Densen B-110 Integrated Amplifier & Darwin Cables Silver Interconnect Review 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Integrated Amplifiers
Written by Andre Marc   
Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Densen Audio Technologies, out of Denmark, may be unknown to many high-end audio enthusiasts in the US, but in Europe and Asia, they are considered among the top tier of high performance audio. I had the distinct pleasure of living with several Densen pieces in the past, including the B-200 preamplifier and the B-310 power amplifier. Individually, and as a pair, I thought they were high value, high fidelity components, with good looks to boot. At a combined price of around $4500, they competed with much more expensive gear that this reviewer has heard. While I was impressed with this pair, I wanted to hear one of Densen’s integrated amplifiers, which consistently get rave reviews abroad.

Enter the Densen B-110 integrated amp, rated at 60 watts per channel into 8 Ohms, and doubles to 120 watts per channel into 4 ohms. The B-110 is descended from the B-100 amp, one of Densen’s most popular products in decades past. According to Densen, the B-110 includes many refinements and upgrades, practically calling it a redesign. The B-110 retails for around $2500, depending on exchange rates.

One aspect of the B-110 I find very impressive, and this also applied to the B-200 preamp, is the precision volume control. I very much appreciate the ability to adjust the volume at very specific increments. According to Densen, "the volume is controlled by an extremely precise attenuator made of Vishay metal film resistors, which is switched by relays controlled by the microprocessor. Compared to a normal volume potentiometer of the kind used in the majority of all preamps, the resistor network has virtually no self induced noise and an extremely low distortion. This results in an unsurpassed precision and refinement, and the attenuator contains no less than 200 steps! This makes it possible to adjust the volume very precisely (0.5 dB)."

Other B-110 design characteristics include an output stage utilizing Densen’s unique "DMCD" (Densen Mass Current Distribution) technology. The B-110 is, like all other Densen amplifiers in their line, uses zero global feedback. Densen says B-110 internal components are mounted with a precision of 0.02mm using silver solder. They go to the extreme step of soldering in what they call “an artificial atmosphere, consisting of nitrogen, to avoid oxidation."

Densen also touts their power supply as a major aspect of the design. Interestingly, they claim not all of the capacitors are mounted in a capacitor bank, because some are directly adjoining the output stage for more efficient power delivery. Lastly, Densen says their custom made transformer has a huge effect on the sound since it is designed to minimize mechanical noise and vibration.

Set Up & Listening

The B-110 exudes Scandinavian cool. The review sample was finished in beautiful silver case work. Black is also available. The B-110 can be used with the Densen Gizmo system remote -- also beautifully made, however the buttons or, better put, rubber nubs are a bit on the small side and close together. Everything on the B-110 itself is laid out nicely, with high quality front buttons, speaker binding posts, and RCA connectors. Perhaps the one thing AC cable aficionados might find annoying is that, because the IEC receptacle is positioned very close to the speaker binding posts, you are limited in your choices of aftermarket power cords. I ended up using a Shunyata Venom because of its modest profile.

 

Not far into my first listening session, it was obvious the B-110 was cut from the same mold as the B-200 and B-310. The trademarks of the Densen house sound were there. Super quiet backgrounds, crystal pure treble, midrange transparency, and superbly articulate bass. Densen pieces are among the least mechanical sounding solid state components I have had in my system. Speaking of which, the B-110 drove a pair of Harbeth Compact 7 ES3, tethered by QED Genesis Silver Spiral speaker cable. Sources were a Squeezebox Touch connected a Musical Fidelity V-DAC II DAC, hooked up with Darwin cables (see review below).

The B-110 seemed to be much more powerful than the published power rating. Dynamic swings were so effortless. This seems to add credence to the Densen design claims of a carefully implemented power supply and an efficient output stage. Along with the amazing dynamics, the overall musical picture was refined and coherent, with a sense of natural flow. Again, I heard no mechanical artifacts at all. I especially enjoyed to pristine, shimmering high frequencies.

Bottom end control seems to be a Densen trademark, and it is here in the B-110 as well. No matter what the source -- bass guitar, cello, acoustic bass, or deep percussion -- it was easy to identify, and there was never any overhang into midrange, and zero smearing. Readers should not get the impression that this precision somehow means there is a lack of any body, or that the presentation is anyway clinical. Nothing could be further from the truth. There was nothing "cool" about the B-110 except the looks.
 
The B-110, as good as it was at either frequency extreme, really excelled at midrange purity and just allowing the music to happen. Graceful is how I would label the B-110 in its overall ability to unravel complex musical passages without a hitch. I found it virtually impossible to make the B-110 sound strident, uninvolving, or unengaging.  

This may be going out on a limb, but I would bet the Densen line, overseen by founder Thomas Silleson, is designed by music lovers. As a matter of fact, Sillesen is an avid musician, surprise, surprise. I mention this because the B-110, along with the B-200/B310 pairing, just allow you to forget about evaluating electronics and just to enjoy the performance of a given recording. I have heard far, far more expensive components that never let you forget you are listening to HiFi, and fail to draw you into the music.

