“A Close Encounter, OF THE COOL KIND”
“A Close Encounter, OF THE COOL KIND”
I have been a Zu speaker owner for over four years, and it has been a pleasure to know the people behind Zu Audio of Ogden, Utah, especially Sean Casey, who is one of the main Zuists. Very recently, Sean contacted me and mentioned that since he was scheduled to be approximately 60 miles away to do an audio show, he would be happy to visit my home and bring a few goodies to demo in my listening room…within the context of my own gear, along with a twist. If that is not the kind of home invasion one could hope for, I don’t know what is, so naturally, I said “come on over”. I should note that I reviewed the Zu Definition Pro speakers in their first iteration a few years ago when I was writing for another webzine. Then about two years ago, I moved up to the Zu Definition Mk II speaker system, which is the current top product in the Zu speaker line.
The invasion crew included Sean, Ron Williams, and their long-time friend Todd from eastern Pennsylvania, who was helping them by hosting the upcoming official weekend show. After the usual hellos, we spent about an hour listening to my current system, mainly using vinyl playback, which was not in its current configuration when Sean was at my home two years ago. The Basis Audio 2800 turntable system with Vector 4 tonearm and Dynavector XV-1S cartridge [running through an Art Audio Vinyl Reference Phono Stage] did a fine job of acclimating the guests to the sound of my room. Happily, my good friend Mike, who is a local audio buddy, and also helps admirably with my equipment set-ups, stopped by, so we had a jovial crowd enjoying tunes and exchanging audio/music stories of various sorts. Eventually the Zuists carried in a pair of Zu Essence speakers from their SUV and set them up directly in front of my Definitions, connecting them to my electronics for the demo. They used my resident McCormack DNA 500 amp, etc., but attached the speakers by way of their Zu Mission speaker wires that looked very cool, and thus avoided disturbing the biamped-wiring configuration that I normally run for my Def IIs. [My regular set-up includes a pair of Eagle 400 monoblock amps driving the subwoofer sections of the Definitions from 40 Hz down through the Rane PEQ55 Pro equalizer that Zu was recommending in those days; of course, for these sessions the Def II subs were not in use.]
The Essence enclosures were, interestingly, exactly the same deep blue color as my own speakers, which brought a big smile to my face. After a few physical alignment adjustments for enclosure placement, we started the demo, which Ron had previously planned out using his own collection of CDs, played on my usual Modwright Sony 999ES Signature Truth CDP running through my Bent Audio TAP Silver line stage. I am pleased to report that hearing the Essence for the first time in my listening room, on my own equipment, for a short interval was a treat. However, since this is not a proper review, my comments will be cursory at best. Happily, the music flowed in a cohesive, smooth, balanced and satisfying way. The top end was airy and extended, but the big surprise for me was the bass response, especially when compared to the Druids, which I have heard many times under good domestic conditions. I really enjoyed what appeared to be a deeper, more natural kind of bass, which probably could obviate the need for subwoofers for the majority of listeners who otherwise might think of going in that direction.
On many of Ron’s CDs, where vocals were primarily featured, and deep bass was not emphasized, that quality did not jump out at me initially, however when he played a passage from the Rutter ‘Requiem’ [on Reference Recordings], the pipe organ feel certainly took care of that topic, and very handily, I might add. Other music also confirmed that the Essences could indeed flesh out the full spectrum of sound from top to bottom in an integrated, gratifying way. Of course, the midrange, which has always been a strong suit for Zu speakers, came through with the dynamics and clarity that first caught my attention years ago, so pardon me if I don’t go into much more detail than that. Overall, it is clear to me that this $3,500 speaker system is a winner and delivers the goods in a delightful, effective and fun way. Another surprise of the day happened next when Sean asked Ron to bring in a pair of small monoblocks tube amplifiers, with which they are experimenting. A designer they know has come up with a neat circuit that generates 5 watts per channel, from modest components, and it all appears to hold high potential. These babies, which really are only in the initial phase of prototype form, were wired in, replacing the big McCormack amp and then allowed to warm up while we all took a break for snacks.
When we resumed listening, the first thing that caught my attention was the robustness of the sound emanating from these amps. There was adequate juice to drive the Essence speakers, but I did feel that the sense of snap and leading transients was a bit on the soft side. Still, the general feel was better than good on the bulk of music auditioned, especially on those types Ron selected, which emphasized vocals. However, there was more interesting stuff to unfold. Remember, these amps are very early in development, so time will tell where the tube amp project will go. The final surprise of the day occurred when another pair of speakers migrated from the SUV into my room. These cuties were short floorstanders called the SOUL and looked somewhat like truncated pyramids manifesting a really cool appearance. The components are based on elements from the famous Druid design but the overall feel reminds me of the iPod generational view of life. These speakers have not yet been officially announced, but Sean did mention that on the few occasions where they have shown the Souls in other settings, there is high WAF, and that kids really like them too. With the prototype tubed monoblock amps driving the Souls, the speakers were lively sounding, and my previous reservations about those amps were somewhat diminished; things felt peppy, with snap and high energy. The Souls certainly project sound convincingly and image well, giving lots of detailed information, but as expected, they don't deliver deep bass with much authority. I bet apartment dwellers will find these a really good solution for keeping the peace with fussy neighbors. I believe they will be priced at a comfortable and affordable level to boot.
So, as the evening came to a close, the opportunity to hear new products from Zu Audio, under very familiar conditions, was a pleasurable and fun filled experience. In addition, the chance for catching up on audio news and future audio plans from good friends was a most gratifying bonus. My sense of the Zuists as being among the “good guys in audio” continues to hold strong and I wish them well with their newest ventures. Lastly, I extend my sincere thanks to Sean and his crew for this cool and fun home invasion.
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