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Decware squared
Decware's SE84CSP is a modest spatial and body expander as described in its own review. As such, it mirrors the Zen Taboo's reluctance to go overboard with the tube thang. That makes sense. It's the same designer after all. Steve Deckert -- from what I surmise having listened to these two pieces -- values transparency and speed over other possible contributions one might harvest from valves if so inclined. He does make a dual-mono preamp "for the next level" but the SE84CSP was deliberately designed to make affordable systems sound good. In all likelihood, this includes a less than state-of-the-art CD player. If your motto is bang for the buck, would you rather have a new component throw mud on your existing CD player or give you no good reason to trade up, digital wise?

The combination of SE84CSP and Zen Taboo builds on the strengths of each component. Since both are very transparent, open and fast, those qualities overlap. Clear plus clear equals clear. You don't get more clear. While that might seem like a raw deal, you don't end up with less clear neither. That's the relevant point here. More components often equate to more complexity and thus a reduction of resolving power. Not here. Of course, that alone is no argument for two components. If added clarity isn't the reason for two, what is? A bit more body or tonal density on one hand, a bit more drive or dynamic envelope on the other. On its own -- and if you're used to a PX25 or 300B amp -- the Zen Taboo could strike some as lean and not as harmonically rich or enhanced as perhaps desirable.

If that's your response -- or you need to accommodate more than the single source for which the Taboo is set up for -- the matching pre gives you a good reason beyond just input switching. The best way to describe how it subtly enhances the Taboo is to think of one of those modern drinks called infusion teas. It could be herbal or fruity but the key is that we're talking essence rather than full-on fruit juice mixed into a tea. A byproduct of infusion drinks is a particular texture. They no longer feel like water with a hint of something. There's a subtle texture as though the water carried a minute amount of oil. It's silky and has more body than straight-ahead tea but is a far cry from the syrupy drinks based on fruit concentrates.

That's exactly what strapping the pre in front of the Taboo accomplishes - an infusion of textural essence. It's subtle but real and worthwhile. As are apparently all Decware amps, it turns out that the Taboo is optimized for lower impedance loads. It thus drove the 6-ohm Zu Definitions better than the 12-ohm Druids as though it lost output power into the latter. By the time I attempted to drive the 120-ohm AKG K-1000 earspeakers which the 6wpc RedWine Audio ClariT handled beautifully, I ended up with eventual distortion that indicated not clipping but possible oscillation (something that also occurred with an Antique Soundlabs piece many moons ago that purportedly could drive the AKGs but in fact couldn't).

I've said it earlier but it bears repeating: though tube-powered, these components belong into the essentially neutral school of audio thought and would thus appeal to solid-state listeners who wish to add just a "touch o' tube" but couldn't relate to something veering deeper into so-called triode. Consequently, deep triode lovers will complain about a lack of saturation though they'd have to admit that Decware resolution and agility kicks their amps into the keister (unless we're talking upscale and expensive on their part). The only limitation of this combo is power. 6 watts will only go so far, especially with the amp's gain as low as it is. Listeners disagree about what 6 watts can drive and much of that depends on SPLs, room size and material. Bass performance and separation during complex passages tend to be the first victims of "loud but not controlled enough". In my book, 95dB speaker sensitivity should be the lower limit to tango with the Decwares but a near-field setup in a small den, studio or office could potentially knock this down to 92dB, especially if the speaker is a non-reactive easy load.

Though I observed a bit of noise with the preamp run into other amps (nothing untoward and fully in line for what's common with valve pres when running into 20 to 30dB amp gain), the Decware combo was dead quiet into the 101dB Zus, this likely a direct function of the Taboo's unusually low input sensitivity. The bottom line really is that if you own Cain & Cain Abbys, something out of Louis Chochos' Omega Loudspeakers stable, something from Carolina Audio, the Horn Shoppe or equivalent (affordable high-efficiency crossover-less speakers), the Decware duo seems tailormade price wise, noise wise and performance wise - in other words, a wise choice. I'm sure this would include Decware's own speakers as
well as the various Lowther, Fostex, PHY and Jordan designs. So pencil Decware the brand into your little black book of contenders in this "off Broadway" segment (if on Broadway equates to the mainstream, that is). Those digging the premise of fast, transparent, essentially neutral valve sound but are in need of more real-world power should probably focus on Deckert's new ToriMkII which offers 25 zero NFB push/pull pentode watts using EL 34s, 6550s or KT88s. If the motto "same designer, same sound" holds solid, we should expect Zen Taboo sound with simply 4 times the power. Now that would be something - SEP sound from a pusher/puller ...
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