Bow Technologies ZZ-Eight CD player Page 2

The six brass switches are arranged logically: Standby, Pause, and Stop are arranged from back to front on the left; Previous, Next, and Play are lined up on the right. Nonetheless, if your short-term memory was damaged in the '60s (or beyond), you'll want a well-lit location for your ZZ-Eight if you want to see the switch legends! Or you can use the full-function remote, which, while ergonomically neat, is probably not quite what purchasers of a $6900 CD player have in mind: it's a standard-issue black plastic job from Philips. The switches work efficiently, except when you want to skip forward to, say, track 8—you have to click Next eight times, and it takes a few seconds for the transport to catch up. Better to use the remote's numeric keypad.

Overall, however, the ZZ-Eight's hands-on performance is fast, straightforward, and refreshingly simple.

Setup & Sound
I placed the ZZ-Eight on a constrained-layer-damped Zoethecus equipment-rack shelf and, after listening with the supplied cone in and out over a period of a few weeks, I left it out. I heard no difference either way. Perhaps it makes a difference on a less stellar surface.

In the many months I had the ZZ-Eight in my system I used three brands of interconnect cable (Yamamura Millennium 6000, Cardas Golden Cross, Electra-Glide Tesla) and two AC cords (Yamamura Quantum, Electra-Glide Reference). During most of my listening I used the Ayre K-3 preamp with the ZZ-Eight, but when that had to go back to Santa Fe for measurements and photography I borrowed a Stax SRM-T1W passive line section, which I found to be extremely neutral, if not the last word in flexibility.

Without reference to the subtle but easily audible effects of cabling, the ZZ-Eight consistently provided the most open- and transparent-sounding digital-based music reproduction I've had at home. Whether due to what sounds like an ultralow noise floor, or the organizational, jitter-reducing benefits of the I2S bus—which transports the audio and clock data separately instead of merging them, as is done with both AES/EBU and S/PDIF standards—or for both reasons, the ZZ-Eight did the most convincing job of separating and focusing instruments in space of any CD-based system I've heard here.

Images were focused and layered front to back on a voluminous soundstage akin to what's attainable with good analog. Especially impressive were the boundaries between images and surrounding air—and though the player couldn't perform miracles with primitive transfers, there was none of the etch and edge of early digital.

One disc I haven't been able to get off the player is Olu Dara's funky, folky, earthy, jazzy In the World (Atlantic 83077-2, HDCD). It was recorded at the tube- and analog-laden Sear Sound in NYC by Danny Kopelson, and someone should release it on vinyl. But what the ZZ-Eight did with this HDCD disc has got to be at the outer limits of 16-bit digital's capabilities. (And no, your HDCD player isn't defective: the HDCD light blinks on and off on every player—an audible error in the transfer caused by a problem with the HDCD encoder at Masterdisk, discovered after In the World was pressed.)

Dara's trumpet was big, warm, three-dimensional, and focused at front-center stage. It sounded real: brash and brassy and round—as it does on the LP of Conjure (American Clave 1006, footnote 1). Dara's voice, too, was pure, round, and focused. There was also the kind of deep, tight, dynamic, but naturally "stringy" bass I usually associate only with vinyl. The feel of fingers on strings was communicated fully, giving the music a solid, believable foundation.

Speaking of HDCD: More and more CDs are encoded with it every day, though some don't bear the HDCD logo—like Columbia/Legacy's superb-sounding reissue of Dave Brubeck's Take Five, which, in terms of purity and resolution of inner detail, rivals Classic's outstanding all-analog LP version. Since you probably already own many HDCDs, if you're buying a new CD player or processor, you ought to hear them decoded on an HDCD player before you choose.

The ZZ-Eight combined the warmth and roundness of the EAD 9000 III HDCD processor with the rhythmically taut punch of the Naim CD2 player I reviewed in February 1997 (Vol.20 No.2). Today's best discs don't need softening or flattering with euphonic coloration, and the ZZ-Eight didn't do that. Its brutal honesty made the great discs sing and the bad ones scream in agony, which is as it should be.

