Zanden Audio Systems, Ltd. Classic Electronics

The Final Frontier

Equipment report
Tubed power amplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers
Zanden Audio Systems Classic Series
Zanden Audio Systems, Ltd. Classic Electronics

Several decades ago I reviewed my first component from Japanese high-end-audio guru Kazutoshi Yamada of Zanden Audio Systems—the Model 1000 phonostage. Though Yamada-san’s phonostages are well known for their user-selectable EQ, it was not the difference between the RIAA and the Decca and the Columbia curves that made the audition so memorable. It was the Model 1000’s extraordinary reproduction of acoustic space—audible regardless of equalization—that stood out (and still does, in memory).

Where other phonostages reproduced a string quartet LP like the Bartók Third (in the great, mid-60s Juilliard performance on Columbia) as if the four instrumentalists were jammed together in a crowded elevator, separated by mere inches from (or layered atop) each other, the Zanden 1000 made them sound as if they were a single, arc-shaped, multi-handed entity, in which the individual players were (as they were) separated by feet rather than inches, and yet still parts of a sonic whole. I’d never before (and seldom since) heard a quartet or the space it was playing in reproduced so realistically on LP.

Of course, some of you are probably saying, “So what? I’m not listening to space. I’m listening to what is playing in that space.” Well, here’s what. When instruments in a quartet (or any group) are separated more distinctly in space without any loss of ensemble, their individual musical contributions are more audible, as is their bloom into the space surrounding them, which is a key to the illusion of three-dimensional presence. With that string quartet LP, for example, I not only heard the notes played by the contrabass and viola and first and second violins more clearly; I also more clearly heard how those notes were being produced, how each instrumentalist was articulating his part via changes in dynamics and durations, which in a highly inflected piece like the Bartók Third is every bit as important as the lifelike reproduction of pitches and colors.

Bloom, dimensionality, lifelike presence, soundstaging were unmatched in the Zanden Model 1000 phonostage. What wasn’t quite as matchless was its overall timbral balance and very-low-level resolution. In tonality the Model 1000 was a little bit on the dark and plummy side, which is scarcely unusual in a (non-ARC) tube unit but nonetheless a deviation from neutral. And while plenty clear (as noted) on the notes being sounded, the Zanden did not have quite the same X-ray vision of performance detail as the best solid-state gear. These weren’t trade-offs that overly troubled me, as what was being gained back in three-dimensional presence and nonpareil imaging and soundstaging made instruments sound more “there” regardless of slight differences in tonality and ultra-fine resolution. But I’m mentioning these minor issues here because the latest-gen, top-of-the-line Zanden gear I’m about to review doesn’t make such trade-offs; it is markedly more neutral in timbre, far more defined in pitch (particularly in the bass), and much higher in very-low-level resolution than that otherwise phenomenal phonostage of years gone by.

Of course, back then I was reviewing the Zanden Model 1000 phonostage as a stand-alone component. What I’m about to discuss is an entire suite of Zanden electronics—its flagship Classic line, comprising the $57,200 Model 9600mk2 monoblock amplifiers, the $23,000 Model 3000mk2 linestage preamplifier, and the $25,000 Model 1200mk3 phonostage preamp. And while I’ll have some comments on how several of these components sound when associated with non-Zanden gear, it’s my belief that (lucky) purchasers are more likely to buy the entire suite than mix and match its individual parts; therefore, my sonic commentary will focus on how the system sounds as a whole.

Let’s begin with a brief description of each item. As Yamada-san believes that proper amplification is the chief key to making recorded music sound like the real thing (a subject he has devoted his working life to, both as an electrical engineer and as the audio coordinator of more than 500 live classical and jazz concerts), I’ll start with the Model 9600mk2 monoblock—which is a thing of considerable beauty, both sonically and visually. Housed in a gorgeous, highly polished, stainless-steel and aluminum-plate chassis (with a clear acrylic porthole in the front and back panels through which you can observe the glowing tubes), this fixed-bias, fully balanced, push-pull, Class A (up to 60W, Class AB from 60W to 100W) power amplifier uses two KR845 output tubes, two 6CA4 and two 5R4WGB rectifiers (all rectification is tube), and two 5687 dual-triode first- and second-stage drivers. The mk2 version of the Model 9600 has different output transformers than the mk1, which make use of a Finemet core of nanocrystalline soft-magnetic material polished to a mirror finish. (The Finemet core material is manufactured by Hitachi Metals, and is expensive, difficult to make, and relatively scarce.) Another difference from the mk1 is the direct coupling of the second and third stages, derived from technology used in the Zanden Model 8120 stereo amplifier (reviewed by me five years ago). Other differences/improvements include battery-biasing of the first stage; separate rectification of the driver and output stages; polypropylene (as opposed to conventional chemical) capacitors in the signal path; completely push-pull circuitry from input to output; the use of input transformers to mate with the Model 3000mk2 preamp’s output transformers (a setup that Zanden claims sounds better with a balanced connection); and the application of an extremely effective noise-absorbing material called Pulseshut (originally designed for IT and telecommunications usage) around various components. Its effectiveness has been demonstrated in Zanden’s power cables, which showed an astonishing 4.9dB reduction in noise at 1kHz.

