Zanden Audio Systems Model 120 Phono Stage

Equipment report
Zanden Audio Systems Model 120
Zanden Audio Systems Model 120 Phono Stage

This is where cynicism tends to kick in, with the obvious question being, what’s been left out? If the boxes look pretty much the same and all the facilities and functions are in place, what corners have been cut and where? If the Model 120 really is going to be the Volks‑Zanden to the 1200’s Mercedes SLS or the 1300’s AMG GT, then it needs to do more than just look the part – it needs to deliver Zanden performance too. Look a little closer and what you discover is that this is actually a typically thoughtful and carefully considered design that’s cut its cloth with considerable skill in order to also cut its costs. The first indicator comes in the shape of the compact external supply. It’s nicely finished, but with its through‑box format, it’s clearly designed to be tucked away out of sight – unlike the power supplies on Zanden’s more ambitious products. Given that the Model 1300 is a one‑box unit, you might well wonder why the 120 has an external supply in the first place? Look under the lid and you’ll find your answer. Unlike its bigger brothers, the 120 is an entirely solid‑state design, which necessites a separate PSU to remove stray electro‑magnetic fields. Going valve-free is not the show‑stopper you might think, thanks to the brand’s extensive experience with solid‑state and hybrid circuitry. In fact, the retention of Zanden’s LCR topology is arguably more critical. Explaining ‘LCR’ can get a little confusing; capacitance (‘C’) and resistance (‘R’) are obvious, but ‘L’ is short for ‘inductance’, in honour of the electrical pioneer Heinrich Lenz. You can’t use ‘I’ here, because that is already used to denote ‘current’. Incidentally, inductance (L) is measured in H (henry), while current (I) is measured in A  (ampere) – put them together and you can spell ‘hail’!

The Model 120 is equipped with two, independently switchable inputs, one single‑ended (RCA) and one balanced (XLR), although users can order it with two single‑ended inputs at no extra cost. Outputs are single‑ended only.

The front panel is an object lesson in minimalism. Working from left to right, there’s a push button for on /off, followed by a four position rotary control that combines input selection and cartridge load. This matches the ‘high’ or ‘low’ impedance requirements of the cartridge, each setting having its own pair of Jensen step-up transformers – ‘low’ impedance has 73dB of gain, and ‘high’ 63dB. The next rotary control selects the five EQ curves and the final push button switches absolute phase. All the selections are indicated by small, traffic light LEDs. There really should be no excuse for leaving the unit set to the wrong phase, EQ, or load, while for me, the acrylic front panel, matt controls and sharp LEDs make this the best looking of a notably attractive line. With all the functional versatility that makes the more expensive Zanden phono‑stages so capable and appealing, the Model 120 has all the physical attributes to become a firm favourite – especially given its more approachable price.

Time then, to talk musical performance and define where the 120 sits relative to its more illustrious brethren. If the 1300 trades away some of the 1200’s remarkable tonality and dimensionality, harmonic and acoustic coherence in return for a crisper, more energetic sound with more obvious dynamic authority, it’s tempting to assume that the 120 extends that continuum. In fact, it sits rather neatly between those two schools. It is softer and less emphatic than the 1300, without the remarkable sense of shape and space that comes from the flagship. In the context of products with five‑figure price‑tags, that makes it neither fish nor fowl: less precise than some, less warm than others. What that means is that you don’t get a Model 1300 for around half the price – which is exactly why the 1300 is in the Zanden family! Play the Zanden Model 120 in systems constructed from among its price peers, and you start to realise just what a cannily balanced product it is. It was particularly impressive paired with the Rowland Capri S2 pre and Model 125 power amplifiers. Here, the 120’s subtle softening took the edge off the Rowland’s laser‑cut resolution and transparency, while its sense of temporal integrity and rhythmic coherence gave music a real sense of life, bounce, and flow; a musical dovetail that immediately elevated all the products involved. The Zanden is also one of the few units that can sit comfortably beside the flawlessly finished Rowlands, and the musical partnership cuts both ways; the amplifiers’ clarity and resolution clearly showing the benefits of the 120’s various replay curves. With so many midrange amplifiers tending towards detail, focus, dynamics, and slam at the expense of more subtle aspects of rhythmic expression that underpin vinyl’s musical appeal, the Zanden does a beautifully judged job of nudging them back into line.