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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio; Eastern Electric M520; Bel Canto PRe3

Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S; Canary Audio CA-308s; FirstWatt F3 & F1; Bel Canto e.One S300
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Mk 1.5 Pro version with Rane PEQ-55; Gallo Reference 3.1
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Zu Cable Varial and Ibis, Zu Cable Birth on Definitions; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber [on loan]; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners; Furutech Reference III interconnects and speaker cables [on review
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco five-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S fed from 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer custom-made by AudioSector and run in balanced power mode
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Walker Audio Reference and Ultimate HDLs; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; Yamamoto Ebony bases under A-08S
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room

Review Component Retail: $9,000/pr | $1,000 for Rane PEQ55

Following Les Turoczi's feature review of the Zu Cable Definition Pros, here's my own summary after a few intense months of ownership. My prior familiarity with the company's Druids and Method subwoofer will briefly touch on what distinguishes these models besides price and more or less bass.

First off -- and various online commentary bears this out -- imagine sticking 10 audiophiles into one room (after you had confiscated various concealed weapons and harmful contraband to keep the peace) to play 'em four conventional speakers and the Zu Druids. You'd get some who'll rank the Zus first and probably more who'll rank 'em last. Middle-of-the-field votes? None to very few at best. That's because what the Druids do spectacularly well they do clearly better than most others speakers. Certainly those they compete with on price. Yet these particular virtues may not be obvious enough. In fact, they may cause an initial disconnect with those who are used to a different kind of sound. Such a reaction would then place the Druids dead last. They'd be the least recognizably 'right' speakers on that particular track of the credo.

Those instantly attuned to Zu's version of leftness -- note we can't talk about rightness per se as some abstract ultimate absolute; these are discrete schools of thought on what's important in music reproduction -- won't be able to overlook what the other designs fail to do by comparison. This would be regardless of certain aspects which those other designs might arguably pull off in a superior fashion. It's a function of listening priorities and the selective perceptions they cause.

The Druid's treble, for example, isn't fully turned on when judged by modern HiFi standards. Those looking for sparkle and air will accuse the Druid of being slightly opaque. The counterpoint to that is epitomized by the phenomenal CDTII tweeter on the Gallo Reference 3.1s. Its dispersion and in-room power response is probably first of class in the Druid's price range. The Definition's treble is more present than the Druid's. Specifically, the presence region above 1kHz is more developed and the transition is smoother. The net effect is one of greater apparent resolution and transparency and less extreme focus on tone. Still, the Definition's phenolic horn-loaded unit isn't an Acapella ion tweeter.

To my ears, the Druid needs to be toed in to fire directly at the listener or the treble gets dulled. The Definition requires far less if any toe-in. I prefer it with the inner side wall still visible from the seat but forshortened for a soft toe-in that crosses slightly behind me. As befits pricing, the Druid is the more forgiving speaker. It's more appropriate for close-field listening. The truly full-range Definition and its vertical front array insist on more space to breathe and blossom. The Druid is more intimate, the Definition king of scale. The Druid is the warmer of the two. Call it the more buxom earth mother of tone. The Definition is more resolved and linear. The Druid has enough bass for most people and most rooms it's likely to find itself in but will benefit from a subwoofer for the bottom octave. The Definition's bass is simply out of this world.

Both speakers excel at low-level listening. This may initially require a few minutes of adjustment. As you throttle back your levels, the mind begins to wander off. You've conditioned it to equate such levels with uninvolving and partially unintelligible. In short, boring. Soon enough, the speakers will break through your mental barrier. The moment they do, the sound suddenly becomes a lot louder. As you allow yourself to notice the fullness and wealth of microdynamic detail at levels well below your customary attentive threshold, the simultaneous increase in perception equates to what usually happens when you kick up the SPLs.

It's not that the sound gets louder, of course. Your refusal to admit that listening at such low levels could be fully satisfying relinquishes its hold. You stop making your own internal resistive noises. Bingo, late-night sessions while the family's off visiting sandman. This is one indisputable - um, forté of the Zus. The same holds true for the insane side of the coin. The large wideband Zu drivers clearly sport a superior impedance transfer with the air in the room. You'll never see 'em move even when it gets loud. That's the opposite of small 5.25" woofers that want to jump out of their hoops. This inherent minimum excursion behavior seems coupled to relatively stiff suspensions (and protracted, high-impact break-in). It's the opposite suspension approach from what's appropriate for open baffle designs. Optimized acoustic coupling between drivers and air equates to speed. Less motion means less time lag. Here, it also translates into a lack of dynamic compression at any levels ordinary mortals with a desire to own a HiFi system would reasonably tolerate.

Such dynamic range and turbocharged microdynamic response times could suggest a kind of hyped, transient-led performance. Nothing would be further from the truth. The Zu sound makes for very easeful listening. While you can indulge in thunderous adrenaline-drenched excesses, you're far more likely to hit your satisfaction index at lower than expected levels. Accordingly, most your listening sessions will seem tamer on the dial yet richer in experiential participation than what you were used to.

