DAC Maraschino Mono Amps
Class D for different
Conventional wisdom among audiophiles suggests that tubes and solid state are sonically distinct, class A is purer sounding than class A/B, and that big power requires big boxes. Furthermore, this line of argument often goes, while Class D amplification might usefully drive a subwoofer, you would hardly consider it a serious form of sole amplification for your high end, main speakers. Well, if you are open-minded enough to step outside of the groupthink surrounding discussions of audio gear, you may be surprised every now and then by a product that defies the imagined rules.
I won’t get into the sonic merits of tubes versus solid state but I will tell you that after more than five years of reviewing various amps in my home system, you cannot judge the quality of an amp by its form or its size any more than you can predict its sonic performance by its color. I was reminded of this fact anew by the DAC Maraschinos, a pair of small, monoblock amps I’ve been playing with now for months.
DAC stands for Digital Amp Company, the acronym having another meaning in audio circles but one the company seems determined to ignore. In existence for almost 20 years, initially serving the auto and computer markets, Digital Amp Co. has developed an entirely proprietary line of power amplifiers that pushes the boundaries of Class D for audiophiles. Whereas many other companies use off-the-shelf components, chief designer Tommy O’Brien and his team has pursued original designs and in-house manufacture for years, resulting in a unique set of products that are slowly gaining a listening audience.
I first reviewed a Cherry Jr power amp back in 2009 and was very impressed with its sound, stating then that I would love to hear a monoblock pair so as to mimic the set up of my own reference system. Well, it’s been five years, the DAC product line has evolved, and I finally got the chance, but not quite in the form I expected.
So what is a Maraschino?
To say the Maraschino has a small footprint would be something of an understatement. The first thing anyone who sees them asks is ‘what do those do?’, followed by a look of incredulity when I explain these are the amps powering my rig. The official measurements state that each monoblock amp is 5” x 6” x 5” and this is true only because each comes with a granite base that is larger in length and width than the electronics. The cherry-colored case on top of each base is really only 4.5” on it’s longest side, and might more appropriately be described as ‘cute’, a term that is rarely used when describing power amps, and certainly never used when talking about gear that can kick out 800W of power on demand. Different colors and base options are to be offered in the coming year but I confess to liking the rich red finish, which is quite different than the normal color of gear I own.
Of course, there is a cleverness to the Maraschino design, which puts the 48v power supply (a 60v option is available) in an external housing into which you plug the power cord, keeping any noise-inducing nasties well away from the signal path. This construction also enables interesting placement options for those who like to keep wires out of sight. You really could hide each monoblock behind most floorstanders for a minimalist look (some well-known speaker cable boxes are larger). These are amps for people who let the sonics not the size of their equipment impress others.
DAC amps have impressive specs and I won’t repeat here the details that you can easily find on the company’s website, but I can say you are getting real power, low distortion, high parts quality and a true balanced input stage with each monoblock. The amps are made in the USA (although the power supply units in my pair were Chinese) and ship with single-ended adaptors for those who need them. Interestingly, they don’t come with power cords, so you need to supply your own, a somewhat surprising fact given the price. A small light on top indicates they are powered up and this brightens up within a blink of an eye once a signal is detected, dimming again after 8 minutes if no signal is present. Leave them on all the time and they stand ready to deliver almost instantly. In operation they are entirely silent even with the preamp volume switch wide open.
Unpacking and set-up is simple, save for the somewhat disconcerting instruction to turn the amps on by connecting a power cord (there is no switch) while the rest of your rig is actually playing music at low volume. At first, I was slightly reticent (I’ve had more than a few mishaps with gear over the years and have now developed a strict on-off sequence whenever making a change) but all worked well, and while I still prefer having an on-off switch on every component I use, I did not find it problematic to connect and re-connect the amps as I moved them across rigs in my home over several months. They performed flawlessly for me throughout the review period, and did not appear to require significant break in or even warm up.
