After I graduated from college I spent a year in Japan, getting acquainted with the culture of my ancestry, coaching linebackers at Kyoto University (“Get low and explode into your opponent!” I’d shout), and generally having a great time being free, mighty, and 21. Once, on a warm autumn afternoon, I visited Ryoan-ji temple, on the northwestern outskirts of Kyoto, and took my time taking in the simple splendor of its famed rock garden. There were worn crags in puddles of green moss that seemed to float on a granular sea of smooth gray pebbles, those pebbles carefully raked into striations of linear constancy interrupted only by islands of rocks and mosses, around which they swirled in calming, concentric radiations. How like a lagoon dotted with islands! I remember thinking. How like frogs dallying in the pools and eddies of a stream! My mind kept proposing likenesses in this way until, eventually, it ran out of comparisons, and I thought of nothing but the sweet quiet of the composed scene before me, a trompe l’oeil of nothing but itself.
Later that year, I was tasked with the raking of sand in the gardens of Hōfuku-ji, a temple in another prefecture. As I bent and shuffled backward, I swept carefully in long, parallel lanes. I remembered Ryoan-ji, of course, and was thinking how lucky I was to have its garden’s image in mind as I executed my duties that morning. I reveled in the recollections, my mind wandering in eddies of thought as hawks slowly wheeled overhead, letting out small, aggressive cries. When I finished, having raked an area the size of a baseball diamond’s infield and proud of what I’d done, I permitted myself a smile and a casual pose, hand atop the rake handle, ankles crossed as jauntily as an Elizabethan jester’s.
Then Genshō, vice-abbot of the monastery and my teacher, came striding up to me like a mad Toshiro Mifune, pointing with his folded fan and saying something in Japanese as he toggled the fan up and down. He pulled me by a shoulder and spun me around so I could see what was behind me. The striations I’d made were perfect -- the long fingers of the bamboo rake had dug parallel lanes softly into the sand as I’d moved steadily backward across the temple grounds. But when finished, novice that I was, I had walked crosswise across the sweeping, my wooden clogs chopping a telltale trail of small, rectangular cuts across their composed regularities. I hadn’t thought the job -- a circuit around the temple grounds -- all the way through to its end. Instead, I’d succumbed to beguilement and fallen in love with an illusion -- an image of my task. I hadn’t seen the job itself, from beginning to completion.
This is the kind of mistake that, in designing his electronics, Zanden Audio Systems’ Kazutoshi Yamada -- the opposite of a novice -- does not make. He thinks of things in a steady, unerringly shaped circle, from design, through parts choice and testing, to the delivery of sound. Yamada’s way makes complete sense, and produces some of the best products audio has to offer. He’s done this for over three decades now, and is a master in the field of audio electronics. His topline products -- among them the Zanden Model 3000 line stage ($17,250 USD) and the Model 1200mk3 phono stage ($25,000) -- are priced in the lower stratosphere of the high end and thus are out of most audiophiles’ reach. Recently, though, Yamada has come out with a new line of electronics, priced at a level more of us can afford.
I visited the Zanden room at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2014, met Kazutoshi Yamada and his US distributor, Eric Pheils, of Zanden Audio North America, and had a pleasurable time listening to a demo system comprising this new line of gear. The following October I reviewed, for SoundStage! Ultra, the excellent Zanden Model 120 phono stage ($7500), and for the past few months have had in my home system the subject of this review: the Model 3100 line stage ($12,500).
Design and appearance
The new line of Zanden electronics introduces an attractive, even elegant look. Except for its chromed top plate, the 3100 preamplifier, with a faceplate and case of sandblasted acrylic, looks as if carved from milk-white marble -- think Antonio Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1787). On its front are two large aluminum knobs: on the left, Input (for selecting the source component), and on the right, Volume. A pushbutton to the left of Input toggles the 3100 between standby and on, and another pushbutton, to the right of Volume, reverses the phase. The 3100’s single case measures only 14.2”W x 3.6”H x 14”D and weighs 19.8 pounds. It fit easily on the second shelf of my audio rack and looked quite handsome there, two shelves under the even smaller 120 phono stage. The 3100 comes with an ergonomically pleasing remote control, a full-function instrument about the size and weight of a double-barreled Orleans stainless-steel cigar tube, with a case of frosted acrylic that matches the main unit’s, and buttons for On/Off, Input, Mute, and Volume.
