Decware Zen Torii Mk.3 Amplifier

Hyundai covers its engines for 100,000 miles. Bryston guarantees its amplifiers for 30 years. Decware guarantees its amplifiers for life. Any way you look at it, offering long warranties takes guts. It also means you better make a damn good product, or you’re going to go broke servicing warranty repairs.

The Decware Zen Torii Mk.3 is a damn good amplifier.

While I hate to use the “b” word (best), the Torii is my favorite power amplifier based on the EL-34 tube, and that’s saying a lot. I’ve always had a major affection for such amplifiers, which possess many characteristics of great single-ended triode amplifiers and yet, have more power and control than an SET can muster.

Think of the Torii as an SET with benefits—namely, increased bass control and dynamics. Unless you have extraordinarily efficient speakers, a few watts per channel just won’t rock your world. But 25 watts per channel dramatically changes the game, and is more than enough to power the Verity Audio Amadis speakers (93db/1-watt sensitivity) to a sufficiently high level on music of any kind. The Mk.2 does a fine job with the Verity Rienzis (87db/1 watt) and B&W 802 Diamonds (90db/1 watt). Still, the Amadis’ added sensitivity is just what’s needed to push the envelope.

Decware owner and chief engineer Steve Deckert claims his amplifier is “the last one you’ll ever want” and should only be used with a preamplifier if you happen to have a world-class unit at your disposal. Fortunately, I have two: An ARC REF 5 (vacuum tubes) and Burmester 011 (solid-state), each reference components, and both excellent matches for the Torii. At the end of the day, with the Verity speakers, I was willing to relinquish the last bit of the ARC preamp’s front-to-back-image depth for the additional bass grip and slam the Burmester provides. With the GamuT S9s, the ARC has the edge.

An optional $150 stepped attenuator on the Torii makes it easy to keep the preamplifiers used within their respective sweet spot, balancing dynamics and the lowest noise floor in the presentation.  While the sound remains excellent when using the dCS Paganini straight into the Torii, via the Paganini’s digital volume control, I feel that a killer linestage brings maximum dynamics to the table.

Deckert warned me that the Torii would require a long break-in period. Yet it sounded good right out of its supplied Pelican Case—another nice option, and one that certainly beats a cheesy cardboard box. Moreover, it keeps improving over time and, if I had to guess even after 700 hours of listening time, still sounds as if it is advancing. Where many amplifiers sound grainy and two-dimensional after only a few hours on the clock, the Torii’s tonal character just keeps ameliorating as the hours rack up.

My review sample has the optional V-Cap upgrade, which adds $500 to the window sticker. It’s well worth the price. A custom wood base is also available, meaning that a completely tweaked-out version fetches about $3,600. Each Torii is hand-built by one person and given plenty of attention from start to finish, not unlike a master engine constructed at Ferrari or Aston Martin. Such care becomes obvious the minute you take your Torii out of the carton; it’s truly a product to cherish. (Decware products are all built to order and only available factory-direct.)

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

The only aspect that might drive you nuts with the Torii? The amount of customization you can bring to its sound by swapping various tubes. This amplifier is what a tennis ball is to a Jack Russell terrier; you can chase it forever and you’ll collapse in exhaustion by the time you’re done. If that’s your idea of fun, you’ll never get bored with the Torii. While every tube makes a difference, the output tubes seemingly make the least amount of difference. I tried several combinations, but the input tubes and voltage regulators provide more sonic variance than swapping output tubes.

Deckert attributes this characteristic to his “Hazen grid modification” that involves substituting a non-polarized film capacitor for the piece of wire that normally connects between the suppressor grid and cathode in the output stage. Deckert also touts another benefit of his modification: The basic push-pull output stage makes it less sensitive to tube type. I must concur. This is great news—especially considering that the price of vintage NOS EL-34 tubes can soar as high as $300 each.

