency and less heat and distortion. They are able to produce large amounts of power without the use of traditional massive transformers, extensive rows of heat sinks, or coca cola can size capacitors. There are currently two major companies that license their OEM modules, the UcD by Philips, and the ICEpower by Bang & Olufsen.
The Raw Deal
UcD, which is an acronym for Universal class D, was developed by Bruno Putzeys while he was the chief designer at Philips. He later left Philips to continue R&D at Hypex where they now license the technology from his former employer. The ICEpower module was developed by Dr. Karsten Nielsen, who entered into an arrangement with Bang & Olufsen to allow them the rights to his patents. There are two professional standard production modules. The first set of modules, the 250a, 500a, and 1000a, are general purpose amplifier modules that require external power supplies. The second set of modules the ASP series not only includes an amplifier but also includes a switch mode power supply. By design the modules also incorporate common mode rejection circuitry (CMRC) which means they are truly balanced. They are fairly compact in size and the most powerful of the units, the one thousand series with SMPS weighs a little less than four pounds. There are a number of manufactures that produce ICEpower amps, however just like tube and solid-state amplifiers, some are better sounding than others. Ryan Tew of Provo, Utah based Red Dragon Audio, happens to be one of those talented designers who have produced an outstanding product.
The Power Plant
Red Dragon Audio is a fairly new company that manufactures amplifiers that utilize B&O’s top-of-the-line 1000 ASP ICEpower module. Their initial offering is a pair of spectacular monoblocks called the Leviathans. The Leviathan’s power output is an astonishing 500 watts into 8 ohms and 1000 watts into 4 ohms. They are fairly heavy for an ICEpower amp at 25 pounds and depending on the wood used, each amplifier can weigh an additional five pounds. But let’s face it; normally amps that supply this much power would require more than two hands to transport them.
They will easily drive the most demanding full-range floor-standing loudspeakers, but they also possess the delicacy to not overwhelm small two-way bookshelf monitors. Unlike the “A” series, the ASP modules also include built-in circuitry for three levels of protection. High-frequency protection is used to protect your upper frequency drivers, thermal protection to prevent it from overheating, and short-circuit protection in the event speaker leads touch. The modules are certified by Underwriting Laboratories and its European equivalent, CE.
The Leviathans are fairly compact in size at 10” x 5 ½” x 14 ½” (whd). These amplifiers are extremely attractive with stainless steel on the top, bottom, and back, and surrounded on the front and sides by exotic wood panels. A laser cut dragon on the top plate with a red led light inside the chassis provides a beautiful aesthetic touch when the amps are powered up. This unique and costly amenity also allows for adequate ventilation. Underneath each amplifier, support duties are handled by three large solid brass Audiopoints. After final assembly, each amplifier is handcrafted and tested extensively prior to delivery.
Although Red Dragon is a fairly new company, Ryan has been involved in audio for many years. Starting from his teenage years Ryan has always been a fan of high end audio. He has modified everything from car stereos to analog amplifiers, and multi driver loudspeakers. When it was time for him to make a career choice he decided that he would get complete his studies in Economics with a minor in Electrical Engineering . With his heart still pumping for audio he briefly worked at high-end loudspeaker company, Escalante Design. Thinking he could put his formal education to good use and still enjoy his true passion, he decided, after careful consultation with the two most important women in his life, his wife and his mother, to start his own company. Obviously Ryan has learned that life as an audiophile is a lot more enjoyable if you can get your significant other to come on board.
While the sound quality of an unmodified board in stock form is sufficient for mass market appeal, there are a number of shortcomings that prevent it from sounding like a “world class” product. Part of the attraction to these modules is that they are supposed to supplant existing technology with good performance and reliability. Through some benchmark testing and additional listening sessions, Ryan identified quite a few of these areas that needed to be improved upon. His first objective was to use a measured amount of Stillpoints’ Electro-magnetic/Radio Frequency Suppression (ERS) cloth and other ferrous, and Mu materials to minimize absorption of EMI/RFI into the power supply. This helped to eliminate these contaminants and reduce residual noises generated by the power supply. It is important to note that the insertion of too much ERS, or incorrect placement can actually make the sound worse as opposed to an improvement. Although this is a time consuming process this alteration is very necessary, which seems like weaving a fly fishing net by hand.
Another enemy that can affect the signal path in a negative way is vibrations. Ryan addresses these issues by utilizing damped stainless steel, and solid hardwoods for their abilities to control unwanted aberrations. He also changed the internal wiring to all silver or silver-plated copper, and also substituted some key components in critical areas. I tried to get some details about these enhancements but unfortunately I didn’t have the proper security clearances (i.e. Ryan didn’t want to divulge all of his secrets).
