James L. Darby
US Direct from manufacturer price: $6,500 per pair
Have you ever noticed that in the mainstream audio magazines, certain brand names seem to get reviewed every time they release a new product? At the same time, other quality brand names seem to get reviewed hardly at all? Worse than that, have you also noticed that many, many products made by excellent but lesser known companies NEVER get reviewed?
In addition, have you noticed that you never read a review where the last line says, “We do not recommend this product”?
One of the main reasons that Stereomojo exists is to fill that gaping void in the mainstream audio press and root out those products the others ignore and bring them to your attention with reviews that are no-nonsense, thorough and unbiased with bottom lines that are very specific, honest and to the point.
What is truly rewarding are those rare times when we find a product that is virtually unknown but possesses qualities that are so remarkable as to more than challenge the “big boys” and outright blow many of them away – many times at a very bargain basement price.
Well dear readers, THIS is one of those times.
Let me let you know this upfront; we are going to take a little more time and space with actual quotes from Richard in this review because it is important that we all get to know something about the man – especially when the man is the company and therefore his products are a very strong reflection of him personally.
The Dolan M One is a hand–made-in-Ottawa, Canada monoblock amplifier, meaning you need one for each channel. They are switch mode amps based on the Bang & Olufsen ICEpower 250ASP module, so you might want to classify them as Class D. It’s a shame these were not included in our “Emerging Technologies Amplifier Shootout” where we did a blind test of 14 different “digital” amps. I think the outcome would have been quite different.
They are rated at 120 watts each at 8 Ohms, 240 at 4 and 290 at 2.7. The units are protected against short-circuit, overload and over-heating. Each module has EMI filtering to provide a CE and FCC approved design. The units are made using high-grade powder-coated (black or silver) aluminum front plates and a steel chassis for durability and EMI and RFI attenuation. This is particularly important since early Class D amps were notorious for emitting loads of signal degrading (even in other nearby components) RFI. Some even rendered tuners unusable.
The front panel is very simple and to the point. As you can see, there is an on/off toggle and two small (not too brightly lit, thank heavens) LED’s that show you when they are powered on (green) and red that flashes if they go into clipping.
Both silver and OFC copper wire were used in the design where it was most appropriate. Capacitors are very high quality Mundorf Supreme, Mundorf Silver/Oil Mlytics and large Unlytics.
Before I even listened to the amps, I told Richard the posts on the back looked rather cheesy and even a bit tarnished with a decided DIY appearance. I thought they may put off some buyers on first impression. He said he could “look for some other posts that have more bling-bling”, but he had listened to every quality connector out there and the Edison Music Posts and Cardas Rhodium RCAs were simply the best sounding. He pointed out that even the IEC connector is Cryoed. Once I listened to the amps, this subject was never brought up again… Noticeably absent however, particularly at this price point, are XLR connectors or balanced circuitry.
Noticeably included however are very substantial and expensive looking power cables with Furutech-like connectors. I’ve seen aftermarket power cables costing $1,000 each that do not look as good.
When I asked him what brand they were, he replied, “I build them myself! I wanted to do something better than a stock Belden cord without going to extremes, besides I find it therapeutic to build them myself. Nothing fancy here, just 10 gauge OFC and good quality termination.” I followed with, “Why do you think other manufacturers do not include better power cables since they can and often do make such a difference?” His answer was, “I have no idea”.
Here’s where Stereomojo reveals a little known secret. But before we do, please understand that this is not necessarily a bad thing and we are not ratting out or criticizing store owners. Having said that, the reason hardly any amp maker includes anything other than El Cheapo power cables is because retail store owners hate the practice. If an amp maker were to take his amps into your local high-end shop (if you’re lucky enough to have one), chances are the owner would take one look at those 10 gauge, inch-thick, expensive looking snakes and point to the door. Why? Because in general, accessories are good sources of income. However, with independent stereo shoppes dropping like 80-pound turntable platters, we do not begrudge them any opportunity to stay in business. Listen, we all are privileged to live in an era when there are more high quality components available to us there ever before, but that means competition out there is fierce and many profit margins are being cut to the quick. Costs for rents, taxes, health care plans and retirement plans for small business owners are high and getting higher. Personally, I have to drive hours to find a shop that doesn’t have “Best Buy” or “Circuit City” on it, so I am a big proponent of high-end audio retailers.
Nevertheless, Richard’s inclusion of quality cables is an indication of his desire to make his amps the best they can be.
