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Parasound - Zamp v.3 - Two-Channel Amplifier

  1. vapman
    An unlikely gem in the rough rediscovered, putting dedicated headphone amps to shame!
    Written by vapman
    Published Nov 3, 2016
    Pros - Power out the wazoo. Detailing. Natural, effortless, quick, accurate, honest sound. Easy to find used; cheap.
    Cons - No volume knob.
    The Parasound Zamp V3 is not the kind of product you might expect to see on a Head-Fi review. I already know some people are going to see this in the Reviews sidebar and start muttering under their breath for me to take it to a forum for stereo discussion. However, despite the lack of volume knob, this power amp does have a headphone jack. So, of course I had to give it a try as a headphone amp. I am here to report it doesn't disappoint one bit.
    I was sick of chip amps with puny caps, no transformer anywhere except the AC adapter, and single digit wattage ratings being rare and seldom seen. I'm a basshead. I run a negative 17 decibel EQ gain so I can turn up the volume louder and push more power to my headphones, and I would gladly burn out a driver if it meant I rocked it hard as it could go. This is going to be one of my shorter reviews because there is just not that much to say. There aren't as many caveats or problems to consider as usual. In fact, I think the worst thing I can say about this is it doesn't have a volume knob. That's really the worst I can think of.
    The first (and only dedicated) thread about the Zamp was started in 2001. A fifteen year old thread. We some users younger than that now, I bet. This is not new technology or anything hot and trendy. The Zamp has been around for a while and has seen three revisions since its introduction. In fact the oldest threads I can find about the Zamp v3, the one I have and the newest, are just over a decade old. But why would I be choosing to use a big (comparatively) desktop amp with no volume knob for my headphones? One reason is I love headroom and the sound of effortless power. As a high power stereo junkie and convicted SPL freak, these are things I truly love in the sound of my headphones and speakers. I have always been one to refuse to stop thinking about headphones with the loudspeaker part of my brain. But, we are on a headphone site, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume you're reading this for headphone purposes. I will, however, let you know these sound amazing with any speakers I try... from 37-year-old B&W's to modern Logitech PC speakers with the PCBs ripped out and recabled with speaker wire.
    SZ2000, Apple G3 iMac speakers, Gemini MM! mixer, Koss PortaPro, VE Candy Monk, TY Hi-Z 650, QianYun Yian39, E-MU 0204. Just a few of the things I've been enjoying with the Zamp v3.
    For volume control, I've done just about everything possible, from DJ mixers to preamps to my DAP/phone's built in volume control. And that volume control is something you want, because this half-rack beast pushes 45W into 8 ohms, or 60W into 4 ohms. I have speakers hooked up to it, and thankfully, it mutes those when the speakers are plugged in. Makes it easy for late night use.
    The amp itself is beautifully designed. I love the giant transformer. And, since we were talking about power earlier, this has no problem providing plenty of juice to any of my headphones. Even my most demanding ones, such as the JVC SZ2000, which can take several watts without any issue, are powerful sounding as I've got from vintage receivers with the clarity of modern amps. It's truly a treat.
    One problem I'm familiar with when it comes to headphone amps that are known to be higher gain is noise on high sensitivity IEMs and earbuds. Why does this have to be? I'm listening to 16 ohm earbuds as I type this, ones that any high gain amp causes there to be a faint hum on. God forbid I plug an IEM into a vintage receiver, not only that I'll blow my eardrums out because of the power curve on the volume knobs on those old units, but the headphone output, like certain desktop headphone amps I can think of in the Zamp's price range, are a noisy mess. Maybe because all the power that can be squeezed directly out of the basic components is? The effortless sound of the Zamp is something so few dedicated headphone amps can match. If you use very power hungry headphones, or just like a lot of sound-stage and effortless sound, something like this kind of amp is great.
    The amp itself does not generate too much heat either, given the amount of power the compact package can generate. After a day of almost constant use it's comfortable to touch and doesn't radiate too much heat. There are gain knobs on the back but the headphone output is unaffected by these. I have used them only to get my loudspeakers to a comfortable level.
    The sound is one I have come to know well and expect from professional audio gear. It is more or less the same sound signature as my more modern Crown amps, but seems to have more body in the deep bass. Natural, uncolored, flat amplification. If you have efficient speakers around too, it'll blow your mind. I've even gone a little crazy finding all the old PC style speakers I can find and wiring them up to this to see what they can do. But, back to headphones - and sensitive ones like earbuds and IEMs specifically, it's shockingly good with a perfect black background and no noise to speak of. So why do we put up with it in dedicated headphone amps, it makes me wonder as I listen to a set of 12 ohm earbuds out of it, with my DJ mixer bass cranked up? With some on ears like the Koss KTXPRO1 or PortaPro, it's some of the best performance I've ever heard. I'm not listening at exceptionally loud levels or anything, but the sheer amount of energy going into the drivers is unbelievable. Going back to portable amps after this makes it sound like I'm listening straight out of my laptop. Why is everything so noisy? Why is everything so congested and strained sounding? I just go plug it back into the Zamp and enjoy every headphone I try be so ridiculously much more energetic than I remembered them being. And it's not just that I'm cranking tons of power into it.