The rear panel is packed with connections: one pair of balanced (XLR) and three pairs of single-ended (RCA) inputs, two pairs each of balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) outputs, a ground terminal, an IEC inlet, and two 12V trigger sockets. These make the 3100 fairly versatile in terms of connectivity, able to incorporate a subwoofer, balanced power amp and source, as well as the standard set of two-channel components.
Inside, the 3100 looks deceptively simple, with output transformers and only two Philips JAN 5687WB tubes: one for its single gain stage (without negative feedback), the other for rectification. By contrast, my full-function VAC Renaissance Mk.III has six tubes in its line stage alone. As in the more expensive Zanden 3000 preamp, the 3100’s transformers reduce the output impedance (here to 300 ohms) and eliminate the need for the cathode follower, or second gain stage. Unlike the two-box 3000, the compact 3100 possesses a newly developed internal power supply and extensive shielding and damping to protect the music signal from interference from that supply.
By the time the Zanden 3100 arrived from Japan at my house in a fresh new shipping carton, I’d already received another, much more battered and well-traveled carton from Eric Pheils. He’d sent me a full set of Zanden cables that he’d used for demos at dealers and shows: multiple pairs of RCA interconnects, one set of XLR interconnects, a pair speaker cables, and several power cords. I spent a little time comparing them with my Siltech Classic cables, but the Zandens worked better, with tighter bass, more sparkling treble, and generally a more thrilling and exquisite sound. Attaching everything was a snap.
I sometimes used the 3100’s balanced inputs, using the Zanden XLR interconnects to connect the 3100 to my Cary CD player or Auralic Vega DAC. There seemed only slight improvements in sound. In the end, I used the balanced connections mainly for hooking up the two different stereo power amps at my disposal: a VAC Phi 200 and the Zanden 8120 (on loan). But for my critical listening for this review, I used only the VAC amp. I used my reference phono stage, Zanden’s 120, hooked up single-ended.
At first, after breaking in the Zanden 3100 for some two weeks, I had a hard time putting my finger on its sound. It seemed richer than my other preamps, yet despite that richness, I thought it also sounded cleaner, more balanced and evenhanded throughout the audioband. Nothing really stood out much -- but I slowly realized that I was feeling more involved with the music, especially when I played any of my jazz CDs. In fact, in the first month I had the Zanden 3100 in my system, I was so enthralled with what I was hearing that I must have played 400 jazz CDs -- half my entire collection. The sound of my system with the 3100 just caught hold and hooked into me. I was having a good time. In the beginning, I’d thought the 3100 sounded somehow more laid-back -- now I realized that its splendors were surreptitious, almost subterranean, slipping in like an underground stream, apparent only as ripples of light as it released its fresh waters into the soft currents of a salt-water lagoon.
Slowly, as I listened to more jazz, I realized that the timbres of instruments -- the horn choruses and solos, the soft mashings of hi-hats, exquisite piano trills -- were all more quietly and sensitively thrilling. I could hear subtle attacks, legatos and pianissimos, and the bent phrases of notes so much more easily -- the painterly touches of expressive performance from a musician working a trumpet’s plunger mute to shape the timbre of a note, or the elegant phlumphering of a trombone. There was a new richness in my system’s tonal palette, a more precise rendering of timbral colors, a clearer presentation of attacks and tails of decay. The 3100 made possible very clean reproduction of all musical events on a recording.