It took Richard Dolan quite a while to convince us to review his products. While we want to find those gems out there that few know about, we also want to be careful and not waste our time (or yours) with products that do not merit a review. Sometimes unknown products are unknown for a reason. So, it all began early in ’07 with this email:
“Hello Mr. Darby. Perused your site from beginning to end and I liked what I read. I am also a 2 channel guy and after being out of the game for a while, I am back with my new monoblocks. Would you be interested in reviewing them?
I asked Richard lots of questions which he, I thought, answered honestly and sincerely. So, rather than tell you about him, let’s let him do that himself:
“I have been an inveterate audiophile since 1969 when I built my first system based on the Dynaco Stereo 120 and Pat4 pre-amp. I have always loved music. My Mom had a Fleetwood turntable that that she would stack a whole bunch of records on , play them thru, turn the stack over and play them thru again. As I recall it was always classical (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Hadyn Sibelius, Chopin...etc, etc). At first I thought it was terrible music (Classical...Ugh..) but then I was only 7 years old so what did I know? As it turned out I am a total fan of the classics...including Opera. I also revel in Led Zep, Beatles, Stones, Aerosmith, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ron Carter, etc. My tastes are very eclectic, however I draw the line at Polka and Rap (Rap...Jeez Louise I'd rather listen to disco). But I digress... the reason I got into the equipment side was that I was a total nerd at playing an instrument and decided...what the Hell, I can play a mean stereo. I did not have the money then to buy good gear so I decided to learn how to design and build it myself I’m self-taught through audio electronic books from the library.
I was active in the late 80's with the Dolan PM1. Unfortunately, I was naive and priced the gear so that I was making about 2 bucks per unit and finally ran out of money. I went into hibernation from 1990 until three years ago when I got the itch again. After three years R&D the Dolan M-one monoblocks were a reality.”
All I can say is, thank god Richard doesn’t know about talcum powder for itches, because if he did we might not have these wonderful amps today.
He also mentioned his PM1 preamp. When an amp maker asks us to review power amps, we usually ask them to also provide a pre-amp of their choosing, because it assures compatibility and eliminates the possibility of him coming back after a potential not-too-flattering review and saying, “Hey, that pre-amp you used with my precious amp was a piece of junk so it’s no wonder it sounded bad”. Our policy is to give designers the best opportunity (within strict ethical limits) to have their gear reviewed as optimally as possible. When that was explained to Richard, he revealed that he was working on a new PM1 to go with his new amps and asked if it would be ok if he sent a prototype along. “The aesthetics are not complete and some functions are disabled, but the basic sound is there. I think you will like it”, he offered.
The new PM1 is not being reviewed here, but I can definitely say he was right – I like it. A lot.
Gentlemen, start you Dolans
Before any review commences, we always ask one simple but vital question; what was your design goal for this product?
“My goals are modest...I wanted to design and build a world class amplifier just to see if I could do it. I am an aficionado of tight tuneful bass, liquid midrange and ethereal treble. The amp had to have those characteristics, had to be solid state, and not weigh in at 200 lbs. My important criteria are:
2. Circuit design, especially the power supply
3. Capacitor selection
4. Resistor selection
6. Resonance control
We take the time and care to examine and select only the finest available components, regardless of cost because our objective is quality, so long as they contribute something of appreciable audio value to the end product. Each unit undergoes a 100 hour burn-in, followed by a test of all the operating parameters to ensure adherence to specification. Then we put it on the market, confident it will provide listeners with reliable and enduring listening pleasure!”
Hmm. That may be the most specific, articulate and comprehensive answer we have ever gotten to that universal question. It seems the better the answer, the more questions they inspire;
“Then Richard, what audio/sound criteria are most important to you? Soundstage, dynamics, midrange clarity”?
“They are all important, especially micro and macro dynamics. The sound must move me. When I get goose bumps I know that I am getting there”
From my experience with his amps, I’d say Richard has arrived.
Dolan, Dolan - Dolan On the River
With apologies to Ike & Tina, if you had read any of my reviews, you would know that I always start with a predetermined set of tracks with which I am very familiar – each featuring a specific audio quality that makes it easy to identify how well the component under test handles it.
Comparisons are made to Bruce Candy’s excellent Halcro MC20 400-wpc stereo power amp, which is also a Class D and reviewed here. The preamp was the aforementioned prototype Dolan PM1, all running through Ridge Street Audio’s remarkable Sason Ltd speakers. Silver disks were played on a Pioneer DV46 heavily modded by Stereo Dave’s. Cables were top of the line Kimber Selects.
