AUDIO FORUMS >> Reviews >> ZSTAGE Review

Message started by will on 10/31/10 at 19:14:42

Title: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 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.


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 - 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.


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.


Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 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.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 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. :)

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.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 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 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.


Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 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. :D

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 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. :) 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.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 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 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.


Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 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.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 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.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 12/23/10 at 16:17:39


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???


Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 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.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 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

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 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.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 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.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 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!

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 01/19/11 at 17:39:41

Thanks Lon. I was hoping you would tell me this if it were the case, since I suspected you would have tried both!

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 01/30/11 at 16:59:31

Okay will, since we're talking about these footers.  I did some repositioning and listening and here's my analysis of positioning.

There are three "signatures" (a set of subtle sonic changes) I've isolated using the Baby Booties or Tenderfeet.

The one I've settled on is stacked, three Tenderfeet under the ZDAC-1, the ZBOX sitting on Booties on top. This gives a very open, dynamic sound, with the imaging and staging just a tad laid back.

With the two components standing alone, Booties underneath is a nice rich sound, just a bit more forward sounding, I think of it as "vibrant." If not for my constant desire it seems for the sound to be a bit "laid back," this would be my choice configuration. A very similar sound is achieved with the two components stacked and Booties under each. If there's any difference in this configuration it may be that there's a bit more "richness," which as you'd guess for some recordings is the cat's meow.

The different configurations are related to the differences in "bias" positions on the Decware amps or ZSTAGE, but far subtler. I think I will now conclude my "isolation component rolling" which for a while seemed to be leading into the sort of mania that "tube rolling" had. :D

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 01/31/11 at 08:16:46

Lon, Thanks for the update.

I have been messing around with feet too, and also find it a bit confounding sussing out the details of the various sounds they can contribute to. Especially the isocups under the Torii.

After a couple emails with Steve at herbiesaudiolabs, I changed my whole approach. I had been slowly and progressively adjusting everything to my tastes and had a great sound, but was it skewed in its adaptation to vibration and microphonics? Components, isolation,  room treatments, cables, speaker placement and tweaks, tubes and all.... they all came one at a time and entered the "balance" I grew into from within system dependent tastes. And without more complete isolation, had I been adapting to and adjusting around subtle distortion as part of my preferences....a wonky sort of synergy?

So now that I have tube dampers, isocups and tenderfeet, I decided to start over trying to forget about my "sound" and put vibration isolation into the forefront to see what I might find.

Though this is familiar to you, it was very informative for me. I moved the four isocups near the edges and corners where the amp is most rigid, then fiddled around a bit to taste. I tested it playing my bassiest stuff (that sends vibrations though everything in the room) and feeling the amp top plate for any sense of vibration while listening carefully for smoothing. Then I did the same with the ZDAC and ZSTAGE finding that three tenderfeet seemed to isolate the units well, but that four under each with the ZSTAGE on top of the ZDAC gave the cleaner/smoother sound.

Then I introduced the tube dampers, listening carefully for reducing subtle distortions. As I went along with them, I must admit I did not prefer parts of what I heard, feeling I was losing some of the "live" qualities I really liked. The sound seemed slightly warmer, and less atmospheric and textural...a bit harder. And though the well managed distortions did make the sound appear more live, textural and atmospheric, I learned that it was at a cost. Once I heard it as subtle distortion, when I pulled the tube dampers, I did not like what I heard....a real eye opener!

Adjusted and tuned, I have a more solid foundation for adjustments. I must say, I love messing around with tubes even more. A costly game, but being able to shift from great to a different sort of great, for me reveals different aspects of the music. It re-excites my interests.

And the ZSTAGE is really getting fun as I learn it more. I have become accustomed to the amazing power it offers to taylor the sound with its volume/voltage nob, bias switch, and single tube rolls. From running the source directly through it before the amp, its once somewhat daunting power to influence the sound is now a pleasure. For example, just now I am using a 50s Seimens 12AT7. And its very linear and clean presentation allows me to use some ERA (mullard?) 6DJ8s in the Torii's input....tubes I found altogether too warm/dark without the ZSTAGE. But with this tube in the ZSTAGE, they are a real pleasure, very rich yet detailed.


