To return to the review, it is tricky to describe the sound of Zanden’s Classic gear, not because it doesn’t have a sound (it does) but because, though its presentation varies (as one would expect) with the quality of recordings, in a fundamental way it also remains the same. Perhaps some listening examples will clarify this conundrum.
Take the absolutely superb Loma Vista recording MassEducation—a pared-down, wholly lyrical, acoustic version (just Annie Erin Clarke’s, aka St. Vincent’s, vocals and Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett’s grand piano accompaniment) of the densely scored, hyper-sexual, neon-clad, futuristic-pop songs from Masseduction. Sonically, what will strike you—what struck me—first is the astonishing and astonishingly equal naturalness with which Zanden’s Classic electronics reproduce both Clarke’s vocals and Bartlett’s grand piano. When you think about it, this is an exceptional feat. I mean, though they are often paired together, a female voice with its relatively narrow range of pitches, colors, and dynamics, and a percussion instrument with its enormous range of pitches, colors, and dynamics are very different instruments, and typically one (usually the voice—think Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”) will draw more of your attention (and will sound more completely “there”) than the other. Of course, much of this has to with the way the music has been crafted and the LP has been recorded and mixed, but some of it has to do with how it is being reproduced.
In MassEducation the minimally miked instruments, recorded live using, I believe, Wunder Audio CM7 FET Suprema condensers (solid-state versions of the great Neumann U47s) by engineer/producer Patrick Dillett at New York’s Reservoir Studios, are given near-equal weight and prominence in the mix—to reflect, as St. Vincent writes in her liner notes, the (very different from Masseduction) mood of “two dear friends playing songs together with the kind of secret understanding one can only get through endless nights in New York City.” The result of this new focus on voice and piano is a far more intimate album, the basic sadness of which the Zanden captures as clearly as it captures the spare engineering. (As reviewer Arielle Gordon shrewdly observes on the website Pitchfork: “The record gives Clark room to be completely vulnerable—on Masseduction’s ‘Sugarboy,’ the closing refrain of ‘Boys! Girls!’ sounds like an industrial machine running out of juice. Here, Clark embodies this exhaustion, as if fatigued by her own sexual intensity” [https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/st-vincent-masseducation/].)
Moving from a great recording to a run-of-the-mill one (albeit by a great artist), If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra [RCA], the Zanden trio still manages to preserve a taste of realism on Elvis’ voice (at least on piano-to-mezzoforte passages), in spite of the multi-miking, multi-tracking, and compression of the original recordings, and the layering on of even more tracks in this weird, purely commercial update. But in spite of making the LP pleasant-enough listening, the Zanden doesn’t kid you about what’s going on in the engineering. This ain’t MassEducation, and the Zanden gear doesn’t make it sound that way. It isn’t “forgiving” or disguising sonic problems; it’s just not rubbing your nose (or ears) in them.
This consistent (though anything but equal) listenability is one of the Zanden Classic suite’s sonic virtues. It is not a typical overlay of tubey-ness; indeed, for tube gear the Zanden trio sounds remarkably precise. Unlike, say, the superb Air Tight ATM-2001, which like spun sugar is made of air and bloom, the Zanden is focused, grain-free, and a little Class A “dark” in timbre, without any of the bottom-end plumminess of that original Zanden phonostage. Indeed, the bass of the Zanden is truly superb—richly (and accurately) colored, three-dimensional, bloomy, clear-as-solid-state in pitch, near transistor-quick and powerful on transients, and immensely detailed in performance cues. For instance, on MassEducation, the bottom octaves of Bartlett’s grand piano and his audible use of the pedals to sustain, soften, or damp notes couldn’t be more realistically reproduced. This is not typical tube low end.
Indeed, the areas where the Zandens show their tube lineage are the areas where you want them (indeed, pay for them) to show their tube lineage: three-dimensional bloom from top to bottom, exceptionally lifelike colors and textures without the scrim of grain or the looser, fuzzier imaging that tubes so often bring to the table, and that magical spatiality that so wowed me in the Model 1000 phonostage—and that makes speakers seem to better disappear as sound sources. This really is a uniquely remarkable Zanden quality: adding more acoustic space between and around more finely detailed and 3-D images of instruments. You hear it par excellence on MassEducation or on something like the fine Columbia recording of the Amati Quartet’s rendition of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s astonishing String Quartet (one of the—if not the—most original pieces of chamber music written by an American composer). On the Amati recording, the Zanden’s touch of Class A darkness, spaciousness, and liquidity do slightly (though not completely) obscure the inherent dryness of this Columbia recording. But, as I said a paragraph or two ago, the Zanden’s consistently superior listenability is anything but objectionable, as it is not plastering over sonic issues—only making them less likely to spoil your enjoyment. Indeed, with the trio’s other virtues, the Zanden gear reminds me of SET amplification, without an SET’s power or bandwidth or coloration issues.
I have tried the Zanden Model 1200mk3 phonostage with several other amplifiers, tube and solid-state, and think it is almost as exceptional with, oh, the Voxativ 805 integrated or the great Constellation Hercules II Stereo amplifier as it is with the Model 9600mk2. Like a blank piece of drawing paper, it simply takes on whatever colors the preamp and amplifier are adding, without (as far as I can tell) adding any marked color of its own or subtracting any speed or energy. (For tubes this phonostage is a very fast and powerful number.) What the Model 1200mk3 does bring to the table, regardless of amplification, is a large measure (though not as large a measure as the complete Zanden system) of that speaker-erasing spatiality and 3-D bloom that sets Yamada-san’s creations apart.