The Torii comes with the most informative owners manual I’ve ever seen. Rather than bore you with paragraphs of tube rolling escapades, click here for the manual:

And the adjustments don’t stop with the tubes. You can choose one of two bias settings, and there is a bass and treble control. Not traditional tone controls, mind you, but two more ways to optimize the speaker/amplifier interface. The treble control rolls off the high-frequency response of the amplifier, but simply shunts to ground so it is not in the signal path. Deckert says the “bass control” actually impacts how the amplifier interacts with the speakers, and that there is no fixed “flat” position for these controls. Hence, they must be adjusted with each speaker. Finally, a 4/8-ohm impedance switch is present and, as with any tube amplifier with multiple output taps, should also be sampled, as often times the best match is not what you might think.

Those who stay focused and have the Zen-like patience to settle on a combination (or two) will be rewarded with a presentation that transports them to a special place. Even if you stick with the supplied tubes, the bass, treble, bias, and impedance controls are worth five minutes of your time. Consider: the Torii might actually save you money if you’ve got a pair of speakers that are too forward or a touch boomy. There’s a good chance that making small adjustments will dial in a speaker you may have considered selling. More money for concert tickets never came easier.

Unlike Any Other EL-34 Amplifier

Whereas a Shindo or vintage Marantz amplifier embellishes the sound in a way in which the music tends to sound warm, romantic, and even a bit slow regarding pace and timing (not that this is always a bad thing for many digital and other less-than-stellar recordings), ultimately laying resolution on a sacrificial altar, the Torii strikes a perfect balance of rendering additional tonal richness without altering the music’s fundamental character.

Via the Torii, Moraine’s “Uncle Tang’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” from Metamorphic Rock is an absolute prog freak-out, with layer upon layer of maniacal synthesizers and overdubbed guitars all kept in order with larger-than-life drums. Whatever your taste in complex tunes—be it prog, metal, or full-scale orchestral music—you will find intoxicating the Torii’s ability to maintain musical pace.

Without fail, the Torii consistently digs deep into recordings, uncovering morsels of information you may have never heard before. Montrose’s “Rock Candy” is a classic example of a slightly flat recording that comes alive with this amplifier. Usually devoid of any soundstage depth, drums and guitar became invigorated, assuming their own space while lead singer Sam Hagar’s voice remains front and center. And a phenomenal recording like The Band’s Music From Big Pink takes on a life of its own, feeling as if it’s mixed in surround.

The trick the Torii plays better than most vacuum-tube amplifiers stems from its ability to achieve an astonishing balance between tonal richness and tonal purity. And it does so without sliding down the slippery slope of coloration and euphonic distortion. Acoustic instruments retain correct timbre, complete with a fine-grained decay that seems to fade out forever.

Moreover, while most pure tube amplifiers exhibit tube rush when no signal is present, the Torii has none. Chalk it up to the unique utilization of the voltage regulator tubes. The Torii uses them in series, working as active filters rather than in parallel to regulate voltage. This approach also puts almost no stress on the tubes. Unsurprisingly, Deckert claims the latter should practically last the life of the amplifier. While I still notice modest improvements when plugging in to my Running Springs Maxim power line conditioner, the Torii exhibits less improvement than any other vacuum-tube amplifier I’ve plugged into the Maxim. It’s another test that further confirms Deckert’s claims.

Sure. Watts are watts. But thanks to its robust power supply and proprietary output transformers, the Torii has an abundance of headroom and very gently extends past its peak power output, with barely a hint of clipping. Even when playing the heaviest metal, the amplifier always feels bigger than its modest power rating suggests.

All of this adds up to sound reproduction that is rare with most amplifiers, no matter the price, and a practical miracle at $3,600. Granted, 25 watts per channel won’t be optimum for every speaker and room combination. But within this realm, I can’t think of a more enjoyable amplifier than the Decware Zen Torii Mk.2. I bought the review sample and plan on keeping it long enough to see if it will ever break.

One last word to the wise: Those wanting to put a Torii under a Christmas tree should get on the phone now. Orders are currently subject to a 10 week wait. Deckert told me that they have a backlog of 90 to build right now, and hopefully by spring they will be back to the standard 4-6 week wait.