I wonder if you can answer a few questions for me without risking the mania of more feet rolling. I am tempted by the booties from your exploration. It sounds like they give a more live, rich and perhaps vibrant and forward sound. It seems your current configuration fits the specs with the weight of both components being tenderfoot territory, and the ZBOX on top being bootie sized. If you can recall, I wonder, how would you describe the all tenderfoot sound compared to the combination. And are your tenderfeet the current generation material?

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 01/31/11 at 15:08:40

It's a fascinating process. My findings pretty much match yours. I haven't done extensive experimentation with placement of the feet on the components. . . seems from what exploration I have done putting either Iso Cups or Tenderfeet near the four corners of the component give the most natural sound, but it's really a subtle thing. The Tenderfeet I'm using are the most current versions. I did try Tenderfeet under both the ZBOX and ZDAC and the results are very good, a very airy and ambient sound. replacing the top Tenderfeet with the Booties just added a touch of richness, or warmth, or "thickness" and a bit of vibrance, and pushed the image and stage back a bit. That was the porridge that was "just right" for most all the recordings through my system. I think you may be "just right" just as you are, that would be my guess. Next time you feel adventurous, you could try four Booties and see what happens.

If you let it, the process never ends!  I've stopped my changes for a while. Sound is killer!

I'm glad the ZSTAGE is being such a great component in your system. I think I'm accomplishing similar ends with the CSP2 and ZBOX, but the ZSTAGE is a much cheaper situation! :)

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 01/31/11 at 17:36:53

Thanks for the input Lon. I will likely try your favored combination with the booties under the top component after I get settled down a bit. Like you, I am impressed with herbiesaudiolab stuff and I appreciate your pointers from your experience with it.

And yes the ZSTAGE is a great addition to my system, so I can easily imagine the CSP2 and ZBOX combination being really, really good!

At first I thought the ZSTAGE might be a tad expensive compared to the ZBOX, but then with the added flexibility of the bias switch and gain, the price made sense to me. And though I have not heard the ZBOX, conceptually I am very glad to have the ZSTAGE features. In fact I use the volume/voltage nob and bias switch all the time, easily fine tuning as needed for each recording. Like you suggest, relative to other options, it is an inexpensive and simple solution combining a gain and tube stage. Great concept! As usual a tribute to Steve's skill at developing world class audio at affordable prices.

The ZSTAGE to me is a very powerful and awesome sounding aspect of my system adding amazing sound flexibilty. Indispensable really! So what is that worth? As they say.....that's priceless!


Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by mac5u on 02/20/11 at 20:31:03

"And yes the ZSTAGE is a great addition to my system..."

Will, thank you for a nicely detailed review of the ZSTAGE and your experiences.  While you may have addressed this in other threads, would you please describe your system, room, and music preferences?  Thanks.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 02/21/11 at 02:33:30


My system is mostly Decware at this point: TORII MkIII, ZDAC-1, ZSTAGE, Styx speaker cables, Reference ICs, and MG944 speakers. Also some MAC cables, VHAudio DIY power cords, and a Mac Mini playing uncompressed, error corrected AIFF files through a Wireworld Starlight USB cable. Power: Brickhouse surge/filter and a number of Alan Maher's cheaper power conditioning boxes. Lots of HerbiesAudioLab vibration absorption stuff....and tubes....lots and lots of tubes.

My room is our main living area, and hard to accurately describe since it is pretty irregular with many alcoves and open floorplan segues into other rooms, but the main room is sort of 25x14 with a 9.5 ceiling for two thirds of the length, and 8 feet for the rest. Not the ideal proportions. It has plastered adobe and glass walls. The ceiling has log beams (vegas) with rough cut pine boards, and above the boards....tarpaper with 12 inches of fiberglass. The floor is brick on sand with area rugs and furniture.

