Last summer, I got a call from Eric Pheils, North American distributor for Zanden Audio Systems. He proposed driving up from San Francisco, where he was staying, to my place in Oregon. “Great!” I said. “What electronics are you going to bring?” He hedged. Turned out he didn’t have an amp or preamp with him this time, but was eager to show me some new sound treatments -- acoustic tubes and panels -- developed by Kazutoshi Yamada, president of Zanden.
I was skeptical. For some reason, I just haven’t been big on acoustic treatments for my listening room, though I do have a pair of fairly narrow absorption panels behind each of my speakers. In years past, friends and manufacturers had suggested paneling the big picture window behind my speakers, but I’d put in some nice drapes from Pottery Barn and thought that enough. Besides, when my listening room had also been my study, where I wrote, I liked gazing from my desk out to the backyard plum tree and lawn. And even after I’d made this space into a dedicated listening room, I still liked that view. I was reluctant to change.
Pheils arrived a few days later with a huge box. It was wider than my front door and more than half as tall. Stuffed inside were Zanden’s new acoustic treatments: four AT-1 Acoustic Tubes, each 38”H x 8.5” in diameter ($415 USD each), with some spring-loaded aluminum poles (not included), and four rectangular AP-1 Acoustic Panels, each 35.5”H x 23.5”W x 1 1/8”D ($300 each). Each of these was wrapped in pile-mesh cloth dyed black (off-white is also available) that I thought handsomer than most I’d seen on room treatments from other companies. Zanden’s mesh felt stretchy, with a bit of loft and give -- a kind of sensuousness. Pheils said that under this wrap was a special sound-damping material designed by a Panasonic engineer.
Pheils took a quick look at my room and proposed that we first set up the AT-1 Acoustic Tubes, then began assembling the segmented set of four aluminum poles that would hold them in place. I remembered a contraption a lot like this -- a three-bulb pole lamp my parents had back in the early 1960s. You had to place the top of the pole against the ceiling, then drag the bottom of it across the floor while pulling up against the tension of a spring inside the shaft. The top and bottom were capped with little plastic saucers the size of a quarter that swiveled a bit under pressure.
For the first AT-1, Pheils chose the corner behind my right speaker, where it would partially obscure a framed embroidery of the ideogram for “good luck” my mother had made. He passed the pole through reinforced holes about 1.5” across at the center of each AT-1, then pressed the top of it against my ceiling -- I could hear the spring being compressed -- and shoved it along my carpet until it was vertical. It held.
I didn’t want a pole in the left corner -- there’s a CD cabinet there that I need to regularly access, next to a framed poster of a William Blake engraving from the Tate Gallery in London. We just stacked one AT-1 atop another and set them in the corner between wall and cabinet. If they fell, they’d tumble harmlessly.
The system had been warming up all the while; we sat down and started playing CDs.
I was taken aback -- instantly, I heard a huge uptick in resolution. The sound was much more clear, precise, and refined. Drumstrokes were crisper, bass much tighter, and attack transients emerged from a quieter background. The noise floor had dropped. In recordings I’d listened to scores of times, there were inner details I’d never heard before. In the Wynton Marsalis Septet’s Selections from the Village Vanguard Box (CD, Columbia CK 62191), in one fluttering tenor-sax ornament, I heard an acute sense of the player’s embouchure and tone and a much more apparent shaping, over time, of each note from attack through bloom to the delicate tail of its decay. It was as if I’d put on a pair of earglasses that had suddenly cured a case of aural myopia.
The AT-1s removed a soft snarl of bass haze that had masked phrasing, attack transients, small dynamic shifts, and the inner textures of notes from instruments and voices. My system could now reveal stronger senses of presence and liveliness in the music.
“Yeah,” Pheils said. “The corners store up a lot of bass energy that, once you clear it away, you can hear everything much more like it was recorded to sound -- live, in other words.”
No shit, I thought. I was sold, and offered to buy them on the spot. Pheils proposed that we next try the AP-1 Acoustic Panels -- perhaps perch them on a ledge behind my audio console and lean them up against the picture window. But I wasn’t yet willing to part with my view and wanted to take more time to appreciate what the Acoustic Tubes were doing. Pheils agreed to leave them all with me.
It was a couple months before I got around to it. Meanwhile, I’d received a Zanden 3100 preamplifier to review, and I wanted my notes to be on the sound of the 3100 alone, not the 3100 plus AP-1s plus AT-1s. When I completed the review, I put up the Tubes again, and installed the Panels as well, doing exactly as Pheils had proposed two months before: I placed them edge-to-edge up along the window ledge behind my speakers and console, and leaned them up against the four-panel picture window. A cinch.
