The Audio Note Zero series is a line of components that combine to form a complete system, which is not to say that each individual component doesnt stand on its own merit. And while Audio Note is probably best known for the notoriously expensive single-ended Ongaku integrated amplifier ($89,000 when I last looked), what we have here is a soup-to-nuts system that lists for $4595.
The system starts with the AZ-Two speaker, a no-frills two-way designed around an 8" woofer and 3/4" soft-dome tweeter. The speakers cost $899 per pair and are roughly 36" tall, 12" deep and 10" wide. Included are gold-plated spikes and two pairs of silver binding posts per speaker that do not accept bananas and include no jumpers. (One can reasonably assume that Audio Note recommends bi-wiring.) Audio Note says that the speakers are well braced and are a quasi-parabolic horn design with a rear-facing mouth. Audio Note specs the AZ-Two as having a 7-ohm nominal impedance with an efficiency of 93dB/W/m.
Next up are the $899 CDT-Zero CD transport and $799 DAC-Zero digital-to-analog converter. As are all the pieces in the series, both the DAC-Zero and CDT-Zero are half-width components only 8.5" wide. Together they take up about the same rack space as any CD player. Elegantly and simply designed, they have nary a user control; all of the transports functions are to be operated via the remote control. In case of a misplaced remote, the transport has two buttons on the rear: open/close and play/pause. While you lose the ability to search for specific tracks, the transport does remain functional. The DAC-Zero is a tubed design. Audio Note refers to the 6111WA miniature tube used in the single output stage as a "new era valve." They predict a 100,000-hour life (thats over nine and a half years of continuous use!), and the valve generates so little heat that cooling is hardly a concern. There is a single coaxial input and one set of analog outputs. Audio Note says that the 24-bit/94kHz Delta-Sigma processor is not only compatible with ordinary 16-bit CDs, it actually enhances them.
The $699 M Zero line-level preamp uses the same 6111 WA tube and offers a selection of four inputs plus a tape output. Two sets of preamplifier outputs (all RCAs in the system are gold plated) are to be found for those wishing to bi-amp or looking to feed an active subwoofer (which is not part of the Zero system). As elegantly styled as the rest of the series, the M Zero control amp features a red glowing LED that indicates that the M Zero is powered up, a volume control, a balance control, a source selector and source/tape selector, and a rear-mounted rocker-type power switch.
Rounding out the system are the two P Zero mono power amplifiers at $1299 per pair. At 14" deep, the P Zeros are slightly deeper than the other components 11 3/4", but the faceplates are of identical size. Each P Zero uses two ECL 882 tubes for an output of 8 push-pull watts. Audio Note says that much care has been given to the power supply, which greatly affects final sound quality.
With the exception of the speakers, all the components in the Zero series are available in black or silver.
The adventure begins
When the Audio Note Zero system arrived at my home, the speakers were badly damaged and required replacement. So I substituted a pair of Silverline Sonatinas in their place. Its no secret that many are taking advantage of the friendly impedance and high efficiency of the Sonatinas and using them with low-wattage amps. Ultimately, I wound up placing the Sonatinas tweeters about eight feet apart and my listening position about seven feet in front of the speakers. The tweeters settled 32" from the front wall with 38" and 42" from the left and right walls respectively.
Simply put, I was treated to some of the best sound Ive ever heard in my home. All the strengths of the Sonatinas were in evidence, and frankly, even though intellectually I knew that 8 watts should make the speakers sing, I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard. The Sonatinas' soundstaging was there, as was the precise imaging. Particularly endearing about the Sonatinas is their treble and the way it integrates with the upper midrange. The Audio Note system is like-minded: smooth, extended and seamless. Together the treble can only be described as lush. Bass was surprisingly present, rhythmic and taught. Microdynamics were excellent and as good as Ive heard from the Sonatinas thus far.