Room treatments: a diaphragmatic bass trap (26x16x36) for low bass; open 703 fiber (15x15x36)-other bass; assorted corner 703 fiber; 4 Cathedral Sound room damping panels; Marigo Labs damping dots (mostly 30mm) on speakers, windows and cabinet; Synergistic System's A.R.T Basik system; and an adjustable Kemp Schumann Resonator (from Tweekgeek). This is cool. It puts out 7.84 Hz. Once set right, what I hear is a cleaner and more atmospheric room sound and a refined sound stage.

Sound preference and description is so relative! I prefer a detailed presentation, liking warmth, but probably tending more toward the slightly tighter, detailed, transparent side of things. Like I love hearing the skin of a drum, or the hammer pad of a piano, the reeds of a horn....but I also like enough warmth and harmonic texture to soften the edges of the detail. And I love a strong, tight bass that vibrates me and the floor, but not if it obscures the midrange.

With the ZSTAGE, this is easy to dial in. With it, I often choose amp tube sets that have warmth, but are slightly on the bright/detailed side as a group, then if it is a brighter recording, I bring up the warmth and bass by turning up the ZSTAGE until I get slight distortion from the bass, finally backing it down to a point where the bass is just tight. At this point, I have great detailed bass and a pleasantly detailed warmth.

I think my system sounds better than the real thing for the most part! With decent recordings, in most ways, it more accurately represents the individual instruments than any live sound system I have heard, and it sounds better than most acoustic playing since most rooms don't bring out the music well. I had never before heard aspects of instruments live or recorded like this system brings out, except when I have been playing an instrument myself in a good room, or on the rare occasions where a performance is impeccably set up in a great room. It is a total pleasure to hear the reed, hinges and pad hits of a horn while also actually experiencing the pleasure of the subtle bright to dark tones of brass vibrating! Or to hear a deep drum hit where the skin and wood integrate into the sound, but are discernible on their own!


Music...the broad terms don't get it for me. Most of what I listen to is  simple, and often acoustic, but some is down right electronic. Late 50's-early 60's jazz like Hawkins, Ammon, Davis, Coltrane, but also melodic jazz made later like Archie Shepp' and Sonny Rollins more chill stuff, and Patricia Barber is a fav. ECM jazz is in there. African players like Ayub Ogata and Boubacar...straight up Bosa Nova but also the more punchy Ceu...and others from the South America...Susanna Baca, Virginia Rodrigez, Marta Gomez ...simple Baroque- solo instruments or just a few.....violin, cello, viola de gamba...simple medieval choral stuff like Trio Medieval, or Anonymous 4....Irish traditional...Dylan, Beatles, Neil Young, The Band...I really like Morphine....and Massive Attack, especially "Protection" ... Many more, but as I look at it, I like music that is very much about the instruments expressed in individually defined ways. Music made for the love of the sound!

My system stands up very well to this and for quite a variety of music. And I am quite sure very complex music would be equally benefited by this gear.

And that is the bottom line! This Decware stuff is so accurate, musical and flexible, I feel sure you could adapt it to any musical tastes and sound preferences. But especially the ZSTAGE. With its one tube, but vast choices within that...the many tube types: 12Au7, 12AT7, 12BH7, 5751, 12AX7 each having a character of their own...then add to that all the tonal variations from the many tubes available within each tube type....and finally, with the volume to adjust weight, bass, warmth and load it up or lean it down, and the bias switch to enhance or chill bass, warmth, punch and detail, the ZSTAGE is extremely flexible toward personal sound adjustment.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by mac5u on 02/26/11 at 16:05:10


Thanks for the info on your room and equipment.  You have an amazing set-up!  It is clearly evident you have put great thought and some expense into it.  I don't know if tweak-o-phile or audiophile first comes to mind about you, but maybe at the end of the day, music-o-phile, is all that matters.


When I first started reading your descriptions, I had to double back toward the beginning when you wrote, "My room is our main living area".  Our?  As in spouse, significant other (we'll just use spouse to make it easy)?  All those room treatments in the main living area.  I mean my goodness, man, it's difficult enough sometimes to get one's spouse to condescend to put speakers in a main living area, but room treatments too! I can only imagine the conversation when you added the Kemp Schumann Resonator with its antenna running up the middle of your wall between your speakers!


