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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.

 

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
Input: XLR
Analog inputs: XLR
Dimensions: 320mm x 440mm x 450mm
Weight: 42.5kg
Price: $57,200/pr.

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
Price: $23,000

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
Price: $25,000

ZANDEN AUDIO NORTH AMERICA
Contact: Eric Pheils
[email protected]
zanden-usa.com

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

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