Dave Upton D-Sonic M3-5400-7 Amplifier Review The longstanding debate of integrated receiver versus a separate pre-amp/processor and amplifier will probably survive as long as home theaters and living rooms exist. For your average consumer, separates either don’t exist or are a myth, the sort of thing that only the wealthy or truly obsessed would invest in. For the home theater enthusiast, investing in a separate amplifier for your home theater system is one of the wisest, and most important things you can do to improve your system’s performance and decouple amplification from HDMI switching and audio processing. With the pace of advancements in the past 2 years, it’s easy to see how quickly any enthusiast would need to replace their hard-won gear to stay current. Those who have a high end receiver are forced to invest a great deal of money to stay current, while those with a separate amp can enjoy improved sonics and a slightly lower bill to enjoy the latest technology. Since amplifiers don’t become outdated nearly as quickly as AV processors and receivers, you can easily keep them for 10+ years. Most of today’s popular amplifiers aren’t fundamentally more advanced than the amps of ten years ago – they’re just slightly different aesthetically and internally, though the sound remains extremely similar. Sure, you'll spend quite a bit more (at least initially) to own separates, however for that price you are getting improved audio quality that pays for itself over time. Comparing a top of the line Integra or Marantz receiver to an affordable 7 channel amp from Outlaw Audio or Emotiva you're spending about $2000 to acquire the amplifier, but that nets you double the power output you'd be getting from the receiver. As you continue to upgrade down the line, your cost to upgrade stays low, and by the 2nd or 3rd time you upgrade a processor instead of a receiver, you're actually saving money. A final point worth noting is that the receivers being sold today almost universally fail to maintain their power output ratings when being forced to drive all channels, which can result in distortion and potentially damage your speakers at higher listening levels. Here are some measurements from our friends at S&V: Marantz SR7010 ($2200) - 83WPC at 0.1%THD with all channels driven Yamaha RX-A2050 ($1600) - 55WPC at 0.1%THD with all channels driven Pioneer Elite SC-89 ($3000) - 115WPC at 0.1%THD with all channels driven Denon AVR-X5200W ($2000) - 79WPC at 0.1%THD with all channels driven Compare the above measurements to some popular 7 channel amplifiers: D-Sonic M3-2800-7 ($3075) - 400WPC at <0.1%THD with all channels driven Emotiva XPA Gen3 ($1900) - 200WPC at <0.1%THD with all channels driven Outlaw Audio Model 7700 ($2150) - 200WPC at <0.1%THD with all channels driven Many first time amp buyers will be well served by buying used gear or going to one of a few internet direct companies that sell amps at a much lower margin than the big brands. The most popular players in the internet direct amplifier market are Emotiva Audio, Wyred4Sound, Outlaw Audio and D-Sonic Custom Audio. Most of you have probably heard of the first three, I’m guessing only a small percentage have run across D-Sonic, and ironically that is by design. I personally hadn’t heard D-Sonic Custom Audio products until late last year when we began seeking loaner equipment for the Dolby Atmos demo room at the HTF meet in Burbank. A friend suggested I give D-Sonic a call, and so it began. D-Sonic Custom Audio is a small but passionate company headquartered very close to me in Sugar Land, Texas that builds statement level class D amplifiers and sells them without the massive markup so common in the audio industry. D-Sonic’s closest competitor is Wyred4Sound, a company that also builds reasonably priced class D amplifiers, though it has a dealer network and operates much more like a typical bigger name brand. The Story D-Sonic was founded by Dennis Deacon (his name is part of the inspiration behind the “D” in D-Sonic), a fantastic guy who in the brief time I have known him has proven that he is one of the most passionate and honest people in the industry. Dennis spent most of his career as a mechanical engineer, designing metalwork and chassis for high end amplifiers and audio products in California. Never planning on becoming an amp designer, it wasn’t until Dennis fell in love with a new technology that he began to consider his options. The story of D-Sonic’s origin begins in January of 2006, when Dennis was introduced to class D amplification by the acclaimed audio engineer Bascom King. Bascom brought over two