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Audio Alchemy DDP-1 Preamp/DAC/Headphone Amp, DPA-1 Stereo Power Amp, and DPA-1M Monoblock Power Amp

Audio Alchemy blazed a trail in the 1990s with a range of ultra-low-priced products housed in utilitarian cases with no cosmetic frills. The products were almost toy-like in appearance and name—the $199 DAC-in-the-Box, for example—but contained solid engineering inside. If you could overlook the Spartan casework, Audio Alchemy products delivered exceptional performance for the money. I reviewed quite a number of these components in the mid-1990s and found them to be excellent. Audio Alchemy folded in the late 1990s, probably because it didn’t build enough profit into the products’ retail prices.

But that was then and this is now. The company is back, headed by industry veteran Peter Madnick, the design talent behind the original Audio Alchemy (and many products from other companies). Audio Alchemy has retained the same value orientation as before, but this first wave of products from the new company is a far cry from the black stamped-metal chassis and faceplates of the original. Instead, the new company’s first offerings boast upscale casework, an extensive and modern feature set, and more ambitious engineering.

The products reviewed here are the $1995 DDP-1 linestage preamplifier/DAC/headphone amplifier, along with the $1995 DPA-1 stereo power amplifier and $1995-each DPA-1M monoblock amplifiers. All are housed in compact chassis of the same size and shape, their rounded edges and satin-silver finish exuding a decidedly upscale vibe.

The DDP-1’s front panel is dominated by two large knobs, one for volume and another for input selection as well as navigating the menus. The oval display shows the input selected, the volume setting, whether the unit is locked to a digital source, the digital filter selected, and whether “resolution enhancement” is engaged (more on these features later). Four small buttons provide additional controls, including mute, selecting between headphone output and preamplifier output, and back/enter buttons that are used in conjunction with the menu/input selector knob. An 1/8″ headphone jack, a feature that for many years all but disappeared from preamps but is now mandatory, adorns the front panel. The power button just below the display rounds out the controls. A well-laid-out remote handles nearly all the DDP-1’s functions.

The outboard power supply, a little larger than a “wall wart,” can be upgraded to a more sophisticated supply, the $595 PS-5 Power Station. The PS-5 is housed in a chassis that matches aesthetically with the DDP-1, “nesting” into that unit’s curved side panel. It offers independent supplies for the DDP-1’s analog and digital circuits, more elaborate voltage regulation, and more filter capacitance. Audio Alchemy claims that the PS-5 offers lower noise and wider dynamics than the stock supply.

The DDP-1’s sensible array of controls and buttons, its feel, and the display itself are all superb—this is one well-thought-out user interface. The display’s source-selection is unique; as you scroll through the list of inputs, the one selected becomes larger in type size. The remote is also outstanding; your index finger naturally falls on the volume up/down buttons. Even the volume-control ballistics are perfectly dialed-in; I could quickly make large volume changes, yet had fine control once I was in the ballpark. Moreover, the chassis’ industrial design and metalwork are far above what’s expected at this price. The compact package, with the rounded edges and satin-silver finish, is extremely attractive, and a welcome departure from the less inspired chassis work of competing products. My only complaint is that the front-panel markings are white against a silver panel, with almost no contrast. Between the low contrast and the small type, the text is difficult to read. There are, however, so few controls that it doesn’t take long before you’re operating the DDP-1 without need for the legends. Audio Alchemy reports that they are increasing the contrast of the lettering, which, incidentally, is laser-etched in the front panel. No channel-balance control is provided.

The DDP-1 offers two unbalanced inputs on RCA jacks, one balanced input on XLR jacks, and an extensive array of digital inputs. These include AES/EBU, two TosLink optical, two coaxial, USB, and even I2S. The USB input accepts PCM up to 216kHz/32-bit along with DSD64. The other digital inputs accept PCM only (also up to 216kHz/32-bit). Mac users can connect to the USB input and start playing music. Windows users must download a driver. You can select from four digital filters, including an apodizing filter. (To recap, an apodizing filter shifts the filter ringing in time so that the ringing occurs after the transient, rather than before and after the transient. This is an important distinction, because in nature we never hear part of a transient signal’s energy before the transient itself. This filter “pre-ringing” is particularly deleterious to music, and contributes to the glassy hardness of textures and flat soundstaging of most digital. In my experience, there’s a slight penalty in bass tautness and definition with apodizing filters, but it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.)

