Zanden Model 3000mk2 line preamplifier
- Alan Sircom
- Dec 2018
I had a niggling doubt floating round when reviewing the Zanden Model 9600mk2 power amplifiers. There was something missing; the Zanden Model 3000 line preamplifier had been upgraded to Model 3000mk2 status, completing the full Classic line of phono stage, preamplifier, and mono power amplifiers. This was the older of the two changes, first seen at CES 2017, but in a way discussing one without the other is like talking about Butch without Sundance or tuning in to watch a ‘Hardy’ movie without the ‘Laurel and…’ part. It’s just not done!
The Zanden Model 3000mk2 preamplifier sports three RCA and three XLR line-level inputs and a single set of RCA and XLR outputs to the power amplifier. An all-valve design, the Model 3000mk2 uses a single 5687 double-triode in the input stage and a pair of 6CA4s as line drivers in the output. This gives an 8V output to the power amp, with a low 300Ω output impedance making it ideal for the high 7.5kΩ input impedance for the balanced-only Model 9600mk2 power amps, or long pre/power interconnect cables.
Zanden’s Model 3000mk2 replaces the previous model Model 3000 preamplifier in the Classic Series and includes a number of crucial improvements. The input and output transformers were replaced with amorphous cobalt models (the predecessor used µ-metal on the output transformer). The tube rectified power supply has been completely redesigned. Zanden has also retained the highest quality ALPS analogue potentiometer while successfully implementing a motor drive system to achieve remote volume control. The model Model 3000mk2 also includes a full function remote which controls power, volume, switching of sources, absolute or reverse polarity and a mute function.
The solid excellence of the power amplifiers is echoed in the preamp. The build quality is truly from another world; we sometimes talk about ‘Rolls-Royce’ quality in the best of audio, but this is so sublime Rolls-Royce should be talking about Zanden levels of fit and finish inside its cars. This makes it hellish to photograph; it’s a high key pale gold finish with brushed and shiny chrome, and inset LEDs, and a power supply unit made of the sort of shiny chrome that camera lenses and fingerprints are a continual problem. In use, of course, the preamplifier and power amplifier sit on separate shelves and – aside from the occasional dusting – just look outstanding. Of course the sound is a perfect match, but such is the look and the sound quality, realistically you won’t be using anything else but other amplifier products from the company’s Classic range.
I’m conscious of not going over old ground and effectively re-running the review published in issue 161. So, focussing on the Model 3000mk2, what strikes you is an almost complete absence of background noise. This is expected (but often not delivered) in a solid-state amplifier, but with valve designs there is an understsanding and acceptance that there will be a spot of ‘rushing’ noises from the valves. But there is nothing at all like that. The Zanden Model 3000mk2 is whisper quiet in operation, even with the volume turned up.
The Zanden Model 3000mk2 is perhaps the ultimate expression of audio refinement. Where the power amps brought the beauty and the dynamics, this is all about texture and subtlety. In every angle; from the understated ‘click’ as you change sources, to the styling, and the sound, you can’t help but listen and think of fine jewellery. Not in a ‘bling!’ way, more taking a fine stone and refining it until perfect.
Of course, refinement requires quality. The Zanden Model 3000mk2 does not suffer musical fools gladly. This is a product that demands the best, and delivers the best. Ask any jeweller of note (as in the person who actually works with gems, not just the guy who sold you a watch strap) and they’ll say you can polish any stone to the highest degree and cut facets into that stone that will make it sparkle, but if you have poor quality stones, those facets will never sparkle with the intensity they could deliver. Feed the Model 3000mk2 with extremely well-recorded music and you will be given an excellent response; play something mediocre, and you get highly-polished mediocrity.
In fairness, both preamp and power amplifier conspire to make demands on the musical content, but where the power amplifier reacts to less-than-excellent content by pulling back on the ‘beauteous’ aspect of the performance, the Model 3000mk2’s inherent refinement polishes the right and the wrong edges of music equally. This does not result in an ‘ugly’ sound (I don’t think the Zanden vocabulary includes the word ‘ugly’), but almost too much refinement for the performance.
