Over the past six years, I’ve noticed that a few elite audio manufacturers have been incorporating, into their newest phono preamps, other equalization curves in addition to the standard one established in the 1950s by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). These ultra-choice tubed and tube/solid-state models range from the Audio Research Reference 2 ($12,000 USD) and Allnic H-3000V ($13,900) up to the Zanden 1200 Mk.3 ($25,000) -- mighty tall cotton for the average audiophile. But there’s good news. Zanden has now developed a solid-state phono stage that’s relatively affordable -- the 120, launched at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, lists for $7500.
Though it’s well known that mono LPs of the pre-stereo era vary in the EQ curves employed, it’s not yet agreed that numerous labels continued to use their own proprietary EQ curves for the recording of stereo LPs, even after the supposed standardization to the RIAA’s EQ scheme in 1954. Kazutoshi Yamada, founder of Zanden Audio Systems, contends that many companies still kept using their own EQ curves until they ceased production. Through the years, while listening to his vast collection of stereo LPs, Yamada found that those recorded with standard RIAA characteristics were few and far between. In a recent exchange of e-mails, he wrote, “It is impossible to achieve high-fidelity reproduction of most stereo LPs with only RIAA equalization.”
So when I heard from Editor-in-Chief Jeff Fritz, just prior to CES ’14, that Zanden had released the 120, I made sure to visit their demo room and give it a listen. There I met Eric Pheils, North American distributor for Zanden (and whose Japanese is impressively fluent), and Kazutoshi Yamada himself, long famous and even revered among the audio press for his exceptionally well-engineered power amps, preamps, DACs, and transports. They hosted me for an hour-long listening session, trying LPs issued by various European, American, and Japanese record labels, Yamada himself selecting among the 120’s five different EQ curves and two phase settings. As casually as I could, I asked if they might be interested in a review. I tried to play it cool, but when they agreed, I was ecstatic.
Design and development
Because of the limitations of the medium, it has always been the case that, during lacquer cutting, bass frequencies have had to be cut and high frequencies boosted, and the reverse during playback, in order to represent the entire audioband on an LP. However, the frequencies at which these cuts and boosts occur, and the degrees of cut and boost, have varied depending on the label. LPs from Dutch manufacturer Philips, for example, which used the RIAA curve, can sound superb through phono stages set to RIAA EQ, but records from Deutsche Grammophon, Capitol, Angel, EMI, Decca/London, and Columbia all have unique characteristics that require their own specific EQ curves to sound best. Ideally, proper EQ results in a flat frequency response on playback. Accurate phase is also important. Improper EQ can make an LP sound peakish, washed out, or otherwise spectrally unbalanced. Kazutoshi Yamada contends that an RIAA-only phono stage can’t compare with one that offers a choice of EQ curves. The differences in sound are not subtle. He says, “The model 120 offers the opportunity for vinyl lovers to experience the emotional impact and full potential of their stereo record collections.”
The characteristics of some of these EQ curves have been published and are well known, said Yamada. Since about 1995, he’s conducted extensive additional research, gathering documents, speaking with experts, and doing his own listening tests. First, he developed a mono phono equalizer with all possible combinations of turnoff and rollover; then, in 1997, came the Model 1000 tubed phono stage, which had three EQ settings for stereo: RIAA, Columbia, and Decca, with phase reversal for each. However, further research and testing showed that two more curves were necessary; enter the Zanden 1200 Mk.3, a stereo-only phono stage that also included the Teldec and EMI curves. “We believe that with these (5) equalization curves all stereo LP records can be played with the highest fidelity and accuracy,” wrote Yamada.
Driven by his desire to produce a more affordable phono stage that is still uniquely Zanden and true to his core principles, Yamada engineered the Model 120 to be the logical heir to his earlier models. It took him somewhat more than a year to devise solid-state equalization and amplification circuitry that would reduce manufacturing costs while retaining the essence of the Zanden sound.
The Zanden 120 arrived late this past spring in a cardboard crate measuring 24”W x 15”H x 21”D. Inside, nested in Styrofoam support corners, was an inner box. Opening it, I lifted out a top layer of polystyrene with two pockets cut into it, one holding the power supply and the other the power umbilical, each wrapped in a plastic bag. Under these, in another plastic bag, was the 120 itself.
