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Reviewer: Jeff Day
Analog: Garrard 301, Cain & Cain plinth, Denon 103 MC cartridge, Pete Riggle Audio VTAF, Fi Yph phono stage, Auditorium 23 moving coil step-up transformer, Origin Live Silver MkI & MkII tone arms [long term loan], Paschetto Empire 208 turntable [in for review]
Digital: Meridian 508.20 CD player, Audio Logic 2400 DAC, Sony PlayStation 1 SCPH-1001, Shindo Arome CD matching transformer [in for review], 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC [in for review], Hagerman HagUsb USB to S/PDIF converter [in for review]
Preamplifiers: Tom Evans Audio Design Lithos 7 Vibe with Pulse power supply, Shindo Monbrison [in for review]
Integrated amplifiers: Leben CS600, Almarro A205A Mk1 & Mk2
Amplifiers: Fi 2A3 monoblocks, Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A, Shindo Cortese [in for review], Fi 300B monoblocks [in for review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo 2.1, Harbeth Super HL5 (with 18" Skylan stands), Omega Super 3 (with 24" Skylan Stands), Omega Super 3 XRS [awaiting the new Omega hemp drivers for a follow-up evaluation], Merrill Zigmahornets [this review]
Cables: 47 Laboratory OTA Cable Kit; Nirvana S-L & S-X interconnects, S-L speaker cables, Duo wiring harness, and Transmission Digital Interface; Cardas Neutral Reference digital cable, Auditorium 23 Green speaker cable; Tom Evans Audio Design interconnects; Shindo silver interconnects [in for review]
Stands: McKinnon Bellevue Symphony walnut media cabinet, Atlantis Video Reference equipment rack, Skylan speaker and amplifier stands
Room sizes: Room 1: 20' L x 17' W x 17' H; and Room 2: 11' L x 11'W x 9' H
Review component retail: A pair of Merrill DCA4 drivers run $40 FOB Canby, Oregon and a complete speaker including drivers can be built for about $100. A used Sony PlayStation 1 SCPH-1001 can be had for about $30, the Yard Master speaker cables and interconnects cost $7.44 at Wal-Mart.


Dave Merrill's been a DIY HiFi guy for quite some time. Even prior to stereo actually. "Before stereo and just about when 'High Fidelity' caught on in Oregon, I was building speakers. I say building speakers but actually, we mounted a driver into a box and called it HiFi - mono HiFi at that. And we had our roundtables consisting of neighbor kids oohing and aahing over the "great sound" (at least a sound better than their table radios). As time passed and stereo arrived, it became necessary to build two boxes and buy two drivers, one for each box. Next came picking amplifiers. My first amplifiers were push-pull tube types and then came the Heathkits. This scenario went on until I joined the Navy doing a 4 year hitch after which I went to college and returned with a degree in medical technology."


Dave isn't your usual HiFi hobbyist gone pro. After college, Dave went to work for Dr. Albert Star assisting in surgery doing the first heart valve implants. After his tenure in medicine, Dave joined several business firms in sales and marketing. Dave was successful in his business activities and decided to open his own business, a company called Precision Metal Finishes that specialized in doing electrical deposition plating using cadmium. Dave's company did the cadmium work on helicopter rotor heads prior to their being painted and assembled. At the time Dave had the only license in Oregon to perform that kind of work. Dave eventually sold his company and after working in the electrical biz for a few more years, he retired full-time. Well, sort of.

With more time to follow his muse, Dave plunged back into audio and began building speakers again. "I had purchased an M&K satellite and subwoofer system and wanted to build better satellites. One of my first attempts was a ¼-wave folded pipe enclosure using a Seas woofer and Vifa silk dome tweeter. I had a disappointing generic crossover so I ordered software and designed my own. Things were looking better but still lacked the clarity and liveliness I desired. After building a variety of DIY projects, I became interested in single drivers since they negated time delay and phase problems yet cabinet design became paramount to augment the mids and lows of the single driver. I had tried a variety of wideband transducers, always leaning toward the Fostex line even with their peakiness. Then I found a little driver manufacturer in China who was willing to build a few prototypes, a lucky break as most Chinese manufacturers will not build and ship in quantities less than 1000."


