From a surface reading of the Model 1200 Signature compared to the Model 1200 Mk 3, the two look almost identical from the outside (with simply the addition of XLR connections at the rear) with the move from three to six 6922s valves in the main unit being the biggest material change (the single 6922 and pair of SCA4 valves in the chrome-plated power supply box remain unchanged), not to forget improved transformers within the power supplies.
High-end phono preamps seem to be divided between those with fine granularity in cartridge matching or recording equalisation. Very few do both. The Model 1200 Signature retains the high-output MC setting of 480 ohms with 54dB of gain and its low output of 35 ohms and 64dB of gain. There is no fine tuning of impedance, gain or capacitance. These two main MC options do cover the majority of cartridges used today, however.
Like all previous Zanden phono preamps, the Model 1200 Signature includes EQ curves for Columbia, Decca, EMI, Teldec and RIAA, as well as polarity switching. Unlike all previous Zanden phono preamps, but like all upcoming designs starting with the Model 1200 Signature, this circuit now includes three positions for the 4th time constant: high for Neumann cutting lathes; middle for Ortofon cutting lathes, and low for Westrex lathes. These are actioned by pressing the EQ button the requisite number of times and your choice is indicated by a yellow LED. However, with potentially 30 (and in reality, eight+phase) different settings for each LP, it’s fortunately that Yamada-san has a team of highly-trained listener elves who have done a huge amount of listening, determined the correct settings for thousands of labels and imparted all that information in a periodically updated book supplied with the phono preamp. There is also a 10Hz subsonic filter. This upgrade to the equalisation options can be retrofitted to owners of the Model 1200 Mk 3, and this should be available before the end of the year.
I do not want to labour the EQ part of the Zanden design, however, in part because it’s such a hot-button topic among a few very vocal high-enders. Some consider the lack of different EQ curves a deal-breaker, others feel their inclusion to be the same, with little in the way of middle ground. Which, in my opinion, is a category error; even if you never move the Model 1200 Signature from its RIAA setting, you are playing LPs through one of the best phono preamps in the world. However, given those options are there and you have a handy guide to settings included in the box… try it. You might be pleasantly surprised at the end result.
Setting aside EQ then, exactly what makes the Zanden one of the best phono preamps in the world? First, it’s whisper quiet, and not simply ‘…for a valve-based phono preamp’. The previous Model 1200s were already extremely quiet, and balanced operation has helped here, both in balanced and single-ended operation. It’s also profoundly dynamic, and it’s here that the Model 1200 Signature scores over the already significantly dynamic Model 1200 Mk 3. Old favourites like ‘Autumn Leaves’ from Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else [Blue Note, 1st US pressing] give the interplay between Miles Davis’ trumpet and Adderley’s alto sax a scale and sense of realism that puts you right in the middle of the music, all underpinned by that piano/bass/drums backline that at once flows effortlessly and roots itself in three-dimensional space. This all makes for a record that you know backwards sounding fresh every time you play it.
This energy was the same with every record played. The Zanden 1200 Signature has that rare balance of being ‘musically inviting’ without warming up the sound, being ‘insightful’ without sounding unnecessarily exuberant, ‘detailed’ without sounding at all etched or bland, and ‘dynamic’ without sounding unhinged. The presentation of soundstaging was as good as the record playing; not artificially boosted or curtailed. The tone of the studio shone through, too. Flipping between 1970s West Coast Reprise sound [‘Never Going Back Again’ from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours] and a 1960s EMI recording of Vaughan Williams ‘Oxford Elegy’ wasn’t just the difference between classical and rock recordings; you could here the differences in studio settings, you could hear the way the two were mixed, right down to differences in monitors and how that changed the tonality.
Raw energy alone is not enough in top-end phono stages. Excellent soundstaging and outstanding dynamics is a given at this level. Even the sort of refinement that separates the very good from the best phono stages around can be had elsewhere. What sets the Zanden apart from all these things is the way it conjoins all these elements in an entirely effortless way. You almost fail to notice this cohesiveness until you play an LP through another phono stage and find the exercise sound punctuated and abstracted. This was always a mark of Zanden’s greatness in the 1200 series, and has taken a leap and a jump forward in the 1200 Signature.