Just out is a 20-bit remastered version of the great Sinatra at the Sands (Reprise 46747-2); comparing it to the original CD transfer really lets you know how far this medium has come. The new version gives you room sound—a convincing context for Sinatra and Basie's band. There's a much greater sense of the body of Basie's piano and of Sonny Payne's drum kit, which now has skin, metal, wood, and dynamic impact. The late singer's voice is free of grain, edge, sibilant spit, and glassy etch. It's attached to a body and sounds believable, hovering in space. Applause sounds like flesh, not like rain on a tin roof. And there's genuine blackness to the background—not that confused sense of nothingness the older disc conveys.

I sample more than 20 discs every day, looking for music worthy of a review. One after the other, the ZZ-Eight never gave away its flavor or texture—if it had any. Instead, the recorded personality of each disc shone through. Some were incredibly warm and inviting, like Kambara Music in Native Tongues (Water Lily Acoustics WLA-CS-63CD), a new "East meets West" recording featuring Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and the superb British guitarist Martin Simpson. Others, like the achingly beautiful pop masterpiece by the Pernice Brothers, Overcome by Happiness (Sub Pop SPCD 427), were leaner, more "in your face." But always, I sensed that I was hearing the truth of the production, not the CD player's interpretation. There was no area of sonic "sameness" that I could hear on every disc.

Cabling changes yielded subtle but easily audible differences. Switching from the Yamamura Quantum to the Electra-Glide AC cables caused a slight loss of midrange warmth, tighter bass, and blacker backdrops. Differences between Cardas Golden Cross and Yamamura interconnects were minimal—both wires are cut from the same rich, detailed musical cloth. But reinserting the Electra-Glide Tesla interconnect yielded a slightly leaner midband, somewhat better bass definition, and a blacker backdrop. I found Electra-Glide cabling in both places too much of a good thing, and settled finally on Electra-Glide AC cabling and Cardas Golden Cross interconnect.

Unfortunately, one of the truths the ZZ-Eight ruthlessly revealed was that 16-bit/44.1kHz processing, even when you start with a 20-bit transfer, simply is no match for good analog—and good analog (hardware and software) need not be expensive. You knew this was coming, so I'll keep it brief: As good as the new Sinatra CD is, when I compare it to an original Reprise LP I hear more "there" there on the vinyl, despite the primitive tape edits that Lee Herschberg has cannily cleaned up in the digital domain for the new CD. Herschberg also re-EQ'd the recording, releasing more "onstage" sound and less of the PA's horny warmth. So as good as the CD is, when I want to hear Frank or Nat King Cole at the Sands, it'll be on vinyl.

While the ZZ-Eight's image focus was as convincing as I've heard from 16-bit CD, when I compared Classic's LP and CD of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall I heard a purity and convincing reality on the LP that the CD just misses—but it's gotten oh, so close in some ways. I also listened to DCC's superb-sounding CD transfer of Bill Porter's recording of Elvis on Elvis is Back (DCC GZS-1111), and then played the 180gm vinyl version (DCC LPZ-2037): On LP, Elvis had not left the building. Classic's LP of Duke Ellington's Jazz Party in Stereo (Columbia/Classic CS 8127) and Mobile Fidelity's accomplished gold CD of the same title (UDCD 719) were remarkably close, though the vinyl still sounded richer, airier, more like the real thing.

None of this will come as a surprise to either Bow Technologies design-team member Karsten Svendsen or the importer—they heard it in my listening room. Even the JVC XRCDs, pure as they are, suffered ever so slightly in direct A/B comparisons with their vinyl counterparts. But while such differences are slight, they are fundamental to re-creating a sense of a real event occurring in space before your eyes and ears.

End of analog sermonette...except to say that the ZZ-Eight came as close as I've heard CD-standard digital come to sounding like pure analog. In doing so, it allowed me to really enjoy the things digital does better. All in all, a mighty impressive performance with both HDCD and non-HDCD discs.

Conclusion
As I was finishing up this review, I received a $300 Panasonic DVD A110 player, which includes 24-bit/96kHz decoding. I put the gold 16-bit/44.1kHz CD of Pulse (New World/Classic NW 319) on the Bow Tech and the 24-bit/96kHz version on the DVD player and did an A/B. I also put a second 16-bit copy of Pulse on the Panasonic and did another A/B. The sonic differences between the two 16-bit discs were considerable. The ZZ-Eight showed the cheap player what it's made of, producing rock-solid three-dimensional images, jet-black backgrounds, deep, taut bass, and a wide, deep soundstage—the kind most analog devotees never have thought 16-bit digital could produce. Nonetheless, the $300 DVD player sounded pretty good!

