The Entry Level #15 Page 2

Perhaps he sensed my dismay. "We have also revisited this decision from time to time," he continued, "because of an increasing number of Z [products] used which are not rack mounted, but are for freestanding and desktop systems."

I would love to see Parasound get rid of the rack-mount design altogether. Yes, the rack-mounting holes give the Z products an industrial, utilitarian look. But what if you, like most audiophiles, don't intend to mount your gear in a rack? Those rack-mounting holes, then, are simply awkward and useless.

As you might have guessed from the product's name, the Zphono•USB includes a USB output for recording music to a computer. Gah. While I know this will be an attractive feature for many, I have no immediate or foreseeable need for it. When I want to listen to computer audio files, I do. When I want to listen to LPs, I do. And while it would be truly wonderful to transform my computer audio files into LPs, I have no desire to turn my LPs into files. But I tried it out anyway, and it worked just fine. Unlike some USB-capable phono preamps, such as NAD's PP 3 USB, which Bob Reina reviewed in October 2010, the Zphono•USB lets the user monitor and adjust the analog audio level at the input of the A/D converter via its front-panel Gain control. If the gain is set too high, the message "USB Clip" appears in red on the Zphono's small, attractive front-panel display. The excellent user manual discusses this feature in full detail.

Interestingly, a small switch on the Zphono•USB's tidy rear panel allows the user to disable RIAA equalization for the USB output. Advanced users can therefore geek out with the RIAA EQ options in their recording software. Also on the rear is a Cartridge switch, which lets the user select the loading: 100 ohms (MC), 47k ohms (MC), or 47k ohms (MM). Above that is a Ground connector. Line 1 and Line 2 input jacks are provided for recording other sources to a PC—another cool option that I'd almost never use. To the right of the USB output connector is an AC Polarity switch, handy in situations marred by persistent hum. Finally, the Zphono•USB has a standard IEC AC receptacle for the included power cord.

The front panel displays more charms: a headphone jack lets the user easily monitor a source while recording, or enjoy personal listening sessions through headphones; the Mono button works to clean up the sound of old mono recordings (a very attractive feature, in my opinion); a Rumble Filter switch, to reduce low-frequency noise; and the Input switch, which scrolls between Phono, Line 1, and Line 2, the selected input illuminated in green on the display.

Parasound also offers a stripped-down preamplifier, the Zphono, which lacks the 47k ohm impedance option for MC cartridges and forgoes the USB output and gain control, headphone jack, Mono switch, rumble filter, and input selector. Richard Schram says that for many listeners, the sonic differences between the Zphono and Zphono•USB would be minor. I'll take his word for that, for now.

Schram was "on vacation" in Costa Rica when I asked him how Parasound can offer the Z products at such low prices, but he replied immediately and in great detail. Parasound's electronics are manufactured in Taiwan, where production values, he insists, are higher than those typically found in mainland China, specifically in terms of quality control and consistency. "A product built today will perfectly match a product built 10 years ago," he told me. In addition, Parasound has had long, continuous relationships with their three contract manufacturers. "The vendors we use are all audio enthusiasts, and they appreciate our designs and honor them." Schram also spoke of dedication and hard work: "Five of Parasound's employees have been with the company for over 20 years, and I'd say we're pretty high up on our learning curve." And, finally, my favorite bit: "Building cost-no-object audio doesn't interest me in the least. But building high-performance/high-value audio is a challenge that never ceases to be exciting. My work feels like a hobby most of the time."

I can relate to that.

From hushed to thrilling
I spun LPs on my Rega P3-24 turntable ($1295 in high-gloss white; soon to be discontinued), which has a Rega Elys 2 MM cartridge and has been modified with Rega's drive-belt upgrade and a Boston Audio Design Mat 1 carbon-graphite mat. Though expensive ($199), the Mat 1 is the most effective turntable mat I've tried. The rest of the system comprised my PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers ($299/pair), NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier ($379), and AudioQuest Rocket 33 speaker cables ($299/10' pair) and Sidewinder interconnects ($65/1m pair). All of the gear sat on shelves of my Polycrystal equipment rack and was fed power by a Furutech e-TP60 power conditioner plugged into a Furutech GTX wall receptacle via an AudioQuest NRG X-3 power cord.

In "Into Warmer Air," from her exquisite Without Sinking (LP, Touch TO:70 LP), Hildur Gudnadóttir's long, languid bow strokes on her cello's strings weave in and out of shorter, quicker ones, combining with Jóhann Jóhannsson's shimmering synthesizer textures to create a piece that vacillates between pure beauty and deep anguish. The Parasound Zphono•USB followed the many overlapping lines with grace, agility, and a good sense of momentum and flow, while successfully conveying the music's deep, heavy emotional intensity.

The title track of Fennesz's Seven Stars (vinyl EP, Touch TONE 044EP) combines gently strummed acoustic guitar and heavy bass with fun electronic sounds—imagine dozens of Ping-Pong balls falling from the sky and landing on a sheet of glass. I was impressed by the quality and quantity of that heavy bass through the Parasound, as well as by the size of the soundstage and the wealth of recorded detail: I felt as if I'd been thrust into the recording. Even better was the Zphono's knack for sorting through the dense mix to highlight the composition's heart, leaving me with only the sweet, lulling melody.

The Parasound's detail and physicality were never harsh or overwhelming, but always exhilarating and addictive. In "Levitation," from Pinch & Shackleton's eponymous collaboration (LP, Honest Jon's Records HJR LP59), the dub-step duo combine rapidly struck congas with unnaturally deep bass for an extremely visceral and moving experience. The opening moments of the piece are marked by swelling, ascending synth lines and lots of warbling low-end energy. Through the Zphono•USB, it seemed as though my little Jersey City apartment had been turned into a spacecraft and was soaring with the music into the moonlit sky. Again, I was overcome by the Parasound's sure, steady grip. No matter which direction this music turned, I felt certain the Zphono would follow.

But the song that best illuminated the Zphono•USB's many strengths was "Limit to Your Love," from James Blake's eponymous full-length debut (LP, Polydor B0015443-01). So much of what Blake does in his music—the strange and sudden breaks, the abrupt splices, the rapid pans, the voice modulation, the gut-shaking bass riffs—just wouldn't make sense through cheap computer speakers or earbuds. The same holds true for the work of many of today's electronic composers. That they would release such music is evidence of a deep and admirable faith in their audience and a boon to high-end audio.

In "Limit to Your Love," Blake sounds like he's having a lot of fun, playing the piano and crooning, pausing for long stretches, then returning with thunderous bass blasts. The Zphono•USB was both staggeringly quiet and stunningly forceful—when the music stopped, it stopped, and when Blake played the piano, he played it. That piano was accurately scaled in respect to the other musical images, and sounded like real wood, steel, and iron. For its part, the NAD PP 3 USB phono preamp was similarly quiet; it gave me a slightly stronger sense of pace and rhythmic certainty, but presented the piano in a much softer, more laid-back, less exhilarating fashion.

From the hushed and deeply moving cello of Gudnadóttir's Without Sinking to the thrilling orchestral climaxes of Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic performing Gustav Holst's The Planets (LP, Angel S 50.000), the Parasound Zphono•USB distinguished itself as a confident, authoritative performer with an impressively tight and certain grip on the music, and one that produced the greatest drama, scale, and sheer power I've heard in my listening room. Throughout my listening, the Parasound made music the way Mercury Rev made Deserter's Songs—with dedication and urgency—and gave me a taste of the best that high-end audio has to offer at a price almost anyone can afford. I don't think I can go back.

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