CanEver Audio ZeroUno D/A processor Page 2

While in Setup mode, I tried to advance through the functions by again pressing the Setup button for longer than 2 seconds, but that didn't work. Then I tried pressing the Input button, but that didn't work either. Finally and entirely by accident, I held the Setup button for less than 2 seconds, and that did the trick: I was at last able to make my way to the LCD Brightness screen and to restore—you guessed it—LCD brightness.

Thus encouraged, at the end of my time with the ZeroUno, I tested some of its non-default settings; that said, except as noted otherwise, all the remarks that follow are based on listening to the ZeroUno in its default mode.

The first music I enjoyed through the CanEver ZeroUno was Daniel Barenboim's On My New Piano (24/96 download, Deutsche Grammophon), a collection of works for solo piano by various composers, played on a unique, straight-strung piano conceived by Barenboim and built by Chris Maene using mostly Steinway parts. The album is exceptionally well recorded, and through even a $200 AudioQuest DragonFly DAC leaves little doubt as to the instrument's size and sheer power. The ZeroUno took those revelations considerably further, presenting the Barenboim-Maene as an instrument with a slightly different timbral balance and an apparently limitless well of texture—and Barenboim as a player who can raise the hairs on the back of my neck without resorting to garishness.

But getting back to that instrument's sound: Through the ZeroUno more than the other DACs at my disposal, Barenboim's new piano sounded, pardon the expression, just a little less hi-fi than what I'm used to hearing from contemporary recordings: it had more tonal character—again, in addition to its bass power and its abundance of texture. Yet credit is also due the ZeroUno for so explicitly describing the differences between this and other pianos in other recordings—the latter including the one played by Mieczyslaw Horzsowski, then 98 years old, in a concert recording that included Schumann's Papillons (AIFF from CD, BBC BBCL 4122-2): There, the highest notes rang like crystal—soothingly, not glassily—in comparison to the meatier trebles heard from the Barenboim-Maene. (In the Horzsowski, the sound of the room is also more generous and more beautiful.) More important was how the ZeroUno put across Horzsowski's comparatively light touch and slightly more mechanical, but never unmusical, tempi.


Orchestral music was similarly impressive through the ZeroUno, albeit with exceptions. The first such recording I tried was of Franz Schmidt's Symphony 4, by Martin Sieghart and the Bruckner Orchestra Linz (AIFF from CD, Chesky CD143)—one of those rare audiophile recordings that's actually a better performance than most mainstream releases now available. But it left me slightly ambivalent: on hearing the solo trumpet that opens the first movement, I had the drearily audiophilish notion that the sound was freighted with an overabundance of harmonics—the instrument didn't sound as brassy and clear as it should. Similarly, the strings had texture, but also a bit of fuzz: too much texture, if you can imagine such a thing. (Sometimes, I can't.)

A better orchestral outing was the stereo version of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's 1955 recording of Beethoven's Symphony 7 (AIFF from CD, JVC JMCXR 0006). Here, too, I felt that the violins had a slight overabundance of texture, especially when vigorously played. But those were small potatoes compared to the really remarkable—and sadly rare for digital—abundance of momentum and drive I heard through the ZeroUno. Perhaps because the Seventh is the most rhythmically intense and varied of Beethoven's symphonies (Wagner praised it as "the apotheosis of the dance"), it gave the CanEver DAC a fine opportunity to show off its clearly superior temporal performance, from the thrust of the cello's ascending figures in the first movement, through the driving pizzicato notes in the Allegretto (which tends to flag somewhat under other batons, though not Reiner's), to the final movement's borderline drunken revelry. Again, digital components that keep orchestral warhorses this electric are rare.

During much of my listening, I compared digital files with LP versions of the same recordings. So it was with the Ornette Coleman Trio's At the "Golden Circle" Stockholm, Volume One (24/192 download, Blue Note/HDtracks). This sounded very tactile, immediate, and compelling through the ZeroUno. "Faces and Places" came across as the near-frantic yet never less than purposeful and single-minded whirlwind that it is, and the impact of Charles Moffett's drumming was particularly impressive: almost 78 quality, let alone LP quality!