One of the first discs I dug out was Telarcs The Big Picture [CD-80437]. This disc is loaded with infrasonic bass and is a favorite subwoofer-demo piece. Often, after several tracks, Ive had all I can take and I move on to something else, but not that day. I listened to the disc from track 1 all the way through to track 24, the end. As the Sonatinas do not possess the bass prowess of a good subwoofer, I was not listening for the thrill of bass shudder; I was entranced by the music. "Mission Impossible" is a track that I dont regularly enjoy. Ive always blamed it on the recording, but the sound has always lacked luster and life, particularly the brass. Not on the Audio Note/Silverline Sonatina system. The sound was considerably more energetic and detailed, and while I hesitate to use the word bright, the brass sounded considerably more illuminated. Throughout the disc, subterranean bass may have been absent, but I was enthralled by the warmth and body of the music. Cello, in particular, had warmth and a tactile sense that I rarely hear portrayed. Bass drum and bass strings were of wonderful body and weight. Vanished was my fear that 8 watts were not enough to control the Sonatina's dual woofers.
Eventually Sony Classical's Rostropovich Return To Russia [Sony SK 45836] was spinning on the CDT-Zero transport. "Tybalts Death" is a telling track where a systems transient response is concerned. Short bursts followed by orchestral silence leaves behind only the theaters echo. On a system with good transient attack and decay, there is a very pronounced moment of complete silence between the transient of the orchestra and the echo. Many highly regarded speakers and systems fall on their face with this piece. They just cant stop and start that quickly. The Audio Note/Silverline system did very well. While I cant say that Ive never heard better, most of the systems that bettered this one are considerably more expensive. Id score it about an 8.5 out of 10. Once again I was assured that the P Zeros 8 watts were up to the task.
Ive been listening a lot to Eric Claptons Clapton Chronicles [Reprise 9 47553-1], and the CD was pure rapture over the Audio Note/Silverline system (it has now seen many hours of play). Like the system itself, the warmth of the bass lines in combination with the crisply plucked guitar string were elegant simplicity. "Blue Eyes Blue" once again threw the cello into the spotlight. Ive never noticed it before, but arising out of the bass lines, well into the background, is a lone cello, and the revelation was as beautiful as surprising. The CD is a compilation of songs from different venues, and the high resolution and excellent transparency of this system made sure I knew it. And talk about truth of timbre. Claptons unplugged version of "Layla" contains some foot stomps that had me looking overhead wondering who was making all the noise upstairs. No kidding.
The Audio Note/Silverline system just has an uncanny ability to bring to light details that managed to escape attention before -- not because they were never heard, but because they never before rang so true. Stevie Ray Vaughans The Sky Is Crying [Columbia 47390] contained just such an exposť. "Little Wing" is plagued by guitar-amp hum that I know Ive heard before, but hearing it on this system had me wondering if I left my Fender Twin Reverb turned on in the corner (until I remembered that I dont own it anymore).
Telarcs Rachmaninoff:Vespers [Telarc CD-80172] is not a favorite disc of mine. Oh, the music is wonderful, but the disc is plagued by what seems to be high-frequency digital hash that is more felt than heard -- and is quite annoying. Perhaps owing to the tubed output stage of the DAC-Zero, the Audio Note system rendered it more listenable than any system Ive used. While I was still able to detect it, though at a greatly reduced level, a guest who is familiar with both the disc and the problem could not. The music on the disc, however, was seemingly untouched.
Enter the AZ-Two speaker system
Eventually the replacement AZ-Two speaker system arrived, and I can tell you that there was nothing that I initially liked about the speakers -- except the sound. The vinyl-clad cabinets will not impress, and the binding posts, while silver, are pains in the butt. You cant use bananas, you cant use your postman to tighten them down (they are small, round and knurled), and as there are no jumpers, they either require that you make a jumper or bi-wire. Per Audio Notes suggestion, I stuck the speakers in the corners of the room, which meant that the speakers were now almost twice as far apart as I was in front of them. Speaker toe-in was such that the axis of the tweeters crossed several feet in front of me, and I was looking at a great deal of the outside of the speaker boxes. While not bad out of the box, the speakers required a bit of break-in.
