Review: IsoAcoustics zaZen Isolation Platform
IsoAcoustics II: zaZen I & II Series Isolation Platform
Review by Jamie Gillies
“At this point, I was kind of floored.”
For anyone who has owned a turntable, stabilization and isolation are almost as important as setting the tonearm and stylus correctly. A record that skips off because of a footfall or a bump is not good and a turntable that is not level never sounds very good. But for many of us, trying to achieve isolation relatively inexpensively has been a frustrating experience. I have used butcher blocks from Ikea, hardwood bedside table tops, and sturdy teak sideboards. I have used levels and various inexpensive isolators. The best I have achieved without buying an audiophile rack is a separate table for my turntable with DIY footers for the table and cups for the narrow feet of my Thorens turntable. Before that, the best was washing machine anti-vibration pads.
IsoAcoustics zaZen platforms are designed for someone like me. I live in a house with a family and my hobby is not conducive to an audiophile isolation rack that becomes the centerpiece for a whole room. This platform is made of a heavy composite fiber construction in a matte-like black finish. It is a little over an inch high and includes four integrated isolators designed with turntables, tube amplifiers and digital sources in mind. The philosophy and idea behind it are that this kind of isolation should lower the noise floor even further to reveal more detail and clarity from your music. But IsoAcoustics claims that their technology works through the full frequency range. They have utilized the National Research Council of Canada to test their products. For Canadian audiophiles, we know that the NRC is where some of the best tweeters and speakers have been partially designed and tested. Anyone familiar with PSB and Energy speakers, and the so-called ‘million-dollar tweeter’, has probably heard of the NRC.
The zaZen is an isolation platform that, as IsoAcoustics’ Canadian National Sales Manager François Cauchon says, “combines our integrated isolators with the stability of the platform’s mass to provide an effective isolation solution for turntables, tube amps, and sensitive audio components.” Unlike the isolation pucks, these platforms are easier to set up as the entire component is positioned on the zaZen, using the existing feet. The zaZen isolation platform is recommended for components where the puck-style isolators cannot be positioned directly underneath the chassis of the component. Cauchon also suggested that the zaZen is “the best option for turntables with external motors because when you raise the table, you also need to raise the motor to keep the belt aligned.”
The goal of the zaZen platform, at least for turntables, is to decouple the deck from the supporting structure beneath it to reduce structural resonances and vibrations. The platforms come in two sizes: the zaZen I is designed for components that weigh up to 25 pounds. The zaZen II is designed for components that weigh up to 40 pounds. The marketing is focused primarily on turntables but the product can provide improvement for digital source components as well as preamplifiers and moderately sized power amplifiers.
I decided to try the zaZen I platform underneath my turntable first, then my Oppo 105 universal player, and then under my preamp. All three components weigh under 25 pounds. I tried the zaZen II platform under my power amplifier. What follows are my experiences with isolation under each component and concludes with my impression of where the biggest effect was felt.
With my Thorens TD-145 turntable, the zaZen platform made a noticeable difference from spinning the first record. The music had more presence and focus. But on some recordings, it was almost too detailed, as if my needle was now a little too deep into the groove. Those tended to be on some of the more poorly recorded albums. Listening to my copy of Grant Green’s Idle Moments (Blue Note Music Matters 180g), the clarity was remarkable and brought it to a new level with the zaZen underneath the turntable.
My copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, a recording I have always found to be sub-optimal with many tracks veiled and muddy, sounded not much better than I remember it, but that probably was because of how it was recorded. After a couple of days of A/Bing these albums, listening to them without the zaZen and then with the zaZen, there was clearly a difference in sound. The zaZen reduced the resonance and vibration of the turntable. Each LP I listened to sounded smoother and more consistent in terms of the needle staying locked in the groove. Even with a record clamp, that stabilization provided by the zaZen brought me closer to the music. For anyone with a turntable, the zaZen platform is a reasonably priced way to gain the kind of anti-vibration and stabilization that comes with turntables within an upgraded plinth or placed on a very expensive audiophile rack. I tried the zaZen with my Harman Kardon turntable from the mid-1980s as well. It has very little stabilization and was often prone to skipping just because it was so sensitive to vibration. I was amazed that those skipping tendencies vanished.
Since the bulk of my listening is digital, I then placed the zaZen I underneath my Oppo 105 universal player. The quality gap between CD spinning and streaming has closed dramatically in the last few years as Tidal and Qobuz offer, at a minimum, CD quality streaming. Improvements in both speed and the capability of the streaming apps have made A/Bing between streaming and a spinning disc almost identical if you know the provenance of the streamed recording. The zaZen I again had an effect underneath the CD player, with the sound becoming clearer.
