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.