The Zana is amazing in presenting the ambiance of the music. Low level background details are very evident in the Zana, and the soundstage image has an excellent depth and layering capability to it. Listening to live piano recital recordings of Vladimir Horowitz, I can really feel the concert hall in Moscow, and how there are people trying to break through the concert hall doors from the outside. (It was Horowitz’s first concert after a long absence in his home country, and yet many people who wants to attend the performance couldn’t get tickets to the limited seats performance). On the mixed/compilation Horowitz CDs, the different ambiance from one recording venue to the next is very real.
Source transparency is superb, as this is the first time that I noticed that the HRT Music Streamer II+ doesn’t nearly have as much speed in the bass frequency compared to the Grace m902 DAC. (Although this is not a scientific comparison, as the two DACs use different transports: Acer laptop for the MSII+, Onkyo Ipod Dock for the Grace m902.)
Listening to the Zana is like listening to a good analog recording. There is a sense of effortless naturalism that flows out from the sound. It may not be as precisely detailed as modern digital recordings, but those good analog recordings are always a good friend to my ears — often more than the newer digital stuff. The Zana makes digital sources sound like good analog turntables. And what’s amazing is how ambiances, nuances, and background details really becomes alive with the Zana. Another thing that I noticed is how the Zana takes different recordings qualities and is able to turn them into good music. The remastered Beatles stereo recordings can sound weird out of a good solid state like the Beta, but the Zana was able to turn it into music, even with a highly unforgiving headphone like the HD800. Perhaps a case of even-order distortion working to the benefit of the music?
While I don’t think that the Zana would be too ideal for the fast electronica music, I did listen to some Hotel Costes compliations, which is a slower house/lounge music. These recordings are generally super-sibilant, and the frequency transition sounds highly electronic and unnatural. However, out of the Zana, it sounded as if I was playing the vinyl version of Hotel Costes. The nasty sibilance is eliminated, and so is the nasty unnatural frequency transitions.
Now I can be wrong with this, but the Zana seems to be designed during a time when the HD600/HD650 and Grados were the headphones to own. When I heard the Zana with the HE5LE, I can hear the potential of the amp, but I don’t really get the magic. I felt that this would be the amp to match with the Alessandro MS-PRO, a headphone that I owned for a long time but never really find a good amplifier match for it. And I was right, the Zana really breathes new life to the MS-PRO. The natural and slightly relaxed sound complemented nicely with the MS-PRO’s Gradoesque treble to smooth that area out, while the midrange qualities of the Zana blended well with the MS-PRO’s famous midrange. The MS-PRO is one headphone that’s quite rare in that it actually has a soundstage image that’s bigger than the headstage around your ears. The Zana even push the envelope further on the MS-PRO’s soundstage image, as now I’m really hearing a distinct and palpable stage of the symphony playing in front of me.
Being an OTL design, the Zana can’t really keep up with the heavy Hifiman Orthodynamics. On loud bass passages, the sound began to distort, and I never used the HE5LE with the Zana again after that. The resurrection of Orthodyamic headphones are probably one of the reason Craig released the newer ZDT version which comes with output transformers for better handling of low impendance headphones. The new version of the Zana Deux, called the Zana Deux SE also comes with a Lo/Hi impedance switch, and perhaps it can deal with the Hifimans better than the original version (which this one is).
I can probably improve some aspects of the Zana’s sound by tube rolling, or some internal mods like using silver wiring, or a good stepped attenuator (the Zana comes with an ALPS blue potentiometer). But I’m scared to throw off the balance in the music, as the Zana has a perfectly beautiful coherent sound as it is.
Gears used for review:
Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, Alessandro MS-Pro, Hifiman HE5LE
Amplifier: Eddie Current Zana Deux
Source: Grace m902 DAC with Onkyo ND-S1 Ipod transport