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Ear Space Stuff
My prior experience with the immaculate but slightly cool Swiss Ensemble separates -- especially upsampling the transport to 24/96 to treat RedBook CD as DVD-A -- suggested the primary sonic domain of transports as revolving around leading-edge definition. The concomitant perception was one of greater separation between individual musical parts, vocal or instrumental. However, the apparently even higher resolving power of the asynchronously upsampled Dirondo Drive feeding the DiChrono DAC did not serve this listener's perception of organic naturalness as well. I clearly preferred the lower resolution connection if that's what it really was - lower resolution. Urs Wagner's presumably superior technical execution sounded a bit striated by comparison. Portions of the signal no longer seemed to flow as easily. Some kind of unnatural tension was asserting itself.

Seeing that my resident Zanden DAC cannot process any upsampled signal, the Ensemble's technical advantage over the Accustic Arts dissolved. Comparing it in non-upsampled mode to the German Drive-1, I couldn't really distinguish between the two. So I purchased the less expensive Accustic Arts. Now, while the signal is still in the digital domain, amplitude and frequency are mathematically fixed and not subject to interpretation. A transport thus cannot really produce "more bass" or "a slightly recessed midrange". Alas, the domain that isn't fixed at all is time. And so, the digital shrek is jitter. It refers to errors in time that occur when the digitally stored signal is converted to analog. The reconstructed signal must be matched up to the time-clock master pattern that was used when cutting up the original analog mic signal into digits in the recording studio. Higher accuracy in the time domain equals more precise likeness to the original. One could thus assume that it might translate into something akin to my observations with the time/phase-coherent Green Mountain Audio Continuum 3s. Better micro-detail retrieval. Less blur and indecision.

This assumption overlooks that a speaker cannot correct for the timing errors it's fed. It can only prevent making things worse. It can only resist adding its own mistakes. Eliminating errors at the very beginning, at the source, has a more pronounced effect. But it does not affect tonality or dynamics as easily weighted and measured attributes. Nor does it really affect micro details to any significant degree once your transport is of the caliber of my Accustic Arts Drive-1 or anything equivalent. That's why I said earlier that the Model 2000P performs a sly sideways Aikido move. It leaves one realm and enters another. Since it doesn't produce sound without a DAC, you can rest utterly assured that different DACs will produce more 'this', less 'that'. Now we're back in the analog domain. There components interact with amplitude and frequency, produce harmonic distortions and all manner of interpretive functions. However, the peculiar quality of naturalness -- a tacit absence of effort, pushiness, tension -- is intrinsic to this transport. It thus translates to whatever DAC it is matched up with. Beyond that, timbre, density, soundstaging, dynamics et al are affected by your choice of DAC to once again become reviewable attributes.

This naturalness is most pronounced and different from the norm at low volumes. There the suspension of the common impulse for the volume control demonstrates instantly how the previous lack (leading to a need for more loudness) has been transcended. But loudness itself is mostly a substitute for fullness. What the 2000 does at low volumes isn't exactly the same as fullness. Yes, things are incredibly fleshed out and corporeal - but that's because of the DAC and the AUDIOPAX Model 5. They are monsters in that regard. At the risk of sounding silly, the psychological jitteriness in the listener, of looking for greener grass elsewhere disappears; that internal unrest, that suspicion that more of something is to be had by goosing the volume. With the 2000, it's as though something unnatural had vanished whose absence becomes most profoundly obvious at subdued levels. Those low playback volumes usually reveal this unnaturalness. In plain view, things feel unsatisfactory. Priming the volume pump then is used to mask that lack again - empty calories to fill the belly until you're looking to upgrade something else in your system.

So, that jitter/nervousness issue is subtle in one sense and blatantly obvious in another. In that regard, I think it's fair to claim that the Model 2000 is as analogue as digital can get. It's not because it sounds the same as vinyl but because it finally feels like it - comfortable like an old coat you no longer notice while wearing. Casual. As I'm sure you've sensed by now, this is anything but a casual matter. It's a very real breakthrough. Alas, it's likely one that'll exert different degrees of attraction depending on whether one is still committed to becoming a member of The League Of Extraordinary Attributes or willing to settle down with this highly unusual ordinariness.