Music please, maestro
I first tried the monos in a setting that seemed appropriate to their physical form (though not their price). I keep a small bedroom system consisting of a CD player/DAC (the other kind), Naim Nait integrated and Pioneer BP21 speakers (a $49 clearance pair from NewEgg), all strung together with whatever cables I have going spare, including some home-made 12AWG speaker wires. I didn’t expect much here as I felt the Maraschinos were likely to be stifled by the gear around them but I always find it useful to become familiar with the workings of new review items in a set up that I know well and which sounds sweet at low volumes.
I knew I was in for something different when I cued up Holly Cole’s Temptation album on the secondary rig. While I am used to subtle differences in amps on first hearing and well-practiced in close back-and-forth listening to determine changes caused by component swaps, I tend to believe that only over long-term listening can you really get a handle on what is altered when a rig is adjusted. Not this time and not with this set up. The Maraschinos took such control over the equally diminutive Pioneers that I was smiling to myself at the results. Bass reproduction seemed so far beyond what the Naim was delivering, beyond what I imagined the diminutive Pioneers could ever deliver, that I listened to track after track, and came back again the next day with the same album to make sure I was not imagining it. In my years of reviewing gear, I can’t think of a single occasion when a change of amp more surprised me, and all this in a budget system. Don’t ever doubt that well-designed amplification can make a real difference!
From here, the Maraschinos made their way into my reference rig. Now in a much larger room, fed by my best digital and analog front ends and driving in turn a pair of newly updated Von Schweikert VR5 Anniversary II speakers, plus (briefly) a pair of the Bryson Mini T speakers I had in for review, it was time to hear if these little amps could really play with the big boys.
I’ve spent more than three months now with the Maraschinos in this system, have thrown most musical forms at them and can say never once did they seem out of their depth or would I consider them an obvious weak link in my chain. Given they were replacing reference amps which cost more than twice the price of the Maraschinos, I think you can get some sense of the sonics on offer here. These amps easily compete with other great amps I’ve heard.
In general terms, I would describe the Maraschinos as extremely smooth sounding. From top to bottom, there is a pleasing, easy-going quality to the amps, with music always free of any sharp upper frequency edginess or boomy bass. Instead, what you hear is a coherent, full frequency sound which highlights the quality of the recording and associated equipment. This quality is akin in places to the smooth qualities of a tube amp, quite different to the impressions most people have of a switching amp. I was quite taken by this result but the mid-range response here really reminded me of the times I have spent with several small tube amps, but only with better bass control and no heat problems in the Texas summer.
Unlike some tube amps however, the Maraschinos can deliver at the frequency extremes without losing focus. This is most noticeable on small combo jazz recordings such as Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue (a new edition of which on the Blue Note MusicMatters LP 33RPM series I just picked up) or the John Pisano Guitar Night collection, a series of live recordings made over the years at the club gigs arranged by Mr Pisano to showcase the joys of jazz guitar. Both these albums can sound a little thick in the mid-bass if your system is less than resolving or rolls off too quickly in lower frequencies but you might not notice this until you’ve heard the music on a good system. Well, with the Maraschinos driving the Vons, I conclude that this pairing certainly makes the grade, leaving little to be desired in terms of full-range sonics or resolution.
On rock, the results are impressive. The amps belie their size to deliver a sonic wallop that conveys all the drive, energy and power that this genre can offer. For the last year, I’ve been rediscovering some of my old rock collection and adding a couple of new choice releases, spurred on in part by my teenage son’s new found interest in riffs, solos and driving beats. I’ll let forum fanatics fight out the virtues or otherwise of the new Zeppelin remasters, for the few times every couple of years I want to let Physical Graffiti blast out, I don’t care to repurchase yet another back catalog. That said, with the Maraschinos in place, I wondered if the amps actually revealed some of the weaknesses of those 1990s Page-remastered versions. Listening critically for the first time in ages, I actually thought the CD sonics somewhat lifeless, lacking instrumental body and a step down from the vinyl copies I own. Hard though it may be to believe, I think this speaks to the quality of the amps in that they revealed the shortcomings of the remaster to my ears. That said, I could still enjoy the music and, audiophile sensibilities aside, found my toes and fingers tapping away to Night Flight and Wanton Song (give me these over Kashmir and In My Time of Dying any day!).