    For the whole time I spent writing this review, I had a DAP with no EQ at all running into my mixer. I did boost the bass on the mixer, but what else can you expect from my reviews? The point is, I'm not pulling any tricks to get this much energy going to my headphones like I was so used to with my other headphone amps. I can leave the EQ gain untouched and not go nuts killing the treble as it's not too bright for me. It's very clear and crisp, but there is no sibilance to speak of. It's got just a slight bit of aggression to the sound, enough to make it fun but not unnatural or unbalanced sounding. It's not an amp you get "wow"-ed by right away and like it less as time goes on. In fact, the complete opposite. It's the one that does just too darn good a job of doing everything it should right, so it gets forgotten and overlooked, but when it's put back on the spot you are left wondering why you ever put it away in the first place.
    One thing I remember about using any stereo receiver I ever tried is having great energy but none had the clarity, quick transient response, or transparency of dedicated headphone amps. I was getting too sick of picking between energy or clarity. And the whole time the Zamp was already there, waiting for me to discover it for myself, and realize it was where all my amp desires converged. For less than 200 dollars I had the best of all worlds and was ecstatic about it. The clarity mixed with transparency and lively presentation is combined with an incredibly natural and balanced sound. In fact, it is so natural sounding that you may be unimpressed right away if you like sounds that wow you. I'm not saying that was my impression at all when I first hooked it up. I knew I loved it right away. It didn't take more than a few seconds with some gear and songs I knew perfectly well to recognize it really ticked off all my mental check-boxes for things I want in an amp. And how good is it, exactly? The Cayin C5 and bMac amps are taking a nice long rest. My Technics I could never detach myself from is finally also taking a rest and I'm looking forward to being able to take it apart and do all the upgrading I want to. I even started collecting all the small speakers I could find to try out with this thing. It's just too good at everything I throw at it. I hear details I've never heard on gear I've owned for years and listened to hundreds of times on all kinds of different setups. The sound of my AK4396 DAC or preferred DAPs going directly into it has the energy and musicality of the Mojo. It doesn't have the Mojo's magic ability to be completely warm, relaxed and detailed at the same time. This is definitely a more excited sound than the Mojo but otherwise is almost unfair how much it stacks up. I would even argue that combo maintains the edge over the Mojo in neutrality.
    I've also spent a lot of time listening to it just running my LG V10 with the ESS DAC activated run straight into it. I usually would never do such a thing, without a proper line out, but it just sounds so good. There is nothing to complain about. Even when I run a setup like this I can't possibly find anything to complain about, even if I try. Because of its uncolored, unaltered sound some might find it to be too boring, I suppose, but those people would want coloring more than great amounts of power most likely. But I know what I love in my headphones and amps, and the glorious gigantic Class AB toroid transformer that takes up the majority of the case's real estate to give me the power I love. No longer am I limited to using my old favorites that sounded nice and energetic with almost any gear, I'm pulling out headphones I haven't used in months, loving the sound more than ever because the drivers are taking all the power they can, and spending a lot more time dancing and singing along while carrying my extension cable around than I ever did before. Headphone amping is no longer a constant struggle of switching headphones out to find which has the sound I want for what I'm listening to. I don't need to think about anything differently than I do when I listen my loudspeakers. This amp can give any of my headphones the pure dynamic energy of real loudspeakers. The musicality is just so good. I really think it's only second to the Mojo, from every headphone amp I've ever used in my life, electrostatics included. And I even prefer it to all my other pro-grade power amps because it has a sweetness in its neutrality not much else can offer, especially at sub watt power ratings, as well as the crazy amount of detailing it can provide, even down super low. I have never made my SZ2000 rumble so hard on the sub bass, and with such clear detailing, since I was doing the exceptionally risky practice of running them directly off speaker taps of stereo receivers.  
    Sure the lack of volume knob is a little annoying, but consider the used prices on these. I paid $140 for mine on eBay, and saw sold listings go for anywhere from 100 to 200. They can still be bought for 300 new. If you have a preamp to use or your DAC/DAP has a volume control, you can get away with just that, this and the cables you need. Then you could go get any speakers that don't need hundreds of watts to work and have your mind blown. In my opinion it's fully worth getting some kind of preamp or other kind of volume control and trying this out if you really love energetic, natural presentation. If you miss the energy of loudspeakers when you put on headphones and aren't fascinated with the weak power capabilities of dedicated headphone amps, the Zamp is one to consider.
      daduy, Raketen, DoctaCosmos and 8 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. snellemin
      snellemin, Nov 18, 2016
    3. GearMe
      Thanks, Snellemin! But...You're braver than I am. :wink:

      Will probably end up with Emotiva due to simplicity; also has a volume control.
      GearMe, Nov 18, 2016
    4. gugman
      Great review and very tempting one, I was almost ready to pull the trigger but I saw in comments this .. soundstage and overall character is remarkably like the c5. Kind of like a turbo c5. The edge goes to C5 ... so I don't get it, I used to have C5 but it did not sound even closer to what you are writing in your reviw, but still you say that edge goes to C5, so could you please be so kind and specify by little bit more. Thanks a lot. Cheers
      gugman, Apr 25, 2017