In an attempt to soften digital's edges, the previously reviewed 47Lab Shigaraki Model 4715 DAC eschewed digital and analog filters and direct-coupled the data stream to the outputs via passive I/V conversion. While in fact sounding softer and mellower, compared to the Bel Canto Design 24/192 DAC-2, it clearly lost in the micro-detail resolution area of ambient recovery and spatial cues. The Zanden DAC equalled the DAC-2 in the ultra-resolution department. Simultaneously, it far transcended Shiggy's somewhat amorphous focus to replace it with extreme facility. Spotting the utter absence of edginess in that was easy; understanding how it was achieved without at all curtailing transient sharpness and leading edge fidelity rather more difficult. Note too the linguistic problem: Edginess versus leading edges. One sounds annoying, the other exciting.

Regier "Violin", stainless steel, 24" x 9" x 4"
One evening, I pierced the no-mind zone of altered-state listening. After the satisfying mental exhaustion from a good day's work behind the keyboard, followed by a vigorous half-hour abdominal Pilates floor session and cold shower, my ability to be fully present was enhanced. Meditation in action. Then I got it. Duh. In one felt swoop, the linguistic/conceptual confusion evaporated and I saw how the MkII accomplished its suave smoothness without stealing from Tom to pay John.

It avoided what I've since come to think of as digital clipping.

You see, this is different from the proper technical definition of clipping which occurs when overdriving amplifiers and flat-lining waveform peaks. While rare, it can also occur in digital, something the original Perpetual Technologies P-3A was guilty of on certain recordings where it introduced a strange beat frequency that injected audible noise rhythmically synchronized with the music. The clipping I'm referring to now concerns decays. Once you hear the Zanden DAC, you realize how by comparison, other digital prematurely clips off decay trails. I already hinted at this phenomenon in my review of the Music Hall CD-25 when I had first grokked the Zanden DAC's mystery. I wrote:

"The reason cheap CD players sound harsh, flat and lifeless has to do with this digital "clipping". It's not a distortion like amplifier clipping but just as audible. It's an obscuration of micro detail which, when recovered, shows notes to linger longer. In obnoxious wine speak, tones then have a more extended and complex finish - velvety shades of raspberry, walnut and cinnamon. You know the blasted poetic descriptions. In the absence of this subtle shimmer -- notes overhanging each other as on a piano with its damper pedal lifted -- tones end abruptly. The minuscule trails of boundary reflections that would light up the space in which they occurred are wiped out. We instinctively call such renditions dry and damped or, in the extreme, edgy. What should be water-color type soft transitions between sounds and silence are reduced to brusque oil-color delineations. Would it surprise you that with these transitions intact, music appears richer and fuller while also more gentle and less hyped - more analogue?"

This solved the puzzling conundrum of digital edginess. It's not about leading but trailing edges rendered edgy when a tone's organic sustain/decay is killed off before its time. At first, it's easiest perceived with strings or bells which, naturally, enjoy longer lingering when not intentionally damped by the artist.

Ferreira Duque De Braganca Old Tawny Port 20 years
One of my favorite guitarists is French payo Thierry 'Titi' Robin whose every record to own I have made a point of music-lovin' honor. On Un Ciel de cuivre [Naive Y225091], a record mentioned repeatedly in other equipment reviews, his solo oud performs a free-style Russian/Moorish Tzigane duet with Francis-Alfred Moerman's Sinti-flavored Selmer guitar. Knowing this track "Django a Bagdad" inside out, I noticed previously unresolved overtone and decay patterns stacking, shifting and creating miniature fata morganas between the two lutes' lingering notes. These were extremely temporal structures, molecular echoes mingling and mixing, like flimmering heat auras surrounding solid objects to play with the light in different diffractions.
Thierry 'Titi' Robin

To clearly penetrate such extreme short-duration processes required, in my case at least, an initial perceptional slowing down similar to the time when I fell backwards off a short ladder. While hitting the ground merely took a second in real time, experiential time lasted significantly longer. That's something certain martial artists can do at will, to see attacks unfolding in consecutive freeze frames. It happens to ordinary people in moments of danger. Perhaps you see an about-to-happen car crash in slow motion. It preternaturally triggers a reflexive evasive maneuver ordinarily well outside your customary reaction times.

I'm emphasizing these 'extra-sensory' aspects to underline that the exact mechanism of the Zanden DAC's marvellous smoothness is a thing of subtlety. Good digital, like the reminiscent-of-Wadia DAC-2 -- which, incidentally, did have Jim Kinne of Wadia involved in John Stronczer's design process -- has come so far exploding the previous limitations that differences, in some cases, merely amount to the thickness of a gnat's wing. The Zanden's competitive advantage, especially over a highly resolving system, is audible and perhaps unique in certain respects but, if your digital progress is sufficiently advanced, not a hit-you-over-the-head affair.
Thierry's Payo Michto ensemble

Before I delve into comparisons against Bel Canto's very affordable box and the tubed Shanling T-100 modded to the hilt by Chris Johnson of the PartsConnexion (including four OPA 627 chips claimed to be the finest buffering op amps extant), it bears repeating that the Zanden's phenomenal smoothness (which rendered previously marginal albums exceedingly listenable) did not blur, slow down or otherwise undermine transient definition. That would have been instantly and objectionably obvious on violently strummed or arpeggioed strings, especially with an oud as vigorously plucked as Thierry's, or even Renaud Pion's staccato saxophone riffs.

Another important reminder is the broad-scale validity of these observations for any instrument, any vocals. Once you've recognized the twin actions of crystalline, instant transients and extended decays (clarity on the front end, elongated finish), you discover it in everything. You then understand how it renders things not only richer but also more realistic sounding. The latter's a function of low-level spatial reflections that don't isolate the musicians in a dry vacuum but make visible how their aural emissions spread circularly in the recording environment to then ricochet off boundaries, including other instruments and performers.

Pentti Sammallahti "Varanasi, India, 1999" - Toned Gelatin Silver Print 7" x 5" Other hi-rez front ends (next to the DAC-2, the Birdland Odeon-Ag comes to mind) excel in similar fashion with this portrayal of audible space. Other tubed units like my Jolida JD-100 or the present Shanling T-100 review unit offer a similarly fleshed-out while not overdone timbral palette - though the excessive power supply of the Zanden goes further still. Power supplies. As any engineer worth his salt will admit, the quality of the power supply is about 80% of the sound - and of the expense. Tube-rectified supplies, in my experience, tend to accelerate dynamics, something more noticeable on the micro than macro scale. That's certainly the case with the MkII. Tubes also layer very well, another strong point for the Zanden. But you can appreciate how none of these variables are exclusive to the MkII.

The compelling thing about this very expensive Japanese contender is how it combines all of them into a cohesive whole and then plays out its trump card: Refined, utterly non-grainy while extended upper midrange and treble bands that ameliorate the even subtle digital signature that, by comparison, remains in other top-notch front ends I've heard.

Tony Taddeo of Digital Antidote fame and Wadia have repeatedly gone on record about the vital importance of phase fidelity. How, intrinsic to the digital format, it's measurably abandonded in the higher frequencies. I'm here to tell you that it's patently audible when corrected. This is of course assuming that, and not something else, was the reason for the Zanden's spectacular performance in these bands. To be honest, how it manages is less important to me than that it does. And does it ever. Hold your horses while I filch my music library for some examples of how good previously thought rough-edged recordings could really be, saving my musical world from bad sound (which, admittedly, I take in trade for truly inspiring music any day of the lunar year - but getting my cake and eating it too is a concept I can appreciate as much as the next guy ordering his third slice of Sacher Torte with whipped cream. That pig ...)