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Buying off the rack
Shopping for a pair of Levi's? As long as you know your waist size and inseam, the only other question is whether you prefer a straight, classic or relaxed fit. I'm a 32/32 in the summer. If I want to fit heavier shirts or double layers underneath the belt, I'll go for a 34/32 in the winter. And I'm a relaxed (fit) kinda guy. End of story, no dressing rooms - where's the register? Shoes are already trickier. Not everyone means exactly the same thing when they call a lace up a size 10 or 43. But that's nothing compared to audio. How much power do I need for my speakers - for the playback levels I'll actually use in my room (as the complete question should be properly phrased)?

The long and short of it is, you gotta try. There's no buying off the rack on specs. Some folks will tell you that they drive 89dB speakers with a 2-watt amp. I wager to hazard a very serious guess that they'll more than occasionally run out of steam. But never mind playback levels. What about control, grip and drive? All that's a function of impedance fluctuations, back EMF, reactive vs. resistive loads and phase angles countered by a power supply of greater or lesser stiffness and reserves. Playback levels themselves are a function of recording level, room size, listener distance and hearing sensitivity. That's far more variables than waist and inseam measurements. Worse, unless your particular speaker was bench-tested by Stereophile's John Atkinson, you won't ever know just half the stats you need (if you even knew what they meant if you had 'em). Additionally, what's the voltage gain of your preamp? What's the output voltage of your source? How's it all add up and interact? Oi. Audio plain sucks in that regard. Where's our dressing rooms?

While I won't belabor that a very civilized anti-headbanger could reach satisfyingly relaxed string quartet playback levels with 2 watts and into a standard-sensitivity benign load, I seriously doubt that she'd enjoy the kind of bass articulation, extension, overall weight, definition and dynamic envelope her speakers are ultimately capable of when playing back power rock or large-scale orchestral. Yes, I did drive my 93dB Triangle Ventis xs speakers in a 20' x 30' room with 6 watts of single-ended triode power. Yes, I never once did approach compression, bleaching or any other signs of distress. However - that was a $7,000 Art Audio PX-25 amp. It sported massive transformers and a big power supply. Even though it's spec'd as delivering the same 6 watts of output, the Decware is a featherweight pygmy by comparison. I would never consider its 6 watts to be equal to the PX25's heavy duty version. While any number of people may claim that the Taboo is all you ever need if your speakers are >90dB, I'd take that with a huge grain of salt. You'd have to personally ascertain the complex interactions of volume, drive, control and dynamic envelope. Just because something plays loud enough doesn't mean it performs optimally.

Consider the 25% increased clockwise rotation the 6wpc Taboo asked of my ModWright preamp compared to the 5wpc FirstWatt F2. The latter's voltage gain is below 16dB, indicating that the Decware's must be even lower. This could help explain its fabulous S/N ratio (dead-quiet even into 101dB speakers). It's further reflected in an input sensitivity of 2.3 volts. That's considerably lower than normal. It means your preamp must output a higher-than-usual voltage to drive this amp to full output. You could think then that this is not a particularly powerful kind of 6 watts. But today's whole assignment isn't worried about quantity. We're exclusively interested in a particular kind of quality. We accepted going in
that for the small money asked and the power supply this puts aboard, we couldn't possibly be expecting Krell-type street-fighter muscle. What we're hoping for is great-sounding finesse - petite yet drop-dead gorgeous. We'd provide a speaker that'll do 101dB at 1 meter just for that first Lilliputian watt you throw at it. This could turn the headroom of a grand total of 6 off-the-rack watt units into truly bespoke high-class designer stuff. What follows deals with exactly that. Still, let's be perfectly clear about one thing. I'm not making any predictions about how Decware's 'monster amp' (or, by extension, its 2-watt standard brethren) would get it up -- or not -- into your speakers, your room and your habitual sound pressure levels. It's true, most people purchase excessive just-sit-there power. But let's get real, too - 6 watts is on the far side of too much well beyond Gary Larson. Plainly put, there's no reasonable way to know ahead of time whether that's enough or not. For today however, we'll have excellent news. It's something I was expecting but not utterly certain about until listening finally confirmed it. You see, my source only outputs 1V, i.e. half the industry standard. That renders any amp essentially only half as powerful as it'd otherwise be (or puts more of a burden on the preamp which in my case only delivers a voltage gain of 15dB).

