Zanden Model 600 Integrated Amplifier
The Emperor's Clothes
Review By Todd Warnke
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This is tough thing to say, but tonality is missing from music, and I'm not referring to modern classical or to Rap. Rather, music played back through most modern audio gear has become naught but a Platonic shadow of itself. It is as if, in the drive to create objective gear, the result has been to objectify the music itself. So, in place of the rich tonal and textural life we find in the concert hall, the jazz club, the blues bar and the folksy coffeehouse, in the home we have dry, flat virtual reproductions.
Of course I am painting with a broad brush here, but think about, or better yet, listen to it. Grab an acoustic guitar, go to a piano studio or ask a neighbor kid to come over with their trumpet and play a line or two. Then compare that to a recording of the same type of music and the reproduction will sound as dry and boring as Aunt Bessie's fruitcake. And after you do that but before you cry, "Hey Todd, that may be true generally, but not for me as my system easily projects the difference between a pre and post '64 Stratocaster, from three blocks away! So of course my system resolves detail
wonderful.", please keep in mind that I am not talking about detail in general, but rather of a particular type of detail. Perhaps an example will help.
When your significant other calls you on the phone, an admittedly bandwidth restricted and fidelity handicapped medium, there are enough cues available, enough unique detail of various sorts to recognize them immediately. Now place your significant other in the same room and listen to their voice and the two sounds are amazingly different, with the tonal nuance in their voice and the harmonic envelope being dramatically affected. All of which leads us to believe that the information you need to discern who someone is on the phone is not tonal, or at least far from tonal alone, and, in a like manner, one can differentiate venues, instruments, players and vocalists through an audio system in spite of its tonal parsimony. Yet, to our detriment, many hi-fi manufacturers, most especially in North America and Great Britain, have spent the last several decades pursuing detail of various types over tonal purity and completeness. Fortunately, audio speaks in languages besides English.
In the late 70s Japan, along with various French audio designers created a high-end aesthetic almost directly opposed to what was happening in the US at that time. This aesthetic focused on tone and beauty. Like many things Japanese, this focus became near obsession, with many components taking on elaborate finishes to complement their sonic attributes, but the essential drive to recreate the complete tonal envelope remained the touchstone. In the beginning the vast majority of the gear was tube-based, class A, single-ended and low powered. However, as time when on designers turned to other operating modes, circuit topologies and design issues, but always under the basic viewpoint of the preservation of tonal and harmonic accuracy.
The Model 600
It is was this environment that Kazutoshi Yamada found himself in after graduating from Osaka Prefecture University with a degree in electronics, and so in 1980 he founded Zanden with the express purpose of designing tubed audio gear. In the years since Mr. Yamada's work has earned him six patents, but not content with music reproduction alone, he has also organized and produced over 500 live classical and jazz events.
Zanden, the company, has developed into a small but well-known firm in Asia while the US has only recently learned of them, primarily due to their phenomenal phono-stage, the Model 1200, and their equally impressive DAC, the Model 5000. Both are novel designs, utilizing Yamada's own patented circuitry and filters. And both cost. A lot. And with reason as all the 1000 line of components, including the Model 3000 pre-amplifier, and the Model 7000 and 9000 power amplifiers are 100% hand-built. With the newly introduced 100 line, of which the Model 600 integrated amplifier is the first to reach these shores, Zanden has turned their eye to more affordable building techniques to bring their sound to market, in this case for
From the outside there is little to show a concession to price as the casework is finished to a mirror polish and employs a whimsical sense of design. It is only on close inspection that you notice that the metal is not of the overkill,
0.5 inch thick variety. That same close inspection reveals that most of the money used to build the Model 600 has gone to the parts that matter, such as the heavy and beautifully made WBT binding posts. The four pair of RCA input jacks, stacked on the left rear of the amplifier, are recessed and also well-built. Up front the three control knobs - power, source and volume - feel hefty and slide smoothly. There is no remote control, nor are there pre-out and power-in connections. And don't look for a tape or processor loop either. Still, if adding those things would have detracted from the sound or would have shifted the focus from purity to feature set, then, in my estimation, Mr. Yamada made the right design choice.
Of course what matters most is what is on the inside. There the Model 600 uses four KT88 power tubes, wired in triode, to output 35 watts a channel. The circuit is push-pull and built around Yamada's patented fixed-bias, capacitor-coupled design, which removes a by-pass capacitor from the more standard fixed-bias circuits. The power supply is all tube, using a single 6X4 tube for bias supply and two 5AR4 tubes as rectifiers. Lastly, four EF86 tubes are used in the gain stage, and instead of point to point wiring like the 1000 line, the Model 600 employs a PC board.
