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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S [on loan]
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Bel Canto Design PRe2
Amp: FirstWatt F-1; FirstWatt F-2 [for review]
Speakers: Zu Cable Druid Mk4
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S digital cable; Stealth Audio Indra; Zu Cable Ibis; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; Z-Cable Reference Cyclone power cords on both powerline conditioner
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath DAC and preamp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell and IsoClean wall sockets
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $849; $115 for solid wood dress cradle as shown
|Steve Deckert -- no, not the BladeRunner -- has achieved what many would consider an ambitious dream: fame and low-gain success in the audio underground without playing the review or advertising game. His Decware Zen amps are legendary among micro-power devotees. They don't exceed $1525 for a pair of monoblocks and start at $678 for a stereo amp. What's more, they use the commoner's EL84/6BQ5 tube. It's hot-swappable for the Svetlana SV83s, a Russian military/radar-use equivalent of very wide bandwidth. So repeat after me - these amps are small, they're light, they're cheap, they're apparently anything but exotic. Why should they be legendary?
Ah, grasshopper - precisely because they're all of these things and manage to sound stunning (at least based on 100+ owner reviews). The Decware mystique is one of direct interactions between designer and customer, in the best Old World tradition of artisans. With one critical difference, mind you - it's everyday chaps and lasses that are served, not blue-blooded deep pockets. Part of the intrinsic affordability of Decware goods is Deckert's head space. He's not into glitz. Another part is that his amplifiers don't exceed 12 watts in mono while stereo power is limited to between 2 and 6 watts. Once you say bye-bye to the star power of 300Bs, 2A3s, 45s, that's bye-bye also to their hefty salaries. Now say sayonara to high-output 845s and 211s. That's also sayonara to monstrous transformers and insane rail voltages. Easy does it. Hello Chuang-Tzu.
Almarro of Japan too has embraced the lowly EL84. It's their weapon of choice for the most affordable Almarro A205A integrated. Or own Jeff Day loved it so much, he bought it after the review. He's currently similarly tempted -- albeit at far greater financial expense -- by Tom Evan's new and apparently stupendous Linar A amp. It also uses the EL84. Paul Candy meanwhile loves his Manley Labs Stingray, another EL84 design. The Zen Taboo straps its 6BQ5 in pentode, not triode. This forgoes yet another perceptional advantage to be taken serious as a tube amp. As a pentodist, feedback naturally becomes vital to maintain linearity. Untamed pentodes often suffer a rising frequency response which, when unchecked sans feedback, can get hot and zippy. Of course, feedback too has gotten a bum rap from the direct-heated triode fans. There are thus plenty of conceptual disadvantages to the Zen Taboo. After 20 years of doing this, Deckert has never yet met a pentode he prefers over a triode. With this amp, he finally calls it even though. Except for power. The Taboo triples output over its petite Zen Triode sisters (of which more than 1150 have sold to date).
But then the Zen Taboo goes even farther left-field. Not only does it offer adjustable dual-mono feedback, it adds a unique and proprietary switchable Lucid Mode. The Taboo circuit is a hybrid between a floating and grounded output transformer design. Sporting partially floated outputs, the necessary feedback could be stabilized while retaining the sonic advantages of the fully floated Zen Triodes. The feedback circuit runs in parallel with the cathode of the input stage to serve as a ground reference for the output transformer. At the same time, a parallel ground reference operates through the impedance of the transformer's secondary leg. A switch then ties together both semi-floating secondaries with a series resistance between each coil . As Deckert explains in his notes, "this modifies the ground reference further and allows both channels to become actively aware of each other. The resulting channel-to-channel synergy is something impressively special-sounding that only the Taboo can accomplish when in Lucid mode. Because of the semi-floating output design, the input sensitivity is around 2.5 to 3 volts when the stock 12AX7 driver is used."
|With hum levels of less than 1 millivolt (usually 0.4mv), the Taboo is specifically marketed at ultra-efficient speakers. It's self-biased, tube rectified with a 5Y3GT, uses a single input/driver dual triode, Audience Auricaps, Sprague Atoms, German F&T and Solen Fast Caps, an air-gapped choke in the power supply, custom US-made output transformers and silver internal wiring. A front-mounted volume control allows for source-direct operation or becomes an input sensitivity control to match your preamp of choice. Rear-mounted gold/Teflon RCA jacks are wired up with silver/Teflon to the point-to-point, fully sealed internal circuit while the output jacks are 24-carat gold-plated Cliff 5-way jobs. Power consumption of this Class A design is 65 watts at full power and 24 in standby. Various hardwood cradles are available to dress up the demure black chassis. I've asked for my Taboo to arrive in Taos in solid Cherry, ordered through Decware's on-line store. Delivery times are usually about 4 weeks and the customer gets a 30-day trial period with a life-time warranty and 90 days on the tubes.
|About that name. Clearly 'Decware' is a contraction of 'Deckert' and 'ware'. Steve could have made it Decjewels or Decgear or Decadence. Instead it's Decware - like silverware. It suggests a utensil to be used which otherwise doesn't mandate undue concern or glorification. You eat with it. That's it. Should you|
|expect anything else from your audio, Deckert might well counter with a grinning "eat me!"
|Our Zen priest also makes preamps, speakers, cables and guitar amps, none of them conventional me-too products, none of them priced out of reach. Once my new Taboo arrives, I'll let you know how it all translates. I just ordered it today so be a bit patient. If you're curious in the meantime, read up on some of Deckert's papers on the development of the Taboo. It makes for very interesting reading. Incidentally, Steve was hoping he could come up with a 2A3/45/300B-type amplifier to outperform the Taboo and offer that to the public instead. It'd have made for so much easier marketing. Alas, it wasn't to be. The ordinary EL84 in his circuit proved more extended, more transparent, more dynamic and faster. So what's an honest guy to do? Stick with what works even if it lacks snob appeal. All in all, a perfect tea leaf reading for a future installment of my current Realsization quest - of less is more, for less.|