Soundstage! awarded today's review subject not only a Reviewer's Choice but the 2002 year-end Aesthetics & Sound award. After laying eyes and ears on this DAC myself, I have to concur. On both counts. Amen, brother. If that's all you needed to know? Tschüss as us Germans say, not quite as fashionable as the swingin' Italian ciao. Or, later alligator, in proper Yankeenese cool. Clearly, the story's already been told. However, this piece of stunning audio artistry deserves a second go-around of praise, a second take on what distinguishes it from other, on the face of it far more contemporary machines with their 24/192 up/over/re-sampling for presumably higher resolution. Better performance due to higher processing speeds. Do they sound better indeed, those vociferous number crunchers?

Rewind to November 2001. The place is Singapore, the event the International Sound & Sight Exhibition. Zanden Audio president Kazutoshi Yamada introduces the successor to the tube-powered 16-bit/44.1kHz Model 5000 DAC. It's dubbed the Model 5100 and runs on premium 24/96 octane to keep up with the faster DVD standard. But then he confounds audiences. Not only would the seemingly obsolete Model 5000 remain in the line, it would, in fact, remain his ne plus ultra digital statement product - for the playback of Redbook CD.

Those having paid attention beyond marketing propaganda of course realize that regardless of upsampling for high-falutin' "24-bit sound" in the mastering facility or during playback, the basic standard for CD remains what it's always been and will continue to be until the format, in latest hairstyle fashion, curls up and dyes: 16-bit/44.1kHz. With CD, that's all there is. Today's higher processing speeds don't add data. They simply attempt to minimize problems endemic to the original steep brickwall filters. By pushing anti-aliasing artifacts into the ultrasonic stratosphere, the purification of the garbage generated by the conversion process itself induces less signal rough-housing, by relying on now gentler, shallower filters.

But what if one could eliminate the digital filter altogether? Ciao, monsignori! Or, good riddance - in blunter US manner.

You see, Yamada-San is no stranger to unconventional engineering solutions. His phono stage's proprietary and patented RIAA curves compensate for various equalizing standards used during the golden age of vinyl. Unaccounted for, the discrepancies resulting from applying a single mirror image re-equalization to dissimilar EQ pressings? Up to a 6dB LF rise that skews correct tonal balance.

With state-of-the-art Zanden Audio vinyl playback as his reference, Yamada-San invented an analog reconstruction filter for his DAC -- already patented in Japan, patent-pending in the US to open doors for OEM applications -- that, he claims, maintains far higher phase fidelity than even the most complex high-powered DSP engines.

To music lovers with vast libraries of CDs, the Model 5000 MkII DAC is his gift. Extract all the beauty that's preserved in the polycarbonate discs, the smoothness and treble refinement actually waiting in those pits for final redemption after 25 years. This appealing prospect -- of rediscovering one's entire Redbook collection in a literally new light -- holds, at least for this listener, far greater excitement than cherry pickin' the mainstream offering of the so-called higher-resolution formats for a few releases worth listening to.

A tube-rectified power supply with twin Golden Aero 6CA4s and one Raytheon 6X4 feeds a lower-than-standard 1-volt output stage driven by a single US-issue National 7308 dual triode. Mounted horizontally in very close proximity to the EI-core power transformer, this chunk of iron seems to require dismounting to replace at least one of these tubes. That must be the reason why Zanden Audio reserves this service to not void the warranty. Before cancelling the latter regardless, by unbolting the sealed cover -- no guarantees for any of my listening impressions then -- I had assumed that this service issue was due to the tube pins soldered military-style directly to the board. Not. Regular ceramic tube sockets with gold-plated contacts are used. Which is about the extent to which the word 'regular' applies to the Zanden Model 5000 MkII.

For an example of constructional excellence not apparent in the above images, the picture to the right shows a typical screw used to bolt together component chassis (the short one is from the cover of the Unico Integrated).

The long one is one of six which bolt the DAC's cover to the massive bottom slab. To accommodate screw lengths, the base countersinks them well below the surface, hinting at its extreme thickness and rigidity.

The DAC's 20 lbs weight is an aggregate of said 5/8" base platform, the chunky yet immaculately finished front and back fascias, a magnetically shielded Tango choke, a cut-core Tango transformer and the large "tube stopping" input transformer shown front/left in the lower left-hand photo.

The entire right third of the innards is taken up by a sealed module containing the proprietary analog output filter [left], mounted atop of which is a circuit board with two smaller copper-foil shielded chokes. You can locate the board's 7308 and twin 10mfd white caps in the fourth left and lower right image.

Rear-panel connectivity includes 1 x BNC, 2 x RCA and 1 x XLR digital input sockets and one pair of single-ended analogue outs. The front panel sports two super-chunky, luxo-action twist knobs, the left one the power control with a green miniature LED for action status, the right the four-position input selector with green, orange or yellow LEDs depending on chosen throughput. An elegantly small central Zanden logo and even smaller '16-bit d/a' moniker complete the psychological profile assessment. Genius IQ?

Ev'rything about the Zanden DAC exudes bespoke attention to detail. This includes special magnetic field cancelling material treatments for the chassis and usually invisible tweaks like the special-paper tube shrouding of the output triode, the adhesive shielding foils separating the tube power supply from the output stage. And in stark contrast to the Model 5100's Crystal 8420 24/96 module, there's the limited-reserve, 1985-issue Philips TDA-1541A "Double-Crown" 16/44 chip. It's been long since discontinued but stockpiled in sufficient quantities (for another 60 units as of this writing). Yamada-San's ears told him that older was better in this instance. No oversampling, no brickwall filter, no acceptance of upsampled bitstreams. The latter was unwittingly verified when the Shanling T-100 as transport was set to 24/96 mode. The failed lock from the Zanden DAC -- no sound, just mechanical clicking -- caused brief but severe anxiety. Eventually I realized my own folly and defeated the Shanling's upsampler for a 16/44 bitstream. Bingo. (Incidentally, used as integrated CDP, this tube-powered Chinese top-loader sounds distinctly better in 96-bypass. Numbers don't always tell the story as we shall shortly see.)

Explains Yamada-San that standard digital low-pass filters start to phase shift at 1kHz and exceed 30-degree rotation at 20kHz, contributing to the somewhat harsh, brittle high end of digital when compared to analogue. His 'bridged-T fixed-impedance filter' is used predominantly in deep-sea telephone cables but here uniquely implemented for audio use. And now we shall abandon digging yet deeper into this engineer's proprietary solutions (while unceremoniously ignoring his product's seal for privacy) to rather give them a listen. After all, that is -- or should be -- the final destination for all audio technology; if it were truly applied in the selfless service of the music rather than to glorify its maker.