Through the front-panel display and controls, you can select any one of the filters as the default for a particular input. Similarly, resolution enhancement can be turned on and off for the individual inputs. The front-panel “Enh” legend turns green when resolution enhancement is on, red when off (see sidebar for more detail on resolution enhancement).

An important consideration when buying a DAC today is whether the its software can be updated to decode Master Quality Authenticated (MQA). I’ve written extensively about this new technology (Issues 253 and 261) that greatly improves digital sound quality. Because the DDP-1 is a purely software-driven product that runs on two XMOS general-purpose DSP chips and a field-programmable gate array, it may be possible that the DDP-1 can up updated to offer MQA decoding. Although Audio Alchemy hasn’t committed to this possibility, it’s worth noting that the demonstration board MQA has provided to manufacturers runs on the same XMOS chip used in the Audio Alchemy DAC, and that the Alchemy’s software can be updated via the read-panel micro-USB port.

Overall, the DDP-1 is a highly capable and versatile centerpiece of a system that’s a pleasure to use on a daily basis.

 

Looking next at the DPA-1, this stereo power amplifier delivers 125Wpc into 8 ohms and 200Wpc into 4 ohms. The front panel offers more features than are traditionally found on power amplifiers, including selectable gain (a +6dB button), clipping indicators, a mute button, and soft-start warm-up. Both balanced and unbalanced inputs are provided, and the binding posts are of high quality. A 12V trigger input allows connection to the DDP-1 (or other product with 12V trigger output) so that powering on the DDP-1 automatically powers on the amplifier as well. The DPA-1M is simply a monaural version of the same amplifier, delivering 325W into 8 ohms and 400W into 4 ohms. At the most recent CES, Alchemy announced the DPA-2 stereo amplifier with 250Wpc ($2995). The company also showed the matching PPA-1 phonostage  and the Roon-ready DMP-1 Media Player, both of which are $1795.

The amplifier features a Class A input stage built from discrete FETs, the same topology found in expensive amplifiers. Most amplifiers at this price rely on op-amps rather than discrete circuits. The output stage is Class D, which explains the DPA-1’s compact size and light weight—the amplifier weighs just 16 pounds. Specifically, the output stage is a Hypex UcD module, designed by Bruno Putzeys. The DPA-1M monoblock simply bridges two of these modules for greater output power.

From first impressions, these new products from Audio Alchemy appear to be quite a step up from those of the company’s first incarnation.

Listening
I was eager to review the new generation of Audio Alchemy products for several reasons: I was a fan of the company’s earlier offerings; I have great respect for the design talents of Peter Madnick; and most importantly, I heard the DDP-1 and DPA-1M sound amazingly great in very-high-end systems at several shows. One of those show systems (Munich) featured TAD CR-1 loudspeakers (perhaps the best stand-mount speaker extant) and another (Rocky Mountain) showcased the Alchemy products with the outstanding Wilson Sabrina speakers. The Alchemy gear more than acquitted itself in this illustrious company.

Speaking of illustrious company…I dropped the DDP-1 (with the PS-5 supply) and a pair of the DPA-1M monoblocks into my reference system. After three days of warm-up, I began by listening to LPs, driving the DDP-1’s balanced analog input, with the DPA-1M monoblocks powering Magico Q7 Mk.IIs. I was immediately impressed by the Alchemy’s sonic virtues and ability to communicate the music. The sound was remarkably transparent, clean, dynamic, and resolved by any measure, and even more so considering the components’ reasonable price.

The Alchemy products threw a large and well-defined soundstage, with outstanding depth, dimensionality, and separation of individual instrumental lines. On “Mars” from The Planets (Mehta, LA Philharmonic, Decca), the insistent snare drum that drives the rhythm was well back in the stage, with a real sense of air and space around it. The call-and-response lines of the tenor tuba and trumpet were well differentiated from each other and from the rest of the orchestra. The sense of size and scale was outstanding. Other hallmarks of the products were clarity and transparency—the sense of nothing between you and the music. The soundstage lacked the veiling that diminishes the sense of realism of instruments at the back of the stage.

With smaller-scale music, the Alchemy electronics showed that they were transparent enough to reflect a recording’s spatial character. Intimate music, like Joni Mitchell’s Blue (LP reissue), was rendered with the appropriate sense of presence and immediacy.