Once the speakers were driven for a few hours, what immediately impressed me about them was the heft and detail of the bass, the clarity of the upper bass and lower midrange (particularly considering the corner placement) and the transparency and detail in the midrange. Bass was pleasantly extended and powerful, with subjective extension to a very solid 40Hz and usable bass reaching to perhaps 35Hz. Soundstaging was panoramic (how could it not be -- it went wall to wall!) and imaging was quite good -- which surprised me. While not quite up to minimonitor standards, voices were more focused and stable in the center (even when I was seated off-axis) than they had any right to be, and they were surrounded by a fairly delineated stage of performers. The AZ-Two has a slightly forward upper midrange, giving it an energetic sound, and the treble falls back into line, making it acceptably smooth and lacking in irritation. I can blast Audio Note all day about the aesthetics of the AZ-Twos, but they are some of the best near-full-range $900 speakers Ive heard. If you are on a budget and sound is more important than looks, these are worth a long listen -- no matter what your electronics.
In terms of the entire system, I have only one or two caveats -- and both have to do with the M Zero control amp and must be considered in the context of the M Zeros meager $699 price tag. First, considering the context of the system (low-power amps and high-efficiency speakers), I have to say that there is too much gain too early within the rotation of the potentiometer. In my room, I rarely got the volume control up to the 9:00 position. My second and related caveat is that in order to get late-night volumes, I had to turn the volume control just about down to its minimum setting, and there came the second problem. At that low a setting (the first tick), the potentiometer does not track properly, and only the left speaker was playing. Advancing the volume control to the second tick made the music too loud. Good potentiometers are expensive, sometimes costing as much as this entire preamp. I can excuse the lack of tracking perfection, but if Audio Note could back off on the gain of the preamp, the whole point would be moot.
A mixin' and a matchin'
Once I had a handle on the sound of the system, I wanted to get to know each individual component. I accomplished this by substituting in other components to judge the effect on the sound. The first to invade the Audio Note system was my Conrad Johnson PV12a preamp. The change in the sound could not be termed subtle, even though most of the change came at the bottom end of the spectrum. The PV12a imparted much more weight to the lower registers than I ever would have expected. This had the effect of obscuring some of the marvelous lower-midrange detail I had enjoyed. It did not sound bad by any measure and may appeal to many, but for me, in the context of this system, I preferred what the M Zero did. Remarkably, from the midrange on up, the two units had much more in common than they didnt have. Ill probably keep my CJ preamp, but at one-quarter the price, the M Zero is very impressive.
Leaving the PV12a in the system, I next removed the P Zero amplifiers and inserted my Conrad Johnson MV100. Again, I never would have predicted the results. It was just the same change as that created by the PV12a but to a greater degree: more bass. Once again I found that lower-midrange detail was being obscured, but this time it was to a completely unacceptable degree. The aforementioned cello in Claptons "Blue Eyes Blue" was all but gone, and Stevie Ray Vaughans guitar-amp hum went back to sounding less authentic. Bass was now so much more exaggerated (relatively speaking) that a repositioning of the speakers was mandatory. I had to move them out of the corners and out into the room -- much the same positioning as the Silverlines had, although in the speakers new location, the sound was now quite good.
So what does this all mean? The Audio Note system cant do bass? The CJ system has too much bass? What it means is that, as usual, system matching is everything. Within the context of the Audio Note system, the electronics performed with the speakers (Silverline Sonatinas included) and the room in a synergistic way, creating truly captivating sound. The Audio Note system is apparently meant to be an aesthetically understated system comprised of components that do not dominate the room and speakers that can be tucked into the corners where the kids wont knock them over and the wife can tolerate their existence. If you want to match the electronics to other speakers/rooms/systems, it can be done, as demonstrated by the fantastic results I obtained with the Silverline speakers, but it must be approached with care.
My caveats regarding the M Zero aside, it should be obvious that I was impressed by the Audio Note Zero system. This is way more system than its price would suggest, and given the right circumstances, such as those found in real world homes, it is capable of truly banner sound. What I was able to achieve with the Audio Note Zero/Silverline system was memorable and will be hard to duplicate once I have to send the Audio Note system back -- it just worked that well within my room. And what an aesthetic pleasure the half-width components were! The Audio Note Zero system, including the AZ-Two speakers, proved to be eminently musical, room-friendly and a bargain at the asking price. What more can I say?
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