Acoustic Zen Technologies president Robert Lee is a master at making things disappear. Stuff like distortion, frequency irregularities and resonances.
But as I sat listening to his rarely exhibited flagship speaker, the Maestro ($43,000 a pair) at the California Audio Show, I was convinced he’d pulled off his greatest trick.
Somehow, he’d made the amps vanish. Not only that, but the preamp was missing, too.
All I could see was a nondescript CD player and some speaker cable. A few feet before each cable’s termination, there was what looked like a DIY network box, except it was even smaller than some MIT boxes I’ve seen.
“Those are the amps,” Lee said, smiling.
Looking closer at the table where he had his CD player, I saw another small device. It turns out this was the other part of the illusion. It was sending a wireless signal to the amps.
There was an aluminum flight case in between the speakers. Suddenly, an arm appeared from the row behind me, pointing to the foam-lined luggage. It was Bruce Ball, vice president of Questyle Audio Engineering.
“Everything you need fits in there,” he said. “And it all only costs $2,400.”
I turned around, my eyebrows threatening to jump right off my head. “How much did you say?” I asked.
“$2,400,” Ball repeated.
“$2,500 if you want the flight case,” chimed in Lee, laughing.
Considering that Lee often exhibits with a no-compromise tube system from Triode Corp. that runs more than $20,000, my brain still was having trouble processing what my eyes were seeing.
For one thing, these were Lee’s cost-no-object, statement speakers. And the music coming out of them was smooth, well-balanced and focused.
That special sound Lee gets from his use of underhung voice coils and careful attention to frequency response was intact. When I played “H Gang” from Donald Fagen’s third solo album, “Morph the Cat,” the music emerged from a black background, with the guitar and the singer’s voice sounding especially well-rendered. There were none of the sibilants that can suddenly appear on lesser systems, and the each drum stroke decayed naturally in a full-height soundstage.
Lee switched to his Crescendo II speakers ($18,000), the middle of his refreshingly limited line of products. I switched to Roxy Music’s “Avalon.” Same result: my jaw dropped.
I practically camped out in the Acoustic Zen room for rest of the show, spending the end of each day trying to come to grips with what I was hearing.
It turns out that the Questyle gear uses class D amplification to work its magic. I didn’t think I was a fan of this type of power, but if all you’ve heard is the amps that came out a few years ago, then you need to listen again. And listen without prejudice. (Yes, I realize I just quoted George Michael. Won’t happen again. I promise.)
How did this unlikely pairing – Acoustic Zen and Questyle, not me and George Michael — come together? It turns out Ball has known Lee for years. Ball, who also manages some professional musicians, began trying to get the word out about the wireless technology.
He called his friend Lee and offered to send over a system. He said Lee, who has experimented with electronics but is so demanding none are currently on the market, was skeptical.
Ball remembers waiting anxiously before getting a call back. “Hey, these are pretty good,” Lee told him.
So, it was. The Zen speaker wizard went wireless. And Ball suddenly had the backing of one of the industry’s most discerning designers.
After three days of auditioning, I confirmed my positive opinion of the Questyle system. Critical listening with a variety of demo tracks revealed the wireless system may lack the last degree of weight, air, refinement and soundstage depth. There seemed to be a hint of compression as well, and I had a bit more trouble discerning individual instruments in close-grouped passages such as guitar lines featuring overdubbed harmonies or rhythm parts.
But considering the Quesyle system’s $2,400 price tag is less than the last set of interconnects I bought, these are relatively minor quibbles. I’d like to hear what Ball’s electronics could do on other speakers. How much were the Zens helping? Can this synergy be duplicated?
One thing I do know is that spending only $2,400 on electronics would allow you to more painlessly buy a pair of speakers from Acoustic Zen. And you definitely couldn’t go wrong there.
As I got chased out of the room at 20 minutes after closing on day three of CAS, Lee told me in the hallway that he’s working on a new speaker. Considering he doesn’t believe in overwhelming customers with a dozen or more models like some other manufacturers, this was an exciting disclosure.
“It will be priced between the Adagio (his least expensive floorstander at $4,500 a pair) and the Crescendo,” he told me. “I hope to have it out by CES.”
You heard it here first. We’ll keep you updated. In the meantime, you might want to investigate on your own the case of the vanishing amps. The answers you find may surprise you.