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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Bel Canto Design PRe2; Eastern Electric MiniMax
Amp: FirstWatt F-1; FirstWatt F-2 [for review]; Decware Zen Taboo; 2 x AudioSector Patek SE; Canary Audio CA-308 [on review]
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Mk1.5
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: $640; $115 for solid wood dress cradle as shown

Decware's less-is-more leanings to hit sub $1K price points are apparent throughout their lineup. One way this is accomplished? Sharing casings between components. The CSP preamp uses the same metal housing as my Zen Taboo power amp. The chassis holes for the speaker binding posts and feedback controls are simply plugged while the Lucid Mode toggle in the front becomes the 2-input selector. The layout of tubes is identical as in the amp. Ditto for the size of the transformer which, considering, would appear extremely stout for mere preamp duties. The optional wood cradle I'd purchased for the Taboo fits the CSP as well and really goes far to dress up the otherwise deliberately demure cosmetics.

3 x 6922/6N1P/6DH8s and a 5Y3/5AR4/5U4 rectifier make up the tube complement. Tube rolling is encouraged, in the cathode follower first-tube driver position; in the second position where one tube per channel acts as constant current source; and in the third with the rectifier.

An Alps pot does volume trimming while this SET preamp's gain structure is custom configured at the factory. It allows you to specify what exact attenuator setting should correspond to unity gain. That gives you the most optimal range with your chosen amplifier/speaker interface. Since my ModWright/Taboo combo ran into occasional gain bottlenecks on my Druids (15dB of preamp voltage gain into the Taboo's unusually low 2.3V input sensitivity plus my 1V-out Zanden DAC source), I had requested 9:00 o'clock as the unity gain marker to get my estimated listening volumes into the 12:00 o'clock zone of the volume control.

Petite at 6" W x 11" D x 6.5" H, the CSP's 13 pounds are testament to the iron aboard its powder-coated steel enclosure. Specs include an input impedance of 100Kohm and a Z-out at <300 ohms. Max output is 14V RMS and hum & noise < 0.9mv. This piece also carries a life-time warranty to the original owner.

Decware offers four different preamps altogether. This particular one is said to be the natural mate to my amp. Designer Steve Deckert volunteered to send it over on a 2-month loan. For him, it eliminated the unknown variable of my ModWright SWL 9.0SE. I'd hear the Taboo exactly as intended. For me, it also offered an unexpected opportunity to review the CSP on its own. Needless to say, this would mean a comparatively overpriced context but good performance is good performance. If this little 'un held its chin high surrounded by the big boys, it'd be something very worthwhile to report on indeed. Naturally, it'll also make an appearance in the final chapter of my ongoing Taboo review.

Would the CSP turn out to be a "thinking man's reference" as one reader has referred to my ongoing realsizing experiments? If you remove sex appeal, company cachet, endless inputs for more components than you'd ever own, remote control, build quality to survive a war you wouldn't, phono stages for a turntable you don't have and all the rest that makes designer gear into designer gear - what's left that really matters in a preamp?

Depending on your ideas, either nothing (if you fancy a truly invisible preamp that simply provides volume control but otherwise isn't there) or something additive if you expect a preamp to increase dynamics, weight, tone and body. I refer to these types as passive and active, with passive not the official definition but an electrically active preamp that simply sounds like nothing.

The first comparison would see the CSP go up against the Bel Canto PRe2. The Bel Canto is a passive preamp in the above sense though active in the traditional. It's essentially table water with the faintest hint of treble sweetness, i.e. a paragon of neutrality. It simply passes the signal without intruding. It sends on whatever amount of resolution your front-end is capable of extracting from your software - without the least bit of subtraction. If your particular amp/speaker combination gives you the precise sonic flavoring you crave, an additive or voiced preamp could dilute that. It makes an essentially passive preamp the perfect solution. (Incidentally, that's exactly why our own John Potis recently purchased a PRe2P - to mate to his Art Audio 845-based Carissa SET. Beware those who'd categorically write off neutrality as unmusical without considering the particular system context.) Using the F2 current-source amp in today's comparison had an additional benefit. It would render the interconnects and speaker cables used more or less invisible. Transconductance drive disregards those parameters.

The CSP is billed as "stone quiet". Into the F2 which is stone quiet, the CSP wasn't. The amp's low-ish 15.6dB of gain already showed the Decware preamp to produce a mild background hum even when the active input was muted by selecting the open one. On the active input, this hum increased with attenuator setting to be very noticeable at full tilt and still audible at the 12:00 o'clock position. For reference, the PRe2/F2 combo is so quiet that you wouldn't know it's on even with your ears buried in my 101dB drivers. Mind you, the CSP isn't unduly noisy at all and for its asking price actually quite impressive - but to call it "stone quiet" is rather overstating things. Incidentally, there's also a minor amount of signal leakage from the active into the open input.

Sonically, the tiny tot mirrors the Zen Taboo and Bel Canto by being an ultra-transparent player indeed. While not quite the equal of the PRe2 in that regard, you'd have to really pay attention to little things like the lengths of decays in the recording venue or vocal peaks where the CSP would occasionally inject a little bit of grit. It initially sounded like a faint whiff of distortion very similar to a slightly scratchy voice coil. Here it was audible only on certain instruments and some vocal peaks.

Where the Decware scored was in the texture department. Unlike the billowy yet thick and dense 845 texture I just described in my review of the DeHavilland Ios, this 6922 texture was much more subtle. It reminded me most of the very light yet smooth surface of a Rayon shirt.

The Decware also benefitted the dimensional aspects of the presentation. It's something I nearly always hear with tubes. To this day, I am at a loss to explain how tubes do that. It's easy to hear yet when you ask what exactly creates this effect, clear-cut explanations play coy and are impossible to come by.

