I purchased the Decware Zen Triode amp on line directly from Decware in the fall of 2011 to serve as as a daily driver, stand in for my two vintage and fully refurbished McIntosh MC240 tube amps. Several months after the order was placed the hand built and individually tested, back ordered Zen arrived at my door. It has remained in my system as the only amp I’ve used since that time. Before I proceed to any specific comments regarding the Zen Triode I should say the Decware Zen Triode amp is, IMO, everything any good reviewer has claimed it to be. On sonics alone this would be an outstanding amp even at several times several the price. At its $795 price it is certainly an amp with more than enough high end sonic qualities to be considered by anyone with a high end itch to scratch but lacking the typical high end funding. The caveat here, beyond the amp’s obvious power limits, is the Zen’s sonic performance should be paired with a stellar system surrounding it. It is so absolutely squeaky clean in its reproduction characteristics as to possess a distinct character many buyers in this price range will have never encountered. At the present time, I am unaware of any other amp in this general price range which achieves so much of today’s high end sonics which I could justifiably compare against the Zen Triode. I’ve heard a few which come close and a few which offer a very different take on music reproduction but, if the Zen’s specific character floats your particular boat and fits within the limits of your system, then all other contenders will pale in comparison. Though, I must repeat, this need for a relatively high level of quality in the associated equipment and attention to details such as room treatments and system set up which go to support the Zen’s performance could easily prove to be its downfall should it be inserted into a subpar or mismatched system.
To provide some context into my search for the Zen, I should begin with the fact I have now owned the pair of Mac tube amps for thirty years. Both amps were refurbished at the time of purchase with the best passive components available, though no significant circuit changes were made to the basic McIntosh layout. As the Mac’s now reach 50 years in age overall and 30 years on the rebuild I think I need - and want - an amp that will be less expensive to retube and a bit less time consuming when it comes to yearly system housekeeping. “Simplify” and “downsize” is the theme here. Repair techs for the Mac tubes are also few and far between in the DFW area and problems with a vintage amp could prove costly and time consuming. The Macs are now, I think, of a vintage which should be considered “Sunday drivers” rather like a ‘62 Corvette convertible. They’ve served me well and now it is their turn to relax a bit. Over the last few years I’ve auditioned several small wattage amps as I have tried to find a suitable replacement for the Macs. I’m of the opinion that I have no need for a $3-5k (or more) amp. Five very good watts are plenty in my system and, if I wanted a $3-5k amp, I would just have my Macs rebuilt again to last another twenty five plus years without problems. Personally, I’ve seldom heard an amp I have liked as much as my tweaked 240's with their 6L6 output tube character. The 6L6's seem to have alot to do with this as I’m not quite as enamoured of the EL34 or 6550 equipped Mac tube amps of the same vintage. I should note though, the (6550 equipped) MC275 re-issue which is currently being sold by McIntosh is considered a class A recommended tube amp by Stereophile and has, to my knowledge, been a highly recommended and sought after component in each and every version since its reintroduction (as a limited run issue) in the late 1990's. The current MC275, like its various re-issue brethren, is essentially the same circuit which was created by Gordon Gow for McIntosh Labs back in 1961. The MC240 was the 6L6 version of that amp in 1961-62 and, as such, is a reasonably good benchmark for tube amplifiers to meet or exceed. A new MC275 sells for about $4,500 and a vintage MC240 should go for around $2-3k depending on its physical condition and how recently it has been serviced.
The Decware Zen Triode has remained in my system for several months now where all the other low powered tubed and T amps I have auditioned failed to survive the early cut. Some were just OK, one was a good value at its price and at least one was simply god-awful dreadful despite glowing reviews. To each their own when it comes to amplifier character but, up front and all things considered, I should say that while I very much like the Decware Zen Triode’s performance in my system I can't quite get as overwhelmed about the Zen's character as a few folks on the Decware forums. Decware now has an almost cult like following and, frankly, I haven’t caught on to whatever those folks are hearing that makes them go goo-goo eyed over this small two watt amp. Then again, if you believe Decware, and apparently many people do, I will never - no matter how much I spend, even if I buy a Decware CD player - have a source which will show the Zen Triode to be the weak link in the system. So maybe the amp just vastly exceeds the capabilities of the rest of my system and I have yet to wise up to that fact. Don’t know and probably never will since a source upgrade is not in the immediate plans. Maybe next year ...
I truly like the amp’s nature or I wouldn't have kept it but it's not a McIntosh sounding amp - rather far from it in some ways. It tends toward the leaner side of what I find desirable in an amp - “lean” in the sense that particular instruments are somewhat more starkly rendered where the Mac’s presentation is more “36-24-36“ or one might say more “beautiful” or even “romantic” and addictively attractive no matter the quality of recording being played. The Zen is not so lean that I find it offensive by any means and it is really only “leaner than” the standards of a full blooded, classic push/pull tube amp such as the Macs with their patented circuitry and massively potted Unity Coupled output transformers. The Macs possess an undeniably more “classic tube sound” in that they have a glorious midrange with bloom that really plays well with male vocals and all acoustic instruments. The Zen is, in comparison to the 240's sound, somewhat dry, particularly at the upper end. It does not lack in extension nor the ability to portray, say, a struck cymbal’s sound wave as it expands within the acoustic space of the room. And the Zen is not diminished in value or quantity over the Mac's. But its sonic personality is noticeable drier and less fully fleshed out than is the McIntosh’s sound. That said, in comparison to most other tubed amps at several times the Zen’s price and against any solid state amp at many times the price, the Zen’s midbass to upper frequencies are, IMO, a case study in clean, appealing, realistic reproduction. I would certainly take the Decware’s presentation over the last Audio Research amp I heard. That may not be fair since I heard the AR tube amp played through Wilson Watts and the system left me wanting more music and less ultra-cool hi-fi spectacle. The dealer insisted the system was “accurate" while I was left thinking the music was treated unfairly and was not interesting beyond the hi-fi things it could accomplish. Despite the numerous revisions to the Watts, since their inception this has been the overall character they bring to the presentation. On a scale of 1-10, judging the “coolness” of the presentation, that specific Audio Research/Wilson system would be the10, IMO, while the comfy slippers, let’s pull out another dozen albums before we head off to bed sounding 240's would be a 1. The Zen as it exists in my system would fit somewhere around a 5.5 I would say, neither the “accuracy above all else” sound claimed for the AR nor the classic tube musicality of the Mac’s. The Zen is certainly more sterile in its character than are the 6L6 beam power tube amps. But in my system it is not so antiseptic you wonder where the music went. For good or bad the Zen portrays music in a fashion which is very much like a very nice (and ridiculously inexpensive) T amp I auditioned with, however much better quality overall. Therefore, regarding the Zen my decisions were to be two fold. First, was the Zen of sufficient quality to stand in for the Mac’s? And, second, was the Zen so superior to the under $100 T amp that I could justify the cost difference?