B&O ICEpower 200ASC modules which were the smallest modules available at the time, capable of 120W into an 8ohm load and weighing just under 5lbs. At the time Dennis had a pair of 80lb/each mono block amps in his system that he replaced with the ICEpower modules to see how they sounded. Dennis was immediately impressed with the detail, bass control and soundstage, and kept them in his system for a month. Once Dennis removed them and swapped his big mono block amps back in, he realized that the ICEpower modules were really good. So good to his ears, that he placed an order for the larger ASP modules from B&O and began to design a new line of metal work. D-Sonic Custom Audio was formally launched in April of 2006, and internet direct worldwide sales began eight weeks later. Evolution As an engineer Dennis was always seeking ways to improve his amplifiers, and ultimately ended up evaluating seven separate class D implementations before finding the one he considered to be the most mature. Dennis custom designed his own input and protection circuitry, and began to build his 2nd generation (M2) products using these new modules. His 3rd generation M3 series uses a newer revision of the same modules. One thing you will immediately notice upon visiting Dennis’ website, is that his amps have tons of power. Not just lots, not just plenty – but the kind of output capability that you normally only see in professional sound reinforcement applications. The M3-5400-7 is a 5400W total amplifier that has 1500W for the front left and right channels, 800W for the center, and 400W for the surrounds. See here for details. Why so much power? It’s pretty simple really. Dennis is an enthusiast himself, and was always looking for an amp with the juice to properly drive difficult speakers like his Revel Ultima2’s to their full potential. Many higher end or slightly inefficient speakers require insane amounts of headroom to truly show what they are made off when used full-range. Dennis designed for this, giving the front 3 channels the bulk of the output capability, and giving the surrounds a more “moderate” 400W. It also bears mentioning that while the M3-5400-7 is the top of the line standard model at D-Sonic, they can also produce stereo, mono and custom multi-channel units that can have customized power per channel from 400 - 1500 Watts. Build Quality As a chassis designer first, Dennis took no shortcuts with his amplifiers. All D-Sonic Custom Audio products are built of aluminum and powder-coated steel to eliminate corrosion anywhere inside or outside the amp’s chassis. All fastening hardware is stainless steel and the Torx screws that hold the chassis together are all countersunk for a flat and easily cleaned surface. The RCA connectors on all D-Sonic amps are gold plated, and all XLR connections are Neutrik. Speaker terminals are all gold plated and feature a plastic shroud to prevent shock (a requirement in the European market). Internal wiring is 100% silver/Teflon to ensure maximum performance and insulation. All D-Sonic amps come with a top of the line Interpower hospital grade power cord, feature medical grade EMI/RFI filters on the mains and input/output signals, and utilize mil-spec components for the electronics. As you can tell from the description above, there are no compromises in these designs and the result is an incredibly high quality and well assembled amplifier. Performance My reference system consists of Legacy Audio Signature SE mains and a Marquis HD center channel, with Axiom Audio surrounds. For the review, I swapped my daily driver (a trusty Wyred4Sound MMC-7) out with the M3-5400-7 and carried on like usual after level matching. Music I’ll quote some of my Legacy Audio Signature SE review here (slightly modified), since I used the same songs and this was when I swapped from my MMC-7 to the M3-5400-7: The Eagles: Farewell Live From Melbourne (2005) [Blu-ray] This is one of the best concert discs in my collection for several reasons, not the least of which is the incredible performance The Eagles gave during the recording. Another great reason is that the disc includes both a 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless audio track, as well as a 2.0 LPCM track, which allows a great evaluation of subwoofer integration and bass performance in stereo mode. I Can’t Tell You Why was beautiful through the SE’s, with the vocals just where you’d expect them to be, front and center while the low end had serious heft. The attack as individual guitar strings were plucked was exceptionally realistic through the SE’s and before I knew it – the track was over. Switching from the 5.1 to stereo track, I immediately noticed a reduction in bass, but not a significant one. Throwing my processor into pass-through mode, the dual 10” woofers on the SE’s managed to produce substantial tight low-end content while the vocal image moved further forward. Swapping out amps also demonstrated that my Wyred4Sound MMC-7 was not able to control the bottom end on the SE’s nearly as well as the D-Sonic M3-5400-7 (which has significantly more power to handle transients). 