There has been no product for which we have received more emails from all over the world saying something like, “I saw that you’re reviewing the Dodd pre. When will it be published? Can you give me a preview of what you think?”. We have had calls from dealers asking us if we think it is as good as everybody says it is. I even got a phone call from a distributor in Chile who was thinking about taking on the line and asking for my take on it.
As you will see, there is good reason for all this interest. “The Dodd”, as it is known, is hand built in Garland Texas, USA by Gary Dodd. It is a minimalist design that employs two tubes, in this case E88CC’s though any tube in the 6DJ8 family will work, and most noteworthy, an internal battery supply that consists of four rechargeable batteries. Gary uses beautiful exotic woods for the front fascia and side panels as well as the matching remote control. Mine was a highly polished, piano lacquered curly maple.
Gary uses Cardas and Vampire copper RCA's and Vampire CCC18 internal wiring, high–end Sonicap and Sonicap Platinum output caps, and there is a
home theater bypass that works without the unit being turned on. There is no provision for phono input, though a matching phono pre is in the works that will sell for $1,199. There is also no headphone jack.
I asked Gary to share a little of his background with us;
“I got started in audio at quite a young age around 9 or so. I was messing with radios and such and it just got better and better. In the early 80’s, I was building custom SS gear and big SS amps for the club scene under the name Audio Systems Engineering. In very late ‘89 I started designing with tubes because I knew they were just better. Somewhere around 1994-95 I was building custom tube gear for anyone who wanted some tube gear. At that time, tube stuff was very new. I continued to build and sell custom tube gear under the ASE name until my friends all got together and came up with DODD AUDIO. I now have a standard product line, but I still excel at custom designs, such as Danny's big monsters. I truly enjoy the custom stuff!”
The “Danny’s big monsters” to which he refers are not his feet, but a pair of custom tube monoblocks that weigh about 250 pounds each that he made for his friend Danny Ritchie. I have seen them and heard them on a few occasions and they are a sight to behold – masterpieces is the only way to describe them. He will build you a pair for around $30,000.
Danny designs speakers and crossovers for several major speaker makers including Usher, so he needs a playback system that is as neutral as possible. While he could use just about anything he wants, he uses Gary Dodd stuff exclusively. In fact, this particular unit used to belong to Danny who gave it back when Gary delivered the blue monsters and a new preamp, exactly the same as this one, but matching the blue of the power amps.
As always, I asked the designer what his design goals were for his product, to which Gary replied, “To offer an extremely high end affordable product that is unlike any other preamp available today, and to do this as simply as possible. I want all of my products to be very musical, real to life, and dynamic as we all know music is. They need to be able to reproduce all of the music as it was recorded, with no more and certainly no less. When I design a new circuit I first will build it and then I will measure and measure it and then finally I listen and listen and tweak and tweak until they are perfect”.
The Dodd does not include balanced circuitry. I have asked many amp designers for their take on balanced circuits in their designs and have gotten very divergent answers. Some think it is important and others, not so much. What camp does Gary live in?
“I have been asked many times about a balanced unit. I could do it, but it would take twice the amount of components inside and it would decrease the play time considerably”. (I believe he is referring to the extra power it would require of the batteries) “Of course, the unit could be redesigned, but it would be quite large and very heavy. Personally I do not see the advantage of balanced over unbalanced, and I do understand it”.
What he did not mention is that it would also add considerably to the cost. Designing anything involves a series of trade-offs in price vs. performance. Most amp builders to whom I have discussed this think the sonic reward is small compared to the extra dollars necessary to incorporate it. A couple who do build balanced circuitry have gone so far as to say that they only do so because people think it makes a big difference and the rest of their system is balanced, so to compete on the same field, they include it.
What is the point of balanced circuitry? To reduce noise, mostly RFI. In cases such as recording studios, concert halls and churches where cable runs can be hundreds of feet, balanced circuitry is an absolute must. But for a preamp that usually sits a foot or two from a power amp? I’m not so sure. Even if a pre is several feet away from say, a pair of monoblocks placed close to the speakers eight or nine feet away, if decent shielded cables are used, is there really that much noise to be picked up? In the case of the Dodd, whose batteries take it off the noisy AC grid altogether, maybe the point is moot.
CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO DODDLINESS
The internal circuitry, what there is of it, is a thing of beauty in itself. Traces and wiring are clean, short and efficient. No tangled or looping wires, no bird’s nests or scattered clusters of caps. Everything is laid out neatly, solidly and perfectly. Gary should teach classes in soldering. There appears to be a black coating on the chassis to reduce resonance.