I know you have written you don't feel any compelling need to explore other equipment, just to refine what you have, but I agree with ZYGI who has written elsewhere that you should consider a gig as a reviewer.

Have you ever posted pics of your room here or in another forum?  I just started a thread to encourage Decware owners to consider opening up their homes for auditions.  Whether you do or not, or just invite interested persons by PM, that is up to you, yet I think anyone seriously interested in buying Decware, especially if they had in mind to create a Decware system, would be well served in hearing a set-up like yours.  Frankly, I'd be surprised if Steve's own listening room was better suited, even acknowledging your floor plan and its associated challenges.

This is a terrific thread.  Congratulations to you (and Lon) for making it such an informative, enjoyable read.  

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 02/27/11 at 00:44:35


Thanks, and I am glad the thread is useful. I enjoy exploring the details of what makes music presentation engaging both experientially and technically, but it is all feeding the desire for a fulfilling musical experience. To this end, the "language" of hearing is the most interesting part to me. How does the body/mind respond to the elements of what we call music, and how do the presentation tools effect and enhance that experience! It is amazing to me how much listening with good stuff opens doors to deeper hearing, and deeper hearing can awaken a deeper experience!


But also the ways to express in words the experience of music seems useful. So like good gear, for me, these languages are just part of the tool box toward the finding and implementing the best balance of gear and room in order to potentiate the forgetting about all that as the vastness of the tones and phrases engage us.


To me, there is no point in a "tweak" unless it makes my musical experience better and it happens to be the most efficient way to get that under given conditions.

I really like my room, but I feel sure it is in a different league than Steve's. He has dealt with it scientifically using measurements, as well as by ear, all backed by years of experience and refinement of method. From this I gather he arrived at just the right absorption/diffusion balance in a room who's proportions had already been optimized. I just did what I could by ear and within the limitations of acceptable main living area aesthetics defined by our aesthetic needs. I did use test tones to identify the offensive frequency areas, but just with my ears and with algorithm based diagrams I found somewhere, where you can enter your room dimensions and see frequency buildup areas.

Also, I got really useful education and tips from Steve' writing and words, but I know he cringed at some of the stuff I did to try to balance our room desires with good sound. Like using a teak cabinet for hiding gear, and that cabinet in a shallow alcove with the speakers out in the room, but in front of this shallow alcove. Reflective and standing wave stuff and associated vibration issues immediately arise from this. But within our house, lifestyle and aesthetic limitations, this is where the gear needed to be.

Also there is lots of glass, plaster and brick, but again, this is what we have to work with. So I did what I could with traditional and more geeky treatments designed to work without big and obvious instalations all over the place. The room had good parts too though. Extensive mass, the irregularity of spaces and openings messing up and dissipating reflection patterns, and the ceiling with its irregular round beams, gapped rough boards, tar paper, 12" fiberglass, and angled air space above it with yet more insulation are all good.

And, there is little doubt that part of my sound comes from compensation...working with unresolved room tendencies. Like tending toward "transparent" over "warm" tubes and cables, and by  tweaking the low bass back a bit on the MG944s.

I have never been fully comfortable with "conventional wisdom" once it gets rigid and rule oriented, not because there is not truth in it, but because rules tend to stop creative interaction with our ever-developing and changing reality. I have always enjoyed creative process based in experience, and stretching "outside the box" within calculated reason is fun for me to try. And finally, it all comes down to what WE like! Who knows if I would like a "perfect" room better, or if you would like my room. It is definitely tuned, not to a standard, but to my tastes. That said, everyone who has heard it so far is blown away, but I have no true audio heads as neighbors.


My wife and I are both life-long potters, and we are also "nesters" being nurtured by (and needing) a beautiful environment. And music is part of this, so speakers aren't an issue. And since I have a cabinet, the Schumann Resonator wire is on the wall behind the speakers, but you can't see it nested in the middle of a bed of fiberglass between the cabinet and wall. I did play with it loosely coiled on top of the cab and it worked, but it was better vertically on the wall…a broader frequency range was helped if I recall correctly. And we are lucky. Our aesthetics match well and she loves music almost as much as I. We will sit together in the dark room often and just dissolve into music!

