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Product Review
 

DK Design Group VS-1 Reference MKII Hybrid (Tube/Solid State) Integrated Amplifier

June, 2005

Michael Galvin

 

Specifications:

● Dual Mono; 160 Watts per Channel
    into 8 Ohms; Pure Class A
    Operation
● 6922 Tube Input Stage; Solid
    State Output Stage
● MFR: 20 Hz - 20 kHz
± 0.1 dB
● THD: 0.1% at Full Output
● S/N: 94 dB
● Dimensions: 9.3" H x 17.1" W x 19"
    D
● Weight: 77 Pounds
● MSRP: $2,995 USA

 

DK Design Group

www.dkdesigngroup.com

Introduction

This amplifier has been generating a lot of buzz in the audio world, which was precisely the reason I wanted to review it.

Daniel Khesin, the principal behind DK Design Group, will even go as far as to say that this amplifier, at $3,000 USD, bests amplifiers costing many times that price.

Of course, all manufacturers usually say that. So, let's see.

I feel one of my tasks when reviewing equipment that comes with this kind of “hype baggage” is to separate it from whatever intrinsic value the product has as a tool for musical playback. I turn an even more critical eye and ear to equipment the more it has been praised because I’ve experienced firsthand the utter disappointment of buying a piece of equipment solely on the strength of a particularly gushing review only to have it fall far short of all its hype.

Indeed, that is precisely why so many products are disappointing; not because they are bad per se, but because they are not the end-all, be-all audio salvation the manufacturer or a particular reviewer claims them to be. Quite honestly, I’m not even looking to find THE ONE piece of equipment that I will keep forever; I very much look forward to experimenting with new components.

The way I see it, listening to different equipment is very much like listening to the same piece of music performed by different artists. Equipment often becomes, for both manufacturer and consumer alike, the tangible means we use to interpret and express our love for both music and film.

It Arrives

“What is this, an air conditioner?” wondered the UPS driver as he struggled to move the enormous box up my front steps.

“No,” I said, “it’s an amp.”

“Wow, heavy,” he said as he exhaled. While I was initially concerned that the amplifier wouldn’t properly fit on my Lovan rack (seeing the box did nothing to alleviate that anxiety), I now had an additional concern. Could I even lift the amplifier out of the box in the first place?

I opened both the inner and outer boxes, and as I stared, mesmerized by the sheer majesty of the amplifier before me, I wondered if the four handles on the front of the unit were just decoration. A sense of both accomplishment and relief overtook me as I successfully lifted the amplifier out of the box and onto the top of my rack by its handles; the thought of 80 pounds of metal falling on my bare feet gently fading from my mind.

With all four silver footers of the amplifier resting comfortably on the slab of New Zealand Pine, or whatever Lovan uses, I was able to soak in the grandeur of the DK VS-1. As substantial and impressive as the amplifier looks in pictures, it is even more so in person. The DK is a truly bold statement of industrial design in the world of consumer audio gear.

From front to back, massive black heat sinks flank the sides of the unit. The controls are nearly flush-mounted with the matte silver aluminum faceplate. The top cover is a slab of even more aluminum with four perforated black metal vents toward the front, above the transformers, and a classy-looking, silk-screened logo towards the back.

The remote control (seen in the photo above, sitting next to the amplifier), which combines standby, source, and volume control, is a softly rounded stick of aluminum. In other words, anyone who is considering this amplifier better have an affinity for metal, as the only plastic I could find on the unit consists of the faceplate window, the WBT-style binding posts, the master power switch on back, and the AC inlet. In a word, the DK Design Group VS-1 Reference MKII Integrated Amplifier looks SERIOUS.

Set-Up and First Impressions

Taming this austerity a bit is the playful fluorescent display with the input level (yes, input level, NOT output power) meter. The orange, white, and blue lighting scheme of the display initially struck me as a bit karaoke-esque, and there were certainly times I wished I could turn it off or at least dim it, but in the end, those little slivers of light dancing along with the music grew on me, and the display is much more elegant-looking than it might seem from my description.

The DK is a hybrid design, combining two 6922 tubes in the preamp section with a solid state power amplifier section capable of 160 wpc into 8 ohms and 320 wpc into 4 ohms. I did not verify this claim, but I will say that this is one of the few amplifiers I’ve had that seems to be honestly specified as far as output power is concerned. Indeed, I would be very surprised to learn that this amplifier had trouble driving any speaker.

The VS-1 has three pairs of single-ended line inputs (one of which converts to a phono input once the supplied jumpers are in place), a pair of balanced inputs (the amplifier circuit is not balanced though), and a single-ended preamp line-out.

I connected a Shunyata Diamondback AC cord to the DK, as well as the rest of my cables, and I was ready to listen. DK supplies a substantial-looking RCA interconnect with the unit and while I didn’t use it during the review, it never hurts to have an extra interconnect laying around.

I use a single pair of PSB Stratus Gold i speakers, and as I’ve owned them for almost a year and a half, I am familiar with their sound. Right out of the box, my impression of the DK was that I have never auditioned an amplifier which so completely controlled these speakers. In fact, over the course of my time with the DK, while reflecting on all the speaker and amplifier combinations I’ve owned over the years, my experience with the DK leads me to believe that I’ve never had an amplifier that has been quite powerful enough or, at least, as well behaved as this. The sound from the DK is as big, controlled, and listenable as anything I’ve ever heard.