The front panel with only three heavily chromed knobs is simple. Left is your selector with “HT” or the home theater bypass in the first position followed by CD, AUX 1, 2 and 3. Four inputs. On the left is a matching volume control. The look and feel of the controls exude quality – even luxury. There is an aire of precision and a firm thunk like closing the doors on a Lexus when the selectors are changed. Nothing about the Dodd looks or feels cheap and there is a tangible sense of pride in ownership that comes standard with each unit. You sure won’t see many of your friends or visitors with the same thing and when they ask, you get a real sense of satisfaction in saying, “It’s a Dodd…”.
Women dig it, too. Linda loved the look of the fine, furniture grade wood.
She also loved the way it made her music sound. In fact, after a day or two, she started calling it as HER preamp! “Can we listen to my preamp tonight?”. And when I had to send it back, she almost pouted. “You’re sending back MY preamp, James?”
The unit does come with a remote, carved from the same wood as the preamp, but it only adjusts volume up and down. I told you Gary was a minimalist, but it too just feels good in your hand and its control of the volume is perfect – not too fast, not too slow. It’s amazing how many remotes force you go back and forth, hunting for just the right level.
In the center of the faceplate, things get a little confusing, but only for a moment. This is the power knob. Rotate left and you see “BATT1” and “MUTE”. Right is the same except for “BATT2”.
The thing is, it really doesn’t matter which way you turn the knob. Either way powers it up and turns on a little LED right in the middle of the laser-cut Dodd Audio logo. Selecting BATT1 or BATT2 makes no difference. Originally, Gary’s design called for two different banks of batteries so that when you select one, the other bank is charging up. When the operating bank of batteries is nearly used up, triggering a loud warning “beep”, you would switch to the other bank. But that is no longer the case. Selecting either BATT1 or BATT2 now engages all four rechargeable batteries. Gary tells me he went to that scheme because the other actually shortened playback time after a few months.
Speaking of playback time, on average you will get about twelve hours of AC-free music per charge. Of course, the unit automatically begins to recharge as soon as you turn it off, but if you forget to power it down overnight like I did once, you will be dead in the water. It takes about 3 ½ hours to go from zero to fully charged. Of course, the unit does not have to be fully charged in order to play.
Is that minor inconvenience worth it? Read on.
THE DODD GAMBIT
Chess was the game of choice in my frat house in college and of course, there was one guy I never could beat. Alex was his name and he grew up playing the game in his parent’s home in the Hamptons. But one time, just once I got lucky and had an easy checkmate in two moves. He studied the board, his face growing darker and darker as he cogitated. Finally, Alex said, “It looks like I’m going to have to employ the Dodd Gambit”. Well, a gambit is a plan of attack – a series of moves designed to win and there are hundreds of them; The Ruy Lopez Gambit, the Two Knight Gambit, the Muzio, Double Muzio and Wild Muzio Gambits and so forth, but I had never heard of the Dodd Gambit. Now I was worried. Did Alex have an exotic escape?
To my utter shock, instead of moving a piece, Alex swept his arm violently across the board, sending all the pieces flying. Simultaneous he yelled, “DODD…GAMBIT!”. If you don’t get it, trade the first letter of each word and you’ll see his way of avoiding taking the Lord’s name in vain…
In describing the sound of this Dodd, I seriously considered a different gambit of just leaving a large, empty white space as a graphic illustration as bare as the board after Alex’s surrender. After all, I don’t get paid by the word. Heck, I don’t get paid at all. As I write this, the date is April 14th - time to send in the dreaded tax returns. Stereomojo reported a loss of about $11,000. Perhaps we should apply for non-profit status…
Switching on the Dodd, you immediately get a sense of what is not there, and that would be noise. We’re talking Black Hole (or IRS - same thing) dead silence, assuming your power amp is quiet as well. I could not hear any hiss from the Dodd’s E88CC’s when using my Halcro solid-state power amp or the wonderful Dolan M1 monoblocks. I also put it in front of the AES SUPER AMP Mk2, a tube model, when it was in for review.
Let me just say this categorically – the Dodd Preamp is sonically the best preamp I have had the privilege of auditioning in my system. I could even go as far to say that the Dodd is sonically one of the best components of any kind I’ve had here – it’s that good. It simply does what any component aspires to do and that is get the heck out of the way and let the music emerge unencumbered without adding, removing or changing anything.