Perhaps the most salient characteristics of the DDP-1 and DPA-1M, however, were powerful rhythmic drive, wide dynamic expression, and rock-solid visceral grip in the bottom end. The timpani in “Mars” was taut, powerful, deep, and dynamic. Bass guitar had a solid feel that was simultaneously full and tight, combining timbral warmth and body with outstanding pitch definition and articulation. Kick-drum cut through the mix with a solid impact. Switching to the less powerful DPA-1 stereo amplifier, I heard no reduction in dynamic range, bass control, or bottom-end extension, at least driving the 94dB-sensitive Magico loudspeakers. (Less sensitive speakers may benefit from the monoblocks’ greater output power.) Both the stereo and the mono versions of this amplifier sounded like indefatigable powerhouses, with plenty of dynamic headroom. I never heard the amplifier soften the bass, harden textures, or congeal the soundstage, no matter what the playback level or how demanding the music.

This powerful rhythmic expression wasn’t just the result of terrific bass grip and definition. The DDP-1 and DPA-1 excelled at portraying transient information, such as drums and percussion. The Alchemy electronics were fast and dynamic, qualities that brought to the fore subtle rhythmic nuances by great drummers, allowing their kits to take on a lifelike quality. The contribution from the great Roy Haynes on the track “Windows” from the album Like Minds (Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Dave Holland, and Haynes) was highlighted by the Alchemy electronics. On the track “Helena” from Gary Burton’s Guided Tour, drummer Antonio Sanchez (who, incidentally, composed and performed the soundtrack for the film Birdman, for which he won the Academy Award in 2015) lets loose with a tour de force solo that was well served by the Alchemy’s outstanding speed and immediacy. Similarly, the timbales on the outstanding Mobile Fidelity reissue of Santana’s Abraxis fairly jumped from the soundstage as though they were recorded yesterday.

When listening to LPs, I thought the overall sound was a bit laid-back in the midrange to the lower treble, with vocals slightly recessed in the mix. The DDP-1 and DPA-1Ms were at the other end of the sonic spectrum of electronics that are bright and forward in this region. This was a good sign, because I’ve selected for these qualities in my LP front end (Basis Inspiration turntable with Basis Superarm 9 and Air-Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge), which leans toward a less incisive rendering than many vinyl playback systems. I’m no fan of moving-coil cartridges that are tipped up in the treble or that hype detail. In other words, the DDP-1’s linestage section and the DPA-1M sounded like my LP front-end sounds; the Alchemy electronics managed to pass along the LP playback system’s character with very little editorializing. This level of transparency to sources in a product of this price is remarkable, particularly when considering the quality of the LP front-end and the resolution of the Magico Q7 Mk.II speakers. These reference-grade components would have laid bare any added brightness, hardness, opacity, or reduction in dynamic expression.

When I switched to a digital source (the Aurender W20 via USB) and was listening to the DDP-1 as a DAC and preamplifier, all the virtues mentioned were present, but now the music had greater verve and illumination. The sound was a bit more immediate and upfront, reflecting the DAC’s character compared with that of my turntable. It didn’t take a lot of careful listening to realize that the DDP-1’s DAC is spectacular—highly resolved, open, transparent, and extremely dynamic. The DAC is very lively and incisive, with a full measure of detail. As with the DPA-1 amplifier, the DDP-1’s DAC excels at reproducing transient information, from the micro to the macro. The DAC’s sound can be fine-tuned through filter selection; I opted for Filter 4, which has a more “gentle” sound than the other three.

 

The DAC’s sound could be improved by engaging the resolution enhancement feature described earlier (and in the sidebar). Turning on resolution enhancement seemed to make the overall perspective a little less immediate and upfront, as though the entire stage moved back slightly. Put another way, engaging resolution enhancement was like moving from Row G to Row M. Resolution enhancement better resolved the space around individual instruments, and soundstage width and depth expanded. Reverberation tails were longer and better defined. On the 44.1kHz/16-bit recording Aras by the band Curandero, the first track begins with some sharp percussion work. Engaging resolution enhancement not only expanded the space around the percussion, but I could hear more detail and texture in the drumhead’s decay, and more resonance of the air within the bodies of the drums. On the track “Switchback” from Jesse Cook’s Free Fall, the multiple rhythm acoustic guitars behind the lead guitar were more clearly distinguishable as individual instruments, and they had a more immersive sound. That is, the soundstage was more continuous horizontally, with less impression of sound coming from two loudspeakers. The background guitars were also farther back in the mix, increasing soundstage depth. The intricate horn and woodwind lines in the contemporary big-band music of Gordon Goodwin were more clearly resolved. Resolution enhancement also benefited the Alchemy’s rendering of timbre, which was a little smoother, particularly in the upper midrange. Overall, resolution enhancement contributed significantly to my view that the DDP-1’s DAC section is not only terrific in an absolute sense, but nothing short of amazing in a $1999 full-featured preamplifier.

