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ZSTAGE Review (Read 21500 times)
will
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ZSTAGE Review
10/31/10 at 19:14:42
 
The ZSTAGE is a powerful tool. It's been a mixed bag for me not because it is bad, but because it messed with my mind. Having a Torii MkIII I have many ways to subtly or profoundly influence my system sound. Two regulator tube sets, rectifiers, input and power tubes along with treble cut, bias and impedance switches…. not to mention cables! And with the ZDAC-1/Mac playing uncompressed, error corrected data, I had a very articulate and musical sound.

The ZSTAGE with its single tube and particular electronics coming before the amp really makes a mark on the system sound. And each tube I try, I find it amazing how much that one tube can do. So it is double edged. If a particular tube fits your tastes, it is great and if it is not quite compatible it has a big effect on everything down stream.

But the light at the end of the tunnel??? I have tried a Tungsol 12BH7 with oval black plates, an RCA 12AU7 cleartop, an RCA 12AT7 grey plate, a triple mice Sylvania (National) 5751 and the stock Tungsol 5963. All had more differences with more clear favorites popping up pre burn in. Post burn in, all are really very good, just different, indicating how good the ZSTAGE is once it gets around to presenting its sound.

Cool

As usual I was impatient, and as usual, the ZSTAGE took a good three to four weeks to start really showing itself and more like five to really shine. Interestingly, throughout most of the burn in the stock Tungsol 5963 tube was my least favorite with a warmth that had sweet, open mids and highs, but a bit of unarticulated flab in the bass. Now it is a favorite, the bass sounding very good. So I suggest to be patient and save some money on tubes, the ZSTAGE's simplicity does not speed up the burn in. Also, as usual, the power cord and interconnects used have a strong effect. Mine jumped several notches with a now obsolete Alan Maher GEN II power cord I got from his "closet."

Interconnect wise I have played between the short cables Steve made for the unit (I believe using the same copper in the unit....the idea being no cable so to speak). Also, I am using some MAC twisted silver interconnects between the ZDAC and ZSTAGE. I have Decware Silver Reference Cables going from the ZSTAGE to the amp. Both the Mac silver and Decware short copper sound great. For me, the Decware copper have been a tad warm though they have great bass, and are very detailed and articulate.  I am probably less warm oriented than many folks but the jury is still out on these because this thing is changing fast these days and having the short copper in right now sounds pretty great. Alternately the MAC cables are a little dry and tight for me but pleasantly clean and airy. I may have to shell our for half meter Decware Silver Reference Interconnects since they are so damn good….deep, articulate, fast, and most of all, offering amazing micro detail.

I agree with Steve's evaluation of the ZSTAGE - http://www.decware.com/cgi-bin/yabb22/YaBB.pl?num=1281666277/5#5. I really do like it too. It brings a rich and atmospheric unity to the whole while bringing amazing focus to individual instruments and increased black between. It gives a soft liquid warmth and body without sacrifice to detail. The contrary in fact. And with the gain nob, it easily adds or subtracts focus, dynamics, warmth and body. And the bias switch is awesome. In the simplicity of the unit, it really works…like Steve suggested….its like adding a bit of nitrous to the sound. To me it pumps all the presentation qualities in a comfortably musical and even way. I like it better than the bias switch on my Torii which in my system can sometimes sound hard or a little thick when switched in. It is like the ZSTAGE bias switch adds punch and focus across the spectrum along with a a very nice dose of harmonic detail. I only use the one on the ZSTAGE now as it is more versatile in its ability to adjust relatively transparently for the many different recording qualities.

A truly great aspect of the ZSTAGE sound is the smoothness it brings to the already smooth ZDAC1. This can sound like less detail at first but finally brings an amazing realness and accuracy to the sound…full of body, depth, and a liquid detail. I suspect the vinyl heads out there will really like this.

So like expected from Steve's design, the ZSTAGE has the qualities of a good tube stage crossed with a simple preamp. I like the ZDAC-1 by itself…plenty in fact, and was on the fence for a while, but once burned in, there is no doubt that the ZSTAGE is for me.

