James L. Darby
Many thanks to Joe at Pacific Valve for working with us on this review.
The Doge 8 preamp. Perhaps the first thing you need to know is how to pronounce the company name; it is doh-gay. Think of what Homer Simpson might say if he discovered Bart had “come out of the closet”. Doh! Gay!
This product is no laughing matter. It is a very serious tube preamp with ultra-high audio pretentions at a relatively very low price.
Made in China, the Doge 8 does not look or feel like a $1,300 preamp. It has a very high-end, polished, mirror-look front and weighs in at a very substantial 35 pounds. Even the volume knob is a matching mirror finish.
There are seven additional buttons on the front facia that switch between six possible inputs. These inputs operate via microprocessor controlled gas relays with gold plated contacts. A small blue light signifies which input is active, though you really cannot read the text from across the room, or standing just a few feet away for that matter. There is also a button that puts the preamp into stand-by mode which keeps small current running through the tubes without causing undo wear on the tubes - and your electric bill. One feature that was very handy was the inclusion of a blue light on the rim of the large volume control that indicates where the volume is set as well as how much volume you are adding or subtracting via the remote from across the room. Very nice touch.
Speaking of the remote, it is a full function, full metal rectangular case that controls volume, moving the input selector up or down as well as mute and stand-by. There is also a button for each input to choose them directly. All the buttons are also polished metal to add yet another extra nice touch.
Around back there are three outputs available: Two RCA and one XLR balanced. There are six jacks for line level as well as one for phone. Having a phono input in a preamp of this quality and this price is unusual, but the fact that it is both a moving magnet AND a moving coil is rare.
There are two toggles switches on the back that let you choose between the two as well as high or low-output MC. There are limited cartridge matching options via the toggles, but that is not extremely critical for most users.
The quality is not only on the outside. Inside there are eight tubes (4 X 12AX7, 4X 12AT7) in a dual mono design. Brand names were Mullard 12AX7 replicas and JAN 12AT7’s. In addition, there are three separate power transformers . The Doge 8 employs a finely matched ALPS potentiometer with a channel balance of less than 0.3 dB between the two channels.
A frequency range from 5Hz- 200 kHz and low distortion down to 0.0009 % is claimed. They accomplish this by using double layer polypropylene capacitors matched to a tolerance of less ≤ 0.5 % as coupling capacitors. Taking the time and expense to match such close tolerances for internal components like this is again, unusual in a unit at this price.
DOGE STRAIGHT LISTENING
I was able to use several power amps with the 8; the uber powerful Spectron Class D monoblocks (reviewed earlier) as well the SET Frankenstein monos from Coincident, also previously reviewed. I also stuck in the Halcro MC20 for good measure, but they all told me the same thing – this is no ordinary preamp.
After running the Doge for about 100 hours for break-in, I began critical listening with the Stereomojo Ultimate System Evaluation Disk. A link to the tracks used on the disk is at the end of this review. Even before listening, the first thing that was apparent was the quietness. There was no trace of hiss or noise through the speakers even when turned up to high levels. That is not always the case with tube preamps.
The first track is Johnny Adams’ Won't Pass Me By from "One Foot In The Blues" on Rounder. All jazz recordings should be recorded like this. Heck, all pop/rock recordings should sound like this! No studio effects, very little if any limiting, just ultra clean and dynamic instruments and Johnny’s deep and powerful voice. Dr. Lonnie Smith tears up the Hammond organ and even replaces a bass player with the organ pedal s. That bass can get soggy through inferior systems. One of the best Hammond representations ever. There’s also a brilliant ride cymbal on the third chorus that sounds amazingly natural. The Doge passed all this very musical content perfectly. Others can sound restrained, especially when Adams unleashes his big baritone.