This refinement aspect shouldn’t be overstated, but neither should it be underplayed. This preamplifier doesn’t omit anything in terms of detail, dynamic range, imaging, transparency, vocal articulation, solidity of image, coherence, micro-dynamics, timbral shading, or any other aspect common to the best of the best in audio, but it does so with an air of sophistication and refinement that is both beguiling and impossible to find elsewhere. This sophistication makes well-recorded music sound like you always wanted it to; shimmeringly beautiful sounds presented in front of you like a hologram, without emphasis or forward tilt, or any kind of excess. And when the music isn’t as perfectly recorded, the Zanden’s ability to sound sublime still shines through, but the limitations of the recording are not papered over in the process. I prefer this approach to the smoothed over interpretation of ‘refinement’ that many amplifiers strive for.
Of all the other attributes associated with audio electronics, I’d say that ‘coherence’ and ‘cohesiveness’ is the key aspect here. It’s not just that the Model 3000mk2 ties the disparate elements of a musical performance together, it’s that it also makes specific instruments within that musical performance sound cohesive.
The key point of the Zanden sound, expressed perfectly in the Model 3000mk2, is that element of unforced sound: not music filtered through the medium of hi-fi, but the sound acoustic music makes in its natural, unamplified, unreproduced raw state. For many, this will be a first-time experience, an antithesis of the hardpedge, forward-tilted, initially impressive sound many audio components produce, even in the top league.
Of course, it’s worth pointing all this out in context, because in context of the Model 9600mk2 power amplifiers, the products work so harmoniously there is little need to look elsewhere. Which means the preamp and power amp should be treated like a single item. Except that I think the Model 3000mk2 is the gateway into the full Zanden experience for those wanting to migrate, but not do so immediately. The character of ‘no character’ that applies to the Model 9600mk2 is built upon the disappearing quality of the Model 3000mk2, and if you applied the Zanden preamp to a regular power amplifier, it’s a more enjoyable intermediary than adding a pre to the Model 9600mk2s.
There is an oft-quoted statement in high-end audio, that good preamps are hard to find. It’s not cliché because it rings true. OK, there are a lot of good preamplifiers, but really great preamplifiers are extremely rare. And the Zanden Model 3000mk2 is one of those really rare, really great preamplifiers. It manages to dig out the refinement in almost any recording, but also plays music like it wasn’t in the system, and its overall tonality makes it exceptionally easy to just sit in front of. Putting it with its partners shows what the Model 3000mk2 is capable of with its wings fully unfurled, but with other amplifiers, the Model 3000mk2’s performance shines through.
Those who define their preamplification by the strong flavours it adds to the system won’t find much to like in the Zanden Model 3000mk2, but many others will listen to this preamplifier and rise to the challenge. Many will hear it, and initially think its fidelity to the source a beguiling, but somewhat academic, exercise. Those willing to go past the first toe of the learning curve, however, will quickly find that they are listening to a preamplifier of rare talent and elegance. It has quicksilver reactions and the kind of dynamic range that few solid-state preamps can match, and has the ability to just get out of the way of the music. That will improve the performance of almost any power amplifier, but when that power amplifier is Zanden’s Model 9600mk2, suddenly your audio system gets moved up into a new league.
Type: valve preamplifier
Tube complement: 1×5687, 2×6CA4s
Inputs: 3×XLR pair, 3×RCA pair
Outputs: 1×XLR pair, 1×RCA pair
Input impedance: 100Ω (XLR/RCA)
Maximum output: 9v
Frequency response: 10Hz–20KHz (-0.5dB)
Dimensions (W×H×D): 39.8 ×10.3 ×25.4cm (main); 17.5×16.5×35.7 (PSU)
Weight: 9.1kg (main), 5.5kg (power)
Manufactured by: Zanden Audio Systems Ltd.
Distributed by: Audiofreaks
Tel: +44(0)208 948 4153
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