The Other Stuff
The Model 600 saw duty with a wide variety of equipment but spent most of its time powering a pair of Silverline Panatella III loudspeakers and amplifying signal from either a Cary CD-303/200 or an Ayre CX-7 CD player. Interconnects were Cardas Neutral Reference, Audio Magic Illusion and Acoustic Zen Silver Reference while speaker cable was Cardas Golden Reference. Power cords were Shunyata Research PowerSnake Anaconda vX and
Taipan, Audio Magic Illusion, JPS Labs Digital and Acoustic Zen Krakatoa. Power conditioning came courtesy of a Shunyata Research Hydra. Other significant gear used during the review included Merlin VSM loudspeakers, a Dodson DA-217 DAC and my reference First Sound Presence Statement pre-amplifiers and Manley Neo-Classic 300B amplifiers.
So, finally we come to the reason for this review, what the Model 600 sounds like. And that, in a word, is pure. From mid-bass right through mid-treble the Model 600 combines accurate, rich, full, detailed tonal and harmonic character with excellent speed, fine dynamic shading and superb transparency. That's a lot for a single sentence so let me break it down.
First, the Model 600 has the most see through and natural transparency I have encountered in a tubed integrated amplifier. There is nothing etched, forced or artificial about it, and yet the Model 600 has the ability to draw out, with naturalness, the subtle details that most other pieces of audiophile gear only hint at. The transparency of the Model 600 is such that, several weeks ago when I had a house full of devout non-audiophiles, friends who have spent years laughing at my obsession, so I decided to use the Model 600 to show them that this stuff matters. Using the Ayre CX-7 CD player as the source and driving Silverline Audio Panatella III loudspeakers, one by one I sat my guests down in the sweet spot and played them
Get Right Church by Paul Geremia, the opening track on Preachin' The
Blues: The Music of Mississippi Fred McDowell [Telarc CD-83536]. Then I swapped the power cord on the Model 600 from a PowerSnake Anaconda vX to a Powersnake
Then to an Audio Magic Illusion and a final time but with an Acoustic Zen
Krakatoa. Each and every person was shocked (pun intended) by the differences, with several commenting that they would have expected such changes to be evident only when swapping speakers. And they are right for the Model 600 allows every change to the system, and every nuance on a recording, to pass through. Thankfully it does this with beauty and gracefulness, eliminating the ruthless edge of so many "transparent" components. But be ware, if you have a weak link the Model 600 will not sweeten things to hide that link.
Dynamically, in common with quality tubed products, the Model 600 breathes with micro-dynamic ease. The nuanced touch of a Ralph Towner guitar album such as his solo effort,
Ana [ECM 1611] depends on this micro-dynamic vitality to sound real, and the Model 600 acquitted itself superbly. On the other side of the coin, one area that more recent tube designs have improved on is their ability to convey macro-dynamics with close to that same skill, and here the Model 600 shows that it is on equal footing with the best tubed designs. The Steve Tibbetts album,
The Fall Of Us All [ECM 1527], like the Towner album is on ECM and is guitar based, but is much more electronic, explosive and dynamic. Here the Model 600 proved that it could pull off musical implosions with power, if not quite the unshakeable authority of a solid-state behemoth.
Speed and timing, as can be derived from my preceding comments on micro-dynamic reality, were uniformly excellent. This further fleshed out guitar and piano instruments, for just one example, and helped to build a strong sense of propulsion and rhythm.
However, as beguiling and involving as the preceding sonic virtues are, they pale beside the real strength of the Model 600, which is its stunning sense of tonality. When you hear real tonal texture, such as that presented by the Model 600, it is akin to seeing a painting in the flesh. There is simply no way a reproduction or lithograph is able to capture the way light plays with the layers of paint, adding depth and magic to Van Gogh's
"Lillies", just as no amount of extra-tonal detail can substitute for the intimate interplay of tone, harmonic and overtone in a Debussy tone poem.
Not to seem like a string instrument fetishist, but a fine example of what I mean can be found with a listen to the opening sequence of songs on Shawn Colvin's breakout
album A Few Small Repairs [Columbia 67119]. The opening track "Sunny Came
Home" uses multiple acoustic guitars, a mandolin and a finger violin. The next
track titled "Get Out Of This House" gives us guitars, violins and a cello. On the third
track "The Facts About Jimmy", the guitars fall back to just a couple but are augmented by a trombone, flugelhorn, French horn and a bass clarinet. Each of these instruments has a particular timbre that producer John Leventhal means to exploit in order to heighten the emotional impact of each song. And since he co-wrote all three as well played the bulk of the guitar parts, he got what he wanted, at least when a system is capable of tonal accuracy. Listening to and through the Model 600 I heard not just your standard complement of spatial definition, speed differences, and harmonic variances between instruments, but instead I was overwhelmingly aware of the very deep and fundamental tonal nature of each guitar, mandolin, violin and cello. From first attack through the smallest quiver of decay, each instrument and vocal occupied a unique, rich tonal space that it stamped with individuality and near complete believability.
