By now audiophiles the world over have heard of Parasound, a company specializing in high end audio, home theater and custom installation gear, all at affordable pricing. A privately held company it has been led by its President Richard Schram since its founding in 1981. Having owned their products in the past and currently in possession of their A21 power amplifier makes me no stranger to the company. That and the fact of having written a review about their then new Parasound JC3 Phono Stage in the April 2011 issue of Enjoy the Music.com makes me quite familiar with the brand. The Zdac v.2 is a replacement for the original Zdac. The differences between the newest version and the original being the addition of an analog volume control for use without the need for a preamplifier, a new headphone amplifier of increased gain, dual headphone output jacks and Lightning Jack Apple equipped IOS devices. These devices now allow you to send digital audio signals directly to its USB port via an optional Apple Lighting to USB Adapter. The Zdac v.2 also has improved system integration with 12-volt triggers and additional preamplifier features. You get all this while Parasound has only increased the price of the original Zdac from $475 to $549, which is only $74 more.
A Detailed Look At The Zdac
On the back, left to right there are one set of balanced outputs for XLR cables, another for unbalanced RCA cables, it is always a plus to be given a choice of both. There is a volume control lockout switch labeled "Fixed" and "Variable". When switched to "Fixed" the front panel Main Volume control is disabled with the Zdac v.2 set at a "Fixed" maximum output. Use this when using a preamplifier, integrated amplifier or receiver to control volume levels for your audio system. It may also be used if your source components have their own volume controls. When switched to "Variable" the front panel Main Volume control is now engaged. Once set, their output levels are now controlled by the position of the Zdac v.2's Main Volume control knob. This setting should be used if your Zdac v.2 will be connected directly to your power amplifier. Consult the owner's manual for complete details. Of course, we also have three digital inputs for optical, coaxial and USB connections. With the USB input one may play music from a PC, MAC or Linux. You will find that Parasound has included a USB cable with the Zdac v.2. You might though also want to purchase The Apple "Lightning to USB Camera Adapter" which would then allow for a direct digital audio connection between your Zdac v.2 and Lighting equipped Apple product (phone, tablet, iPod). This adaptor can be purchased separately through your Apple store. From there all one need to do is plug the "Lightning to USB Camera Adapter" into your Apple product, and then using the standard USB cable included from Parasound, connect the adapter to the USB input of your Zdac v.2. Select the USB input on the Zdac v.2 and start playing music from your Apple device. The Zdac v.2 also comes with a factory supplied trigger output cable so one may now join it with other gear eliminating the need to turn each on or off separately. One last thing of note is the IEC outlet located on the rear. Here you may use the factory supplied cable or something of an aftermarket variety if you prefer to experiment. For this review the factory cable sufficed.
Now turn over the Zdac v.2 and look at its underside. Here you will see an AC voltage selector switch that can be set for either 115V or 230V, whichever is appropriate for your particular area of use. Damage caused by connection to the incorrect AC voltage will not be covered under the company warranty so please check this carefully and set it appropriately.
Inside there is a larger than expected internal toroidal power transformer. This, rather than a wall-wart, connector from machine to wall outlet and thus provides greater power for those peak current demands during difficult musical passages and works well at reproducing lower bass frequencies. Both optical and coaxial inputs will support 24-bit/192kHz sampling frequencies, while the USB connection is limited to 96kHz. All three inputs feature jitter reduction and are re-clocked and up-sampled to 422kHz/24-bit with asynchronous sample rate conversion for USB, optical and coaxial inputs alike. USB Streaming Controller is a Texas Instruments TAS 1020B. Being what I would consider half-sized at 8.5" wide by 10" deep and 2" high it took up only a small spot on a shelf inside my audio cabinet. Its size suited me just fine as it left room for some audio odds and ends within my racks limited real estate. Later when moved into my home computer system and sitting atop a desk it again took up a very modest amount of space allowing it to fit in rather easily. Making a move from one room to another was aided by the fact that the Zdac v.2 weighed only a modest five pounds.
A Variety Of Listening
Pulling out a Cary CD500 (on loan from Blue Moon Audio in Pacifica) to substitute for the Samsung brought with it some trepidation on my part. After all the Cary sold for a bit over three thousand dollars when last available and has received many rave reviews since its introduction and here I was substituting a $549 product for this players already fine internal DAC. But this hobby of ours is all about experimenting and that is what some of the fun is about. Nothing else was changed, same cables, same setup. Being familiar with Parasound products it kind of was and kind of was not a surprise to find the Zdac v.2 performing in a spectacular way when paired with the CD500. Things did change slightly of course, with the Zdac v.2 bringing in a little bit more detail and giving up a slight bit of an analog laid back quality the CD500 is known to possess. We are talking small differences here and it must be said this matchup was simply wonderful. Which you would prefer is a matter of personal choice of course. On Diana Krall's The Look of Love (Verve 314 549 846-2) "I Remember You" the space surrounding vocals was quite breathtaking. It made this song the type you would love to sit and listen to with your significant other over a glass of good Napa Cabernet, Pinot Noir or even Chardonnay. Not the cheaper varieties mind you but rather something of the highest quality to match this beautiful sonic experience.