But when I A/B'd the 24-bit/96kHz DVD against the 16-bit CD, the $300 DVD player produced a bigger, warmer, richer, higher-resolution, more analog-like sonic picture. I can only imagine what that DVD will sound like on players engineered to the ZZ-Eight's standards. What I heard on the $300 player has sold me on the higher-resolution format. How much clout the few specialty audio companies licensing titles and producing playback gear will have on the marketplace remains to be seen.

If you have a large collection of CDs and want to buy your last top-shelf CD player, please consider the Bow Technologies ZZ-Eight. Its purchaser can be assured of getting a player that takes advantage of much of what has been learned about digital sound reproduction in the past decade. If I weren't a reviewer about to audition yet another HDCD player and I could afford the ZZ-Eight, I'd buy it and be done with it. It's that good. On the other hand, if you're into CD on the cheap, do yourself a favor and add these new 24-bit/96kHz DVD players to your short list. Then wait for the software to flow. Or should I say drip, drip, drip. I am.


Footnote 1: This is a must-have LP or CD of the texts of Ishmael Reed set to music. And congrats to Reed for winning a MacArthur Foundation grant!
COMPANY INFO
Bow Technologies
Durob Audio BV
PO Box 109
5250 AC Vlijmen, The Netherlands
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tonykaz's picture

"I'd buy it and be done with it, it's that good"

I expect and even demand honesty from reviewers. Reviewers at Stereophile have ( or should have ) a fiduciary responsibility to readership, shouldn't they?

It seems blatantly obvious that you have a disdain for all things 16/44, so why make an obviously dishonest attribution ?

I have you as a person whose nervous system is intentionally tuned to all things 33.3. I also had that synapse tuning arrangement, back in the day. I lately changed my synapse tuning to 16/44 ( it's like changing from Vodka to Scotch from the Islays, it's no big deal that rewards with vastly improved utility ) .

I would enjoy your observations if I felt a consistent honesty.

Tony in Venice

Ortofan's picture

... an analog disc fanboy?

Cut the poor fellow some slack.
At the time of the review, it's been 10 years since CDs started outselling LPs and it will be another decade before the vinyl revival begins in earnest.

If you want to complain, then note that MF is comparing playback from a $7K CD player with that from a turntable/tonearm/cartridge/phono stage setup with a combined cost of $15-20K. Is that in any way equitable?

Likewise, where are the comparisons with some other CD players in the same price range? A comparison with a $300 DVD player seems rather pointless.

JHL's picture

...need less projecting and moralizing and more letting go and perspective. I tend to think that the kindly reviewer, column given here for free, isn't an elected or ordained official of vast and ponderous truths.

He's a *reviewer* and this is, for now anyway, a free market.

This is entertainment, not dialysis. -N. Pass.

tonykaz's picture

a

JHL's picture

...what that means, but if you were a dealer, your first obligation by your own rules and usual customer expectation, was to assess and report on these same wares. Maybe some helplessness overtook the stocking, auditioning dealership that it could neither advise or counter in the face of a magazine brought in off the street.

Which leaves intact the question of badgering an ancient column for the writer's purported want of professionalism or acuity, if that's what you're alluding.

Jim Austin's picture

It almost seems like you want a slap-down. Well, I hope this will suffice.

This reviewer's statement probably mis-led but it makes sense if the review is actually a Presenting & Promotion. ( Jim Austin will give me a slap-down for accusing this )

I can't quite parse what you've written here, so I'm not sure if it's offensive or not. Maybe I should just point out that this review was published in 1998, and the company that made the product is long gone. I find it a little strange to get all personal and indignant about something written 22 years ago. But never mind.

Otherwise, I'll just say that while no one writes for Stereophile who isn't willing to call it like he [edit: or she] hears it, Michael Fremer is probably the most outspoken and plainspoken of all of us--and has been for as long as I can remember.

Times are tough--I know I could use a vacation. You?

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

MatthewT's picture

Thanks very much.

tonykaz's picture

Thanks for writing.

I have many things in common with 33.3 and Mr.MF.

Reviewers have been ( since the days of Stereo Review & the English Mags of the 1980s ) closing with positive comments, despite not seeming to like or appreciate the reviewed devices. It almost seems a mandatory inclusion.