Moffett banging away at the edge of his ride cymbal created a deeper, blacker pool of sound from the LP (Blue Note ST-84224, in a bog-standard Universal reissue) than from the download, and it was easier to pick up on and make sense of the rhythm and tempo established early in the piece by bassist David Izenzon. But the LP of this recording sounded timbrally muffled compared to the download played through the ZeroUno. The LP had more bass oomph and just a hair more bass swing, but through the DAC there was much greater clarity, particularly in the bottom octaves. Some details higher in the audioband—Moffett's hi-hat work, for example—were also easier to hear via the ZeroUno.

A more exemplary moment arrived when I compared the original vinyl version of the Band's so-so third album, Stage Fright (Capitol SW-425) with an AIFF ripped from the 2000 CD version (Capitol 25395-2), the latter played through the ZeroUno. Some distinctions fell along party lines: the LP sounded tonally richer, the digital file somewhat brighter and concomitantly more detailed and explicit. What I didn't expect was to hear the digital file convey more—and more realistic—information with regard to rhythmic nuance and sheer bang. Richard Manuel's crazy-loose drumming in "Strawberry Wine" was even crazier and looser through the ZeroUno, with more forceful snare-drum beats (a bit of a misnomer, as it sounds as though the snares on the bottom of the drum were left untightened for this number). And it was interesting how, at the end of the instrumental middle eight, the ZeroUno made the backing vocals—which sound as if they were actually discarded in the mix, but not before they'd bled into adjacent tracks—a bit easier to hear than on the LP. Apart from regretting the slight comparative leanness of the digital playback, that was the one I preferred.

Encouraged that the ZeroUno's greatest strengths had to do with its way with the most basic musical fundamentals, I turned to the simple arrangements on Bob Dylan's third album, The Times They Are A-Changin' (AIFF from CD, Columbia CK 8905). Tonally, the recording is far from perfect—pungent, peaky, grainy, with so little to recommend it spatially that the choice between stereo and mono versions is down to the flip of a coin. (The exception is the best-sounding song on the record, "Restless Farewell," which obviously benefits from being in stereo—the spatial presentation of Dylan and his guitar is more nuanced—and the sonic clarity of which well suited Dylan's arpeggio-happy picking.) Yes, the ZeroUno seemed to pile even more harmonics and texture on the sound of Dylan's already overkeening harmonica: insult visiting his friend injury for old times' sake. But the essence of the music—the literal meanings and impacts of the words, the relentless sense of the melodies, and, especially, the rhythmic nuances—was laid bare. Through lousy gear, Dylan's über-rubato performance of "With God on Our Side" can be maddening, frustrating: Here it was transcendently effective.


Moving back up the evolutionary ladder of arrangemental complexity, I tried the recording of Brahms's Clarinet Quintet by the Juilliard Quartet and clarinetist Charles Neidich (AIFF from CD, Sony Classical S2K 66285), and was not at all disappointed. Though not quite threadbare, the sound of this recording isn't the lushest out there, and while the ZeroUno didn't put lipstick on it, it did send it out of the house with clean underwear: strings were abundantly well textured, and Neidich's clarinet maintained its lovely colors even in the briskest phrases—and the notes he played in its lowest register revealed a convincing sense of the instrument's size. Again, and more important, the Italian DAC allowed the music exceptional and truly analog-quality melodic flow and temporal thrust and momentum. It's such a pleasure to hear, say, a ritardando phrase change tempo in a manner suggesting that fallible people and not infallible machines are doing the decelerating. That sort of accurate reproduction of minute qualities of sound and time is part of what constitutes realistic playback—and yes, it's the sort of thing one takes for granted with a good-quality record player.

