All-American beauty: Decware Zen Torii MKIV amplifier

Steve Deckert's latest vacuum-tube amp design lights up the Audiophiliac's speakers!

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Decware Zen Torii MKIV amplifier Decware

Audiophiles love tube amplifiers; a sizable percentage of us own tube-based systems. It's easy to see why; tube amps look a lot more interesting than solid-state amps, and second, they sound different than solid-state. There's more character to the sound, and you can change the sound of a tube amp by swapping one brand of tubes for another. Sometimes a new $5 tube can light up your Wilco records in ways you never heard before.

Some tube amplifiers sound warm and rich, and some sound a lot like solid-state amps; Decware amps are right down the middle. The Decware I'm listening to today, the Zen Torii MKIV, scores big in image size and dimensionality. All Decware amplifiers are designed and built in East Peoria, Ill.

This is the fourth iteration of the Zen Torii, not that Decware's designer Steve Deckert is claiming any breakthroughs or major changes in the amp. He said the internal layout and wiring have been refined, which made the amp a little quieter, and he eliminated the bass control. There's a bass toggle switch that reduces very low bass frequencies that might make some large speakers' low-end get muddy. I didn't hear any difference with the bass filter in or switched out. The amp has a high treble (above 8kHz) tone control knob, and it made a difference; I preferred the sound with the treble turned down a wee bit. There are also switches for impedance matching for speakers, and that's a nice thing to have on a tube amplifier. My Zu Druid V speakers, for example, are unusually high-impedance speakers; they're 16 ohms, and while my KEF LS50 speakers carry an 8-ohm rating, the impedance can drop down to 3 ohms (speakers' impedances vary with the frequency being played).

One really interesting thing about the Zen Torii MKIV is that the left and right channels are completely separate circuits, and have separate power on/off switches. The only "shared" part for left and right channels is the power cord.

The Zen Torii MKIV can be used with a variety of audio tube types; most are affordable and easy to find. Different tubes change the sound, and that's one of the reasons why audiophiles prefer tube electronics, when you get bored you can get a new sound with a couple of $10 tubes.

Most contemporary tube amplifiers have some solid-state parts in them, but the Zen Torii MKIV has none. Another thing it doesn't have are printed circuit boards; all the wiring is done by hand. That sort of labor-intensive approach is expensive, but Steve Deckert thinks "point-to-point" hand wiring sounds better, so that's how all of his tube amps are made, even the least expensive one, the $895 SE84CKC. Almost every part of a Decware amp, except the tubes, is American-made. A crew of four men hand-craft the amps, and the quality of their work is exceptional. A lot of companies talk about build quality, but Decware may be the only consumer tube amp manufacturer that sells its products with a lifetime warranty. What else can you buy that comes with that level of coverage?

The main takeaway from my Zen Torii MKIV listening sessions was the way recordings take on a more physical presence in my room. It's almost as if the instruments and voices are more fully formed. Each instrument and vocal is distinct and separated in space. When switching over to other amps, some dimensionality is lost and the soundstage feels flatter.

The Zen Torii MKIV is sold direct by Decware for $3,499. The company doesn't have an inventory of amps ready to ship; each one is built to order, and waiting times average 8 to 12 weeks. About a third of the production is shipped overseas; the other two thirds are sold here and Canada. Steve Deckert enjoys talking to his customers on the phone, and he's always ready to chat about his designs and tubes in general.