Personally, I am more interested in the recordings of rock bands that want to produce new music rather than endless re-packaging of the canon. To this end, the ever-touring Deep Purple released a stunner last year with the Bob Ezrin produced “Now What’, a real late-career gem. Here’s a band really on fire, with tremendous instrumental interplay between Steve Morse’s guitar and Don Airey’s keyboards, captured by a producer who made it his mission to record the essence of the group that he felt had been lost in recent years. The Maraschinos deliver the goods here in spades. This is rock music of a hard and heavy kind which you cannot ignore. In fact, it was clear from the opening bars of the first track, where simple guitar chords and bass notes are punctuated ever so slightly by a very faint, odd-timed repetitive cymbal tap by Ian Paice, a detail that is easily lost on lesser rigs. Not only could I hear those taps, but these amps made the lyrics clearer than I’d heard previously. Perhaps vocal articulation is not the index most people use when listening to hard rock but I found this very noticeable on Ian GIllan’s initial words and further confirmation that these amps have something special going on in key areas.
On acoustic music the Maraschinos really come into their own. For more than a year I’ve been struck with the beauty of Viktor Uzur’s Solo Cello recording on the IsoMike label (a reference to the microphone recording techniques used to capture the sonics). This is a truly special album and it never fails to sound good on any rig. That said, with the Maraschinos, I am not sure I ever heard it sound better in my room. The sense of space here is palpable and the dynamics are startling. You can almost feel as if you are in the same room as the cellist. At the end of Uzur’s interpretation of Bach’s Suite #4 in Eb Maj, he completes a run of quick notes that diminish slowly but evenly in volume before marking the Gigue’s completion with an emphatic draw of his bow. The sound of this performance with the Maraschinos in place is superb, with dynamic shades fully exposed, and across the whole album I found myself drawn in again and again to the beauty of the instrument and music, caring little for analytic observations on bass or treble clarity. If nothing else, this is the ultimate measure of these amps, they keep you listening to the music. I could go on, and I did, from bluesy Ronnie Earl to funky Sly Stone, through old favorites from Paul Brady to new purchases of Carla Bley, the music was varied but my experience was uniformly positive.
I particularly enjoyed the Maraschinos with the Von Schweikerts but I also had a chance to hear them with the Bryston Mini-T speakers I had in for review around the same time. This pairing worked well too as the Brystons really do respond to additional power, coming alive with detail and a sense of control that is lacking with lesser powered amplification. That said, the inherent smoothness of both the Brystons and the Marachinos might prove too much of a good thing for some listeners. I know many people will want to know when smoothness in sound reproduction became a bad thing but that’s all a matter of personal taste.
In direct comparison with the twice-as-costly Spectron monos that form my reference, the Maraschinos give up very little but they did not sound the same. If forced to characterize the differences, I feel Maraschinos offer a slight shift of emphasis, actually providing a more pleasing upper end, particularly noticeable on cymbal reproduction which is somewhat sweeter sounding, but I sense this comes at a cost in resolution at the lower end of the frequency equation. One notices this only in direct comparison on complex and dense orchestral or rock music where the DAC amps sound a little less resolving. Since the Spectrons offer the cleanest bass I have heard in my room, they can untangle the multiple lines at work in such recordings in a way that few amps I’ve heard can match. I suspect that without hearing the two in close sequence, most people will be satisfied with the bass response of the Maraschinos. Yes, they do stand comparison with much more expensive amps.