Some reviewers never use an apologagetic endorsement i.e. Jim Austin, J Gordon Holt, HR, Kal R., Steve G and of course the original JA1 ( true his entire life of reviewing ) . The closest JA1 ever came was to give the Adcom GFA555 a Class C recommendation after Anthony Cordesman looooooved it, after Holt sort of loved it and after reviewing the amp himself.

I feel that reviewers are "higher authorities" but they still need juried supervision in their choice of phrases. ( the measurement guy has been consistently brilliant )

Tony in Venice

ps. your new lady reviewer seems gifted

ps.2. Tyll was outstanding as are a few others that I should mention like our Canadian Stereophile Robert.

Michael Fremer's picture

I concur!

Michael Fremer's picture

For the same reason. Perhaps you didn't notice the date I wrote that review. I did not make a dishonest attribution. Not sure why you think that. It's funny because when the importer came to pick up the unit they made me an offer for purchase that had I accepted would have been dishonest. But I didn't take it because I am honest. Yes, I don't like 16/44 now though it's surely gotten better and I certainly didn't like it then but my likes and dislikes are not really the story. I do still prefer records. It's not even close for me but I did buy a dCS Vivaldi One and I do like playing my SACDs and streaming high resolution on Qobuz and Tidal. Reading this review for the first time in decades I rather enjoyed it and think it proves me prescient. You think otherwise. That's fine. Enjoy your 16/44. But please add the .1.

Anton's picture

I may be asked to turn in my audiophile card, but....

I like rocking to Radar Love in my VW.

I like listening to Louis and Ella and my now vintage Oppo UDP-205. (Insane tangential drift in this parenthetical, I just checked the model number to make sure I got it right and saw the secondary market prices, yow!)

I like CD, SACD, analog, cassette, reel to reel (even vintage commercial reels. Check out the old commercial release of Bridge Over Troubled Water and marvel!)

It's important, if we really do claim to be in it for the music, that we don't act as if we can only enjoy music "without pops and clicks," or if it is pure AAA analog...I get that an essential part of our recreation is identifying or creating differences between gear, but doesn't the joy hit you just as well when LCD Soundsytem starts singing about Daft Punk playing at his house during your commute? Or when Muse's "Madness" pops up on Sirius at the office?

If music only satisfies via a specific Hi Fi format on a 'qualifying' system, then we are really just gear fetishists.

End of rant.

rschryer's picture

...until you had to mention cassette.

Turn in your Audiophile card, sir. Right now! Do not make this any more difficult than it has to be.

tonykaz's picture

Can I have my Card Back?

I don't even remember getting it.

Did you scoop it up before they got around to mailing ?

Tony in Venice

ps. when are y'all gonna float down to my little "incubator for old people" in Venice?

I'll take you Kayak Fishing and let you enjoy the associations of all the other Canadians ( Montreal & Quebecers & Ontarios & Yellow Knife folks )

But, we replaced Hockey with shuffleboard and wacky-tobaccy

Tony in Venice

rschryer's picture

...for old people" in Venice?

When I get old. :-)

Ortofan's picture

... any of the pre-recorded cassette tapes from Telarc?

tonykaz's picture

It feels that we are now sailing into the uncharted waters of the 21st Century.

Audio Journalism, coming to my Mailbox, probably has less editorial content than the Audiophiliac YouTube operation of Steve G.

Format wise: I visited my nephew working on the Kevin Costner Montana TV series. I got to see part of the editing and sound gear. They maintain outstanding sound quality ( of course, digital ) . They are constantly improving their gear. Stereophile's Mr.Kal R would probably be staggered by what these Pro Audio folks work with on a daily basis and the performance results of their output.

Where are 'we' little, personal audio people, going to be in 5 years?

I was amazed at 2011 RMAF gear and digital's change to 24bit ( which I still haven't embraced now that my hearing is drooping at both ends of the audible range but corrected yet still dubious )

The iPhone designers have conquered.

Y'all Analog Planet people seem more Curators than Fortune Tellers but I hope that you will work to accurately forecast the next brief future reveals.

Bring us insights, pa-leeeeeeze.

Tony in Venice

ps. I keep forgetting that .1, old age is get'n me. ( I wonder if I can actually hear it ? )

canyelles's picture

Maybe your idea of audio bliss is listening to the equivalent of computing with an early analog computer, but it's not mine.

dial's picture

Bow doesn't exist anymore. Bo Christensen was also responsible for the Primare products.

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