REVIEW: Doge Model 8 Tube remote-controlled Stereo Preamplifier + Phono Stage
Silver Threads and Golden Needles
I requested and was sent a review loaner of the Doge 8 vacuum tube stereo preamplifier by the US Importer/Distributor, Pacific Valve & Electric (http://www.pacificvalve.us/Doge8.html). This is one VERY full featured preamp. It has 5 line inputs, a built-in phono preamp that is switchable between moving magnet and moving coil. All inputs are single-ended, but there is a pair of XLR “balanced” preamp outputs. This does not make it a balanced preamp, but does allow one to run via balanced cables to the power amp, and then perhaps to a subwoofer via the single-ended outs.
The Doge 8 also has a nice machined-metal remote control. You couldn’t really ask for more of a full-featured preamp than this. And it is beautifully and massively built – weighs 35lbs! And look at the pretty face:
Since this is Head-fi, I should note that there is NOT a headphone output. Pity. The Doge 8 uses 4 12AX7 tubes for the Phono Stage, and 4 12AT7’s in the line-stage. There are all kinds of very sexy audiophile-approved parts in the Doge, including gas contact relays with gold plated contacts; a tightly matched ALPS potentiometer with a channel balance of less than 0.3 dB;1% metal film resistors; WIMA MKP 10 polypropylene capacitors with a minimal 1% tolerance in the phono- stage. Distortion is spec’d at a crazy-low THD+N: ≤ 0.0009 %/ 1V. It’s pretty hard to sniff at the way the Doge 8 was built, and what it was built with.
I used the Doge 8 in place of my Cary SLP-05 in my “he-man” speaker rig, running to my Sunfire Signature II, which drives my B&W Nautilus 800 speakers. This was a stern test for the Doge, to be sure – replacing an $8,000 preamp in the context of a very high-end system. The Doge certainly has high-end pretentions, but is reasonably affordable at $1,400. So I also tried it in place of my RSA Stealth, which is $2,500, where it drove the $800 powered Dynaudio BM5A powered monitors.
I Can See Clearly Now
I began my review of the Doge 8 with the stock tubes. The PV&E website indicates that the Doge is supplied with Tung-Sol 12AX7's and JAN-GE 12AT7's, and so I thought that is what I was listening to - and as such, I did not think to replace them. Plus, opening the Doge looked daunting, so I did not tube-roll. I was completely unprepared for the sound I got from the Doge 8. But that wasn’t entirely a good thing. I was comparing the Doge, which is a tube preamp, to two other tube preamps. The Doge sounds absolutely nothing like either the Cary or the RSA. The Cary is more neutral and refined than the RSA Stealth, but they are more similar to each other than either is to the Doge. The Doge, in comparison to either of the others, was very bright sounding. It was much more like you would expect for a solid state preamp to sound like – and a bright SS amp at that.
This was a mixed bag sonically. On the one hand, the Doge was very detailed, and clean sounding. It has a sort of clinical, “audiophile” hyper-detailed sound to it though, that gave a lot of recordings a bit more of an edge or bite that in natural. This did have the effect of making the soundstage amazingly well defined and holographic. Imaging was really first-rate, and impressive.
For example, “Making Contact” from Bruce Cockburn’s “Stealing Fire” was thrilling to listen to in the way the soundstage was naturally rendered. This is an early 80’s digital recording, and this was plainly evident via the Doge. Attack and dynamics were excellent. Listening to “Search” from String Cheese Incident’s “Outside Inside”, the percussion was lively, articulate, and detailed. It was pretty impressive. Bass was also very nimble and articulate, and had excellent extension, but it was slightly under-weight, in my opinion, which also added to the overall bright presentation.
Switching between the Doge 8 and the RSA Stealth, and using “One Slip” from Pink Floyd’s “Momentary Lapse of Reason”, the sound was so different I was actually kind of shocked. The sound was MUCH warmer and smoother on the RSA than on the Doge. The two really couldn’t be much different. The Stealth is colored to the warm and smooth side, and the Doge 8 to the bright and colder side, and the contrast between them was stark.