But there's a flip side here. At higher volumes, things become truly intense. It's as though the absence of nervousness or subliminal confusion and indecisiveness had turned solidity and gigantic mass. So much so that during those times when I wasn't prepared to truly give the music my full attention, I turned the volume down to far lower than normal settings. If one isn't prepared to embrace this intensity, it can nearly induce sickness. And though it sounds bloody weird, that's the very highest compliment I can bestow. It means that music has been liberated to become the uncut affecting power that grips you by the short-and-curlies whether you want it to or not. After all, don't dance with the prettiest girl at the ball if you're not ready for all possible consequences! Ditto for music when the Model 2000P is the conductor. Our Lady Music is to be treated with respect for her innate transformative power. She is not to be engaged if one is unprepared for her intensity - certainly not with this machine spinning the discs.

Don't equate this intensity with ear-bleeding levels. Far from it. This intensity is all about emotional energy, dynamic shock therapy and rhythmic effrontery. It simply compounds with rising levels to quickly get to a point where it'd take a better man than me to go farther. Experimenting between Yamada-San's I²S cable and Serguei Timachev's BNC'd Varidig, this energy/intensity quotient reduced somewhat going the BNC route. Remembering my previous promise for hard figures, I'd say about 10%. It's an energetic forwardness that isn't differentiated in any other way except for jump factor. Since the only technical difference is presumably even lower jitter, I feel forced to equate jitter reduction in these esoteric realms with potency of communicativeness. Here, call it the difference between barely legal and definitely completely illegal potency of a feel-good drug. As Linnman already noted in his impressions of these pieces, such imagery seems completely undone by Yamada-San's shy and ultra-composed personality. Let's just say our enigmatic Zen master must be an extreme case of the still waters being deeper even than the old proverb.

Where the earlier tie-in with the GMA C3 did assert itself was with material like Dorantes' Sur [EMI Spain 7243 538417 2 0]. It places solo piano amidst rhythmic Flamenco mayhem. Without any artificial focus on leading edges -- and thus without the edgier, more strident signature that usually follows from it -- excessively percussive and driven interludes gained very seriously in near-field jump factor. This was as though each note's beginning and rise from nothingness to thereness lined up perfectly and rose vertically; instantly and on the dot. And thinking about the implications of jitter and minute offsets in time, it actually makes sense that the domain of rhythmic fidelity should be noticeably affected. So think P.R.A.T. without hype and you've nailed this element.

By now, I was dying to know how my Drive-1 would hang in there compared to the 2000P sans external clock link (i.e. with the latter used just like the German transport, in BNC-out mode). Not too well, I'm afraid. That special dimension of the Zanden transport closed and the entire intensity/energy axis shifted and flattened out. In the other realms of far easier qualifications, nothing much happened at all except that things got a mite - well, edgy in fact is the right word though it does hurt me in the wallet to say so. This showed the Zanden transport even in slightly handicapped non-I²S mode to really operate in a different league altogether. Sometimes cost and cunning are related after all. The opposite experiment (of inserting my MkIV in place of the Signature DAC) merely confirmed what I thought I already knew. Without the 7308 triode which was enroute by separate post from the US distributor's cache, the differences between both converters driven from the same disc spinner were far more subtle. They were not making me feel too bad about owning second-best. The Signature is modestly more resolved which was hard to tell with complicated fare but identifiable on simple acoustic recordings with good ambience (e.g. anything from MA Recordings). It probably has a slightly better (lower) noise floor. At least that's what it sounds like - an incremental, single-digit percentile advance.

With the MkIV, you lose the ability to fully capitalize on the special Model 2000P magic. You lack the I²S external clock-link facility. If it came down to upgrading my DAC or upgrading my transport though, I wouldn't give the DAC a second thought. The transport is where it's at. Using the Audio Aero Prima DAC proved it beautifully. There was a little less of "this" and even a little more of "that" on the usual shopping list of things but that 2000 Zen spirit remained.

