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March 20, 2006

March 20, 2006

Ode to a Japanese Amp

In a poem with a similar title, John Keats wrote “beauty is truth, truth beauty-that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

At least when it comes to audio, this credo has guided me my entire adult life. I long ago decided that I would spare no effort or expense to own and luxuriate in the most truthful (and, by definition, the most beautiful sounding) hi-fi one could acquire. My obsession led me to leave a lucrative legal career 29 years ago to start Sound By Singer. As those of you who know me can attest, I am my own best customer. With this as a framework, imagine me wandering down the halls of the Consumer Electronics Show in January hearing one rather mundane system after another. All of them good, some excellent, but none of them like “crossing over the river to rest under the shade of the trees,” to quote Gen. Thomas Jackson‘s deathbed reverie about heaven. After all, what is more beautiful/truthful than heaven?

Zanden Audio!

It was in this wistful state of mind that I wandered into the Zanden room hoping to get a listen to the new Zanden 5000 Signature DAC ($15,470) and 2000P CD transport ($27,970). I expected quite a bit from the 5000S DAC, given all the positive press it has received from the online and print media, so I was prepared to hear something pretty good from the new Signature version with its outboard power supply (tube-rectified to avoid EM interference typical of diode rectification) and I2S connection, which ensures no loss of information between it and its stunning drive. Instead of hearing something pretty good, I heard what was unquestionably the best digital playback I had ever heard. Instead of just listening to two amazing components I heard an entire system which made my heart flutter and was unquestionably the best sound at the show.

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Zanden Model 2000 CD Transport

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Zanden Model 5000 Signature DAC

The back end of the system was the Peak-Consult Empress loudspeakers, transducers which we sell and love and which have no identifiable sound of their own. As a result, they are particularly revealing of electronics to which they are joined. In this case, they were linked with the new Zanden Model 9500 mono power amps ($40,000/pr.), the Zanden 3000 line stage ($14,970), the Zanden 1200 phono stage ($16,970), and the aforementioned digital components. I had never heard these speakers sound better. Indeed, I had never heard their much better and infinitely more resolving big brothers - the El Diablos, even sound as good.

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Peak-Consult El Diablo

So, I ordered the entire system, praying that when I took all the Zanden electronics back home and hooked them up to the Peak-Consult El Diablos, the sound would at least be as good. It was not. It was like a million times better! As one of my associates put it, "these are the components the El Diablos were waiting for." What he meant is that until we hooked up the Zanden 9500 amplifiers and associated equipment, the gang at the store were ignorant of what these amazing speakers were capable of producing in terms of everything that defines music. I knew because I have them hooked up at home to a pair of Kondo GAKU-ON 60 watt-per-channel single ended triode amps ($125,000/pr). At my home with the Kondo amps, they perform flawlessly - perhaps, and i must stress "perhaps", a little better than with the Zanden at the store, but if so, only a little bit better. Then again, maybe that is my imagination. In any event, how much greater praise can you heap on an amp than to say that it is only a little behind another amp which A) renowned as the best amp in the world and B) is three times the price.

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Zanden Model 9500 Amplifier

If I am focusing on the Zanden 9500 amp, it is probably only because everything else Zanden in the chain is so transparent, neutral, and dynamic that I can finally hear into the speakers without thinking about the other stuff. That makes it something I want to own and, in fact, I just ordered the 2000 drive ,and 5000 Sig DAC for myself.
Having discovered that the Zanden 3000 Line and 1200 Phono Stages actually significantly improve upon my venerable Kondo M-10 preamp ($100,000). I am only waiting to hear how the new Kondo M-1000 preamp ($92,500 including phono stage and MC transformer) which arrives in 2 months, does in a head to head comparison with the Zanden combo. Meantime, I am making comparisons and shaking my head in disbelief over how good the Zanden components are. I am reborn! High End is beautiful. All is well in the audio world.

Kondo/Audio Note

It has been two months, but I still have not accepted fully that the venerable Hiroyasu Kondo passed away in his sleep while attending the CES show in Las Vegas. When I visited with him earlier that day in the Audio Note Japan display room, he gave me a big hug. He was so frail that you could have blow him away with a whisper, but his heart burned as bright as the sun. I miss him and I miss his genius.

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Kondo Gaku-On II Amplifier

Fortunately, he appointed his number one acolyte, the brilliant Masaki Ashizawa, as president of Audio Note six months ago, when he realized that he was becoming too weak to carry on all the functions that role entailed. Masaki decided to create a special limited edition of the Audio Note Gaku-On II to honor his master. Called the Shinden, which means holy temple in Japanese, this tribute to the Jedi master of audio is limited to ten pairs worldwide. The price is $125,000 per pair and there is only two pair left in the world. Of course we have dibs on both.

