This review first appeared in the magazine. You can also read this review HERE in its original version. We publish this article in a mutual syndication arrangement with publisher Srajan Ebaen. Everyone can write to him – if you have questions or wish to send feedback – you’ll find an e-mail address under his name. All images contained in this review are the property of - Ed.


Srajan Ebaen

Source: APL HiFi NWO 3.0-GO
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright DM 36.5, Esoteric C-03
Amplifier: Yamamoto A-09S, FirstWatt F5, ModWright KWA-150, Pass Labs INT-150 [on review]
Speakers: ASI Tango R; DeVore Fidelity Nines
Cables: ASI Liveline interconnects, speaker cables and power cords
Stands: 4 x Ikea Molger, Ikea butcher-block platforms with metal footers
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; Nanotech Nespa Pro; extensive use of Acoustic System Resonators, Sugar Cube noise filters and phase inverters
Room size: The sound platform is 3 x 4.5m with a 2-story slanted ceiling above; four steps below continue into an 8m long combined open kitchen, dining room and office, an area which widens to 5.2m with a 2.8m ceiling; the sound platform space is open to a 2nd story landing and, via spiral stair case, to a 3rd-floor studio; concrete floor, concrete and brick walls from a converted barn with no parallel walls nor perfect right angles; short-wall setup with speaker backs facing the 8-meter expanse and 2nd-story landing.
Review Component Retail: $5,000

From boyz to men
It was Adam Decaria of Zu Audio on the phone with the big four - opportunity; timing; plans; changes. "As you know, those are all interconnected. In 2008, a big European importer approached us with an attractive offer to centralize our European distribution. We'd been secretly working with TangBand and Raal Ribbon to upgrade our treble units which had often been criticized for lack of refinement. We had long-standing plans to implement a full Grieve cartridge in the Druid. We wanted to address requests for wood finishes and grills. During 2008, we had invested heavily into a very sophisticated new paint booth and streamlined production capabilities. We've matured as individuals (laughs) to recognize our core abilities and where we're weak. In short, many things intersected. They suggested an opportunity for a quasi reemergence of our brand. It would incorporate lessons learned, mistakes admitted and requests answered. It would put various things on a common track and focus our core competencies on making an even better product. Plus, more advanced finishes.

"As a result, 2009 will see a complete revamp of our line from speakers to cables; and exclusive support and growth of our dealer/distributor networks. Particularly in the US, we'd attempted direct sales, combining our own web portal with eBay and AudiogoN auctions. In hindsight, that was a mistake. Our forté is product design and manufacturing, not sales and marketing. If we had real talent at both, we could perhaps multi-task. But the truth for speakers is, you need to see, touch and experience them particularly when you're dealing with somewhat unconventional sonic values. Speakers need dealerships. Direct sales undermine that reality. That goes into the 'lessons learned' drawer. No more direct sales for us.

"Also, there's been confusion about and critique of the Zu Sound. Some of it was self-inflicted because of poor communication on our part. Some of it could -- and now will -- be addressed with product refinements. As you know, one strongly dividing line in modern hifi is how speakers address the treble. We've always opted for a more old-fashioned midrange-centered balance with dense tone and great dynamics. Admittedly, this sacrificed certain elements of sophistication yet was accepted as a matter of priorities. But what if we could have it all? "Learning about Alexander Radisavljevic's work on high-efficiency ribbons and having collaborated with Frank of Tang Band on another ribbon over the last year suggested that we could implement a truly fast and distortion-free tweeter of superior extension and resolution. This would inject the missing element of upper harmonic sophistication without compromising our core focus on tone density and dynamics. Put differently, we would increase the resolution of our speakers -- resolution seems to be the term that captures today's focus -- without betraying our vintage roots and company identity.

"This would address the most common complaints about the Zu Sound. Because this transition to ribbons is a quite radical departure for us, the time was also right to revive other ideas we'd shelved because on their own, they weren't sufficient to warrant complete model makeovers. Our work on the SuperPly gel-coated Presence hull and how we incorporated those lessons into the Definition 2 now could inform new cabinetry across the board. While redesigning the enclosures, we could implement certain form factor adjustments to make for an easier integration of Zu speakers in various living environments. We'd worked on refinements to our rebuilt Eminence widebander platform all along. We also had cable advances that asked to be implemented in the hookup wiring. In short, it was time to restructure the lineup and retire the Tone, Druid, Definition and Method models. Call it progressing from the spring of Zu to the summer of Zu.