Cut two is a marvelous pipe organ and solo soprano track recorded in a cathedral. “Les Septs Paroles du Christ” on Fidelio features the organ starting out solo way to the back left and features very low pedal notes. The soprano comes in at center stage but again, far back in the image. Loads of natural cathedral reverb, very revealing of digital playback and very difficult sustained low pedal notes. The Doge allowed the very long, dense reverb trails to fade out without grain and what can sound like video pixilations looks. The soundstage was portrayed as it should be, very deep and spacious.
Is it important to hear how components handle non-audiophile recordings? Since most of the best music is not on niche labels like Reference Recordings, I think it is. There are three things that I listen for in this track; the intro is a very delicate, soft and simple piano solo, yet much can be determined from just a few seconds of it. On some systems, every fragile note sounds the same while they are actually very nuanced with each note varying in volume and expression. Very few systems get close. Second is Linda’s sweeping vocals, climbing from a whisper to full-throated within a single short phrase, like “far beyond repair” where she really nails be-YOND before trailing off on “repair”. Can the component convey her emotion? All of the qualities most reviewers stress are important, but to me they are meaningless if a component cannot convey the passion, angst, joy or anger of the performer. Lastly, at the end of the lyric “while I wait for this to pass”, there is a single stroke of a triangle, like a little bell. Sadly, most of the time this is either buried altogether, muffled or dull. A true high-end preamp will not force you to listen for it, but portray it with sparkle and transparency. The Doge 8, on this track at least, is an unqualified high-end preamp.
The following may seem a bit off topic, but it will tie in. I was recently asked to be a judge for an area-wide talent contest called “The Young Artists Awards” by The Alliance of the Arts. There were several divisions such as dance, classical and contemporary vocals, drama and so forth. I was asked to judge the instrumentalists. The contestants were divided into two age categories up to age 18 who played everything from violin to marimba. What instrument would you guess was most represented? Piano? Guitar? Nope. Violin. We were given the scores that the kids were to play as well as a list of qualities for which we were to grade 1 to 5, like intonation, interpretation, technique – 25 in all. Some of the kids had amazing technical ability, but they almost all lacked much expressiveness. I found myself repeatedly writing, “Music is not the notes on the page – it’s what in your heart and mind. What is the composer trying to convey? Find that answer then let your heart and soul connect to the notes and phrases”.
The overall winner, encompassing all categories, was a young girl who sang a blues tune. She didn’t have the technique of some of the violinists playing Paganini or the pianist’s Prokofiev, but lord did she sing with conviction and expression! The audience and the judges were moved by her performance. I voted for her on that basis, but figured I would be the only one. All the judges voted on that final: the choreographers, drama critics, college band leaders and most of them were older than I. A bluesy vocal standard by a sophomore didn’t stand a chance. I was wrong. It seems they too put a higher value on musicality than technique.
The tie in? It is exactly the same in “judging” audio gear. Any ‘ole system can just play the notes, but it takes a special one to evoke that special quality we call “musicality”. There are many components that will reveal detail until your eyes spurt blood, but that is equivalent to artistic “technique” which has little to do with “musicality” or real artistry. Make sense?
Back to the Stereomojo Evaluation Disk, cut six is Chris Walden Big Band – “Winter Games”. Not "big" band, but HUGE band playing "blastissimo"! Big dynamics and good soundstage. Lesser systems make the hot brass sound harsh and slow components just won't keep up with the pace and blazing rhythm. Good Hammond organ and sax solo, too.
If a component can’t do piano, what good is it? I use many piano recordings including my own, but one of the best is Michael Garson’s Rumble from "Jazz Hat" on Reference Recordings (RR-114) in HDCD. Jazz piano ala Oscar Peterson’s unparalleled chops. “Rumble” starts out with a pyrotechnical piano solo, later joined by drums off to the right and in back and acoustic bass. Another speed test along with the big transients and harmonics that only a piano can produce. There was a smidge of thickness in the octave just below middle c, but otherwise the Doge stayed with Garson the whole way. No noticeable high-end rolloff and plenty of speed.
