GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published August 1, 2006

 

Dussun DS99 Integrated Amplifier

My father remembers the days when "Made in Japan" meant shoddy workmanship and cheap prices. Forty or 50 years later, "Made in Japan" almost always means "Can’t afford it," particularly in the area of home electronics. The fact is, not too many products are made in Japan anymore, because Japanese companies can’t afford it, either. These days, China finds itself in the position Japan was in 40 years ago. If it can be manufactured, the Chinese will make it, and while it’s true that the quality is sometimes suspect, it’s equally true that the quality is just as likely to be pretty good, if not excellent.

It’s also true that if you’re shopping at the entry level of home audio electronics, the equipment under consideration has almost assuredly been made in China. Original equipment manufacturers (aka OEMs) and rebranding are givens in every industry, and the lower end of hi-fi is no exception. And as Chinese exports multiply across the economic spectrum, it can be expected that OEMs will begin to want to sell their wares under their own names. In many respects, however, China is still very much a land of mystery, and the arrival of the Dussun DS99 stereo integrated amplifier ($500 USD) didn’t do much to change that perception.

Description

The Dussun DS99 didn’t come out of nowhere, however. Dussun’s North American distributor, AAA-Audio, is run by the decidedly unmysterious and accessible Ping Gong, whose website describes his operation as "dedicated to importing and distributing high-end audio/video products for North American audiophiles, with class-A quality, service, and price." Ping regularly visits China, where he has carefully researched and evaluated the production facilities, management teams, reputations among customers, and service records of the brands he chooses to import to the US. For its part, Dussun evolved from a company called Korsun, whose president and chief designer, Zou Yuan Yuan, taking advantage of the Chinese government’s move toward freer enterprise, renamed his company Dussun and moved it to a larger, more efficient assembly plant. Poking around on the Web reveals that the Dussun DS99 is nearly identical to the well-regarded Korsun KS99, which was distributed outside North America.

My DS99 arrived in a box labeled with the name of the company, the model number, the words integrated stereo amplifier, numbers signifying dimensions, some handle-with-care symbols, and a lot of Chinese ideograms, even on the otherwise clear tape used to seal the flaps. Inside, nestled in tight Styrofoam packing, was the unit itself, its detached power cord, and the owner’s manual, which looked as if it had been written by whoever labeled the box: all in Chinese. As it turned out, there was little need for a manual; the DS99 is the simplest, most austere amplifier I’ve ever seen at a price at which inexpensive stereo receivers and superficially elaborate home-theater electronics often promise to give you more for less.

Housed in a stable, black metal case of slightly less than standard dimensions (15"W x 4.25"H x 9"D), the DS99 is rated to deliver 100W through each of its two channels into 8 ohms (150Wpc into 4 ohms) from its internal 400W power supply. According to Dussun, the DS99’s passive preamplifier, power supply, and end-stage components are strictly separated and designed for a single target, enabling what they believe to be the best possible music reproduction. Dussun claims for the DS99 a frequency range of 10Hz-40kHz, 1dB, a signal/noise ratio of 100dB, and 0.08% total harmonic distortion.

Around back, the DS99 offers five inputs plated in 24-karat gold, one output for recording, two pairs of metal speaker binding posts (banana plugs, spades, pins, or bare wire) for a single pair of speakers, and the power-cord socket. This austerity is mirrored around front, where one pushbutton turns the unit on and off, two buttons (forward right or back left) select the inputs, one knob controls the volume, and one socket accepts a 1/4" headphone jack (which overrides the speaker output and works off the main volume knob). No tone controls, no balance controls, no phono stage, no remote. The DS99 is as minimalist as it gets.

The massive faceplate of brushed aluminum extends a bit past the edges of the case and must account for a substantial portion of the amplifier’s 23 pounds. Exceptionally clean-looking and uncluttered, with only the name (in small red lettering) and model number in the upper left corner, and tiny black lettering identifying the controls, the silvery DS99 has the styling of far more expensive and equally obscure audio brands, or the cool simplicity of the notoriously design-conscious Italians. The lack of extravagance in its appearance takes some getting used to, but its overall solidity is reassuring, and the conscious rejection of frills forces the listener to concentrate on its sound.

The Dussun DS99 took its place in my system, which comprised a Pioneer DVD-353 DVD player, Monster Cable interconnects, Epos ELS-3 minimonitor speakers, and 9’ runs of Element Cable’s Double Run speaker cable, terminated with banana plugs.