Densen B-110 Integrated Amplifier

Wrapping Up

This may seem hard to believe, but I did not know the price of the B-110 until midway through the review process. When I was told it was priced at around $2500, the first thing that entered my mind is that they are practically giving this amp away. Even at $4500, I would not have blinked.

I can only say, in my experience, a component that sounds this elegant for $2500 is not just a rarity, but virtually non-existent. Couple that with a two hundred step, hyper engineered volume control, multiple inputs, top shelf parts, stunning looks, a 20-year track record, and there is very little to complain about. Check out the Densen line. In my opinion a beautiful counterpoint to cookie cutter, trend chasing, buzzword friendly products that are a dime a dozen today. The Densen B-110 hits all the marks, and then some.



Darwin Cables Silver Interconnects

High end, “audiophile” grade cables are maybe the most controversial aspect of a high performance home audio playback system. Some companies ask as much as Porsche Boxster for an eight foot length of speaker cable. One very prominent, well-known cable designer with decades of experience told me he just could not understand this kind of arbitrary pricing for what is essentially a few ounces of copper, silver, and plastic. All that being said, cabling is a necessary evil. Although cables are often categorized as accessories, I feel they are actually components in and of themselves.

Cables for an audio system are not optional, but there are so many cables on the market, representing every price point and design principle, it can be daunting. I subscribe to the theory that the best cable is no cable, but since, as noted, this is not possible, the best we can hope for is that cables do the least amount of harm as possible. This means a careful recipe of conductor, dielectric, connector, and all the various other elements must be assembled, tested, and finalized.

I noted above that cable pricing can be arbitrary and downright absurd. However, some very positive things have come out of this scenario. What can that be you ask? Well, it has allowed numerous small companies to open up shop and produce high quality products to sell to frustrated audiophiles at very fair prices. Often these purveyors of wire are direct-to-consumer, and generally use word of mouth to create product awareness. I personally have reviewed a few excellent cables from smaller companies, and have been very impressed. Element Cable, Stager Sound, and Mojo Audio come to mind. I must say, this market has become a crowded field. But how could it not be when hobbyists see reviews for $35,000 interconnect cables in their favorite magazines?

All of this brings us to Darwin Cables. I recently reviewed their flagship Ascension silver interconnect and was so impressed, it has become a new reference. The lower-priced Darwin silver interconnects sell for $295 for a 1 meter (3 foot) pair. I was interested to see what they could do at a slightly lower price point. Darwin also offers a line of cables that also includes coaxial digital, speaker, phono, and iPod cables.

According to the Darwin web site, "Darwin Cables are built using very simple principles without bizarre sounding metallurgy claims or suspicious science. The result plain and simple is better music. You will immediately hear improved detail, clarity, and sound stage. The price is also NOT bizarre, but a clear winning value compared to the big name cables."  



Simple design principles? No suspicious scientific claims? Value based pricing? Count me in. All of this sounds great, but the proof is in the listening, right? You can bet I did some listening. But first a bit more about the design and development of the cables. To start, they use solid core silver conductors. In the designers' own words:

First of all, we started with the purest silver solid core cable of the optimum gauge for performance we could find. Silver is the best conductor and even when it tarnishes it retains its efficiency. That cannot be said for copper, which degrades as it ages.
The industry standard "remedy" has been to seal the copper in with rubber, plastic and teflon. But now you have the second best conductor in direct contact with a dielectric that audibly degrades the sound. We know. We tried it. And even with superior teflon dielectric, wires in direct contact sounded lifeless.

It turns out, there's a reason for that. Even the best solid dielectric becomes part of the signal path when it tightly surrounds the conductor, but with low voltages in interconnects, it takes forever (or in the case of phono cables, possibly never) for the atoms to organize and break in. The bottom line is you want your signal flowing through a superior conductor. Anything else is an unnecessary compromise.

Darwin Cables Silver Interconnect

With Darwin's silver conductor and air dielectric, you are already two steps ahead of "formula" cables. Our wire makes minimal contact in a teflon tube of specific gauge and wall thickness selected by ear. Because there is little contact with the solid teflon, break-in time is minimized. Performance is maximized. After a relentless search for the best sounding RCA terminations that included some of the best known brands, we discovered one, precision machined, with the metallurgy that perfectly suited our design. We removed the barrel for even lower mass.

Our XLR's employ low mass Neutrik ends. It should be noted that because of the structure of the XLR ends there is more break-in time with the XLRs. Our most trusted XLR beta tester reported continuing improvement after 100 hours (presumably as the ends settled in). Our other Darwin Cables approach peak performance much quicker. Cable break-in is difficult to quantify under varying conditions. Our experience mirrors that of many in that cables do sound better when undisturbed, as time progresses.  

The final touch is cryogenics. Electron microscopes reveal that molecules are much more organized and linear after cryogenic treatment—like the difference between ice and water, except after treatment, cables retain that organization. The result is a more efficient, better performance. The most noticeable effect is a reduction in your system's noise floor.
We soak our connectors in contact enhancer and also swab the ends with a silver contact enhancer. Soaking the connectors and the strategic use of teflon tape to isolate them from the shrink tubing produced audible improvements.


