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CAF 2014: Zu Audio with First Watt is transcendent

CT6A7819 Is it ruining the suspense to say that the Zu Audio room at CAF received quite a few votes for Best-In-Show? Probably. But for those in attendance, it was hardly a surprise. It's true, the rooms that the Zu crew set up are always a little different. That's known and expected. Okay, maybe it's not. Let's back up a second. First, Zu Audio loudspeakers are a new thing, if by "new thing", you mean "less than 20 years old". They're also kinda known for over-achieving their price point, that is, they tend to not cost an arm and a leg (usually just a couple of knuckles). Lastly -- okay, no, not lastly -- they do that "high sensitivity thing" very few modern loudspeaker designers bother with -- that is, most of their lineup boasts a sensitivity right around 100dB. If you're a microwatt kind of guy, Zu is one of the few exits on your highway. Zu Audio has been received by the cognoscenti with mixed enthusiasm. On the one hand, 6moons and other sites have raved about their value (performance/price) ratio. On the other hand, some sites have been more critical (and sometimes, that criticism has been valid). That feedback has resulted in a broad evolution and this current crop, leveraging as they do, some truly cutting edge technology married to some of the best in vintage design, are the most linear, most dynamic, most interesting speakers I've yet heard from them. In short, they're outstanding. 

Here at CAF, we found the imposing Definition Mk IV loudspeakers ($12,750), all clad in Darth Vader black. These loudspeakers are rather unusual in the Zu Audio lineup, in that they use two wide-band drivers to create most of the audible spectrum, from 30Hz to 12Khz. No crossover in the mid range means coherence, elegance and power. Up top, there’s a big Radian 850 super tweeter and down low, there’s a 12″ powered subwoofer. Together, you get a loudspeaker that’s good for 14Hz to 20kHz, and a group delay of 5ms means you get all of that sound without smearing. I’m getting a little weak in the knees just typing all this out.

The cabling on the speaker is a little unusual, too. Zu Audio has made cables for pretty much as long as they’ve been making anything, and the geometry of their preferred connections is something they call ZuB3. It’s complicated, and while traditional bananas and spades can also be used, the ZuB3 connection “allows signal and power to be transmitted with increased immunity from RF while lowering reactance compared to cables of similar conductance.” Zu Audio cables can be reterminated to support the proprietary connector for free. More info can be found here: What is ZuB3?

So, aside from speakers and cables, you all probably know that Zu Audio also makes some seriously cool phono cartridges, or more properly, rebuilds some Denon 103 carts into an aluminum speedster. They range in price from $440 to $999, with the difference relating to the quality of the measurements of the finished product after the latest production run. I’ve wanted one of these for so long I can’t even remember. Unfortunately, every time I do remember, and check the page, they seem to be sold out. Popularity does that. If you’re interested in a cart, you should just call and get on the wait list.

With all that said, what’s front and center in any Zu Audio demo is the music. There are really only a couple of folks in the tour circuit who routinely confound attendees (musically at least), and Sean is the one playing all that music no one has heard about yet. Well, that’s not fair. He’s playing music that audiophiles have not heard yet because audiophiles are usually a bit behind the curve (to put it mildly). By sharp contrast, Sean’s musical selections are actually “current”. I know, crazy, right? Apparently, the fact that he has a set of musically inclined teens at home and works with another set of musically inclined “younger people” means that Sean is actually exposed to real live (current) music. I have to admit that I find all this very perplexing — Sean and I are of an age, and I was totally into MTV when I was teenager. And yet … he’s so much cooler than me. I don’t understand it. I’ve now taken to asking him to play Diana Krall every time I enter the room. On CD. Just because.

Okay, so back to the room. I swung by several times throughout the show, once each day, to see what was on the up and up. I missed several impromptu DJ sessions by Mike Mercer and friends, but each stop found Sean spinning discs from unknown-to-me genres (not just unknown bands), so each time I was able to sit in for a couple of tracks just to expand my knowledge of what the kids are listening to these days. And yes, I mean that just like it sounds. I’m apparently old. Quite honestly, it was pretty freakin’ awesome. Oh, and the sound quality was good too.

Speaking of which, the freestanding, with-no-room-reinforcement (the walls were yards away and the toe in was pretty severe), the sound I got was tight and dynamic. Neutral, baby! And when the Definition needed to go deep, it was all there; there’s nothing like a pair of integrated subwoofers to help seat you right Hades’ living room. Detail, air, grace — all there, too. I don’t know what to say other than the speakers (and the rest of the system) really weren’t even in play. We, in that room, really were “just about the music” and everything else just got out of the way. Said another way, I was able to put the reviewer hat down and just do something else. I was completely disarmed! For many, I think that’s pretty much the point of this whole hobby, no?

Before I forget: on the table, Sean was fiddling about with a “preamplifier” from Rupert Neve Design, a 5060 professional mixer. Sean is a show-off. His turntable was a Rega RP-6 mounted with a Zu Audio DL-103 Mk II cartridge and wired into the sonically excellent (and quite dapper) K&K Audio Maxxed Out ($3000) phono preamplifier.

The amps on the floor were the truly remarkable $10k/pair SIT-1 mono blocks from First Watt. I’ve been lucky enough to demo these amps and they’re hard to beat. I mean, so long as you can get by with only 10 watts, and with 100dB speakers, 10 watts is plenty. Theres a dial on these that helps you tweak the sound signature to your taste. Too cool! And with the right speaker, you get magic. Clean, but not cold; transparent, but not emotionless; sweet, but not rolled (in either direction). The only downside? 10 watts! Oh, and they do get a little warm.

Anyway, this was a very unassuming system that boxed way over its weight class. No, $25k+ worth of audio gear is not cheap — no one said it was. But what I did say is that this system is way better than that price tag. Take a hint. Do I need to spell it out for you?

Nice work, Team Zu. I had a blast.

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Crazy-good automotive paint finishes, trimmed with flashy aluminum

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Check out the size of that tweeter.

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Backsides — look, ma, no ports!

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Detail shot of the back panel with all your usual trim knobs. That blue “power cord plug” way off to the left is actually the ZuB3 speaker cable connector

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Spikes keep the speaker off the floor and give the down-firing woofer room for the thunder

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I’m pretty sure directly-on-the-floor is not the recommended installation procedure

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K&K Maxxed Out Phono — transformer-based gloriousness, filled with Lundahl

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Rega! Rhymes with Sega!

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Glamor shot of the black-finish on the new Zu cartridges

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Sean Casey, our host for this sonic journey

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Can I get an amen?

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“I’m sorry, I don’t have any Diana Krall,” said a perplexed Sean Casey.

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“See? What did I tell you? This shoe-gaze stuff is awesome, right?” says Sean Casey to an elderly audiophile as the man was fleeing the room.

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“Who wants to hear some [insert band you’ve never heard of]? C’mon, it’s great. We play this at the shop all the time!”

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Stefanie Casey, with Black Catter Chris Sommovigo

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Stefanie with her minions

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Got your “Stolen from Zu Audio” shirt yet?

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About Scot Hull (979 Articles)

Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

2 Comments on CAF 2014: Zu Audio with First Watt is transcendent

  1. I own a pair of Def 4s that I drive with a 300b SET. I was curious to hear them with the First Watt SIT-1; and, as you described, they sounded great – although it was hard to eliminate the effect of the upstream electronics and source material. Sean and the rest of the Zu team also excel at customer service. However, I keep telling Sean that he should post a play list for the rest of us aging folks.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // August 14, 2014 at 11:14 AM //

      I was hoping more for a “Recommended LP” chart. I’m pretty sure they do something along those lines, though.

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