Decware Zen Torii Mk. 3

MSRP: $2,945-$3,700 (depending on options)


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V/Koetsu Urushi Blue
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack     Wadia 581i     Sooloos Control 15
Preamplifiers ARC REF 5    Burmester 011
Speakers B&W 802 Diamonds    Verity Rienzi    Verity Amadis    GamuT S9   MartinLogan ElectroMotion ESL
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Maxim PLC    Running Springs Mongoose cords

Pathos ClassicOne mk.III

full view 2I’ve always been a fan of Pathos Acoustics fusion of Italian style with technology, while always yielding very musical results.

The Classic is the perfect integrated amplifier for someone wanting to integrate a compact, yet high performance music system into a design conscious environment. It is very reasonably priced at $2,995.

The ClassicOne mk. III has been part of the Pathos product lineup for some time now and is a solid seller, packing 70 watts per channel onto a very compact chassis that only measures 8” x 14” x 5” (90 x 100x90mm). Though there are five inputs on the rear panel, input one can be either balanced XLR or RCA, with the other three being RCA. There is also a fixed level RCA output to use for recording. I would love to see a variable level output for a subwoofer substituted here. I think this would be highly useful, as often times when a system has to be designed around the decor, a subwoofer/sattelite setup is called into play. Perhaps in the mk. IV?

Major Style Points

From the minute you take the ClassicOne out of the box, the attention to detail is apparent. The front panel is polished aluminum and sculpted wood, with a tiny power switch to the right and an LED display to the left, working double duty as a volume indicator and input selector. The transformer case is polished to a high gloss while the black plexiglass chassis top has a matte finish, something I felt was a nice touch, as it will not show fingerprints as readily as a gloss black surface. The very svelte remote control is made from solid wood and has four small buttons to control inputs, muting and volume.

No attention to detail has been spared on the ClassicOne. The allen head bolts on the top of the chassis are chrome plated along with the control knobs and the small tube cages guarding the pair of 6922 tubes in the preamplifier section. This is definitely a work of art that will get plenty of attention in your listening environment.Overhead

A true integrated

Unlike many amplifiers at this price point, the ClassicOne has a separate pre and power amplifier stage. Taking this approach is more costly to the manufacturer, but it does offer more linear volume control action as well as a stable input impedance. Many so called integrated amplifiers with a passive volume control tacked on the front of a power amplifier can be very source dependent, sometimes sacrificing dynamics or rolling off the high end somewhat. I had no problems using the ClassicOne with any of my reference components.

The output stage of the power amplifier is class AB solid state, with high bias current. This uses a few more watts of power, but results in a smoother sound throughout the range, with excellent bass control.

The System

Keeping with the design concept of the ClassicOne, most of my listening was done in the living room system, however to get a good feel for the performance envelope of the amplifier, I started out in the studio, using the GamuT S-7’s, Harbeth Monitor 40.1’s and MartinLogan Spires. Mating a $3,500 amplifier with considerably more expensive speakers is somewhat overkill, but it reveals the limits of the amplifier much easier.

Even as the heart of a $100,000 system, the ClassicOne did an excellent job. I also made it a point to compare it to a couple of my other favorite amplifiers in the three to ten thousand dollar range to see how it stacked up against its peers. Needless to say, I came away very impressed. Should you live with the ClassicOne for a while and decide you have to have more power, the ClassicOne can be bridged and used in mono mode, giving you a pair of very compact 150-watt amplifiers.

We managed to get a second ClassicOne for a brief period and the results were excellent. I’m not sure if I would build a system like this from the ground up, probably choosing one of Pathos larger power amplifiers instead, but the flexibility is a great idea.

Once a baseline feel for the ClassicOne’s performance was established, I moved it back to the living room system, with the highly efficient Zu Audio Presence speakers. This was a great match, because the Zu speakers high sensitivity gave the ClassicOne almost unlimited headroom.

The system was rounded out with the BelCanto CD1, which has a similar form factor to the ClassicOne, though I’m sure if you were starting from scratch, you’d probably want to go with the Pathos Digit CD player – it matches the aesthetics of the ClassicOne perfectly.