Cool

For a long time, I did not get Steve's evaluation in terms of being almost too transparent, though as it burns in, this opinion changes. I would not call it too transparent as in my system it adds a bit of sweet warmth, but I could not say it is particularly coloring either. Mind you, none of the tubes I am using in the Torii MkIII are stock, so the synergy with my amp could easily be a bit different. But within this, from a guy who tends to be afraid of some interpretations of "warmth", I really love how the ZSTAGE offers it because it does it with liquid smoothness, detail, body, and a rich articulation….no down side. So though not adding particular color, the ZSTAGE does effect the music in a pretty big way. It provides a very impressive complimentary and seductive sound that influences CD data in a very comforting way, magically making both good and not-so-good recordings better. When I took it out of the system, though it sounded great, it was really hard not to put it back in the loop. In fact I vowed to leave it out for three days to let my mind adjust, but had to put it back in about a half day later.

Is it outrageous? My system absolutely kicked ass before and when you start from great, getting greater may not be mind blowing, but it can be profound. Once burned in, the ZSTAGE is an amazing addition for a very beautiful, personally tailored musical experience. I suspect with its refined sound and the broad ranging tonal options bought about by the many, many 12... tubes and cables available that it would compliment any system. I highly recommend it.

Smiley
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« Last Edit: 10/31/10 at 19:24:58 by will »  

Mac mini, Tranquility DAC, CSP3, TORII MkIV, Morrow SP-7, HR-1s...VHaudio DIY, Grover, MAC ICs...PSAudio P5 and Shunyata Defender, PI Audio and DIY power cables, HerbiesAudioLab isocups and tube dampers...
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Lon
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #1 - 10/31/10 at 19:36:44
 
Thanks for the well-written review will.  Wonder how it compares to the CSP2 and the ZDAC-1? And how the ZBox in the chain would compare to either setup?  Hopefully other new owners will weigh in soon.

One thing that keeps me from adding new or existing stages between my sources (one of which is the ZDAC-1) and my Torii MKIII is purchasing new top quality power cords. I have the Decware interconnects to use, but these units require the finest of power cords to be all they can be.  And I don't want to make the expense.
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« Last Edit: 10/31/10 at 19:40:57 by Lon »  

Decware:ERR,HR-1,ZP3,CSP2+,Torii Mk III,PS Audio PWT+DS,PowerBases,PPP,AC-12 pcs, Denon DBP-A100, Denon DCD-A100,Rega RP3 +TTPSU,white belt+Exact2, VooDoo Cable:Evo,Ultra Linear, Iso-PodMapleshade:Double Heiix Plus.Samsonv2+v3 +4" platforms,Herbie's Iso-Cup
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Lon
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #2 - 12/11/10 at 15:53:48
 
Well, since Will's review I added the CSP2 back into my system, and finally discovered that the hum problem I'd had with its use before turned out to be a bad tube.  It was hard to isolate before perhaps because it sometimes works perfectly well. Anyway, although it was perhaps the best sounding tube on hand, replacing it allowed the CSP2 to be very transparent in the system.

I imagine that the CSP2 provides many of the benefits of the ZSTAGE, many of the characteristics that Will describes I would say are now also true of the sound in my system. I can add or subtract perceived "weight," etc. and there's a solidity to the sound that is very satisfying and I can relax into the sound (I could before re-introducing the CSP2 as well).  Additionally, the CSP2 has just gobs and gobs of gain if you need it.  I suspect that the gain level I'm using is very similar to that the ZSTAGE ouptus; I don't use very high gain out of the CSP2 as a general rule. But there's also two inputs (great for me as I use them both, one for my Sony SCD-XA5400 ES and one for the ZDAC-1) which makes it very flexible.

