FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 42
Parasound's Zamp v.3, or Good Things in Small
I hope no-one takes offense, but I feel kind of weird reading messages in fortune cookies as if they were meant for me, when I know you believe they were meant for you. At least when they predict something good. Did you ever notice we never get a glimpse into the future to warn us if something bad's about to happen. Those are for the other guys. Exactly who? You know. The Other Guys. Them. Did you ever know anyone, I repeat, anyone, who got a cookie that read, "Dear reader, global melting is going to make the sea rise up one story in two years, so if you live in a port city, get the hell out of Dodge, now! Don't even bother to finish your egg rolls?" Or, even; "Dear reader, get all your money out of the market, and put it in precious metals?" That would have helped two years ago, but the fortune cookies couldn't see that far ahead despite the hints. For me it means I have to share all the good news with everyone born under Virgo, and, as a registered solipsist, I hate that. I know neither of us takes that stuff literally, you nor I; but we always read fortune cookies, anyway, right? Just to see what they say. Even though we know we share our destiny with 1/12th of the planet's population, arbitrarily separated by our astrological signs.
It is with such reservations that I recently opened a Snapple iced tea bottle, and read what was printed on the underside of the bottle's screw-on top, which was Snapple's amazing "Real Fact" #180. It said: "The first VCR was made in1956 and was the size of a piano." I had just received a small Zamp v.3 from Parasound for a "home theater" system I am building, the day before, a pretty small 45-wpc into 8 ohms stereo amplifier that measures only 9.5" x 10" x 2" with its little rubber footies on. That's about the size of a sheet of paper, about two inches thick, or the size of a cocktail-table art-book. And this was not an amp with a switching power supply. It was class AB, standard in so far as it had a toroid shaped transformer (taking up almost half of the chassis), and filter caps that (if short) held 100 or 200 times as many microfarads as large, high voltage, chassis-mounted caps did in my youth. It just didn't resemble in any way the McIntosh 50lb. 50-wpc stereo amps I'd grown up with, each with a large power transformer and two almost equally large output transformers. Plus, the Zamp always runs only slightly warm to the touch as I use it. It sounds so good, even though it was released in 2007, I decided to honor it with a late review. I'm taken with its size, its sound, and that the closest product to its size I could find was a (much wider) $1700 Bryston amp.
This stereo amp weighed in at only 6.65 lbs., which got my head to thinking in general about electronic miniaturization. Though the first VCR was as big as a piano, the bottle-cap oracle never specified if it was a spinet, an upright, or a concert grand. Even if it had been only as big as the smallest spinet piano, it is still quite an accomplishment. Consider the walk-around CD player. Hell, consider the "universal iPod." It performs the functions of a music and/or film library, plus playback unit, plus palm planner, plus telephone, plus text messenger—and is the size of a pack of cigarettes, or (more accurately) a five pack of small cigars. And I'm told the trend in the current generation model is towards smaller and lighter.
I think the technologies that made it possible were better, longer-lasting batteries; surface-mounted-parts, themselves very small in size (some chips smaller than the head of a paper match); and the development of smaller and smaller sized hard drives with larger and larger data capacities. So it is no big deal, really, that BIG SOUND can come from small packages. In the recent decade or so we've seen data storage on computers expand exponentially from 20 k(thousand) bytes to 20 g(billion) bytes capacity—a six-fold order-of-magnitude increase!; with operating speeds going from 20 kHz to 2g-or-3gHz—that's cycles/second, a similar increase!! Together these are staggering increases, bigger bytes processed ever faster. Just when everyone thinks reproduced sound can't get any better, the technology jumps to another level. I can't wait to hear Blu-ray discs through a good headphone rig.
Scientists, when asked about the feasibility of developing other new technologies (like putting a man on the moon), usually begin by saying, "It can't be done." When asked, "If it were possible, in what time framework?" they usually can't even see the horizon line, and answer in decades. In 1961, his science advisors told President Kennedy it would take twenty or thirty years to get a rocket to the moon, but it was accomplished in1969. Who could have looked over the horizon ten years ago and foreseen Blue Ray discs? It sounds like albums of sad Ray Charles love songs, rather than a new technology. And what's so blu about Blu-ray? How good are these new, higher resolution discs? Think of the potential for audio-only, high-end, Blu-ray-dedicated disc players with capacity for larger logic size and faster sampling rate improved to take advantage of what Blu-ray has to offer. They ought to be staggeringly good, handled properly by an audiophile company, something like the latest down-loads from the Chesky label (24 bit WAV/192 kHz) to your computer; only with larger architecture software programs (more bits per byte), and faster data processing (more cycles/second), not requiring a whole computer rig for playback.
