Dussun DS99 Integrated Amplifier
remembers the days when "Made in Japan" meant shoddy workmanship and cheap
prices. Forty or 50 years later, "Made in Japan" almost always means
"Cant afford it," particularly in the area of home electronics. The fact
is, not too many products are made in Japan anymore, because Japanese companies cant
afford it, either. These days, China finds itself in the position Japan was in 40 years
ago. If it can be manufactured, the Chinese will make it, and while its true that
the quality is sometimes suspect, its equally true that the quality is just as
likely to be pretty good, if not excellent.
Its also true that if youre shopping at the
entry level of home audio electronics, the equipment under consideration has almost
assuredly been made in China. Original equipment manufacturers (aka OEMs) and rebranding
are givens in every industry, and the lower end of hi-fi is no exception. And as Chinese
exports multiply across the economic spectrum, it can be expected that OEMs will begin to
want to sell their wares under their own names. In many respects, however, China is still
very much a land of mystery, and the arrival of the Dussun DS99 stereo integrated
amplifier ($500 USD) didnt do much to change that perception.
The Dussun DS99 didnt come out of nowhere, however.
Dussuns North American distributor, AAA-Audio, is run by the decidedly unmysterious
and accessible Ping Gong, whose website describes his operation as "dedicated to
importing and distributing high-end audio/video products for North American audiophiles,
with class-A quality, service, and price." Ping regularly visits China, where he has
carefully researched and evaluated the production facilities, management teams,
reputations among customers, and service records of the brands he chooses to import to the
US. For its part, Dussun evolved from a company called Korsun, whose president and chief
designer, Zou Yuan Yuan, taking advantage of the Chinese governments move toward
freer enterprise, renamed his company Dussun and moved it to a larger, more efficient
assembly plant. Poking around on the Web reveals that the Dussun DS99 is nearly identical
to the well-regarded Korsun KS99, which was distributed outside North America.
My DS99 arrived in a box labeled with the name of the
company, the model number, the words integrated stereo amplifier, numbers
signifying dimensions, some handle-with-care symbols, and a lot of Chinese ideograms, even
on the otherwise clear tape used to seal the flaps. Inside, nestled in tight Styrofoam
packing, was the unit itself, its detached power cord, and the owners manual, which
looked as if it had been written by whoever labeled the box: all in Chinese. As it turned
out, there was little need for a manual; the DS99 is the simplest, most austere amplifier
Ive ever seen at a price at which inexpensive stereo receivers and superficially
elaborate home-theater electronics often promise to give you more for less.
Housed in a stable, black metal case of slightly less than
standard dimensions (15"W x 4.25"H x 9"D), the DS99 is rated to deliver
100W through each of its two channels into 8 ohms (150Wpc into 4 ohms) from its internal
400W power supply. According to Dussun, the DS99s passive preamplifier, power
supply, and end-stage components are strictly separated and designed for a single target,
enabling what they believe to be the best possible music reproduction. Dussun claims for
the DS99 a frequency range of 10Hz-40kHz, ±1dB, a signal/noise ratio of 100dB, and 0.08%
total harmonic distortion.
Around back, the DS99 offers five inputs
plated in 24-karat gold, one output for recording, two pairs of metal speaker binding
posts (banana plugs, spades, pins, or bare wire) for a single pair of speakers, and the
power-cord socket. This austerity is mirrored around front, where one pushbutton turns the
unit on and off, two buttons (forward right or back left) select the inputs, one knob
controls the volume, and one socket accepts a 1/4" headphone jack (which overrides
the speaker output and works off the main volume knob). No tone controls, no balance
controls, no phono stage, no remote. The DS99 is as minimalist as it gets.
The massive faceplate of brushed aluminum extends a bit
past the edges of the case and must account for a substantial portion of the
amplifiers 23 pounds. Exceptionally clean-looking and uncluttered, with only the
name (in small red lettering) and model number in the upper left corner, and tiny black
lettering identifying the controls, the silvery DS99 has the styling of far more expensive
and equally obscure audio brands, or the cool simplicity of the notoriously
design-conscious Italians. The lack of extravagance in its appearance takes some getting
used to, but its overall solidity is reassuring, and the conscious rejection of frills
forces the listener to concentrate on its sound.
The Dussun DS99 took its place in my system, which
comprised a Pioneer DVD-353 DVD player, Monster Cable interconnects, Epos ELS-3
minimonitor speakers, and 9 runs of Element Cables Double Run speaker cable,
terminated with banana plugs.