By this time Dave had established good working relationships with several audiophiles both in the area and throughout the world. The
first drivers Dave imported from China were a design he had manufactured from specs based on the electromechanical parameters he favored and which he expected would produce good sound. "They were excellent and were heard by a number of audiophiles in PAWO folded side-vented horns. With a 91dB rating, they could be driven easily with just about any amplifier and good results. Some of the comments were "they're very musical", "how did you get the bass", and "they sound better than the Fostex FE103"."


Dave told me the DCA4 drivers in the Zigmahornets were an excellent match to the Ziggies' cabinet. "The DCA4 lacks some of the bass of the PAWO drivers (45Hz) but makes it up with presence and spatial ambience. The DCA4 drivers have an easy free-flowing sound and the Zigmahorns just disappear. Additionally, they are probably the easiest speaker to match a sub to I have ever heard. My sole reason for getting back into the hobby and getting speakers built is to introduce new folks to this fascinating audio hobby at Tang Band prices." Dave had been offering the Zigmahornets as kits but it costs more to ship the wood than it does to have your local lumberyard cut some birch ply to kit specs hence Dave now offers the kits sans cabinet so you can roll your own. "I prefer to sell only drivers and include the cabinet plans. Right now a pair of DCA4s will run $40 FOB Canby, Oregon. Building these units is a snap. All you have to do is cut out all pieces using half-inch Birch ply. Cut the seams at 45 degrees and glue them together. The only damping is a 7" piece of felt in the back of the speaker. Loading is done by the port and very effective."


The Zigmahorns are about as easy as speaker building gets or so Pete and Harry tell me: "If you can zip your fly unaided, you can probably handle it." Being of that lower intellectual class known as audio reviewers, certain folks weren't too sure I could accomplish it so I was sent an already assembled pair just to be safe. But for the rest of you, the process would go something like this: Cut out the pieces according to the plans. Glue the four sides of the cabinet together, glue the top and bottom on, add binding posts, internal wire and driver. Finish (or not) the exterior in whatever fashion suits your fancy and enjoy. Simple.


Zigmahornets
I was introduced to the Zigmahornets by super audio bro Harry Zweben of Portland, Oregon. Harry was on a road trip to visit his buddy Pete Riggle who lives near me. He brought with him a pair of Zigmahorns that he'd built from a kit. Harry's visits are always a lot of fun and he normally brings an audio rabbit or two to pull from his hat. As is his custom, Pete arranged for the audio version of a pub crawl and made the tour of all the local audio nutters' digs for some good times checking out different gear and listening to good music. Harry brought his Ziggies and set them up for the boys to hear. The tall slender speakers were striking in appearance but I had my doubts given their itty-bitty drivers. I set the Ziggies next to my Avantgarde Duos, yanked the Auditorium 23 speaker cables' bananas from the Duos and plugged them into the Ziggies. Electronics were my full TEAD set of Vibe Pulse, and the Linear A amp with my usual sources listed above.


Aside from the sound of music, the only thing that could be heard in the listening room when the Ziggies started playing was the sound of jaws bouncing off the floor. The skinny Ziggies were good - really good! They benefit from the most natural sounding small single driver I've heard. No edge, no glare, no ice pick in the ear as is often the case with that genre - just good solid musical tone. A lot of single drivers asked to perform full range can sound harsh and edgy unless they are very carefully matched to accommodating associated equipment but the Ziggies seem very tolerant, taking most everything in stride and making music out of whatever is thrown at it. That makes life easy on Ziggy owners.


They also do a lot more bass than you would expect given the diminutive size of the drivers. One visiting audio nut -- John -- refused to believe that the Ziggies were producing all the bass, alleging instead that the Duos subs were still hooked up while I was yanking everyone's chain. I never do that to listeners. However, trickster Stephæn has been known to pull a few chain shenanigans on listeners before. "Nope," I said, "it's just the Ziggies." Refusing to trust, John got up and walked over to the Duos to check for himself. Expletives followed. "I thought you were pulling my leg." John wrote a check to Harry for the speakers on the spot and he's used to playing in rarefied territory when it comes to audio gear. Two of the guys at my place that day have since built their own kits.


That sort of scene played itself out over and over again in my listening room as people heard my review pair of Zigmahorns with the Merrill drivers. Never once -- and that is a rare thing -- has someone criticized their performance. I get some pretty expensive gear in for a quick listen and one listener even preferred the Ziggies to a pair of highly pedigreed speakers costing about 50 times the Ziggies very fair price. The Ziggies play music better than most speakers at any price. Okay then, the Ziggies are great musical devices and they work great with the expensive TEAD gear but what do they sound like with real world gear?