Eventually, I noticed something else: the Zanden 3100 was a champ at imaging, spatial cues, and soundstaging. Instrumental images were more lifelike, solid, and stable. Soundstages were wider -- sometimes astonishingly so, the stage often extending 3’ or more beyond my speakers’ outer edges. Stages were also deeper, with more air around individual instruments, more separation between them, and more tonal distinctions. For example, in Joe Lovano’s Tenor Legacy (CD, Blue Note CDP 8 27014 2), when he trades solos with Joshua Redman, I could tell that each player not only took up a distinct position on the soundstage, but that the timbres of their tenor saxes were also noticeably different: Lovano’s more fleet and solid, Redman’s rougher and grittier.
“Sophisticated Lady,” from Ray Brown’s The Duo Sessions, with Jimmy Rowles (two CDs, Concord Jazz CCD2-4938-2), struck a nice balance between image stability and sonic liquidity, with a sensuousness of flow throughout. I could feel the big wooden body of Brown’s double bass taking up a center position. At one point, Brown’s slap of a big E-string reverberated against my chest, temples, and legs, startling me. His phrasing -- after each initial pluck, his bending of the string to shape the note -- was marvelous and tactile. And Rowles’s piano, stage right, created bountiful harmonics that were rich in overtones, in both chords and single notes. Great and quiet spaces were part of the music too, short expanses of silence that created savor around any notes that preceded or followed them.
Lifelike is an adjective I seldom use in audio reviewing, but it applied here. The Zanden 3100 rendered human voices with naturalness and precision, without adding electronic artifacts of false, homogenizing warmth, or etched and brittle details. Singer Kevin Mahogany, in the jazz standard that’s the title track of his My Romance (CD, Warner Bros. 47025-2), digs deep into the bottom of his baritone range in the song’s opening bars, and his airy top-of-head voice sounded intimate and tender, delicate as a match flame. On vinyl, there was a beautiful timbre to Laura Nyro’s nearly three-octave range in “Billy’s Blues” and “Lazy Susan,” from her The First Songs (LP, Columbia PC 31410). In soprano range, her voice had a silky top end like a violin, and down in contralto territory a gritty gospel bottom -- and the Zanden allowed me to enjoy all the ornaments she deployed: glissandi, light vibrato, brassy midrange, bluesy notes held long, bent and flatted in light tremolos at the end of each track. In Bruce Springsteen’s mournful ballad “My Hometown,” from Born in the U.S.A. (LP, Columbia QC 38653), his voice quavered with regret and nostalgia as he colored it with deft ornaments, adding a twang here, hollowing out vowels there, simmering his normally brash style down to match the sorrow of his words.
Baroque music sounded superb through the 3100. I played the violin concerto Autumn, from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, performed by Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca, with solo violinist Giuliano Carmignola (LP, Divox Antiqua AN 1201), and heard exquisite details in the strings, and a nice zip and pleasant squeak to the upper registers when a player moved a bow sul ponticello (i.e., nearer the bridge). There were great depth and timing and a sense of spaciousness and warmth, the music filling three dimensions rather than being spread across a flat surface. In the mordant Adagio, there was an impressionistic passage like sheets of rain falling across the surface of a garden pond. And Carmignola’s double-stopped high notes in the Allegro had wondrous resolution and verve as he threw off percussive attacks and lingering bow-strokes that jolted in my blood.
