Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Cairn Fog v2.0 as transport; Zanden Audio Model 5000 MkIII DAC; Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 filter/buffer on the DAC's analog outputs; Eastern Electric MiniMax CDP [on review]
Preamp/Integrated: Bel Canto PRe6 GenII; Eastern Electric MiniMax [on loan]; Acoustic Reality eAR Pre2 [on review]; Antique Sound Lab MGHead DT/OTL 32 [on review]
Amp: AUDIOPAX Model 88; Bel Canto eVo 4 GenII; Eastern Electric MiniMax amplifier [on review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Acoustic DUO; nOrh SM 6.9, Gallo Acoustic Reference III
Cables: HMS Grand Finale; Analysis Plus Solo Oval and Oval 8; i2digital X-60 and Stereovox HDXV S/PDIF cables; Mapleshade Ebony active S/PDIF interconnect; Furutech Digi. Reference BNC-BNC digital cable; ma recordings BNC/BNC reference digital cable [on review]; Mapleshade Planar power cord with DC bias; Audio Magic Clairvoyant power cords; Crystal Cable Reference complete wire set of interconnects, speaker cables and power cords; Z-Cable Reference Cyclone power cords on both powerline conditioner; Stealth Audio Cables Indra analogue &Varidig and Varidig6 S/PDIF cables [on review]; Artistic Audio Vacuum Reference S/PDIF [on review]
Stands: Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: BPT BP-3.5 Signature; Walker Audio Velocitor for source components
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath stand and speakers; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets; Musse Audio resonance dampers on DUO subs; Mapleshade 4" solid maple platform under BPT conditioner
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: $7,980

Promised for sometime in the wake of New York's Hilton HE2004 show next week, I'm scheduled to receive the new Zanden Audio Model 2000p & Model 5000 Signature transport/DAC four-piece ensemble with twin outboard power supplies for review. Transport and converter interface via Yamada-San's proprietary I²S-driven, ultra low-jitter reclocker. It also declocks your wallet at a breathtaking $39,940. However, more temperate versions of both spinner and decoder are available as well. Formal US distribution for Zanden is now handled by Jim Smith of Avantgarde-USA. His first ad for the brand can be previewed on his site. It seems that agent Smith (he without the matrixed Ray-Bans) took the Zanden gear's measure against FireWire-upsampled hi-tech competitors and found it superior enough to sign up as the new North-American - er, agent. Congratulating him on this coup d'igital by phone, Jim pointed me at his ad which is indeed penned in such a provocative fashion as to generate strong vibrations in even the most jaded of been-there done-that audio veterans. "Can't wait to hear this for myself" is my unpublished counter ad for now!

Back to the ground floor. I've thus far used the very good but financially terribly mismatched Cairn Fog v2.0 to transport them digits to my Model 5000 MkIII tube DAC. Outfitted with an after-market BNC to create a true 75-ohm interface -- the only commercially available true 75-ohm RCA plug is the new WBT NextGen -- I've never yet dabbled in dedicated digital transports. What and how much might an upgraded transport improve in my current setup? Assumptions being what they are, the prospect of getting transported from $2,496 for the Cairn to $24,970 for the Zanden in one instant of shocking 4G acceleration made me plenty nervous. How would this greenhorn put the Zanden transport's performance into context once it got here (the transport, not the context)?

One expects to go faster when switching from an oxcart to a car. By upgrading the expense factor by 10, such drastic imagery seems perfectly à propos to portray my writerly ambivalence (though as music lover and audiophile, the prospect clearly has my scalp itching something fierce). As a reviewer, I'm committed to not just report on subjective sonics but also render a halfway educated value judgment. What I needed was a crash course in digital transportation. Enter white knight Brian Ackerman of Artistic Audio. Brian is the US importer for both Acoustic Arts from Germany and Ensemble from Switzerland. He kindly made available dedicated disc spinners from both firms and at the same time.

Today, we'll merely shop windows and kick tires without upsetting any actual dealers. Ensemble's Dirondo Drive is new enough to warrant a preview "pictorial introduction" plus first impressions over its feature set before the actual review hits. The most unusual element of the Dirondo hides in its give-away byline of "Bit-Zoom High Sample CD Drive". This understatedly grey-finished beast upsamples to 96 or 192Hz or can be set to standard RedBook spec. A transport that samples up? It became obvious that I had a lot of catching up to do where dedicated digital transports are concerned. The owner's manual merely hints at this special magic by referring to a DSP-based algorithm claimed to extract up to 19.5 bit from 16-bit CDs. Since the Zanden DAC is a pure 16/44 machine, I have to set the digital output to 48 to achieve signal lock. I will exchange e-mails with Ensemble's Urs Wagner to present you with the full technical details pertaining to Bit-Zoom for the main review.

Other very nice features are manual and remote phase, 4-step display dim as well as a special dither setting for early and poor digital recordings. The highly sculpted full-aluminum remote is a true work of art and uses two parallel IR emitters for exceptionally broad coverage. Every conceivable remote amenity is provided (with non-essentials such as shuffle or random omitted though) and the Japanese Noritake Itron display, unlike that of the far more expensive 47Lab PiTracer, is plainly legible from across the room and uncluttered.

The Dirondo Drive is a diecast Philips CDM Pro2-based top loader with a proprietary constrained-layer sandwich sub-assembly. It supports both R and RW recordable CD playback. A very light magnetic Carbon-layer Vibrasorb disc clamp, a 1.5-meter length of Ensemble's Powerflux FSF mains cord and a copy of Ensemble's own compilation CD are included. The Dirondo drive measures 15.5" x 12.4" x 5.4" and weighs 29 lbs. Its warranty is 2 years. Cue-up is fast for a top-loader (six seconds) but a bit slower than with drawer mechanisms. A little wheel right behind the lid depresses when the drawer has been opened and commences TOC protocol when the drawer has been closed and the sensor wheel returns to its former upright position.

Physically and functionally, the Ensemble Dirondo Drive is everything you'd expect from an upscale Redbook-only transport. The back-lit Baco power button shows Ensemble's logo in tube-like orange when depressed to cut a very classy and understated profile next to the green display.

The BNC/RCA digital outputs on the back must be selected via switch to isolate the chosen output for superior performance. Nothing indicates finicky or fussy while depressing any of the five front panel control buttons, and accessing certain manual functions outside play, pause, stop, forward, rewind and phase merely requires holding down the stop button while pressing one of the others, with the manual giving clear instructions.

I can't wait to now dive into the sonic depths of this machine. No longer will my $10,000 DAC feel declassé by being leashed to a proletarian drawer-type CD player. Will it matter though where it matters, with the ears and not my ego? Hit play again for pause while I figure that one out.

To be prepared for all eventualities, I have amassed quite a stable of S/PDIF cable contenders to throw into this exploration of digital separates: Stealth Varidig and Varidg 6; Mapleshade Ebony active; Furutech Digi Reference; Stereovox HDXV; i2digital X-60; m.a. recordings' proprietary cable used during all of their mastering; and Crystal Cable Reference. If it was there to be heard and I didn't suffer from acute hearing loss, it would be properly noted and shared with you... keep the batteries in your remote charged for the followup report.
PS: Brian Ackermann of Artistic Audio has since relinquished the Ensemble distributorship while Ray Lombardi of Lombardi Sales has become the new US importer/distributor. The original review model has been recalled while Ray promised to replace it at his earliest convenience.
Manufacturer's website
old US distributor's website
present US distributor's website