All should be right with the world: I’m looking at (and listening to) a stereo amplifier sporting four KT-120 output tubes and delivering 100 watts per channel. This is a topology that delivers the fluidity and dynamic integrity that mark out the better tube designs, combined with enough power to handle real-world loudspeaker loads. And the 8120 is a Zanden amplifier, too: its cuboid form factor, and frosted acrylic front and rear panels, are both understated and ineffably stylish. Has there ever been a more attractive amplifier?
However, lingering on the horizon is a dark smudge that I just can’t ignore: with a single pair of push-pull power pentodes (or kinkless tetrodes) per channel, amps generally manage to present their considerable musical merits in cost-effective packages. They deliver a real musical bang for your bucks. Except that, as beautiful, as capable, and as flawless as this amplifier undoubtedly is, the one thing that the Zanden 8120 definitely is not, is affordable. At £19,900, you’ll do well to find another tube amp that charges this kind of money for 100, non-triode watts.
Sometimes though, no matter how familiar the ingredients might seem, great products invariably deliver more than the sum total of their parts. The Zanden is a case in point. First, at over 45kgs, the 8120 is no lightweight. Now, lift the lid – necessary to insert the four ECC82s and four KT-120s – and the amplifier’s unusual, boxy shape starts to make sense, the tube bases being mounted on a stepped steel chassis perched atop a solid block of electrical hardware. No wonder the 8120 seems so dense – there’s virtually no air inside.
Despite its conventional topology, with a phase splitter feeding a gain stage that’s directly coupled to the output tubes, the sheer bulk gives you some idea of just how much hardware has gone into the power supply, which features film-caps throughout and multiple stages of choke regulation. In addition, considerable effort has been expended on shielding the signal path, while Zanden also makes use of a high-tech, high-frequency absorbent material to further protect the audio signal from external interference. Standard inputs are single-ended RCAs, although you can specify balanced XLR’s as a £995 cost option. The output stage employs a factory set bias voltage, which guarantees maximum power output, but also means that – unlike some superficially similar amps – you cannot substitute ‘equivalent’ tubes, such as KT88s or 6550s. Finally, the 8120 is also available with source switching and a volume control, in the shape of the 6000 integrated amp.
Zanden’s products have always had an uncanny ability to fasten onto the message, the core, the attractive quality that makes great music so compelling. The CD players do it with digital and the phono stages most definitely do it with analogue – both bringing a natural immediacy, presence, and directness to proceedings. More recently, the 3100 line-stage has exhibited a similarly direct connection to the performance, but at least as far as Zanden’s amplification goes, the 8120 takes things to a whole new level, not that you are necessarily going to appreciate that from the word go. One of the things that makes all those classic push-pull stereo amps so appealing is their sense of purpose, the way they drive the performance forward, pulling you in, and carrying you with it. Put on the Zanden and it sounds almost reticent with none of that cock-sure punch or urgency that you might expect. Instead it sounds relaxed, unforced, almost limpid, with an unflustered air of calm composure. There is nothing overt or obviously impressive about the performance of the 8120, nothing to point a finger at or hang its character on. In fact, its most remarkable feature is its total lack of remarkable features.
Let’s start with its imaging: at first, it’s easy to assume that this Zanden amp is recessed or laid back, but what soon becomes apparent is that what you are hearing is a soundstage that’s not just set beyond and away from the speakers, it’s all back there together. Nothing steps forward or suddenly emerges from a drive unit to disturb the spatial continuity, an intrusion that you only really notice once it has been removed. Normally, we compensate for such aberrations, but the 8120 totally eliminates the need. Its sense of locational order and its ability to create a single coherent acoustic space is exceptional. Instruments stay planted in space, defined in all three dimensions, with no tendency to rise or step forward with pitch or level. Yet at the same time that presentation is utterly natural and unexaggerated; there’s nothing that screams, “Just look at this soundstage!” Instead, you find yourself taking it for granted – right up to the point where you listen to a different amp that can’t match the 8120’s spatial aplomb – and which suddenly sounds horribly contrived and false as a result. If you want the perfect example of the Zanden’s natural perspective and spatial stability, look no further than Barbirolli’s EMI/Hallé recording of the Karelia Suite and the way that the whole spread of brass instruments manages to stay, not just precisely located across the rear of the stage, but also at exactly the same height. Now try that with a few other amplifiers…
This quality of natural expression extends into every aspect of the 8120’s presentation. It might lack the obvious appeal of those amps you assume to be its peer group, yet at the same time it is seductively listenable, engaging, and astonishingly satisfying. Far from lacking drama or excitement, what you’re hearing here is the reverse of what you might well expect. Rather than driving the signal, imposing its will on proceedings, it’s the signal that’s driving the amp. The Zanden enjoys a rare agility when it comes to tracking the musical demands presented at its inputs, responding to rather than limiting or ‘managing’ their twists and turns. Instead it allows them free rein, both in terms of tempo and dynamic range: strings soar, brass punches, voices are free to growl, grate, purr, or pierce. Percussion can be truly explosive – but at the same time it has texture and subtlety, whether it’s the low rumblings of a timp filling out murmuring strings or the subtle insistence of the brushwork anchoring an extended, meandering Coltrane solo. Changes in tempo are clearly apparent, as are rhythmic patterns, while contrasts in tonal shading or musical mood are effective without being broad-brushed in bold. The musicians and the music are given their own voice. Instead, rather than any diminution of expressive range or compression of shade, what’s missing is the edge and glare, the subtle hardening on transients, and the clipped harmonics that so often pass for speed and excitement. Music through the Zanden seems neither fast nor slow – it just seems right, whether it’s Art Pepper’s measured, grindingly dirty groove of ‘Las Cuevas De Mario’ or the jaunty, up-beat ‘Smack Up’ (from the Boplicity album of the same name).