Finally, music for piano and orchestra was a joy to hear. Though it’s the best of her digital recordings, the sound of Martha Argerich’s live performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Claudio Abbado (CD, Deutsche Grammophon B0003398-02), had always seemed somewhat dull to me. I’ve kept the recording, but the orchestral strings had always sounded glassy and opaque, Argerich’s playing without much dynamic expressiveness, and Abbado’s conducting rather boring. But when I listened to it through the Zanden 3100, my opinion completely changed. Strings were open, tonality was spot on, and, instead of orchestral sections sounding like single blocks of homogenized sound, I now heard individual instruments briskly and sonorously playing together. Argerich’s playing was authoritative and exquisite by turns, crisp in attacks, with acoustic and harmonic complexities in the hammer strokes following her keystrokes: Her finger strikes a note, sometimes immediately followed by a minute but still audible percussive resonance -- almost a radiance -- as the head felt of the hammer strikes the metal strings. Then, the fuller resonance follows in the fustian body of the note and the almost simultaneous transmission of its sound to the soundboard. This recording -- whose sound quality, until now, I’d rated B to B+ -- became a joy to listen to, my system sounding agile and majestic, with a wide palette of timbral expressiveness, no overhang of notes in the bass or midrange, and no veiling or sweetened opacity. Everything was clear, transparent, and swiftly changing in the music’s gorgeous flow. Nor was the Mahler Chamber Orchestra far back behind Argerich’s piano; instead, ensemble surrounded soloist in a great depth and breadth of soundstage.
The VAC Renaissance Mk.III preamplifier has been one of my references for some years now. Although a little less expensive than the Zanden 3100 ($12,500), it can come pretty close: $9900, line stage only; $11,900 including MM/MC phono stage. The VAC has a remote volume control, and its output impedance is the same as the Zanden’s (300 ohms), but it doesn’t use output transformers, nor does its design seem as simple. In place of the 3100’s output transformers and two tubes, the Renaissance Mk.III has six triode tubes -- two 12AU7s and four 12AX7s -- to provide a whopping 22dB of gain. (Zanden’s website specifies only that the 3100’s gain is “high,” but Eric Pheils told me it amounted to 9dB.) Skootching the Zanden’s volume knob up to 11 o’clock gave me all the volume I could stand. With the VAC, I never had to move the knob past 8:30. And the Renaissance Mk.III is a two-box affair, with an outboard power supply connected by a hefty umbilical to a control unit that, at 18”W x 5.25”H x 15”D and 25 pounds, is bigger and heavier than the Zanden. In connectivity, the VAC betters the Zanden with seven pairs of inputs (two pairs are XLR), and matches the 3100’s four pairs of outputs (two XLR, two RCA). Finally, though the VAC’s line stage is on a circuit board purely for ease of mounting, it’s actually hand-wired throughout; the Zanden has printed circuit boards.
In sound quality the VAC and Zanden seemed fairly close, both providing great drive and finesse. With Argerich’s CD of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3, the VAC possessed all the delicacy and boldness of the Zanden, with striking bass notes and warm legato in the piano sound, and an orchestral sound that was full, expressive, and lush when appropriate. The VAC could match the 3100 in reproducing all the graceful, fluttering, balletic cadences of Argerich’s articulate playing, all the timbral distinctions among the instruments and the air around them. With the same jazz CDs, the Renaissance Mk.III sounded clearly more forward in the midrange -- Joe Lovano’s sax on Tenor Legacy extended farther front from the mix than with the 3100. And, with the VAC, drums were more recessed, not quite as detailed or punchy, though Ray Brown’s double bass thumped just as hard and its resonance was as tight. As for imaging and soundstaging, the Zanden provided more layering, greater width, and more stable and precise images. Voices were sensuous and clear through the VAC, though I heard more grain in Laura Nyro’s top notes than with the Zanden. The sound of orchestral strings and solo violin were about the same with both preamps.
In general, the VAC Renaissance Mk.III has a more upfront sound than the Zanden 3100, projecting more in the midrange and sounding a bit less open in the highs. It could sound sassier, brasher at times, though not with drums. The Zanden 3100’s sound was more neutral, more airy and balanced throughout the audioband, and highly resolving, along with great extension, fine inner and low-level detail, and better pace, rhythm, and timing. Drums consistently sounded stickier, snappier, clearer, more thrilling. I loved the sensuous timbres of instruments in both digital and analog jazz recordings -- the Zanden produced a spacious, tactile sound high in liveliness, along with the stable, solid imaging that I now recognize is a Zanden trademark.