Tried and True Is Just That
A recent article in the N.Y. Times Magazine, "Work Study," (4/12/09), an essay on new business formats, contained the sentence, "...Entrepreneurship often depends more on successful execution than on radical reinvention." So, we ought not be too surprised that a standard, tried and true, class AB design, 45wpc, amplifier could be built slightly larger than a sport-jacket pocket, spec out at a level just about on a par (for its power rating) with the best amps available ten years ago, and sound jaw-droppingly good; that is, unusually sweet and clean!!! The Audio Critic, wrote at the time of its release (1997), "Just because it's small and cute and cuddly, just because it costs only $349, it sounds no different from $9000 amplifiers that have comparable power outputs." I'm told, by Richard Schram (Parasound's C.E.O.), the Zamp is the bee's knees through Quad ESL-63 electrostatic speakers. My experience with Schram is consistently reliable; his observations often match mine about other manufacturer's products, which means the Zamp is highly likely another of Parasound's successful executions, with small re-iterative improvements over the years since its first incarnation, ten years ago, at 25w/c. See the amp's complete specifications online at www.parasound.com. And if you want to read what one retail vendor has to say, see: http://www.audioadvisor.com/prodinfor.asp?number+PAZAMPV3.
I find a few specs really compelling: the slew rate is 90 volts per milli-second; and signal to noise ratio is 116dB, input shorted, IHF A-weighted. (I think the best tube circuits can only slew about 20 volts, and offer at best only about 85dB S/N ratio.) Those mean it is faster than a speeding bullet, and runs silent as the "p" in psychotic. Input sensitivity is 600 milli-volts, which means it will pick up details down in the mix (near the proverbial inky-black silence) that register a bit more than a half of one thousandth of a volt, the electronic value of Forrest Gump's feather landing on his park bench. Frequency response is from 5Hz - 100kHz, or from two octaves below the low threshold (20Hz) of human hearing, to more than two octaves above the high threshold (20kHz), and all this with a damping factor of 400 (what I call medium-high "braking-horsepower") at 20Hz, for freedom from wooly bass. This means fast, clean, deep and sweet sound with stunning ability to play efficient speakers (Klipschorns, Lowthers, Altec's Voice of the Theaters, or 755's) beautifully in any size room, play almost any speakers in a small room, and pick up details in the mix as the last note dwindles to the void. In short, this is one very striking little amplifier for all but the most difficult tasks. It is the handiwork of the Parasound design team, with final evaluation and critique by John Curl. Curl doesn't like his name to be on a design he wasn't involved with at every level, but he did sneak a peek at this one a few times along the way, and C.E.O. Richard Schram says, "his remarkable insights amounted to very helpful suggestions," ice-cream on the rhubarb pie.
What we have here, then, is an amplifier that out-performs its original design goals, that has many of the characteristics of the Parasound "house sound," but with 10% of the power rating of a pair of 400 watt JC-1 amps, at about 5% of the price. Concerning the Parasound "house sound"; I read somewhere that Sony A&R (Germany) recently began using a pair of Parasound's JC-1 amps with a JC-2 preamp in-house, I assume, to some purpose. Is this a tacit admission that key Sony guys in Germany like this gear as well as anything else out there? I feel that way, too, but I don't have their unlimited budget. Kudos, again, to Schram's team. If you've read my review of the JC-2 preamp, you'll remember I wrote, then, that Parasound was on to a new way of producing excellent gear at affordable prices, with very few compromises.
In these times, the Zamp v.3 is also, at $350 each, a welcome bargain with startlingly good "bang for the buck." The little darlin' sounds pretty terrific through my very neutral Parasound "Halo" JC-2 preamp, on the slightly sweet side of the sound spectrum, with above average sound-staging, and enough power (45-wpc) to drive the Quad ESL-63's (at 83dB efficiency) in a small-to-medium sized room without fear of burning them out. Schram adds, "With the Quads, the Zamp acquits itself shockingly well compared to my 35-wpc Marantz 8b reissue." With speakers rated at 86-92dB, the Zamp sounds surprisingly—well, er, uh, um—damn, damn fine. And with speakers in the 94-98dB rating, it's excellent, in the words of Bill & Ted, "most excellent." It is, in theory, a niche amp, meant to be used with pretty efficient speakers to sound its best, like the low-current Single Ended Triode (S.E.T.) amps. In practice, it's often used in custom installations (with in-wall or in-ceiling speakers) and expected to perform far above its "pay grade." Its dependability is a tribute to designing with conservatively-rated parts and well-proven circuits, and with incremental tweaks over time as better parts become available. And that's what I like about the South.