After a good hour of warm up, I played the first track that offers a rather complex, high, wide and deep soundstage. Initial r4esponse: Wow!Now keep in mind that this is the same set of tracks I have taken to many audio shows and played on hundreds of systems comprised of thousands of components, so a “wow” in this instance is a very unusual reaction. Not only was the image very large in every direction, but the level of detail was outstanding. No, nothing new was heard, but what was there exhibited very three-dimensional rendering that only the very best have equaled in the past. The Dolans were superior to the Halcro here, perhaps because of the Halcro is a stereo amp in a single chassis while the Dolans are separate monos that would most likely be superior in crosstalk between the channels.
The next track from Flim & the BBs tests overall dynamic range with “hits” that go from silence to 100 db instantaneously. Another “wow”. No compression, no strain; just a full burst of instruments that made me recall the old commercial where the stereo was literally blowing the listener and his chair back as if hurricane force winds were blasting from the speakers. Possessing 400 watts per side, the Halcro imparts a little more sense of unlimited power which is to be expected, but the Dolans have enough oomph to please anyone who owns all but the most inefficient speakers driven in a very large room.
When Richard was asked about how he accomplished this, he offered, “The Mundorf M-Lytic HC are true high end electrolytic capacitors. A patented method for internal connecting results in a very low ESR with marginal residual inductivity. Since these capacitors have been designed for permanent currents of up to several hundred amperes they can supply very high peak currents. They do this very quickly and thus form the basis for a dynamic precise bass as well as a lively and clear middle/high tone range. Even with extreme bass impulses the playback remains stable and clean, without any compression effects whatsoever. The signal path is a few inches long and the unit is completely DC coupled”.
Ennio Morricone’s genius from “The Mission Soundtrack” is a very complex track and that’s what I listen for – how does the amp handle the complexity? Two different choirs singing in counterpoint, orchestra, oboe solo, African percussion and very deep and distant drum thwacks. There are several themes from the movie interwoven and being played simultaneously. on lesser systems, it can all be a big blur making it difficult to focus in and follow any one of the myriad elements. Here the Dolans also performed well with a level of detail that made deciphering the complexity easier than Paris Hilton after a dozen Cosmopolitans. Again, overall clarity favors the Dolans which is very impressive when the Halcro’s stunning low level of distortion is considered.
“Shattered" by Linda Ronstadt is a prime example of an outstanding female vocal. Linda sings with gobs of emotion and has the vocal chops to deliver her interpretations with incredible facility. Linda can and often does go from a tiny, breathy whisper to a full diaphragm “belt” within a single phrase. This recording showcases that prowess which the Dolans captured near flawlessly. The Halcro seemed a bit dry in comparison while the Dolans sounded a bit warmer or "fuller", as Mrs. Darby said. Neither amp compares to the richness of Joe Fratus’ Carissa 845-tube based amp, but the Carissa's meager 16 wpc output can’t be compared to either of these, either. The M-One’s placed Linda out front where she is supposed to be, but not enough to put them in the “forward” category. Perhaps just a little more than neutral, but that’s fine with me. Give Mr. Dolan’s amps another star.
Speaking of tubes, I asked Richard how he voiced his amps and found his reply very interesting; “I have the great fortune of having a friend with a knock-out custom made sound room (it is like a house within a house) and had the opportunity to compare my gear with some of the best stuff extant ( I won't mention any brands). My friend was a died-in-the-wool tube nut and has since abandoned tubes in favour of my amps. I used a wide variety of music in the voicing process, a lot of vinyl and also redbook CD. I voiced them using the Newform Research planar ribbons (45 inch ribbon and Scanspeak woofers).”
Using ribbons as a reference may account for the amp’s keen sense of speed.
At this point I substituted a new pair of speakers (after 150 hours run-in) by Gemme Audio dubbed the “Tanto” that had come in for review. The speaker is claimed to reproduce frequencies down to 18 Hz! Continuing to run through my evaluation disk and then on to many other recordings that included a good sampling of LPs, the M-One’s never failed to convey a strong sense of rhythmic accuracy and surprising linearity up and down the frequency spectrum.
For example, on a copy of “A HI-FI SPECTACULAR” – RCA LSC-2341 LP “Saint Saens Symphony #3” , in the Maestoso Movement when organist Berj Zamkochian pushes the “sforzando” piston which unleashes every pipe of the big Aeoleon-Skinner, the Dolans deliver every thunderous decibel as well as all the frequencies down to the 32.6 cycles-per-second low C pedal. Goosebump city. However, also captured were the sweetness of the gentle, sweeping strings in the Adagio. The Dolans showed me that the 2nd violins were behind the 1sts. Richard’s inclusion of vinyl in the voicing process seems to have paid dividends. No sign of digititus.