It is almost strange because, as tonally rich as everything sounds, the delicacy of sounds such as brushed cymbals were never obscured. The amplifier sorts out harmonic complexities very well, and the result never sounds pushed, harsh, or even slightly etched. There is an overall refinement to the sound, which at first blush, could be characterized as warmth. The more I listened though, the more I thought it was not an artificial warmth, but rather, the effect of a purity of tone in the midrange, which simply makes the DK much more listenable than most high-powered amplifiers.

This is an amplifier that does not limit you to one or two styles of music, but invites you to listen for hours on end without fear of either of the two most prevalent equipment vices, listener fatigue OR boredom. In my room, which is quite large (22L x 15W x 10H), the DK was able to reproduce concert-level volumes without even reaching the halfway point on the volume control.

Everything was as clear at high SPL as it was at lower volumes, and it was completely free of distortion. This is the kind of amplifier that gets you in trouble with your neighbors because you can listen to it very loudly without realizing it. Interestingly, the unit never seemed even warm to the touch despite all my efforts to destroy my hearing, and the manufacturer’s claimed Class A output specification. Overall, I was very impressed.

But, after a few weeks, tragedy struck.

Intermission

The right channel began to distort, as it seemed a tube was failing. “Nice,” I thought, just when I was starting to enjoy it. I shut the amp down and e-mailed Daniel. In the meantime, I decided to order a matched pair of NOS Mullard CV2492s from the Parts Connection, which arrived a few days later. I had to run out to Home Depot to get a metric hex key because none is supplied with the unit (one should be included), and I did not have one on hand.

After I got the top cover off, I was struck by how cleanly the internals of the amp are laid out. The two power supply transformers are up front with a metal plate separating them from the two discrete circuit boards. The tubes themselves are positioned toward the rear of the unit and are held in place by ceramic sockets and metal ring towers. There are two small, polished screws that secure the top ring to the vertical shaft which supports each tower, and I will say that, while attractive, those little suckers didn’t screw back into place all that easily.

With the Mullards in place, I was back in business. It had been a few days, and I hadn’t received a reply to my e-mail, so I decided to call Daniel. He was very polite and apologized for not getting back to me sooner. He said that he had read my e-mail and that it would be very difficult and time-consuming to get a replacement pair of the stock tubes, so he asked me if I might prefer something else. I told him I had the pair of Mullards, so what I wanted was something most like the stock tubes. He suggested a pair of Russian tubes, NOS Reflecktors, and about a week later they arrived at my door.

So, Back to the Listening

The few comments I have made so far refer to the sound of the unit with the stock tubes, and while the replacement tubes definitely sounded different, the stock tubes were by no means distasteful. In fact, of the three brands of tubes I tried, the stock tubes were the most noticeably dynamic of the bunch, while the Reflecktors were the quietest, and the Mullards were the most breathtaking (they extended the soundstage height considerably).

I had a friend in town for a few days and asked him to sit and listen to a few songs from Radiohead’s Amnesiac, with the Mullards in place. He actually commented that both soundstage depth and height increased with the Mullards compared to the Reflecktors (I did not tell him anything about which tubes were in place). The more I listened to the Mullards, the more it seemed the bass had all of the slam of the other tubes, but had a more nuanced musicality as well.

The Reflecktors seemed almost dead-on neutral with a more refined, precise overall sound than the stock Chinese tubes, but I can’t say that I preferred them to the stock tubes. I believe this is all the more difficult to explain because I went from stock to Mullard to Reflecktor, and so I believe I was actually making two discrete comparisons: stock vs. Mullard and Mullard vs. Reflecktor.

I apologize if this is confusing or unhelpful, so let me be as clear as I can: this amplifier is a supremely capable piece of equipment, and it sounded fantastic with every tube I used. If you are considering a purchase, Daniel seems to have tried nearly every tube in this amplifier, so instead of buying everything compatible, try the amp with stock tubes first, and if you wish it sounded more “whatever,” give him a call and I’m sure he’ll be a great help.

Conclusions

There were times in the beginning of the review period during which I thought I heard a lack of extension in the lower treble, but it seems to have disappeared over time. Whether the disappearance was a function of the amplifier breaking in or the change from the stock Chinese tubes, I’m not really sure. I wish I had a pair of those tubes to verify it at this point, but unfortunately, it will have to be left to speculation. That being said, while it was interesting to hear all the different tubes, my core impression of the amplifier was made during the first few weeks with the stock tubes and really, the NOS tubes were just variations on a consistent theme.

In plain English, the DK VS-1 Reference MKII sounded very right no matter which tubes were in place. The bass is phenomenal, there are tons of information, with truly realistic scale and weight, and everything is reproduced effortlessly. While the DK looks the part of the neighborhood bully, it also has a sensitive side; sort of a new-age bully, I suppose.

The midrange has a purity to it that makes listening a truly captivating experience, and the highs seemed very neutral overall. The amplifier produces a very well balanced, focused sound with plenty of air around both voices and instruments. All the while I had this amp, the DK proved an absolute joy to listen to and produced an enormous, room-filling sound. Perhaps the best evidence of just how much I enjoyed the amplifier was that I made it a point to listen to music every day. There is no higher praise I can give a piece of equipment.


- Michael Galvin -

 

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