The ultimate insult to sanity occurred one evening when I decided to go headphone and listen to my AKG K-1000s leashed to Nelson Pass' FirstWatt F-1. The AUDIOPAX Model 5 was set to hi-gain and -20 on the TimbreLock, tapping directly into this cost-no-object Zanden front-end. Talk about being hard-wired to love heroin. Since even these headphones don't soundstage by comparison to real speakers (though they do perhaps better than anything else in can land), this was a good test to isolate things. Not surprisingly by now, the special 2000 magic still transmitted though not as pronounced as over the speakers. Those produced the whole-body version vs ears-only sketches. Plainly, the special involvement factor of the 2000's contributions really blossomed in the physical interaction of transducers, large air movements, skin and ear drums.

While waiting for the upgrade tube's arrival, I had time to take conceptual stock of the Model 2000P transport. I can only speculate in this regard but based on the DACs and CD players I've heard, I somehow doubt that their designers have pursued the particular direction and hence flavor that Yamada-San has pursued and captured. Ensemble, Meitner and dCS go for a different sound. Ditto for Linn, Naim and Meridian. I truly suspect that the Zanden's peculiar aroma is a direct function of Yamada-San's unique aural blueprint. It's an extension of his belief in phase fidelity which saw him eschew the usual filters in the DAC's reconstruction stage. It's why he isn't keen on SACD. The aggressive noise shaping required for that format equates to severe phase aberrations in the high frequencies. And what's phase if not time - or more accurately, being punctual and on time, top-to-bottom cohesive? So the Model 2000 merely follows in the Model 5000's footsteps, applying the same criteria to the digital domain which the DAC addresses in the transition from digital to analog. In doing so, it mines a similar field of analog-like ease and organic continuousness.

I'm convinced beyond a doubt that the Zanden Audio Model 2000P is a revolutionary product. It also happens to come with a quite revolting price tag. How does the saying go - nobody poor was ever called democratic for marrying rich? It's curious how my conceptual rap on the "extraordinary ordinariness" idea has a very real two-sided aural counterpoint: There's the tangible sense of satisfaction or nourishment at low volumes and the nearly "oppressive" sense of intensity that makes things seem far louder than they actually are. This really kicks in with a vengeance at levels you previously considered normal and which now may seem nearly too potent. Those readers familiar with my peculiar audiophile vices know that I'm rather tolerant of frequency-domain and THD liberties. S.E.T.s, hello? Likewise, I'm pretty intolerant of energetic lack. By that I mean a component -- or system's -- lack to provoke and stimulate emotional reactions. In matters of audio, I believe I once and somewhere called myself an adrenaline junkie. In a very unexpected way, the Model 2000 is the digital answer for our kind, especially when mated to the Signature DAC in clock-link mode. Equally unexpected, it now makes it seem that ultimately speaking, the transport's significance to musical satisfaction might be senior to the DAC. The transport (this one) might be more important.

Put differently, I'd rather own the combination of $17,970 Zanden Model 2000ST and $5,000 Audio Aero Prima DAC (the long green in the very front) than my $5,000 Accustic Arts Drive and the $15,470 Zanden Audio Model 5000 Signature. In lieu of silly percentage figures, let these hard numbers make their own case. This again reminds me of AUDIOPAX. Their new Model 5 preamp seems to me an even more important and radical product than their amplifiers. I believe this holds true for Yamada-San's transport/interface as well.

TubeWorld.Com markets their 7308/E188CCs as premium 6922/E88CCs (while an ECC88 is a 6DJ8 - quite the number's soup). However, owners of Zanden's Model 5000 MkI-IV should not use true 7308s. They are apparently not electrically identical substitutes and require different heater current. Earlier Zanden DACs like mine cannot be modified to take E188CCs but Zanden-USA's Jim Smith has tested numerous makes in the Signature/LE DACs. He favors the Mullards and has purchased a small inventory ($100/ea.) for his dealers. One of them arrived in snow-covered Taos. Knowing how certain 300B amps can take 2A3 or 45 triodes and how substitutions can rather significantly impact final sonics, I was open to the prospect that one lone small tube in this instance might do more than expected. However, I also have to confess that I once employed the services of our resident vintage guru Steve Marsh to roll valves in my MkIV. He sent a batch of promising replacements, I listened and shortly thereafter reverted to the originals. At least in my system, I preferred the designer's stock choices. Which way would the 7308 deal fly?