"The Druid of course put us on the map. The first new-line model had to be its replacement. So we call it the Essence. It combines the next-gen 12-ohm widebander we had developed for the Presence with a custom ribbon and a complete pyramidal module inset from below into the visible cabinet hull point up. This creates tailored air compression prior to evacuation similar to a motorcycle exhaust. It helps to solidify and extend the low-frequency reach of the widebander. It required enhanced cubic volume which led to form factor changes inspired by the Definition. It also required advances in our manufacturing capabilities to do it cost-effectively. For the Essence, we had to overcome the perceived bass deficit of the Druid and address its high-frequency extension and energy. We needed a wood-finish option and grills. So there's a definite evolutionary connection with the Druid but also enough separation to warrant a new model. Accordingly, the name advanced by one letter in the alphabet.

"You guys in the press have always referred to us as the Zu boys (chuckles). Our love of motorcycles and punk certainly played into that. But the fact is, we're fathers. I have four kids, Sean three. They're growing up quickly and help us mature along with them. A rebellious stance doesn't help penetrate the system you wish to change. Change has to come from the inside. To get inside -- and I mean literally, inside dealer show rooms and homes -- we have to eliminate resistance and hurdles. Our attitude created resistance. Certain choices we made in design and distribution erected hurdles. We can't and won't change who we are or what we are about. But we can certainly mature and implement what we've learned along the way to straighten out the path going forward.

"One obvious element somewhat out of step with the revamp is the Presence model which we introduced just last year. It's really too new to be retired. We expect it to rise again in made-over form to complement the new range. We'll only have one subwoofer instead of two and that will run a single 12" woofer with Hypex electronics. Back to the Essence, the first model in the new range. In profile similar to the Druid, its cross section is an 11" square. Hence the new form factor is reminiscent of the Definition, not the shallow half depth from before. The new two-layer plinth fixes the optimal gap height which loads the circumferential slot at the bottom. This avoids the performance variations we ran into with the Druid. Its air gap height was critical to bass performance but variable in spike length and support surface (high-pile carpet vs. parquet floors for example). Regardless of spike length and floor details, the new twin plinth will always perform optimally without user concerns or adjustments.

"As the concept drawings indicate, the Grieve cartridge is a four-sided pyramid. As a function of geometry and space compression, it creates velocity acceleration of the back wave before it exits. The porous but hard foam of the pyramid allows sound waves to enter. Then they get absorbed by the core to not re-exit or at best, highly attenuated. The Grieve cartridge thus is a dual-function compression-chamber/absorber device. It's a more advanced implementation of the motorcycle exhaust technology we introduced in very basic form in the original Druid. Expanded finish options now include wood veneers to go beyond our previous paint palette for decors where wood simply works best. The ribbon mount plate, widebander ring and plinth can be black or clear-anodized. The posts are Cardas' patented block clamp. Cleanly removable grills hide the drivers from view for those who object to the naked look. Bass improvements in our Zu260FRD/G4 10.3" trademark widebander in 4th generation reduce voltage sensitivity for the Essence to 98dB/1w/1m but the impedance remains at 12 ohms nominal to make an easy load for tube amps.”

