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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIV DAC; Accustic Arts Drive-1; Einstein The Last Record Player [on review]; Bel Canto Design PLayer PL-1A [on review]; Zanden Audio Model 5000 Signature [on review]; Zanden Audio Model 2000P [on review]
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe2; Wyetech Labs Pearl [on review]; AUDIOPAX Model 5
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88
Speakers: Avantgarde Acoustics Duo
Cables: Crystal Cable Reference complete wire set of analog and digital interconnects, speaker cables and power cords; Z-Cable Reference Cyclone power cords on both powerline conditioner; 2 x Stealth Audio Cables Indra analogue & Varidig S/PDIF cable
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature; Walker Audio Velocitor for source components
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs; Mapleshade 4" solid maple platform under BPT conditioner
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $4,995 with analog inputs as delivered for review; add $700 for Globe Audio Marketing mod package

Ever since the mighty Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIV had snuck into my system to stay, I've kept the night vigil in the crow's nest of this good little ship. I was hoping to sight a DAC or CDP on the horizon of the smooth waters that would offer similar sailing but for a fraction of the Zanden's $10,000 luxo tag. After all, only the committed few can take on that expense. When I say similar, I'm referring to the analogue feel and unique combination of resolution and relaxation, drive and holistic presentation which the Zanden produces. I'm clearly not the only one who has noted the veritable explosion of after-market modifiers sticking valves into digital, from Chris Johnson to the two Wrights -- Allen and Dan --, John Tucker and Richard Kern; never mind the Chinese invasion of Shanling, Hit Audio/Cayin, Eastern Electric, Vincent and Jolida; the Dutch answer by way of Ah Tjoeb; the Brit Nu/Trivista contributions of Musical Fidelity and the Audio Note UK offerings; and the US retorts from BAT and Cary and everyone else I forgot.

My first exciting CDP discovery in this particular realm was the -- surprisingly tube-less -- $3,500 Resolution Audio Opus 21. While not the same as the Zanden, it allows a listener struck by the Zanden's sound to switch vessels and not at all feel like he's traded for a leaky kayak. By renown but not yet personal experience, then there's the tubed Audio Aero Capitole MkII CD player. Alas, its retail has crept close to the $10K barrier over the years. It simply wouldn't do for the purposes of today's mission. When Ken Wilson from Globe Audio Marketing inquired whether I wanted to give the Audio Aero Prima DAC a whirl, I was ecstatic. Mind you, the nomenclature here is misleading. It points at the entry-level Audio Aero CD player. It really is the top-echelon Capitole machine minus the transport. Think of it as the Capitole DAC instead and you've properly pegged its bloodline.

For half the Zanden's expense, I was looking now at a very promising contender with a long list of desirable attributes: Anagram's 192kHz resampler engine. 32-bit floating-point SHARC processor. 24/192 Burr-Brown AD1853JRS chips operating at 6.144MHz. A 6021W subminiature tube output stage/buffer. Plus a chip-based analog-domain attenuator/balance control. Plus two analog inputs and one digital output and balanced facilities and every digital input in the book. Where the Prima DAC fell short until CES 2005? The packaging. It arrived in a solidly made but merely ordinary plain black box whose four frontal controls suffered far too much lateral play to suggest upscale luxury. Turns out that the gents at Audio Aero must have anticipated this reaction. At CES, they introduced a new look for the Prima Series. Let's just say that all my criticisms in the cosmetic domain have been addressed to perfection - and without altering the retail price.

Among the Prima's most vital claimed specs are: S/N ration of 125dB; output impedance of 100 ohms; output voltage up to 5V RMS; 16/18/20/24-bit input word-length and 32/44.1/48/88.2/96kHz sampling frequency support; and dimensions of 17" x 12.6" 3.77" WxDxH and 17.4lbs of weight. Flipping its black steel lid reveals clean surface-mount boards connected by securely locked ribbon connectors, the large Anagram module and the tube output board.

The frontal push buttons control volume and inputs and a large black central VFD with blue characters confirms status.

The rear offers high-quality connectors, with digital inputs covering BNC, RCA, XLR, AT&T and Toslink optical while analog outputs come in both single-ended and balanced formats.

The inclusion of the BNC-carried digital output for recording is a very nice touch often missing on statement-level DACs.

The asynchronous 192kHz sample rate converter process dubbed STARS® (Solution for Time Abstract Re-Sampling) involves ultra low-jitter time-domain reclocking and DSP-based math developed by Swiss firm Anagram including 1024 times over-sampling with comb filter and floating-point linear interpolation. What's all this gobbledygook of techno wizardry buy you beyond bragging rights? According to the white paper, correction of certain phase errors endemic to the Nyquist sampling rate which affect high-frequency transients. Translated, this should remove a certain blurring in the soundstage while minimizing treble hash to make for more natural high frequencies. Pierre Lurné of Audiomeca has called this particular Swiss implementation by Anagram "at the very edge of what's technically possible".

The Prima's max output is a whopping 5 volts. At full blast, that will overload the input stages of certain preamps. Where to set the Prima's gain thus becomes an important issue, not just to prevent distortion but also to maximize the interface with the preamp's gain structure. Full bore juice isn't necessarily advisable by reasoning that zero attenuation equals volume control bypass, hence it must and thus will sound best. Not necessarily! The industry-standard 2V output equates to -7dB attenuation, unity gain to -10dB. Set the system remote control to "pre/amp" to do this from the chair. Obviously, whatever gain setting would work best for me will be different for you. It depends on your preamp and amplifier gain. Here's a tip for happy experimenters. Consider that based on three published reviews already, Eduardo de Lima of AUDIOPAX has very successfully exploited gain matching with his new Model 5 preamp. The reviewers unanimously heard things "lock in" once the perfect setting for specific amplifiers was found (and this setting differed from amp to amp). True, de Lima's scheme alters distortion figures, output impedance and other variables besides just raw gain. Still, chances are that a related phenomenon can be exploited with the Prima's inbuilt volume control.

Simply put, if your final gain be 20, you could get there as 2 x 10, 10 x 2, 4 x 5, 5 x 4 or any other combination thereof. Experiment how much the DAC and your preamp should each contribute to the final outcome. One particular balance might be distinctly superior to all others even though the final playback level would be the same in all cases.