I've been waiting for the right opportunity to catapult into tube territory for the first time, after many decades of solid state listening, and while there was no necessary need to do so, I just felt that to deny myself the opportunity to experience SET topology as it applies to my listening habits would be doing myself a disservice, especially after hearing glowing personal reviews extolling its virtues. Everything I'd heard about the transparency, immediacy, timing, evenness of tone and overall sound quality were confirmed in spades within the first five minutes of listening after a good 10 minute warm-up period. I was thrilled that after so many years of denying myself the favor of the experience (finances being the main reason) I was so richly rewarded. Analog audio provided a glimpse into what this little David could do in comparison to the solid state Samsons of the audio world. Low level information came forth from the grooves of my vintage turntables with ease (Thorens TD-165/Pickering P/AT-P07 cart-stylus, Philips 302 Electronic/AT95E cart), proving that new hightech models are completely unnecesary for mining gold from the Decware. High definition audio (24/96, 24/192) came to life with amazing clarity, and even redbook CD rips rocked with authority. All the usual suspects claimed their audio space with power and the unit definitely lived up to years' long hype. I would recommend the Zen Triode Select to anyone ready to discover the sweetness that lies in the First Watt, and there's no need for many more watts if the first few are this sweet. Highly recommended for tube noobs as well as seasoned SET vets. It is recommended that speakers should possess high sensitivity, as this furthers the few watts into sonic heaven! Klipsch Fortes fueled my bliss at 98db sensitivity. Recommended by Decware-90db speakers at minimum. Take the plunge, don't wait as long as I did, and see what SET has to offer with the decware SE84C-S Zen Triode Select tube integrated amplifier. No preamp needed, but I would definitely take a crack at the Decware offering to find synergy with this winner...simply more of a good thing, I'd guess!
Have waited to review the Decware Zen Select amp because of the other faults in my system. I have made seven speakers using a Fostex six inch bananna cone all range driver, and have tried a few CD players. I also tried the Decware tubed volume control, but do not now use it as it seems in the way of the clear tone that is inherant to the amp. My present CD player is the NAD s500i. The output of the NADs500i boosts the volume. My Marantz CD-17 made me think that the amp was a let down. I went to the pawn shop and tried other cheep players. Without a doubt, my speakers sound good with the better source. I am surprised that the NAD made that much of an improovement over the Marantz [as I actually paid more for the Marantz player]. I think that the output of the NAD is responsible. My cables are old Naim stuff from the eighties [Linn/Naim was it then!]. I'm a sculptor and work at night, so power conditioning is less an issue, but when everyone comes to work in the morning not only does the sound get muddied -so does my creative flow.
My present conclusions: the Decware amp is not the weak link in my system, and if I purchased a better CD player I believe I'd here it. My speakers are not covering up the amp [no x-over], and while perhaps not state of the art, the 6" cones work to the amp's advantage over larger cones, or especially multiple driver, crossover speakers. My studio is small, and this too works in favor of the amp. For me, clearly the limitation is the CD player [besides cables, power conditioning]. Any system is a sum of the parts, and I believe that the Zen amp is rarely the weak link - if used in a way that does not overdrive it.
Subjectively, lack of coloration, acurate tone, and lack of the sound of "power" is what I feel this amp offers. Since I listen for many hours on end these qualities matter to me more than having a tweeter, or rock & roll bass. Music matters to me when I sculpt in a way that I can't describe very well. If I say soul, then please accept that I can't describe that either. I've listened to many great audio components at high end audio shops in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio since 1980 [Levinson to Utopias], and they often blow me away. My system does not compare. The "sound" lacks the high end of a berillium tweeter, and does not do a traditional 8' Japanese drum very well. But at least it cuts to the heart by being simple! Short signal paths in the Zen - speakers yield something that I relate to in the middle of the night. No, the band is not "in the room". Rather, Mozart is whimsical and dancing about. Our desire for awsome sound creates a market that largly does not respect this.
I'm very happy with this amp, and will put my money into the CD player when the world buys my art. After that, I'll order better all-range drivers, and design new cabinets. And once I have everything but the Zen as I would dream of, I'll audition other amps. But if I am stuck being this starving artist at least I got it right.