I have also tried the Model 9600mk2 with other preamplifiers, including the Soulution 755, the Constellation Altair II, and the Air Tight ATE-2001 Reference. Though the solid-state preamps seemed to lift the slight Class A darkness of the amplifier—making it sound utterly neutral from lower mids to treble—the Model 9600mk2 did not fare as well with the tough-load speaker I was also using, losing some of the incredibly lifelike transparency and neutrality in the bottom octaves and packing on a pound or two of midbass fat. In my judgment, the amp does its best with the Zanden Model 3000km2 preamplifier (and with a speaker with a stable 4- or 8-ohm load and moderately high sensitivity).
Used as a complete electronics suite the Zanden Classic components are, given the right speakers, simply world-class contenders, with world-class transparency, resolution, speed, dynamic range, liquidity, bloom, and spaciousness, as well as that signature listenability that doesn’t obscure engineering choices but makes even tough recordings a relative pleasure to hear (and great recordings unmistakably great). Last year, our sister magazine, Hi-Fi+, named the Zanden Classic Collection power amplifier and preamplifier its Products of the Year. I can assure you that the Classics will be short-listed for TAS’ next POYs. They are that good.
Specs & Pricing
Zanden Model 9600mk2 Monoblock Power Amplifier
Tube complement: KR845 x2, 5687WB x2, 5R4WGB x2, 6CA4 x2
Power output: 60W (Class A)/100W (Class AB)
Frequency response: 6Hz–50kHz (-3dB)
Input impedance: 7.5k ohms
Analog inputs: XLR
Dimensions: 320mm x 440mm x 450mm
Zanden Model 3000mk2 Linestage Preamplifier
Tube complement: (main) 5687 x1; (power) 6CA4 x2
Frequency response: 10Hz–20kHz (-0.5dB)
Input impedance: XLR 100k ohms; RCA 100k ohms
Maximum output: 8VRMS
Inputs: RCA x3, XLR x3
Outputs: RCA, XLR
Dimensions: (main) 398mm x 103mm x 254mm; (power) 157mm x 165mm x 357mm
Weight: (main) 9.1kg; (power) 5.5kg
Zanden Model 1200mk3 Phonostage Preamplifier
Tube complement: 7308 x3, 6922 x1, 6CA4 x2
EQ curve positions: RIAA, Teldec, EMI, Columbia, Decca
Inputs: Low-impedance MC cartridge x1; high-impedance MC cartridge x1
Input impedance: Low: 36 ohms; high 470 ohms
Output impedance: 3k ohms
Gain: Low MC 68dB (1kHz, RIAA); high MC 56dB (1kHz, RIAA)
Frequency deflection: 0.5dB (20Hz–20kHz) maximum
Total harmonic distortion: 0.1% @ 300mV RMS output, 1kHz
Signal to noise: -70dB (IHF-A, 5.0mV RMS)
Channel balance: 0.5dB maximum
Dimensions: (main) 398mm x 103mm x 405mm; (power) 155mm x 163mm x 336mm
Weight: (main) 8.0kg; (power) 6.2kg
JV’s Reference System
Loudspeakers: Magico M Project, Magico M3, Voxativ 9.87, Avantgarde Acoustics Zero 1, MartinLogan CLX, MBL 101 E MK. II, Magnepan 1.7 and 30.7
Subwoofers: JL Audio Gotham (pair), Magico QSub 15 (pair)
Linestage preamps: Soulution 725, Constellation Altair II, Siltech SAGA System C1, Air Tight ATE-2001 Reference
Phonostage preamps: Walker Proscenium V, Soulution 755, Constellation Perseus
Power amplifiers: Soulution 711, Constellation Hercules II Stereo, Air Tight 3211, Air Tight ATM-2001, Zanden Audio Systems Model 9600, Siltech SAGA System V1/P1, Odyssey Audio Stratos, Voxativ Integrated 805
Analog sources: Acoustic Signature Invictus Jr./T-9000, Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond Mk V, TW Acustic Black Knight/TW Raven 10.5, AMG Viella 12
Tape deck: United Home Audio Ultimate 1 OPS
Phono cartridges: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement, Air Tight Opus 1, Ortofon MC Anna, Ortofon MC A90
Digital sources: MSB Reference DAC, Berkeley Alpha DAC 2
Cables and interconnects: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power cords: Crystal Cable Absolute Dream, Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Ansuz Acoustics Diamond
Power conditioners: AudioQuest Niagara 5000 (two), Synergistic Research Galileo UEF, Technical Brain
Support systems: Critical Mass Systems MAXXUM and QXK equipment racks and amp stands
Room treatments: Stein Music H2 Harmonizer system, Synergistic Research UEF Acoustic Panels/Atmosphere XL4/UEF Acoustic Dot system, Synergistic Research ART system, Shakti Hallographs (6), Zanden Acoustic panels, A/V Room Services Metu acoustic panels and traps, ASC Tube Traps
Accessories: 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 Professional Sonic record cleaner, Synergistic Research RED Quantum fuses, HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses