DATE: December 6, 1998

Dr. Allan M. Hunchuk an Audio Enthusiast from USA writes:

For my fourtieth birthday, my wife gave me a Zen Model SE-84a amp designed and manufactored/hand built by Steve Deckert of Decware in Peoria, Illinois.

This is a small, elegant, valve amplifier that kicks out 5 glorious watts a channel in class A. The build quality is fantastic and the Zen amp looks divine. My Zen came with the optional cage to prevent my dog, friends, relatives, and myself from licking the tubes. As the Zen lives on top of my rack, I have decided to not use the cage, except for when I transport the Zen to other locales, some exotic, some not. The Zen is small enough to fit into a backpack and is perfect to take 'round to stereo dealers to audition speakers and the like. By the way, I'm proud to mention that I have not succombed to my desire to lick my glowing fire bottles. Enough bragging about my will power and inner resolve and back to the review.

The Zen amp has a complement of 4 valves--a Philips 5Y3GT, a Svetlana 6N1P, and two Svetlana SV-83s. One can cheerfully substitute a 12AU7 or a 12AT7 or a 12AX7 for the Svetlana 6N1P. As well, if one doesn't mind losing a little more than 1/2 of the amp's power, one can substitute EL-84s for the SV-83s. I tried that and was a bit relieved that the Zen still performed well in my stereo kit. Why do you ask? Because the Svetlana SV-83s are made by only one company and the only audio application in which these tubes are used happens to be in the Zen. I was a tad bit nervous when I discovered the uniqueness of the SV-83s; however, should they vanish from the face of the earth, I can happily get by with EL-84s. Remind me to buy a few more pairs of SV-83s just in case they go the way of the dodo. Note: the SV-83s are pentode tubes run in triode mode. Hence, the Zen amp is a pseudo-triode and not a true SET according to some purists. My take on this is that if I like the sound, I don't care whether it is SET, pentode, pseudo-triode, solid state, push-pull, or whatever. As far as I'm concerned the Zen is a SET amp.

By the way, the original Zen, Model SE-84, was able to be run in triode or pentode mode. The current models, a and b, have a switch to change the bias. In the forward position, it expands the dynamics and gives the sound more bite. In the backward position, the sound is more mellow, but much more three dimensional with a more impressive soundstage and better microdynamics. Do not switch the bias when the amp is running. The resounding snap is hell on ears and potentially damaging to speakers. The sound of the Zen is spectacular, especially given its reasonable price (I got mine for my birthday ;-}. Unless you get one as a gift, it'll cost you about $550 for the latest manifestation, the Model SE-84b. I believe that the b model has an improved power supply. I've considered the upgrade, but have decided to wait until the f or g model.

EDITOR: He'll be waiting a long time as no aditional revisions are planned.

To part with the Zen for a month is a daunting prospect--I'd have to slum it with solid state!! Somewhere in the basement lives a long-in-the-tooth JVC receiver. Shudder.

How does the Zen sound? It is a fast amp with a lively sound sort of in between solid state and valve amplification. What I am trying to convey is that the Zen does not suffer from the euponic bloat of valve amps like the venerable Dynaco ST70 or the valve amps made today by AMC. Yes, the Zen has the liquid desireable midrange that has made valve amplication so desirable for many hi-fi enthusiasts, but it does not have the attenuated highs of some valve gear and it does not sound slow. Microdynamics and sound staging are to die for. Bass? It's present, but I'd recommend a powered subwoofer. I use a AMC Ace-Bass B1-20 (200 watts, 8 inch downward firing driver, 3 knobs to twiddle for tailoring the sound) which goes down to 30 hz with authority. The B1-20 is a fast, musical subwoofer, not one that is one notey (I mean one in which all bass sounds the same--i.e., try to listen to a Bose passive subwoofer as found in wretched Acoustimas series).

The Zen excells with a 3 dimensional soundstage with fast transients and lifelike vocals and a superb overall musical presentation. The Zen conveys a realistic musical presence and soundscape. With the Zen, I have rediscovered my music collection--a vast smattering of opera, folk, rock, jazz, pop, world beat, and avant-garde classical music. For those interested, my stereo kit is comprised of a hodge-podge of various classic components. With the Zen as the engine or heart of my system, I run it into a Carver C4000 preamp (the brains of the system). Components include, a Revox A77 reel-to-reel taperecorder, a Luxman K-15 cassette deck, Rotel RT 950BX tuner, Thorens TD 145 MkII turntable with high output MC cartridge by Ortofon, and a Philips LHH1000 CD transport and separate DAC (a rebadged Marantz CD 12 LE). Speaker wire is Barracuda by Custom House Cable (perhaps the best wire for the price--around 10 bucks a foot, termination extra). Interconnects are entry level Vampire Wire.

Aside from the AMC B1-20 powered subwoofer, my main speakers are a pair of the budget audiophile AR M1s. Imaging as good as the much more expensive Harbeth PL-3s, fine midrange, highs a bit fatiguing and tizzy on poorly recorded material, bass acceptable for a bookshelf speaker. Soundstage is perfect for chamber opera, small jazz band, a solitary singer playing a dulcimer or guitar. For full blown operatic or orchestral works, the speakers offer an acceptable, mind you, shrunken soundstage. Given the low power output of the Zen, efficient speakers are desirable. The AR M1's have an efficiency rating of 88 db. They are okay in my stereo setup and do their job well; however, I think that my world would be a better place if I switched to Lowthers or a honking big pair of Klipschorns. Someday this might happen. Overall, I am pleased with the performance of the Zen amp, Model SE-84a. There are better amps out there, but you'd have to pay a lot more. In the sub-1000 dollar class, the Zen amp is hard to beat. This is a highly musical amp and its sound is simply satisfying. Go to www.decware.com to check it out. Hats off to Steve Deckert and his Zen amp!

Dr. Allan M. Hunchuk

Overall Rating: ***** 5 Stars!

 

 

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