In ancient Hebrew, Zion is a sanctuary or refuge. I can certainly attest to the musical experience created when a pair of Ampsandsound Zions power my system; a space of refuge is created. A sanctuary from the stresses and strains of the outside world.
In 2021 when Grover Neville reviewed the Zion monoblock amplifiers from Southern California-based manufacturer Ampsandsound, I took notice. We regularly talk about music and gear, and he continued to express how much he was enamored with the Zions. I’ve learned that when Grover speaks, I listen. But I don’t know how many other people got the memo.
Words and Images by Dave McNair
Eventually, I bought a pair of Ampsandsound Zions for myself. This was around the time I decided to take a break from reviewing commensurate with the continual shuffling of hi-fi gear in and out of my system. I’ll pop my head out of the Fortress of Solitude to write something from time to time, but not at my prior pace.
Listening to this static gear line-up comprised of my favorite review pieces of the last three years (at least the ones I can afford!) has allowed me to enjoy music more than ever. It’s also resulted in near-constant raving to audiophile friends about the Ampsandsound Zion amps. It would be nice to put my raving into print as a companion to Grover’s excellent (but somewhat overlooked) review. Here at PTA, we do this rarely, but the Zion Monos are simply too good for just a single PTA review.
I’m skipping the technical and usage details, which you can find that in the earlier review. But I will add some of my sonic impressions.
Ampsandsound: Iron Like A Lion
So what’s so special about a 42 watts per channel vacuum tube power amplifier? Plenty.
First off, despite its moderately imposing size and small to medium power output, a pair of Ampsandsound Zions kick ass in the way a pair of 200 watt solid-state amps generally do. I have yet to find a speaker the Zions won’t drive to satisfying and clean musical levels–within reason. No, probably not the best choice for a pair of Wilson Chronosonic XVX, or Vandersteen Quatros, but you’d be very surprised by the speaker systems these dudes will get to rocking.
I’ve noticed another characteristic of Ampsandsound straw boss Justin Weber’s stable of thoroughbred tube amps: they all maximize a speaker’s strengths while downplaying weaknesses. How his amps do this, I will never know, but trust me on this, it is a thing. His Red October and Black Pearl amps, whose soul is the venerable 300B tube, almost re-equalize the frequency response of whatever speaker or headphone is being powered. The Zion does somewhat less of this, but this magic, matching quality, is still in effect.
Regarding general sound character, the amp is the most true-to-source of Justin’s creations. The Zions have a clear, quick, neutral vibe that requires a direct comparison with a great-sounding solid-state power amp for its tube and transformer charm to become obvious. I think it has as much or more to do with the iron used in this amp.
Ampsandsound Zion Listening
For me, the bulk of this difference between solid state and the Ampsandsound Zions is in the dynamic quality and sheer density of sound, especially in the mids. This makes for a very large and expansive musical presentation. This largeness is not at the expense of speed, detail, or decreased resolution and flow.
I’ve only heard a few push-pull tube amps that do this kind of thing to the extent a pair of Zions do. Frequently, multiple power tube, push-pull tube amps have more of a subtle, crossover distortion based edge that happens at the point where the hand-off between the power tubes occurs. Using triodes as opposed to pentodes (along with a few other tricks) can minimize this, but that tiny sonic quirk (that’s missing in a single power tube amp or Class A cascaded stages in a SS amp) is hard to escape. A total (or nearly so) lack of this distortion is responsible for a certain kind of musical liquidity I find so appealing.
But you can only get so much power from a single tube.
The Zions come amazingly close to achieving that kind of single tube, zero feedback, Class A bias liquidity but with more power afforded to its push-pull-with-a-pinch-of-
It’s not enough to simply say that they image wonderfully. I hear a specific wide arc that gives not only lots of front-to-back layers but an uncanny ability to put an instrument outside of and in front of a speaker. The Zion Monos are kind of an imaging helper for loudspeakers that don’t usually do a lot of this. When used on speakers that image very well, the Ampsandsound Zions create something in the soundscape that is downright transcendent. Wait, did I accidentally grab the special vape pen?
I’ve had the good fortune to hear many vacuum tube amps in all power ranges, flea-watt on up to the big boys with crazy amounts of juice. I tend to put them in three broad categories: low power amps of 1-9 watts or so, medium range of maybe 25-50 watts, and higher power stuff around 100-400 watts or more.
The big boys usually have the tightest, deepest, bass and most sense of dynamic headroom but are usually less harmonically seductive and liquid sounding than the low-power cousins. The low-power amps will frequently have an elegant and dimensional midrange and highs and a greater sense of musical liquidity I talked about but a looser or less focussed low-frequency vibe. Good luck using these little wonders to drive a typical medium-efficiency speaker.
Finding a medium power, vacuum tube power amp that combines these attributes is a tall order. But when you plug in a pair of Zions, they seem to say, “How you like me now?”
But What Do You Really Think?
I could go into some recording examples, but I don’t feel like it.
Suffice it to say; I haven’t played a record I didn’t enjoy when using the Ampsandsound Zions, provided I dig the music. As weird as it sounds, I can’t say that about every amp I’ve auditioned at Chez McAudiophile, including certain other amps from Ampsandsound. This is related to the fact the Qln Prestige Fives I own are just moderately efficient. Hence, an Ampsandsound Red October sounds great but only on recordings that are less dynamically demanding. The Audio By Van Alstine DVA M225 is an amazing amp, especially for the price, but its slam and detail are sometimes too much for a very bright recording.
A pair of Zions on the Qlns will do it all.
I greatly admire companies like VAC and Audio Research that constantly push the boundaries in what can be achieved in search of realism. I find their brand of realism to be incredibly enjoyable to listen to. On the right speakers, a VAC 452IQ or ARC Ref 750 is a thing of staggering sonic beauty with dynamics and harmonic subtlety in spades. I might even own one of these leviathans someday.
But it’s a little different than what I think Justin is trying to achieve. Ampsandsound is more about a sound that becomes part of the music and simply boogies. His amps aren’t trying to get out of the way to let every molecule of info on a recording emerge. I think both concepts with a successful execution are equally valid and enjoyable.
I’ll simply say to Justin: Job well done.
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