Zanden Audio Systems 120 Phonostage

Chip Off the Old Block

Equipment report
Zanden Audio Systems 120
Zanden Audio Systems 120 Phonostage

Many months ago I reviewed the companion pieces to this phonostage—the all-tube Zanden Audio Model 8120 stereo power amplifier and the all-tube Model 3100 linestage preamplifier. To refresh you on what I said in that review, 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 electronics 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 Mr. 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.

Though Mr. Yamada’s electronics have helped make him famous, it was his phonostages that first put him on the map here in the States. I can remember hearing an early version of the Model 1200, about a decade ago, and being astonished by its unique presentation. This tube-powered phono preamp was not the last word in detail (since I heard it many improvements have been made), but it was indubitably the last word in soundstaging. To this day, I’ve not auditioned another stereo component of any kind that puts so much space between and among instruments.

I’ve used this example before, but it is still germane: Where every other phonostage of my experience seemingly “separates” the four players in a string quartet by inches, the Zanden Model 1200 separated them by feet. The first violin imaged a yard or so to the right of the second; the cello a yard to the left of the viola. Though this astonishing separation in space is not a realistic reflection of the way these four instruments “stage” in life—where a quartet seems more like a single, multi-armed thing than four separate ones—it is a very realistic reflection of the way a quartet sounds in life, in that each voice of the ensemble, each line of melody or countermelody, of harmony or counterpoint, is clearly audible.

On record, we often (or, at least, I often) have a problem distinguishing the first violin from the second (particularly when they are playing in the same register), the cello (in its upper register) from the viola (in its lower). In a recital hall this confusion never occurs. Of course, in life you can not only hear the distinct sonorities of their instruments you can also actually see the instrumentalists playing—see who is doing what and when. But short of being able to observe the players, the Zanden Model 1200 created something like the same effect by physically separating them (and the lines) they played with so much space (and air within that space) that each musical contribution remained distinct. On a piece of music like, oh, the Bartók Third or Fourth Quartet, where so much (and so much fresh and different) is happening at once or in close sequence, this kind of musical intelligibility is essential.

You might think that this sixth degree of separation would have an adverse effect on tuttis, but it doesn’t. It merely illuminates them, making the ensemble sonority that much sweeter because each instrument’s contribution is that much more sonorous, as it is in life.

In addition to its magical staging, the Zanden Model 1200 did one other thing better than any other phonostage I’d heard before: It made instruments sound three-dimensional. Now I’ve since heard tube (particularly single-ended-triode tube) amplifiers and a few tube preamplifiers that can do this same trick, but (save for ARC’s Reference Phono 10 and VAC’s Statement) no other phonostages can “round out” instruments the way the Zanden did, giving them not just density of tone but density of image.

Once again, this is something you always hear in life, because instruments—to use the well-worn but nonetheless apt phrase—radiate their energy like “pulsating spheres.” They don’t just project their sound toward you in a narrow arc, like a spotlight, which is the way they so often sound on records and always sound on digital media; they radiate it to their sides and their backs (albeit at different intensities depending on pitch), like a softly glowing bulb. This “nimbus” of sound combined with the more powerful central vector of projection gives them three-dimensional presence—what audiophiles often call body. As I just noted, I really haven’t heard any other electronics that reproduced lifelike body better than the Zanden 1200 phonostage. I mean you could almost get up from your chair and walk around the instruments it was reproducing, as if it were allowing you to perceive their sides and backs as well as their fronts.