The Dolans also had no problem reproducing the LP’s vast soundstage, especially the organ’s pipes that are installed high above and at the rear of Symphony Hall’s stage. As one who studied classical pipe organ for many years, I can tell you a massive pipe organ is difficult to capture on tape, much less play back on a home system. Even in 1954, the Layton/Moore team was able to accomplish the almost impossible job of balancing the organ with the orchestra.
Speaking of balancing, I asked Richard why he had not included a balanced configuration in the amps, noting that his prototype preamp shares the omission. “This is my personal opinion. Balanced is not required for consumer audio gear. Balanced is required for recording studios where it is common to have cable runs of several hundred feet, and the industry standard is 600 ohms (which I have never seen in typical consumer audio gear). I know that some audiophiles say they prefer the sound from a balanced configuration and who am I to say otherwise? But I think is just a selling feature”. The slogan found atop of the Dolan Audio homepage is a quote from Albert Einstein; “Simple as possible, but not simpler”. Richard seems to practice what he quotes.
Criticisms? None really. Richard has met his design goals. I might suggest adding a coat or two of clear lacquer to the cases as I found the black paint a bit easy to scratch which bares the silver underneath. But then reviewers move things around much more than a typical owner, so that is not really a deal breaker. Are these the finest monoblocks that money can buy? Having not heard every mono amp on the planet, I cannot say. Some tube amps I have worked with have even a more fleshed out presentation, but they pretty much max out around 40 watts per side and usually not as clean, precise and fast as the Dolan. What I can say is that I think that anyone would have to spend considerably more than $6,500 for the pair to do much better and could do considerably worse at the same price or more.
On the other hand, for a reviewer especially, it never hurts to have 400 watts per channel on hand for those speakers that demand it.
In the Halcro ($5,000 for one stereo amp) vs. the Dolans comparison, the Dolans are very competitive in most areas and superior in others. The build quality of the Halcro is simply one of the best in the business, so that round goes to it. I prefer the overall sound of the Dolans. They impart a greater portion of that indescribable and very subjective quality we call “musicality”. The M-Ones are every bit as articulate, but they tend to make the MC20 sound a bit dry. Sterile is way too strong a word. They Halcro is not sterile like many other “digital” amps I’ve heard, but the Dolans are even less so and a bit more juicy. When I asked Richard what quality he thinks sets his amps apart from others he unhesitatingly replied, “They have more verve”. Maybe he is right. I looked it up. “Verve – Vigor and spirit or enthusiasm”. He calls it “verve’. We call it MOJO. Either way, they got it.
The Dolan M-One mono power amps, at least in the world of the sane and value conscious, are a reference quality marquee. They give the owner an outstanding balance of power and audio quality at a price that is both reasonable and sensible for components of this custom, hand-built quality. The inclusion of a matched pair of quality power cables is a significant plus. Those could save you $1,000 or more and should be factored in to your buying decision. An owner would certainly be unique in the audio world when he tells his friends “I just got a pair of Dolans!”
The fact that Richard pre-burns in each amp for 100 hours and then inspects and tests them before he ships them out in hand-made wooden crates (no cardboard here), is important and adds to the value.
One very important advantage of a product of this type is that a customer always has direct access to the very man who designed it and not an intermediary who may not be as intimately familiar with it. Richard is easy to talk to and work with and very much not a diva or elitist. Personally, if I had the cash on hand, I would scoop these up in a heartbeat.
Richard offers a very generous (for a custom, hand built product) 30 return from receipt, no questions asked, full refund less shipping as long as they are returned in the original box and not damaged. Remember though that these amps are not assembly line products that are spit out and stored in a warehouse. Each is hand made per order. Thirty days is ok considering that you do not have to burn them in for a week or two. They are ready to rumble the moment you get them.
If your system is already built around fully balanced components and you already have a sizeable investment in XLR’s, then these probably are not for you. Mr. Dolan generously includes a 5-year parts and labor warranty.
As a side note, I found Mr. Dolan’s PM1 preamp to be at least as impressive as his power amps and maybe more so. I cannot wait to get my ears on the final product.
Mr. Dolan replies - "Mr. Darby, thank you for your excellent review. I believe you captured the gestalt of the M-One's design. As a result of your astute observations, all new production units will have high quality Cardas binding posts. In addition, all new units will be completely done in high luster powder coat (very durable). All of us at Dolan Audio are honored to be recipients of Stereomojo's very hard to come by "Maximum Mojo Award".