Primed with Walker Audio's Extreme SST (a cryogenically treated version of his popular silver-flake contact enhancer that's now making inroads with cars and goes on any tube in this household), the gold pins of the Mullard took their seat. I gave the tube some time to acclimatize, leaving the casing off the DAC to have easy access for swapping purposes.

I needn't have bothered with the cover. This was an obvious call to make. Simply put, now I did feel bad about owning second-best, especially since my MkIV is not reverse-adaptable to take this valve. First off, it sounds bigger and smoother, with more spatial expanse and more wetness on the notes. Better yet, this fleshier mien does not affect agility. It liberates it.

I could still clearly hear temporary microphone stresses during heated vocal peaks when the performer got just a little close to the diaphragm - but these transients didn't bite, they just cut cleanly through the air. Think swiftness and sharpness without pain or reflexive recoil. In live music, unmitigated transients are the norm. The peculiar thing about them is that when reproduced -- despite being dynamically squashed during most mastering sessions -- they often either sound blunted and romantically neutered or unnaturally strident. The former is boring, the latter is unpleasant. It's like ordering a meal in an unfamiliar restaurant with star-rated spiciness Order too hot, you suffer and can't eat. Order too mellow and the flavors don't punch. Everything's bland. Musically speaking, getting realistic heat without throat-locking pain is really difficult. You might say that most tube-voiced gear errs on the side of caution (one or two stars too mellow) while certain single-driver speakers with unruly peakiness are too fiery and ambitious.

Fast sound with proper heat often sounds lean while full sound can turn portly and a bit dull of reflex and shine. Good life music has heat and body and the 7308 walked this balance right down the middle. It unceremoniously relegated the prior 6922 -- my beloved standard all along -- to minor coarseness and less sparkle or "life". To really hear the Signature DAC, this tube is an absolutely essential accoutrement. Don't consider one without the other. Needless to say, I can only vouch for the Mullard submitted but anyone heavy enough to pay for this DAC can certainly have fun working through any number of premium and accurately branded 1ECC88 options. Zanden-USA units will be shipped with a 6922 pre-installed in Japan and one boxed 7308 included courtesy of the American distributor's "special reserve" cache.

Add Up Stuff
For this writer, SACD and DVD-A are like that rumored-to-be-excellent restaurant with the punishingly irregular and unpublished hours. Most the time, it's closed when I stop by. Even though promising on paper and by repute, I can no longer be bothered. Being hungry for music, I need three daily meals. That means RedBook. With Zanden's front-end, SACD and DVD-A have become obscurities in the mists of Avalon - legendary perhaps but not quite real and certainly not relevant to the times. Of course, how relevant today's components are to most listeners is highly questionable as well. At their price, it's nearly obscene to consider what else this money could purchase in the US (never mind in poor countries around the world). That said, few initial breakthroughs are affordable by way of the often intense investments of time and resources leading up to them. If the market responds, bona fide inventions trickle down or are licensed out to make a real difference in numbers and accessibility. One hopes something to this effect will eventually transpire here. For now, Yamada-San's novel reclocking and I²S master link implementation deserves recognition for what it is: A resetting of the boundaries that have defined (and limited) what RedBook playback has been thus far.

Invisibly inclusive in this statement are necessarily second-hand reports and observations. Distributing expensive, extremely sculptural and unapologetically modern hornspeakers in an era when public opinion trash-talked them was nothing so much as a fool's errand. Nevertheless, Avantgarde-USA's Jim Smith committed and became disproportionally responsible for not just the global success of Avantgarde Acoustic but the acceptance of HiFi hornspeakers in general. Selecting Zanden Audio for his second brand isn't much different. What kind of a market could one reasonably predict for RedBook-only digital separates of extreme cost? Why even bother with attempting to make a market for them unless one were driven to the core? Even if it's perhaps an irrational task, it's clearly one based on conviction fed from undeniably emotional and passionate sources. That much anyone can know from sheer listening. I thus base my considerations also on experiments Mr. Smith conducted personally, as well as high-profile Zanden dealers I've talked to who already were committed to Zanden prior to Smith's distributorship. What had these folks compared against Zanden before buying into the brand? In our own Linnman's case, what had he owned prior to his acquisition of today's components? What else had he considered and evaluated before committing? What league were we talking? My own limitations of exposure to statement-level digital thereby gained enough collaborative evidence. It makes the byline of today's award seem both fitting and factual.