"Bandwidth is 33Hz to 50kHz. And we of course continue to match high-pass filter parts to 1% tolerance and fabricate all our custom trim bits from solid aluminum billet in the shop next door. Further Essence specs are our TangBand/Zu ribbon with magnetics and transformer by TB and modifications by us; and a 10kHz high pass with KimberKap capacitors. The 11-ply Baltic Birch/MDF hybrid cabinet runs ply to strengthen and damp the MDF baffle, reduce much of the MDF color, increase driver and mount rigidity and improve the overall tone. MDF is used for all outer plates ensuring a precise and flat surface finish. Real wood veneers are laminated to the MDF and in turn sealed and finished in either satin gloss or super high gloss. Also available is Zu Smooth Matte. That features a composite shell and the super-tough but good-looking Mankiewicz Alexit finish material. Unchanged too from the Druid is the basic enhanced widebander concept. The big main driver runs wide open and is direct-coupled to your amplifier outputs without any intermediary capacitors, coils or resistors. But because that driver can't reach high enough, the TB/Zu ribbon takes over at 10kHz on a 6dB/octave shallow slope. So yes, there is a crossover on the tweeter and no, there isn't one on the 10.3 incher. Does that make it a zero-order design? Not by definition. But in practice, a 10kHz high-pass on the ribbon tweeter is so far outside the critical hearing range as to essentially constitute 'no crossover'. And that's most certainly true for the amplifier driving the Essence. It doesn't encounter any reactive parts anywhere in the power range of music. Plus, a ribbon by definition acts like a resistor to further minimize load effects. Technically, the Essence is a 2-way design. Practically, it's more of a 1.5-way. We're back to the enhanced widebander concept."

The Gen 4 widebander, explained Sean Casey, was "designed to integrate effortlessly with the tone and character of the ribbon tweeter. The G4 features a new high frequency lens/phaser, which serves several functions. First, it works together with the inner whizzer cone to increase the driver's high-frequency hemispherical spray pattern measured as polar response. It also reduces phase divergence and increases high-frequency efficiency. By reducing the wave-to-ray acoustic gradient and widening the hemispherical radiating pattern (negatively known as beaming), the driver is better equipped to fill a wide space and match the characteristics of the ribbon tweeter, which naturally has a fairly wide dispersion pattern. Additionally, the phaser/lens design removes the inner void formed by the top plate/dustcap assembly common in all drivers that feature a dustcap archetype cone, thereby reducing a contributor to resonance distortion. Our new cone continues to use natural wood-based cellulose with a tree-oil based epoxy binder for both secondary and primary cones. This new binder increases stiffness from voice coil to whizzer and secondary cone. Naturally derived, this type of lacquer is highly copasetic with cellulose. Benefits include rendering the cones impervious to moisture; increased stiffness without damage to damping; and only a slight increase in moving mass. Observed audio benefits include consistency of tone and performance from desert to tropical climates; improved wave propagation velocity within the cone; and improved high-frequency coupling of voice-coil assembly to whizzer cone. The whizzer is now as closely coupled to the voice coil former as possible without making the two from a single part. The whizzer is attached on both the outside and inside of the former using two types of glues, the inner glue being a poly for damping and the outer a slow-cure natural epoxy for rigidity and improved high frequency support. There has been too much talk about cone breakup modes in hifi. Suffice it to say that the dynamic behavior of paper is radically different than those of metals, plastics, ceramics and composites."

For detail photos of driver prep and Essence close-ups in various finishes, see this SideBar.

"High efficiency is very important to all Zu loudspeakers. Not only does it afford the user exploration into a far broader world of amplification technologies but it is our opinion that this is the only way to enjoy accurate and convincing dynamic realism. The more a cone moves, the more harmonic distortion it generates. If you like it clean, dynamic, real and compelling, high efficiency is a must.

"Efficiency (not simply voltage sensitivity) has two aspects. The first is acoustic power transfer generally related to the diaphragm and its supporting elements. The second is electrical-magnetic power transfer, i.e. motor, transformer and so on. Both elements must be balanced with the loudspeaker as a whole and factored with the bandwidth, polar response characteristics and dynamic range behavior.

