Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: 27" iMac with 5K Retina display, 4GHz quad-core engine with 4.4GHz turbo boost, 3TB Fusion Drive, 16GB SDRAM, OSX Yosemite, PureMusic 3.01, Tidal & Qobuz lossless streaming, COS Engineering D1, AURALiC Vega, Aqua Hifi La Scala MkII, Fore Audio DAISy 1, Apple iPod Classic 160GB (AIFF), Astell& Kern AK100 modified by Red Wine Audio, Cambridge Audio iD100, Pro-Ject Dock Box S Digital, Pure i20, Questyle QP1R
Preamplifier: Nagra Jazz, Esoteric C-03, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVC module), COS Engineering D1
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1, F5, F6, F7; S.A.Lab Blackbird SE; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Goldmund Job 225; Gato Audio DIA-250; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; AURALiC Merak [on loan]
Loudspeakers: Albedo Audio Aptica; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; Sounddeco Sigma 2; soundkaos Wave 40; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence
Cables: Complete loom of Zu Event; KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Arkana Research XLR/RCA and speaker cables [on loan]; Sablon Audio Petit Corona power cords [on loan], Black Cat Cable Lupo
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all components, 5m cords to amp/s + sub
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: Rectangular 5.5 x 15m open floor plan with two-storey gabled ceiling, wood-sleeved steel trusses and stone-over-concrete flooring
Review component retail: starting at $6'495/pr depending on finish

Casually lugging the Druid on one shoulder was easier with the original. Gen V with its integral thick aluminium plinth has added noticeable weight.

Hi eff or effin' high? That was the existential question in our Irish not Danish hamlet. High-efficiency speakers seem to exist in two basic flavours: light and heavy. Those 100dB and up which are not amplified by front horns are light - coned not stoned. Into this group belong AER, Lowther, Rethm and Voxativ with their very thin diaphragms and mega motors. A second group is of somewhat lower efficiency, say 93-98dB. Here I'd list Enviée, Fostex and PHY drivers. They mark my heavier contingent. It's perhaps unsurprising that designers working heavier cones would add tweeters for treble gloss. Meanwhile those in the light group never do (though they might compensate on the other end with added woofers). Hence soundkaos use Raal ribbons for their Enviée widebanders, Ocellia piezo units for their PHY units. Within my basic scheme—coarse and full of holes as any such classification attempts are—Zu sit in the middle. They're both. They clearly belong to the heavy group if you look at their beefy 10.3" widebander based on a customized Eminence platform which then is heavily modified in house. Accordingly Zu mate their signature driver to a 15lbs Radian compression tweeter even though the twin-cone widebander already has a whizzer. But then their Druid V speaker lists as 100dB efficient into 16Ω. That really lifts it up into the light cadre. Sonically however, it's a heavy which has been tuned for maximal dynamic expressiveness plus tone density. Or as Zu boss Sean Casey would translate it into proper dude talk: shove, punch and tonal rectitude. If those words speak to pro bros, the choice of Eminence as Zu's core driver parts supplier is no coincidence. Eminence are a very eminent pro-audio driver house after all. That means units capable of very robust SPL without flinching or distress signals. Rock'n'Roll attitude is in their jeans. And guess what? Many say exactly the same thing about Zu. Their crew's choice of show demo music certainly confirms such views. "No Diana Krall here" might well be their slogan were it not for a far more open mind set that'll play anything even if their own preferences are far beyond the audiophile mainstream.

Reader JL's Druid V in gold-flake Ferrari red juxtaposed to an earlier Druid shows off the seriously upgraded tweeter.

Where Lowther-type thin cones suffer a rep for greatness at girl & guitar but naught else, Zu do the opposite. Public perception accords them superior fitness for raucous stuff but perhaps not perfect sobriety and poise for Baroque period ensembles and string quartets. Young Turks versus old goats. This gets a thinking person to wonder. Does this imply that one really ought to have an example of either type to do justice to all music? That would stretch the perennial rubber band of specialization versus what the Germans call einen Hans Dampf in allen Gassen; a Jack of all trades. That in essence was my personal quest behind today's gig. Having reviewed the Druid V a few years ago, albeit in a very different much smaller space, the time had come to revisit it. Not owning a sample of a high-efficiency speaker in my reviewer tool box had bothered me for a while.

So had the next question. What to pursue - light or heavy? Out of the question by not being a question was demand for physical compactness. When not in use, any of our speakers must move and stow away easily, no back breaking involved. Herniating colossi needn't apply. Cost too was an issue. Finally I wanted something not so obscure that nobody could relate to findings involving said speaker. All of it quite inevitably led to the Druid V; not to mention that its natural-born Submission subwoofer mate was already in da crib. Add Zu's willingness to do custom paints. Voilà, I placed an order with Casey & Co. for a Daimler Benz off-white pair of Druids. It'd match our ivory Submission to threesome perfection. From FirstWatt SIT1 to F7 to Pass Labs XA30.8 and a 15wpc push/pull triode amp running Russian 6L6, I had a number of amps I thought would do the business and pleasure. Let's be honest. This music listening 'n' writing thing isn't just what I do for a living. It's what I do because I love it. So there's got to be personal satisfaction in it for me or else the entire rationale for doing anything full-time would implode upon itself. Kaputt.

