CAF12: Zu Audio

Have you ever walked into a room, had the music suddenly stop, all conversation cease, and everyone’s head swivel around to stare at you as if they were all Children of the Damned?

If so, you have serious issues.

For the record, this is not what happened to me when I walked into the Zu Audio room at Capital Audiofest. Zu’s Sean Casey was doing his usual thing — spinning records. LPs were scattered across the floor. There were folks milling about in the doorway, others were haphazardly scattered across the room, hanging out, shooting the shit, listening to the tunes. But what was so remarkable, so different, so utterly unexpected that I wanted everyone to suddenly cease all the distracting shit they were doing, so I could focus … verify … confirm … that, yes, what I was hearing coming out of those monster $12,796 Zu Audio Definition Mk IV loudspeakers was what I thought it was. Because, frankly, it was so wildly improbable, so completely out of character, almost bizarrely so, that there was absolutely, positively, NO WAY that it could be true.

But it was!

I walked into a Zu Audio demo. And not only did I actually recognize the song they were playing? But! It was a cut from one of my favorite albums growing up.

RUSH. Sean was playing Rush! Moving Pictures was spinning on the Zu-modified Technics SL1200 turntable.

I came back, later in the weekend, just because and … wonder of wonders … Sean pulled it out again and played it again.

At this point, I was actively looking for the Thing on the wing of the airplane.

Now, before you all collectively crap your pants, it wasn’t like Sean was playing Side A — at all — he went right for “The Camera Eye”, the opener for Side B. You know, the side that no one actually played. Ah well, at least I recognized it. That’s something. Right? Still ….

This cut was immediately followed by one or two from Mike Watt’s Ball Hog or Tugboat, at which point the walls stopped winking suggestively, my camera ceased whistling Dixie, and the giant caterpillar wandered off in search of a better seat.

And … we’re back.

If you haven’t been following the exciting thrashing from the Internetwebs about the new offerings from Zu Audio, I’d recommend a stretch, and then a brisk walk around that rock you’ve been hiding under, just to get the blood flowing again. See? Isn’t that better?

The new Definition is an interesting beast. The bass response goes down to somewhere near Lucifer’s bedroom (16Hz), has a tube friendly impedance (8ohm) and the sensitivity of a mosquito’s whiskers (101dB). These speakers are practically begging to be played REALLY LOUD, or used with some of those flea-powered amps that make audiophiles all weak-kneed and misty-eyed.

The speakers themselves are, physically, imposing. This is good — big music needs big speakers, let’s be honest. And the Definitions have always been about big sound. What’s new is that Zu has taken a few steps forward toward “audiophile sound”.

I’m laying the improvements at the feet of the new drivers, which isn’t entirely fair as the cabinets and wiring are also new, but while all that’s very interesting, dude, the drivers are different. Okay? Okay!

The first thing you’ll notice is the new tweeter, the robust Radian 850 compression driver, sitting in a pretty impressive burnished aluminum waveguide, which here carries frequencies from 10kHz and up. This big tweeter sits between a pair of more-familiar 10″ wideband drivers, creating a fully time-aligned driver array. The widebanders, covering the frequency response from 40hz-10kHz, are all-new on this model, carried down from the Zu flagship, the Dominance. They’re impregnated with several “baths” of swarming, world-devouring (not really) nanotech (totally) — the point and result being a dramatically higher propagation velocity on the skin of the driver, while still preserving the natural damping of the paper core, yielding a strength-to-damping ratio that makes Sean excited enough to forget that he’s no longer actually speaking English. It’s a little scary. His eyes roll back in this head and all that comes out his mouth are formulas and math. Here’s the upshot. With this improvement, speed, transparency and detail — especially from 40Hz to 10kHz — take a leap forward. Yeah. So, Sean’s channeling aside, I was there — and this sound is a whole new thing. Me likey.

A down-firing 12″ sub sits in the bottom of the cabinet, fed by an integrated Hypex amplifier. The group delay for the entirety of the frequency band is less than 5ms, in part due to a sealed enclosure and in part to smart design. This minimal level of delay is staggeringly good, and entirely unlike a ported design, where you’ll find 20ms as a best-case. This means, again,  more definition, clarity and articulation — all the way down into the deeeeeep bass.

The interface plug in the back of Zu’s latest speakers may be a bit unfamiliar — at least it was so for me. It’s a SpeakON 8-pole that follows the ZuB3 specification, which very cleverly preservers the Zu cable geometry all the way from the amp through to the voice coil. Obviously, this makes the signal path simpler, and arguably it’s also more transparent. This connector is available on all Zu Audio speaker cables, but for those of us with our non-Zu cables, a $140/pair optional, beefily CNC’d adapter is available to convert from ZuB3 to more traditional Cardas spade-ready clamps.

Sean showed up with a Zu-modded Technics SL-1200, like I mentioned above. I asked him about it, and whether or not this was a product, and Sean responded by saying that they will still take old SL-1200 tables and mod them up for $1,500, but it’s not something they’re aggressively pursuing. A Zu DL-103 cartridge sat in the vinyl grooveables.

Amplification came by way of a Yamamoto A-08s, a 2wpc 45-based SET that 6moons went gaga over several years ago. This is a gorgeous little amp, and one I haven’t actually seen much of over the years. With it’s ludicrously low output, I don’t really expect it to be a good fit for anyone with speakers with even remotely “normal” sensitivity, which is probably why I haven’t seen more of it. Or heard more of it. And it’s undoubtedly why it’s going to be rather difficult for me to pull the contribution from the presentation. Sean says that the amp is rather romantic. Srajan says that the amp is super-fast. All I know is that the sound in the room was dynamic and punchy, with true bass and serious detail — hard to argue with the combo, and quite frankly, one I’d really like to spend a lot more time with. With luck, a pair of these badass speakers, at least, will be en route in September.

Hell, yes!

Off to the side was another mystery-to-me amp, and another 6moons favorite: an Almarro 318b. 18wpc is a big lift from the Yamamoto, and Sean says that the amp is super-fast and crazy-detailed. This amp is about half the price of the Yamamoto, and uses some rather unusual 6c33 tubes for output. It’s got a beautiful two-tone wooden chassis and I want it. Whoops. That just slipped out.

Also in the room, and also not in the rack, was a Class D amp (gasp!) from the Digital Amplifier Company. The Cherry can crank up 400wpc — total overkill with the Definitions, but (again) Sean says that this amp may be his favorite Class D, sooo…. there you go.

Honestly, I don’t know much about it, it wasn’t used while I was around, but it looked pretty, so I took a picture of it. That’s the story.

Speaking of stories, I asked Sean about the upcoming Druid Mk V that is supposed to be coming out soon. He very promptly said “September 1st” — this is their internal deadline to get the product finalized and into production. The new Druid is going to be at or around the $6,500 price point, have a nominal 16ohm impedance, and come configured with the big Radian tweeter and one of the new Dominance 10″ wideband drivers found in the Definition and Dominance. A machined aluminum base will add a nice touch — and some more rigidity and damping to the cabinet. I’m expecting this to be killer.

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2 Responses to CAF12: Zu Audio

  1. Great review! Sean is always spinning some of the best tunes at shows.

  2. Kemper Holt says:

    Sean seems to create a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere in his room. He changed amps from the Yamamoto to the Almarro, while answering questions and never skipping a beat. I preferred the Almarro amp and the speakers were transparent, dynamic, and imaged well. PTA mentioned the obscure albums he chooses, while I was there we caught a couple Jim Croce tunes, they brought back memories. I thought Zu had an impressive room.

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