Zanden 5000 Mk.IV/Signature D/A converter & 2000 Premium CD transport Page 2

However, switching the Zanden DAC to the I2S input took the sound to an exalted level of clarity, suppleness, transparency, and precision. Now the CD-R recorded from analog sounded almost as good as analog, and certainly better than any digital I've heard here.

At the 2005 Hi-Fi News show in London, the Audiofreaks room featured an all-Zanden system driving Avalon speakers. Compared to most of what I heard that weekend, that room was an oasis of smooth, musical flow and utter ease and grace. I lingered there a long time listening to CD-Rs I'd recorded from analog and brought along. The Zanden system's sound was warm and refined, with none of the grain and edge that I usually (and correctly) associate with CD sound. Nor was it at all soft or rolled-off on top, or the bass thick or too ripe. In fact, the Zanden's crisp, extended top end could exhibit a hard edge when called for. The system could rock without ever sounding harsh.

But while enjoyable and impressive overall, the sound in that room was not what I'd want for long-term satisfaction, given my musical and sonic tastes. However, thinking about the sonic character of my system and of what I like, I figured if the Zanden transport-DAC combo could stamp my system with some of what I heard at the Hi-Fi News show, the results could be spectacular. That hunch proved correct.

Until now, I've never used the clichd phrase about "rediscovering" my music collection with the insertion in my system of a new piece of digital gear. Not even the dCS triple stack I reviewed in April 2003 had me saying that. What's always distracted me about even the best digital reproduction I've heard is the jittery sensation it induces in me (as opposed to digital jitter, though the two may be related), often accompanied by boredom—a deadly combination.

But the Zanden combo had me pulling out CD after previously dismissible CD and finally hearing a compelling presentation that excited my auditory and visual senses while producing the feel of musical continuity and delicacy that, heretofore, only good analog has provided (for me). For the first time, I actually looked forward to playing CDs.

I've been playing Keith Lockhart and the Utah Symphony's superb-sounding if somewhat unadventurous Symphonic Dances (Reference RR-105CD) since it arrived, and while I immediately appreciated engineer Keith O. Johnson's recording, it was only through the Zanden combo that the picture convincingly coalesced and began making sense to me the way even inexpensive analog always does.

Prof. Johnson's recordings remind me of a kid who sneaks into the hall during a rehearsal and stands right inside the door. He prefers a distant perspective, lots of room sound, and an unusually wide soundstage, usually as heard from the front of the hall. Through the Zanden duo, with the lights out, I convincingly felt as if I were sitting way back in the empty hall, the orchestra in the distance, spread across the stage and reproduced with palpable transparency.

From this difficult-to-reproduce perspective, edge, etch, and typical "digititis" can easily overwhelm the instruments' textures, timbres, and harmonic delicacy. The Zandens' ability to produce transparency and air without edge or etch created the most realistic and convincing images I've heard from an orchestra recorded from such a distant perspective. The three-dimensionality of the picture brought the hall's sidewall boundaries well to the sides, enveloping me in the space the way only analog usually does.

Compared to analog, CDs almost always sound two-dimensional and "smooshed" to me. The Zanden transport-DAC breathed honest three-dimensionality into recordings that have this in their analog counterparts but have never managed to exhibit it when digitally reproduced.

I pulled out what I'd always thought were good-sounding CDs that had nonetheless never sounded as good as their analog counterparts, such as the Bee Gees' astonishingly well-recorded Trafalgar (go ahead, laugh), which Mobile Fidelity issued on both gold CD and 200gm vinyl. The vinyl still sounded more real and managed to project more of the performances' emotional "physicality," but for the first time, the CD's transparency, three-dimensionality, and—especially—its microdynamic resolve made it a credible rival to the vinyl.

All of this appears to have been accomplished not by somehow softening the analog output to mask the harshness and edge of CD reproduction, as is often done, but by attacking the problem at its root. This seemed to be supported by the fact that soft, delicate recordings I've always admired—such as engineer Kavi Alexander's analog-sourced Water Lily Acoustics CDs—were not smothered by the Zandens. For instance, the astonishing Meeting by the River (WLA-CS-29-CD), by Ry Cooder and V.M. Bhatt (who can be seen in The Concert for George Harrison DVD), not only did not sound softer than usual, it actually sounded more open, airy, and dynamic than I'm used to, with better-defined images, greater transient definition, and tighter and better-defined bass from the tabla and dumbek.

I've always thought JVC's XRCD reissues of RCA Living Stereo titles sounded somewhat soft and euphonic, but with an overlay of inherent digititis—the worst of both worlds. But through the Zanden combo the XRCDs opened up, harmonically, texturally, and spatially, especially piano recordings. That had me pulling out the XRCD of Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby, which I've always found too warm and smooshed, but damn if the piano wasn't well-defined in space, and the cymbals did not, for once, sound like air brakes.

I hope JA finds time to listen to his recordings of Robert Silverman's performances of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas through this rig (OrpheumMasters KSP830). I've never heard these discs sound so open, airy, spacious, and believable—especially the delineation of the piano's physical boundaries, and the reverberant space JA captured so exquisitely—not to mention the sound of the piano itself, and JA's capturing of Silverman's touch on the keys.

Over the years, I've heard from CD players sounds that have been darker, warmer, brighter, richer, softer, more veiled, less veiled versions of what in the end proved to be musically uninvolving presentations. Some of these sounds were quite accomplished, given what I'd assumed were the intrinsic limitations of the Compact Disc. So I went into this review of the Zanden player expecting to hear another digital "flavor"—a warm, perhaps low-intensity one, but not a fundamentally different listening experience.

Don't get me wrong—the analog editions of recordings I compared still sounded more realistic and believable—but for the first time I found myself not caring about the medium and more concerned with the message. And crappy recordings and transfers still sounded that way. The Zanden combo is by no means a Band-Aid solution to the problems of bad digital processing.

However, I did listen long into the night on many occasions, and found myself pulling out, rediscovering, and becoming musically and emotionally involved in CDs I'd long ago concluded were dead meat. And CDs I'd thought were good now sounded great. The Zanden transport and DAC delivered soundstaging, imaging, dynamic nuance, tonal and harmonic purity, rhythmic flow—and especially transparency—with an effortlessness I hadn't thought possible from digital, not to mention 16-bit/44kHz digital, while being totally—I mean, totally—free of digital artifacts.

If, much like the Rockport System III Sirius turntable, the dCS triple stack I reviewed a few years ago was worthy of great respect for its groundbreaking resolve and analytical abilities, the Zanden 5000 Mk.IV/Signature D/A converter and 2000 Premium CD transport is the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn-Cobra-Castellon of digital playback. It draws out both the detail and the emotional content of recorded music and presents it to you with an effortlessness that lets you relax into the music as you might at a live performance.

This exquisitely built, four-box combo costs well over $40,000 and uses a chipset rarer than Unobtainium, so it won't be flying off the shelves—nor are there that many audiophiles who could put it on their shelves in the first place. I hope it measures well, but, as with vinyl, I'm more interested in how it sounds. And from what I hear, the Zanden combo of Model 5000 Mk.IV/Signature and Model 2000 Premium proves that the holy grail isn't necessarily greater resolution, but better reconstruction of the music. Perhaps Humpty-Dumpty can be put back together again. With billions of 16/44.1 Dumpty-sans out there, that's good news, even for audiophiles who can't afford this Lamborghini Countach of digital playback.