The inner box also contained a packing list, a test report signed by Kazutoshi Yamada, a user manual, and a four-page table of over 280 record labels, each with a specific EQ curve and phase setting assigned to it. On the list were the usual suspects -- Angel, Columbia, Decca, DG, EMI, Philips, RCA -- but also included were Argo, Bethlehem, Bluenote, Chandos, Erato, Impulse!, L’Oiseau-Lyre, Melodiya, Mercury, Motown, Pablo, Prestige, Riverside, Roulette, Supraphon, Tamla, Telefunken, Vanguard, Vox, and scores more. Even Flying Dutchman, one of the more obscure jazz labels, was listed. Zanden is nothing if not thorough.
The Zanden 120 is an understated, two-box jewel. The cases of the main unit and its outboard power supply are of mirror-polished stainless steel, and the faceplate is sand-blasted acrylic, which gives it the look of opaque, milky porcelain. The 120 is part of a complete new line for Zanden that includes the 8120 stereo amplifier and 3100 line stage. These newer models eschew the champagne-gold aluminum casework of Zanden’s topline products and are clad only in stainless steel and acrylic.
The 120’s main unit measures a relatively small 14”W x 2.75”H x 14.5”D and weighs not quite 12 pounds (5.4kg). The power supply measures 3”W x 2.25”H x 6.875”D and weighs just over two pounds. Joining them is a short power umbilical encased in unobtrusive sheathing of gray plastic, and terminated in seven-pin ring-collar connectors. There is a quiet elegance to the way all three components come together to create an overall aesthetic form and material rhythm.
On the 120’s front plate are four controls in pebble-grained silver. From left to right, these are: the Power/Standby button, a dial for inputs A and B with high- and low-impedance settings for each, a dial for the five most important EQ curves (Columbia, Decca, EMI, RIAA, Teldec), and a Phase button (Normal or Reverse). At the center, between the two dials, the handsome Zanden logo is silkscreened in black.
The rear panel boasts a wealth of connections. My review unit came standard with two sets of phono inputs: one single-ended and one balanced, the latter included because Yamada feels it’s the better type of connection (note: one can also order the 120 with two sets of single-ended connectors). From left to right are: the balanced inputs (marked “B”), a pair of ground pins with tightening barrels, the single-ended inputs (“A”), the single-ended outputs, and, off by itself at far right, the socket for the power-supply cable. The power supply has an output socket for the seven-pin umbilical to the main unit, and an IEC inlet for the power cord, which is not included; evidently, Zanden assumes that those purchasing this level of gear will have their own favorite cord.
Besides its solid-state amplification circuit, the 120 uses four Jensen step-up transformers for passive gain: one pair each for high- and low-impedance cartridges. The low-impedance pair provides 36 ohms with 75dB gain, the high-impedance pair 470 ohms with 63dB gain. Yamada feels these two settings will accommodate the vast majority of available cartridges while maintaining the highest quality of sound. The 120’s output impedance is 50 ohms, and its power consumption is low at 8W (with 120V AC, 50/60Hz).
Somewhat surprisingly, Zanden provides only a limited two-year warranty. For a model this special, I hope Zanden will eventually warrant it for much longer -- perhaps five years, which would match the warranties offered with some of the finer gear available.
Setup and system
The phono cables of my TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm are single-ended, so I couldn’t use the Zanden’s balanced inputs. All other connections were straightforward. Unlike so many components from other manufacturers that use them, the locking rings of the power umbilical turned completely smoothly when I joined it to the power supply and main unit.
I ended up placing the main unit and power supply on the same shelf of my rack, only inches apart. This may not have been ideal for the best electrical isolation, but it seemed good enough; anyway, I heard nothing untoward during the review period.
