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 çe 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 à 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.