The Definition Pros do all the usual audiophile soundstaging tricks. Especially depth can get impressive when you've dialed in solid sub-20Hz coverage to capture those subliminal ambient reflections. There's much confusion in audiophile circles about soundstaging and baffle width. Ever since the big NHT 3.1s or even earlier, modern speaker design has focused on radically narrow front baffles. This often relegates the woofers to the sides Virgo style. It would take someone like Peter Quortrup of Audio Note or the Zu boys to explain why old-timey wide baffles are not detrimental to soundstaging. Suffice to say that listening quickly proves the point even if conventional wisdom should dispute it.

Do forget about razor-sharp image outlines and isolated image lock, however. This simply isn't part of the Zu aesthetic (nor is it natural though it can be enjoyable in a Technicolor sort of way). If you equate resolution with this type of spatial holography, you'll call the Zus less than fully resolved . Or softer in how they focus. That indeed would be the more appropriate and factual descriptor.

The whizzer-fitted Zu widebander with its Stiletto phase plug is entirely free of shoutiness. Accordingly, it lacks the sizzly excitement of Lowthers. There's none of their preternaturally charged on-the-edge stance. The Zu sound is intrinsically relaxed, dense, meaty and easy. It's very different from, say a Second Rethm (my favorite Lowther implementation so far). That I'd characterize as blindingly fast, ultra-transparent, lean and lean again and still a bit energetic in the presence band.

Where we move into the special domain of Zu domination is tone and timing. Lowthers will give you the timing but not this type of tone and image density. To get both -- where to many, image density could connote perhaps a small amount of ponderousness -- is an unusual double teaming in perfect balance. With the Definition Pro, unequalled bass quantity and quality then act like the color black when just the right amount gets mixed evenly into a color photo. Tone colors deepen and saturate while contrast de-sharpens a hair (which would -- and in fact does -- make the usual Lowther implementation sharper and more incisive by comparison).

Timing relates to transient precision, not sharpness. This precision turns into rhythmic elan or swing and structural intelligibility. That's a big factor of the easy-listening appeal. The twosome of tone and timing makes for a special kind of coherence. It captures both textures and structures equally without favoring one over the other. If all of this were beginning to sound a bit anti-spectacular, I'd have described it correctly. Things are rather non-spectacular. We're talking natural after all. The only truly spectacular aspect about the Definition Pros is their bass. We're in essence dealing with two massive subwoofers endowed with high-IQ brains (the Rane EQ below 40Hz), prodigious cone areas, high efficiencies and superior amplification (whatever you decide to bring to the party).

This kind of pitch-accurate, transient-correct, dynamically liberated bass without port-induced ringiness is addictive. Getting it in a modestly sized integrated enclosure as the Pro is unheard of. Large-scale orchestral music without organ doesn't contain much instrumental information below 30Hz. Yet the sheer density of coincidental bass occurrences can be staggeringly complex. When those remain discrete entities with their respective venue interactions intact, the sense of realism and scale is simply that much more profound.

Reggae, Rap and electronica with their synthesized
infrasonics at often high SPLs are another arena. It just begs to be explored with the Definition Pro artillery of bass hardware at your beck and call. Perhaps more fascinating than rave-level organ massages is the survival of full bass at medium to low levels. Everything simply scales back in unison. The bass doesn't drop out. If you're starting to battle psychoacoustics at truly subdued levels, simply dial in a 3dB-or-greater lift at 20Hz. Presto, Reggae in a bottle. Micro rap. Daydream techno.

Besides myself, I know of two other Avantgarde Duo owners who've switched to Definition Pros. As Zu gains Definition homes and owners, there'll eventually be Pro owners who switch to Avantgardes. There's a direct connection. It's a level bridge of mutual respect and recognition. Some might prefer the horns, others the widebanders. The point is, the musical values are similar. The Avantgardes -- especially after the latest Omega upgrade and forthcoming Duo bass horns -- are probably the more keenly resolved and also couple to the air differently. The Definition may tip the scales in coherence and bass integration. Its bass array kicks in two octaves lower than the Duos and subscribes to the same high-efficiency, direct-coupled approach as the frontal array. The Duos -- until now at least -- transitioned from spherical horns to non-hornloaded bass systems. That battled a textural discontinuity that could be sublimated by expert setup and voicing but perhaps never became the complete non-issue it is with the Definitions.