Next comes the Model 3000mk2 linestage. Once again, this is a beautiful objet du son, housed, like the amplifiers, in a highly polished stainless-steel and aluminum-plate chassis. The Model 3000mk2 uses a zero-feedback Class A circuit, powered by a single 5687 dual-triode and rectified by two 6CA4s (in the outboard supply), with amorphous cobalt-core transformers at the preamp’s inputs and mu-metal-core transformers at its outputs. (Once again the use of transformers is claimed to improve performance in balanced mode.) The volume control is the top-line ALPS unit modified with a Zanden clutch and motor drive to allow for a remote control, which is supplied. (The original Model 3000 did not have a remote control.) Other improvements include the aforementioned use of amorphous cobalt (a material with no crystalline structure) in the transformer ahead of the input stage; higher plate current for increased dynamic range; a Finemet choke in the power supply; battery biasing and diode regulation; tube rectification; and, once again, Pulseshut noise-absorption material around select components. The Model 3000mk2 has balanced and single-ended inputs and outputs (both of which are hot and can be used simultaneously, in case you want to connect a powered sub to your preamp while also driving an amplifier). Zanden recommends using balanced connections with its own amps, to take full advantage of the preamp’s output transformer and the amp’s input transformers.

The Model 1200mk3 phonostage, also housed in a highly polished stainless-steel aluminum-plate chassis, uses a passive LCR circuit for equalization (so impedance does not vary with frequency). Output current is supplied by three 7308 dual-triodes (6922s can be substituted), with one 6922 and two 6CA4 rectifiers in the 1200mk3’s outboard power supply. Two pairs of Jensen step-up transformers, one low impedance (36 ohms) and one high impedance (470 ohms), boost the signal of the moving-coil cartridges connected to the unit. (The phonostage is moving-coil only.) In the mk3 version of the Model 1200, the number of user-selectable EQ curves has been expanded from three to five (Teldec and EMI have been added); the power supply has been improved; and Pulseshut noise-absorption material has been added around select components. Unlike its companion pieces, which are fully balanced, the single-ended Model 1200mk3 has RCA outputs only. The two inputs can be selected as either balanced XLR or single-ended RCA at the time of order.

Let me pause here for a word about Zanden’s alternative EQ curves. While the option of using different equalization for LPs released by different labels—re-introduced in the modern stereo era by Manuel Huber of FM Acoustics, but once commonplace in every mono preamplifier—has its advocates, and there is no question that non-RIAA equalization can make plainly audible differences in overall tonal balance, sometimes turning sow’s ears into silk purses, I’ve never seen convincing evidence that stereo recordings from any label were EQ’d using anything other than the RIAA curve from the time of RIAA’s worldwide adoption around 1953–1956 onward. Indeed, I rather think that using things like FM Acoustics’ or Zanden’s “Columbia curves,” for instance, which roll off the highs and boost the lower mids and bass, is tantamount to using a tone control to disguise the forest of hot, closely set mikes that Columbia typically deployed in its stereo recording sessions in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. Though we have advocates on our staff who delight in—and swear by—these tonal Band Aids, I do not. Call me a self-deluded believer in the “folly of minimalism,” but I want to hear what was recorded in the way it was recorded. Indeed, I don’t know what “high fidelity” means if it doesn’t mean that. This isn’t to say that I prefer a brighter, more analytical sound to a smoother, more musical one. As you will see in this very review, I don’t. But what it does mean is that I prefer the tougher truth to the pleasanter lie, though I grant that in high fidelity “the truth” is always open to a degree of translation. I will also grant that, before the adoption of RIAA, mono recordings from the 30s, 40s, and early 50s were equalized with “house” curves, for which the Zanden’s options are quite useful.