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Floorstanding loudspeakers
Ascendo SYSTEM ZF3 S.E.

Price: (pair) 27 500 €

Ascendo GmbH
Hoelderlinweg 6
D-73257 Koengen
phone.: 0(49) 7024 468404


Manufacturer's webside: ASCENDO

Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Pictures: Wojciech Pacuła, Ascendo, Swan Speaker Systems

According to Stefan Köpf, a representative of Ascendo, who made this review possible, the idea behind System ZF3 was to design medium size loudspeakers offering as good performance as only possible. The external design was chosen for its functions most of all and not a “good look”. What is the most significant distinction from most speakers is a separate high-midrange unit, that can be adjusted to achieve perfect phase coherence. Company prepared a simple Excell sheet for its customers – you need to put in some data like distance between listening spot and speakers, also at which height ears are, plus you need to input specific model of your loudspeakers. Push enter and you'll get your result – the distance between high-midrange unit and the front of the speaker. This spreadsheet can be downloaded from HERE. A large ribbon-tweeter is used for this high-midrange module. Bass unit consists of two drivers – one that you can see with paper diaphragm and the second hidden inside cabinet with Kevlar diaphragm. The whole speaker is placed on a special spiked stand.

The version I received for test is a special one. At this time Ascendo offers ZF3 model in three version (aside from basic one):

  • System ZF3 (standard),
  • System ZF3 + (decoupling elements from ZF3 S.E.),
  • System ZF3 S.E. (special edition) (Designers reference),
  • System ZF3 S.E. EW (with external crossover).

In Ascendo's brochure these versions are called „Ascendo 2010 System ZF3 Special Edition”. It is also stated that these are ones of new reference speakers prepared by a designer - Norbert Heinz, a man behind this company, who also designed Special Editions of System M, System ZF3, SUB1 and TOS.
Stefan Köpf said that when preparing new versions they focused on solutions that allowed to reduce energy that usually accumulated in cabinets.

Optimizations were made within three areas:

    ∙ decoupling of speaker's modules from each other and from listening room, ∙ reduction of electromagnetic signal modulating amplifier's output, ∙ reduction of the energy accumulated in the crossover elements and internal cabling.

It is possible to adjust how much bass and treble we get. There are two switches between speaker bindings – one of them allows to set treble at “neutral” position (VD-H) or add 2 dB from 2 kHz up (VD-N). I preferred “neutral” position. The second switch allows you to decrease volume of bass between 120 Hz and 310 Hz (-3 dB at 120 dB) and this was my preferred setting.

The black piano finish is simply perfect. There are three modules – stands with steel spikes, bass module with two drivers, and high- midrange module with ribbon-tweeter. Crossovers are installed inside cabinets in the tested version – there are two sets of binding speakers in bass module and one in high- midrange module. If you want to use a single wire speaker cable (highly recommended) you need to use also jumpers (included) to connect all binding posts. It doesn't look too impressive and after closer verification I realized that the plugs were of poor quality. I understand they wanted to use something with as little metal as possible but comparing these plugs to fantastic Furutech binding posts they seem to be a joke.


Discs used for listening sessions:

  • Stereo Sound Reference Record. Jazz&Vocal, Stereo Sound, SSRR4, SACD/CD.
  • Tron Legacy, OST, muz. Daft Punk, Special Edition, Walt Disney Records, 9472892, 2 x CD.
  • Cassandra Wilson, Silver Pony, Blue Note, 29752, CD.
  • Chris Connor, Witchcraft, Atlantic/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-25166, CD.
  • Depeche Mode, Hole To Feed/Fragile Tension, Mute Records, CDBONG42, CD.
  • Donald Byrd, The Cat Walk, Blue Note/Audio Wave, AWMXR-0009, XRCD24.
  • Harry Belafonte, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, RCA/Sony Music, 7783322, LPCD-M2 Mastering, No. 0953, HQCD.
  • J.S. Bach, Sonatas&Partitas for Solo Violin, wyk. Pavlo Beznosiuk, Linn Records, CKD 366, SACD/HDCD.
  • Linda Ronstadt, What’s New, Elektra/Lasting Impression Music, LIM PA 046, gold-CD.
  • Michael Jackson, Thriller. 25th Anniversary, Epic/Sony Music Japan, EICP 963-4, CD + DVD.
  • Norah Jones, …Featuring, Blue Note, 09868 2, CD.
  • Santana, Abraxas, Columbia/Mobile Fidelity, Collectors Edition, No. 06452, UDCD 775, gold-CD.
  • Suzanne Vega, Close-Up, Vol 1. Love Songs, Amanuensis Productions/Cooking Vinyl, COOKCD521, CD.
  • Wynton Kelly Trio& Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ At The Half Note, Verve, 2103476, Verve Master Edition, CD.
  • Will&Rainbow, Going For You, Eighty-Eights, VRCL 18003, Master Sound, SACD/CD.