So "the spouse factor" is not a part of it for me. For my own needs, my treatments, though relatively extensive, are well incorporated in the space. I had a really good place to put the bass absorption stuff in the cabinet alcove. It had recessed shelves on the right side that happened to be about 32" by 18" deep and 9.5 feet tall. So I had a good area to build the most serious absorption stuff inconspicuously. I used 703 fiberglass covered with painted wood for low bass (diaphragmatic bass trap) and airy cloth covering for other absorbers, and both the cloth and paint match the room pretty well.

I can't get pics to load though they are smaller than 250Kb...hmmm. I will try to get some pics on the site one day.

One thing I think about in this context is back to this thread's beginnings…the ZSTAGE. For compensating for frequency balance tastes and minor issues, I think the ZSTAGE is really an excellent tool. Aside from a vast array of available tube sounds, and cable signatures, its voltage/volume and bias adjustments are really quite amazing for shifting the tone of a system.

The more I have it, the more I like it! 8-)

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 02/27/11 at 17:26:01

Interesting observations gentlemen.

Will, I certainly share your admiration for the Torii MK III. I'm not sure which is the more important item in my system, my source, this amp, or the amazing speakers that Bob built that I listen to for everything it at all possible.  I'm so happy to have all three, and all my other components. Hope I never have to do without them.

For me with this system at the stellar level I now believe it to be I see two roads to travel: to embrace and embellish the recording or to get as close as I can to the musical message. I find that for my instance, where I have perhaps as many recordings that sound good to great, and perhaps just as many that sound less good and perhaps not even good, is to find the best all around tonality and dynamism that works for the broadest range of recordings so that I separate myself from thinking about the recorded sound as much as possible. My whole journey with Decware actually seems to have been to arrive at this point. The real catalyst in my case seems to have been the Sony SACD player that I have, the SCD-XA5400ES. That device seems to get the very best out of the redbook data, and the Torii and IT Radials then offer it up with speed and solidity.

I've taken the ZBOX back out as it has a big hum issue and it's not tube-related, I think it's related to IC and power cord situations that I can't seem to avoid. The interesting thing is every time I take the ZBOX out I feel it's "better" so I'm taking it into the second system, where it does not have hum issues.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by mac5u on 03/01/11 at 19:46:02

If you read my cry for help in the Forums Help area, you'll know that I have been slogging through various threads trying to learn what I can about Decware products.  One advantage to the slowness issue I have is that I can't speed read or skim through threads very fast so I read at a slower pace, sometimes even re-read while waiting for the next thread to open in a new Tab, so I'm able to remember more of what I have read.  The issue of "Hum" comes up from time-to-time.  Is this a ground loop problem, a tube problem, or more often something with the Decware gear?  If it is something with the Decware gear, how easy is it to get the item reparied?


Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Pale Rider on 04/08/11 at 19:58:54

[edit]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.[/edit]

Will, sorry if this is a hijack, but I have my Taboo sitting on Herbie's Tenderfeet right now, but noticed it had rounded hard feet, that look like they would fit inside the Herbie's Iso-Cups. Are you using the IsoCups with the lampblack balls, or in some other way?

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 04/08/11 at 20:33:54

Pale Ryder,

The tenderfeet I have are square edged. For my amp, I got the isocups with the lampblack balls. I got the high-end bases too. It made sense to me to have the stainless base. And sorry to say I have not tried the footers without it.

It was a long time ago, but I did try the tenderfeet under my Torii and if I remember correctly, preferred the the isocups finding them better in every aspect of the sound. But the Torii is heavy. And with Herbie's 90 day return policy, I went for the best he offered in his mind...trouble is it slipped my mind to check the sound without the stainless base! Pathetic....

I did go for four footers finally too under everything. I reasoned that this would provide more vibration absorption and give greater flexibility of placement, especially on the heavy Torii. May not be the case on the Taboo as it is lighter and narrower, making it perhaps better suited to three feet.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Pale Rider on 04/08/11 at 21:05:41

Thanks Will! Info is much appreciated. And your reference to 4 answered my next question. When I first used Tenderfeet, I used 3 per item, but eventually went to four.

