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.
I will say that the air and subsequent decay that surrounded and followed such things as cymbal crashes were incredible, seeming to expand upon and hang onto the instrument and/or note for a touch longer than in my previous tests. Inner detail was also exemplary, as the flexing of the skins and resonance within the toms could be heard clearly. Amos’ vocals were well defined and stood out in stark contrast to the music with lifelike scale and weight. Center imaging was spot-on. Regarding the soundstage, the M500MkII seemed to favor width over depth, but not distractingly so. Bass was very solid and articulate and natural. I have heard a touch more control and/or impact elsewhere, if I’m honest, but again, nothing to disqualify the M500MkII’s abilities.
Moving on, I cued up the SACD edition of Keane’s Hopes and Fears (Interscope) and the track “Bedshaped.” The opening of the song is rife with both midrange and high-frequency information that borders on purposeful distortion, which can sometimes come off as abrasive or, worse, fatiguing. Not so with the M500MkIIs in the signal chain, as they toed the line beautifully and even imparted a greater sense of lateral space to the proceedings than I was used to previously. With regard to space, one of the other things I noticed was that the M500MkIIs projected further into my room that other amplifiers I had on hand, which largely kept the same track relegated to a plane in line with or behind the loudspeakers themselves. This was very nice on the M500MkIIs’ part and gave the opening 15 or so seconds a greater ethereal quality than I had heard from the song before. When the track gets into the swing of things, it was more of the same that I described above. I noted the M500MkIIs’ strong dynamics which, while not explosive or instant per se, were still rather remarkable, possessing a great deal of snap off the line, bested in this aspect only by very powerful or high-dollar solid state rigs that I’ve heard. Again, the M500MkII’s boundary-defying width in terms of its soundstage was infectious, as it made it seem as if my side walls simply weren’t there.
I ended my evaluation of the M500MkII with Sarah McLachlan’s The Freedom Sessions (Arista) and the track “Elsewhere.” The whole album is among the better recorded pop albums that I own, which is why I’ve used it as a reference for the better part of the past decade. I can say with almost one hundred percent certainty that I’ve at least listened to this album when evaluating any audiophile product and, I must say, there were things the M500MkII brought to light that few others, regardless of price, have managed to do. For example, the harmonies that exist in “Elsewhere,” are rendered largely as texture through most gear. With the M500MkII, they’re clearly secondary vocals, as they have their own unique presence, placement and scale, independent of McLachlan herself. I can count on one hand the number of amplifiers that have presented the harmonies correctly, and none of them retail for what the M500MkII does. As you would expect, based on my previous statement, the soundstage was therefore laser-etched, meaning every artist was in her or his rightful place and each instrument was free from the others, minus their natural interactions within the recording space, of course. The depth of the soundstage did seem a touch improved over my previous demos, though again, it was the width that was most apparent. Dynamics seemed to perk up a bit, possessing a bit more snap than in previous tests, though this obviously was more the result of the recording than the M500MkIIs’ performance, for gear can’t pick and choose when to perform better or worse. It’s just nice to know the M500MkII had more to give in terms of dynamics than what I had previously noted. Vocals were smooth, articulate and lifelike in their presentation. As with dynamics, bass seemed to also respond well to the improved recording quality, as it dug a little deeper while also exhibiting even tighter control. Low-end texture and inner detail were also very impressive. It is an intimate recording that was presented as such, giving me a front row seat. I loved every second of it and actually listened to the entire album start to finish before getting up to do other things. That’s the best praise that I can give, for after all, it’s supposed to be about the music, right?
I found nothing sonically wrong with the M500MkIIs, save maybe the fact that they are digital amplifiers, which is bound to be their biggest drawback for some. It’s not that digital amplifiers are bad – they’re not – they’re just a different way of approaching the problem of getting power to one’s loudspeakers. Because digital amplifiers are different, many simply don’t like their sound and I guess that is the listener’s prerogative. I used to fall into this camp, for I once felt that digital amplifiers sounded lifeless and flat. For me, it came down to not having an open mind, something I’ve remedied as of late. Do digital amplifiers, specifically the M500MkIIs, sound different than their Class A or A/B brethren? Yes, but that difference is not night and day, nor is it bad. In truth, it’s probably more psycho-acoustic than anything else. Put the two or three technologies head to head in a blind test; I doubt many could detect which was which one hundred percent of the time. It comes down to choice. If you like the digital amplifier sound, then the M500MkIIs will not disappoint, for they are exceptional monaural amplifiers. If you loathe the digital sound, then you’re probably not going to gravitate towards Red Dragon Audio, or Wyred 4 Sound or Bel Canto either, for that matter.
As for the M500MkII’s physical attributes and/or features, I suppose I would’ve preferred a switch allowing me to defeat the red LED light, as cool as it is, in order to cut down on stray reflections and/or visual distractions, but I’m stretching.
Competition and Comparisons
In terms of comparable products and brands, the two that most readily come to mind as competitors for Red Dragon Audio and their M500MkII are Wyred 4 Sound and Bel Canto. Bel Canto is among the more high-end digital amplifiers utilizing the ICE modules from Bang & Olufsen, though that high-end tag has more to do with Bel Canto’s price and outward appearance than it outright different and/or better sound than either Wyred 4 Sound or Red Dragon Audio. This leaves the battle primarily between Wyred 4 Sound and Red Dragon Audio. Both are Internet-direct companies and both represent phenomenal values. Red Dragon Audio’s M500MkII is less expensive than Wyred 4 Sound’s similar offering, though the Wyred 4 Sound SX-500 monaural amplifier does put out a bit more power into four ohms than the M500MkII does. Is the added 50 watts worth the extra $100? That’s for you to determine. Suffice to say, both the M500MkII and the SX-500 are phenomenal amplifiers and tremendous values. For more on these amplifiers and others like them, please visit Home Theater Review’s Amplifier page.
I began this review by asking the question: is Red Dragon Audio and its M500MkII monaural amplifier yet another Utah success story? The answer is yes. While Red Dragon Audio may be new(er) to the specialty AV market, having only been founded in 2005, its approach to the industry is refreshing and its product more than speaks for itself. I’m amazed by what M500MkII can do for realistic money, and while I’m not sure I agree one hundred percent with Red Dragon Audio’s claims that the M500MkII possesses SET (Single-Ended Triode)-like sound with solid state power, it doesn’t make the M500MkII a bad amplifier. In truth, I wouldn’t use the SET descriptor, for I believe the M500MkII to be better than an SET amplifier in every way because, unlike an SET amplifier, the M500MkII doesn’t limit you in terms of loudspeakers, listening habits, etc. As for the solid state part of the motto, eh, do your own thing. Be proud of what you are, for the M500MkII has a lot of cause for pride. Tremendous value? Check. Excellent, effortless sound? Check. Gobs of power to drive virtually any loudspeaker? Check. Free shipping with a 45-day money back guarantee? Check and check. I could go on and on, but I believe you get the idea. I liked ’em and if you fancy digital amps, I’m willing to bet you will, too.
Read more amplifier reviews written by the writers of HomeTheaterReview.com.
Find Bookshelf Speakers and Floorstanding Speakers for the M500MkII to drive.
See more reviews in our Preamplifier Review section.