Sixteen-bit DACs and no oversampling, let alone upsampling? What year is it? Somewhere in the early '80s? If I turn on the radio will I hear A Flock of Seagulls? Or maybe The Clashs "Rock the Casbah" will be playing for the millionth time.
Design features like these hardly conjure up the image of state-of-the-art digital playback in the year 2002. But thats precisely what the Zanden Audio Model 5000 Mk II DAC is about. Its a unique and interesting product from an innovative and impressive Japanese company.
But before I go any further, I have to let you know that the 5000 Mk II isnt for everyone -- and not just because of the unique technology or that SACD and DVD-A are slowly creeping into the marketplace. The Model 5000 Mk II is priced at $9800 USD and it only handles CD playback. If its price is too rich for your blood, join the club. But dont let this stop you from reading about a fascinating product. After listening to it for a time, I'm re-thinking a few things about digital audio -- past and future.
The Model 5000 Mk II comes from the mind of Kazutoshi Yamada, owner and technical director of Zanden, which is headquartered in Japan. The company says he approaches each product as an engineer and as a musician. Looking at the gorgeous styling of the Zanden products, I would also say he approaches each product as an artist too. What I like most about the appearance of this DAC is that, like the re-thinking of the technology that goes inside it, the company has reconsidered the design.
Most DACs have a folded-metal chassis with perhaps a fancy faceplate -- kind of like those elaborate fronts put on older boring buildings. The 5000 Mk II is a complete aesthetic package with no ugly side to look at. The base, front, and rear are 16mm-thick aluminum. Its plated with a light-gold color that is exquisite. The connectors on the back -- four digital inputs (AES/EBU, BNC, and two RCA) and two RCA analog outputs -- are recessed slightly, a nice touch. And there is plenty of room for even the most unwieldy of cables.
On the front are two knobs in the same gold color. One is used to switch the unit between off and standby, and the other is used to select the digital input. The cover is polished stainless steel, and it shines brightly. The fitnfinish are exemplary. This is a piece you want to show off. Its gorgeous and it looks seriously high end. And all that metal makes it heavy. The 5000 Mk II weighs in at just over 20 pounds.
Inside, its just as unique. Mr. Yamada does not eschew technical advances -- his company now produces a Model 5100 DAC that supports 24-bit/96kHz decoding and sells for roughly the same price as the 5000 Mk II. But the point is that he doesnt adopt technology for the sake of it. His company looks at music as the end product for what a component delivers and assesses if the means to get there benefit the end.
Consequently, although the company now has the premium-specd 5100 DAC -- the unit that most everyone would think is the better DAC just by looking at it on paper -- Zanden doesnt feel it is in conflict with the 5000 Mk II. If you play purely CD sources, Zanden says the 5000 Mk II is better -- yes, better! If youre dabbling in 24/96 DVDs along with your CDs, then the choice is the 5100 simply because the 5000 Mk II just cant decode those things. But to understand just why this is and the approach Zanden has taken, you have to turn back the hands of time for a moment.
Back in the early 80s when CD players were first introduced, engineers found out quickly that their brickwall analog filters were wreaking havoc on the phase integrity of the analog signal. Their thinking caps went on fast, and it wasnt long before there was a solution in the form of oversampling. Oversampling got things high, high, high out of the audio band, and more gentle filters could then be implemented that wouldnt have the deleterious audible effects that those original filters had. Two-, four-, eight-, and even greater-times oversampling became the norm. "The higher the better" seemed to be the recipe to better sound. And with the higher sampling rates, the number of bits that the DACs supported kept climbing too -- 16-, 18-, 20-, and 24-bit DACs have all evolved over time. And for the most part, it seemed that the players with these "better specs through bigger numbers" sounded better too, providing that the same attention to detail had been paid in other areas.
But is this the best possible approach? Based on the 5000 Mk II, I suspect Zanden would say no.
