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Zanden 3000 preamp

28.06.2011..
..


ReMusic Spark Award

Even though preamplifiers with input and output transformers have always been made - just think of Audio Tekne and Sun Audio – most designers and manufacturers have not followed this technology. Therefore, its culture and use have got lost.

Actually, nothing happens by chance. In the hi-fi world, the transformers represent – better, they used to – one of the weakest points in the amplification chain. The sound outcome is in direct proportion to the quality of the transformer. A quality that depends on the refinement of the materials, on the accuracy of the design, on the precision in the calculation of the parameters and, finally, on the core hysteresis phenomenon (that is the delay of the reaction to the electric signals that have been applied which, generally, converts itself in a decay of the dynamic response to the transients).
This is probably the reason why, during the years of the boom of the transistors, the presence of the transformers was cut down as much as possible, mainly along the signal path.
Besides, the entry of the digital sources in the audio systems has brought about a quick decline of the analogical source and, above all, the use of the MC cartridges with low output, which need a step-up transformer to adapt the feeble electric output and make it suitable for the successive amplification.

In brief, in the last five-year periods, we have been lost track of the transformers.

 

A real pity, I would say.

 

Lately, however, there has been a revival not only of the analogical source, but also of the MC cartridges with low output and relative step-ups: systems that are so difficult to be tuned but so exceptionally compelling. Hence, the enthusiasts are still, and always, very interested in them, in the awareness of the high sound quality that is obtainable from this kind of sources.
Thus, some companies have been resuming – or have never given up to – the realization of preamplifiers with transformers. As I said before, this technology was quit to give room to the transistors technology as capable of improving the lab technical performances but, at the same time, of penalizing the performances at the listening test. I think that the technology that employs the transformers in the preamp section, both in and out, is today better practicable thanks to the technological progress in making a more accurate calculation and to the quality of the materials. Therefore, it allows, but it is only a personal opinion, to overtake the counter-indications that had caused its abandonment.


Let us come back to our tested object, saying that one of the companies that strongly believes in the use of the transformer in the preamp phase is the Japanese Zanden Audio System, based in Osaka. The Zanden Model 3000 is the sole preamplifier they make. By the way, have you noticed that I have never defined the Zanden Model 3000 as a tube amplifier? I am quite sure, without interviewing or emailing Yamada san, that he has decided to design principally a transformer preamp and I would not be amazed in receiving a similar answer.

The design of the Zanden Model 3000 is extremely refined, original and elegant, in a word, unique. The chromatic contrast between the mirror finished stainless steel and the champagne aluminium opaque satin finish is, without any doubt, the result of study and thought. Yet, the case is the synthesis between art and technique, as an example of architecture that relates somehow to the past, with a retro breathe represented by a series of regular parallelepipeds whit smoothed corners. They flank and support each other and are propped up by a heavy solid plinth that serves as the base of the entire apparatus.

In the rear panel are the typical connectors usually employed by who has principally thought how to reproduced music in a good way. I am not talking about the quality of the connectors (by the way, excellent indeed), but about the double outputs, both balanced and unbalanced, useful for bi-wiring. Additionally, there is also a balanced input featuring a coupled transformer both in and out.

Also internally, the Zanden Model 3000 is a continuous surprise! Around a single vacuum tube – an American 5687 Philips: a triode driver run through by the signals of the two channels –, several identical signal wires (8N pure copper solid core) twist themselves connecting the transformers which are covered by a fine and mysterious white rubber-like panel, maybe a dumper to control the vibrations or to act as an electric shield.
The capacitors are shielded with a black adhesive tape that protects also the vacuum tube enclosed in a cylinder made of the same material. I want to stress out three times the beautiful and very expensive double armoured Alps potentiometer, the selectors with silver contacts and the connectors of high quality. Also the chassis housing the separate power supply stage, makes no exception. The stage is traditional in the design, but not inside, where is a unique 6CA4 stabilizer vacuum tube, that is well protected and shielded to avoid vibrations and electromagnetic interferences. As a technical choice, the number of the components has been cut down. On one hand, this pays with a transparent and direct sound but, on the other hand, it makes more complicate the fight against the ground noise.