Finally, I’ll comment on the PS-5 power supply and the differences between the stereo and mono amplifiers. Compared with the stock power supply, the PS-5 vaults the DDP-1 into a different league. The sound with the PS-5 is more refined, spacious, and detailed. Instrumental textures are more liquid and natural. The upgraded supply also gives the sound much greater dimensionality, with a heightened sense of layering and depth, along with more air between instrumental images. I auditioned the DDP-1 only briefly with the stock supply because the sound was so much better with the PS-5. My description of the DDP-1’s sound is with the PS-5. It’s a worthwhile upgrade.

The DPA-1 stereo amp gives up nothing in sound quality to the monoblocks, except output power. The DPA-1’s 200W into 4 ohms was plenty of power for the 94dB-sensitive Magico Q7 Mk.II. In fact, I never saw the clipping LEDs illuminate, even at high listening levels. Of course, if you’re driving loudspeakers of lower sensitivity the additional power provided by the monoblocks will come in handy, but don’t jump to the conclusion that you need the monoblocks. The cost difference between the complete package (a DDP-1 with its power supply) with the stereo and mono amps is $4600 vs. $6600—quite a jump. The best way to tell if the DPA-1’s output power is enough for your loudspeakers, room size, and listening levels is to borrow one from your dealer and try it. There’s simply no substitute for auditioning an amplifier in your own system.

Conclusion
These new products are a far cry from the Alchemy of yore, with much more advanced engineering, upscale casework, and a superb user interface. The DDP-1 and DPA-1 bring terrific sound and stunning value to the category. As a linestage, the DDP-1 is amazingly clean and transparent. Unlike most electronics of this price, the DDP-1 doesn’t add a patina of electronic hardness over instrumental timbres. Nor does it add opacity to the soundstage or compress dynamics. The DDP-1’s DAC section is simply sensational; this level of sound quality would be outstanding in a $4000 stand-alone DAC. Clarity, openness, detail, and exceptional dynamics define the DAC’s performance.

The DPA-1 stereo amplifier and DPA-1M mono amplifiers are no less impressive. Their wide dynamics, terrific grip in the bass, and upbeat sonics made them a joy to listen to. Moreover, the amplifiers possess the same level of clarity and resolution as the DDP-1. Significantly, the amplifiers don’t exhibit the shortcomings I’ve heard in previous Class D designs. Even in the context of reference-quality sources and loudspeakers, it was easy to forget that I was listening to electronics that aren’t stratospherically priced.

The return of Audio Alchemy is welcome news for those seeking the highest possible price-to-performance ratio in electronics today.

SPECS & PRICING

DDP-1 Linestage Preamplifier/DAC and Headphone Amplifier
Analog inputs: One balanced, two unbalanced
Analog outputs: Balanced on XLR jacks, unbalanced on RCA jacks, 1/8″ headphone jack (plus 12V trigger)
Digital inputs: Coaxial (x2), TosLink (x2), USB, I2S (additional micro-USB for software updates only)
Digital format supported: Up to 192kHz/24-bit on all inputs, plus DSD64 on USB input
Digital filtering: Custom, with four user-selectable filters
Outputs: Balanced and unbalanced
Headphone amplifier power: 1W into 32 ohms
Input impedance: 50k ohms
Output impedance: 75 ohms
Channel separation: 100dB (digital input), 130dB (analog input)
Dimensions: 10.5″ x 3″ x 11.6″
Weight: 8 lbs.
Price: $1995

PS-5 Power Station (for DDP-1)
Dimensions: 5.5″ x 3.5″ x 11.6″
Weight: 9 lbs.
Price: $595

DPA-1 Stereo Amplifier
Output power: 125Wpc into 8 ohms, 200Wpc into 4 ohms
THD: 0.05%, 1W into 8 ohms
Input impedance: 100k ohms
Output impedance: 0.06 ohms
Gain: 20dB or 26dB (switchable)
Channel separation: 80dB
Dimensions: 10.5″ x 3″ x 11.6″
Weight: 16 lbs.
Price: $1995

DPA-1M Monaural Power Amplifier
Output power: 325W into 8 ohms, 400W into 4 ohms
THD: 0.05%, 1W into 8 ohms
Input impedance: 100k ohms
Output impedance: 0.06 ohms
Gain: 20dB or 26dB (switchable)
Dimensions: 10.5″ x 3″ x 11.6″
Weight: 16 lbs. each
Price: $1995 each

Tags: FEATURED

By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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