Direct comparisons between the ZeroUno's Smooth and Sharp FIR filter settings proved interesting. I went back to the Sieghart/Bruckner Orchestra Linz recording of the Schmidt Symphony 4, which, with the default Smooth setting, had seemed freighted with an excess of texture, especially audible on the solo trumpet that begins the first movement. After switching to the Sharp FIR setting, the trumpet did in fact sound slightly more clear—enough that I heard, for the first time, a slight sag in pitch toward the end of the soloist's penultimate note. That was all well and good—but as the orchestra slid into the symphony's first climax, the increase in volume was accompanied by a trebly harshness of tone in the massed violins. That harshness was severe enough that I said to the empty room, "this is terrible!"—and it was. Further listening produced similar results, tone and texture being the only performance parameters that appeared to be affected—ie, musical momentum, spatial performance, et al seemed unaffected by differences in the FIR settings.

Distinctions between the On and Off settings for the Zero Uno's Jitter Filter were less apparent. Was there a little more audible grain in the sounds of cymbal decays in "Sheriff of Hong Kong" by Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, from Doc at the Radar Station (AIFF file) with the filter turned off? And was the drumming a little less stiff with the filter in the ZeroUno's default On position? It seemed so—just as it seemed that, with the Jitter Filter set to On, the syncopated double bass seemed a less clumsy fit in the tempo of Nick Drake's "Fruit Tree," from Five Leaves Left (AIFF from CD, Island 422 842 915-2). But these were edge-of-audibility differences; more audible—but more confusing to my ear—was the effect of turning off the ZeroUno's Oversampling filter, which reduced air and shimmer, yet counterintuitively also seemed to increase the edginess/metallic quality of steel-string acoustic instruments. (Banjo, anyone?) I distinctly did not like the effect of turning off the Oversampling filter, so I only tried it once.

A few words about scale—something else the ZeroUno was good at, though LPs still did a better job of allowing musical ensembles and recording venues to sound huge when called for. For example, the title track of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Echo (AIFF from CD, Warner Bros. 47294-2) sounded convincingly big through the ZeroUno, but even bigger when I played the LP (Warner Bros. 47294-1) on my analog front end (which includes the Hommage T2 phono transformer, a one-box bigness machine). Yet in making this observation, I should also acknowledge that this effect might actually be a distortion. There it is.

With regard to the most musically fundamental elements of playback—rhythm, momentum, propulsiveness, the ability to convey a series of pitches as a string of musical notes with a human-ordained sense of flow—CanEver Audio's ZeroUno is the most capable DAC of my experience. It not only played music well, it let instruments and singers sound good: convincingly toned, richly textured, spatially palpable. Still, I never quite shook the impression that it was adding a bit of itself to those sounds.

How good was the ZeroUno? Good enough that, near the end of its time here, while double-checking my observations with certain recordings, I found it virtually impossible to listen to short snippets of music: When I tried to listen again to just a bit of Dylan's "With God on Our Side," one verse turned into the whole song, the song turned into the whole album, and the album turned into a retrospective of Dylan's early career. (I stopped halfway through Bringing It All Back Home only because I noticed it was getting dark and I hadn't walked the dog.) That sort of goodness makes a product hard to review and easy to love.

I don't know if this is the expensive digital source component I'd buy if I were interested in buying such a thing. Were I to spend this kind of money on a medium that would still remain my second choice, I'd have a hard time ignoring such a product as the Luxman D-06u ($9990), which offers a fine-sounding DAC and adds the flexibility of an SACD/CD transport. But while more flexible choices abound, and while cheaper choices are also thick on the ground, I've heard no other digital product that succeeds quite so well as the ZeroUno at letting music sound like music. Strongly recommended.

CanEver Audio
US distributor: Fidelis Music Systems
460 Amherst Street (Route 101A)
Nashua, NH 03063
(603) 880-4434

mrkaic's picture

What function do the tubes perform? Are they just cathode followers, like they are in the following video?

I conjecture they stuck in the tubes for cosmetic reasons, to impress clients who have no clue about electrical engineering, but like shiny objects. Am I wrong? :)

Consound's picture

Good Morning Art, thank you for the passion that you transmit while doing your job. I don't understand how come that a converter that you find as the most capable DAC of your experience (Canever review) ends up in the class B rating. Please let us know. Kind regards. Stefano