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To come right out, the Prima DAC is 95%+ of the Zanden for 50% of the cash. The "+" sign tags along to connote slightly varying degrees of proximity. Exactly how close will depend on the overall level of associated system resolution. Equally as important, it'll depend on what the listener hones in on. If you're not keyed in to the Zanden's peculiar depiction of flow, you might call it very close indeed. If you're in the flow about the difference in gestalt
-- and more importantly, care about it -- you might concur that in absolute terms, we're really only talking a few puny percentage points but that, subjectively speaking, they're far heavier and more profound than little bidirectional nips and tugs in areas of soundstaging, outline focus and the usual audiophile qualifiers by which both converters might play some small tug-o'-war over a dividing center line.

In those areas, the Prima DAC distinguishes itself with a slightly more lit-up upper mid/lower treble band but also just a hair coarser grain on the photographic paper. For lack of a term that would better suit the objectivists, the 6922-outfitted Zanden MkIV (itself outclassed by the 7308-fitted Signature version) is possessed of a suavity which, theoretically speaking, could be a function of avoiding the usual upsampling math. Perhaps. For me, this exceptional roundness -- like a river pebble caressed by millennia of water action to become as smooth as baby's soles -- goes beyond tone into a physical response where something inside relaxes.

If this type of psycho-physical effect is real to you and something to pursue at all costs, the Zanden is the one. If concepts like gestalt and effortlessness strike you as nothing but psycho babble, however, the Audio Aero will do everything else the Zanden does just as well if perhaps not absolutely identically. While we're at it, purely from a resolution perspective, the Benchmark Media DAC does, too. Otherwise, it's not even remotely in the same league. In fact, its bland presentation suggest many aspects which had digital detractors disenchanted from Day One. Speaking purely from a listening pleasure pulpit, the DAC-1 makes a few rather significant backwards step. Depending on how you view this, it would mean that despite its acclaim, it's rather overrated. The counter argument, naturally, is price. For $995, the DAC-1 performs miracles. But in my book, it's a mastering tool, not musical instrument. While the converters I'd much rather listen to consume in state tax alone what the DAC-1 costs in total (to paraphrase another reviewer), I'd - well, rather listen to those other DACs. Enough said on that subject. The Benchmark's feature review will include a comparison to a Reflection Audio-modified unit that'll make these aspects clearer.

For now, let's detail out what a DAC like the Audio Aero Prima gives you. As is true with any audio electronics, the power supply dictates qualities like tonal fullness, body, bass heft and dynamic extension. Getting the digital math right no longer is a major challenge. Burr-Brown and Analogue Devices got you covered. As the Benchmark unit proves, this needn't cost a fortune at all. Where the dearer units differ -- or should -- is in the appropriate stiffness of their power supplies and how well they're filtered, regulated and isolated. My recent Overkill Audio review showed how units from the professional sector like the DAC-1 or DEQX sometimes fall short. What the engineering text books on power supplies dub appropriate versus what audiophile experience based on listening calls optimized can diverge rather drastically. After all, adding nothing but an optimized power supply to the stock DEQX unit had paid significant dividends during the Overkill Encores' stay. That's also one significant advantage the Prima gives you over the DAC-1. Frankly, it's surprising the latter can cram the requisite stuff into its half-width single rack-space chassis at all.

In many ways, it's the old argument in favor of active preamps. While passives can be as transparent as the best electrostats, as a genre they also tend to lack balls and color when compared to the best dynamic speakers or active preamps (especially tube-based preamps - unless you're got something wicked like the tubeless Audiopax Model 5). Sticking with this passive/active comparison, the Audio Aero is very active indeed. It's fleshed out, full of vibrant color without obscuring very fine details in the process. In fact and like the Zanden, it excels at chasing decay trails, allowing the listener to follow notes deep into their fades while they're being overlaid by new ones to blend and mix.

Some components focus on the leading edge. This sooner than later can get a bit demanding on the listener. It tends to generate a degree of artificial upfront excitement that's based on a minor imbalance similar to Triangle's well-known treble lift. Both the Zanden and Prima seem properly centered "in the middle of the notes". It lets you hear their beginnings without emphasized urgency while the subsequent sustain and then decay ride on expanded dynamics and lengthened visibility. Compared to transient-leading components, this can seem like a backwards shift rather than centering. If you're coming from such a sound, the Zanden/Audio Aero take can initially seem a little soft. I don't believe it is because you can play at lower levels without losing your involvement or interest at all.

Conversely, try playing transient-heightened components like the big mbl speakers at high levels. You'll wear out in a hurry. Balance as a virtue seems less appealing to testosterone-poisoned youth than more mature listeners but it's nearly a truism - it's balance that ushers a system into the long lane. Excess always dead-ends prematurely and derails when you find your listening session foreshortened. Of course, components that act excessively in some fashion or another are far easier to talk about than gear that takes the Buddhist middle path.

One area where the Prima is more spectacular than the non-Signature Zanden is in the sheer size of the soundstage during massive orchestral bombast. While I prefer Bajramovic's Gipsy band over Bartok's colossal symphonic forces these days, some classical fare usually finds its way into a review just because it's so telling. If you're a Bruckner, Shostakovich, Strauss and Mahler devotee, the Prima's sheer scope and scale of imaging will be a special boon.

The importer's modified Prima DAC SE (a $700 upgrade that replaces the D/A board capacitors, mounts the new ones on special Symposium pads for resonance control and swaps the stock 6012s with cryo'd versions) accomplishes two blatantly obvious things: tonal colors intensify as though S/N ratio had improved; and that "hair of grain" compared to the Zanden splits right down the middle, curls up and dyes. In fact, the hotrodded Prima had the kind of edge over my Zanden that its own stable-mate 7308 Signature held over it during the latter's lamentably temporary appearance with its matching transport. Three-dimensional images were more blustery, more pumped up as though the performers had just run around the block a few times to get that flushed oxygenated mien. Tonal color temperatures rose and things got "louder" and fuller without reaching for the volume. Globe Audio's Ken Wilson tells me that more than 20 modified units including Capitole players are already playing out in the field and more units are returning home to get their spa treatment makeover.

The verdict is clear: With elaborate features including direct-drive and analog inputs and performance squarely in the Zanden class, the stock Audio Aero Prima DAC advances straight to the head of the class. Though my Audiopax preamp came ahead slightly in the image density department, driving my monos Prima SE-direct was a highly satisfactory and far closer than expected second. It makes elimination of an active preamp for once not the unequivocal compromise it usually tends to be. So let's see - half the price of the Zanden; no preamp expense; in SE version arguably better even than the famous Japanese... do I need to impress urgently on prospective shoppers to go full hog via the SE route? Add the slick new cosmetics and the Prima becomes a bona fide giant killer.

Mission accomplished then. Would-be Zanden owners who couldn't justify or afford the tariff of playing in these exalted leagues can now go French for half the purse and add remote-controlled preamp functionality into the bargain. Okay, $5,500 still ain't chicken feed but for what you get, I'd say let the headless chickens worry about their own bird seed for once. If you asked me today what my favorite digital sound was that still remained somewhat within reach of mere mortals, I'd say Prima SE, hands-down, no ifs and buts, go and schedule your audition at your nearest dealer. Getting bested can feel good in times such as these when prices in HighEnd audio are once again spiraling out of control. The Prima SE DAC is the new champion at the $5K mark and takes on comers at the $10K barrier. Now that's newsworthy news even to jaded ears - or très chic as our Gallic friends might put it. Bravo!
Audio Aero website
US distributor's website