AXPONA 2014: Zu Audio and Peachtree at the top of their game


Okay, folks. Here’s another Best In Show Contender, and no, it’s not just because Zu Audio‘s Sean Casey and Peachtree Audio‘s Jon Derda are some of the most interesting up-and-comers in audio’s high-end. Though, that doesn’t hurt. No, the sweetness on offer here at AXPONA was rather similar to the awesome on tap at RMAF this past Fall, where Jon and Sean teamed up in a significantly larger room, played at 100dB levels, and still had a strain-free sonics. No Submission-style subwoofer here (more on that later), and all-new electronics from Peachtree played together in such happy harmony that I think its fair to say that it’s time to put to bed any preconceptions you might have been carrying around. That time is past. And these guys are clearly just getting started. Me? I find that exciting.

First up is the $5,199/pair Zu Audio Druid. This is the speaker, in its last major upgrade, turned Srajan’s crank so hard all those years ago. Now in its fifth iteration, it’s as obvious as that flaming ball of gas in the sky that this marks their best work by farHoly cow. Yes, some found the previous version to be a bit hooded or blunted in the upper mids. But this new widebander is fully capable of delivering a level of sophistication and detail retrieval that just makes me shiver. They get a nano-tech bath that brings a level of stiffness to the driver that just hasn’t been seen in a paper-cone product. The sound quality is, quite simply, outstanding. The coherence I was hearing in the room, here, was easily on par with panel-systems — again, a natural feature of the widebander approach. The fact that it’s over 100dB sensitive and has a ludicrously high 16Ω impedance means that your low-power amplifiers are all in-play.

Want more? How about a “celebrity endorsement”? Steve Guttenberg, who writes for a long-running and extremely high-profile blog The Audiophiliac for CNet is a long-time panel-speaker fan, and recently talked about his adoption of this speaker as his new reference in the May 2014 “As We See It” editorial in Stereophile. Still more? Well, there’s the aesthetic. Tall, slim cabinets in automotive paint with aluminum trim and chunky base units equals sexy-time all-the-time. These things look hawt. Alright, I’ll stop fawning.

The other half of the coin is the new toy from Peachtree Audio. Yes — that titanium-finish faceplate was the call-tag of the nova220se, a $2,000 integrated launched at CES this year. I had a whole sweet write up on this, but then Jon sent me this after the show:

We stole the discrete Class A output stage we originally developed for our top end Grand Integrated X1 to feed the amp. This output stage is sonically more transparent with greater dynamics and micro-detail than anything we’ve used in a nova series integrated. In other words, the sound is more involving. The output stage feeds a fairly large board, an inversion circuit, that feeds a balanced signal to two stereo Class D amps. When you pack in so much into one box it’s critical how you route signals and this is one step we took to keep the noise floor low.

As for the amps we’re using two ASX2 series (ICE) amps that are operating in BTL mode to output 220 watts per channel into 8Ω and 350 watts per channel into 4Ω. Max output current is 30A so even big planar speakers are no problem. That’s a crazy amount of power in a box under 15″ wide and just over 5″ tall.

On the DAC side we stuck with the ESS 9023. It’s a great sounding chip, especially when you surround it with good circuit design. While it’s basically the same DAC we designed for the nova125, novaPre, and decco65 we made some changes that kicked performance up a few notches. These changes aren’t sexy things to talk about like bit-depth and picoseconds of jitter… but they are the fundamentals that cause two DACs using the exact same chip to sound different from one another. We want a sound that’s involving but non-fatiguing. It’s a balancing act and everything makes a difference.

Our techs and engineers spent a good deal of time modifying the boards grounding scheme and what they ended up doing greatly improved signal to noise ratio. Then we upgraded the isolations transformers on the electrical digital inputs (USB and coax) to filter power supply related noise generated by computer and streamer’s switching power supplies. We figured out early on in our listening tests for the original nova that galvanic isolation is one of the most critical pieces to making USB sound good. You can have asynch, a great DAC chip, but you’re screwed without galvanic isolation or some external way of isolating USB signal from power. These two things got us the “blacker backgrounds” we wanted. We also spent some time tweaking the DACs power supply and decided to use low ESR caps. That relaxed the highs a bit, which is the side we prefer to land on, and it also improved bass definition.