I A/B/C’ed Crash by the Dave Matthews Band, as a CD from my Oppo to my preamp, then as a Tidal stream from my streamer and DAC to my preamp, and finally again as a CD with the Oppo supported by the zaZen I platform. This album I find is a very well recorded pop rock album. It was not a victim of the loudness wars of the mid-1990s, and the combination of the Steve Lilywhite production and Ted Jensen mastering has always allowed it to breathe. Playing the CD, I noticed the slight digital glare I have found apparent on Matthews’ vocals on a number of tracks. The album sounded good but it had that hint of harshness as I brought the volume up to critical listening level. With the Tidal stream, it was still there but less noticeable on all tracks. But it also sounded a little too smoothed out like it had been EQed to turn down the highs and lows. Still, I was impressed that a redbook stream of the album, via Wi-fi, sounded nearly as good as the CD. Then I tried the CD again in the Oppo with the zaZen underneath. In short: the best I had ever heard that album. The vocals were natural, nothing sounded strident or forced.
At this point, I was kind of floored. I expected that some additional anti-vibration support under a CD player might improve the imaging a bit but it actually had the effect of removing a layer of digital brittleness that was present on most recordings in the Oppo itself. Now this may simply be that my universal player sits on a teak sideboard as opposed to a properly isolated audio rack, but the zaZen clearly accomplished the same effect. I tried John Mayer’s and Jackson Browne’s The Naked Ride Home as well. With the zaZen underneath the Oppo, it made two albums that I have always considered modern reference recordings, at least for non-audiophile pop music, sound even better. My shift to streaming may have to wait. The silver discs still sounded better.
Finally, I tried the zaZen I underneath my NAD preamp. With my DAC and streamer using the isoAcoustics Orea pucks, the sound of the music was a little more effortless. I stopped A/Bing albums and just streamed from Tidal for a few hours. With almost everything I threw at it, my speakers and my system sounded better than they had before. The only change was isolation.
I tried the Oppo without the zaZen I but with the platform underneath the preamp. I preferred the zaZen underneath the Oppo, suggesting that source components might benefit a little more than amplifiers.
Finally I tried the zaZen II platform underneath my NAD power amplifier. This was where the change in sound was fairly minimal. I felt I detected more solid imaging from the speakers after comparing ten tracks without the isolation and then with it underneath. I also asked my very patient wife to listen as well. She has a really good ear and she felt the tracks with the isolation under the power amp sounded a bit better too. She also said that the platform looked great underneath the amp.
I was a little more skeptical of the zaZen platforms under digital sources and amps than I was of the Orea pucks because of the sensitivity of DACs and streamers. The DAC is the soul of any high fidelity system today and when you have an external DAC, ensuring no vibration and increased stability in the signal conversion is essential to good digital listening. For turntables, it is a no brainer to want more decoupling of those moving parts from the base on which it is sitting. But I had not really thought through what more isolation would do with spinning CDs or under amplifiers. In the case of IsoAcoustics’ zaZen platforms, I noticed a real improvement.
IsoAcoustics have priced the zaZen platforms at $259.99 and $298.99 Canadian respectively. While some may scoff at that price for a flat board of composite material and suction cups, I found that it improved the sound. But I have tried butcher blocks, isolators that claimed to eliminate noise, and other DIY attempts to get components to sound better. Nothing I have tried has worked as well as these zaZen platforms. Highly recommended.
In association with the Orea isolators under my digital components and Gaia isolators for the speakers, the IsoAcoustics loom of products provided a clear and significant improvement in sound quality. Keeping in mind that my equipment is mid-priced, the IsoAcoustics products provided as significant an improvement as better cables did. That surprised me how much isolation improved the sound. There is definitely something to it. For those more skeptical, think of it as how a properly isolated and balanced turntable sounds versus one that is not perfectly flat. You are going to hear a difference in quality. The difference may be more minute and incremental, but IsoAcoustics has found a way to offer isolation free of the bulkiness and cost prohibitive audiophile racks and stands, that can cost thousands of dollars. The zaZen platforms proved to be a good way to get more clarity out of my analog components, and more definition out of my CD player. Reasonably priced, especially for those without audiophile racks.
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I just installed the Zazen II under my project turntable with an upgraded Ortofon OM20, all atop a no-name rack. No perceived problems existed. Yet my experience was a dramatic improvement. From your review I think I may get the I and put it under my CXN streamer/DAC. Tx. Great review.