Shunyata Venom cables and their VRay power conditioner took care of the power duties with Empirical Design 422 interconnects and 213 speaker cables made up the rest of the system. All told, I had assembled an extremely satisfying system for just over $10,000.rear view

The Sound

The hybrid concept of the ClassicOne succeeds brilliantly, truly combining the benefits of both technologies. The overall tonal balance is slightly warm, yet it has the grip of a good solid-state amplifier. When listening to “The Barbarian” on Keith Emerson’s current album, the tiny Pathos amplifier took hold of the GamuT’s woofers and shook the room accordingly, with the low synth bass notes on “Ignition.”

Thanks to the ClassicOne’s rich sound, the female vocal lovers in the audience will be extremely happy. Those of you that live on a steady diet of this kind of music will love the way this amplifier gives solo vocalists a larger than life presentation. Spinning Jacqui Naylor’s Live at the Plush Room, 2001 put her center stage, about six feet in front of the equipment rack. It’s worth noting here that the ClassicOne makes an outstanding combination with the Focal Utopia Diablos that we reviewed last issue. The warmth of the Pathos with the high resolution of the Diablos convinced many visitors to my home that they were listening to a much more expensive system.

Those two tubes give this amplifier something special, offering a slightly lush, airy presentation that I think will bring out the best in source components that are similarly priced. It’s also worth noting that the ClassicOne offers one balanced input, so this will give you a lot more flexibility when choosing source components. Many of today’s newer DAC’s have balanced outputs, so this is handy, if you want to put the Pathos amp front and center, yet have your DAC and perhaps a music server elsewhere in your listening room.

The ClassicOne’s slightly forgiving nature was also a huge blessing when streaming audio from the Internet, or using the iPod as a source. The 320kb/sec feed from the Zune Pass on our living room’s HP Touch Smart music server sounded the best I’ve ever heard from a low-resolution source.

When we stepped up the game a bit and played some high res files from the Naim Label, and the B&W Music club through the Wadia 521 DAC, the ClassicOne had the necessary resolution to showcase the format.

On all but the most inefficient speakers, I had to press the ClassicOne way beyond reasonable levels to drive it to clipping (and again, you can add the second amp if you have to play that loud), even with the Harbeth 40.1’s which have a low sensitivity of 86db.


Overall the Pathos ClassicOne mk.III is one of those rare components that achieves a perfect balance of performance, style and value. Thanks to the small tube compliment, you will not have to worry about sourcing tubes, either. The 6922 and it’s variants are very plentiful at reasonable cost, and I don’t imagine the ClassicOne going through tubes in a hurry, so probably a new pair every five years or so should keep you running along just fine.

Whether you are a mega audiophile putting together a second system, or a music lover that doesn’t want to sacrifice aesthetics for performance, this amplifier will keep both sides of your brain very happy.

UPDATE: 10/2019

Kevin Deal from Upscale Audio/Upscale Distribution has taken over as the new North American distributor for Pathos products, and we are excited so see a true qualityphile and tube guy distributing this fine product. Here’s Kevin’s quick take on having the line:

“I have always loved Pathos. In Europe, Pathos enjoys an incredible reputation for both sound and build quality, and they are very popular. Their previous U.S. importers  were not deeply technical. They sold it as being beautiful, which it is, but the real beauty is on inside. Everything is made in-house in Vicenza Italy. Even the remotes are machined at the factory. They make the best hybrids on the market. They have real chops, and we are super excited.”

The Pathos ClassicOne Mk. III

MSRP: $3,195

North American Distributor

Upscale Audio/Upscale Distribution
2058 Wright Avenue
La Verne, California


Digital Sources BelCanto CD3, Wadia 521 DAC, Luxman DU 7i combination player

Speakers Harbeth Monitor 40.1, Gamut S-7, Focal Utopia Diablo, Zu Audio Essence

Cable ED Design 213 and 422 (speaker and interconnect)

Power Shunyata VRay power conditioner, Shunyata Venom power cords