Japanese versions available at CD Japan.

Part I

I've been waiting for possibility to test Ascendo speakers for ten years, ten &^%$# years!

It is a loooong time… But maybe I needed that time “grow-up” to Ascendo and high-end in general. Ten years ago I had already a lot of experience but in a recording studio (as a sound engineer and acoustics specialist), so I knew a lot about recording sound but very few about how this sound is to be reproduced later in audio system. Now, from my present perspective, I realize how poorly are sound engineers prepared to understand both ends of the recording – making it and playing it. Usually they are great specialist of recording, but know almost nothing about playing the same recording later in a system and at the same time they still think they know it all, surely better than anybody else. That's why the final effects might be frustrating for audiophiles. But that's another story – I wanted only to mention that during these 10 years I learned a lot about the other side – how the music sounds via high-end systems.

I remember my first encounter with Ascendo speakers - Hotel Kempinski in Gravenbuch (close to Frankfurt), High End Exhibition that later moved to Munich.
I listened then to M-S system driven by a prototype CAT amplifier, that is now known as JL3. As a source of the signal they used some transport (I can't recall what it was) and some digital preamplifier/processor Ascendo worked on at the time. The recording was Oh Mercy by Bob Dylan. It was an extraordinary experience for me and ever since I wanted to get these speakers for a review. Year after year I met Jurgen Schuering during High End Exhibition, talked to him and heard same promise – as soon as Poland would become an interesting market for the company I would be the first to receive their speakers for a review. It took the whole 10 years but I finally did get them.
On the other hand maybe that is why I haven't received the most expensive model but the S.E.(special edition) one, which is something more than a regular versions as designers could have improved here everything they thought was possible.
So is it a coincidence that both modules use Cerabase Finite Elemente, the ones I described many times (e.g. HERE) and use in my own system? Or maybe using (six!) incredibly expensive Furutech FT-818 speaker posts is (if you remember I was the first man in Europe who received these directly from manufacturer as soon as they were finished)? I don't think so – there are no coincidents, sometimes we just can't see or understand which result comes from particular choices – here it all seems to be “tailored” for me.

Yes – quite a long prelude for a review. But this „10 years” is very important for me and somehow “dangerous” because if you wait for something for such a long time you might create an idealized picture of it. So when a representative of Polish distributor (SoundClub ) placed them in my room, in exactly same spot that hosted before Avantgarde Acoustic Uno Picco, Hansen Audio Prince v2 , Avalon Acoustics Ascendant, German Physiks HRS 120 Carbon, and recently Franco Serblin Ktêma, I felt … deceived – it wasn't supposed to sound like that! Sound was “raw”, bit forward and surely not coherent. I listened for couple of days and than decided to call manufacturer to tell him to come and just take away these speakers. So I did.
Everything was set to ship speakers back but some other product didn't arrive on time and I had an extra day for Ascendo. I tried again and found out that I made some minor mistakes – these usually wouldn't really matter but in this particular case all of them together totally destroyed the main advantage of Ascendo- phase coherence.