The nova220SE uses our signature tube buffer. It’s wired as a cathode follower that uses a Russian dual triode 6N1P. The 6N1P leans towards the neutral side and it’s effect is intentionally subtle. It’s wicked reliable too. However if you prefer a little more burnished tone you could use a 6DJ8 variant. You can roll in a 6922, E88CC or a 7308 and change-up the sound to your liking.

Here’s some non-sound related details. The high gloss black cabinet is made of FSC certified wood (sustainable resources) and it’s sanded by hand. The front panel is six-millimeter thick brushed aluminum. All the logos on the front panel are engraved so they’ll never wear off.

On the back panel there is a Type-A USB charging port for a future external APT-X Bluetooth module we plan on releasing this Summer. This will make it really easy for people that want to play music from their phones, tablets and phablets to get high quality wireless playback. Naturally the module will take advantage of the integrated’s ESS Sabre DAC. My wife recently discovered we have Bluetooth in our system at home and is now listening to it… on her own. The module will cost around $99. (This is the first public mention of this.)

A little side story about protection. I recently swapped amps to put the nova220SE in to my main system. I heard sound through the right channel but only heard a faint sound from the left, from behind the speaker. It turns out the spades had disconnected from the speaker’s binding posts and were touching! They were what was making the sound. I was freaking-the-bleep out, this is the amp we were going to use at Axpona and it was the only one we had, and the show was in a week. I quickly separated them, mildly amused by the sound that the two touching leads were making, and expected to see the amp to have smoke pouring out of its vents. The last time this happened to me was in the mid-90s and that is exactly what happened. This amp however, was fine and just kept on playing like it didn’t know what a dead short was. While I don’t recommend testing this, an amps ability to protect itself is a fantastic feature that isn’t fully appreciated until it does its thing.

We’ll be using the nova220SE at Newport in a room we’re sharing with the Sonic Studio (Amarra) guys. We’re helping debut the new version of Amarra as well as a new pair of speakers from Martin Logan.

Sorry I didn’t make this email shorter! I blame this terrible Starbucks Doubleshot Energy drink-in-a-can that I’m slamming right now.

Some other notes about the room. The Zu103 cartridge hanging off the Rega arm, and attached to a vintage Luxman PD444 was there, playing tunes. Unfortunately, this was one of the victims of transport and something untoward happened to one of the output channels. Spinning LPs, which is one of the signature moves in any Zu Audio show room, was therefore sadly limited. I mean, they did play records — this was a Zu Audio room, after all. But the sound quality from that side of the audio chain suffered from a bit of a buzz.

The digital playback chain started with a “tricked out Mac Mini” running Amarra Symphony.

Also on display was the first showing (that I’ve seen) of the forthcoming Zu Audio Modern. Yes, that’s it below — used here primarily as a shelf. There’s a pair of coincident Zu speakers (the same as in the Zu Cube) behind each of the punched-out side panels. Two shelves sit behind the swing-out doors in the middle, here with mismatching woods to show off some of the options. The bottom cabinet houses a down-firing subwoofer system, which was at least part of the reason why it was here at AXPONA. Turns out the room didn’t need a whole lot of subwoofer support, so it wasn’t in use while I was there.

Sean said that the two cabinets (speaker vs. subs) aren’t actually touching — they’re completely disconnected. Apparently, they’re using magnets there to achieve some kind of mag-lev effect. I think he was having me on (you have never seen a more convincing deadpan delivery until you’ve hung out with Sean and Jon), but I didn’t go up and shove the cabinet to verify. Pricing starts at $7,800, depending on options, with orders starting next week and shipping shortly thereafter. Shipping is extra, as are any component electronics, but Mission cables are included.

I suspect we’ll see (and maybe hear?) more at T.H.E. Show in Newport.