I bought a Creek 4330 R (original model) and a Decware Zen 84C that had been upgraded at the factory to a Select—both at about the same time. Both were used, purchased through audiogon, both dated from about the same year, both were in good condition, and they were both in a similar price range, so I feel they make a good comparison, though it is important to disclose that I am comparing the original Creek (not the Mk2) and that both are used. As it happens, the upgraded Zen was being auctioned by the maker (presumably a trade-in), so I got the lifetime warranty with it. (Btw, the upgraded Zen doesn’t have all the features of a new Zen Select, such as front input jacks, so I guess I’d have to call it a hybrid-Select, but I think the sound would be the same.) I listen mostly to classical music.
Advantages: The Creek is undoubtedly a good amp and I am very happy with it for my second system. But there is absolutely no question in my mind that the Decware is a lot better. The Creek has some non-musical advantages, such as a remote control with mute and volume control (though for what little it does control, it is a very pricey addition). It is a very reliable solid-state amp, with a good sound, and (ihmo) well worth the money. The Creek seems quite a solid unit, but the Zen, while minimalist, is extremely solid and gives confidence that it probably will really last the next 50 years. The most striking advantage of the Decware is its soundstage. It really is possible to hear where the different instruments (even just voice and piano) stand in relation to each other. This in turn adds both detail and depth, allows you to hear how the components of a piece of music come together, and makes the entire listening experience more “alive”—more vital and exciting. Even solo piano, I find, sounds better on the Decware: I find I can hear the whole instrument, with its decays and resonance, better. As for voice, this is another of the Zen’s special strengths: it conveys voice as though the singer were really in the room with you.
Disadvantages: By comparison, the sound of the Creek is relatively garbled. Because the Zen separates instruments so well, the Creek sounds (by comparison) as though it were conveying a wall of sound—it doesn’t have the same degree of depth and separation. The Creek does sound beautiful, but the Decware has a vitality, a sense of presence, and an “aliveness” that the Creek lacks. There are some disadvantages to the Zen, however. First, it is a tube amp, and the tubes do have to be replaced. I personally hate having to fiddle with the music hardware (I’m basically interested in the music), but the tubes are easy to find on the web, they’re cheap, and replacing them is as simple as pulling out the old ones and pushing in the new ones—done in a few seconds. So I find I don’t mind this disadvantage at all. (For people interested in such things, the tubes offer the opportunity of changing the sound some by replacing with different tubes.) More serious is the low power of the Zen: this amp will not drive many speakers adequately; it requires speakers with high efficiency. (There is a list of recommended speakers on the Decware website.) I’m currently using some Klipsch speakers (kg 4.5), which are not optimal. Maybe the best compliment I can give the Zen is to say that I like it so much I’ve decided to shell out the money for some new speakers that will be optimally matched to it, even though they mightn’t be a good match for other amplifiers: basically, I’ve decided the Zen is good enough that I’m now happy to design my system around it. I’ve pretty much decided to buy a pair of Parker 95 speakers ($650), which were designed specifically for the Zen by a different company (which is also small and web-based—there’s a link to this and other speaker companies on Decware’s site, which you can find through google or another search engine).
In sum, the Creek is a really good mainstream product for the money, but the Zen is a truly superb “indie” amp, which brings you to a whole higher order of music reproduction, if you’re willing to step out of the commercial mainstream. Buying from Decware is a bit of a leap in the dark (it’s a web-sales company), but the company’s customer-support is terrific: it’s easy to speak to the owner-designer (Steve Deckert), who is a great guy and always gives extremely honest advice—even to the point of steering you toward products (such as the Parker speakers) that compete with his own.
The Select has completely changed my thinking with regard to amp power and speaker sensitivity. I have my Select connected to Klipsch RF-5 main speakers and the resulting sound is stunning! This combo is a wonderful match.
I now have the Select and RF-5's in my main HT system (room is 12'x 21'x 8' with openings into other large areas of the home). No lack of volume on music or HT. Simply can not believe the clean output levels of this combo given the Select's power rating.
The detail of this amp brings CD's to life that sounded boring with other amp & speaker combos. The smooth nature of this amp produces captivating highs what were harsh with other amp & speaker combos. The first amp & speaker combo that makes all my CD's great to listen to.
You will need a powered sub with the Select to get rock solid bass. Coupled with a good sub the Select gives up nothing compared to SS amps. I've found running my RF-5's full range and connecting the sub via speaker level connections to be the best set-up.
If you go to the Decware Forum you will find alot of talk about suitable speakers. Most at the Forum are into specialty single driver speakers (I'm sure these are all fine speakers). The Klipsch RF series speakers however work great with the Select for music and HT.