I thus fully concur with Les' comments. There's a distinct sonic family resemblance between the Definition Pros and big horn systems. Yet few -- if any -- of the latter will offer the sheer flexibility and smarts the Rane equalizer brings to the party. How about weaknesses? Conceptually, Zu has an issue with their lineup. We jump from $2,800/pr for the Druid to $9,000/pr for the Definition (add $1,000 for the Pro which removes the internal bass amp, replaces the four rear-firing woofers with higher-excursion units and makes bi-amping mandatory). That hole in the middle is currently filled with subwoofers - the 2 x 10" Mini Method at $1,500 and the 2 x 15" Method at $2,500. You could hit $6,000 dead center with a pair of Druids and two Minis. What could Zu introduce by way of a $6,000/pr one-box speaker that makes sense? A Definition with two instead of four woofers is essentially a Druid minus one widebander plus a Mini.

From a pure performance perspective, the Definition Pro is so well-balanced as to be essentially free of flaws. That's a relative statement of course. You might execute 20 flawless chin ups, somebody else will do 30. Where the Druid is overtly warm and a bit recessed in the mid-to-upper treble, the Definition is linear to the ear. From an ultimate perspective that overlooks the Druid's price point, it could thus be called slightly -- meaning recognizably -- flawed. From a music lover's perspective, it's perfect and one helluva bargain. It simply deviates a bit from a modern audiophile perspective.

Whatever deviations from ultimate perfection the Definition Pro suffers are not recognizable. You might hear limitations vis-à-vis something superior but I'd be hard-pressed to think of a competitively priced contender that could beat the Definition Pro at their overall balance in which are enfolded the special virtues described above. As compared to the narrower focus of the Druid, the Definition Pro (as does the Definition minus the flexibility) appeals to music lovers and audiophiles alike by covering their separate wish lists in tandem.

That doesn't make this speaker everyone's answer of course. It's become quite apparent that few house sounds have polarized opinions quite as outspokenly as Zu has managed without trying in recent speaker memory. That's testament to the fact that something different enough is going down in Ogden. That difference enforces strong opinions. You either like or dislike - strongly. This separates the cheerleaders from the contrarians. Within this game, I'd expect far less dissent for the overall more seamlessly balanced Definition than the Druid.

Competition? In the widebander arena, none of the traditional Lowther versions and their derivatives can remotely compare in the frequency extremes nor in dynamic headroom. No matter how large you make a rear-loaded horn, it just won't compete with four high-sensitivity direct-coupled 10" woofers. Measure dynamic headroom on a Lowther versus the Zu driver and you'll come to similar conclusions. In the hybrid arena -- widebander coupled to bass systems and auxiliary tweeters -- there's Hørning and Bastanis as two examples I'm aware of. To my eyes, the Definition Pro especially in one of the optional lacquer finishes has them both handily beat. Sonically, I can't comment except to say that having now experienced active bass equalization, I can't conceive of obtaining equivalent results without it.

An industry first? A rave on HiFi show grounds, hosted by a high-end loudspeaker manufacturer over an array of high-efficiency non-hornloaded speakers custom fabricated for the occasion.
In the competitive conventional full-range arena, only the Green Mountain Audio Continuum 3 comes to mind as focusing as doggedly on the same values. The C3 is cosmetically challenged and tonally/texturally clearly leaner though as a crossover'd three-way speaker, it remains one of the finest and most continuous I've heard.

In the end then and no matter how I turn the Definition Pro around to unearth a weakness or limitation that would be unacceptable for or incongruent with its price, I come up empty-handed. To me, it's a perfect $10,000/pr loudspeaker that does it all and is cosmetically and size-wise fully house-broken (for accuracy's sake, we have to add a stereo amp and two sets of interconnects into the price). Lest we go stark raving mad or off the cliff, let's remind ourselves jointly that for ten-thousand smackers, you'd better expect and insist on real-world perfection. I'm happy to say the Definition Pro delivers in a very persuasive manner. Unless you've been previously exposed to crossover-less speakers to recognize their brand of magic, the Def Pro may not romance you with impressive displays at first. But then, it won't go south after you consummate the deal either. Rather, it insidiously makes its brand of rightness the standard against which -- if you'll adopt its standard -- you'll begin to measure other speakers. That's probably why Zu is uncommonly gracious with their 60-day satisfaction guarantee. Experience has shown them that if you give these speakers 60 days to hear their side of the story, you'll have completely forgotten any practiced retorts on your side. "Sneaky!" as Gollum would say.

Finally, any consumer audio company that's dedicated enough to HiFi For The People to suggest, get approved for and then organize a professionally DJ'd rave during a "Stereophile" show and custom-design a special loudspeaker array for the event simply deserves recognition. For not just talking the talk but walking the walk. In today's climate where opinions are cheap and anyone with a modem connection isn't your uncle but a critic, that's the kind of retro values we should see more of. That rave proponents should know how to design a HiFi-approved, domestically kosher super speaker is simply part of the mystery but part and parcel of Zu ownership. You're not just listening to something unique gussied up in a custom lacquer or paint skin. You're also supporting a small underground movement. Whether it'll ultimately impact the industry at large or remain far more contained seems less important. Having been part of it while it was following its cause with determination and creativity is important if you share its perspective and urgency....
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