But I’d had to orient the framed panels vertically, and they blocked all four sections of the window about halfway up. I could still see the top of my plum tree, but not its trunk or my lawn. And, of course, it halved the amount of daylight admitted by the window. The panels overlapped slightly, so there were no gaps; they filled about half of the window’s total height.
With only three panels, the effect had been slight. But when I added the fourth panel, to completely cover the bottom half of the window, something locked in. Images were more focused and stable. I noticed that, with Joe Lovano’s Live at the Village Vanguard (CD, Blue Note CDP 8 29125 2), his tenor sax was much more clearly and solidly defined within a soundstage that now extended a yard farther beyond each speaker’s outside edge. That stage was deeper too, and instruments were more solid in three-dimensional space -- before, the sound had been more of a flat wall. The amount of air around the instruments seemed to be expanded, and there was a palpable sonic bouquet to almost every note from Lovano’s horn. In Joseph Calleja’s recital disc Tenor Arias, with conductor Riccardo Chailly and the Verdi Grand Symphonic Orchestra Milan (CD, Decca B0002140-02), Calleja’s powerful top sounded less piercing, more “gleaming.” On her Casta Diva, with Evelino Pidò conducting the London Symphony (CD, EMI 5 57163 2), soprano Angela Gheorghiu’s voice sounded smoother, with finer grain. Any digital recording I played sounded much more like analog than before, with nice gains in ease of listening and an overall natural quality. But whatever music I played, in whatever format, sounded more realistic.
My older son, Alex, a bicycle fanatic blessed with very good ears, came over on Christmas for dinner. Afterward, as usual, we sat down to listen to my system.
“Wow!” he exclaimed. “What have you done? There’s more of a center now -- and all the instruments stand out just like they’re in the room!”
Exactly, I thought.
Collaboration and conclusion
In a subsequent correspondence, Zanden’s Kazutoshi Yamada revealed to me that, in Osaka, Japan, where he’s based, there are opportunities for association with engineers from such large electronics corporations as Mitsubishi, Onkyo, Panasonic, Sanyo, and Sharp. Compared to any of those multinational corporations, Zanden is tiny, but its reputation within the audio community has led to some key collaborations. One such came when an audio engineer from Panasonic, Naraji Sakamoto, who’d been a key figure in establishing the Technics brand, approached Yamada about a unique damping material. Sakamoto had spent many years developing such a material -- a type of low-repulsion polyurethane foam commonly called memory foam -- for use inside speaker cabinets. But his formula had special characteristics. While the typical memory foam consists of tiny cells or capsules, Sakamoto’s is full of tiny passageways or tubes that extend throughout the material. Zanden thought that this material would also be ideal when used to reduce the reflected energy in a room.
“Professionals who work with live music refer to this phenomenon as reverberation,” Yamada wrote. “You will often hear them say that a venue without proper damping has too much reverb.” He suggested that this special foam might be just as effective as a damping material for room acoustics. Thus was born the Zanden line of acoustic treatments.
“One of the most important characteristics of our acoustic material is that it is phase accurate,” Yamada wrote. “It attenuates energy without introducing phase anomalies. As an acoustic material, it is truly amazing.”
I can attest to that. I bought and installed complete sets of AT-1 Acoustic Tubes and AP-1 Acoustic Panels. Never before have I enjoyed such a clean, clear, vibrant, holographic, and dimensional sound in my room.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Analog sources -- TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable and 10.5 tonearm, Transfiguration Proteus MC cartridge (0.4mV), Zyx Airy 3 MC cartridge (0.24mV)
- Preamplifiers -- VAC Renaissance Mk.III, Zanden Audio Systems Model 120 phono stage and Model 3100 preamplifier
- Power amplifiers -- VAC Phi 200, Zanden Audio Systems 8120
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR-44 Aktive with RST-5 ribbon super tweeters and Masterbuilt jumpers
- Speaker cables -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330L and 330L jumpers, Zanden Audio Systems with CRL Silver jumpers
- RCA interconnects -- Siltech Classic Anniversary 330i, Zanden Audio Systems
- XLR 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 conditioner -- 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, 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 AT-1 Acoustic Tubes
Price: $415 USD each.
Zanden Audio Systems AP-1 Acoustic Panels
Price: $300 USD each.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Zanden Audio Systems Ltd.
6-6-2-101 Simmori Asahi-ku Osaka-city
Phone: +81 6-6185-0404
Fax: +81 6-6185-0405
Zanden Audio North America
26883 W. River Road
Perrysburg, OH 43551
Phone: (419) 913-3234 (US office), +81 6-6953-6511 (office)
Fax: +81 6-6953-6511 (fax)