I guess most of us if asked suddenly „what is Acoustic Zen” would answer „cables” as this Californian company is usually associated with audio cables only. That's how they started and not everybody realize that company's products range has already expanded. Some years ago Robert Lee – chief designer of AZ started to build also loudspeakers. Today the range includes one model of stand-mounted speakers, three models of floor-standing ones and a subwoofer. If you try, as I did, to search the Internet for information regarding these loudspeakers you will find out that there was some positive fuss about Acoustic Zen entering the market and challenging other more famous „loudspeakers” brands. This information plus construction type (transmission line loading) made me very curious so when I got a chance to review one of the models I accepted immediately. To be honest I expected a lot from Adagio's cause I really like TL speakers. Adagio are the smallest floor-standing speakers in AZ range – two-way, transmission line design. TL is not so commonly used nowadays as it once was. Now manufacturers prefer easier solution – bas-reflex, which is very regretful in my opinion. Fortunately not all of them do so – Polish company called Sound&Line entered the market couple of years ago with some models with TL and they clearly proved that if well designed TL is a magnificent solution. Just very briefly about TL design – drivers (especially midrange and woofers) create sound waves not only in front of them but also in the back. Transmission line is (in very simple words) a tunnel that leads the back sound wave from the driver to the port in lower end of the front panel of the cabinet (sometimes to the bottom). The idea is to use this back wave to create more sound where in standard design one have to do everything possible to damp it to avoid distortions and coloration to the sound. The key issue is time alignment of both sound waves – the one person listening is getting directly from the front of the driver and the one coming from the tunnel but if one manages to deal with it the reward should be great. The use of a transmission line greatly increases low-frequency extension and minimizes the impedance peaks.
It's worth mentioning that Acoustic Zen has quite new Distributor - company Pro-Mal, that takes the job very seriously and that's why anybody can have his listening sessions with cables and loudspeakers from this American manufacturer.
Using TL design usually means that such loudspeakers need a lot of current from amplifier. Which makes it impossible to drive them with some low-watt amp like my own SET from ArtAudio http://www.artaudio.com/ . Luckily I had at the time some devices from another American legend at my disposal - Audio Research http://www.audioresearch.com/ including integrated power amp VSi60. And even though it is the least expensive device from this manufacturer offering „only” 50W per channel it can make every single Watt count. AZ distributor had some doubts about this amp driving Adagio but fortunately this time he wasn't right. For me personally it was not the most convenient moment for the test as I was in the middle of the process of some changes in my system. I didn't have my own CD player and I was testing a new tonearm on my Michell (it looks like it's going to stay by the way). Another fabulous piece of equipment in test during same time came handy – Audio Research CD5 – no doubts the best CD Player that ever played in my listening room. Extremely natural and neutral sounding it was kind of a warranty that whatever flaws I would find in the sound they didn't come from the player.
If you take a look at Adagios you might think these are 2,5 way loudspeakers with two 6,5'' woofers and a tweeter placed between them. But Mr Lee is a fan of a classic D'Appolito-style array with both 6,5'' speakers wired in parallel to handle the frequency range from 30 Hz up to 3 kHz. This particular configuration should allow greater bass extension and larger sweet spot. The height of these loudspeakers is quite significant and the shape quite specific – wider in the front and then narrowing down to the back. Of course there is an idea behind that shape – it should prevent standing waves from appearing. After unpacking them from carton boxes you need first to mount plinths with spikes to them. There is only one set of speaker's binding posts which eliminates any attempts of bi-wiring or bi-amping, although such configuration of speakers seems to crave for driving this round ribbon tweeter with nice SET amp, and both woofers with powerful solid state. But according to the designer Adagio are so well tuned and also cabled with a really good wire (AZ Santori) that any such attempts would most likely rather ruin the sound instead of improving it. Well – its each designers right to have his ideas, believes etc and we can criticize only if the final result isn't good enough – so lets wait for the listening sessions.
One more thing – well I can see some of your faces when I start the sentence with „my wife ...”, but what the hell. I'm not mentioning my wife to tell you how much she liked the sound but to tell you about magnificent WAF Adagio posses. To be more specific I heard my Dear Wife couple of times saying: „what a beautiful loudspeakers” and „these could stay in this room”. And trust me – she is not impressed easily. When I was dying (because of absolutely outstanding sound) knowing that Prince V2 by Hansen Audio http://www.highfidelity.pl/@main-171〈= would have to leave after the test, she was happy that these „ugly Cylons” would finally leave (probably not all of you are fans of „Battlestar Galactica” so I should explain that in this series Cylons were AIs that wiped out entire human race, except for something like 50 thousand refuges running away throughout Universe for couple of seasons). Just to make a long story short – if you give Adagio a try and love the sound you should not have to worry about your wife's acceptance. And if you are this kind of folks who always try to find some flaws in the finish of every product give it a try with products of Acoustic Zen – you will find nothing to complain about – the finish is simply perfect.