I’d be hard-pressed to choose between the Zanden 3100 and the VAC Renaissance Mk.III, both great performers at similar prices. Though there were differences, choosing one over the other might be more a matter of how you listen, which features are more important, and which model’s looks appeal more. I like the 3100’s compactness and simplicity of visual design, and its remote control, which does a lot more than the VAC’s (which can control only the volume level). But I also like the point-to-point wiring in the Renaissance Mk.III’s line stage (its phono stage has a printed board), the bling of the gold knobs against the black-and-gold-flake enamel of its faceplate, and its two balanced inputs (the Zanden has just one). Finally, for $600 less than the Zanden, the VAC comes with a decent MM/MC phono stage as well.
I can also say that each preamp worked best matched with its own stereo amp. For superior connectivity, the bonus of a built-in phono stage, and the point-to-point wiring of its line stage, I’d pick the VAC Renaissance Mk.III. For overall sound, my nod goes to the 3100 for its superior imaging and soundstaging, more fine-grained treble, and its evenhanded, sensuous way with all music
The Zanden 3100 is as fine a preamp as I’ve heard. It produced a coherence and richness of sound that distinguish it from all others. Though it’s capable of terrifically fine-grained resolution, dynamic expressiveness, and great imaging and soundstaging, its special skill in bringing all of these together into a unified sound makes specific mention of any one of these traits seem merely fussy. With the 3100, the many subtle and formidable elements of listening simply disappeared as isolated, enumerable things; when apparent at all, they seemed ephemeral events -- otherwise, this preamp’s sound didn’t expressly feature any one aspect of sound over the others. Instead, what I heard was something more complete: the realism, organic flow, and lively presence of the music coming together before me in my own listening room.
And that’s what our hobby is really all about -- each of us living with our music in that mysterious encirclement perfected by taste and engineering. Attractive, compact, and a sonic wonder, the Zanden 3100 preamp is one of the finest contributions to high-end sound I’ve ever heard.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Analog sources -- TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable and 10.5 tonearm, Transfiguration Proteus MC cartridge, Zyx Airy 3 MC cartridge
- Digital sources -- Auralic Vega DAC, Cary 303/300 CD player
- Preamplifiers -- VAC Renaissance Mk.III preamplifier, Zanden Audio Systems Model 120 phono stage
- Power amplifiers -- VAC Phi 200, Zanden Audio Systems Model 8120
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR-44 Aktive with RST-5 ribbon supertweeters and Masterbuilt jumpers
- Speaker cables -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L and 330L jumpers, Zanden Audio Systems with CRL Silver jumpers
- Single-ended interconnects -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330i, Zanden Audio Systems
- Balanced interconnects -- Zanden Audio Systems
- Power cords -- Audience Au24 SE powerChord LP, Harmonix X-DC Studio Master, Siltech Ruby Hill II and SPX-800, Zanden Audio Systems
- Power conditioners -- Audience aR6-TSS2 and Au24 SE powerChord
- Record cleaner -- Loricraft PRC4 Deluxe
- Accessories -- Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack and amp stand, FIM amp stand, edenSound FatBoy dampers, HRS damping plates, Nordost Sort Kones, Acoustic Science Corporation SoundPanels, Winds ALM-01 Arm Load Meter, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Geo-Disc cartridge-alignment disc, Audio Intelligent Vinyl Solutions Premium One-Step Formula No.6, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Vinyl record-cleaning brush, AudioQuest antistatic record brush
Zanden Audio Systems Model 3100 Preamplifier
Price: $12,500 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor, limited; tubes, 90 days.
Zanden Audio Systems Ltd.
6-6-2-101 Simmori Asahi-ku Osaka-city
Phone: +81 6-6185-0404
Fax: +81 6-6185-0405
North American distributor:
Zanden Audio North America
26883 W. River Road
Perrysburg, OH 43551
Phone: (419) 913-3234 (US), +81 6-6953-6511 (Japanese)
Fax: +81 6-6953-6511 (Japan)