I used two low-impedance stereo cartridges: a new Transfiguration Phoenix (2 ohms) and a Zyx Airy 3 (4 ohms). Both sounded fine at the Zanden 120’s low-impedance setting, but I ended up preferring the Zyx for midrange smoothness and tighter, deeper, better-defined bass. The Phoenix had a more extended and detailed top end. I tried the high-impedance setting with both carts, but that considerably diminished gain, muted timbral colors, and squashed dynamic contrasts.
The moment I plugged the 120’s power supply into my Audience power conditioner, I heard the 120 click into Standby. I pushed the Power/Standby button, and the red Standby light flashed for a few seconds, then winked off; the green Power light came on, indicating that the 120 was ready to roll.
Record by record, I had to consult Zanden’s table of 280 EQ curves to determine which matched the disc I was about to play. The left column lists the label, the middle column the specific curve to use, and the right column the recommended phase. To dial up the right EQ setting on the 120, I’d select from: Decca (indicated by a red pinlight), Columbia (green), EMI (yellow), Teldec (red), or RIAA (green). Then I’d choose the phase: Normal (green) or Reverse (red).
During the entire six-week listening period, the Zanden 120 operated without a hitch.
Even on first impression, the Zanden 120 was spectacular. I had reservations about its being solid-state and using step-up transformers -- I’d thought I’d preferred a tubed phono with active gain. But I put on Barry Tuckwell’s recording of Mozart’s four horn concertos, with Tuckwell also conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (LP, London 410 284), set the 120 to RIAA EQ for half a track, then switched it to the recommended Decca EQ, and BOOM! The violins were so right! Perfect! None of that bleached, constrained sound that had always annoyed me. The violins were open, sweet, and sprightly in tone behind Tuckwell’s rich, mellow horn. And the Zanden imposed on the signal no added warmth. This was certainly a sound full of delicacy and finesse, not oversized and bloomy.
And talk about transparency to the source! I played the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man (1965 LP, Columbia CS 9172), and Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969 LP, Atlantic SD 8229), both of which used the Columbia curve and reversed phase. I could hear inside the blended voices on both recordings as never before. Those voices were distinct and individually identifiable even as they came together in air. Through all of the tracks there was a fine spread of soundstage, and a lovely tonality and clarity without edge or etch. Long in my collection, these old LPs demonstrated more detail and intimacy of sound than before -- picked and strummed guitars were more tactile, and the voices, whether solo or singing in harmony, displayed their individual timbres and different registers more cleanly, the high voices sounding sweet, fluid, and possessed of subtle dynamic shadings inaudible without the Zanden.
As the weeks rolled on, I began interrogating the 120’s sound with piano and orchestra, for the varied timbres and frequency ranges such recordings demand. The sounds of pianos were wondrous, as exemplified by Wilhelm Kempff’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Ferdinand Leitner (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 419 467), an older and prized DG “tulips label” pressing. Using the Teldec setting and inverting phase, as called for by Zanden’s EQ list, the piano in the first movement, Allegro con brio, sounded excellent -- clear and weighty, with good harmonics. The orchestral scaling in dynamic peaks was superb. In the Largo, Kempff’s piano was crystalline and clear. In one complex passage, as violins and other strings play pizzicato, and the oboes take up one thematic line and the flutes another, Kempff echoes them in delicate, lyrical runs of exquisite rubato, culminating in a thrilling arpeggio that ends in two dashing high notes amid the orchestral swell.
Jazz LPs seemed to benefit even more from the precise EQs available via the Zanden 120. For Mulligan Meets Monk (LP, Prestige OJC-301), I set the curve to Columbia and Reverse phase, as specified for Prestige LPs, then listened to this disc’s astonishing version of Thelonious Monk’s classic “’Round Midnight.” Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax possessed an epic sonority as it appeared in the right of a huge soundstage that extended a yard to the right of my right-hand speaker. These are audio clichés, but it felt as if the speakers had “disappeared” and as if Mulligan were in the room, the big, stable sonic image of his instrument honking and humming with great tone and weight as he reached, crooned, and bebopped. And Monk’s intricate, syncopated comping, emerging from the mix at the left of the stage, sounded angular and pleasantly edgy, with lots of jerky arpeggios. It all had a great presence, and the entire LP was a pleasure to hear, with a big, bold sound. Listening to “Decidedly,” I could feel the impacts of Mulligan’s bari attacks -- they seemed to pressurize the room.