First mistake – I plugged my heavy Tara Labs Omega Onyx – speaker cable to lowest binding posts – if you use single wire cable always plug them directly to ribbon tweeter. Furutech posts are fantastic but one of their features makes it difficult to install cables with spades – there is a plastic ring that forces you to plug spades from the top or bottom side only. It was too close to the floor so I couldn't plug them from the bottom so I had to fix them slantwise, hoping that large diameter of the tang would be enough to transfer signal properly (when fixed in this way spades had contact only with the nut). Huge mistake – the contact area must be big enough! And there was also a matter of placing speakers – first of all they sounded best when put on Acoustic Revive RST-38 stands (HERE) and secondly their axes had to cross each other in front of the listening position. Usually ribbon-tweeters should point straight ahead or with a very small angle. And one more very important thing - I forgot to invert absolute phase switching cables in both speakers – my preamplifier - Ayon Polaris III – has a single gain stage so I assume it reverses absolute phase. I don't know if I'm right about it but I am sure that sound improved significantly when I did it. Obviously proper absolute phase is a critical issue for Ascendo.
These are all “small things” and many audiophiles simply refuse to recognize their meaning but if you have a chance try it at with Ascendo speakers, you might find it enlightening. Resolution of ribbon-tweeter is so great that you shall hear clearly every single change in the system.
Anyway after all these changes I couldn't believe how the sound changed and how could I have said all these not very nice things about these speakers to distributor. I had to get over it, learn from it and finally start to listen to the music.

Part II

Ascendo offer the most balanced, comprehensive sound among all great speakers I mentioned before. Is it the best sound? It's not about sounding best. Serblin speakers, for example, differentiated mid- and low bass in a better way, Avalons offered smoother midrange, Hansens better extension of bass and bigger, deeper soundstage, and Avantgarde delivered more palpable, more dense sound. Each of these outstanding speakers has it's own distinct premeditated character – something you can easily point out. There is nothing to point out when it comes to Ascendo.

I have to give you some idea about their sound anyway so I'll try but using bit different comparisons than usually, referring to different experiences – mine and yours. Just one request – don't say I use poetic vocabulary – there is no precise glossary to describe sound, to do it well you need to describe how you hear it, how you feel it. Those who think it's a poetry simply don't understand what they read. Those people have no idea about special vocabulary used to describe many different things - wine, cigars, literature and so on – all these depend on description rather than precise, standard vocabulary. So in my opinion it's not a poetry – it's the most precise, truthful description possible.

ZF3 SE sound in extremely coherent way, as if only one large transducer was used. The whole sound is built in a different way than usually. You know what adhesion is, right? So try to imagine that between speakers there is a very thin film of water or some other liquid. Walk to this line between speakers and push your face against this imaginary film and than go back to your listening spot. It feels like this film stays stuck to your face. That's exactly how I felt sitting in front of Ascendo speakers. You feel like sucked into the space created in front of you – the space, acoustics of the room where the recording was taken is transferred to your room, and not other way around.
Soundstage is very coherent, continuous. Suzanne Vega's voice was presented very closely in a full, big way, just like Chris Connor's vocal and guitar of Wes Montgomery. Even though I would say that phantom images were shown from some perspective – listen to very good recording Sonatas&Partitas for Solo Violin J.S Bach, performed by Pavlo Beznosiuk, and you will find out what I mean. Linn Records often offer very sensual, dense recordings and this is one of them. This is a very special thing about Ascendo – on one hand you get the first plan very closely, on the other hand soundstage is very deep – the “secret” behind it is that speakers totally vanish from the whole picture so you can't really tell that there is a great depth behind speakers as they are “not there”.

It is very important that you understand what I wanted to explain above. Usually how the speakers built soundstage, space is not the most important feature but in this case it is – it brings together dynamics, timbre, makes it one coherent presentation.
Phantom images are very smooth, and they are shown differently than usually. They don't have distinct outlines, they are not cut out from the background. They are rather infused to the background. It was very, very close to what I remember from concert halls, clubs and so on. This might be a decisive factor for someone making his choice between (for example) Serblin Ktêma and System ZF3. Ascendo don't show separate “blocks” - there is only one continuous picture. This is so different from what you know from most loudspeakers that it takes lot of time to realize what the difference is.
Although… When you listen to some not that good speakers you might sometimes get similar impression – sound might be less palpable and presented in some distance from you. But here it doesn't come from poor resolution! Resolution Ascendo offers is outstanding, especially in midrange and treble, but bass range is also damn good. What we get here is a try to recreate live performance so closely as only possible.