Steve at Herbie's advised me against placing the Taboo hard rubber feet directly into the IsoCups, and his explanation about the coupling of two resilient masses makes sense. So that approach won't work, but I like the IsoCup/Lampblack ball theory, so I may go ahead and spring for a set and try them.


Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 04/08/11 at 22:52:10

Greg. Yes I found Steve @ Herbies to be very responsive to emails with good advice. I put my Iso-cups/lampblacks inside the stock feet, so no interaction. It is interesting to explore locations. At least with the Torii, it sounds different with different locations on the amp. There does not seem to be a "best" place, but the one I like best is asymmetrical....the back feet wider apart and the front ones closer together. Both sets on mine at this point are at the junction near the exterior edge where the wooden frame of the amp meets the base material, but I have liked them in from the edges too.

With the Taboo, it might work well with two feet in the back with the transformer weight and one placed in the center of the front. This is how I had the Torii for a while, but finally sprung for the 4th and it did make a little difference, but again, it is big and heavy compared to the Taboo.

I also avoided the stock feet with my tenderfeet on the ZDAC and Z-Stage, putting them again, just inside the feet on the long length of the box, and near the outer edge.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 04/08/11 at 23:34:12

I can see why you like the front IsoCups away from the corners, I find in my room/system there's more bass with the front IsoCups near the corners of the Torii.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 04/08/11 at 23:36:42

I can't leave well enough alone. The setup I now have is IsoCups (four) under the SACD player, Blu-Ray Player and Torii, three IsoCups under the  ZDAC-1 with the ZBox on top of that on four "Baby Booties," and the CSP2 on three Tenderfeet. Sounds really good like this so I'm not touching it! (Yeah right!)

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 04/09/11 at 01:03:51

OK dog you....I thought I might be done. :-/

You have wetted my appetite. Can you describe the difference from changing over from tenderfeet to isocups on your components. And are you using the steel bases? I can imagine that it sounds quite good!

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 04/09/11 at 03:20:50

Well, it's hard to explain. . . and it's not a major difference. I find that there's a touch more dynamics and deep bass with the IsoCups in comparison to the Tenderfeet, it's just care has to be taken to seat the IsoCups properly so that the units don't move. I am using the bases.

We like different "sounds" so to be honest I think the sound with the Tenderfeet may be the best for your system.  

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 04/09/11 at 06:59:38

Hmmm. Probably true, but I wonder... maybe we just need slightly different treatments to get a similar sound??? With room being purported to give 40% or so of the sound, who knows. I wish I could hear yours to find out! I know mine sounds amazing with a palpable, deep, rich, open, an almost magically real feeling presentation.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 04/09/11 at 12:47:48

Well, mine sounds pretty darned good. I'm not sure I would explain it as "deep, rich, open, almost magically real" as I just really don't "feel" that type of language about audio any longer. It's a pretty good reproduction of what's on the recording.  I'm always conscious I'm listening to a recording, but enjoying doing so. I'm pretty much "done" as far as equipment goes. Just settling into listening.  When I get bored I tinker with trappings, but wish I wouldn't.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 04/09/11 at 13:52:17

Also, I think that as you've gone the room treatment route, and I haven't,  we'll have different needs in fine tuning. It's a great thing there are so many options!

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 04/09/11 at 14:23:41

Yes the sound experience and systems are all so totally relative in descriptions, and also easily modified and refined by so many things. Kind of a pain really. It would be interesting for us to listen to some music we both love, a good recording, on a couple very good systems, and see what the descriptors would be. Is the difference in us, the systems, or both. Though relative again, I can say that with most of my recordings, I very rarely think of them as that. Though of course, I could hear them as that, I rarely do unless there are obvious artifacts from poor recording. In fact, I can comfortably say that my system enhances recordings to a substantial enough degree, especially with the ZSTAGE/TORII tonal balancing ability, that I am left for the most part with the pleasure of the music. But then, on reflection, I love sound so much, I wonder how much I listen to really sorry recordings anymore.