Three blokes and a wedding
Actually, three chokes and two signatures, one from Steve Deckert, one from Denis who completed my personal unit, serial # 015. Three-dimensionally handcrafted point-to-point wiring or a sorry rat's nest -- depending on your perspective of such things -- would be two reasonable reactions to contemplating the innards once the rust-brown colored bottom lid's been removed. One thing's clear right away. The Taboo does some serious power supply smoothing, another explanation for its ultra-quiet operation.

While you must personally try on for size anything that revolves around micro power, I thought I'd demonstrate the niggling physical dimensions of the Taboo's size by parking it across quickly tiring fingers akimbo [left]. With nude transformer and two plain shafts for dual-mono NFB adjustments, exposed screws and a capped hole in the rear (one chassis clearly fits multiple models in the line), the cosmetics spell Maoist uniform rather than trendy Rodeo Drive getup. But that's part of the Taboo's left-field appeal. If you have limited means, put 'em to best use where it matters: internal parts quality and circuit execution. This is unapologetically minimalist kit without pretensions. No automotive lacquers à la Cary, none of Hovland's backlit gleam. One unique detail? The flipped output terminals that reverse red/black orientation for easier cable routing. Another? The wooden "shield" on the inside, hiding the volume put between the two miniature transformers.

In case you secretly wondered about the Cyrillic background of the uppermost photographic overlay, it's an unfurled spec sheet for the Russian 6P15PEB tubes which Steve Deckert had included for my tests. This is a high-end version of the 6P15P proper which Svetlana has branded SV83 for the US market (and which itself is a military telecommunications variant of the common 6BQ5/EL84). According to Deckert, the EB version of the SV83 has never made it into the US market. Naturally, that didn't stop him from obtaining a stash for future Zen amp owners. Included with my first shipment as well was the requisite Sovtek 5Y3GT rectifier valve, 2 Svetlana SV83s, an unmarked stock 12AX7 and three unexpected driver rolling options - one Sovtek and JJ 12AX7 respectively and one Phillips 12AT7. Announced for delivery in a few weeks by way of an enclosed handsigned letter was the custom Cherry dress base I'd ordered, as well as a 60-day loaner of Decware's CSP preamp. Steve considers it the amp's de facto mate, a kind of two-box fully tricked-out Taboo - boy meets girl for a shotgun wedding. Not knowing whether my ModWright SWL 9.0SE  would manifest the exact sonics Deckert expects from his amp, he'd volunteered to send the preamp along for the ride. It'd insure that I would hear the Taboo as intended by its maker. If I fell for the pre's charms as we might assume the wicked BladeRunner anticipates? It promises a second check for Decware, perfectly lucid thinking for a small build-to-order manufacturer who has never pursued the big-time press. O ye knave of canny cunning. About that L-word: the toggle switch in front of the two stubby negative feedback controls [above right closeup] is the Lucid Mode. It's teasingly unmarked so listening alone would reveal which mode belongs to what setting - if you're lucid enough to figure it out. Boy, the stress of it all.

What follows is my first short tale of running the Taboo from my ModWright (with the amp's volume pot fully open), with Zanden Audio's top digital separates delivering half of the industry standard output driving the 12-ohm Zu Cable Druids and rolling driver tubes from the stash Deckert had dispatched. [At right, part of Team Decware with their own Radial speakers; Deckert's listening studio with inbuilt corner horns; and the mad scientist's shop.]

Preconception alert: From owner testimonials of the 2wpc Decware amps, I expected an extremely fast, transparent and dynamic sound (which, translated, could also mean a bit lean and lightweight and harmonically bleached). Each good designer who's been around and has developed his own signature sound will build up a network of devotees whose expectations coincide perfectly with the engineer's. Get outsiders involved and sometimes, things translate perfectly and a new devotee is born. Other times, much is lost in translation and the outsider leaves befuddled, wondering what all the fuss was about.

There's no doubt that Decware devotees are legion. My question, outside of power sufficiency, was simply whether I'd get it or not. I needn't have worried. The Taboo instantly conformed to my expectations and translated. This is an ultra-transparent wide-open window on sonic proceedings. Yes, I could clip it when pushed hard but for the vast majority of recordings whose median level isn't abnormally low as certain classical stuff, I never did at the levels I always use (which here translated to about a 2:00 o'clock setting on the ModWright).