A 'Blue Moon' System for $267.44
Not only are the Ziggies a great buy on their own but when used with a couple of über-performing budget busters, the resultant synergy was simply mindbogglingly good. The Ziggies with their Merrill drivers are easily the best single driver speaker I've ever heard - and by a long shot. Add the newest Sonic Impact T-amp ($130) and the Sony Playstation 1 SCPH-1001 (about $30 used) and you've got an uncannily musical combination that will put to shame most systems at many times its cost. The Sonic Impact T-amp rewrote the amplifier book on the cost-to-performance ratio. It's incredibly good for a ridiculously low price. The Sony Playstation 1 SCPH-1001 is another giant killer that's a darling of the audio underground. If you're looking for audio sonic fireworks, the PS1 might not be your cup of tea but if you're looking for an outstandingly musical digital front end that can play music better than just about every multi-kilobuck digital source, look no further - way recommended.


The 44 cents in the above paragraph header is a humorous allusion to pal Pete's latest underground discovery: a stunningly good set of speaker cables and interconnects that can be had for $7.44 at my local Wal-Mart - and I assume at the one down the street from you too. How good? They have a warm musical balance not unlike Cardas Golden Cross, do lots of space and positively nail the tone. Tone, tone, tone - everywhere there's intensely beautiful tone! They have lots of musically natural detail and decent PRaT too. They do nice tight bass. They actually rank right up there with the best interconnects and speaker cables I've ever heard for overall musicality.


You have to roll your own though. Head on down to Wal-Mart and buy a package of Yard Master Patio Cord for $7.44. It's a 40-foot long extension cord with three 16-gauge wires wrapped in a white covering. Cut the plug ends off, then measure and cut off two 9-foot sections for speaker cables and two 3-foot sections for a pair of interconnects. Strip about an inch of the white covering off the ends of each piece. Inside you'll see three wires: black, green and white. Now strip off about a quarter of an inch of insulation from each end. This is important: to get the best performance so follow my advice exactly. Twist the white and green wires together and put a dab of silver solder on them to keep them from fraying out. Put a dab of silver solder on the black wire too while you're at it. For the speaker cables, once you've done that you're ready to go. Insert the white-green twisted wire ends into the black binding posts on amp and speaker. Then hook the black wire ends into the red terminals. You're done with the speaker cables. If you want to get fancy, you could add some nice banana connectors and shrink-wrap the cable ends but I didn't.


For the interconnects, twist the white and green wires together and stabilize the ends with a dab of silver solder as you did with the speaker cables, then add a dab of silver solder on the black wire for the same reason. I had a spare set of Eichmann Bullet RCA connectors so I used those but you could use anything handy. Solder the black wire to the center pin of the RCA and solder the white-green twisted pair to the ground pin. It makes for a tight fit so exercise a little caution to not shorten ground and pin. You now have a full set of speaker cable and interconnect that rewrites the book on cost versus performance. Okay, I know it seems ridiculous that the WM cable set can kick major fanny but just try it. If your reaction is like everyone else who's heard them, you'll be more than pleasantly surprised.


The Music
Pete and Stephæn stopped by last night to listen to the review system with Pete's WM cables doing the tango. The synergy of the system was simply stunning. Pete said, "That's a Class F system if I've ever heard one!" "Whaddya mean, Class F?" protested Stephæn. "When you've spent $50,000 on a Class A HiFi rig and then you hear this system and it kicks the big rig's arse, you go "Fark Me!" That's Class F," quipped Pete. Sure enough, it was (and is) pretty amazing. Class F indeed.


Take "Delia's Gone" from Cash Unearthed. Cash's deep, dark, gravelly voice is reproduced in all its glory and his guitar's dark timbre sounds just like a big old steel string dreadnaught should. The sound through the Ziggies is natural, just to the warm side and sounds uncannily live in the sense of someone playing music in front of you. Bass is surprisingly deep and even though Dave lists extension of his driver to only 60Hz, it sounds more like 40Hz in my listening room. Most people will never feel the need for a sub I think. At least I never felt the need for one. I was completely satisfied by the Ziggies' low frequency performance. Speaking of Johnny Cash, if you're a Cash fan be sure to watch the story of his early life and how he met his true love in the flick, now on DVD, Walk the Line.