"Now comes the high-frequency true ribbon tweeter. Traditionally, ribbon tweeters have lacked some degree of dynamic realism particularly in the attack. They have also struggled to get good power transfer from amp to ribbon element as a function of a very large magnetic gap and drive transformer, requiring a conductive metal alloy diaphragm. By ribbon standards, ours is extremely efficient particularly were we need it to perform above 10kHz. Its transformer and motor are very well engineered and fabricated and the assembly's balance between attack, sustain and decay is exceptional. "Our pure copper B3 internal cabling is cold-forged directly to the Cardas copper binding post lugs and runs uninterrupted all the way to the Zu260FRD/G4's voice coil lead-ins. There are no solder joints, crossover points or Y-outs to get in the way of tone and texture. Every effort is made to eliminate junctions, solder points and impedance irregularities to maximize the positive benefits possible from specifically engineered and precision cabling. True for the main harness and high-pass network feeding the ribbon, Zu's B3 geometry allows for a very high density of magnetic and electric fields in a very small area. This makes B3 cable inherently resistant to electromagnetic fields and other RF noise. B3 also affords very 'square' bridge measurements of inductances, capacitances and resistance, allowing linear unphased transmission of signal and power. Solder of all types is a less than optimal joining method for wire. It is less conductive than basic bare wire wrap and at least four times more resistive than a good cold-forged connection when applied to moderate loudspeaker level signal. Cold forging ensures a lifetime of trouble-free unchanging performance whereas solder does not. The Cardas copper binding posts support bare wire, pins, standard 1/4" (6.3mm) spades, oversized 5/16" (8mm) spades and in a pinch work with banana plugs."

Having sold my Definition Pros back to Zu for conversion to 1.9 status for a deal seeker and to clear the deck for the big Acoustic System Tango R as my new reference speaker, I had unused Zu credit. The Essence looked like a great way to reinvest it. The concept of an easy load, passive speaker with small footprint, easy size and weight to serve a reviewer's never-ending system swaps plus high sensitivity for low-power tube amps was very appealing. When not in use, the Essence would easily fit into my speaker closet. Plus, I didn't yet have a single ribbon speaker in my arsenal. Having discovered Zu through ownership of the Druid Mk4 a few years ago, this acquisition would bring me full circle. Back to the beginning yet presumably more of a spiral than circle - if the improvements emerged on a higher plateau as promised. Initial CES show report mentions were promising. Positive Feedback Online selected Zu's exhibit as an Audio Oasis: "The new Essence from Zu provides a lot of bass and was highly enjoyable to listen to. This system rocked with no hint of concern. Way cool. Zu has dropped all their previous lines of speakers and only offer the Essence. A real steal at $5k. Clean and wonderful." Stereophile's John Atkinson: "As my readers will know, I am not generally a fan of designs where sensitivity/efficiency is given preference as a design goal over low coloration. But driven by a Melody 2A3-based push-pull amplifier offering all of 10W, the Essence sounded surprisingly clean and relatively neutral, as well as superbly dynamic." For a brief informal CES comment by Sean Casey, read this SideBar. Adam Decaria: "The cabinet is intentionally void of internal bracing as we are looking for a very low/broad Q cabinet and the Baltic Birch plywood baffle covers the full rang driver and the ribbon tweeter completely. There is dual-density batting behind the widebander. The Essence features a layer of wool sound batting and a layer of fiberglass batting on top of that. That functions extremely well." From an ingredient perspective, the Essence is minimalist exactly as her concept predicts. The real question of course was, how would those ingredients come together...

The plan was simple. Like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work*.
"Based on CES comments, we have made a few improvements to the externals, internals and the FRD and ribbon. As we have only shipped samples out to you and a few to Europe, we feel we should make the changes now before formal production commences. The early pair you have is good enough for sonic impressions, maybe even to base a simple review on but I think it's worth considering the Essence in preview mode until you get your personal pair of production Essence."