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Kondo KSL-M1000 Preamp

CES gave me the opportunity to listen to the new Audio Note M-1000 ($85,000 with phono) and M-77 ($40,000 with phono) preamps through the KSL wired GAKU-ON II amplifiers. I mentioned before that the GAKU-ON amplifiers are the best in the world, so it follows that their preamplifiers should be as well. The elephant in the room is the question of how the Zanden components compare to similar Kondo equipment. First, let me point out that the Kondo preamps and amps are, with the exception of the $30,000 KSL M-7 (add $7,500 for step up transformer if you want to play MC cartridges), two to three times as expensive as the wonderful equipment made by Yamada San (Zanden). That being said, it is still not clear to me that there is a clear winner to any comparison between the components from these companies. Rather, they are different in the same way that Carnegie Hall is different from the Vienna Opera House. With Zanden, the music is vivid, palpable; every thread of sound existing in its own space, breath-taking. With Kondo, subtlety reigns supreme with nuance on nuance weaving and interweaving in an inexhaustible ballet of musical information.

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Kondo KSL-M77 Preamp

If money is truly no issue and the associated speakers can work with single ended amplifiers, a Kondo M-77 or M-1000 with a pair of Gaku-On II or Shindens will probably get closer to the music than any thing else, even the Zanden 3000 line stage, 1200II phono stage and 9500 power amps. They are so close, however, in overall musical accuracy, that when I listen to the Kondo there is much about the Zanden that I miss and vice versa. What requires no decision between the two is what digital to go for. Here the Zanden 2000 transport and 5000 signature reign supreme over Kondo, and anything else for that matter.

PATHOS

One of my favorite companies, Pathos, introduced a number of new components which call out to those who love music but are not in the Zanden or Kondo price league. There is a new version of the Classic One-the MkIII ($2795) with a heftier power supply and improved input circuitry, especially relevant for those of you who love the Pathos Classic One sound but need more power.

Soon to arrive is the Inpol2 PW, a power-amp-only version of the fantastic Inpol2 50 watt-per-channel class A integrated amp. With all of us out there that have preamps we love, finally there’s a Pathos hybrid power amp under $13,000.00.

Lastly, the Anniversary TT has arrived. Same circuitry, with a transformer balanced input and remote source selection. Some of you may have heard about the Endorphin tube drive cd player that Gianni and his Tuscan pals are planning for a spring release. More as we get closer…

Our Exit From Krell

Effective March 9th, Sound By Singer will no longer be a Krell dealer. We will, of course, continue to provide the unparalled customer service, repair facilities, consultation and advice we have always given to each and every person who has ever purchased a Krell from us.

During much of the 25 years we sold Krell, Sound By Singer and Krell had a productive working relationship which benefited both us and the high-end audio community in general. Over the last period of time this was not the case. In recent years Sound By Singer and Krell found themselves lacking consensus over many of the fundamental criteria which define an effective trading partnership, including such matters as distribution, marketing and product development. Our mutual decision to discontinue our business relationship will allow both of us to pursue our different and individual visions of how and what high-end audio and high-end audio-video is all about.


Recommended Systems

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Thiel CS2.4 Speakers

Old Enough To Vote System:
CD Player: Cary CD303/300 $4,000
Preamp: Balanced Audio Technology VK31 $4,000
Power Amp: Balanced Audio Technology VK250 $5,000
Speakers: Thiel CS 2.4 $4,400
TOTAL: $17,400

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BAT VK-31 Preamp

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BAT VK-75 Triode Tube Amplifier

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Audio Physic Scorpio Speakers

Old Enough To Drink System:
CD/SACD Player: Esoteric DV-50S
Preamp: Balanced Audio Technology VK31 $4,000
Power Amp: Balanced Audio Technology VK75 Triode Tube Amp $6,000
Speakers: Audio Physic Scorpio $6,500/pr.
TOTAL: $22,500

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Esoteric X-03 CD/SACD Player

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Aethetix Janus Preamp

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Pathos InPower Amplifier

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JM Lab Alto Utopia

Partner, At Last! System:
CD/SACD Player: Esoteric X-03 $7,700
Preamp w/ Phono: Aethetix Janus $6,500
Power Amp: Pathos InPower Hybrid Class A $13,500
Speakers: JM Lab Alto Utopia Be $18,500
TOTAL: $46,200

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Zanden Model 2000 CD Transport

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Zanden Model 5000 Signature DAC

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Zanden Model 9500 Amplifier

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Peak-Consult El Diablo

Andy's System (Tubes):
CD Transport: Zanden Model 2000 $28,000
DAC: Zanden Model 5000 Sig. $15,500
Line Stage: Zanden Model 3000 $15,000
Phono Stage: Zanden Model 1200II $17,000
Power Amps: Zanden Model 9500 $40,000
Isolation: Harmonic Resolution Systems Turntable Base $2,400
Turntable w/ Tube Power Supply: Brinkmann Balance $17,950
Tonearm: Graham Phantom $4,200
Cartridge: Lyra Titan $4,500
Speakers: Peak-Consult El Diablo $70,000/pr.
TOTAL: $214,550

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dCS Elgar Plus DAC

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dCS Verona Master Clock

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Burmester 808mkV Preamp

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Burmester 911mkIII Amplifier

Ultimate System (Solid State):
CD/SACD Drive: dCS Verdi Encore $17,500
DAC: dCS Elgar Plus $17,500
Digital Clock: dCS Verona $7,500
Preamp: Burmester 808mkV Reference Linestage $26,000 to $35,000 (depending on inputs)
Power Amps: Burmester 911mkIII Mono Power Amps $39,000/pr.
Speakers: JM Lab Grande Utopia Be $85,000pr.
TOTAL: $192,500 to $201,500