The Zanden’s grasp of pace and tempo is remarkable – and utterly effortless. It lays bare the evolution in Berglund’s readings of the Sibelius symphonies, his shift from textural and tonal contrasts to a more dynamic and dramatic presentation. At no time are you left wondering why his later readings, which are so much bolder, are also less enjoyable. While the 8120’s spatial coherence, rhythmic flexibility, and unconstrained dynamics are the most apparent markers of this amplifier’s special musical abilities, it is its sheer, unobstructive musical fluency that really sets it apart: the innate sense of balance that binds those special, individual attributes into a single whole that manages to make such perfect musical sense.
We are collectively so used to the ‘language’ of audio amplification, that if it’s absent then we miss its accent, just as if you habitually take sugar in your tea, you are instantly aware, almost before the drink reaches your lips, if that sweetened taste sensation isn’t there. This Zanden allows us – or more properly, invites us – to enjoy a paradigm shift. Instead of viewing the recording through the lens of the system playing it, this amp advances the perspective, revealing the music through the window of the recording. It removes the means of (re)production from the process, eliminating so many of the intrusive mechanisms that so often bracket audio performance that we’ve almost come to rely on as way markers. For any audiophile who hears live, acoustic music on a regular basis, the 8120 will come as both a shock to the system and a strangely familiar experience. But once you recognise what it’s doing and reset the filter of your expectations… boy, are you going to love this amp!
Does that mean that the Zanden doesn’t ‘do’ rock music? Well, yes and no. Yes, it absolutely does ‘do’ rock: just listen to the insistent urgency it brings to John Cougar Mellencamp’s ‘Paper In Fire’ [The Lonesome Jubilee, Mercury], or the effortless way in which it sorts out and propels the loose-hipped and disjointed rhythms of Talking Heads’ ‘Born Under Punches’ [Remain In Light, Sire], to appreciate how its agility and unfettered dynamic response brings this music to life. No, it doesn’t have the edge and glare that you’ll be used to, probably leading you to advance the volume control, in search of those familiar failings.
Which brings us to, not so much the 8120’s failings as the edge of its envelope. As astonishingly musically adept as this amplifier is, it isn’t perfect. Its deepest bass doesn’t have the absolute air, transparency and authority of a pair of Karan monos and, although it’s undoubtedly quick, it doesn’t have the sudden dynamic response of the Siltech SAGA. But both those options are going to cost a lot more than the Zanden, so the modest shortfall is more than acceptable. What those amps also offer is power – and lots of it. The 8120 generates 100, very musical watts – but 100 watts is still only 100 watts, which means that you need to choose your speakers with that in mind, rather than simply assuming that because the Zanden is a pricey piece it will drive anything. Having said that, this amp is hardly limp of wrist and it will drive most real world speakers with a grace and authority that will surprise and delight. I used both the Focal Scala Utopia V2 and the diminutive but awkward B&W 805D2 during the review, both with conspicuous success – just so long as I didn’t allow the amplifier’s lack of additive ‘drama’ to lure me into listening at louder than usual levels. It might seem obvious, but the trick here is to listen to how loud the music is, rather than how loud it sounds. It’s an issue that is compounded by the amp’s essential honesty: it let’s you hear the dynamic range that’s on the recording – which is great if it’s a good recording, but not so great if it’s a compressed and muffled ‘radio mix’. We already know that the 8120 will play loud with grace and some considerable enthusiasm. Just don’t expect it to play REALLY LOUD with the same aplomb – or inject a sense of life and dynamics where there aren’t any.
Few amplifiers in my experience are as adept as the Zanden 8120 when it comes to performing the sonic disappearing act that makes long term listening so rewarding. How does this Zanden amp sound? Not the way you expect it to. It’s clean, modern lines bely its natural, warm, fluid, expressive character: its push-pull output stage isn’t reflected in a rigid, overly tight grip on musical proceedings, a lack of air, or any stripping of harmonics: its single pairs of output devices certainly contribute to its rhythmic and dynamic coherence, but its 100 watt rated output isn’t the impediment to dynamic range or musical authority you might expect. In fact, it’s the temporal, spatial, and dynamic coherence, the sense of natural tonality, natural perspective and stable presentation that help make the music made by the Zanden so special. SET aficionados will glory in its rich tonal palette and relaxed sense of musical flow, push-pull devotees will love its control and transparency, focus and organization – while solid-state advocates will be disconcerted and besotted in equal measure. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this is definitely one beautiful looking and sounding amplifier. But there’s none of the louche, in your face brashness of a Scarlet Johansson here: nor the painfully thin, overly earnest awkwardness of an Anne Hathaway: and you can forget about the hard, brassy exterior of Angelina or the calculating, emotional constipation of Nicole. This is a beauty that embodies hidden depths, a quality that’s a cut above the norm. If this amp were a movie star, it would be Ingrid Bergman: subtle, under-stated, elegant, and classy – definitely a keeper.
Type: Stereo power amp with push-pull output stage.
Tube Complement: 4x 12AU7/ECC82, 4x KT-120
Inputs: 1pr single-ended RCA, 1pr balanced XLR (optional)
Input Impedance: 100kOhms (RCA), 7kOhms (XLR)
Rated Output: 100 watts/channel
Dimensions (W×H×D): 426 × 316 × 379mm
Price: £19,900 with RCA input
UK Distributor: Audiofreaks
Tel: +44(0)208 948 4153
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