As already mentioned that tonal balance was very good – very equal, although you might get an impression it is bit on a warm side. Vocals are very strong, rich, deep and so on. I loved how Harry Belafonte sounded on Carnegie Hall (1959) concert, issued on Quality CD, with LPCD M2 mastering. Absolutely beautiful! But the three-dimensionality was different than presented by Serblin's speakers or Sonus Faber Electa Amator I. „Blend” is a word best describing it.
Planar drivers, including ribbon tweeters, are often associated with bit bright sound. Perhaps there are some that really sound like that, but these are rather exceptions as most of them are very good. A good ribbon offers very “friendly”, high quality, bit warm sound – this warmth come from lack of distortions. There is only one condition – all elements of the system must be of a very high quality. If you can hear some brightness, harshness it surely comes from some element of the system and not ribbon itself.
Ribbon tweeter in Ascendo delivers most of the frequency range which makes the whole presentation very coherent and „natural” (meaning similar to real music). Not even once have I heard strong sibilants unless it's how it was recorded. And even than it didn't sound unpleasant but only audible. There is not much to tell about midrange – it is simple a unity with treble. Warm guitars are simply big and warm, and the harsh ones are harsh, although presented from some distance.
This last thing proves that these are “only” loudspeakers and not even the most expensive ones. I think that the upper treble is slightly rolled-off, and not so rich as the rest of the range.
Similar thing happens in mid-bass – it is slightly dull and not so well differentiated as by Serblin's speakers. That's the only thing I can point out claiming that it could be done better. Generally speaking bass is outstanding – well extended and liquid. Great rhythm but slightly softened attack – like in the real life. Resolution of this range is very good but differentiation not as outstanding as in the midrange and treble.

I think I already mentioned most important things, and pointed you in the right direction if you got interested in these speakers. I could go on and on describing my impression but it's not my point to write down everything – I tried to present you only the key elements and impressions.
ZF3 SE are outstanding speakers and if properly set in the room and combined with proper electronics they will play as one, big transducer. They will allow comfortable listening to every music piece, every genre as they are not “ruthless” for recordings. What's interesting is that Ascendo are fully capable of showing all technical problems of recordings, all their flaws but they do it somehow aside of music itself. This makes them ones of very few speakers that can be used both in recording studio and in home audio system. They might not be as beautiful as Ktêma speakers, but here form follows functionality, and that is different here than in Italian speakers. If you can accept that – you might have found your Holy Grail.

One more thing – in my opinion these speakers require really powerful amp to drive them. It is not obvious when you check technical specification as both sensitivity and impedance seem “reasonable”, but test proved otherwise. I would recommend some powerful tube amp like CAT, or VTL, maybe also Audio Research. Tenor Audio 175S should be a perfect match. Some SolidState amps should be a good choice too - Soulution 710 or Spectral – all available in Poland. Each of these shall be a very good match and each should offer bit different sound.


ZF3 SE is a Special Edition of a basic model ZF3. It's a modular design – there is a separate small enclosure for ribbon-tweeter, and much larger one for two woofers. Module are separated with four Ceraballs from German manufacturer Finite Elemente. Same Ceraball feet are used under bass module. Both modules are placed on a MDF, spiked plinth.
At the back of each module there is an aluminum plate with, I think, the best binding posts available presently - Furutech FT-818. There are made of rhodium plated with large brass and equipped with large tear-shaped nut, covered with carbon fiber – it's task is to quickly dump vibrations. The unique patent-pending Torque Guard technology, which prevents over-tightening, allows each post to be evenly tightened for improved channel balance and signal transfer. There two sets of these posts in bass module and one in high- midrange module. With speakers you get jumpers with one set of bananas at one end and two sets at the other. Plug aren't even gold plated, have some plastic elements and look quite … poorly.