One particularly nice quality about the Zdac v.2 was that it never overpowered you with a too forward presentation; the type which threw the music straight at you. Rather, the performances stayed within an appropriate soundstage before you while exhibiting good front and back layering of the images of individual performers. Moving onto something with a little more complexity in slipped the Grateful Dead American Beauty CD [Rhino R2 74397]. On the opening track "Box of Rain" the Zdac v.2 made sure there was no doubt as to the location of individuals and instruments with each one clearly standing out with their own separate distinct onstage presence. Again, the sharpness of the attack transients was ear catching and well received by me. This combination of DAC and transport was so good that my wife came over during a TV commercial to ask me some questions. When asked if she liked what she had heard her response was a very affirmative yes. The Zdac v.2 gets a big thumb up here as she is usually mute on the numerous comings and goings of my various audio gears. If you value detail, this is one great DAC that should give you many hours of pleasure. Do not be surprised if it takes your listening sessions deep into the night and perhaps the early morning as you lose yourself within its magical spell.
Checking it out as a DAC/preamplifier a pair of RCA cables ran it straight into my Parasound A21 power amplifier, bypassing my systems own preamplifier. Doing this of course required me to reach around and flip the switch to variable so that volume was now controlled by the Zdac v.2's main volume knob. If you try this please be sure that the main volume control knob on the Zdac v.2 is set to its lowest point and only then when music is playing bring it up slowly to a comfortable level. Nobody would want to permanently damage their ears or equipment with a silly mistake like this. Actually the Zdac v.2 in this instance could have been set to "fixed" thus setting its output level to maximum, as the Parasound A21 power amplifier has gain controls for both left and right channels on its back panel where the volume could then be controlled. If you do this once again be careful and start the settings at the lowest point on your amplifiers gain control(s), then turn it up slowly until a comfortable sound level can be reached. My personal pleasure is to use my own preamplifier with its remote control so that if something gets too loud quickly it can be easily controlled from my listening position, but that is me. To compare my own $5000 preamplifier with the $549 Zdac v.2 would not be fair. If you run this as a DAC/preamplifier it would be my assumption you are putting it into a system to match its price point. Though it was surprising how well it did sound run this way. My guess is you could put it into a very decent audio system and not be disappointed. In fact after the initial direct comparison with my own much more expensive preamplifier it was easy to sit back and enjoy all it had to offer. As you can probably see by now this review was beginning to show what a great value and versatile component the Zdac v.2 is. Using it as a DAC/preamplifier might surprise you, as it did me, while maybe saving you some extra expense as well.
It was now time to bring out my Sennheiser HD497 headphones and check out the Zdac v.2's headphone amplifier. Those who enjoy headphones know that while allowing for late night listening without disturbing others it also takes the room acoustics out of the equation. With headphones music is piped directly into your ears and room construction, placement of furniture, the shape of one's room, well they no longer matter to the sonic experience. Not only that but if this is your only means of listening then the cost and placement of loudspeakers will no longer be a consideration. For these reasons it is good to have a quality headphone amplifier in your system and the Zdac v.2 brings us that. If you are used to a loudspeaker based system (as most probably are) you need do no more than plug in your headphones to either of the two headphone jacks on the front panel. Once done your loudspeakers will cease playing music and your headphones will now take over. Volume for the headphones will now be controlled by the Headphone Volume knob on the front panel of the Zdac v.2.
Take heed from the following warning found within
the Parasound Zdac v.2 owner's manual:
My Sennheiser's are not particularly hard to drive and so the Zdac v.2's high current headphone amplifier drove them with ease. Stereo imaging was quite excellent as was once again bass response. If you are using a receiver with a built in headphone amplifier this just might be your ticket to a big upgrade for a headphone listening experience. I quite happily sat down and enjoyed my Sennheiser HD497's in combination with the Zdac v.2's headphone amplifier as CD after CD spun on my player. Once again a detail magician, the Zdac v.2 rendered my CD listening experience pleasurable indeed. Never did it exhibit shrillness in the treble region but remained smooth and natural. This was definitely a quality headphone amplifier performing way beyond its price point.
Upgrading the music found on your portable devices for playback through your home stereo is a good idea. Here the Zdac v.2 gives you the ability to bypass a portable units cheaper internal DAC and to replace it with the Zdac v.2. While I did not try it that way, the Zdac v.2 was however hooked up to my home desktop computer, one that my older son and I had bought piece by piece after which we assembled it ourselves. He being a software engineer partitioning the hard drive and setting up all the software was a snap. My computer loudspeakers are a pair of powered M-Audio AV-40's. RCA Audience e interconnects connected the AV-40 to the Zdac v.2 via its outputs while the Zdac v.2 connected to my computer using the factory supplied USB cable. This was all really quite simply and it was up and running within minutes. You can see the owner's manual for instructions on how to set the Zdac v.2 as the default audio device. Being that the Zdac v.2 volume controls operate purely in the analog domain it should not adversely affect the music's resolution coming from your computer. Because of this Parasound recommends leaving the computers volume set at 100% and to control listening levels with the Zdac v.2 or any accompanying audio system. When listening this way there was a much improved three-dimensional quality to the music and digital harshness was held in check. Once again the sound was noticeably easier on the ears and allowed me to listen for hours on end without that dreaded listener fatigue that often accompanies gear of much lower quality. The M-Audio loudspeakers sounded better now than they ever had, to a degree that when playing B.B. King's "Everybody‘s Had the Blues" my whole body got into the rhythm, as it should. Mid bass response was no slouch either as there was now appropriate heft in that region as well, overall a very balanced presentation.
The Listening Environment