CD is still just 16 bits, no matter how many bits your DAC can decode. And the 44.1kHz sampling rate that was cast in stone more than two decades ago is still with us today. Thats all there is when it comes to plain ol CD.
The 5000 Mk II has no oversampling whatsoever -- Zanden says it doesnt need it. What Mr. Yamada has developed instead is a proprietary analog filter, and this, he says, preserves the phase integrity of the signal better than oversampling and all that other stuff. This filter is part of the main board of the 5000 Mk II, and the company says they are seeking patents on its design. Preserving that phase integrity is what they consider crucial to superior sound.
Since Zanden is dealing with only 16 bits and not doing any other type of manipulation, they dont need DAC chips with 18-, 20-, or 24-bit resolution. Instead, they use Philips TDA-1541A Double Crown DACs -- a pure 16-bit chip that has now been discontinued but one that Zanden went out and bought plenty of. According to Zanden, the 1541 series was first introduced in 1985, and various "grades" of the DAC followed -- the Double Crown being the best. The decision to use this DAC was arrived at by lots of listening.
Sixteen bits, 44.1kHz, and a special analog filter -- a plain-and-simple recipe. But theres more.
The folks at Zanden are also tube fanatics. In their upscale 1000 series of components, they have amplifiers, a line-stage preamp, and a phono stage that are just as gorgeous-looking as this DAC -- all tube, all beautiful, and all expensive too. So its no surprise that the 5000 Mk II is also tube-based. If you peer through the small holes in the top cover you can just see the tubes glowing faintly inside. The Model 500 Mk II has a tube-rectified power supply that uses two 6CA4s and one 6X4. The output stage uses a single 6922. The only quirky thing is that the unit is not user serviceable. If you want to change the tubes, it has to be done by a qualified technician.
Output from the 5000 Mk II is a lower-than-normal 1V, but this caused no problem in my system.
The Model 5000 Mk II went into my reference system, which includes Blue Circle BC2 mono amplifiers, BC3000 preamplifier, and Theta Data Basic transport. This is the same gear thats seen some other top-tier digital components, like the Simaudio Eclipse, Audio Aero Capitole 24/192, and Arcam CD23T CD players. Toward the end of the review period, I also had an opportunity to use the Zanden DAC with Arcams outstanding FMJ A32 integrated amplifier, which features independent input-level adjustments to compensate for the different output levels of source components. Switching sources rapidly with levels matched is a great comparison method.
I connected everything with Nirvana Audio cables -- S-L series interconnects and speaker cables, and Transmission Digital RCA-terminated digital cable (Zanden says that AES/EBU is the best connection to use, but my transport doesnt support it). I used a number of speakers, but for the most part, I listened with Verity Audio Tamino and Ethera Vitae loudspeakers.
I started by pulling out my more than 15-year-old soundtrack to the movie The Mission [Virgin 90567-2]. One day I may buy a new copy of this to hear if the latest version on the shelves is a sonic improvement over this old one. But this one disc has served as a reference for me because over the years as digital playback has gotten better, I've heard more and more within this recording -- an amazing amount of detail, in fact. And I thought Id heard it all, but the 5000 Mk II conveyed just a little more magic, and it took me by surprise.
The 5000 Mk II rendered the choral and orchestral tracks with wonderful definition and pristine clarity; re-creation of acoustic space was amazing. Voices were perfectly delineated with breathtaking fullness and body. Anyone who says that tubes in the CD-playback chain will reduce resolution has to hear this DAC.
Strings were silky, but still showed all the texture of live instruments. Drums and the full impact of the orchestra were rendered with authority, control, and a grand sense of scale. The width and depth of stage was as good as anything Ive heard. My room is of only modest size and the Tamino and Vitae loudspeakers can only go so low, but what I heard in terms of bass extension was as impressive as that of any digital product that has entered my room, except for the Simaudio Eclipse when run in 24/96 mode (which has the most authoritative bass that Ive heard from any digital component).