Zu's Soul Supreme had just landed on Stereophile's front cover. I had to ask. If I wasn't stuck on it for the shorter truncated pyramidal and reversed driver looks, was there good reason to fancy Afro-American cool over Celtic mystery? Even Zu's website calls the Soul Supreme a Druid in a different cab. Suffice to say, Sean Casey set me straight on just what the metal plinth, more complex enclosure damping and height add to the sonic picture. So a fiver for his wisdom it was and a V for us. For all the mandatory tech stuff, refer back to my original review of 3.5 years ago. There's more to Zu's signature drivers and shallow cab than meets the eye - literally. Think nano domain particles and stuff.

For behind-the-scenes stuff, there's this: "Druid V spanks the Soul Supreme. Soul Supreme is for those who don't want the size of Druid or don't like the look. Herb at Stereophile didn't think he had room for Druid so gave Soul Supreme a go and really dug it. I tried to live with Soul Supreme several times but after a week, I switch back to Druid. It's more than just the cabinet size and build of materials and machined plinth. For me the size of the Druid is part of the magic. Having drivers that are a bit higher than standard gives me a better stereo feel. I also love the look which might speak a bit to my primitive non conscience. The XA30.8 is excellent on Druid/Soul Supreme especially for big classical works, electro-organic, disco/dance, anything big and crushing or glorious. It has a lot of the feel of the SIT-2. XA30.8 does give up a bit of blood and guts emotion of say the FW J2 being fed balanced from a good transformer pre, active or passive; or from many of the great-sounding SETs. It has excellent bottom-to-top spectral uniformity and dynamic behaviour without a bunch of electrical damping which our speakers really don't benefit from. With the XA30.8 or XA60.8 (lived with those for several months too), I find I listen 3 to 6dB louder than with tubes, I think to get the shove I live for. For similar cash I would likely recommend a customer take the Melody M845s out and try some tube rolling. The Melody M845 is much more mellow and lacks some scale and resolution but it does have a bit better dynamic expression to be less inhibited. The Audion Black Shadow is still a pretty killer amp and one I recommend often but it's about double the XA30.8.

JL's Ferrari-red Druid V makes another appearance. The mirror insert shows various Zu models in his collection all sharing the same widebander.

"I haven't yet taken the time to look at the current vs load curves of the XA30.8 but would guess that it develops a third to half less power into our 16Ω load. That's still lots of headroom so no issue there. I also haven't tried dropping load resistors on it yet. A 20Ω resistor in parallel with the Druids might make the amp even happier, kinda like SIT. I'll give it a go tonight and report. So how do I get a bit of warmth and a bit more dynamic magic from the XA30.8? While it's not as input sensitive as the SIT or J2, it is still input sensitive. Getting the right preamp and finding its sweet spot is the trick. For that I use the Rupert Neve Designs 5060 summer [right] which gives me both passive and active gains simultaneously. It also lets me mess with the output transformer's bias and feedback. The 5060 is not as clean as the Pass XP30 preamp but in my world were amps are always changing, speakers too and sometimes I run way too many sources, the 5060 works really well. Oh and I listened to Nelson's 1000 JFET amp thing. Man, there is something killer going on with that. I only wrapped ears around it for a few hours but it had what I dig." For exploratory surgery in our dig, mix'n'match of ancillaries would mine that magic in various flavours. Vinnie Rossi's Lio with DHT module promised to be the perhaps perfect partner for my key amp options. Experiment! Does it ever end? Hardly.

On the subject of which, JL had a surprising suggestion. "I'm looking forward to seeing how your Druids match up with your personal amps. I've done some amp swapping on mine and it does change the sound quite a bit. One of my favorite combos is the Devialet 120 with the Druids. It amazed me the first time I heard it with my Druids. It was like a layer of haze lifted (and I had been using the SIT-2 prior, not exactly low end). For a prolific reviewer like you, the Devialet severely limits how you can review stuff, seeing how you need no other components, just computer and speakers. But if you ever get the chance to listen to one, in your own home with your own speakers, I'd say go for it for personal sake. To me, it was kind of a revelation. It might make you fall off the audio merry go'round for awhile. It did for me, at least with my Druids. I now only gear swap with the bedroom system." To duplicate JL's perhaps counterintuitive match (for a hi-eff widebander that is), I had the Goldmund Job 225; and a pair of AURALiC high-power class D monos. Sometimes taking a walk on the wild side of match making nets unexpected success.

But JL had more - quite literally considering the mountain of Zu speakers he harbours. "You talked of considered the Soul Supreme. I did too, for its smaller form factor. But Sean was right in pointing out the Druid V's cabinet being way more advanced. As you can see, I also have a Druid MkIV and always loved it. A few years back, I upgraded its drivers to the new nanos. In the upper picture I sent you, you see that both my IV and V have the same driver with cylindrical phase plug as opposed to the MkIV's original pointy one. Upgrading drivers made a big difference. I was very happy and tempted to let things be but got the itch again and put down an order for a pair of V. Whilst they were being made, I actually felt remorse. 'I already have Druids with the newest driver. Yet I'm throwing down coin to get another pair with the same driver and cabinet shape. The only thing new is the super tweeter and better box construction. Is this a stupid gift to myself for my 29th birthday?' Thankfully fears and remorse were banished when I got them. They were considerably better even without full break-in; and not just better in some areas but pretty much every aspect including things I didn't expect like the midrange. Sean had told me that the new cab does away with a lot of box talk but I didn't expect it to be that significant, seeing how I listen at mostly low levels because I'm an apartment dweller. But like a lot of things in audiophilia, what you expect (especially on paper) can often be vastly different from what it actually sounds like. Best birthday present to myself, ever."