Sound

By 1975, The Who was just about at the end of the trail, the excesses of the superstar lifestyle having taken its toll on the members of the band to varying degrees. In some respects, The Who By Numbers [CD, PolyGram International 9203] is a Pete Townshend solo record, but his backup band never sounded better. The Dussun DS99 was dead quiet and highly transparent, and nothing seemed to interfere with the music. "Slip Kid" swung, John Entwistle’s bass on one side and Keith Moon’s drums on the other, the players challenging each other to keep up and barely making it. When Entwistle ran down the neck of his bass, the DS99 was propulsive and articulate. On "However Much I Booze," Moon’s drumming is a mad dash with Townshend’s guitar in hot pursuit: the DS99 handled the momentum with ease, and separated the instruments with sharp resolution. In the gentle "Blue, Red and Grey," Townshend’s vocals through the DS99 were sweet, his acoustic guitar crisp and sharply drawn.

Solo double-bass performances are an acquired taste requiring confidence and nerve on the parts of performer and listener. Long Hidden [CD, Aum Fidelity 36] pits several solo performances by William Parker on bass and doson ngoni, a West African lute, against a few tracks by the upstart Olmec Group. The album opens with a take of "There Is a Balm in Gilead" so organically conceived and warmly recorded that you forget that only one musician is playing. The DS99 focused the bass’s beautiful woody sound and never faltered in relaying the crispness of the leading edges of the sounds of plucked strings. Parker’s doson ngoni on "Long Hidden: Part 3" is like a guitar-and-bass duet, and the track benefited from the DS99’s facility in establishing steady low notes below and a tinkling melody above. "Long Hidden: Part 1" was serene, like water running through Monet’s garden -- this in contrast to "Codex," which is a riot of percussion (timbales, congas, bongos, and a plunking balafon) cut with skittering alto sax and a wheezing accordion. "In Case of Accident" was ferocious, Parker’s bow generating a huge, raw wall of sound that the DS99 reconstructed with authority and impressive dimensionality.

Anthony Hamilton’s voice is a throwback to the earthy, complex soul men of the early 1970s, but his albums cannily combine down-home instrumentation with contemporary percussion and production, and put him at the forefront of the neo-soul movement. On Ain’t Nobody Worryin’ [CD, Arista 74278] Hamilton sounds hungry, troubled, and optimistic by turns, and the DS99 seemed perfectly equipped to manage his naturalness, full range of emotion, and array of tonal colors. The choir on "Pass Me Over" soared on the back of the DS99, airy and alive behind Hamilton’s own longing. On "Can’t Let Go" Hamilton sounded resigned yet resilient, while on "Preacher’s Daughter" the charismatic DS99 believably reproduced all the grit and urgency inherent in Hamilton’s story. On the funky, bass-heavy "Sista Big Stuff," the DS99 maintained a tight grip on the low end, and the keyboards squiggled across the soundstage like rock salt strewn across a sheet of ice.

Comparison

When I took delivery of the DS99, I’d been spending quite a bit of time with the Outlaw Retro Receiver 2150 ($599), a new 100Wpc, two-channel receiver that was also in for review. Both the Dussun DS99 and the Outlaw RR2150 are rated at 100Wpc, but aside from that, the two units couldn’t be more different. If the DS99 is minimal, the RR2150 is maximal. It has just about every feature you can think of, including tone controls and a button to defeat them, a phono input, a built-in tuner, a headphone jack with its own volume control, and a full-function remote control. I even discovered that Outlaw underestimates the RR2150’s power rating. When I turn it on, I half expect it to buzz with foreboding, like the enormous amplifier facing Marty McFly at the beginning of Back to the Future.

In contrast, the DS99’s sound was so sweet and sophisticated that I almost suspected that Dussun had overestimated its power rating. The RR2150 has so much gain that merely tapping its remote’s volume button rotates the volume dial to an uncomfortable listening level, particularly with the Epos ELS-3 minimonitors. The DS99, on the other hand, offers the user complete authority over its capabilities; its volume control responded with all the subtlety and controlled musicality I could have asked for, along with plenty of power. I found it supremely nuanced and a real pleasure to listen to. Unfortunately, you have to be near enough to the unit to operate it by hand. I was surprised how much I missed a remote control -- I’d gotten used to them with the Outlaw RR2150 and my reference NAD C320BEE integrated ($399). It’s not just laziness; when I can fine-tune the playback from my listening position, my listening enjoyment has been significantly increased. I’d be willing to pay a bit more for this basic functionality.

Conclusion

By not including a phono input in the DS99, Dussun seems to be ignoring the possibility that the future of audiophilia might be in its past. The absence of a preamp output means that, unlike many other integrated amplifiers, the DS99 will always be a standalone piece of gear. And it doesn’t have a remote.

Those disadvantages aside, the DS99 reproduced balanced, defined sound of the highest order with extraordinary delicacy and refinement. It was remarkably detailed, and able to make music that was smooth and full-bodied without a hint of extraneous noise. Nothing got in the way of my enjoyment of this amplifier’s clarity or its beautifully simple good looks and operation.

...Jeff Stockton

Price of equipment reviewed


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