It's fair to call the Decware active in that regard since it
adds something over the PRe2. Things fill out a bit both in spatial and tonal terms. Don't think octals though. In the wrong circumstance, those can get a bit fat, blurry and thus indistinct, bloomy and smudged. The CSP is not at all about excess. Its additive contributions do not curtail apparent rise times to round over attacks or put a minor drag on music's innate pace. While stage depth was slightly foreshortened vs the Bel Canto, the performers on that stage concretized for an appealing trade off. My only criticism really was that occasional nearly subliminal scratchiness in the upper midrange. It appeared also in the monster harmonica solos on Jordi Bonnell's phenomenal Jazz Fusion album Agua Madre [World Village 498005]. It combines Flamenco, Brazilian Jazz, vocal scatting, e-guitar riffs and J.S. Bach preludes in completely mindboggling ways - a true treasure trove for guitar aficionados. The harmonica
produces very pure tones that can be piercing and nearly cutting in their clarity and nakedness. This makes any sonic intrusion quite obvious. The Decware pre, here and there and steadily on repeats in the same spots (to eliminate the possibility of actual bad-tube distortion), sounded just a bit 'dirty' in that particular register. That and the slight operational noise were the only two areas my internal judge marked in his little black book. To get a more precise fix on exactly the extent to which the Decware pre offers active contributions over sonically invisible preamps, I reinserted my customary ModWright SWL 9.0SE into the mix. You see, I can cotton to a tube pre/transistor amp combo or the reverse. But the moment both components lack tubes by going solid all the way, something vanishes - and I miss it.

The $2,200 ModWright in this setup is stone-quiet. It clearly proved to be smoother, far more dynamic and more endowed in the bass as though it gripped and drove the amp and thus the music harder. Jordi's e-guitar wails had more bite as had Antonio Serrano's harmonica but at the same time, the minor dirtiness vanished to make the hotter dynamics also smoother. Duquende's vocal interlude on "A mi me andan siguiendo" benefitted equally - more violence on the peaks for increased dynamics yet simultaneously more refinement. When the Brazilian-style batteria kicked in and Carles Benavent's bass leads the Samba-flavored outré, it literally felt like someone had kicked up the bass control a potent notch.

No giant killer then, this Decware CSP - though very respectable and highly credible for its asking price. How about going mano-i-mano, against someone its own size like the $799 Eastern Electric MiniMax which, it must be said, is built to rather higher standard inside and out? It's quieter too while we're taking notes.

Sonically, this was a much closer call, meaning it likewise stepped down the higher intensity scale of the ModWright to get back into more of the CSP ballpark. In the above spirit of sonic activity, the PRe2 gets the lowest marks for being the most passive, the ModWright the highest for maximizing drive, dynamics and bass mass. Halfway between those two extremes slots the MiniMax (voiced lean with the chosen tubes) while the CSP falls between it and the PRe2.

This mirrors my impression of the Zen Taboo, about it being inherently far closer to the general transistor sound camp except for the tubular soundstaging qualities and a fine though audible enhancement in the texture domain to step out of the relative dryness of solid-state.

As a strong proponent of tubes, the MiniMax/F2 combo of glass/sand hits my hot buttons, the ModWright goes farther yet while the CSP falls slightly below my personal requirements in this particular setup, being a bit reluctant to fork over more tubulicious qualities.

Let's summarize. At $640, I can nearly guarantee that I'd prefer the CSP over any equally priced solid-state preamp since, though with a light hand, it adds 3D aspects in the qualities of the soundstage and an important touch of moisture or color to the musical texture. With two inputs and only a single pre out, facilities are minimal but likely perfectly adequate for the target customer.

By the time you spend $755 to include the wooden dress cradle shown, the 3-input, 2-output $799 MiniMax beckons with more upscale cosmetics and a thermionically heightened sound. I know, patriotic notions should prevent me. Still, it needs to be said again. The stiff competition from the East simply cannot be overlooked. When it comes to present-day expectations for circuit tidiness, parts quality, features and fit'n'finish, the CSP compared to the MiniMax is more basic than seems fully warranted.

To be blunt, the MiniMax in those respects simply walks all over it. However, if you're a cheapskate -- and I don't mean this derogatory at all but simply to point at a music lover who isn't interested in prestige, sex appeal, wants good sound but has plenty of other hobbies and responsibilities to spend money on -- $250 of difference can become a make-it/break-it proposition. If that's you, the Decware SE84 CSP is the cheapescapist mostest valved preamp I've come across yet. It deserves a very warm recommendation for staying utterly clear of affordable tube excesses like wooliness, undue softness, cloying sweetness or opaque thickness. This piece is very fast and transparent just like its Taboo stablemate. In the greater scheme of things, the CSP is on the lean side for valved gear but slightly enhanced compared to equivalent transistor pieces.

What it brings to the party is modestly more body. Even if your amp had a volume control like the Taboo, the CSP is no redundancy that merely drives up your box count and audio investment. It's a moderate spatial and substance expander. As such, it's a painless and attractive entry into tube land. And while the very nicely crafted solid Cherry cradle is a very uncheapskate-like nod -- to cosmetics that don't do nuttin' for the sound -- I think it really completes the package.

Needless to say, tube rolling affords opportunities with the CSP no solid-state preamp could dream of - and 6922s or 6DH8s are not silly designer glass priced to make you sick. If you add it all up and consider what we'll assume was the design brief and target audience, this Decware mini delivers - and a life-time warranty adds peace of mind to newbies worried about those four glowing thingies...
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