When you think on it, it's rather peculiar that at a time when industry pundits proclaim the death of CD in favor of more advanced technologies, we would see the preceding mature technology enjoy a stellar sunset akin to a renaissance. I for one don't need further proof that SACD and DVD-A are unnecessary marketing-driven shenanigans. They don't respond to a real technological need (i.e. Irreparable flaws of the RedBook standard) but mere greed. My kind of music exists on the old format and clearly continues to do so. It's for listeners like us that these Zanden pieces were developed. Though most of us can merely dream about actual ownership, it's heartwarming to know that somewhere in Osaka-City/Japan, one very small company remains fiercely committed to our kind. That sort of irrational loyalty deserves recognition and major
Avantgarde-USA comments:


I always fancied myself as someone who could be a better reviewer than the reviewers. Not only by listening, but maybe even by writing ability.

Please, no flames! I'm being transparently -- even brutally -- honest. However, reading your 2000P listening essay forces me to come to a revelation that actually has been unfolding for several months...

Lately I've noticed that with you and with certain of your reviewers, a new level of reviewing is evolving that would/should make many writers, including the print mag gurus, more than a bit envious if not outright nervous. I'd be looking over my virtual shoulder if I was one of those guys.

"Eloquent" is insufficient description for what you're doing these days. Of course I include the Zanden review, but it really transcends products, even genres. Even competitors! And it's not just me - I hear similar comments from consumers as well as industry folks.

I could not have described the 2000P as well as you have. And -- perhaps arrogantly -- I thought I alone had uncovered its "soul" (excepting Yamada-san, of course).

The 2000P/5000S are intended primarily to be used as a system in order to get the full measure from both components. You know, that synergy thing.

In fact, that's pretty much how they've been sold. Whenever there are enough units available to do so, I need to perform some of these individual component comparisons myself. Frankly, to this point I've been so mesmerized by the listening experience that I haven't felt any desire to go thought the usual audiophile gyrations.

I had already pretty much decided to go for the Zanden on hearing the 5000 Mk4. When I heard the 2000P/5000S it was as a system. In fact, my final decision was primarily based on comparing my fully updated and firewired CD/SACD transport, upsampler, and dac system to the 2000P/5000S system.

It was the totality of that experience that was so shattering to my expectations for digital. Especially when comparing plain old Redbook CD to the audiophile fave "Hi-Rez" versions of the same music...

The area where I MIGHT take exception is whether -- in the non clock-linked world -- the transport renders the choice of DAC less important than the other way around. However, as I mentioned in an earlier correspondence, my early (original) units didn't offer me the luxury of such comparisons.

FYI - Each 5000 Signature DAC is supplied with the 6922 from Japan. Avantgarde-USA sends the new owner a fully tested NOS Mullard E188CC/7308, as long as the supply lasts. After we can't get any more Mullards, there's another tube waiting. But as you might guess, I don't dare identify it...

For me, the 7308 fills in the gaps, or maybe it makes the tiny clumps in the sound of the 6922 all too apparent.

In audiophile speak, it's more focused plus a whole bunch of other tedious terms... Now I know why I'm not cut out to be a reviewer.

And I'm pleased that you noticed the NOS Mullard E188CC/7308's superiority right away. For me, it didn't take long either.

Actually, the whole notion of lengthy burn-in for small signal tubes makes me a bit uneasy. But that's a whole 'nother story.

Finally, just to re-iterate - 5000, Mk 2, 3, & 4 should not be used with the 7308 series of tubes, due to circuit incompatibility. The 5000S & LE use a new circuit design.

Best regards,

Jim Smith

Zanden Japan Website
Zanden USA Website