Recordings used during listening sessions:
- Kate Bush, Hounds of love, Capitol, B000002U9E, CD.
- Midnight Blue, Inner City Blues, Wildchild, 09352, CD.
- Leonid Kogan, Beethoven Violin Concerto, Mozart Violin Concerto No.5, Testament; SBT -1228, CD.
- Ewa Uryga, This music touches my soul, NOTE CDN1, CD.
- Patricia Barber, Companion, Blue Note/Premonition; 7243 5 22963 2 3, CD.
- Otis Taylor, Double V, Telarc; CD-83601, CD.
- AC/DC, Live, SONY; SONLP90553, CD.
- Bill Bourne, Lester Quitzau, Madagascar Slim, Tri-Continental, T&M 016, CD.
At first you need to get used to the sound of Acoustic Zens. At least I had to mostly due to the lack of any elements of the sound that would attract my attention immediately which happened recently when I listened to fabulous Hoerning Hybrid Aristoteles (amazing midrange delivered by Lowther and top-end from company's own tweeter), or from my own horn speakers that were recently coupled with very nice Fostex horn tweeters – T900A. But Adagio don't impress at the beginning unless the placing is wrong – than you might get some boomy bass that might be „impressive”. This tells you that placement of Acoustic Zen speakers plays an important role – they need some space behind them but also at both sides. I'm afraid they won't fit small rooms where they couldn't get enough open space around them. Just to be clear – challenging placement of loudspeakers is not their flaw! I mentioned it just to make you think about it when you give them a try – don't judge their sound until you have found proper place for them. When you finally find the best placement you will find the sonic result well worth you efforts. What you can expect in the low-frequency range should be more natural, colorful than anything you ever heard from bass-reflex which at first glimpse might be more spectacular but surely less natural. Let me give you a small heads up – the longer you listen to Adagio the more you will like them – I'm absolutely confident of that.
As a reviewer I have a chance to listen to a lot of different audio equipment. But the bigger my experience becomes the more I realize that for me personally the most important expectation towards audio device is that it should play music, not sounds, and that it plays it in an enjoyable way.
Quite often it means that it shouldn't be super-neutral, super-precise, hipper-transparent but it rather should be capable of hiding some flaws or maybe exposing the best parts, elements of the sound in such a way that flaws don't matter any more even though they are still present. Such an approach came from poor quality of many recordings we may find in the stores nowadays. Surely some audiophile labels still offer us fantastic sounding recordings but many don't care about sound quality – they sell lots of recordings of fabulous performances of great musicians and vocalists but with poor sound quality. Listening to these recordings will hurt our audiophile's ears unless our system can do something about it. Adagio loudspeakers (luckily in my humble opinion) don't have super-analytical skills that would draw each flaw of the recording to the surface. And even though I would still call them neutral sounding they are capable of putting in the spotlight the biggest strengths of the recording and keeping out of this spotlight the flaws. Such an approach lead me again to the recordings of lovely Kate Bush (yes, same recordings I „rediscovered” in my collection during a review of TRI TRV-845SE http://www.highfidelity.pl/@main-395〈= ), and these surely can't be called „audiophile recordings”. There is one amazing strength of Kate Bush records – her voice. Adagio presented this vocal in an extraordinary way – sensual, emotional, her fantastic phrasing expressing many different emotions was show in very real, palpable way. All that despite poorly sounding instruments backing her up.
Trumpet is one of the instruments that are difficult to present in a natural way. I've heard it too many times too soft, dull where in reality is usually sounds very vivid, sharp, vibrant – it's a brass instrument after all. So to check how Acoustic Zens will handle trumpet I played … no, not great Miles but Wilson Pickett on Midnight Blue *Inner city blues*. A great choice I must say (yes, I'm a modest guy) – first of all fantastic, very enjoyable music, secondly vibrant, sharp, vivid trumpet – just pure music to my ears. Of course this recording is not only about trumpet, to be honest its not about trumpet at all – so I had a chance to listen also to other instruments like drums for example. Great attack, proper weight to each strike at any drum or cymbal, I could simply „see” and feel each of these strikes. There were also fantastic, vibrant cymbals with great control – short, „damped” strikes were really short and faded away in a second if that was the intention of a musician. You can add to that this sensual but rough very bluesy vocal of Selena McDay – oh boy! Adagio presented this voice in a way that raised hair on my neck! Acoustic Zen's loudspeakers fed from Audio Research devices were able also to present extremely well the atmosphere of the small music club filled with cigaret's smoke – the presentation was so realistic, that it effortlessly painted the picture of this club in front of my closed eyes. The system disappeared from my room leaving very orderly planned soundstage with many layers, fantastic feel of the ambiance of the room and precisely placed phantom images. Well – that's how I love my favorite music cooked and served!