The only practical limitation is a lack of headroom for what-if scenarios - short-term insanities when nobody else is in the house and you want a rave. Since I don't have a high-gain preamp nor a standard-voltage source, the Taboo essentially slams the door on such potential excesses. For all sane intents and purposes, however, it proves perfectly sufficient. Ideally and in my scenario, I'd want 15dB more gain in my preamp just to build in more headroom for when boys will be boyz.

Any ambivalence about bass performance -- into copasetic loads -- belongs into the trash. The SV83 is the little tube that ate the ton of spinach. It's not just respectable or good for what it is, it's outright boffo and refuses to make any concessions. Top to bottom, things are linear, even and uncontoured. They're smooth but not at all in the additive sense. There's no fat or fatty sheen. There's simply a refusal to enter the grit department and sprinkle even a bit of fine-grain sand on the audio road. The usual crystal-clear mountain spring water simile applies in spades. However, it simultaneously conjures up images of ice cold - refreshing but nearly a bit gratingly so. That part of the image is simply not applicable here. This isn't a stark high-noon kind of clarity but simply an absence of disturbances or filters. You could at first feel compelled to call it an absence of recognizable texture, albeit one which doesn't at all equate to flatness. In fact, there's an overabundance of spatial bloom, of contrast intensity.

There's outrageous microdynamic agility as well. It heightens the suchness of a singer's presence like Lila Downs or individual instrumental threads that project and recede in accordance with player emphasis, like a rotating tableau of figures which alternates who's closest to you - except here it could be individual tones, not just performers. All this occurs without any airbrushing or underhanded injection of extra body as some valved pieces can do. The Taboo isn't a bloomy romanticizing fellow at all. Completely different universe. Neither do tonal colors come across as lean, however. No tonal sacrifices have been made to artificially create the perception of fake speed or incisiveness. Still, there's an instantly obvious intensity or energy that operates across the audible range. It's of a different nature than the ultra drive
of the FirstWatt transconductance amps. Hearing this is one thing, explaining it quite another. My best attempt will have to be super contrasty. This quality operates simultaneously in the soundstage -- more image pop or holography -- and as thereness/presence factor that's quite different from Nelson Pass' transistor amps. It's distinctly not valve bloom. Perhaps it is texture after all? As a SEP amp with negative feedback (and it sounds better with more feedback engaged, in my case at about 1:00 o'clock on the shafts), we can assume a certain amount of cancellation of octave-doubled harmonics. That's what it sounds like, too. However, the F1 does the same thing and sounds different again, a bit drier though not in the usual sense of THD. The difference is in the spatial, not spectral dimension.

Do I now have to coin a new term to keep up with HP's continuousness? I'd rather not but somehow, it seems appropriate here. It's nothing fancy, neither, this term: spatial wetness. As I'm turning this phrase over in my mind like a spider wrapping up a fly victim, I'm nodding to myself. Yes, this seems about as descriptive for what I hear as I can manage, with the 12AT7 my favored driver tube that seems to somehow maximize this particular quality in my rig when the ModWright's in the chain. This peculiar and very powerful quality is enhanced with the Lucid Mode switch and not at all focused on the midrange. I also wouldn't call it a space tripper like the Gallo Ref 3s or certain Audio Magic products. Those move the stakes that encircle the soundstage outwards and sidewards to make everything literally bigger. The Taboo effect does
not affect lateral or depth expansion. It intensifies the palpability of what's inside the soundstage (or more succinctly, your room). It's not 300B deep triode, it's not emphasized leading edges, it's not enhanced timbres. It's not just vocals which benefit - though I did pull out favorites like Giannis Parios, Gheorge Dalaras, Abed Azrié, Dhafer Youssef, Anatoli Iakovenko of Djelem, Sezen Aksu, Barrio Chino from Marseilles and Eleftheria Arvanitaki left and right. Purely instrumental fare by Renaud Garcia-Fons, Eddy Daniels, Andy Narell and Boris Kovac & La Campanella benefitted all the same. Think polarized sunglasses without their psychedelic saturation effects that shift the color spectrum.

Now combine that spatial wetness with a complete absence of fluff and fuzziness to guarantee high transparency. The end result is extreme, nearly proactive visibility that projects right into your lap. The only item which presently induces slight nervousness? My preamp's volume meter pegs between 2 and 3:00 o'clock. I can logically explain that away knowing what I do about the Taboo's 2.3V input sensitivity and my Zanden DAC's half-mast output juice. Still, old habits of headroom (just in case and for the occasional album that's recorded low) die hard. It's as though I subliminally expect to clip things any moment. I'm not nor am I bottoming out on peaks or bass transients but I just know that I'm close and would rather have another 10dB of gain in my preamp, really more for peace-of-mind than any apparent real need.

