There must be something in the water in Utah, for more and more audiophile companies seem to hail from the "Industry" state. Some of the more notable Utah-based audiophile and/or specialty AV companies include Wilson Audio, RBH, Zu Audio and Tekton Design, to name a few. Well, add Red Dragon Audio and its lineup of ICE-based digital amplifiers to that list. Like Tekton Design and Zu Audio before it, Red Dragon Audio is all about value. Take for example the company's newly minted M500MkII monaural amplifier reviewed here. The MkII retails for $799 ($1,598 per pair) and is sold direct to consumers via the company's website. Is Red Dragon Audio and its M500MkII another Utah audiophile success story? Let's find out.
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The M500MkII is an update of Red Dragon Audio's previous M500 mono amplifier, which garnered a lot of underground support and praise in the specialty AV forums. The new M500MkII features an all-new aircraft-grade aluminum chassis that also acts as the amplifier's heat sink. The chassis itself looks more or less like a slab of black metal with the Red Dragon Audio name silk-screened across the front with the company logo - surprisingly, a red dragon - die cut above. When the amplifier is on, the red power light that rests behind the dragon's head glows red, illuminating or back-lighting the logo. This is very cool and gives the otherwise unassuming looks of the M500MkII a bit of visual punch. There are no front-mounted controls of any kind. For inputs, power and whatnot, you'll have to turn your attention to the M500MkII's rear panel. Red Dragon has updated much of the M500MkII's back panel as well, offering universal gold-plated binding posts, with an optional upgrade to WBT-style posts should the consumer request them. There is a 12-bolt trigger input and output, allowing you to daisy-chain multiple M500MkIIs in a multi-amplifier or home theater-style setup. The M500MkII now comes with both XLR and RCA-style inputs, which are selectable via a small switch. A standard detachable power cord and a master on/off switch round out the M500MkII's physical features and connection options. The chassis itself is rather compact, which is par for the course when it comes to digital amplifiers, measuring 16 inches long by seven inches wide and three inches tall. Each M500MkII weighs a solid but not too heavy eight-and-a-half pounds.
Under the hood, the M500MkII's digital topology is good for 250 watts into eight ohms and 500 watts into four. Typical total harmonic distortion is said to be .0045 percent. There are a few internal updates for the M500MkII, including an input buffer stage for better integration (Red Dragon Audio claims) with tube preamps and added thermal, DC and over-current protection, as well as smooth clipping speaker protection. Because the M500MkII is a digital amplifier, it is more efficient than a traditional design, meaning it can be left on 24/7 should you be so inclined, with the amp drawing a scant nine watts at idle. This may not be as good as some of the big-dog amps claiming less than two watts these days, but as a tradeoff, the M500MkII's operating power consumption is also much lighter at 285 watts full-tilt into eight ohms. 285 watts full bore is not typical, meaning your average power draw is going to be much, much less, making the M500MkII a very efficient and environmentally-friendly design indeed.
Integrating the pair of M500MkIIs I was sent for review was easy, thanks in no small part to the amps' diminutive size. I connected them at first to the Krell Phantom III preamp via a pair of balanced interconnects from Monoprice, but found the pairing to be a little off, both sonically and financially. I didn't feel that your typical Krell owner would purchase Red Dragon Audio products and vice versa. Also, the two components didn't complement each other sonically. I therefore went to my reference Integra DHC 80.2 instead - again, connecting the M5005MkIIs via balanced runs of Monoprice cables. The M500MkIIs were charged with powering my reference Tekton Design Pendragon, another Utah great, and were connected via single runs of 12-gauge speaker wire courtesy of SnapAV. As for source components, well, that duty fell to the only source component everyone seems to have and use right now, which is an Oppo universal player. I happen to be fortunate enough to have gotten my hands on a BDP-103 (Review Link), which I'll be reviewing very soon. The BDP-103 was connected to my Integra via a one-meter HDMI cable, also from Monoprice.
I don't put a lot of stock into component break-in for the only thing really being broken in is the listener as he or she adjusts to a particular product's sound over time. If I break in a product, it's generally for an hour or two at most before sitting down to listen. That's just my opinion and approach, you may feel otherwise, but I'm pleased to say the M500MkIIs don't make you wait in order to enjoy what they have to offer.
I began my evaluation of the M500MkIIs with Tori Amos' album From the Choir Girl Hotel (Atlantic) and the track "Playboy Mommy." Right off the bat, what struck me first and foremost was the M500MkII's smooth, silky but not overly sweetened demeanor. I know Red Dragon Audio claims SET-like fluidity in a digital design, but I'd say the M500MkII is far more neutral and non-artificial, as most SET designs have an inherently smooth, rounded midrange. This obviously can be pleasing, too. However, if your goal is being true to the source, I feel the M500MkIIs are more neutral than tubes. That said, the high frequencies don't get a boost as with tubes and/or Class A designs, which is to say that some may classify the M500MkII's highs as being a touch dry, maybe even flat. I could understand that and even wrote such descriptors in my journal, but they're still very natural, even if they don't quite sparkle the way that some amps do when presenting high-frequency information, such as cymbal claps.
Read more about the performance of the Red Dragon Audio M500MkII on Page 2.