2-Channel Listening With the magnificent D-Sonic amp in place, I spent time listening to several of my favorite albums on the Signature SE’s, none of which disappointed in the slightest. Mickey Hart’s Global Drum Project was absurdly enjoyable through the Signature SE/D-Sonic combo with a ton of slam thanks to the dual 10” woofers and a great deal of texture and detail in the upper bass and mid-range thanks to the superbly impressive 7” silver/graphite mid-woofer. Acoustic Alchemy’s Playing for Time (one of my all-time favorite tracks) is just delicious through these speakers, with tons of detail and realism that I just don’t get with my Paradigm Studio 100 v.5’s or even with the same speakers as the Wyred4Sound amp. During the review I sampled tracks from every genre imaginable, including classical, electronic and even a great deal of metal. No matter the content, I could not escape the impression that the music I heard through the Signature SE’s when powered by the D-Sonic M3-5400-7 was ultimately more engaging and interesting than I had ever heard it before. Irrespective of the genre that I chose to listen to, the Signature SE’s owned the music the way that only the best speakers can. Given sufficient amplification like the D-Sonic M3-5400-7, the SE’s are truly effortless from the lowest octaves to the highest. Movies & Home Theater I’m sure that most of you can already guess what I’ll say in this section, but it bears mentioning anyway: The D-Sonic M3-5400-7 shines in 2 channel mode, but it is blindingly awesome for home theater use. You may or may not recognize what a power-starved speaker sounds like – but I’ll almost guarantee you have heard it at some point in the past. Perhaps it’s when you turn the volume too high and things start to sound jagged and strained, or maybe it’s just the way that higher frequency effects fatigue your ears due to increased distortion. Irrespective of how you approach this hobby, eventually you learn that in the home theater there is almost no such thing as too much power. With the right amplification in place the improvement is multiplicative as these improvements add to one another, increasing the realism and immersion of any well mixed film. When you combine ludicrous amounts of clean power like the M3-5400-7 delivers with a transducer capable of moving some serious air, the home theater experience is elevated to an entirely new level. Explosions and gun shots are sharper, more visceral and far more realistic. Shattering glass, quiet background noises and atmospheric effects are clearer and more easily differentiated, and perhaps most importantly of all, you can safely turn the volume level way up without risking damage to your speakers (though I won’t make any promises about your ears). Conclusion In terms of performance, I can’t really think of a single fault with the D-Sonic M3-5400-7 besides the cost of acquisition. Let’s face it: The D-Sonic M3-5400-7 is a very expensive piece of gear to your average enthusiast at just shy of $4000. That said, the performance of this amplifier is truly good enough to justify its price. In terms of price per Watt, you’re actually paying much less than with other brands at about $0.74/watt. Compare that to Emotiva’s 7 channel XPA-5 Gen3 ($1.35/watt) or Outlaw Audio’s 7075 ($0.86/watt) and you begin to understand just how good the value is. When you consider the usable lifespan of an amplifier is easily over 10 years, it doesn’t take long to rationalize the upgrade. Some of you may not want to spend quite that much on an amplifier, and I completely understand that as well. If you happen to be in the market for an end-game home theater or two channel amp now or one day, I strongly suggest you give Dennis of D-Sonic Custom Audio a call or visit their website. You won’t be disappointed. The D-Sonic M3-5400-7 is a fantastic performer that is built to last, offers more than enough power for even the most demanding system and above all sounds fantastic. The D-Sonic M3-5400-7 has now replaced my trusty Wyred4Sound MMC-7 and will likely be in the theater for many years to come. Highly Recommended.