As already mentioned the high- midrange driver is a ribbon tweeter – quite a large one with length of 120 mm, with the Aluminum mounting flange, with flared wave-guide that controls the frequency response and directivity of the tweeter. It is slightly dampened with a piece of felt. Front is a casted aluminum. It seems to be a isodynamic driver – the key element of the this ribbon is the membrane, which consists of Kapton Film with a pattern of Aluminum conductors. The membrane assembly is placed precisely between two rows of Neodymium and Barium Ferrite bar magnets. On the back there is a symbol RT2H-A. I found out that it was made by Swan Speaker Systems. It's uniqueness rest on it having resistive impedance in the audio frequency range. This unique feature provides a friendly load for any amplifier and facilitates easy crossover design
A crossover is fixed to the the upper, tilted panel of this module. Only high quality elements are used – air coils, and beautiful MKP capacitors made by Audyn-Cap (model TryeSilver).

There is a 210 mm woofer on the front panel of bass module with paper diaphragm and stationary copper phase plug. I was unable to remove it – most likely it was glued. Below there a bass-reflex port. In fact it is an exit of the cabinet with another bass driver hidden inside, same diameter but with Kevlar diaphragm. This proprietary solution is called S.A.S.B. Using shorter bass-reflex tunnel effects in further extension of the bass, using a longer one results in less extension. Company suggests to perform such “tuning” in the final listening room.
Using two switches you can adjust volume of treble and upper bass. You can add 2 dB from 2 kHz up, and decrease volume of bass between 120 Hz and 310 Hz (-3 dB at 120 dB).

There are separate crossovers for each module mounted respectfully in each of them. Crossover for bass module is placed on the lower panel – there are large air coils and huge polypropylene Audyn-Cap capacitors (Q4 and Q6 series). Crossover's design is also quite different from regular ones. Their main features are: linear phase 18 dB design plus constant-voltage-kernel; impedance adjustable for damping factor of power amp; and tri-wiring and tri-amping possibilities. Such solution offers great time and phase response (similar to these achieved with 6 dB/oct filters), with significant dumping (more than 24 dB/oct.) withing frequency range.

One of the main focuses of Ascendo designs is vibration dumping. I already mentioned Ceraballs and special plates with binding posts, but I need to add to that also a “sandwich-type” cabinets – there are stainless steel plates inside and MDF outside with bitumen mat between them. It is also why ribbon-tweeter has its own separate and decoupled cabinet. In more expensive systems high- midrange module is totally separated by placing on a steel extension that is mounted directly to the plinth.

Technical specification:
Principle: three way SASB-technology (dynamic-current-damped woofer and semisymmetrical Bandpass)
Cabinet: Low-Magnetic Stainless-Steel sandwich construction of Bitumen and MDF
Max power: 500W
Impedance: 5Ω
Sensitivity: 89,5dB/1W/1m
Drivers – high-frequency – ribbon-tweeter, woofers: 1 – 210mm, paper diaphragm with copper phase plug, 1 – 210mm, Kevlar diaphragm
Dimensions: 270 x 1180 x 43mm
Weight (1 piece): 53kg (with stand)

Ascendo GmbH
Hoelderlinweg 6
D-73257 Koengen
tel.: 0(49) 7024 468404

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  • CD player: Ancient Audio Lektor Air (previous it was Prime, tested HERE)
  • Phono preamplifier: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC (tested HERE)
  • Cartridges: Air Tight Supreme, tested HERE, Miyajima Laboratory Waza, tested HERE.
  • Preamplifier: Ayon Audio Polaris III with Re-generator Power Supply; version II tested HERE)
  • Power amplifier: Tenor Audio 175S, tested HERE and Soulution 710
  • Integrated amplifier/headphone amplifier: Leben CS300 XS Custom version (reviewed HERE)
  • Loudspeakers: Harpia Acoustics Dobermann (tested HERE)
  • Headphones: Sennheiser HD800, AKG K701, Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, 600 Ω version (reviewed HERE, HERE, and HERE)
  • Interconnect: CD-preamp: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, article HERE), preamp-power amp: Wireworld Platinum Eclipse
  • Speaker cable: Tara Labs Omega Onyx, tested HERE
  • Power cables AC (all equipment): Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300
  • Power conditioning: Gigawatt PF-2 Filtering Power Strip (reviewed HERE)
  • Audio stand Base – under all components
  • Resonance control: Finite Elemente Ceraball under the CD (article HERE)
  • Pro Audio Bono platform under CD