How you judge anything in life depends on what you compare it to. Enthusiasm on top of Mt. St. Helens will get tempered relative to the panorama from Mount Everest. But St. Helens is still pretty spectacular in its own right. If one never leaves Skamania County in Washington State, it's as high as it gets. Coming off my four-times-plus priced Acoustic System International Tango R speakers created the higher ground necessary to critique the first Essence pair. Judging it in its respective price class found it a much perfected Druid Mk IV which remained true to Zu's meaty signature sound but added a few vital new wrinkles. The unfair comparison demonstrated what the Essence cannot do - and which, to varying degrees, extends also to other speakers whence I consider the Tango R an ultimate reference in that regard*. With Zu, it's intricately linked to their 10.3" widebander. It creates innate warmth. Regardless of auxiliary tweeter, formerly horn-loaded, now ribbon, the big boy dominates. It's meant to as the very high 10kHz tweeter hi-pass with its shallow 1st-order slope prove. The Essence thus is no ribbon speaker per se. It's a speaker with a ribbon that's been deliberately weighted down by broad overlap from the whizzer [see right]. This, very good, makes for both seamless continuity and textural coherence plus broader off-axis response for a wider sweet spot. The shadow side of it pads down subjective top-end speed. With it, the delivery of true tone is compromised. That, after all, relies on harmonic fidelity, i.e. a tweeter's ability to track the overtone spiderwebs of voices and instruments with their endless modulations as a function of finger pressure, air speed, bowing force and all manner of interpretative playing/vocalizing techniques. The tone density of the Essence is too heavy and its tonal center too low to deliver the complete inner lightness -- in both meanings of non-heavy and brilliant -- of true tone. By true tone, I mean the full wealth of complex ephemeral stuff above the fleshy fundamental and low harmonics. While (no surprise there) the triple eight-inchers of the Tango R extend lower with more heft than the Essence, it's (surprise!) the latter's tonal center which actually sits lower. That's due to its top end being less illuminated and finessed than the Tango's Esotar clone which combines with the copper, gold and Platinum resonators built into the French speaker.
The tone of the Essence is similar to 'generic' tube-amp tone. It stems from warmth and texture -- others might call it colorations -- and not full elucidating the finest upper harmonics. Coming off the Tango R precedent, this translates as:
Diminished harmonic haloes around tones
Shorter decays
Less hall sound and recorded ambiance
Less image focus, separation and, particularly on superb recordings, less soundstage depth
Less tone modulation sophistication and, with, a lower level of perceived microdynamic life than the lower-efficiency speaker in this instance
Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever. Consequently, something about the sound compacts. Call it density and we're back at using a large-diameter driver to handle the critical vocal band. The ribbon adds the formerly missing extension and makes for a more continuous radiation pattern in the hand-over range which serves coherence. But it does not fundamentally alter the signature sound. The only way Zu could fully liberate the upper harmonics would be with a far steeper, much lower ribbon crossover point, say 4th-order and 1kHz. But then that telltale and so agreeable fleshiness of Zu's sound would most likely suffer a cold infusion. The whole of-a-piece continuity of the concept would likely sink like...

The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly like a bowling ball wouldn't. Seamlessly integrating a ribbon tweeter with a 10.3" widebander seems predicated upon Zu's particular choices here. They mix whizzer and ribbon action over multiple octaves to hide the seam and extend a meatier mien into the upper ranges. It gives more quantity of extension and dispersion but the innate quality remains. To a more pronounced extent, the same happens at the other end. Despite its acute simplicity of execution, that foam pyramid really does the promised business. Shy of perhaps half an octave (meaning irrelevant on most music), the bass reach of the Essence tracks that of my reference speaker. While displacement and ultimate amplitude are naturally second, this has a very practical upside. Essence bass involves the room less. It doesn't assault with an overly ambitious artillery of attack weaponry which needs to be carefully integrated with acoustic tuning tools. Good low in-room bass is a far from simple pursuit. The Essence makes a lot simpler (and cheaper) than my expensive boxes.

Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap. Only it had been left out so long to rust shut. Not ringy and underdamped like a ported alignment; not as dry, popping and overdamped as a sealed box; the gentle compression/slot loading of Zu's solution makes for a quick, intelligible yet semi-buxom bass that goes a lot lower than the Druid when recorded. There's no gratuitous tag-on, just a downshift of the attenuation point. This comes to the fore particularly on synth-enhanced material which sounds threadbare if the 30-something region is missing in action. Those armed forces have now returned home. It was an American tradition like fathers chasing kids around with power tools. For other traditions, think comic book movies. To borrow from Spiderman, the Essence could easily strike you as your friendly neighborhood slugger. That's because in matters of loudness stability, this speaker is about as imperturbable as they come shy of going really big and expensive. Nothing tips or shifts. Things simply get louder and louder. And louder. If there's a limit (there always is), it's well beyond neighborly civility or proper respect for one's hearing. As such, it's perhaps not the most practical of assets -- hopefully never exploited fully -- but for any spirited jam sessions, this speaker is Peter Gabriel's hammer. Forget subwoofers. They're not needed.
Alas, the Essence likes more power than its membership in Club Hi-Eff would suggest. 8 watts of Yamamoto-class 300B fuel are plenty sufficient in matters of sound pressure but if you wish to underpaint the warmth aspect and emphasize the inner slugger, go with something more potent. For tubes, I'd be thinking Octave, Rogue, Manley or the new WLM line. That's because to do single-ended right will cost you to avoid going softer than necessary.