It didnt take me long to learn that the 5000 Mk II is a top-flight performer comparable to the best there is. But its also important to understand exactly what this means. After all, one of the sins reviewers commit is either blowing differences out of proportion or giving no proportion at all, leaving the reader to think that nothing else even comes close to the unit under review. Its rarely the truth. The differences between todays world-class digital sources are small -- small enough that casual listeners wont notice or perhaps care. And sometimes its not necessarily that one is better than the other. Rather, one may just be different from another, an important distinction.
So, when you consider the cost of all the digital components I had on hand -- the Arcam about $2000, the Simaudio about $5000, the Audio Aero about $8000, and this almost-$10,000 DAC (and only a DAC, while the others are full-function CD players) -- you realize you have to pay a lot for differences that are often tiny. But those small differences can be big for someone on the quest for sonic perfection. Some people are happy with something that gets them almost there at a fraction of the cost. Others want it all no matter the cost. This is who the 5000 Mk II is for. The effort put into its styling and build emphasize such a position, and the sound quality backs it all up.
The Model 5000 Mk II sounds so startlingly natural that it can shake you in your listening seat. The first time I heard it reproduce the sound of a cymbal being struck, the realism it conveyed was so disconcerting that I had to replay it over and over again to re-experience it. The point of impact and then the long decay -- it was all just so right. This is one of the small things that's a big difference with this product. The Model 5000 Mk II doesnt just have a clean and airy top end; it has fullness, texture, body, and the ability to convey every nuance on CDs with uncanny ease.
Resolution, the thing you demand from a state-of-the-art product, is outstanding. From what I can hear, the Model 5000 Mk II will give you everything thats on your CDs. I cant say that the nimble and precise 5000 Mk II necessarily resolves any more information than the very best DACs and CD players Ive heard -- the Audio Aero Capitole 24/192, Simaudio Eclipse, Arcam FMJ CD23T unravel an amazing amount of detail too -- but it certainly has no less resolution. Whats most interesting in all this is the differing technologies that are employed. Some have tubes, while others are purely solid state; some have upsampling or oversampling, while the Zanden DAC has none. It certainly gave me pause for thought and reinforced the concept that there are more ways than one to achieve an end result.
What helps to distinguish the 5000 Mk II around the tough crowd are a few things it does differently. This DAC is about more than just unraveling loads of detail. It presents a crystal-clear view into the recording. The precision it conveys is astonishing. If your system is up to the task, this DAC gives you a you-are-there presentation, where vocals and instruments hang in space -- speakerless! -- and the soundstage information, providing its in the recording, has true width and depth. Vocal performances become mesmerizing for how detailed and lifelike they sound.
I played the a cappella "Llorando" from the Mulholland Drive soundtrack [Milan 35971]. The 5000 Mk II didnt try to tame down or roll off the high-frequency nastiness inherent in this recording -- it let the good and the bad flow through. What it did do, though, was separate the voice from the space around it with precision. The size of the recorded space, whether on this recording or on others, was a snap to gauge, and the placement of the voice was rock-solid, with dimensionality thats the best Ive heard.
I moved to Buena Vista Social Club Presents: Omara Portuondo [Electra/Asylum 79603] for another ear-opening experience. The vocals and instruments have a weighty fullness to them that is impressive. However, the presentation is not overly warm or woolly, the sort in which detail becomes obscured. Every subtle inflection in the voice or the smallest movement to or from the microphone is rendered with microscopic resolution. When listening to the piano, the rapid movement from key to key can be heard with astounding accuracy, and the sound has bell-like clarity without a hint of artificiality. The result is a robust presentation with richness and vibrancy.
Despite its ability to show everything in a recording, this is in no way an up-front- or peaky-sounding DAC. Its extended in the high frequencies, but not unnaturally so. And while the midrange is full, it does not sound artificially pronounced.