Female voices, too, benefited from the 120’s EQ flexibility. According to Zanden’s EQ chart, Pablo LPs require the Columbia EQ and Reverse phase settings, so I dialed those up for Sarah Vaughan’s virtuosic stylings on Crazy and Mixed Up (LP, Pablo Today 2312-137). This album features her dark, late-period voice -- now I heard lighter, more nuanced dynamics, subtler shades of vocal color, and airier highs than before as, accompanied by a quartet of veterans, she swung through “Autumn Leaves” with balletic scatting, deploying deep, dark notes up to spinning, swooping highs, hooting softly and subtly modulating her scatting at the close over a bass-and-piano ostinato. In “Love Dance,” Vaughan demonstrated even more shades of vocal coloring, shifts in timbre, and varied intensities of vibrato, her bluesy growls and chesty low notes giving way to shimmering, sinuous highs at tune’s end. The soundstage was beautiful and big, stretching beyond the outer edges of the speakers to left and right, and seeming to match the depth of my room, ranging from a few feet before me to behind the speakers. Throughout, there was no hint of electronic artifacts, nor did the system give any evidence of solid-state dryness; instead, it sounded liquid and sensuous. Above all, there were dramatic contrasts in Vaughan’s dynamic voicings and achingly smooth, gradual glissandi, her vocal control so impressive as tracked by the Zanden 120 in complete synergy with my other gear.
Rock, too, sounded great. The 120 consistently conveyed the authoritative crunch of drums, the speed and resolution of cymbals and guitars, and tight bass. And, again, voices sounded especially clear, given a good mix. Rod Stewart’s famously raspy voice, for example, never faded, sounded sibilant, or popped the mike when I used the EMI EQ and Reverse phase, as specified, to play his Every Picture Tells a Story (LP, Mercury SRM 1-609). Ron Wood’s bass was tuneful in the instrumental intro, which gave way to fine interplay among the guitars, organ, and drums. All instruments were in sync, for a rousing stomp and rhythm. Wood’s bass made a lovely tug from underneath throughout, rising from time to time to drone, thunk, and pick up the drive.
But the best bass test of the Zanden 120 may have been recordings of pipe organ. I played several such LPs, including one of Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No.3, with organist Peter Hurford, and Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony (LP, London Digital LDR 71090). After setting the 120 to Decca EQ and Reverse phase, as Zanden recommends, I listened carefully to the first movement, Un poco adagio. As had become common with the Zanden, there was a fine tonal balance throughout all the orchestral instruments. When the organ finally entered midway through the movement, its sound was rich and stately against the lower strings. Deep pedal notes (down to about 30Hz) seemed to rise through the floor of my listening room. The organ’s thematic interchanges with the violins, airy and open, were positively valedictory. Then, with a dramatic change of register, Hurford turned to the main theme with midrange notes before returning to the pedals as the violins took up the theme. The effect was as if the orchestra were sitting amid the organ’s amphitheater of melodic sound. The solo instrument seemed to envelop all.
For the past six years, my reference phono stage has been the Herron VTPH-2, a tubes-and-solid-state design with switchable moving-coil (64dB gain) and moving-magnet (43dB gain) modes, and separate, single-ended input connectors for each. Using JFETs in combination with tube amplification, it has two gain sections: a FET front-end used only by the MC circuits and tubed gain stages used by both the MC and MM sections. Though the Herron is also capable of variable impedance loading, via RCA plugs of different values, I’ve tended to run it completely unloaded for most MC cartridges. Other features are class-A operation, reversible AC polarity, and zero negative feedback. The VTPH-2’s output impedance is 500 ohms compared to the Zanden 120’s 50 ohms, and the Herron offers only one EQ curve: RIAA. At $3650, it costs a little less than half the Zanden’s price, and is somewhat larger than the Zanden, though it lacks a separate power supply.