So after a spell, I re-introduced the ZBOX into the system. This is a very interesting combination:  I feed the two sources into the ZBox (mine was upgraded by Steve to accomodate an additional input and a toggle switch) and then feed the ZBOX into the CSP2. For the most part there's a bit deeper sound stage and a bit of smoothening of the tonal balance, both of which are welcome additions to the sound of the system for most material. It definitely aids the ZDAC-1 in my estimation. I still prefer the sound of the SCD-XA5400 ES both with and without the ZBOX in the system for Redbook cds (it's such a fabulous machine), but the gap is a bit narrowed comparing the ZDAC-1 with the ZBOX to the SCD-XA5400 ES.  Either way I have great sound, and the sound from my DVR and my Blu-Ray player through the ZDAC-1 gets raves from the Thrusday night group of friends who come over to watch Fringe and dvd or Blu-Ray discs.

On top of that, I am certain the CSP2 and the ZBOX are happy to be in use rather than gathering dust in a closet. Smiley

So, if you have a ZDAC-1 and are wondering about adding a ZBOX, I can recommend the combo. And though I have not heard the ZSTAGE (and as I own the CSP2 it seems unlikely I'd buy one) I can make an educated (?) guess and state that I bet it works great and would give you a chance at improved sound.
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Decware:ERR,HR-1,ZP3,CSP2+,Torii Mk III,PS Audio PWT+DS,PowerBases,PPP,AC-12 pcs, Denon DBP-A100, Denon DCD-A100,Rega RP3 +TTPSU,white belt+Exact2, VooDoo Cable:Evo,Ultra Linear, Iso-PodMapleshade:Double Heiix Plus.Samsonv2+v3 +4" platforms,Herbie's Iso-Cup
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will
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #3 - 12/11/10 at 22:33:59
 
Lon, Thanks for the update. Interesting results with the CSP2 and Z-Box. It would be really interesting to get a sound comparison of the ZSTAGE and the CSP2/Z-Box combination. Since the ZSTAGE has some attributes of both...gain and a voltage starved tube, it is interesting what you found. Maybe someone will go there one day and let us know.

I hear you on the solidity part of your sound. This is a continuously satisfying aspect of the ZSTAGE too. When I was first looking at it, I recall Steve saying how much he liked having a gain stage after the source for modifying the weight and focus in a way that enhances the particular recording....finally calling it "critical really."

And I have learned that this is true for me too. I loved my sound before, but now, there is musical and easy control over refining individual recordings....up the amp volume and down the ZSTAGE volume to lean down and articulate a too thick or bassy recording, and up the Stage and down the amp to give body, enhance bass, and give denser focus.

I have had my ZSTAGE in the system about three months now and I can solidly say it is a beautiful piece of gear.....so simple and so powerful in its ability to influence the sound.

In my review, I called the ZSTAGE with its single tube, double edged depending on how the unit and tube fits your taste. I still believe this, but less so now that it is fully burned in and I have found my favorite tube type. For my tastes, the 12AT7 is the one. With more gain than the 12AU7, it brings articulation and focus with this "solidity" you mention. The 12BH7's I tried do this solid thing too, with pretty flat frequency response, strong, tight bass, clean mids and extended highs, but to me they are a little hard and tight overall. The AT7s I have do most of what the 12BH7s do, but are more textural and musical to my ear. I find it the most transparent, focused and articulate of the tubes I tried without being too pushy.

With several nice NOS 12AT7s (Brimar, Mullard and Seimans) one tube roll, and wow, what a nice shift in the system....all relatively transparent, articulate, smooth and musical, but a whole new flavor with each tube! I am really enjoying the ZSTAGE's power to transform the system, enjoying tube rolling ONE tube while generally leaving my TORII alone.

Interestingly, I sent back my ZDAC for a repair that I had been putting off because I dreaded putting my Rega back in the system. And at first, I got what I expected, a "warmer," more veiled sound that seemed just a little false to me. But after changing the TORII regulators from some Sylvania OB3's I like to some nice Sylvania OC3-Ws (warm but cleaner...less weight) and putting in my most transparent 6922s, the Rega Apollo has been sounding truly GREAT!