Tweaking the set up
Of course, when you have a new product in place you want to experiment a little to see how it reacts to various tweaks. I tried it with various power cords, ranging from some low-price stock cables that come with most products, through the entry-level priced Pangeas, up to my reference Spectron Thunderbolts. Surprisingly for me, these changes made little difference so I would not worry too much about the extra costs of providing your own power cords, almost anything you have to hand will make these amps sing. Expensive investment in cables seem unnecessary, which is actually a major cost-saving in the long run.
The question of power conditioning is likely to be of interest to potential owners too. My experiences were a little more complicated in this regard. I tried the amps direct into the wall, into an Audioprism Power Wedge II, and finally into an Audience aR2 which I bought to feed my reference monoblocks – to great effect. Again, the Maraschinos proved less sensitive to power treatments than any other amp I’ve experienced recently. In my main reference room, I found the amps sounded great plugged directly into the wall (which provides a dedicated line) but sounded a tad smoother perhaps, with the Audience. That smoothness though, which I thought slightly beneficial on CD, was more of a hindrance on vinyl, where I found I preferred the sonics with the amps fed directly from the wall. This seemed to give a little more body and presence to my analog sound. I don’t wish to make too big a deal of the differences, but it proves that each room and system offers a unique context so be prepared to experiment. That said, if you just use basic power cords and draw current directly from your wall, I believe you are going to be able to hear what these amps are capable of delivering, and I suspect you’ll like the results.
For the record, I did not try any footers or special stands for these amps. Their design seems to rely on the granite base coupled to the amp module via some type of pliable interface for isolation. This can be a little wobbly and one would not want to risk lifting the amps up by anything other than the base. Further, their small size means it is possible for a thick speaker cable or interconnect to wrestle the amp off base. Though this never happened with anything I used, I did not want to tempt fate by adding any potential instability via additional footers, especially in my main rig where I used fairly thick biwire speaker cables. The four feet under the granite base seem to have been added after some holes were drilled in the underside, probably as mine were an early model, but it looks as if the company have been trying various options to maximize stability.
It is rare that one sees a truly different approach to audio amplification, either in technology or in form factor, but the DAC Maraschinos truly offer something original. The looks might not be for everyone, especially if you value large shiny faceplates and back-breaking weight in your amplification, but the size and ease of placement these amps afford will be a boon to others. They are not cheap but they offer a lot of power and finesse for the price.
As I finished my review, I listened repeatedly to Carla Bley’s Trio recording on ECM. Andy Sheppard’s tenor and soprano saxophone lines can best be described as oozing through the speakers at some points in this set and when this happens, you are hard pushed to dissect the music or worry if you are listening to solid state, tubes or something else; it all just sounds right. Need I say more?
Small in size, huge in sonics, I find myself seduced by the quality of music provided by the Digital Amp Company’s Maraschinos. Recommended for music lovers.
Size: 5″ x 6″ x 5″
Power Efficiency: 96%
Output Impedance: <0.02′
Sensitivity: 2.2Vin for 200W into 4′
Weight: 100 kHz
Output Power (48V supply): 250W into 4′
Protection: Thermal, Current, Voltage, Auto-Recovery
AC power (48V supply): Universal Mains (100-270VAC, 50-60Hz)
Price: $2900 per pair as reviewed. Sold direct from DAC with 3 year warranty.
Manufacturer’s website: http://www.digitalamp.com/
Vinyl: SME 20/2 with SME V arm, and Clearaudio Concerto II cartridges
Phono stage: Whest P.03RDT
Preamp: SMcAudio VRE-1, McCormack TLC-1,
Power amps: Spectron Musician III Mk2 monoblocks, Naim Nait II
Cables: Harmonic Technology phono and interconnects, High Fidelity, MIT and PS Audio interconnects, Von Schweikert biwires, Speltz Anti-Cables, and homemade 12AWG speaker cables
Power cords: Spectron Thunderbolts, Absolute Fidelity, PS Audio and generic stock cords.
Conditioning by AudioPrism, Audience and PS Audio (main components).