Dynamics, the range of loudness and softness between musical sounds, are the key to the emotional elements in music. Imagine listening to the 1812 Overture when every note is exactly the same volume. The canons are the same level as the quietest flute. No sweeping strings or blaring brass. Boring and monotonous.
To appreciate loud, you have to have a foundation of quiet. So the higher the noise floor, the lesser the distance between the soft and loud, thus less dynamics. If a component also limits the upper range of volume (compression), then the music gets squashed from both ends.
The Dodd puts no limits on either end, allowing the music to be reproduced in all its dynamic glory – whether it is Alison Krauss’ soft renditions or Pavarotti’s high C in Nessun Dorma, the Dodd neither adds nor subtracts anything.
There was never any glare or trace of distortion – no graininess at all, just a sense of complete purity. Details were presented in accordance to the source. “Revealing” would be an understatement, but with most revealing components comes a little etchiness, sometimes a bit of a mechanical quality. Not here. Just a naturalness that you just have to experience to appreciate.
If I tried to describe the Dodd’s sound, I believe I would actually be describing the sound of the tubes – in this case new stock by JJ. When I asked Gary why he chose these particular valves, he said, “I use the JJ products in all of my product line. They are very good sonically, reliable, and affordable. It's just an availability thing.”
I followed up with, “So different tubes, maybe even NOS, would improve the sound?”
“Yes, definitely upgrading the tubes will change the sound. There are many to choose from.”
He went on to say that he prefers Amperex and the feedback he’s gotten from owners reflect the same thing. While I don’t have a pair of Amperex’s laying around, I had a pair of Electro Harmonix 6922’ s on hand. These are new production as well and easily available. Perhaps a little warmer and spacious. The very top end was different, but I couldn’t decide if I liked it better or not, seemed to depend on the recording. Not quite as 3D in my system. The NOS Mullards sounded best to me with a silkier high end and more rounded midrange, especially apparent on female vocals. The point is, you can change or upgrade the sound of the Dodd easily. Gary gives you a stunning platform from which to work, experiment and roll to your heart’s delight.
I am also just back from the FSI Audio Show in Montreal. While there, I had a chance to see and hear another battery-powered preamp. It wasn’t nearly as beautiful in it’s plain black box (no exotic, lacquered wood) and the system it drove sounded fine, but listening to anything in a show setting is impossible to evaluate to any degree. However, this particular preamp – and solid state at that I think – was priced at $37,500. Yes, ten times the price of this Dodd. It was driving an even more expensive pair of monoblocks. In the show report, I had the temerity to say I thought it was the most overpriced system I saw at the show – and that is saying a lot.
I got an email from the distributor. He was not happy. I wrote back saying I owed him an explanation and told him about the Dodd – also a battery powered preamp the costs only $3,300. I even sent him a picture of it. I made him an offer that is a huge exception to our stated policy. I told him to send me the $37,500 preamp and if I still thought it was grossly overpriced, I would not review it – we would call it an educational experiment. If, on the other hand, and keeping in mind the law of diminishing returns where people are willing to pay very high prices to gain just the last inth degree of performance, if I found it to be anywhere near worth the money, I’d shout it from the rooftops!
I even told him I would take it to Al Helo's, one of our reviewer’s home and install it in his system (below). And I even sent him this picture of that system. I’d let Al render an opinion as well.
Did he take the no lose challenge? Ummmm….no.
The Dodd preamp has the look, feel and sound of a preamp that should cost much, much more than it does. It competes with preamps at any price level. Is it the best at any price? I cannot say that because I have not heard every preamp on the planet in my system and we do not engage in hyperbole here. I will just say what I told the distributor mentioned above, and that is that I find it hard to imagine any preamp being much more transparent, dynamic, quiet and beautifully made than the Dodd.
If you do not need balanced circuits or phono inputs for a turntable, I do not think you could go wrong with “The Dodd”. If your listening sessions are less than 8 or 10 hours each, the battery scheme should not be a factor.
If you do like to listen to your system all day as background music, you may need to recharge before that 4 hour evening session. For the majority of music lovers, the purchase of this preamp could be the biggest no-brainer ever.
It is also the easiest product ever to honor with our Maximum Mojo Award.
Congratulations to Gary Dodd.
Dodd Audio Site
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