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CAS 2013: Zu Audio

CAS4I have a confession to make. It's a little embarrassing, but I hope you'll bear with me. You see, I never really loved Zu Audios speakers. Don't get me wrong, here. I've wanted to like Zu's speakers for just about as long as Zu's been making them. It's never happened. They've always sounded a bit too raw for my taste, with a nasty treble and a vicious fatigue factor. Now, sure, I would have taken home just about any Zu -- no matter how grotty it sounded -- over just about any refined mini-monitor. Zu always seemed to get the jump factor right. They might have missed some of the niceties, they might have missed the detail, and they might even have sounded like raw crap, but you could actually enjoy music. In my book, that's a whole lot more virtuous than a speaker forces you to think about music. On top of that, Zu's people are among the most fun, most professional, and most dedicated people I've met. It's impossible to dislike them. Still, I never really warmed to Zu speakers. This is a bad enough personal problem that Scot, the benevolent dictator here, actually made a point of asking whether or not I planned to go into the room. As though I'd miss it. I love hanging out and listening to music in their rooms. Even on their worst days, these guys have a set list going that tempts me to blow off the rest of the show. (NB: More exhibitors at these shows need to bring a copy of Streetcore) with them. I am not kidding.) This system was fronted in Zu's iconoclastic style. An old Luxman turntable with a Rega arm and a Zu cartridge played into one of K&K Audio's superb Maxxed-Out phono preamps. An Allnic L5000 preamp ($20k) steered the signals into a prototype amplifier. If nothing else, this is the kind of haphazard planning that only seems to strike *real* audio junkies. For speakers, a pair of Druid MK.V ($5200) fronted the system. Anchoring the bass was Submission subwoofer ($4000). It's probably safe to assume that Zu provided all the cable. All of this was set up in a room furnished in Early College, with one Expedit full of vinyl and another filled with Zu Cubes (just in case you forgot they made speakers). As for the sound... Well... This is a little embarrassing... I'm a convert now. I would very much like to subscribe to the newsletter.

Maybe it was the K&K phono preamp that made me feel at home. Maybe it was the vibe in the room. Maybe it was the attendees wandering over to pick out records. Maybe I was just fooling myself. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

The Druids really rewarded the assemblage of gear in front of them. The K&K’s sound came through unmolested, with all of its air and delicacy intact. If these Zu’s sounded ragged, I didn’t hear it. The soundstage here was basically contained between the speakers, but realistic within that imaginary window. These Zu’s were actually managing to be audiophile speakers. Maybe the tonal balance was juuuuust a little dark. Maybe the treble was juuuuust a little shy. Maybe there was juuuust a hint of indelicacy.

And that’s when the Violent Femmes went on. I think I may have cheered. Zu’s just-over-nine-grand speaker package brought me as close to the sweaty, beer drenched floor of the Stone Pony as any system I’ve heard at a show. Zu’s Druid may have grown up to be almost respectable, but it has not forgotten how to rock.

8 Comments on CAS 2013: Zu Audio

  1. I can’t get beyond what appears to be Zu’s marketing attempt to market marketing. There appears to be an almost orgasmic obsession for the word ‘nano’. I simply cannot get interested. There’s too many other loudspeakers on this planet. I suggested Sean give a listen to a solo harp recital then start over; broaden the sound experience.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // December 11, 2013 at 10:25 AM //

      I think there are quite a few companies that are investing heavily in marketing agencies instead of actual product development, but not sure Zu Audio qualifies. In their specific defense, the process they use to stiffen their paper cones does in point of fact leverage nano-sized particles. Not that you care, but I’ve seen some photos of their production process — it’s nuts. Like NASA-level nuts. And as a result of all of this investment in technology and process, the sound that Zu is able to get is significantly more detailed, yet still natural and still organic — more than it ever has been before.

      That said, I don’t own a pair of Zu Audio speakers, nor do I have nor have I had a pair here for review — my comments are simply from tracking them at audio shows over the last few years. But I will tell you, IMO, they’re dramatically ahead of where they were 5 years ago. So much so that bringing in a pair will be a priority for 2014.

      YMMV.

  2. OneThousandAnswers // August 24, 2013 at 11:48 AM //

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane re your experience with the Zus. I had an earlier incarnation of the Druids but just couldn’t get beyond a dip in the upper mid-range. If the newer iterations addressed this I’d certainly consider Zus again for their immediacy and ability to rock. Overall great coverage of the show.

  3. Meh, Zu has never been my cup o’ tea. I’ve tried several times. Nice guys, they bring and play interesting music grant you. The Luxman table is rad! I like the looks alot, I’m sure it sounds pretty nice. Like their remake on the Denon 103. Very musical.

  4. Glad you made it into the Zu room. I have a pair of Omen’s with their previous generation drivers and have thoroughly enjoyed them as part of a budget-conscious system (they system isn’t conscious, Bruno Latour aside (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aramis,_or_the_love_of_technology), but the owner is). In fact, I’ve enjoyed them more than my more expensive pair of Focal 836vs which are fancier speakers made by a far less personal and “fancy company”.

    Of course, there is a Zu sound. They are immediate and – to my ears – designed for small ensemble jazz or a certain brand of intense blues. With my Peachtree Decco taking some of the edge off, the speakers presented Miles Davis’s Someday My Prince Will Come in every bit as engaging way as the Focals driven by much better gear. And the Zu’s do some cool stuff with Jack White’s voice and recording style.

    Ok. I won’t review them or repeat other reviews or even say “for the price”. Zu has much to recommend them and I think will only get better with better matched components.

    • Bill, it’s folks like you that kept making me listen to every Zu box that crossed my path. I always figured that you couldn’t all be deaf! Even if you all were deaf, I definitely respected what the Zu guys were trying to do. I’m pretty happy that I finally got to enjoy a bit of what everyone’s been going on about.

  5. No offense, but it is about time.

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