The midrange is the real story though for it is truly world class. The single driver makes everything coherent of course but it sounds so natural and life-like that it's almost spooky. As I listened through the different songs on Cash Unearthed, time after time I marveled at how honest the timbre of instruments and voices was. The Ziggies are a music lover's treat. Horns sound exactly the way they should - just the right amount of burnished metallic golden glow, with muted trumpets having just the right amount of silvery bite but never inflicting pain. Banjos sound perfectly plucky, cymbals shimmer just right, tempos always seem the right speed. Slide guitar sounds like you're sitting in with the band. The Ziggies can sound articulate and mesmerizing on slow pieces, brash and ballsy when things get hoppin' and profoundly emotive on the tearjerkers. Honestly, I can't think of a speaker for less than $4,000 that I like as well - and you can make the Ziggies for about a $100!


Since we're talking music, lemme tell you about a must-have album for jazz guitar fans: Oscar Moore by the Oscar Moore Quartet, with Oscar Moore on guitar, Carl Perkins on piano (sitting in as a guest), Joe Comfort on bass, Mike Pacheco on bongos and Lee Young on drums. Recorded in 1954 at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, this is an awesome album that is relatively unknown among the faithful. I found my copy at Amazon.com on Tampa Records (VSOP #34/22CD). All I can say is that Oscar Moore is bloody brilliant! The way he contrasts bell-like tone and distortion effects with superb fingerboard work will knock your socks off. This was recorded in 1954 and people just weren't doing the sorts of things Oscar was doing on this album until ten years later. The man was ahead of his time. And Carl's piano playing is positively gorgeous. The Ziggies bring that beautiful playing to life and impart to it a life-like tone color and an engaging one-two punch to the notes that is positively addicting. And boy, Mike's bongo playing is really an inspiration. You can feel the physical impact of his palms on the bongos skins and you can hear the airspace within them. Buy this CD, don't even think twice about it. It's simply great music.


Small group folk, jazz and rock are the Ziggies' forte. Instruments and voices have an uncannily natural persona. They play the music in an unfailingly engaging way. The Ziggies do have an Achilles heel though: they don't do well on big classical works. Zarathustra will go bust. They are overwhelmed by big works and just sort of fall apart. If your primary listening is to classical music, look elsewhere. The Ziggies won't cut it. Otherwise, you'll likely think you've died and gone to heaven - the Ziggies are positively brilliant in the realm of smaller groups.


This system also passes muster for the 'play everything' music lovers test on A Gentle Evening With Townes Van Zandt. This is a wonderfully intimate and emotive live album with a humble young Townes singing and playing his guitar for an appreciative crowd. Yet the recording quality can be dicey at times. You wouldn't know that the recording wasn't all that great in places with this system though. It sounds like a beautiful and artfully recorded session through the Ziggies with the WM wire, PS1 and T-amp in tow. The story is the same: the music takes on a natural and free-flowing feel, with a touch of warmth, a bit of overall darkness and sense of the music being alive in a musically engaging way that kicks melodies and beats into gear. Timbre is superb, with flat top guitars sounding like woody bodies and steel strings. There's lots of detail recovery too, a really nice sense of microdynamics, all of it imbued with a combination of richness and naturalness that is very engaging. Here the Ziggies are phenomenal.


Conclusion
This is a wonderful budget system for music lovers and HiFi nuts that punches way beyond its weight class. The Merrill drivers are the best small single drivers I've heard and in the Zigmahorn cabinets they're astonishingly good at playing music in a naturally warm and engaging way as long as your diet of music consists primarily of smaller groups. While classical music at lower volumes can be pleasant to listen to, the Ziggies can't handle the big classical swings when pushed - they fall apart. If you want to listen to a main diet of classical music, buy Harbeths.


If you are handy enough to screw in a light bulb while three are watching you do it, you ought to be able to put the Zigmahornets together. They are a wonderful speaker and well worth any effort involved. Many audiophiles often spend more for a single power cord in their HiFi rig than this whole system costs and I dare speculate that this system would bury most of those systems with the way it plays music. It's truly brilliant. Sometimes life just isn't fair and this is one of them. But it isn't the little guy getting smacked around here, it's just the opposite. David just knocked Goliath flat on his keester with a Wal-Mart slingshot and a pebble. In the spirit of David and Goliath, the Zigmahornets and the whole system in fact are a sure-fire Blue Moon recommendation for music lovers and HiFi nuts if ever there was one.


To order the drivers and plans for the Zigmahornets, contact Dave Merrill at [email protected] .