From inside to out, top to bottom, Ryan made sure he paid plenty of attention to detail. Taking a look at the back plate, Ryan continued with his minimalist but quality approach. There are three connectors with one power switch. Next to the switch there is a 15 amp IEC connector so that you can experiment with different power cords. Next to the IEC connector is the top-of-the-line Cardas patented binding post that is made from solid copper with rhodium plating. This type of connector is a reviewers dream because it has the single knob in the middle that easily tightens both the positive and negative leads at the same time. It also provides for one of the best mechanical connections I’ve ever experienced. If you are a user of banana plugs you’ll need to adjust your cable termination to spades. Finally, to the left is a Neutrik Silver XLR input connector. Users of single-ended only preamps don’t fret because each amplifier is supplied with a Cardas XLR-RCA adapter. Some manufactures provide an option of single-ended or balanced connection, with or without switches. Because Ryan believes that rocker switches in the signal path are detrimental to the sound, and that unused RCA inputs can act as antennas he decided against the use of both.
Fire and Ice
So after telling you all of this (along with some other things that I’m not able to reveal), the $100,000 question (indexed for inflation of course) still remains. How do these amplifiers sound? For the few readers that are somewhat impatient, to sum it all up within in a one word context, the Leviathans are spectacular. They are one of those special products that did a very good job of recreating the performance of my favorite artists within my listening room. When I inserted the Leviathans into my system the first thing I noticed was that everything from the deepest bass note up to the midrange/treble area had a natural quality. From disc to disc there was a seamless transparent flow of music that emanated from a three-dimensional soundstage. I played a number of discs by performers that I was fortunate enough to have seen live in concert, so I knew what to look for on the recordings. The presentation through these fire breathing dragons was wonderful and equaled amplifiers that retailed for more than twice the price. My recordings exhibited a rock solid image projected from a black background and soundstage depth, height and width were just the right size. The Leviathans exhibited a magical quality of being able to combine the very best traits of solid-state and tube amplifiers, and then unveil them in one complete package.
Starting from the low end and working my way up, the Leviathans deep bass is sharp and tight with precise articulation. They have authority when necessary and their presentation in the low end is reminiscent of how I hear the sound of an acoustic bass at a live event; full with lots of body. That’s not to say that that they cannot boogie, but they just don’t add energy in the lower registers for the sake of adding punch to the music. On older R&B and jazz recordings that are remixed by contemporary DJ’s who add bass tracks to the music, the Leviathans, true to their neutral heritage reproduced that gut-wrenching bass performance and can party with the best of the best. I noticed on a number of recordings that the Leviathans exhibited plenty of definition and control; their 1000-watts also easily handled multiple low-end driver loudspeaker systems.
In the midrange arena the Leviathans were just as remarkable and seductive. Their ability to separate performers and carve them out to allow them their individual space was exceptional. Each singer that I listened to, whether male or female, would sound as though they were right in front of me. There was lifelike presence and immediacy that reminded me of listening to my favorite jazz singers as though I were up close and personal at a live event. When I listened to instrumental recordings, strings exhibited a natural tautness, horns were recreated with a seductive bite, and overall, each instrument just seemed to float in space. This type of performance is the signature sound for tube based amplifiers and is what makes owners of these devices passionately espouse their values. Although equal to their tube brethren in this part of the musical spectrum, one of the additional benefits to having the ICEpower amplifiers installed in the system is the lack of tube biasing, or expensive tube replacement costs.
Up top, these are some of the sweetest amplifiers that I’ve heard. They have genuine extension, and they don’t sound bright or artificial. I was amazed at the amount of detail, delicacy and overall accurate portrayal of various percussion instruments. They have just the right amount of sparkle and clarity, especially when I listened to recordings that emphasize the tambourine and finger or crash symbols. They are not rolled of and I didn’t detect any signs of graininess. Nor do I have to get overly creative to describe the sound because they were trying to mask some sort of deficiency. I was so intrigued with the Leviathans performance that I kept reaching for material that emphasized stellar drum work.
Searching for a recording that I knew that would give me some insight into the Leviathans abilities I stumbled across Tommy Flanagan’s The Tokyo Recital[Pablo]. It is a simple piece that is well recorded and also well performed. Flanagan is on piano, Keter Betts is on bass and Bobby Durham is on drums. There are a number of tracks that I enjoy but the one that I use for review purposes is “The Intimacy of the Blues.” As the title would suggest this piece has something to do with the blues. But hearing this talented trio perform suggests that there is nothing on this track that would infer that someone is down.
