When I was asked to review this little headphone amp I was a little hesitant as to what to expect, but I was assured by the UK distributor that it was a goodie.

Let’s get the technical spec out of the way first. This is headphone amplifier and USB DAC in one compact little unit with a power output rated at a healthy 1 Watt per channel in Class A. It has a switch on the back to switch between 32, 120 and 300 Ohm headphones, two stereo line inputs, a stereo minijack input, a USB input and a stereo line output. It can also be used as a preamplifier…more of which later.

In the packaging you get a small instruction manual, a pair of white gloves, the amp and its hefty separate power supply. Valves fitted are 1x6N2X1, 1 x 61X1 and 1x 12AX7X1 and the whole caboodle weighs in at 5Kg.

It’s an attractive little unit being matt black aluminium with the valves being kept from harm behind individual transparent ‘cages’. On the front of the DARED is a large input selector knob where you can switch between Line 1, Line 2, Aux and USB, a volume control dial, the headphone output socket and a round, illuminated VU meter which lends the amplifier a somewhat retro feel. It’s a nice looking bit of kit measuring 180 x 220 x 150mm (LWH).

You may not have heard of DARED but the Shenzhen Danyigao Audio Equipment Limited was founded in 1995 with the “sole purpose of designing and manufacturing vacuum tube audio equipment” and DARED is the company’s registered trading name. The name DARED derives from the Chinese pronunciation of ‘Dan yi gao’ which means “high-end tube amplifier and artistry” – In English the company use “Daring, Artistic, Reliable, Elegant and Definitive” as their mantra. DARED kit is designed and manufactured in Shenzen, China, the company say that all their products are thoroughly tested electronically and by ear before leaving the manufacturing plant and that every unit is properly “run in”. The units all bear the CE mark and letters of authentication can be found on the company’s website. There is a wide range of amplifiers in the company’s portfolio with the T300P monoblocs being their flagship product – a pair of these amplifiers boasts no less than 16 x 300B valves and weigh in at 95Kg for the two!

For the purposes of this review I’ll be using the DARED with a Wilson Benesch Circle turntable fitted with a modified Rega RB250 arm with an Audio Technica AT33EV moving coil cartridge, through an Electrocompaniet ECP 1 phono stage. For Redbook CD I’ll be using the Unison Research CD Primo and I’ll be using the Hi Sound Audio Studio digital audio player into the auxiliary input to test that out too. The USB DAC input will be fed by a netbook computer with FLAC files. Headphones will be primarily Grado 325i.

Setting up the DARED is a piece of cake. The power supply is plugged into the mains and its umbilical goes to the amplifier itself. The usual inputs and outputs are plugged in and you’re up and running.

So what does it sound like? First up a bit of vinyl and Bob Andy’s “Book of Dub” – for those that don’t know it this is a serious slab of dub reggae with Mad Professor at the controls. “Brothers Faith” dub has a fantastic bassline and I found that little DARED allowed me to follow the line easily and presented it in a somewhat ‘dry’ but tuneful fashion – not overblown or over emphasised. However, the bass doesn’t dominate and the tune is presented in a coherent and enjoyable manner. With Pink Floyd’s “More” album, again on vinyl, I found myself being drawn to the top end and if I’m honest found that it was a little rolled off at the very top end.

Onto CDs and my go-to track – “Songbird” from Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” album -It sounds nice, not the best I’ve heard, but it’s pretty much all there. What I did find lacking was a portrayal of the atmosphere of the empty hall and this is one of the reasons I like to use this tune when listening to new kit – could this be a result of the top end being rolled off perhaps? The vocals were, reading from my notes taken at the time, “nice”. Further on during this album comes “The Chain” and I enjoyed the opening bass line, being able to hear it being ever so slightly  overdriven on the recording, but as the tune progresses things become a smidge confused and homogenous, with individual bits of the mix not being fantastically defined. However, my toes were tapping and I found myself able to listen to tunes for extensive periods without feeling the need to take a break – I suppose this is where much more experienced reviewers would talk about the unit’s “musicality”. Now, I love the simplicity of the recording of “Winter in America” by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson and I love that you can hear the ‘room’ in the mix. During my time with the little DARED I listened to this album a couple of times finding the stereo imaging “ good” and the vocal pushed quite to the fore, but again I found myself wanting more of the feel of the recording room. Listening to Jay Z’s first album (a great album to my mind) I came to the conclusion that this headphone amp is best suited to fairly simple music where the possibility of things becoming smoothed out is diminished.