As I experiment further, I'll report more. For now, the Taboo definitely has already messed big-time with preconceptions that tend to circle like hungry vultures around price, power and size. Who needs 300Bs and massive 274 rectifiers when micro power bottles the length of a grown man's pinky and "ordinary" rectifiers will do the job just as well? Who needs fancy direct-heated triodes when pentodes can apply? Just remember that you must supply appropriate speakers to follow the Taboo down its forbidden paths. In my mind, appropriate equals 95dB speaker sensitivities. Alas, present and future owners -- the Taboo is a new product for Decware and my serial #15 indicates word is just spreading -- could prove me wrong. Just remember than one girl's loud equates to another man's not loud enough.

The Decware Zen Taboo doesn't look like much. It's priced like a Japanese receiver. It's from an underground firm that's been around for a long time yet is still somewhat persona non grata for its lack of formal peer acknowledgement in the press. "If it was really that good, we'd surely all know about it by now." That's a conveniently logical argument to make on behalf of doubt. If I was doubting before, I no longer am (though I admittedly still hold a fair amount of disbelief about how many speakers really exist that would be unconditionally happy with Decware's main diet of 2 watts). As I'm writing this, I'm noticing the undiminished low-frequency pulses on an ambient album that I know are there - and here they are. While this confirms how the tiny Taboo's command extends into the nether region, I remain cognizant of the way things are
positioned in the popular perspective. The majority of folks won't believe it still. However, a counter movement is afoot. The 6wpc Red Wine Audio Clari-T amp is gathering very vocal owner endorsements on the audio circles. This is further legitimized because Vinnie Rossie openly collaborates with Louis Chochos of Omega Loudspeaker Systems who offers 95dB-and-up speakers. Add the Taboo to this hidden list of insider tips in the micro-power arena.

This li'l bugger is doing things it rightfully shouldn't. And it's not doing other things it really shouldn't be doing - bad, compromised things. There are no untoward signs of weak-chestedness, of an underendowment to handle whatever is thrown its way. There are small affordable tubes but except for the monster focus on nearly hyper-real presence -- and the wide-open but suave treble -- this underdog doesn't make any tube-like sounds. It simply projects energy and clarity with elan and aplomb. It's a very very fast amplifier. Color me impressed. Mucho. It's too bad only a tiny minority of music lovers owns the right speakers to successfully hear what the Taboo is all about. It was clearly a huge evolutionary step for Steve Deckert to triple output power over his original Zen triode amps and go pentode without incurring what would have struck him as compromises. Hoping he could pull the same Viagra stunt by another factor of 10 to get us into the regular world of 40-watt devices is clearly wishful thinking. Likely, the Taboo will remain an underground phenomenon then. Since review units aren't made available, follow the actual owner's grapevine then. Still, the number of people who truly appreciate how insanely good the Taboo is when on top of its (speaker efficiency) game just grew by one. Moi. The Taboo's here to stay as one of the amps that'll do duty in the big rig. Small amp, big soul. More to come when the matching preamp loaner arrives.

P.S.: Steve Deckert will calibrate it such that unity gain occurs at 9:00 o'clock to make up for my far lower than usual source voltage. Readers intimately familiar with the micro-power genre will undoubtedly belabor many of the above general comments as redundancy personified. Please remember then that micro power is a very tiny subset of HighEnd audio. Many of our readers do not yet have experience with it. I thus felt it vital to make the distinction between satisfying loudness and proper drive which aren't automatically synonymous. Nor are the usual published loudspeaker specs terribly instructive to assess a priori and without personal testing whether load behaviour will be friendly or not to single-ended amplifiers. At 12 ohms and with a basic 1st-order network at 12kHz on the tweeter only, the Zu Druid definitely belongs in the former section - friendly. I experienced no apparent drive issues at all except an occasional shortage of preamp gain which the CSP as the Taboo's natural mate will fix. Stay tuned. [Above, Steve's lab with his next project, a higher-power push/pull amp to carry the Decware gospel to those heathens whose speakers need the power to come alive.]