A great speaker should make you feel like you’re there, with the music. That’s the idea, but it almost never happens, even with some of the very best speakers money can buy.
They can sound great, but they rarely sound like the real thing.
Speaker design over the last decade or so has been devoted to producing ever greater accuracy, higher resolution, lower distortion and wider frequency response, but those qualities don’t necessarily produce a sound that’ll stir your soul.
I mention all that because Zu’s designers don’t obsess about making speakers that measure well. Striving for the flattest frequency response or widest possible dispersion aren’t major priorities for Zu.
Their latest, the Essence, tracks music’s soft-to-loud, to very loud dynamics like nobody’s business. Those instantaneous volume shifts we associate with live sound are faithfully reproduced by the Essence.
And frankly, the Essence isn’t what I would call a high-resolution speaker. The tonal balance is warm, rich and full, so vocals sound more flesh-and-blood human than you’ll hear from most hi-fis, which, let’s face it, tend to sound like hi-fis reproducing music.
The Essence can also rock and roll with a vengeance. Cranking the hell out of Tom Petty’s The Live Anthology CD made that point in a hurry.
I first wrote about Zu in the March 2007 issue of Home Entertainment, so it seemed like a good time to catch up with the Ogden, Utah–based company.
They’ve discontinued production of all of the older models, including the Zu Druid I reviewed then. From the front the Essence looks like it’s about the same size as the Druid; it’s 49 inches high and 12 inches wide, but its 12-inch depth is nearly double the Druid’s. Next, the tweeter, now a 2.5-inch foil ribbon unit, is a significant upgrade from the Druid’s piezo tweeter. The new tweeter is sourced from Taiwan and entirely rebuilt and modified in Ogden.
All of the 10.3-inch paper cone woofer’s parts are made in the U.S., and assembled in the Zu factory. It’s similar to the Druid woofer, with a number of refinements. The speaker doesn’t have a crossover network of passive components inline with the woofer, which might account for the Essence’s lightning-fast reflexes.
That, and since the tweeter comes in at a much higher frequency than average (10 kHz vs, 2 kHz), so most of the Essence’s sound comes from the woofer.
Once assembled the tweeters and woofers are extensively tested and sorted into the matched, close-tolerance pairs used in production speakers. Instead of typical speaker-wire binding posts, the Essence features a nifty copper clamp to secure the speaker cables.
I used a number of different brands of cable during the course of this review, but the Essence was at its best when hooked up with Zu Libtec speaker cables, and with Zu interconnect cables deployed throughout the system the sound was even better. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about tweaking hi-fis to eke out the best possible sound, system synergy is crucial.
I love its look: The Essence is a handsome and utterly distinctive design. Standard paint options include Diamond Dust (matte beige) and Diamond Dust Black, which have subtle flecks of reflective materials in the finish; and two real wood veneer options, American Cherry and American Dark Walnut. Zu’s extra cost finish possibilities are only limited by your imagination:
You can order any conceivable shade of metalflake, iridescent, pearl, gloss or satin paint on your speakers. Zu’s in-house finishing skills are extraordinary, easily on par with speakers that sell for ten times the Essence’s modest MSRP.
Like any speaker with relatively small ribbon tweeters the Essence’s vertical dispersion is limited, so when I stood up from my listening chair, the treble lost detail. The upside to the tweeter’s limited dispersion is a lessening of floor and ceiling “bounce” that would smear stereo imaging. That’s not just a theoretical assumption, these speakers image like gangbusters.
The soundstage is not only spacious, it skews closer to the rarely achieved stereo ideal than most of the competition. According to my Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, stereo is “a combining form meaning ‘solid,’ ‘solid body or figure,’…” With good recordings that’s exactly what the Essence delivers; vocalists and instruments sound remarkably present.
Take the Max Roach + Dizzy Gillespie Paris 1989 CD that features the legendary drummer and trumpet player performing extended improvisations. The music’s great, but this CD has sounded rather lifeless on most speakers.
Not this time, it was alive and kicking over the Essence. Each beat of Roach’s snare, tom toms and bass drum was distinctly rendered and felt by yours truly. Cymbal crashes didn’t merely sizzle, they exploded! Every inflection of Gillespie’s horn, his leaps and wails were vividly presented. Better yet, the feeling of being in the presence of two swinging masters was a real thrill.
With just one 10.3-inch driver you can’t expect outrageously deep bass, but pitch definition and dynamic oomph are excellent. This speaker can boogie like nobody’s business.
Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s wildly unconventional score for There Will Be Blood was something else again. Greenwood’s film score uses mostly strings, and he recorded/mixed them in a heavily reverberant soundstage. This CD can sound overwrought on a lot of speakers, but it clicked with the Essence. The strings’ natural warmth and body were on display, and the nuanced handling of dynamics completed the picture.
The Essence can bend your ears back when the music’s jolts demand it, which also makes it a fine choice for home theater duty. In my HT 2.0 (stereo) system the Essence coasted through action-packed flicks with ease.
I started this review noting that no speaker, no matter how advanced, ever really makes music that sounds like the real thing. The Essence, good as it is, never gets there either, but it connects the “dots” better than most.
You don’t have to take my word for it; Zu sells the Essence factory-direct in the U.S. with a 60-day, 100 percent money back satisfaction guarantee.
CONTACT: 800.516.8925, zuaudio.com