This level of tonal nuance is only possible when several sonic attributes conspire in the appropriate ratios. First, a component must be fast so that notes do not blur and remain distinct, yet it must not jump off the note so quickly that we see nothing but a shadow of the event itself. A component must also balance the opening harmonic envelope with the complete decay of the note and all its harmonics. And a component must have an even-handed frequency response. This is hard work, hard work that the Model 600 performs so effortlessly and with such grace that from mid-bass to mid-treble it comes much closer to the ideal than anything
I have heard for less eight grand.
There is, however, a caveat about this level of tonal performance. In order to hear what the Model 600 can do, just as with any amplifier, you must pair it with appropriate loudspeakers. In this case appropriate loudspeaker means one with a relatively flat impedance curve. My reference Merlin VSMs have a nominal impedance of 8 ohms with a minimum of 6.5 ohms, a load that the Model 600 handled quite well. However, the Silverline Audio Panatella III loudspeakers, which are in for review, have both a flatter and a higher curve and so formed a synergistic match with the Model 600. With the Panatellas the sound was rich, full and even, and without a trace of over-ripeness or looseness. Only below 40 to 45 cycle did the weight begin to lighten, and then just a touch, while the top-end extended to at least 15,000 cycles if not beyond.
As for weaknesses, the Model 600 fits the audiophile mantra almost perfectly, as what errors it has are largely subtractive. First, while the bass is full, tight and propulsive, it does not extend with flatness to 20 cycles. Second, the top end is full of life and sparkle, but it too seems to stop just short of the peak. As for additions, the upper bass has the tiniest bit of warmth that adds an inviting touch of drive. And, aside from the fact that its excellent clarity will mandate careful system matching, that is about it.
A Value Judgment
This price range has no end of competition for the Zanden Model 600. Besides integrated amplifiers, you can put together more combinations of pre and power amplifiers for
$4,500 than there are audiophiles. With that in mind I'm going to cut short my normal comparison section and instead spend a bit more time talking about me, or at least about why I find the Model 600 so spot on.
Let's face it, errors in audio reproduction are the norm. There is, and as far I can see into the future, there will never be a perfect component. With that as a starting point, we must understand that audio is an imperfect pursuit and pick our errors accordingly. So if it were in my power to make every audio designer take an oath - let's call it the Audiocratic oath - it would be this, "First, do no tonal harm". Far too many components have received acclaim for secondary skills; staging, dynamics, extension or PRAT, all while missing, distorting or masking the tonal character of the recordings they playback. Think about it for a second with me. Musical notation lists four things. The instrument or instruments to be played, the pitch to play at, the duration of the note and the dynamics. Two of those things relate directly to tone, the instrument and the pitch, while a third, the duration of the note is strongly influenced by both the instrument and the pitch. So any tonal mistake instantly kills at least half if not three quarters of what we are listening to. Blow this, and why bother with anything else?
Of course there are some who quite rightly point out that you can get so wrapped up in the pursuit of tone that it morphs to a beauty over reality fetish. And in some cases they are right.
I have heard many single-ended power amplifiers that speak a language of beautiful diplomacy, dwelling on the serene and only hinting at the terrible realities of music making. But the Model 600, at least to my ears, does not do this as it has the ability to project the icy chill of Vaughan Williams Antarctic Symphony or the mechanical ruthlessness of Lustmord's
The Place Where The Black Stars Hang [Side Effects DFX 16] as equally well as it projects the mystical beauty of an Arvo Part mass.
The Model 600 is, of course, not perfect. But at $4,500 it offers sound far beyond any expectation. Detailed, dynamic, transparent, and oh so beautifully rich and tonally accurate, it has the ability to ensnare on first listen and to continue to captivate over the long run. Placed in a proper context, I found it to be so completely involving and relaxing that I simply forgot about gear and listened to music alone. Put another way, if the ever-suffering Robin were to say that my term as an audiogeek was about the expire for good, and that I needed to find a final system, the Model 600, because of its simplicity, ease of use, relatively affordable tubes used, and, ultimately, sound quality, would be at the top of my list of integrated amplifiers to retire with.