Compared to the $5,000 Halcro, the Doge added a little more beef and life, no doubt contributed by the tubes. Vocals and the midrange in general was a bit rounder and fleshed out. Some might call this “coloration” compared to a good solid-state pre, but if so, I like the colors the Doge painted. The Halcro can be a bit dry but oh so detailed. Low bass below about 500 Hz was more robust through the Halcro, but the Doge more textured, especially the wood body of acoustic bass.
Another preamp that is a real bargain is the wonderful Dodd which uses batteries to eliminate AC noise and present an almost totally quiet and grainless presentation. We gave it our highest Maximum Mojo Award and also a Product of the Year three years ago. The Dodd, at about $3,000, does not include balanced circuitry as does the Doge, nor does it offer a phono section. While I would give the Dodd the edge it overall transparency, the Doge is very close and perhaps a better value for the money. The Dodd however, is made in the USA vs. China for the Doge if that is a consideration for you.
The very best preamp we have reviewed is the Coincident Statement Linestage. At $4,995 it, with its dual-chassis design, competes with word's best (and most expensive) preamps. It trumps the Doge in all areas of sound performance and musicality, but it too does not include balanced ins and outs nor a phonostage. The Statement also does not offer a remote control. One thing they do have in common is the polished, high-quality casing, though the Coincident wraps both chassis in the mirror finish while the Doge only mirrors the faceplate.
Dozens of recordings were played over many nights of extended listening. The Doge invites you to linger and listen and never sends you away fatigued. It does not really have a sound signature you can hang your hat on. Perhaps just a little on the warm side of perfectly neutral, but perfectly neutral can also be perfectly sterile and academic which the Doge is most assuredly not.
Among the recordings was a good dose of vinyl. How did the built in phono section fare?
THE PHONO SECTION
According to Doge, the phono section of the Doge 8 is one of its key strengths. The design goal was to precisely track the prescribed RIAA equalization curves with absolute accuracy. The Doge 8 reaches this, they say, within ≤ 0.2 dB. Its high gain circuitry has been designed with tubes for the MM section and JFET’s for the MC section.
The use of 1% metal film resistors together with the finest WIMA MKP 10 polypropylene capacitors with a minimal 1% tolerance in the phono-stage are standard.
My analog front end consists of the Raven One by TW Acustic with a Soundsmith “The Voice” cart mounted on a Graham Phantom arm. The Soundsmith is a high-output moving iron cartridge that tracks at a mere one gram, so I used the MM settings.
I’ll cut to the bottom line and state that the extra care and parts in the phono section paid off handsomely. Compared to my $2,000 Whest Two separate phono stage, the Doge held it’s own nicely. The Whest is crisper with a smoother midrange and extended top end, but then again it alone cost more than the Doge. The phono section is better than the very good one in my beloved LSA Statement hybrid integrated amp.
I cannot think of another preamp that offers the quality sound, build and appearance of the Doge 8 at such a remarkable price of $1,300. And that does not include the bonuses of the balanced features and a high quality phono preamp. And a full function remote control. While we think you can spend more and get better absolute performance, we are convinced that the Doge 8 presents a very substantial bargain as a complete package. If you are a "cost-no-object" audiophile, go ahead and spend more. If you are looking to build a system that will give you legit high-end performance at almost mid-fi prices, the Doge should be high on your list.
Pacific Valve (the US distributor) offers a 30 day return policy, with some caveats, so read carefully this quote from their site: "We will refund your purchase within 30 days if you are dissatisfied for any reason. To return any of our products, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org We will email your 30 day RMA number where you can send the product back to us for a refund. The product must be shipped back in the original box with the original documentation. Shipping the unit back to us without the protective packaging revokes your right to the 30 day money back guarantee.
An 11 % transaction processing fee is applied for all 30 day money back returns except for "SWAP" transactions. The 11% fee is calculated off of the "Sale Price" on our site and not calculated from any discounts. It usually takes about 2-3 weeks to process your return.
Buyer pays for all shipping charges back to Pacific Valve. Buyer must insure the item and is responsible for all damages if the item is lost or missing due to theft.
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