Take De Aki a Ketama, a 1995 live recording [Mercury 314 528 183-2] of the Spanish Flamenco/Salsa/Latin crossover sensation. A lot of close-miking creates sizzling cymbals, brutally hard rim shots, searing but bright trumpets, hot and somewhat thin guitars, very energetic bell trees. The music, on the other hand, is what the Germans call "fetzig" - rip-roaring, happening. The Zanden DAC retained all the acute audience/performer vibe -- the go-for-broke, let's-show-'em-a-good-time intensity -- but eliminated the usual element of glare. It's the darn aural equivalent to modern blue-white high-performance automotive halogens. They blind the crap out of country bumpkin drivers like yours truly adjusted to the traditional yellow-white head lamps of beat-up mud-splattered trucks. It still was a hot recording - but with the annoying edge gone. The remaining heat put the hex on silly one-size-fits-all presumptions that valves in the signal path subtractively sugar-coat. Not here. This was an increase in resolution, not a blurring.

In fact, as with the recently reviewed AUDIOPAX monos, the Zanden Model 5000 didn't telegraph tubes at all. Only if you were intimately familiar with tube-driven power supplies might the explosive dynamic drive have you suspect something. But you couldn't be sure. The image density suggested it, too. Remember my recent slow dance with Shigaraki's 4717 amplifier though? It got every bit as wet and no wee tubes in sight. The lines between these camps are irrevocably blurred. Gifted designers deciding on how to approach personalized ideals of what constitutes good sound enjoy access to ever more varied but equally valid routes.

Sabil 'a 'Salaam by Nass Marrakesh [Alula-1021, 2000] is another viper-under-the-sheets recording, this time combining traditional Moroccan Gnawa trance music with African, Flamenco and Indian percussion. The metal double castanets called karkabas, the somewhat strident timbre of the three-stringed wood/camel-skin lute known as sintir, the added beat keepers of djembe, Senegalese sabar and bass txums, tabla, tam-tam, tbal and Nigerian udus, the full-throttled Muslim quartet vocals -- especially at levels appropriate to exorcizing evil djinns -- all combine for highly percussive, wild, uncivilized, raw music making. But in the wrong hands, it can go from exhilarating to relentless, like being hit by buck shot. No single impact's even remotely lethal, but en masse they overload the nervous system to give out.

As before, the Zanden DAC's "taming of the shrew" didn't eliminate a "foul mouth" but took the sting out of its verbal needles. Personal reaction, rather than turning defensive against the onslaught, stayed open and took it in. This gesture of acceptance then revealed layers of meaning previously obscured by reflexive recoil, similar to not hearing an opponent making good sense when an argument grows too heated and we stop really listening to justify getting reactive. This human dialogue simile isn't farfetched. It points at the earlier promise of rediscovering one's recordings in a new light. With the nettle sting of nasties pulled, a new relationship to such music arises. We discover treasures where there weren't any before.

Allem Alby [Mondo Melodia 186 850 070-2, 2003] is Amr Diab's latest US release and a further example of what I've once heard described as "bubble gum" music. Without knowing exactly what this term is supposed to signify, it makes a strange kind of sense regardless. I don't listen to Western Pop because I can't stomach the usual lyrics. None of them cover thematic ground that hasn't been overgrazed and trampled to death many times over. But I do enjoy Pop. I simply veer towards Middle-Eastern where my inability to follow the -- surely equally saccharine -- lyrics allows me to enjoy the voices and music on their own merit. Drum machine loops and pounding hip hop grooves spell slam city and a certain 'edgy' attitude that can get cold, hard and devoid of anything but very superficial appeal in a hurry.

But what if some of that cyborg factor unthawed, if the tunes stopped slapping you around? You'd discover dimensions of technical intricacies, surreal rhythmic architecture, stunning vocal prowess, all simply cloaked in less-than-stellar production values and just requiring the right touch to "come out". The Zanden DAC brought these dimensions to the fore more than other digital components I've had through here. And though the global differences between accomplished digital are melting faster than the polar caps, the MkII's local lead was sufficient enough to remain demonstrable even in the face of such formidable adversaries as the Bel Canto Design DAC-2 and modified Shanling T-100.

Lest you get nervous, Yamada-San certainly didn't design his DAC solely for "questionably recorded" music. But before I pull some high-society samples, I wanted to make a very important point. The Model 5000 MkII is a bona fide audiophile instrument, but one that deliberately serves non-audiophile material. This counters the popular notion that bad recordings should sound bad, or else it ain't high fidelity. While this argument clearly appeals to reason, logic and conceptual ideals, the Zanden shows it to declassify recordings as bad or merely mediocre that, per se, really aren't. The fault then resided not with the CDs but incomplete reproduction of encoded data, specifically in the critical treble. Now the tables turn. The counter argument insists that inferior equipment makes the recordings sound bad, like a cook taking perfectly good and fresh ingredients but fouling up the recipe.

How to know who's right in this debate unless a component came along that transformed a toad not into a siren but simply annihilated the volatile reaction to the toad? The Zanden Model 5000 inspires such musings not because it smooths things over, but -- or so it seems at least -- because it reveals an analogue smoothness as being a previously merely dormant but actual part of the bloody software itself. Who woulda thunk?

Can I prove this last statement though? Unless I were present during the actual recording, most certainly not. What points at a strong possibility that it is factual nonetheless? The use of a 20-year old while admittedly best-of-its-kind 16/44 chip that performs no predictive interpolation voodoo to guesstimate what the original wave form looked like; employs no oversampling to upshift artifacts; eliminates the digital filter altogether. If such an antiquated chip can unearth this level of mature sophistication from equally old recordings, it stands to reason that -- like Kimura-San of 47Lab already proved so impressively with his revolutionary PitRacer transport -- there's more information hiding in them ther pits than we dared imagine. To qualify that assumption not in limbo but vis-à-vis other components, flip one more virtual page. The MkII does warrant such comprehensive commentary.
Piano by Dave Regier - stainless steel and red felt, 20" x 24" x 12" Soul Ship by Arlie Regier, stainless steel, 28" x 12" x 28"