He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River. The intermediary take on the Essence was as a seasoned Druid with clearly more potent bass extension and weight; more resolving power on high; a wider sweet spot; and a more seamless integration of drive units. Then my personal pair of the first formal production batch arrived. Soft-headed stubby spikes were preinstalled in the lacquered silver plinth. Those blunt footers are ideal for wood, tile and other scratch-prone surfaces. Sharp long spikes are included for carpets. Further stock items are tack cloth, copper cleaner and grills. For the latter, black is standard, clear anodized silver optional.

"Your pair had about 120 hours of good hard play by which time they usually open up. We know that cold air during transit particularly by plane causes our FRD to get inhibited. It takes about a week to get back in the mood. Effects of air freight on the ribbon tweeter are still unknown. Also, there is plenty of Teflon in the capacitor lead-ins which benefit from further break-in. We pulled your pair from a production run that is still playing and we're shooting for 250 hours on those before they leave."
This explained the rather hooded and opaque mood in which my pair arrived. To back up how Zu can hit its 0.1% tolerance window for the drivers, Sean Casey had submitted a 14-page procedural paper for internal use which still didn't include cabinetry, final QC and packaging. He also included actual free-air measurements for the drivers of my pair. This indeed showed them to be the proverbial identical twins. Time to put the pedal to the metal.

He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck either but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.
Zu routinely gets flak for overstated sensitivities from the lame duck brigade. Those quackers never listen but argue endlessly: Impossible. Can't work. Cow dung. For a basic but practical test, I leashed up my 2wpc Yamamoto A-08S, switched the Esoteric C-03 preamp to zero gain and its display from 'step' to 'attenuation'. Instead of showing 0 to 99 where 99 screams, this shows attenuation in actual dB. Zero then means no cut or loudest and when configured for zero gain, unity gain or blunt source output. And fork a duckie, for my customary listening levels, the 45 triodes ran at about 17 to 20dB below unity gain (standard 2V source). Land mine alert. While this gets us no actual sensitivity figure in dB, we can securely pronounce Essence sensitivity adequate (or whatever else understated Britishers might call it).

His thoughts tumbled in his head making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.
As the photos show, my room isn't exactly puny. This only leaves 'wimpy levels' or 'New Age fluff' for the objectionists to cling to and explain without static how the Essence could work with the Yamamoto and a passive preamp. We'll merely add that when the Esoteric is set to 12dB of circuit gain, you wouldn't want to get near 0 regardless of what you play. Naturally, trip-hop rave fanatics wouldn't even know about the Yamamoto while those lusting after it will have different listening habits. Suffice it to say that shy of the last word in bass articulation which the lower output impedance and perhaps higher current delivery of my 25wpc FirstWatt F5 and 150wpc ModWright KWA-150 deliver, this combination became one of my favorites. That's because for a SET, the A-08S is very lit up. It's fast without any tendencies to the voluptuous. Though passive when set to zero gain but running off 38-volt rails to be very dynamic, the Esoteric preamp did not dilute these qualities but rather enhanced them. As my comments of the previous page predicted, these qualities complemented the Essence voicing to a 't'. My 8wpc Yamamoto A-09S (300B) and the 18-watt Ancient Audio Single Six monos (6C33C) toned down a bit of the energetic excitement or blood-thinner effect of the Emission Labs 45s.
The submitted impedance plot might help explain why such low-power amps work well. In the critical bass frequencies, the lowest the impedance drops is to 8Ω at 70Hz. Below that it rises to 12Ω at 40Hz and drops down again to 9Ω at 30Hz. (This plot is of the pre-foam cartridge version which used strategically perforated cardboard filled with fiber.) The A-08S comments contradict those on the previous page as a signifier that between pre and final production versions, Zu had massaged performance into higher gear. Not sure they'd be willing to divulge all, I nonetheless dispatched an e-mail with the cryptic subject header "Fess up!" and questioned what all they had changed*. Simply put, now the Essence behaved like high-efficiency speakers again to support the persuasive low-level listening only such designs can.

