Date: Nov 11 1997 / Mark H. Wilson

A few months ago I resolved to put together a stereo system that would be my oasis, a musical place of retreat. A number of years ago I attempted this before, but I felt like I kept hitting the CD sound barrier. I became convinced that CD's just don't have a musical soul. I probably should have pursued the LP route, but, it was too late, I was hooked on CD convenience and availability.

Over the past year I read a number of gushing reviews of single ended triode amps all over the Internet and hi-end journals. I got the impression these amps are an antidote for CD artificiality and a musical Balm of Gilead. Inspired, I set out to find an affordable system. For me this meant under $2000 for an up-to-date CD player, SE triode amp and efficient speakers. A tall order when I found out how much this stuff costs these days. A bit impulsively, I bought a Dynaco CDV-Pro player (HDCD and tube output stage, heavily discounted by J&R Music World), a pair of Infinity Overture 1's (on sale at Circuit City, 92db, soft dome neodymium tweeter) and, on the Internet, stumbled upon a SE triode "for the masses"--the Zen amp.

The Zen amp was the last to arrive and I hooked everything together with MIT and Transparent cables I already had (connecting the CD player directly to the amp). I only exceeded my $2000 goal by about $300. The pricing of Steve's amp is what really helped me accomplish this. I think he's some kind of hi-fi saint. Everything Steve says about the Zen amp is true. Prior to his amp's arrival, I felt I had an OK system. Now its firmly standing in the audiophile realm. My experience confirms Steve's observation: the amp makes more of a difference than anything else.

Am I totally satisfied? No, I'll be relegating the Infinitys to home theaterhood (which they were designed for), replacing them with what I hope will be Steve's next work of art--Zen matching speakers. In a recent phone conversation he made the mistake of telling me he was working on these. I will not leave you in peace, Steve, until I see these become a reality. For the Zen to really shine, high resolution, hyper imaging, full-range, very efficient speakers are needed, and as far as I know, these don't exist in this universe yet.

Did I find my oasis? Let me tell you, I daydream about the lucid, dynamic, three dimensional, timbrally correct musical image that forms before me when I press the play button. I'm an addict now. Voices (including backup singers) and instruments all exist separately, joined together in a musical tapestry. And CD's don't wear me out anymore. Very uncharacteristically, I found myself buying two older classic rock CD's (AC/DC's Black on Black and a Van Halen album) because electric guitars are now magical (I can almost hear the glow in the Marshall amps). Symphonies bloom and voices are sourced from fleshed human beings.

What continues to entrance me is Zen's ability to render each instrument's own internal resonances. Of course, at 1.8 watts, I'm not being pummeled by full bore sound tidal waves. But, there is so much musical detail coming through that I'm immersed in musical involvement. It's very hard for me to use this amp for background music because it constantly draws me in. This amp even makes opera inviting. Truly terrifying is that I would probably listen to a Barney CD and be fascinated by its purple tonal colors. Observers would be ready to have me psychological assessed.

How does the Zen compare to other SE triode amps? I don't have the answer yet, but I'm very curious and will be toting this mighty mite around to do some A/B'ing at dealers and homes. If you are in the DC area, e-mail me and we'll arrange a session. I'm sure Steve will let me publish my findings no matter how it turns out, he's very much into full disclosure. I did A/B with a $2000 monoblock solid state amp and at 1 watt, the Zen was better. The Zen amp takes 45 minutes of warm up to fully emerge. Do I now have music just like the real, live thing in my home? No. But then, if my room was acoustically treated, the digital sampling rate went up 1000%, jitter vanished, all recording engineers learned how to do things right and some fantasy speakers materialized...hmmm, maybe we'd be onto something.

-Mark H. Wilson



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