Zen SE84B Review

DATE: July 07, 1999 Comments by James Whiting


I started to write you yesterday and then inadvertently canceled my email before I finished it. I very much appreciate you shipping the amplifiers 2nd day air. It has also been interesting to find out how good the Zen is from the get go.

I arrived home Friday afternoon and immediately proceeded to create my jumpers to series mono-bridge the amplifiers. I am using the GQ25SE-AG ( the same that I sent you) in a doubled run using WBT silver spades. You can see by this that I am quite obsessive about my audio.

I also decided to directly solder the interconnects from my Cal CL-20 to the volume pots avoiding the whole input connector issue. I hooked them up and turned then on. Even cold, unbroken in they had a uniquely neutral even quality. I found them within a few hours to provide a much more emotionally satisfying presentation of music then I have ever experienced in my system and only rivaled in one or two others.

Since the SE84B's arrived with the bias switch flipped towards the tubes I left it there until Monday morning, only playing with it a couple of times. I did find that in the late morning/early afternoon that it did smooth some of the thin, slightly bright character of my power line. Monday morning my step son came over, he wanted to listen with his music. The system still sounded good albeit thin, bright and compressed. I am sure this was a direct result of the particular CD he had chosen. I let him turn it up and play. I found it quite a bit better switching the bias switch toward the front of the amp(away from the tubes). The amp had obviously started to break in and I noticed that this setting provided a more open neutral perspective on both the singer and the musicians in the background.

Later I put some of my favorite CDs on and noticed that the sense of top to bottom harmonic bloom was better, more satisfying. My Wife and I kept commenting to each other on how much more we could hear, finding new information, small treasures of illuminated detail that made every song brand new. And the amazing thing was it was not broken in more than 20 hours at this point. I had also neither leveled or spiked my speakers, figuring I would let the amp break in for a much longer period before really worrying about the speakers.

The sound was so remarkable however that I just had to set the speakers up properly. Oh my gosh! I put on a few CD's. The musical reality of these little amps staggered me. The rooms boundaries disappeared. I pulled out my Peter Gabriel's Secret World because it is a live concert recording and, well I wanted to see how live it could get. How can this be happening. I was there. Suffice it to say I have never heard better.

Realize that my room is only 13' X 17' X 8' and I only use correct speaker positioning to compensate for room anomalies, although my room is quite good. I could close my eyes and have absolutely no sense of being in any place but a large concert hall. I have heard larger rooms create a more physical sensation of size but the boundaries were still present with or without my eyes open.

Next the sheer emotion of the performance. I have always believed that the combination of precise note-to-note timing and consistent, evenly- weighted harmonic structure provide the emotion of the performance. This started in the Linn/Naim stage of my audio development, over a decade ago. No matter what I have since owned this has always struck me as the most important aspect of a great system. It is one of the reasons I love good baroque music and will happily listen to it for hours. Here it was in spades, offering a level of timing cues and harmonic structure that became the music and started to move on an emotional level I have not previously experienced from an audio system.

I could hear Peter Gabriel working his voice, changing pitch, texture, etc. I don't know all the correct terminology for singing technique, but I could hear him doing it. Then Paula Cole's sweeter, higher pitched accompanying vocals blending with his deeper, more resonate tone. And I could hear them wringing more out of the song then I had any idea was in it. I could also hear instruments more clearly in their own space with their own unique harmonic signature and sense of air and how tightly the band played together. I was so magnetized by the counterpoint between Peter Gabriel and Paula Cole that I primarily paid attention to them. I could have just as easily listened to a particular musician or even the crowded coughing, whistling or clapping. The whole sense of the event was in my listening/living room.

I have since listened and been equally amazed by just how effortlessly this amp both reveals and gets out of the way of music. I know I can't go back to solid-state. I am inspired to learn and explore pure class A, zero feedback, direct heated, single end triodes etc. But you know, if I wasn't such techno-weenie maniac, audiophile I would just enjoy the music. I will most assuredly do both. On an absolute basis a little more volume and somewhat larger dynamics would be wonderful. I wish I could get this amp in a version with say 50 watts. A more efficient speaker? My Talon Audio Khoruses are about 91dBW/mtr. I am not willing nor can I afford to give up this speaker for some of the better horn-loaded types available. So I will happily give up a slight amount of large scale dynamic and the last ounce of bass impact for the sheer musicality and emotion that is this amplifier.

Oh, I also noticed that better recordings seem to open up the dynamics of these amps more than one would think possible. I believe this amp reveals very clearly the compression that is in a lot of otherwise good recordings. When I put on a Chesky 96/24' for example, dynamics and impact are certainly there and even more remarkably there is an even greater level of difference than I had previously heard, in comparison with normal CD's, than with any other system on which I have compared these formats.

I don't suppose I had actually intended to write a review, but 20 years plus of audio obsession have brought to a point where this sort of just happens. Anyway I will continue to let you know as my system progresses and the Zens break in. I am also hoping within the next few weeks to order your preamp.

Thanks, James



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