When I had to plug in my old NAD amp while Steve put bass knobs on my TORII, though I tried, I could not listen to music, only watching DVDs.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 04/09/11 at 14:30:37

Well to me it's perhaps a more clearly delineated difference between recordings and live music as I have both happening in my living room. When I play an instrument or someone plays an instrument in my living room, it's radically different than the sound of a recording. So I always have that shift, and I'm daily aware of the differences in the same living space.

I can really enjoy recordings, but they're always recordings to me, and I've long given up the idea that a playback system can make something real. Still I'm listening to a Horowitz performance right now on cd (from the excellent Original Jacket Collection box) and that can't be accomplished in real time in my room for a number of reasons! I love my recordings, and cherish my time with them; the hours of enjoyment are central to my life. With the system as it is now I'm closest to just taking the playback as it is and enjoying the sound of the recordings as background to reading or surfing or as full-attention listening. (Or viewing as I also use this system for TV and DVD and Blu-Ray).  That's my goal: to be setup and then. . . the setup forgotten.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Pale Rider on 04/09/11 at 18:15:18

I chatted with Steve at Herbie's via email, and then went ahead and ordered a full set of 4 IsoCups for the Taboo. Looking forward to them.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 05/30/11 at 17:24:14


What's your opinion of the IsoCups?  I become more and more impressed with Steve Herbelin's products.

I'll mention this here as will and I have been talking about the ZBox like qualities of the ZStage and the ZBox. . . . I took the ZBox out of the main system again and put it into the second system. And once again I noticed that the treble is a bit more aggressive without it (but certainly good to listen to and probably "accurate") and there's a bit more dynamics, and the bass is less "thick" . . . I'm enjoying the system without it. Currently I have the CSP2 on three IsoCups and the ZDAC-1 on three tall Tenderfeet.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Pale Rider on 05/30/11 at 18:02:53

I love the Iso Cups' build quality. The combo of the steel base, cup, and black ball is impressive. I only wish there was a way to see them underneath my Taboo!

I am running the Taboo as a headphone-only amp, and all tubes have Herbie's Ultrasonic Rx tube dampers. So, my system itself generates very little acoustic energy. The components sit on a heavy nearly one inch thick slate table. Not much gets through this combination. Still, as opposed to the Tenderfeet that were previously under the Taboo, and now sit under the Mac mini, the sound seems to have more air around sustained piano notes and cymbals and a depth around bass that is better than before. Like triple-filtering water, as compared to double-filtering, it seems cleaner. Tapping on the Taboo while listening is weird. The amp is solidly built of course, but tapping produces no microphonics that I could hear. I asked a friend to listen with his back turned while I tapped on the base. He could not tell when I was doing so.

Still, I wish I could see them. ;D

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Lon on 05/30/11 at 18:39:41

Thanks for the reply. I'm really happy with the IsoCups as well. Great stuff indeed. Glad you dig them. I essentially hear the changes the same way!

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Pale Rider on 05/30/11 at 19:25:37

Every one of my components will eventually get Iso Cups. I see them being very important for the Decware items and the Oppo player when the ZRACKS arrive.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by mac5u on 06/05/11 at 00:42:15

Every one of my components will eventually get Iso Cups. I see them being very important for the Decware items and the Oppo player when the ZRACKS arrive.

Greg, thanks for doing your part to keep the economy from completely sinking.  QE2 might have ended but we now have Pale Rider Easing 1 underway.

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by Pale Rider on 06/05/11 at 04:58:35

Heh, well I would not go quite that far, but I think I am on a similar cycle as someone who reviewed ERRs (Stone Deaf?) on AudioCircle. It's been decades since I invested in significant audio expense. Seems to be my turn. ::)

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by LSGoCards7 on 01/03/14 at 19:15:11

Thanks for the great review!

Title: Re: ZSTAGE Review
Post by will on 01/03/14 at 21:32:06


With Jupiter caps, it is taken to a new level for me. Same basic unit, but in serious listening mode, these caps have a notably more transparent and natural sound.

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