*The changes made to the production version are a 2nd order Bessel-based high pass filter on the ribbon (10kHz mathematical, 12kHz acoustical), refining how the filter is attached and even higher tolerance matching due to larger production runs (1% on drivers, 0.1% on all other electrical components). With a large production run we're able to match to near crazy tolerances. Running lots of units all at once enforces efficient and accurate production methods so there were some improvements in the rebuilding of the widebanders over the earlier pair too. Here are all the final specs.

She had a deep throaty genuine laugh like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
This would apply only to those with fiercely held preconceptions born of snide supremacy - and just before they heard a pair of fully broken-in Essence. The appearance of Blumenhofer's €16,000 Big Fun 20 down-firing back horns with compression horn tweeters made that point. While the Essence inarguably injects warmth into the picture, it doesn't derive from time-based compromises. Hence it does not undermine the rhythmic boogie factor. This distinction must be understood. Thomas Blumenhofer's acoustic 3rd-order networks at 1.3kHz inject an audible blur by comparison. It dulls transients, washes out transitions and, most vitally, compromises momentum. Despite his tweeters' horn loading which to the general public might suggest speed and cutting power, the transient fidelity of the Essence is far more truthful. If that's what you key in on, the other speaker is irreparably flawed no matter what else it might do brilliantly.

The hailstones leaped off the pavement like maggots frying in hot grease.
Zu's unfair advantage is to wed such timing exactitude with high mass. Speakers with zing usually are lean. Think mini monitors with ribbons. We're unfamiliar with bruisers who are truly quick on their feet to deliver karate-like punches. The two seem mutually exclusive. The final Essence demonstrated the same heft or fisticuff displacement of the first pair but its reflexes were rather snappier. Whatever the exact reason, the $5,000/pr Essence was far more communicative and exciting than the thrice-priced German front/rear horn combo. That sounded comparably buttoned down and homogenized. Zu's rollick also included weightier, bouncier bass with superior self damping.

He was as tall as a 6'3" tree.
As the previous page reminds, it always depends what something gets compared against. My French Tango R speakers have Zu's timing but greater harmonic resolution, even lower bass and, as a function of diminished tone density, even higher subjective speed. At €18,500, they are also significantly dearer. My $6,000/pr DeVore Fidelity Nines are significantly leaner in character and dynamically paler but their decay tracking and ambient recovery are better. During my Blumenhofer audition, I deliberately refused their smaller €5,000/pr Fun 17 model. It became obvious that the Essence would have eaten it for breakfast. I thus declined signing up for a predestined unfortunate outcome. It did however put into perspective just what the money buys you here.

While on dollar signs, Gallo Acoustics' Reference 3.1 was shy of $3K when launched. As the Ref 3.5, it will re-launch at ca. $6,000/pr later this year. Green Mountain Audio's Pico was $5,000 when I first discussed a review. The surviving HD version is closer to $8,000. Both companies claim audible improvements. Fundamentally though, their price hikes absorb serious increases in parts and manufacturing costs. In fact, the model revisions are predicated upon those. The Druid Mk4 was $2,800 when it bowed. The Essence is essentially twice that. But it's significantly more than just a reissued Mk5 Druid. Considering how other companies react to the altered economic landscape of 2009, this pricing seems not at all out of line especially since it now includes dealers. When performance gets factored in, it's in fact very attractive.

Shots rang out as shots are wont to.
Stating the obvious isn't an art but gets to the point quickly. The Essence arrives at its performance not with parts density, apparent hi-tech cabinetry, fancy form factors or any of the usual bragging rights (except for the ribbon perhaps). Its rather simple recipe instead relies on very tight matching and extensive rebuilds of the few parts involved. That reductionist's optimization demands a certain maturity in both manufacturing and design processes. One simplifies and strips away until what remains is refined and pure. Simple really does it.