Leaning down the TORII a bit really helped balance the Rega, but it's the ZSTAGE for the most part that made a player I have always been a little reticent about "loving," quite easy to have affection for! This is the moral of this story....The ZSTAGE (at least with the 12AT7s I like best a the moment) is massive in its influence on a system and particularly beautiful at turning a really good player into a great one. I like the ZSTAGE plenty with the ZDAC, but the ZDAC itself is so good by my tastes that the changes from the ZSTAGE were pretty awesome, but less important to my enjoyment of music than the ZSTAGE with the Rega. It is great with the ZDAC, but it transformed the Rega for me. A good thing to learn!

I can comfortably say at this point that the tube stage is a big player in this equation, but this in concert with the ability to shift the gain from 0-5 volts really makes the ZSTAGE shine, and the bias switch is very useful.

I am really glad to have it in my system.

Cool

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« Last Edit: 12/11/10 at 22:38:18 by will »  

Mac mini, Tranquility DAC, CSP3, TORII MkIV, Morrow SP-7, HR-1s...VHaudio DIY, Grover, MAC ICs...PSAudio P5 and Shunyata Defender, PI Audio and DIY power cables, HerbiesAudioLab isocups and tube dampers...
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Lon
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #4 - 12/12/10 at 02:08:31
 
I've tried 12AT7s in the ZBox but prefer 12AU7s instead.  I bought a grab bag of 20 a few years ago for less than a dollar each and one labeled Westinghouse seems to be the best of the lot.  6N2Ps seem the best for the CSP2, and I THINK I have three of those in place, I know I have 2 and the third tube is likely one.

My goal is not to roll tubes and tailor the system for specific recordings but to somehow find the right combo that allows me to listen to all my sources and all my recordings without tweaking.  I had found a reasonable facsimile thereof before adding the CSP2 and ZBOX into the mix, and I'm working on rediscovering that with some success.

What works best for me is a dynamic sound with as natural (yeah, I know that word means something different to everyone, I think to me it means sounds of real instruments in a real room, live) a tonal balance as I can get with the variety of source types and quality. That's possibly easier to achieve with a source into the Torii. But there's a lot you can miss with that setup as well.

I think the secret is:  work hard, save enough money, get all the Decware products you can. Cheesy
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Decware:ERR,HR-1,ZP3,CSP2+,Torii Mk III,PS Audio PWT+DS,PowerBases,PPP,AC-12 pcs, Denon DBP-A100, Denon DCD-A100,Rega RP3 +TTPSU,white belt+Exact2, VooDoo Cable:Evo,Ultra Linear, Iso-PodMapleshade:Double Heiix Plus.Samsonv2+v3 +4" platforms,Herbie's Iso-Cup
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Lon
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #5 - 12/12/10 at 02:17:34
 
Seems the ZSTAGE is a well-designed companion for the ZDAC-1, incorporating the operating bias factor of the ZBOX to a single line stage. Glad also that like the CSP2 the ZSTAGE can improve the sound of another source. I'm sure there's ultimately a real difference in some aspect(s) of the sound to that of the CSP2 with it's extra tubes and huge power supply.  Somehow, I love that big transformer. Smiley But the CSP2 is not cheaper, and there's also the cost of quality cables and (in my case at least) isolation/support to consider for two components, ZBOX and CSP2, compared to one ZSTAGE. Looks like a smart buy for anyone who had neither ZBOX nor CSP2.

Maybe one day we'll each get Steve to build us one of his referrence DACs. That is undoubtedly something to marvel over.
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« Last Edit: 12/12/10 at 02:22:56 by Lon »  

Decware:ERR,HR-1,ZP3,CSP2+,Torii Mk III,PS Audio PWT+DS,PowerBases,PPP,AC-12 pcs, Denon DBP-A100, Denon DCD-A100,Rega RP3 +TTPSU,white belt+Exact2, VooDoo Cable:Evo,Ultra Linear, Iso-PodMapleshade:Double Heiix Plus.Samsonv2+v3 +4" platforms,Herbie's Iso-Cup
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will
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #6 - 12/12/10 at 05:55:51
 
Yes, we love our Decware! I don't roll tubes for individual recordings....I just like to switch things up in general now and then. I do adjust the volumes regularly between the TORII and the ZSTAGE though for individual recordings. This is a great tool. More or less ZSTAGE generally means more or less body and bass, but aside from how it balances with the TORII, with the right tube synergy, it brings depth, solidity, micro detail and all the other good stuff that helps us get the beauty of real music.

