Concert Fidelity ZL-120V2SE Mono amplifiers The Aficionado's Dream?
Excited? Of course I was. Earlier this year while smack-dab in the middle of reviewing the Concert Fidelity CF-080LSX Preamplifier, Hajime Sato, Concert Fidelity’s vice president, called to find out how his preamp was doing. The conversation quickly went to the possibility of reviewing their ZL-120V2SE monoblock amplifiers. I responded with an enthusiastic, absolutely! In fact, these amplifiers were on my short-list after hearing their prototypes at CES 2012 (photo), driving a pair of Estelon XA-D loudspeakers. That room produced some of the best sound I heard in Las Vegas.
“Less is more” says Tsuda-san, founder and chief designer for Silicon Arts Design who manufacture Concert Fidelity products. He believes things should be as simple as possible and the ZL-120V2SE, he says, exemplifies this principle. The ZL-120V2SE monoblock is the latest power amplifier from Concert Fidelity that retails for $34,000 and replaces the Mk I version (an upgrade is available if you happen to own the a Mk I version). This, their latest solid-state design, uses buffers and Class-A stages to drive the push-pull Class AB output stages consisting of hand-matched parallel pairs of MOSFETs in a bridged-tied load (BTL) configuration. A BTL monoblock is essentially a stereo amplifier where one channel is fed an inverted form of the monaural signal and the loudspeaker is connected between the hot terminal of each “channel.” The main advantage of BTL architecture is that it provides higher output voltage with one-fourth the number of output devices that would be required in a conventional configuration. And, says Tsuda-san, the more output devices used, the more “smeared” the sound becomes. Negative feedback is confined to local gain stages; there is no global feedback.
The ZL-120V2SE uses newly developed power transformers that deliver double the current of those in the ZL-120V2. Power supply capacitance is increased by 50% so that significantly more current is available when needed. Tsuda-san states that the sonic improvements include more powerful and tighter bass, superior macro dynamics and the ability to control less efficient loudspeakers with more authority. And all this, he says, is achieved without compromising the existing virtues of the ZL-120V2: high speed, delicacy and exquisite rendition of details and micro dynamics. Well, I am here to find out.
The ZL-120V2SE monoblocks arrived this summer in heavy-duty cartons, one for each 44-pound amplifier. (Chicken scratch when compared to the massive 175 lbs of my Karan KAS 450.) The ZL-120V2SE is finished in an elegant yet simple style which matches their CF-080LSX2 preamp, with a pearl colored anodized coating on its aluminum chassis. The layout is pretty straightforward with air vents on both the top and rear of the chassis.
Input plugs on the rear are unbalanced (RCA) only. As well there is a single pair of speaker binding posts from Mundorf in Germany, and an on/off ground lift toggle switch. On the front center there is a toggle switch and a red LED that indicates power on.
The ZL120V2SE proved easy to install and set up. After a couple of hours of warm-up, and a cup of my favorite java, I was ready for some preliminary listening. What immediately impressed me (right out of the box), was the amplifier’s highly “see-through” character (which fondly reminded me of the CF-080SXL2 I reviewed last winter). The ZL-120V2SE exhibited no trace of that slightly thin or slightly dry and clinical sound often associated with solid-state amplification. The music just seemed to flow in a way that didn’t call attention to the system. It was bliss; my 92dB efficient reference Conspiracy loudspeakers were driven with a surprising amount of ease and authority. Most of my listening was done using my reference Pi Greco Symphonia CD player. For vinyl, I used my Musical Life Symphony MK III turntable, Vocalitas 12” rosewood tonearm, and Lyra Kleos moving coil cartridge (feeding a Karan Acoustics KAL Reference dual mono preamplifier with built-in phono stage). The system was connected with Jorma Design Unity interconnects, speaker cables and their new power cords (stay tuned for a full review).
Sato-san mentioned to me these ZL-120V2SEs were a fully burned-in pair. This, of course, made my job much easier as I didn’t have to do the tedious three-week burn-in. And as a general rule, I don’t do any serious listening until have I put in around 50-hours. I was particularly struck by the purity, immediacy, and rendering of timbre. One evening I was just in the mood for a female vocalist. I put on Sarah Vaughan’s fabulous recording How Long Has This Been Going On? (Pablo Records 2650-101), dimmed the lights and sat back in my easy chair. Now, I have listened to this recording dozens of times in both vinyl and CD formats. (The vinyl box set is a must have for all vinyl lovers.) I can’t get enough of her soulful style—her vocals are sensual and addictive. The sense of immediacy and solidity of Sarah's voice in a wonderful three-dimensional space was quite outstanding. The versatile vocal phrasings this diva is known for were revealed in a most true-to-life fashion. Interestingly, the ZL-120V2SE monoblocks highlighted a natural ebb and flow in the LP that added a sense of suspense and drama that were somehow missing from the CD version.