I was supposed to finish listening session with this particular CD but … there was one piece called *Heartbreak*, with lots of drive in it and Adagio were capable of delivering presentation at almost realistic volume level, like during live concert. But I was amazed not only by dynamics but also by the „class” they delivered it with – all the sounds presented in orderly fashion, with great transparency and fantastic PRAT. I almost started to sing with the band. No worries – it stayed in „almost” phase as I realized that the patience of my neighbors was surely not unlimited.
But since the system delivered such a dynamic piece so well I digged out great live rock'n'roll concert of famous Australian group AC/DC - *LIVE*. Surely again it was not an audiophile recording but as for rock concert sound quality was much better than expected. When you start to play this record and the system is capable of delivering all this incredible energy, keeping the pace with artists and do it with enough resolution so that you can hear each guitar separately, understand most of the words all you can do it to let your hair get loose (assuming you still have some), take of your shirt and than just enjoy the wildest party of your life. If you do that you can also skip next 3 visits in the gym – you don't need them anymore. Yes – Adagio driven by „just” 50W tube amplifier did the job better than fine – they did fantastic job! This statement should give all those who claim that tube amp can't play such music a lot to think about. Acoustic Zen's transmission line Adagio with Audio Research VSi60 definitely can rock your world!
I couldn't miss the opportunity to listen to some more female vocals and both Patricia Barber from *Companion*, and Ewa Uryga from *This music touches my soul* were presented in very natural way. Tonality and texture of both voices brilliantly captured on these recordings as well as how they use their vocal skills, play with them sounded absolutely convincing,. Even not the most natural way of pronunciation of Ms Uryga (I mean you can tell that English is not her native language) was on one hand clearly shown but on the other it was done in such a way that did not decrease the pleasure of listening to her. I really loved the bass playing in Ain't misbehavi'n – timbre, tone differentiation, the „wood” that was equally present in creating the sounds as the strings. I couldn't also find anything wrong with the sound of Patricia Barber's Hammonds – they sounded exactly as I expected them to sound like.
Since Adagios already proved that they could play even these not to well recorded pieces I decided to listen to Beethoven's and Mozart's Violin Concertos performed by one the all time best violinists - Leonid Kogan. These were recorded in Paris in 1957 and reissued couple of years ago by Testament label. Another imperfect recording but absolutely amazing performance if only our system can focus on the performance and not technical flaws. Acoustic Zen loudspeakers did a marvelous job – I'm not pretending to be some violin expert, but just as from any music and any instrument I expect also from violin to offer enjoyable, natural sound, with this beautiful timbre that makes my heart smile or cry depending on the music. Adagio presented soloist clearly in front of the orchestra, letting him to lead or to follow it. Loudspeakers themselves easily disappear from our room living us only with Leonid and the great orchestra, and the wonderful, thrilling musical experience... .
My first personal encounter with Robert Lee's loudspeakers was very enjoyable – if I ever have a chance to listen to bigger brothers of Adagio I will take it immediately (well with one condition – only if I don't have to carry them on my own back to my apartment). Even if I don't get such a chance Adagio will surely stay on one of the top positions in my private list of favorite loudspeakers. The most important advantages are natural sound, flat frequency response, great, natural sounding bass thanks to transmission line loading, disappearing from the listening room and three dimensional, precise soundstage. And this fantastic ability to play music, to extract it even from these far-from-perfect recordings is something that is quite unforgettable. These are also ones of the very few loudspeakers that don't introduce any coloration to the sound, that offer great WAF and can be driven with tube amplifier in spite of not to high sensitivity. No doubts that if one day I want to spend 20 t pln or even more to buy loudspeakers Adagio will be on my short list.
Adagio are two-way loudspeakers using transmission line loading. They sport two 6,5'' mid- lowrange drivers and a 1,5'' round ribbon tweeter placed between them – classic D'Appolito array. Two 6,5'' drivers are manufactured in Germany strictly according to Acoustic Zen's requirements. Their cones are covered with ceramic coating to increase their stiffness. Drivers are equipped with underhung voice coils and Neodymium magnets – a short voice coil in a long magnetic gap allows to eliminates most of the distortions and coloration. They handle the frequency range from 30 Hz to 3 kHz. Tweeter is made in the house and its a round ribbon one. Designers employed a symmetrical 18dB/octave 3rd-order high and low pass crossover. Its job is to cut-off woofers almost immediately at 3 kHz. The enclosure is made of MDF – sides of the cabinet are 1'' (around 2,54 cm) thick, and the front almost 2'' (5 cm). The shape of the cabinet was designed to subtract significantly back waves and standing waves. There is an additional plinth with adjustable spikes that is screwed down to the bottom of the cabinet. Transmission line port is located in the lower part of the front panel. In the back panel there are single high quality speaker binding posts.
Technical data (according to the manufacturer):
Frequency range: 30 Hz-50 kHz (+/- 3dB)
Crossover: 3rd order (Linkwitz/Riley)
Impedance: 6 Ω
Avg efficiency: 89 dB
Size: 122x23x33 cm
Weight: 33,4 kg