I agree with your goal of natural sound  and a system flexible enough to give that for most any recording. It is so interesting how variable this illusive quality can be, and what helps us get there. Cables, sources, rocks, room treatment, tubes, preamps, stages...on and on....so many ways to try to find that illusive quality. And every time I get closer, I am more amazed at how much more real it became having previously figured I was really close!

For me, with the ZDAC and with the Rega, the ZSTAGE seriously helps in the quest for natural sound and the flexibility to easily adjust on the fly for various recording qualities. I really like it a lot.

Ah, Steve's reference DAC....hmmmm.

Wink
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Lon
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #7 - 12/17/10 at 21:49:30
 
Just an update:  Yesterday, just as everything was going great, the ZBOX went belly up. Boom. Not sure what it was, not the tube, sounds like an emergency broadcast signal.  After the holidays I'll send it back to Steve for review and repair.

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Lon
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #8 - 12/23/10 at 14:23:52
 
Another update:  the ZBOX seems inoperable, it's not a tube, fuse, etc. It's going back to Steve as soon as Christmas is over, and as soon as I can print a Return Authorization Form, having trouble with my printer.

The plus side of this experimentation is that I'm really enjoying the use of the CSP2, experimenting with output gain, etc. This preamp has really changed the sound of my system. And for the better. I've also been experimenting with Herbie's Audio Lab isolation products, moving things around, adding a few different pieces, etc.
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will
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #9 - 12/23/10 at 16:17:39
 
Lon,

We are definitely on the fringes of the thread now, but what are your current thoughts on Herbie's isolation feet? Thoughts on sound? Which to use where???

Cool
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Lon
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #10 - 12/23/10 at 17:12:03
 
Hi Will,

I'm a big fan of Herbie's Audio Lab products and of Steve Herbelin. NOONE has faster service than he, he generally mails out an hour or two after I place an order, and all products are meticulously packaged and prepared.

I started out early with Herbie's Audio Lab buying their "halo" rings for the tubes. Very useful products that can whipe out microphonic problems and helps to elminate the dreaded "digital glare" in my opinion.  I recenlty bought his most updated models of Halos for the main system, and they're highly recommended, an improvement over his original design. I confess I now have the Halos on every tube in my main system, and almost all of those in my second system (new home of my originally purchased Halos.)  They just bring me a little closer to natural sound. It's quite apparent that they work well to me whenever I use my reference material (tapes I recorded of bands I was in, recorded in my then garage apartment) to compare with and without them.

To house my components I use a Mapleshade Samson rack, with 4" platforms for my CD and Blu-Ray sources and my Torii MKIII amp, and I have behind this an OLD maple table with another 4" maple platform on it for my small chassis items (ZDAC-1, CSP2 --- mine is in the old style chassis --- and ZBOX). For some time I used Mapleshade Isoblocks under the platforms and Mapleshade Triplepoints. But I started using Herbie's Audio Lab Iso Cups under the components, and preferred their presentation to the Triplepoints. the music lost a certain metalic timbre that I notice with the Triplepoints. Then I read that some Mapleshade platform users had replaced the Isoblocks with Herbie's Grungebuster dots, so I tried that out. Another improvement. I had used Herbie's Tenderfoot footers in my second system, and after reading up on Herbie's products online (in review at audiogon etc.) it dawned on me that though the Iso Cups are perfect for the tubed components, the Tenderfoot footers may work better for the source components (none of the ones I use currently have tubes) and so I tried Tenderfoot footers under the sources (including ZDAC-1) and was very impressed. There's a bit less "bloom" (which may not be "accurate," really) and more dynamics and vim and vigor to the sound.

I also have experimented with their Sonic Stabilizers and was surprised to find that they can be the icing on the cake. I have one on each of my components now and several on the Torii.

