Zanden Audio Systems 120 Phonostage

Chip Off the Old Block

Equipment report
Zanden Audio Systems 120
Zanden Audio Systems 120 Phonostage

All this is by way of preamble to what I’m going to say about the Zanden Model 120—the company’s least expensive (though scarcely inexpensive at $7500) phonostage. I wish I could tell you that it separates out instruments in an ensemble the way the Model 1200 did; it does not. But…it has more than a fair measure of its big brother’s sensational staging. I also wish I could tell you that it has all the three-dimensional body of the 1200. It does not, but, once again, it comes closer to that paragon than you might think. What it does do better than that long-ago version of the 1200 is reproduce details, such as texture (the way melody, rhythm, and harmony combine in a composition) and articulation (the manner in which a note is played), with very high resolution. It is also less warm and tubey than the Model 1200 of years past, with a more neutral and (to my ear) lifelike tonal balance, albeit at the cost of a small addition of grain (which is something that the utterly liquid 1200 had none of).

This last comment may clue you into the fundamental difference between the Models 120 and the 1200. The 120 uses a solid-state amplification stage, a departure from Zanden’s customary all-tube amplification circuits, although equalization (as is the case with the current benchmark Model 1200mk3) is implemented via an LCR network driven by two Jensen step-up transformers—arguably a superior way to apply phonostage eq. Also different is the Model 120’s size and build. Where the current 1200mk3 and its outboard power supply weigh 31 pounds, the 1200 and its petite outboard power supply are a mere 14 pounds. Most of this difference is the chassis, which in the 120 is an attractive combination of metal and a special, thick, opaque, sonically inert acryllic (also found in the Model 3100 preamp and Model 8120 amplifier) that gives the unit a more buoyant, contemporary look than the classic heavy-metal chassis of the 1200mk3.

Aside from the small losses I’ve noted vis-à-vis the Model 1200 in staging and imaging magic, and the small improvements I’ve also noted vis-à-vis the Model 1200 in neutrality of tonal balance and resolution, the Model 120 is all-Zanden, right down to the inclusion of five different eq curves (RIAA, Teldec, EMI, Columbia, Decca) to accommodate LPs from these different outfits. Along with FM Acoustics (which employs a different system for making hinge-point adjustments), Zanden is a pioneer when it comes to alternative eq settings. Although I (and other vinyl fans) have not found a shred of evidence to prove that different recording companies used different eq curves in the stereo era, there is no question that before the universal adoption of the RIAA curve (which is essentially the RCA Orthophonic curve) in about 1955, Columbia, Decca, EMI, etc. did employ different equalizations, which is why all those vintage preamps (such as the Marantz 7) came with a plethora of eq controls—and why those of you with an interest in older monophonic recordings should take heed.

Though I sat through a “before-and-after” demonstration of the Model 120’s eq adjustments, using select stereo LPs from Decca, Columbia, EMI, and others, to my ear all the various eq settings did was make everything sound like a quotidian RCA Red Seal. The customary dark, powerful, resonant sound of Decca and its central tree, the cool clarity and scintillant bite (all right, that bite can sometime break the skin) of Columbia and its half-a-zillion mikes, the compact, utterly transparent stage and beguilingly neutral-to-warmish timbre of EMI and its Blumlein setup were all leveled down to the staging, imaging, and timbre of a middling Shaded Dog.

Now it’s true that problem children (and Columbia, for instance, had a whole lot of them with its Bernstein/NYP orchestral discs—paradoxically not the case with most of its superb chamber music recordings and many of its Walter/Columbia Symphony offerings) can be made to better behave via Zanden’s eq options. And I can see where many listeners, particularly Bernstein fans, would prefer the smoother, more civil presentation of the “Columbia” setting. Whether this fix reflects what is actually on the eq’d work parts, or whether some admittedly wrinkly virtues are also being steamed out on the Zanden ironing board, may not matter to them, given that overall listenability is improved. I have no problem with this—or with anything else that listeners do to “sweeten” the sound of favorite recordings. Zanden (and many others at this point) give you reliable tools to accomplish such changes.

These controversies notwithstanding, the Model 120 is a superb phono preamplifier that does almost everything its big brother did, albeit not to quite the same degree, and that improves on timbre and detail (at least in comparison with the early version of the Model 1200 I listened to back when). It will still separate the four voices of a string quartet (or the multitudinous voices of an orchestra or large choir) in a way that makes every musical line and contribution unmistakably clear; it will still add a modicum of body to instruments and vocalists, though not to the “walk-around” extent of the Model 1200; it will still sound warm, beautiful, and realistic on warm, beautiful, and realistic recordings; and it is now as finely detailed and musically articulate as anything I’ve heard short of a Constellation Perseus, a VAC Statement, an ARC Reference Phono 10, or an Audio Consulting Silver Rock, all of which cost five to ten times more than what the Model 120 does. Yes, there is a slight bit of fine solid-state grain in its resumé—kind of like the luminance noise you see in an 800 ISO photograph at 200% magnification—but unless you’re really looking really hard for such a thing, trust me, it’s not going to matter. This is a wonderful piece of equipment, beautifully engineered and just plain beautiful sounding.


EQ curve positions: RIAA, Teldec, EMI, Columbia, Decca
Inputs: Two moving-coil cartridge
Input impedance: Low, 36 ohms; high, 470 ohms
Output impedance: 50 ohms
EQ curve deviation: +/-0.5dB (20Hz–20kHz)
Gain: Low mc, 75dB; high mc, 63dB (1kHz, RIAA)
Dimensions: 360mm x 70mm x 370mm (power supply, 78mm x 58mm x 168mm)
Weight: 5.4 kg (power supply, 1.0 kg)

Contact: Eric Pheils

Loudspeakers: Magico M Project, Raidho D-5, Raidho D-1, Avantgarde Zero 1, MartinLogan CLX, Magnepan .7, Magnepan 1.7, Magnepan 3.7, Magnepan 20.7, JL Audio Gotham subs
Linestage preamps: VAC Statement Line, Soulution 725, Audio Research Reference 10, Siltech SAGA System C1, Zanden 3100
Phonostage preamps: VAC Statement Phono, Audio Research Corporation Reference Phono 10, Constellation Audio Perseus, Innovative Cohesion Engineering Raptor, Soulution 725, Zanden 120, Audio Consulting Silver Rock Toroidal
Power amplifiers: VAC Statement 450iQ, Soulution 711, Siltech SAGA System V1/P1, Lamm ML2.2, Zanden 8120, Odyssey Audio Stratos
Analog source: Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V, TW Acustic Black Knight, AMG Viella 12, Acoustic Signature Invictus
Tape deck: United Home Audio UHA-Q Phase 12 OPS
Phono cartridges: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Air Tight Opus, Ortofon MC Anna, Ortofon MC A90, Benz LP S-MR
Digital source: Berkeley Alpha DAC 2
Cable and interconnect: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power Cords: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power Conditioner: Synergistic Research Galileo LE, Technical Brain
Accessories: Synergistic ART and HFT/FEQ system, Shakti Hallographs (6), Zanden room treatment, A/V Room Services Metu panels and traps, ASC Tube Traps, Critical Mass MAXXUM equipment and amp stands, Symposium Isis and Ultra equipment platforms, Symposium Rollerblocks and Fat Padz, Walker Prologue Reference equipment and amp stands, Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control discs, Clearaudio Double Matrix SE record cleaner, Synergistic Research RED Quantum fuses, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses