Ever since I heard Audio Note’s single-ended-triode amps (the Ongaku and the Neiro) back in the late 90s, I’ve been a fan of Japanese artisanal high-end electronics. My trip to Tokyo some years ago only increased my admiration for the Japanese ultra-high end—and my astonishment at its sheer scope, which ranges from some of the most lifelike solid-state gear on the market (such as Technical Brain and BAlabo) to some of the most lifelike tube gear (such as Air Tight, Audio Tekne, and the aforementioned Audio Note SETs).
Though none of these very different brands sounds alike, they all have this in common: very high resolution of very low-level musical detail. Indeed, Naoto Kurosawa’s Technical Brain electronics remain my benchmark for the reproduction of low-level musical detail (and for transient speed, which is intimately tied to the realistic reproduction of the location, texture, and articulation of individual instruments).
The Zanden electronics I’m about to review certainly don’t break the mold. They are extremely fast, extremely high-resolution devices—maybe not Technical Brain fast and high-res, but mighty close. The thing is that, unlike the solid-state Technical Brain gear, the Zanden 8120 stereo amplifier and 3100 preamplifier are tube components, albeit tube components with a distinctive pedigree and a distinctive sound.
The unique, patented circuits of Zanden electronics are the work of Kazutoshi Yamada, an electrical engineer who, since founding Zanden in 1980, has literally dedicated his life to amplifier design. Yamada’s single-minded, near-religious devotion to perfecting his art strikes me as typically Japanese, as is his use of the absolute sound as his reference (since 1980 he has acted as an “audio coordinator” for more than 500 live classical and jazz events). All of Yamada’s efforts have been aimed at bridging the still sizable gap between what we hear in actual concerts and what we hear on our stereo systems.
Japanese perfectionism may not be a new story, but for me it is still an inspiring one. Of course, men like Yamada want to earn a living, but they also want to do this “honorably,” by creating the finest examples of their art—and in the Japanese high-end community making high-fidelity components is every inch an art, no matter how much science is applied in the process. Such aestheticism is a refreshing change from the “by-the-numbers” approach of many of the foremost engineers here and in Europe, where products are designed and voiced not in comparison to live music but to computer models, to machine measurements, or, blindly and entirely unscientifically, to each other. (As far as I can tell, so-called “double-blind listening tests” that a few speaker-and electronics-makers swear by bear no resemblance to the actual double-blind tests used in real-world scientific experiments, such as medical drug trials.)
Though it is easy enough to hear the results of Yamada’s aestheticism and perfectionism in the listening, they aren’t fully reflected in the Zanden measurements. Going solely by its numbers Yamada’s 8120 stereo amplifier, for example, appears to be just one more Class AB, KT-120/12AU7-based, 90Wpc tube amp with nothing approaching the spectacular bandwidth and vanishingly low distortion of a Technical Brain TBP-Zero or a Soulution 700. Though it uses direct-coupling between its second and third stages and “minimum” negative feedback, and is said to be fully balanced in operation, these things in themselves are not extraordinary.