Zanden 5000 Mk.IV/Signature D/A converter & 2000 Premium CD transport Followup from December 2006

Followup from December 2006 (Vol.29 No.12):

No doubt Zanden Audio Systems was more perturbed and horrified by the measurements published with last month's review of the $27,970 Zanden 2000P CD transport and the $15,470 5000 M.IV Signature D/A processor than was I, but it was hardly more pleasant for me as a reviewer, and equally shocking.

As I've written before, if I were guided solely by measurements I'd have chucked my vinyl long ago. Digital measures far better, yet the proof is in the listening, and I much prefer listening to records.

So along comes a digital front-end that I find utterly enticing, and it measures worse than poorly: the measurements scream "defective," with gross amounts of distortion among the problems. Yet based on a second listen to when these samples of the DAC and transport were returned to me, I didn't hear "distortion," and I doubt you would either.

So what's going on? Just as early digital measured "perfectly" but sounded dreadful, it's obvious that we still don't necessarily measure everything and, more important, we clearly don't rank what we measure in terms of importance because, despite the awful distortion and linearity (etc.!) measurements of the first sample, it sounded as attractive and inviting the second time around as I remember it sounding the first.

After a second listen to the first sample, I can tell you that its horrific measurements did not translate into horrific sound. The qualities of listenability, liquidity, and continuousness, with a freedom from harshness and grain that I heard the first time, were still there. In terms of the Zanden's subjective sonic performance, I don't take back a word of the first review.

I had not played with the "phase" (polarity) switch during the review because much of the music I listened to was recorded multitrack, where polarity often shifts between the channels, which in my experience renders the difference in absolute polarity insignificant. [See the "Measurements" sidebar—Ed.] Little did I know that I was listening with the polarity inverted when the front-panel control said otherwise, and little did I know that listening that way intensified the effects of a manufacturing error.

This time I listened to both positions on the first sample and whatever the measured differences, I can't tell you they translated into significant sonic ones.

Having reviewed Zanden's original phono preamplifier and heard whole-system presentations at audio shows, I didn't go into the review expecting Krell-like bass performance, and when I didn't get it from the first sample, I wasn't surprised. Even though the first sample's bottom-end performance was not what I'd call robust, I found the textures cleanly rendered and satisfying in the context of the overall sound. When the defective sample was returned, I reached the same conclusion. There wasn't wallop, but there was enough information and nuance to carry the less than weighty presentation. Still, I probably should have made more of this in the original review.

That I found myself actually enjoying listening to CDs over the long haul was significant enough for me. It was the Zanden's overall musical presentation that excited my senses, and that's what I reported. I got into this hobby for musical reasons, and if my analytical abilities are occasionally subsumed by my enjoyment of the music, so be it!

The Second Sample: The second sample of the 5000Mk.IV Signature (the measurements of which I've not yet seen) carries forward all of the original's strengths but offers, among other improvements, far better low-frequency extension, control, and definition. Among the discs I used for this comparison were DCC's gold CD reissue of Elvis Is Back (DCC GZS-1111) and Analogue Productions' gold CD of Janis Ian's Breaking Silence (CAPP027). It wasn't difficult to hear the substantial improvement in bass extension, especially through full-range speakers, and there seemed to be better extension and clarity on top, and perhaps slightly faster transients, along with a greater sense of overall immediacy—but all of that could have been the results of the firmer bass foundation or the second sample's lack of break-in. Overall, it was the much-improved bottom end that was most noticeable.

Zanden promised that the second sample would measure far better than the first, and I hope that proves to be the case. I switched back and forth between the DACs and compared the original in "reverse polarity" (positive) and with the second sample in positive polarity. Yes, the second DAC was clearly better, but I suspect the measured differences will look far greater than what you would hear if seated in my listening chair—a location that, after this experience, is somewhat less comfortable!—Michael Fremer