The Cary was in between – it’s remarkably neutral, really. And it’s actually a bit more detailed than the Doge, too – but that is what the top of the high-end gets you – smoother and more detailed. The Stealth is not more detailed than the Doge – but it is definitely smoother. I don’t have any solid state preamps around here anymore, but I wish I had my old Krell KAV-250p to compare it to – I bet it is closer to the sound of the Doge 8 than either of my current preamps. The PV&E website describes the Doge 8 as “Dead Neutral”. I’m not sure I can quite agree with that – I think it’s slightly to the bright side of dead neutral. But what it isn’t is overly lush or syrupy. That much is for sure. It is clean, clear, transparent, and detailed – but perhaps to the point just past where it should be – at least in the context of true neutrality. In some systems it might be just EXACTLY what the doctor ordered, like in a case where you felt things were just a little too laid back. But if your system already leans toward the bright side, then the Doge 8 might push things into unpleasant territory.
All of the above comments are from the original posting of this review. When I posted the review initially, I was informed by PV&E that my review sample might have had Chinese tubes in it, and that this would have accounted for the bright sound I heard. So, hex-wrench in hand, I endeavored to open up the Doge.
Actually opening it is pretty simple. Getting at the tubes is another matter. The tubes are all held down by a single mechanism that has them encased in spring-loaded canisters:
The canister mechanism:
The tubes, au natural:
I assume that this fancy mechanism is designed to reduce microphonics. It does make tube rolling quite a production, though.
Anyway, I rolled in a quad of NOS RCA 12AT7's and 12AX7's. I chose the RCA's because they are warm sounding, and I wanted to see what a warm set of tubes would do, versus the Chinese tubes. The difference was quite noticeable to say the least. With the RCA's installed, and in comparison to the RSA Stealth driving the Dynaudio BM5A's, the Doge 8 was not much more neutral, and even had some body to the midrange that was a little lacking before. The amp was still just a shade on the bright side, versus my other amps, but I now felt that it sounded excellent. It was detailed and nuanced, with great soundstaging and and holographic imaging. The transparency was not reduced - which was excellent. So with the RCA tubes, the Doge 8 is a VERY strong product offering, given all of it's features and the asking price.
This was even more evident in the big rig. While the Doge 8 was brighter than the Cary, with the NOS RCA tubes on board, the Doge 8 was pretty impressive sounding. All of the positives were still there - great detail, high transparency - but now the sound wasn't strident or etched. Just shows that tube rolling can make a HUGE difference.
There is no doubt that the tubes REALLY matter in this amp - much more so that I would have thought. This was a reminder of me just how bad cheap Chinese tubes sound. Clearly this is something PV&E also realizes, since they are tossing these out, and supplying the Doge 8 with better tubes ( a decision they made after sending me my review sample, but before I had written this review, since when I posted it without RCA section of the review, they immediately raised the issue with me).
All's Well That Ends Well
PV&E supplies the Doge 8 with different tubes from the stock tubes - the tubes that Doge itself supplies are Chinese tubes, which are not very good sounding, and do not do the Doge 8 justice, IMO. USA buyers are lucky that PV&E swaps those out for better tubes. But Head-fi is an international site, and for people outside the USA interested in the Doge 8, you should be aware that, IMO, the stock Chinese tubes are far too bright, and should be replaced before the amp is used. I was actually quite surprised at how much difference the RCA tubes made. With them in place, I can recommend the Doge highly - without them, I really couldn't. So this needs to me taken into account.
I was under the impression that I WAS listening to the premium tubes that PV&E supplies. That turned out not to be the case, and that's good news. Tube rolling was critical for the Doge.
Once done, though, the Doge is a full-featured, highly enjoyable amp. I recommend it, as long as you ditch the Chinese tubes right away, if you are outside the USA and that's what you get.
Edited by Skylab - 6/12/10 at 2:47pm