darTZeel NHB-18NS preamplifier and NHB‑108 Model Two power amplifier

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers
DarTZeel NHB-18NS,
DarTZeel NHB‑108 Model Two

Preamplifier inputs are fascinating due to the unique inclusion of BNC alongside the conventional RCA types. Each has a small toggle switch beneath it to select various gain levels. These are named as Zeel inputs while line outputs are mirrored by BNC’s and named DarT. There are a single pair of balanced XLR sockets as inputs and a single pair of XLR inputs. I am struggling to think of components with BNC outputs that might suit the darTZeel but, in the fullness of time, there will be products from the company that use this connection. However, there are a set of BNC cables included which can be used to connect both units.

The NHB-108 stereo power amplifier – in its latest Model Two guise – has an output of 150 watts per channel into 8 ohms. It is built to the same incredibly high standards as the NHB-18NS preamplifier. It’s dual-mono and offers the expected RCA or XLR inputs plus of course a Zeel 50 ohm BNC option. The circuitry is I am informed somewhat unique and is the subject of several patents. The mineral glass top plate of the power amplifier reinforces the fact that this is indeed something different. The sculpted gold bus-bars that link each channel’s six large capacitors are beautiful.

Beautiful as they are to behold, the magic kicks into high gear when you sit down to hear how they behave when confronted with some music. In a word, they are magical and to my ears incredibly special. Where many high-end amps might have their speciality performance areas, the darTZeel is magnificent from top to bottom. They are enormously robust and extended in the bass and almost ethereal through the astonishing midband. At high frequencies, where many amplifiers show limitations, they are as dynamic, textural, subtle, and revealing as I have heard. Very, very seldom have I experienced such an intense, joined-up, and compelling view of the music.

Listening began when I took delivery of the amplifier during an unprecedented and breathless heatwave in London earlier in the summer. I had left the preamplifier charging overnight and found myself up at 5 am due to the sweltering conditions. At that time the body is enormously susceptible to musical influence, and I decided to use the still air for an early venture in darTZeel land. I was feeling in strictly non-reviewer mode, so I scrolled through the new MQA titles on Tidal and stumbled upon Gateways [DG 4836606] and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. The opening pieces are musical representations of five elements, and I was instead hoping to be gently introduced to the new day rather than kicked into it. The world was so calm and the sounds so precious that it gave me a whole new level of respect for the way the amplifier controlled the music. The palette of tonal colours and the endless range of textures swirled together, and the system and I shared some precious moments as the musical poetry unravelled. The darTzeel bought me entirely under its spell. Speed is at the heart of much of what it does. Not that great amplifiers ever sound particularly fast from beat to beat. It’s all to do with the way they control every nuance by utilising their power with such musical precision. The five elements, so wondrously formed and excellently recorded, let me ride that musical wave into the day. This amplifier can change character in a heartbeat and from its seemingly bottomless well of possibilities, can shock you or make you cry. Its emotionally engaging capabilities seem endless.

After that, every listening session would become an eagerly anticipated event in itself. I learned quickly that the darTZeel sound is so deep and its overall resolution so intense, that it doesn’t so much ‘play’ the music as ‘grows’ it. Listen to Billy Cobham’s Drum’  N’ Voice Vol 1 + 2 [Sony] if you want to hear what the amplifier can do with a solid rhythm section. It is enormously focussed, extraordinarily potent and utterly relentless in its drive. Cobham plays like a monster! The sound of his snare drum – with its delicate, shuffling little rolls – adds just the right amount of relief to the bass drum that forms the root of so much of the music. The darTZeel shows it to be imposing and metronomic where the tempo is concerned. It drives the speakers with a satisfying weight and a very plain view of the width of the kit, and it adds layer upon layer with unstressed ease that is remarkable.

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