By 1975, The Who was just about at the end of the trail,
the excesses of the superstar lifestyle having taken its toll on the members of the band
to varying degrees. In some respects, The Who By Numbers [CD, PolyGram
International 9203] is a Pete Townshend solo record, but his backup band never sounded
better. The Dussun DS99 was dead quiet and highly transparent, and nothing seemed to
interfere with the music. "Slip Kid" swung, John Entwistles bass on one
side and Keith Moons drums on the other, the players challenging each other to keep
up and barely making it. When Entwistle ran down the neck of his bass, the DS99 was
propulsive and articulate. On "However Much I Booze," Moons drumming is a
mad dash with Townshends guitar in hot pursuit: the DS99 handled the momentum with
ease, and separated the instruments with sharp resolution. In the gentle "Blue, Red
and Grey," Townshends vocals through the DS99 were sweet, his acoustic guitar
crisp and sharply drawn.
Solo double-bass performances are an acquired taste
requiring confidence and nerve on the parts of performer and listener. Long
Hidden [CD, Aum Fidelity 36] pits several solo performances by William Parker on bass
and doson ngoni, a West African lute, against a few tracks by the upstart Olmec Group. The
album opens with a take of "There Is a Balm in Gilead" so organically conceived
and warmly recorded that you forget that only one musician is playing. The DS99 focused
the basss beautiful woody sound and never faltered in relaying the crispness of the
leading edges of the sounds of plucked strings. Parkers doson ngoni on "Long
Hidden: Part 3" is like a guitar-and-bass duet, and the track benefited from the
DS99s facility in establishing steady low notes below and a tinkling melody above.
"Long Hidden: Part 1" was serene, like water running through Monets garden
-- this in contrast to "Codex," which is a riot of percussion (timbales, congas,
bongos, and a plunking balafon) cut with skittering alto sax and a wheezing accordion.
"In Case of Accident" was ferocious, Parkers bow generating a huge, raw
wall of sound that the DS99 reconstructed with authority and impressive dimensionality.
Anthony Hamiltons voice is a throwback to the earthy,
complex soul men of the early 1970s, but his albums cannily combine down-home
instrumentation with contemporary percussion and production, and put him at the forefront
of the neo-soul movement. On Aint Nobody Worryin [CD, Arista 74278]
Hamilton sounds hungry, troubled, and optimistic by turns, and the DS99 seemed perfectly
equipped to manage his naturalness, full range of emotion, and array of tonal colors. The
choir on "Pass Me Over" soared on the back of the DS99, airy and alive behind
Hamiltons own longing. On "Cant Let Go" Hamilton sounded resigned
yet resilient, while on "Preachers Daughter" the charismatic DS99
believably reproduced all the grit and urgency inherent in Hamiltons story. On the
funky, bass-heavy "Sista Big Stuff," the DS99 maintained a tight grip on the low
end, and the keyboards squiggled across the soundstage like rock salt strewn across a
sheet of ice.
When I took delivery of the DS99, Id been spending
quite a bit of time with the Outlaw Retro Receiver 2150 ($599), a new 100Wpc, two-channel
receiver that was also in for review. Both the Dussun DS99 and the Outlaw RR2150 are rated
at 100Wpc, but aside from that, the two units couldnt be more different. If the DS99
is minimal, the RR2150 is maximal. It has just about every feature you can think of,
including tone controls and a button to defeat them, a phono input, a built-in tuner, a
headphone jack with its own volume control, and a full-function remote control. I even
discovered that Outlaw underestimates the RR2150s power rating. When I turn it on, I
half expect it to buzz with foreboding, like the enormous amplifier facing Marty McFly at
the beginning of Back to the Future.
In contrast, the DS99s sound was so sweet and
sophisticated that I almost suspected that Dussun had overestimated its power
rating. The RR2150 has so much gain that merely tapping its remotes volume button
rotates the volume dial to an uncomfortable listening level, particularly with the Epos
ELS-3 minimonitors. The DS99, on the other hand, offers the user complete authority over
its capabilities; its volume control responded with all the subtlety and controlled
musicality I could have asked for, along with plenty of power. I found it supremely
nuanced and a real pleasure to listen to. Unfortunately, you have to be near enough to the
unit to operate it by hand. I was surprised how much I missed a remote control -- Id
gotten used to them with the Outlaw RR2150 and my reference NAD C320BEE integrated ($399).
Its not just laziness; when I can fine-tune the playback from my listening position,
my listening enjoyment has been significantly increased. Id be willing to pay a bit
more for this basic functionality.
By not including a phono input in the DS99, Dussun seems to
be ignoring the possibility that the future of audiophilia might be in its past. The
absence of a preamp output means that, unlike many other integrated amplifiers, the DS99
will always be a standalone piece of gear. And it doesnt have a remote.
Those disadvantages aside, the DS99 reproduced balanced,
defined sound of the highest order with extraordinary delicacy and refinement. It was
remarkably detailed, and able to make music that was smooth and full-bodied without a hint
of extraneous noise. Nothing got in the way of my enjoyment of this amplifiers
clarity or its beautifully simple good looks and operation.
Price of equipment reviewed