The cleverest and likely most controversialist ingredient is the foam pyramid. It turns the speaker's exhaust into a form of horn (the sound waves travel its outside rather than inside as usual) before the small circumferential gap deliberately increases radiation resistance. This combination rear-horn slot loading not only downshifts the F3, it imparts audible damping. How and why is beyond my ken but the results with various tube amps from 2W 45s to 18W 6C33Cs left no doubt. Bass reach, weight and texture are very good and don't require brute force to shine. What's more, the bass gestalt is better integrated than the Hypex-powered Presence. Its nicely continuous with the midband. Titi Robin's Anita! [Naive] is the perfect showcase album to recapitulate Essence virtues.

The virile duel between Titi's oud and Ze Luis Nascimento's frame drum is an exercise in transient pepper and forceful bass impact as Ze really beats the crap out of his big skin. Recorded live, the electricity of the encounter must be palpable, tension high, various attacks flaring out like solar bursts. If your hairs don't stand up, it's all for nothing. Transmission of the encoded energy is key and deliverance rides on pure timing and heft. The Essence nails both. While more 'modern' leaner designs focus on greater apparent detail retrieval (see next paragraph), Zu shines a light on rhythm, coherence and mass. Those too are ingredients vital to the hi in fi but oft neglected. They are innate qualities of the recorded event but audiophiles invoking resolution never refer to these details. Are they chopped liver?

Her face was a perfect oval like a circle whose two sides were gently compressed by a Thigh Master.
If you ask what makes live sound obvious from behind a barely cracked-open window where soundstaging, timbre, separation and even frequency response are skewed like that hilarious exercise circle, you'll probably find that it's timing, dynamics and tone density which automate our recognition of real sound. If so, those particular aspects of the playback performance are senior in import to the rest that fill audiophile check lists ad infinitum. This gets us to an inevitable while sobering conclusion: the Zu Essence gets squarely right what many far more expensive speakers fail to even consider. That the €220 Dayens Ampino integrated from Serbia drives the proverbial piss out of it merely is the cherry on top.

The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.
Back in the cosmetic two-tone business, Zu's look is attractively modern, customizable and now even includes wood veneers and aluminum perf grills. The new twin plinth takes the guess work out of the bass loading while the TangBand ribbon adds top-end sparkle without rewriting rules for extension or air. It's an evolutionary refinement rather than fundamental rethink. Thank the audio deities for that. Otherwise, Zu would have finally sold out and abandoned the faith. Not. Their anti-establishment stance is alive and well in the Essence sound while the company image now downplays some of it. As one grows and sobers up, that's only fitting. Be more of yourself but make less of a fuss. As the Ampino proved, the Essence really is a very unfussy operator. Being more finely balanced between expanded extension on either end, it's also rather more of a good thing that many listeners already enjoyed. And yes, it's a speaker with a lot of color. That also means the audio police would could it colored -- rightfully so in the bookish sense-- but compared to perfectly 'legit' aka linear and lean speakers, I'd be surprised if not far more people preferred them colors.

McBride fell 12 stories hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.
With bigger speakers coming down Zu's new pike, I remain curious what kind of rooms those would want when the Essence already plays mine so well. This bears stressing. Going nearly as low as my reference speakers, the lighter bass weaponry of the Essence excites the room far less. No splatter if we stay with McBride. Even with Franck Tchang's personal resonator installation, his Tango R is so potent as to occasionally borderline on endowed recordings. The Essence doesn't trigger the same resonant hot spots in the room. It's thus a far more reasonable proposition, i.e. far less tweaky. Audiophile reviewers are expected to be tweaky. Yet growing older just like the Zu men implies the - um, occasional exhaustion with the nuttier aspects of the gig. When easy does it for real as it does here, it's one bloody relief. I'm perfectly serious.

The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her like a dog at a fire hydrant.
For one kind of truthiness in this price class, I have the DeVore Fidelity Nines. For another, I now have the Essencias. I'm not sure how one pluralizes Essence but I don't live in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resemble Nancy Kerrigan's teeth. Remember Stereophile's most famous cover? If one of these is right, the other must be wrong. Thankfully, life isn't that simple or we'd all be bored stiff. One of the many things the Essence clearly is not is boring. I for one applaud this loudly. In fact, big sigh of relief. Over and out.




© Copyright HIGH Fidelity 2009, Created by B