I compared this DAC head to head against the Arcam FMJ CD23T -- a CD player I find remarkable because it gets you virtually all of the way to the best CD sound possible without having to sell the farm. And, not surprisingly, both units are exceedingly neutral, as they should be. But the Zanden unit has a little more you-are-there presence, a little more of that immediacy I described, and just a smidgen more ease in its delivery -- its never mechanical or clinical in its presentation. These little things make it slightly different, and to me, just a wee bit better-sounding, albeit, at a considerable cost.
The 5000 Mk II is never fatiguing on the ears, and on some recordings it sounds lush and, yes, tube-like, just like the Audio Aero players I like so much. But would I call it tubey? Not really. In fact, theres nothing in its sound that gives away that there are tubes in use -- no excess warmth, bloat, or reduction in frequency extremes. Its smooth, its detailed, its precise, its just about everything, and all of these can make you want to rediscover recordings.
I had trouble warming up to Tori Amos Strange Little Girls [Atlantic 83486] until I played it through this DAC. Everything seemed so sterile, but something about the 5000 Mk II brought the recording to life for me, and I didnt want to just hustle it back to my CD rack. Amos' up-front and robust voice on "97 Bonnie & Clyde" left me spellbound. "Time" -- a Tom Waits-penned favorite -- was far more captivating than on the other playback combinations I tried. Whats more, everything sounded bigger and more involving, even the tracks I still dont like and still cant warm up to.
But dont think that the Model 5000 Mk II DAC airbrushes a poor sonic picture. It lets the good and bad through. Although I ended up liking the Tori Amos disc, it is far from an ideal-sounding recording, and all the flaws still showed in abundance. Chris Isaaks new Always Got Tonight [Warner Brothers 48016] is thin and lifeless, and the 5000 Mk II doesnt hide this fact. Problems in the recording certainly arent masked. In fact, because of the DAC's high resolution, theyre far more prominent. Lousy recordings will sound lousy so that great recordings can sound remarkable.
Greg Keelors brooding Gone [Warner 17513] is just such a recording and another one that I rediscovered on this DAC. Its produced and engineered by Pierre Marchand, the same person responsible for Sarah McLachlans The Freedom Sessions (she also appears on this album). It has the same "rawness" -- it sounds very alive and quite real -- and the 5000 Mk II DAC brings that quality along even more so. The sprawling music shows all that this DAC is capable of.
The first track, "When I See You," has awesome bass that shows how deeply and powerfully the Model 5000 Mk II can play. The re-creation of the acoustic space is mesmerizing, and the result is a big, grand, and glorious sound. McLachlans piano has a rich tone that resonates through the room. Her angelic voice may be the opposite of Keelors own gritty and strained style, but the 5000 Mk II presents each with clarity and precision.
On "No Landing," Keelors voice soars out of the Taminos with great presence. Hes just there, precisely locked in space with the space of the recording venue enveloping him. Its the same thing I heard with all the vocalists I listened to and one of the key things that makes this DAC so special. The 5000 Mk II frees voices and instruments from the audio playback chain, and this can be heard even when listening in mono or from another room. Its that next step to sounding closer to the real thing that makes such a big impact with the 5000 Mk II.
My quibbles about the Model 5000 Mk II are minimal, but there are a couple. I wish it were a CD player and not just the a converter. Having an all-in-one package about as big, as great-sounding, and as gorgeous would be like something handed down from the heavens. I also wish it werent so expensive -- $9800 is a lot of money for a DAC, no matter how good it is. It leaves many of us waiting on the sidelines, wishing we could get sound as good for less money.
But there's no use wishing for one thing to be something else. The Model 5000 Mk II is what it is, and thats how it must be evaluated. And what it is is simply the best-sounding DAC for CD playback that Ive heard. State of the art, sheer perfection, or whatever you want to call it, thats what the Model 5000 Mk II is. I cant complain one iota about its sound, and in this respect I dont wish for anything to be different. You certainly dont have to pay nearly this much for truly outstanding CD sound, but if you want what this DAC offers -- and that is darn near everything -- you have some thinking, and saving, to do.
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