There’s an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mindset at the heart of Zanden Audio Systems. The Model 9600 has formed the power amplifier basis of the company’s line since the turn of this decade. Zanden announced the 9600Mk2 with typical understatement, but “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” doesn’t quite apply here. OK, so the exterior remains almost identical, and the basic headline specifications are virtually identical between the two models, but where the first amp was awesome, this new one is ‘awesomer’.
Like all Zanden products, it is phenomenally well made. Often boxes come with white gloves, and when you see the ugly tin box of screws and powder coat inside, you wonder precisely the point of them. This is not one of those products. It’s like a giant jewel, with its flawless, mirror-like stainless-steel case and a refined, elegant viewing panel for the valves. Everything about the amplifier is refined, restrained elegance, the kind of thing that makes a Savile Row suit look garish. This is somewhat odd, because the almost gold finished aluminium panels on the front section (something close to white gold) could look very tacky, but instead just looks extraordinarily graceful. This is perfectionism, the stuff of Zanden head Kazutoshi Yamada, and that perfectionism expresses itself in every aspect of the product.
The differences between the original and Mk2 model are subtle and internal. The old and new look identical, but there are changes to the valve complement, improved circuit layout, better power supply, and a new transformer material for both the input and output transformers.
The 9600Mk2 features a cobalt input transformer, Finemet output transformers, and a double-choke valve-regulated power supply. The Finemet transformer is designed by Hitachi metals, this is a nanocrystaline soft magnetic metal, a world first. It combines excellent magnetic flux capacity, high permeability, and electromagnetic noise suppression, making it a popular choice for use in industrial lasers, and particle accelerators in nuclear medicine applications. Zanden first tried this in its ‘entry level’ power amp, and found it so successful that it was ‘trickled up’ to the top-line power amplifiers.
Zanden has been having a spot of quiet rationalisation of product lines of late. Regrettably, the digital audio side has now gone away (not least because parts were becoming scarce) as has the integrated amplifier and cables, and now the company has just six products in its electronics line-up; a phono preamp, line preamp, and stereo power amp in the company’s affordable ‘Modern’ line, and a phono preamp, line preamp, and mono power amplifiers in the cost-no-object Classic Line. The rest is a platter mat and vibration absorber. The improvements Finemet brought to the Model 8120 stereo power amp were suitably large enough to warrant investigation in the top products.
The Model 9600Mk2 remains Zanden’s flagship power amplifier. It employs two KR845 valves in the output stage, with two 6CA4, two 5R4WGB and two 5687WB, replacing the 5AR4, two 5R4WGB, and three 5687WB in the predecessor. That means a lot more valve rectification. As a result, it succeeds in combining both the high power properties of a good solid-state amp coupled with the tonal beauty of valves. It uses a fixed-bias, completely fully-balanced push-pull circuit and a fully valves-rectified power supply circuit. As a result, there are a total of eight valves per channel, including the aforementioned 845s as output valves. This means they put out 60W in Class A or 100W in Class AB. Although impressive in any valve power amp, to our American counterparts, that seems a little underwhelming, however, in use the amplifiers could drive real-world high-end loudspeakers extremely well. It might not be the first choice for power-hungry loudspeakers that need near infinite power, but neither does it fall into the trap of ‘fear the Watt’ low-powered designs. And that new output transformer has a great part to play in that sound quality.
Naturally, a power amplifier of this gravity deserves the best, and in particular the best in partnering preamplifiers. It’s hard to think of a more deserving partner than the Zanden Model 3000Mk2 line preamplifier, also running in balanced mode. The two share the same gain structure so the output of one almost perfectly matches the input of the other, but there’s nothing malign going on in making these too snug a fit. They work well together because they were designed together, rather than designed to dovetail.