Although I’ve long loved the VTPH-2 for its powerful, uncolored sound, I’d noticed that it didn’t play well with LPs from some labels -- many from DG, London, Telefunken, and Columbia 360. With a lot of the orchestral LPs in my collection, especially those recorded using RIAA EQ, and particularly from Philips, the Herron sounded bloomier, richer, more organic than the Zanden 120. The Herron’s bass was generally better -- tighter and better defined. But, especially with most DG and Columbia LPs, I could also tell that some of the frequencies were off: violin sections sometimes tended to white out. And with discs from Angel (blue label) and Telefunken, dynamic and timbral contrasts sounded squashed.
For example, via the Herron, the orchestra in Kempff’s DG recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 sounded threadbare in the first movement, with the dreaded hobgoblin of bleached highs in the violins. Though the midrange sounded fine, the piano felt muted and not as sparkling as through the Zanden; Kempff’s crescendos were softer, as though the dynamic range had been compressed. The sound was tolerable but not thrilling.
But in Saint-Saëns’s “Organ” Symphony, the pedal tones of Hurford’s organ were deep, saturating, and powerful without being too loud. And there were great lyric swells of orchestral sound as the organ played deep and mournfully, at times as if rumbling up from the earth. The Herron demonstrated a tremendous range of resolution, and with this recording bested the Zanden.
But vintage jazz and 1960s rock often lost a bit of their luster and presence when limited to RIAA EQ through the Herron. “’Round Midnight,” from Monk Meets Mulligan, sounded more muted than with the Zanden, Gerry Mulligan’s bari still very good but with less impact, not as fully fleshed out in tone, and not as explosive, sensuous, or thrilling. In “Maggie May,” Rod Stewart’s voice sounded farther away, less arresting, and all the instruments suffered from a loss of dynamic shading and timbral contrast. It just wasn’t as rousing.
The Herron VTPH-2 excelled with any recording made using RIAA EQ -- and even with some, such as the London organ disc, that weren’t. With such LPs, the Herron was more powerful, organic, strong in bass and resolution, and slightly bloomy, though otherwise free of coloration. The Zanden 120 excelled across a far wider range of discs and EQs -- with it, I was able to select the correct EQ and phase for almost every LP in my collection of new and vintage recordings, and release the full bounty of each.
With its Model 120, Zanden Audio Systems has seriously increased the opportunities for listening pleasure among those of us who collect LPs on many labels from various periods. The 120 returns to circulation albums in my collection that have lain by the wayside for years, for what I thought was their inherently poor sound. Not so. With the options of easily adjusting EQ and phase, and Zanden’s comprehensive chart of labels and recommended settings, I can now hear almost any LP in all its glory.
I believe that a convenient way for correcting equalization and phase is a must-have tool for any serious vinyl lover who haunts thrift stores, estate sales, and used-record shops, looking for treasures from the past. The Zanden 120 is that tool, and is my new reference. I heartily recommend that you audition it before considering any other phono stage in its price range.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Analog sources -- TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable and 10.5 tonearm, Zyx Airy 3 cartridge (0.24mV), Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge (0.4mV)
- Preamplifiers -- deHavilland Mercury 3, Herron VTPH-2 phono stage, EAR MC-4 step-up transformer
- Power amplifiers -- deHavilland KE50A monoblocks
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR-44 Aktive with Von Schweikert Audio RST-5 Ribbon Super Tweeters and Masterbuilt jumpers
- Speaker cables -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L with 330L jumpers
- RCA interconnects -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330i
- Power cords -- Siltech Ruby Hill II and SPX-800, Cardas Audio Golden Reference, Harmonix XDC Studio Master
- Power conditioner -- Audience aR6-TSS2 with Audience Au24 PowerChord
- Record cleaner -- Loricraft PRC4 Deluxe
- Accessories -- Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack, edenSound FatBoy dampers, HRS damping plates, Nordost Sort Kones, Winds ALM-01 Arm Load Meter, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab Geo-Disc cartridge-alignment disc
Zanden Audio Systems 120 Phono Stage
Price: $7500 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
Zanden Audio Systems Ltd.
6-6-2-101 Simmori Asahi-ku Osaka City
Zanden Audio North America
26883 W. River Road
Perrysburg, OH 43551
Phone: (419) 913-3234