Listening to this recording on the Leviathans brought out new meaning to the word transparency. These are some of the quietest amplifiers that I have listened to. When partnered with a solid-state preamp I didn’t hear any noise coming from the loudspeakers and only a slight hiss when mated with a tube pre. I believe that this lack of distortion had a direct correlation on dynamic intensity and the preservation of the accuracy of the high frequency information. Bobby Durham rides the metal on this cut and the resolution and sparkle using the Leviathans was equal to some of the most expensive amplifiers I’ve heard. As good as the high frequency information was, I kept going back to recordings that featured vocalists.
One of my favorite artists who I enjoy both on recorded music and live is a gentleman by the name of Kem. He is a terrific singer and very gifted individual. His music is filled with plenty of passion and emotion. On “Each Other,” from Kem’s Album II [Motown], he sings with a solo guitar player while a lightly volume synthesizer plays in the background. This is a moving rendition about peace and love and it was delivered with a crystal clear, transparent, palpable performance. The Leviathans did an excellent job of drawing me into the performance from the individual pluck of the guitar to Kem’s compassionate and resolute vocals.
I’m fortunate enough to live in the city of Chicago, where I have plenty of venues and free concerts to listen to live music. I generally get an opportunity to hear some jazz, blues, gospel, or classical at least two or three times a week. Not to take the other exemplary qualities that the Leviathans exhibit for granted, but the utmost compliment that I can extend to Red Dragon Audio is that the Leviathans will allow you to get that lifelike, holographic sound that we are all trying to recreate in our homes when we don’t get a chance to hear the real thing.
So I commend Ryan Tew. The Leviathans are some of the best amplifiers I’ve heard. They will allow you to get as close to the original source as possible without any kind of alterations or additions to the music. They are superb at the frequency extremes and just as magnificent in the midrange. I found the Leviathans to present a musical experience that is organic and free of any coloration. Their tonal balance is completely neutral and their other endearing quality is their ability to extract low level details. They posses the uncanny ability to render a musical landscape that is accurate and sensuous at the same time.
Extremely well built, reliable, and made to last, they also utilize some of the best components both internally and externally. I’ve never believed that I had to be the first one on the block to have the latest in technology, however the enjoyable time that I spent with the Leviathans has certainly helped to change my mind. I can state with extreme confidence that Red Dragon Audio has raised the bar and set a new standard for amplification. Highly Recommended!
Dave Thomas Chips In
When I first heard about the Red Dragon Leviathans I was a little skeptical because their website seemed to emphasize the virtues of the ICEpower module and the dazzling woodwork of the chassis. This prompted me to call Ryan Tew and ask, “If the ICEpower module is made by Bang & Olufsen, what did you contribute to design of the amplifier other than the chassis?” Ryan explained that he made many modifications and improvements throughout the unit – inside and out – that he couldn’t go into in great detail about and understandably so. But he assured me that when I heard them, it would not be like hearing any of the other new wave of class-D, digital, switching amps, etc. available today, like the NuForce, Bel Canto, Jeff Rowland and others.
When I finally got them into my reference system, I was expecting to be floored by a totally “different” music listening experience. It was different alright, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good different or not. I was hearing a level of musicality that made me feel uneasy. Not uneasy because I didn’t like what I was hearing but because of the fact that I did. This meant that someone in high-end audio had actually delivered on a promise to create something different. I found myself calling audiophile friends who I knew had experience with class-D amps and asked if they thought the same thing? They did.
The Leviathans are a different sounding amp from anything I’ve heard and that’s a good thing. I’m not saying that they are the best amp I’ve heard, but there is a level of realism here that is astonishing. They present a very well-balanced soundstage with sharply delineated images. Stage depth and height may not be the best I’ve heard but in this price range they clearly outclass their competition. I heard the NuForce Reference Nines and Bel Canto e.One Ref 1000 at CES and was impressed by them, but not this much. I’m still a bit fuzzy on who to credit for these babies, B&O or the immensely likeable and knowledgeable Ryan Tew. What I’m not fuzzy on is that this is one fabulous product.
Craig “Craigy G” Fitzpatrick
Red Dragon Audio
Ryan Tew, President
474 West 500 South
Provo, UT 84601
Power Output: 1000Wx2 @ 4Ω 500Wx2 @ 8Ω
Damping factor 2000 into 8Ω load
Neutrik Silver XLR Differential Inputs – 2V for full output
>119dBA dynamic range
dc – 38kHz frequency range
High efficiency: 83% total efficiency @ 500W, 8Ω
Environmentally friendly – very little power is wasted as heat 115V or 230V operation. Please specify when ordering. 10″ x 5.5″ x 14.5″ (WxHxD), weight varies depending on wood used.
Hand built with pride in the USA & carries full 5-year warranty
US Distributor, and Director of Worldwide
FLK Marketing and Distribution
Frank L. Kraus, President
Post Office Box 1247
Pine Hill, New Jersey 08021
Tel: 856-374-4757 Office
Internet Address: FLKraus@Netzero.Net
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