Again, Steve Herbelin's service is really unparalleled and I consider his products to work as advertised and to be very reasonably priced for their performance, a quality that makes them seem very appropriate for Decware systems. Like Steve Deckert, Steve Herbelin is a knowledgeable man with gobs of relevant experience who is not afraid to think outside the box, is always willing to put himself out there for others, and I am confident you'll have comfortable dealings with him.
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« Last Edit: 12/23/10 at 17:13:17 by Lon »  

Decware:ERR,HR-1,ZP3,CSP2+,Torii Mk III,PS Audio PWT+DS,PowerBases,PPP,AC-12 pcs, Denon DBP-A100, Denon DCD-A100,Rega RP3 +TTPSU,white belt+Exact2, VooDoo Cable:Evo,Ultra Linear, Iso-PodMapleshade:Double Heiix Plus.Samsonv2+v3 +4" platforms,Herbie's Iso-Cup
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will
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #11 - 12/23/10 at 20:43:32
 
Hey Lon. I appreciate your in depth observations. Very informative. I have 3 Iso-Cups with the staiinless base under my Torii and like them. I am amazed at how placement effects the sound and wondering if four would be better than three. Also I have tenderfeet under the ZDAC and like them too. The ZSTAGE is now sitting on top without aftermarket feet.

I had been considering buying more of his stuff, looking at tenderfeet for the ZSTAGE, tube dampers and the stabilizers, so I am very glad to get your input. Thanks
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Lon
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #12 - 01/19/11 at 16:15:42
 
will, sorry, I missed this response and I can add a bit of info about footers.

I had decided to try out Herbie Audio Lab's "Baby Booties" on the ZDAC-1 and the ZBOX.  Had the ZDAC-1 on the "Booties" for a few weeks before the ZBOX came back and it seems just the right footer for a component of this size and weight. I got the ZBOX back yesterday and it sounds amazing, now also sitting on the "Booties." A very nicely priced way to isolate these components. I'd wager they'd be perfect for the ZSTAGE.

I'm really enjoying the ZBOX's return. One reason:  the input toggle switch on my CSP2 has a bad area and with my modified ZBOX with two inputs, I can use that toggle to toggle between sources and avoid using the CSP2 toggle and its problem. And I enjoy what the ZBOX does, especially for the DVR and the ZDAC-1. I can definitely imagine that the ZDAC-1/ZBOX/ZSTAGE combo is stunning.
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Decware:ERR,HR-1,ZP3,CSP2+,Torii Mk III,PS Audio PWT+DS,PowerBases,PPP,AC-12 pcs, Denon DBP-A100, Denon DCD-A100,Rega RP3 +TTPSU,white belt+Exact2, VooDoo Cable:Evo,Ultra Linear, Iso-PodMapleshade:Double Heiix Plus.Samsonv2+v3 +4" platforms,Herbie's Iso-Cup
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #13 - 01/19/11 at 16:58:29
 
Thanks Lon. Glad your ZBOX is back and sounding beautiful! Right now I have three tenderfeet under the ZDAC and three under the ZSTAGE stacked on top of the ZDAC. It sounds great. Four booties each are probably just as good though and cheaper. Good Idea. I don't know why I didn't notice the booties on the site.....Duh.
Smiley
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« Last Edit: 01/19/11 at 16:58:59 by will »  

Mac mini, Tranquility DAC, CSP3, TORII MkIV, Morrow SP-7, HR-1s...VHaudio DIY, Grover, MAC ICs...PSAudio P5 and Shunyata Defender, PI Audio and DIY power cables, HerbiesAudioLab isocups and tube dampers...
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Lon
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Re: ZSTAGE Review
Reply #14 - 01/19/11 at 17:27:06
 
Well, I missed out on them a long time as well. What surprised me was that they sound a bit better with these components than the Tenderfeet do. Things are just a bit more. . . alive.  It's not a dramatic difference, but the Tenderfeet went into my second system.

Can't go wrong with Herbie's Audio Lab!
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