Beautiful and impossible

I want to tell you right away that I am in love with this preamplifier. With its appearance but most of all with its sound. Unfortunately, it is a hopeless love! Its retail price – eighteen thousand euro in Italy - is a hurdle hard to overcome. Well, I told you anyway. For me, the Zanden Model 3000 is an absolute reference among the preamplifiers that use input and output coupled transformers. If I could afford it, I would buy it, I would chose it as a preamp for my reference system, I would cherish and care it all day long because it generates the sound I like, the music as I like. By and large, I would be satisfied without looking for something else in the long period. With the Zanden, my music is so beautiful that I would not wish anything else. Having said that, let us move on. The Model 3000 is not an easy and accommodating gear. First of all, if you are not getting used to the sound of the transformer preamplifiers, the life together won’t be trouble-free. The handling of the potentiometer and volumes will be quite different from the traditional technology and you could be puzzled seeing the notch of the volume ‘round midday. It has to become a habit. Besides, the Model 3000 does not love too much sensitive power amps and high efficiency speakers. The best match is with low sensitivity solid state power amps, which value in volts is very high, and with medium efficiency speakers. Also important is the output source. If too high and plugged in this contest, it could be harmful in the achievement of the inter-transient silences, which are so important to enjoy the listening. Incidentally, I am getting used to the sound of a preamp with coupled transformers: my Antique Sound Lab Flora, modified with Mundorf capacitors and NOS vacuum tubes, is a tenet in my reference system. This technology is an amazing experience, but not for everyone, because the sound output is not striking, but substantial. The Zanden does not turn out with special effects. It reproduces the signal as never heard before. If you cannot recognise the slight tonal nuances or the outlined harmonics, the utilization of this kind of preamp could be not only useless, but detrimental.

If you want to catch the nuances and the outstanding parameters, such as the harmonic rendering, the correctness of the tone, the reconstruction of the musical soundstage, maybe a transformer preamplifier could be the panacea and, in the case of the Zanden Model 3000, the end of all games. You cannot just start all over again!

Connecting the Model 3000 to your own system - whether the synergy works – means getting a sound, which is very different from all the sounds listened before. Try to focus on two parameters: image and rendering of the harmonic built-up. The image is wide and enlighten but not bright. I mean, it is the light that illuminates the stage and not the stage that illuminates the spectator. At the same time, you can then enjoy transparency and resolution of the harmonic built-up that are all the info “around” the note emitted by the instrument. While listening to Miles Davis’ trumpet, you can detect the sound of the brass, the fingers on the valves, the artist’s breath, even the saliva inside the instrument.
A unique listening sensation, a magic in front of us and inside our soul, a fulfilling and engrossing listening experience.

You can maybe find several faults – many summed in its price – but this Zanden Model 3000 let sound and music to explode. If able to express itself, it can materialize a dream. I suggest, anyway, using high capacitive signal cables.

It is hard for me to end this review. I have to take into account the very expensive price. But, if you want to get an exclusive object, you must be disposed to pay for it. I imagine and hope that the enthusiast who buys the Zanden is also a profound connoisseur of hi-end and of the countless electric and not electric wariness that is necessary to obtain an excellent sound that, speaking about the Model 3000, must be considered “magic”.

 

Official technical specifications:

Input impedance: XLR 7kΩ, RCA 100kΩ

Output impedance: 150Ω

Analog inputs: 3 RCA, 1 XLR

Analog outputs: 2 RCA, 2 XLR

Tube complements: 1 5687WB, 1 6CA4

Dimensions: main 398x103x254mm, power 155x163x336mm (WxHxD)

Weight: 9.0kg (main), 5.5kg (power)

Official Italian dealer: to Audio Point Italia website

Official current price in Italy: 18,800.00 EUR

Associated equipment: to Roberto “The Rock” Rocchi's system

by Roberto Rocchi
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