Using the same tunes ripped to FLAC and plugging the digital audio player into the minijack input and the DAP turned to full volume I found the results pretty much echoed my findings with the CD Player – great with not over-complicated music and a little pushed on much more complex tunes.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that this unit goes loud! On the 32 Ohm setting I found that a comfortable (I do listen fairly loud) level was achieved at around 10 o’clock, any further around the clock and the volume becomes just too much. The manual does suggest that you find a level that is comfortable then leave it alone. I have absolutely no doubts whatsoever that this little unit will be capable of driving pretty much any headphone to well beyond reasonable levels of volume! The noise made by the unit itself in the headphones is negligible to nil.

So, onto the DAC – Installation is a simple matter of plugging the computer into the EF-99 via the provided USB cable and waiting for Windows to find and install the necessary drivers. The whole process takes a minute or so. I spent a while listening to BBC Radio, as I often do and found it an enjoyable experience using the DARED…no problems and the whole thing sounded like…well like BBC Radio via the internet. Radio four was an enjoyable listen with spoken word being perfectly acceptable. With the netbook playing FLAC files the DARED does a good job of presenting the music in a coherent and more than tolerable fashion. The same niggle of rolled off top end rears its head again, but all the data seems to be present and it’s an enjoyable and non-fatiguing listen. Of course the DAC isn’t the last word in fidelity and I have heard better, but at the price point it does a pretty good job. Complex music is again a little confused and homogenised but still toe-tappingly pleasant. Of course, as the EF-99 has the pre-amplifier circuit permanently inline (see Quibbles) it’s very difficult to isolate what is the DAC’s influence and what is the pre-amp circuit – the units sonic character is pretty much the same whether using a direct source or indeed the USB DAC.

Quibbles

Once plumbed in as it would be in a normal system (One where headphones are used occasionally and a main amplifier is the primary source) the DARED becomes the pre amplifier. I use an integrated with no line out/tape loop and as such would have liked to have seen a bypass button or a set of outputs not connected to the preamplifier circuit.

The instruction manual is pretty basic and no mention is made of how to change the valves and so I didn’t bother trying to remove them their enclosure or do any tube rolling. I’m sure if this is your particular “bag” then a quick call to the distributor will have you sorted. Had I had the opportunity to roll the tubes in the little DARED, particularly the 12AX7, then perhaps some of the sonic attributes of the unit could have been modified somewhat and the top end roll off opened up a little.

Conclusion

I think we need to keep in mind that the DARED EF-99 is a £250 headphone amplifier along with USB DAC and pre amp. Now £250 isn’t a drop in the ocean for most people, but in the grand scale of all things Hifi, it isn’t an expensive item at all. Does it offer good value for money? …Well yes, I think it does: It’s fun, its build quality is great, it’s a good looking little unit, it sounds good for the asking price and it’s pretty versatile.

If you listen to predominantly simple music with not too much going on, then I think you’ll be very happy with the DARED. Where it falls down a little in my opinion is when presented with much more complex music where things become a bit less focused and one dimensional. Let’s not forget that this is a well equipped and good sounding headphone amplifier, USB DAC and pre-amplifier for a modest amount of money and with a bit of tube rolling better results of the top end and resolution could be had I’m sure.

I find myself using headphones when I fancy listening to a few tunes and the family is wanting to do something else (television I think they call it) and so cans are not my first source. However, I could easily see me pairing the DARED with a computer or DAP in a corner of the living room and enjoying it a great deal. It would never become my main source of listening to music but, given its toe tapping presentation of most of the kind of music I listen to I’d gladly give it shelf room and could live quite happily with this unit  – no need to hide it away either as it looks so pretty.

Review – Stuart

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