About a year and a half ago, I got my first taste of Phase Technology’s remarkably advanced and utterly unforgettable DARTS speaker system, whose name is an acronym that stands for Digital Audio Reference Theater System. The self-powered, DSP-controlled system was something of a technical marvel, and it even offered a fuzzy logic-driven room EQ system designed to optimize response across multiple listening locations at once. Since I come from the “simpler is better” school of thought, I am sometimes skeptical of technically complicated solutions, but I had to admit that the DARTS system sounded extremely transparent and that its high-tech EQ system really worked. “A future TPV review subject,” I thought to myself.
Now let’s fast-forward to the 2006 CEDIA show, where Phase Technology announced the new DARTS 525 system, which in 5.1-channel configuration sells for between $11,000 and $12,800 (depending upon whether you want one sub or two). The system price buys you 5.1-channel’s worth of speakers plus a powerful DSP-controlled, 16-channel Class D amplifier. Sixteen channels are needed because the DARTS 525 system powers each individual speaker drive unit (or set of drive units) with its own amplifier channel. Don’t be fooled by the tiny 525 main speakers, though, because there is nothing miniature about this system’s sound.
The DARTS 525 system consists of two 2-way biamplified DFS-525LR main speakers, a 3-way triamplified DFS-525C center channel, two bipolar/dipolar biamplified DCB-SURR surround speakers, a pair of 500-watt DCB-112S powered subwoofers, and a DP-2000 DSP-controlled 16-channel Class D power amplifier that cranks out 250Wpc. We describe the distinctive technologies and set-up procedures used for the DARTS system in two sidebars, but for now let’s focus on how the system performs.
Right off the bat the DARTS 525 system bowls listeners over with its stunning openness and transparency. With many AVRs and some A/V controllers, I’m used to hearing a certain amount of low-level hash with DSP circuits, but in the DSP-controlled DARTS 525 system I really couldn’t hear any hash or graininess at all. What I heard, instead, was a veritable smorgasbord of sonic details and textures spread out as if on a banquet table. With the DARTS 525 rig you’ll want to put on favorite music recordings and movies one after another, just to see if the system will reveal any cool new pieces of low-level information you might have missed before. It’s an addicting experience.
On movie soundtracks in particular, I heard low-level details that often get lost or buried in other systems. One good example would be the shootout scene from Open Range, which enthusiasts know for its violent action—and many sonic subtleties. As Charlie and Boss face down their opponents, for example, you can hear insects chirping and the prairie wind whistling faintly and mournfully in the background. Through the DARTS 525 system these subtle details become crystal clear and serve—on an almost subliminal level—to remind us how terribly alone and exposed the cowboys are.
But beyond finesse, the system also serves up explosive dynamics that seem impossibly powerful given how small the DARTS speaker modules are. The “Omaha Beach” scene from Saving Private Ryan convinced me the system could at once play loudly and cleanly, as it reproduced thunderous explosions with sufficient force to send pressure waves rippling across the slab floor of the TPV Audio Lab. Similarly, the system made the eerie ping and whirr of bullet ricochets sound so immediate and intense that I felt an involuntary urge to take cover. This system offers more than enough dynamic headroom to deliver the goods in moderately large rooms.
On music, the DARTS 525 system sounded clean, transparent and authoritative, teasing out the subtle timbres of individual instruments and voices, and handling large and small-scale dynamic shifts with grace. These qualities combined synergistically as I listened to the Oue/Minnesota performance of the finale of Respighi’s Pines of Rome [30th Anniversary Sampler, Reference Recordings]. This passage is famous for the way its orchestration and dynamics build in intensity toward a thunderous crescendo—a crescendo the DARTS system captured beautifully.
My only criticisms of the system are minor. First, the DARTS system is not the last word in 3D imaging because its main speakers occasionally draw too much attention to themselves on hard, upper midrange/treble transients. Second, the system can on some material sound a little too bright, though I know it measures very well. This issue could easily be addressed, I think, if Phase Technology adopts the new upper midrange “contour control” that Audyssey Laboratories recently developed for use in its standalone room EQ products.