As luck would have it, there are now as many speaker manufacturers producing computer-assisted-design (CAD), high-output (95dB or better per one watt at one meter), horn-loaded systems as there were in the 50s (gone out of fashion due to their large size, and with the introduction of smaller, sealed box, air-suspension woofers in the ‘60s), if my memory serves. The current generation of horn-systems seems better-designed, and better-built than their ancestors from the Pharaohs' era, the "Golden Age" of tubes and horns. Contemporary designers are able to eliminate or, more accurately, nearly completely reduce the "honk" of the midrange with selection of more "audio ideal" materials (glues, high temperature voice coils, synthetic horn materials, and better horn geometries); and similarly reduce the tweeter's "metallic hash" with better crossover parts (non-polarized polypropylene caps, 1% resistors, ribbon chokes); and with greater control, they are "rolling on" the midrange at a lower frequency, eliminating, or nearly, the effects of the "too long throat" of bass horns that caused, in their time, some serious imprecision from the mid-bass to the center of the mid-range and gave bass horns a bad name.
It is now possible to revitalize a pair of older horn-loaded speakers to out-perform your father's Klipschorn rig. If you love the ease and presence of that sound, you can drive old (or new) horn loaded speakers admirably with the Parasound Zamp; and if your old man's system had all the glories and problems of speakers built back then, and you inherited them, a great dollar-value successful-execution of a traditional design, specifically Parasound's Zamp, can eliminate amp problems, and the older speakers can still sound damn cool; and if the new, current generation horn-loaded speaker systems eliminate nearly all the problems on the speaker-side of such a system; then (finally), with the Zamp the result can be a great sounding system, "beyond expectations," or what the youngsters might call, "way cool," and what I'd call "sen-fucking-sational!" I guess I mean, quite good. Similarly, the Zamp matched up with a pair of Lowthers (8" or 5") can give you first-rate dynamics and near-electrostatic speed (two great qualities for music only, or a great "home theater system"), especially with a decent sub-woofer.
There are certain other functions this amp might serve. For example, to augment your computer's audio system with desktop speakers. Or, owing to its portability, you could take it with you on vacation to a beach cottage and also take a favorite small pair of desktop speakers. All you'd need would be a walk-around portable CD player with gain control, or an iPod, and you'd be in great shape. If you want an additional surprise, you can listen in late night silence and solitude through the Zamp's headphone jack that mutes the speaker outputs. One Head-Fi enthusiast said Zamp's musicality was so good, he was contemplating selling his headphone amp. And, if you want to use it to play really loud music for parties, you could bridge two (2) stereo Zammies in mono for 90-wpc, making 180 watts in stereo. (They have such a bridging switch built in.) Also, Schram has insisted that this amp has a far lower than average factory service rate; so it is nearly bullet-proof, when used by usually prudent, gear-savvy owners. He says Zamps returned for repairs are so rare that he's not sure they'd show up often enough to constitute a significant datum. It is the Honda Civic of amplifiers.
In the journal, audioXpress (2007), one of their reviewers, NM, wrote:
We seldom write rave reviews. At times manufacturers have accused us of being, er, "too picky." "Unkind." "Less than enthusiastic." After listening to the Zamp for a few hours, I wanted to jump up and down and shriek, "Three hundred bucks? Are you kidding?" If you're in the market for an inexpensive amplifier, run—do not walk—to check out the Parasound Zamp. It's a fabulous value for the money.
To that I'd add, "Hear, hear!" In support of this device, I'd say: The Zamp is a small and low-powered amp that has much of the Parasound "house sound." By that I mean, it has very wide bandwidth, low noise, high S/N ratio, and a fast slew rate, which usually adds up to great sound. It's dynamic, yet refined; punchy, yet transparent; powerful, yet delicate; transient-friendly, yet with great resolution of details down in the mix. It's on the sweet and warm side of the menu, with great bass. Perhaps the Zamp is most like Parasound's JC-1 in its ease of presentation. It reproduces music very naturally up to its full rated output, where it becomes a little rough at the frequency extremes (a warning to amp-down). It is a way over-achieving amp at a ridiculously attractive price. That ranks it about an A in my rating scheme: an A+ would show absolutely no strain at full output. So, if you're in the market for such a honey of an amp, find a dealer who can audition it for you. And boogie on down. Or, if you're willing to buy one from a mail-order vendor, unheard, make sure you get an acceptable window of opportunity for return. I'm relatively certain 98% of you will find it a keeper. The Schram team has done it again. This one's another winner. In either case, when you do it, tell ‘em Max Dudious sent ya.