I then played Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E minor K.304performed by Hilary Hahn and Natalie Zhu (Deutsche Grammophon B0004771-02), followed by Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat, D.898 performed by the Beaux Arts Trio (Philips 438 700-2). Again instrumental textures were amazingly free of grit, grain and glare while overall timbre was involving and intimate. The ZL-120V2SE's possess an uncanny ability to reproduce strings and piano in a very natural and organic way. As a result, the music moved me more on an emotional level. I caught myself reminiscing over the Reimyo and the Kondo I had previously reviewed because they did the same thing. There were no frequency imbalances, no sonic flavoring or component failing: just constant flow of unadulterated music enjoyment the way I like it.
After weeks of listening, what I found outstanding was the portrayal of individual instruments, the three-dimensional layering, minute detail and subtle nuances. Moreover, none of this would be remotely possible if the ZL-120V2SE did not provide ample amounts of breadth and air to these performances. The beautiful second movement, "Andante un poco mosso," of Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat, D.898, sounded dynamically alive and breathtaking. The subtle details of pitch variation and bowing textures alongside the blending of each instrument were simply a delight. Images were finely illuminated with individual instruments stretched across my listening room that served as the perfect sound stage. Through the ZL-120V2SE, I found my imagination running wild!
The ZL-120V2SE easily scales the dramatic heights of full orchestral crescendos. In fact it’s nothing short of explosive. Playing Rostropovich’s performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert Von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon 139044), the ZL-120V2SE delivered sudden dynamic shifts with a density and life-likeness I have rarely—if ever—encountered.
In comparison with my Karan KAS 450, I heard a slight shift in the bottom octaves. The Karan was simply weightier and more powerful. Nevertheless, the ZL-120V2SE offered up a level of control that is always convincing as well as admirable. And the ZL-120V2SE's effect on my system’s spatial performance was equally outstanding. The soundstage was spread out on a three-dimensional plane, extending beyond my loudspeakers—and beyond my front wall for that matter. I’ve been blessed this year to have spent ample amounts of time with world-class components like the Reimyo KAP-777/CAT-777 power and preamp combo ($50k), as well as the heavenly sounding Kondo Overture integrated ($42,500). Though less expensive, I felt the ZL-120V2SE acquitted itself well against these tubed marvels. Unfortunately the Reimyo had to go back to the manufacturer so I am forced to rely on memory.
But the Kondo Overture, rated at just 32 watts per channel, for me has set a new benchmark for purity and organic rightness. With a very modest power rating, I couldn't get it reproduce organ or bass notes with same amount of grip as the ZL-120V2SE (or the Reimyo for that matter). The Kondo's strength and beauty lies in its tonal balance and rightness; I still have not heard anything more capable. The ZL-120V2SE’s performance was perhaps closer to that of the Reimyo with an abundance of control and a tonal sweetness that is reminiscent of tubes.
The ZL-120V2SE monoblocks are superbly designed amplifiers. They do what the best tubed amps do in casting a huge three-dimensional stage with depth of tone and ambience. Amazingly, I remind you once again, these are solid-state devices. At $34,000 a pair, the ZL-120V2SE's, like the Reimyo and Kondo, are geared toward a special group of potential owners: discerning music lovers and connoisseurs who will choose performance over popularity. If you have found yourself chasing your tail looking for that elusive component that offers ample amounts of power and tonal purity in an attractively packaged unit, you owe it yourself to give the Concert Fidelity ZL-120V2SE monoblocks a listen. You might just thank me. Very highly recommended!
Inputs: RCA only
Input Impedance: 47KΩ
Input Sensitivity: 2V for Rated Power
Power Output: 120W / 8Ω; 200W / 4Ω
Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 30KHz (±0dB); 0.5Hz to 100KHz (-0.8dB) @0.125W
Voltage Gain: 20dB
Power Requiremants: (100VAC / 50~60Hz), 110-120VAC / 60Hz, (220-230VAC / 50Hz), (240VAC / 50Hz)
Power Consumption: 140W (Operation) / 120VAC
Dimensions: 450mm (W) X 150mm (H) X 360mm (D)
Net Weight: approx. 20KG per monoblock
Price: $34,000 per pair
Address: 2477 Paseo Circulo, Tustin, CA 92782
Contact: Mr. Hajime Sato
Analog Front End
Musical Life Symphony Mk III turntable, Vocalitas 12” rosewood tonearm with the Lyra Kleos MC cartridge
Digital Front End
Pi Greco Symphonia
Karan Acoustics KAS-450
Karan Acoustics KAL Reference dual mono preamplifier
Consensus Audio Conspiracy
Acoustic Systems Live Wire
Audience Adept Response Power conditioner Shunyata Hydra AC conditioner
Acoustic System International (Resonators)
Acoustic System International (Top Line feet)
Acoustic System International (Component platform) Acoustic System International (Diffuser/Interface)