Listening

I used the Darwins in several different configurations and with multiple components. There simply was nothing missing. I thought down the road, after weeks of listening, I would be able to identify some weaknesses, some deviation from neutrality that would make itself apparent with critical listening. But nothing of the sort happened. The Darwins remained true to my initial impression. Buttery smooth highs and mids, and amazingly good at fleshing out voices and instruments.

 



Welsh singer Duffy has an alluring, smoky voice, and her music reminds me of the classic Liverpool sound from the 60’s. “Stepping Stone” from her sublime debut, Rockferry, features her gorgeous vocal, xylophone, lush background vocals, and piano, with supporting strings. Each one of these elements was distinct, yet they all gelled to form the complete picture of the recording. Having seen her live, the Darwins nailed it.

The SACD of the Dire Straits' magnum opus, Brothers In Arms, is simply a stunning example of the format. The Darwins had all the bottom end weight, recorded detail, and rhythmic flow one could hope for. There was plenty of shimmer to the high end, which is what really made me like silver as a conductor in the first place. Darwin’s claim of spending several years finding just the right balance of materials and construction seems to have borne fruit here.

Midrange purity, bass articulation, and localization of individual instruments in the mix, was superb without sacrificing coherence. Tracks like “Golden Brown”, by the Stranglers, and “La Difference” by the great Malian singer Salif Keita, have gobs of texture and distinct rhythms that are essential to the character of both songs. Both tracks really test a system in the areas of timing precision, musical flow, and drive. The Darwins were up to the task in all these categories.

Conclusion

Bill Magerman and Tony Bender have a great product. After several emails back and forth, it was made clear the Darwin interconnects were developed by a combination of engineering, trial and error, and good old fashioned listening. I think this is a very sensible and practical approach, and while it may take longer, which requires patience, the payoff is a cable designed and finalized through a formal process, as opposed to using a well worn recipe, and the hip materials du jour. A reminder that Darwin makes cables for most applications, save for power cords, and non coaxial digital cables.

The proof is in the listening ultimately, and the Darwin silver interconnects really do sound marvelous. A clear, open soundstage, with a seductive midrange, and overall neutral presentation with no obvious omissions. If any of this has piqued your interest, give Darwin Cables a call and speak to Tony Bender. There is no online store or ecommerce site, they really prefer the personal approach. With no oversized dealer margins, or big advertising budgets, companies like Darwin can pour their resources into making the very best product they can for reasonable prices, while still making a profit. I think this is a very good thing. I highly recommend considering Darwin silver interconnects for your cable needs. I can’t imagine astute listeners not being impressed.

Specifications

-

Densen B-110 Integrated Amplifier: $2500
www.trueharmonix.com
www.densen.dk

Power output in 8 ohms: 2x60W
Power output in 4 ohms: 2x120W
Dimensions (WxDxH):  440x310x64mm


Darwin Cables Silver Interconnects: $295 (3-foot pair)
www.darwincables.com


Review System 1


CD Transport: Musical Fidelity M1 CDT
Server: Squeezebox Touch w/ CIA VDC-SB power supply
via Ethernet to MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate
external drives.
DAC: Bryston BDA-1, John Kenny Ciunas USB DAC
Headphone Amp: Pro-Ject Head Box II
Headphones: Grado SR60
Preamp: Audio Research SP16
Amplifier: Audio Research VS55, Rogue ST 100
Speaker: Thiel CS2.4
Cables:  Stager Silver Solids, Darwin Ascension (IC), Transparent  MM2 Super (IC), Transparent Plus (Speaker) Acoustic Zen Tsunami II (AC),Transparent (AC).Shunyata Venom (AC) Element Cable Red Storm (Digital AC), DH Labs TosLink, DH Labs AES/EBU, Audioquest, Forest, WireWorld Ultraviolet, DH Labs USB(USB) DH Labs (USB)
Accessories: Symposium Rollerblocks, Shakti Stone, Audience Adept Response aR6 power conditioner,Salamander rack

Review System 2


CD Player: Onkyo C7000R
Music Server: Squeezebox Touch via Ethernet to
MAC Mini w/ Western Digital & Seagate external drives.
DAC: Musical Fidelity V-DAC II, Burson Conductor
Integrated Amplifier: McIntosh  MA6600, Electrocompaniet ECI-3
Tape Deck: Revox A77
Speaker: Harbeth Compact 7ES3, Spendor S3/5R
Cables: Darwin Cables Silver IC, Kimber Hero HB,  DH Labs White Lightning (IC),QED Transparent MusicWave (Speaker),PS Audio (AC), Mojo Audio (AC), DH Labs TosLink, Audioquest Forest USB, Wireworld Ultraviolet USB
Accessories:Cable Pro Noisetrapper, Sound Anchors Stands, Wiremold, KECES XPS






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