The Monitor Quest: Zu Tone

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by Josh Ray on September 25 '06

Tone Pic
First up in the Monitor Quest: the Zu Tones.

Read more about Robert Learner's Monitor Quest for all the dirt on this little adventure. Also, check out Robert's bio for more on his personal sonic taste and various love affairs with audio equipment through the years.

‘Generally, we are easily beguiled.’

This from the Tone manual, as interesting and informative a booklet as I’ve encountered with a piece of audio equipment.* And the Tones are beguiling in the way they embrace contradiction.

Laid-back yet fast. Forgiving yet detailed. These are tough speakers to peg and that bodes well for long term ownership. The underlying weapon here is timing.

First the facts. The Tones weigh in at a hefty forty pounds and measure a 16”H x 11”W x 9”D box. Think of a case of beer stood on its short side, or more accurately a block of cement that size. They feel that inert, and in fact, playing at loud volumes yields little surface vibration. A 10.3” full range driver is crossed over to a supertweeter at 12 khz via a first order slope. Impedence is 8 ohms with efficiency at 101db/watt -- by specs and in practice, this is a very easy speaker to drive. Connections are made via a chunky Cardas connector on the back. Though speced as accepting banana plugs, stick to spades or bare wire -- that’s what it’s designed for. My pair is finished in a spouse and room friendly ‘ghost’ treatment: white cabinet, white grille, and whited out aluminum supertweeter. Happy wife, happy life, or so I’m told.

I listened to the Tone extensively in two rooms. First, in my untreated, generally hard-surfaced living room. Amplification here was the Nuforce IA7 50 wpc integrated, source a Squeezebox losslessly feeding the digital input on a Cary 303/200 functioning as the DAC. Second location was my larger, acoustically treated basement. Here a Meridian 598 transport/G68 processor combo feeds 200 wpc Llano Trinity tube/ss hybrid amps.

Very different systems in very different rooms, yet I found the Tone to sound largely similar in both locales. Generally, the Tone stood on twenty-eight inch stands. Placement in both locations after much experimentation wound up to be about a four feet off the front wall and two feet from the sides, slightly toed-in. In a nod to real world placement, I also listened to them sitting on a buffet cabinet against a wall. Not ideal, but against or very near the back wall is where I see speakers in most dwellings, even designated audiophile habitats. We often put speakers where we can, rather than where we’d like to. I consider it a significant plus that the Tones seemed not particularly placement-fussy.

Onto opinions: laid back yet fast.
‘Laid back’ speakers generally bore me. I’ll take the front row over the mezzanine. Haven’t heard the current generation, but B+Ws make me tense with their ‘admirably restrained’ presentation. I feel like I’m waiting on the music, it’s slower than live. The Tone’s presentation doesn’t grab you by the lobes, but the music passes through unrestrained. They have dynamic ease and nuance at all playback levels -- these are among the most satisfying speakers at low volume speakers I’ve heard. Music pours out in a manner that recalls the Epos ES14. There are design similarities: no crossover in the path to the main driver, first order to the high frequency driver. Phase coherency as a priority. In any case, spot-on timing captures the organic flow of the music -- I’m engaged even though my seat is a bit further back than is my preference.

Oddly, the Tones seem to create depth and space in recordings where there isn’t much. Some of the pop and rock I like has been compressed to death. The Postal Service’s ‘Recycled Air’ on Give Up sounds flat as a pancake on my VMPS RM40s -- they are ruthless on bad recordings.

However, the tune bounces right along on the Tone, there’s even some air around the instruments, giving dimension to music whose performance venue is a ProTools timeline. These are forgiving speakers, possessing an easy living quality that’s particularly valuable if, as is mine, half or more of your collection seems recorded with car stereos and cheap iPod headphones in mind.

Forgiving yet detailed.
In the realm of speakers, forgiving can mean many things, not all positive: rolled off highs, overly warm, or ‘not hyper-detailed or etched’. This last can simply mean lacking in resolution, which is negative in any speaker. Less resolution is less of what happened in the musical moment -- it’s one of the few absolutes to judge by.

My three times more expensive VMPS RM40s are clearly more re-solving than the Tones, and yet I don’t feel as though I’m missing much with them. On recording after recording, I found strings to be particularly well captured, from the initial strike through all the harmonics. There is attack, body and texture -- the Zu design betters most of I’ve heard in this regard. The opening guitar on PJ Harvey’s ‘Teclo’, on To Bring You My Love features strings hits that are subtly and intentionally mistimed. The effect keeps you on edge -- you can’t relax into the rhythm because plucks here and there surprise. I’ve listened to many speakers, some more resolving than the Tone, that homogenize this track. You don’t catch the little discontinuities and dramatic tension is lost. Here is a case where perfect timing gives the impression of great detail. As noted, I don’t find the Tone’s main driver as resolving as the ribbon panels in my RM40, but the speaker compensates with other strengths and is a lesson on how all the factors we interpret sound by are interrelated. It’s what the British mean when they call a design ‘well-judged’. I shall refrain, however, from using ‘welly’ in this review.

Maybe not though, because the Tone lacks it a bit. I’d find them a little more satisfying as standalone speakers if they cut just a bit deeper. Bass guitar chords can run out of gas suddenly -- I’ve heard smaller speakers, the DeVore Gibbon 3 for one, that do a more artful and satisfying job of at least suggesting what’s down there. A quick test with my VMPS 215 sub revealed easy integration -- I’d suggest a sub if you need real low end, and guess they’d mate very well with Zu’s own Method.

Fast, detailed, yet lacking in absolute transparency.
From Lucinda Williams to Joe Williams to Neko Case and so on, recording quality ranging from from pretty good to stellar, I detected a ‘furriness’ in voices, a slight softness and lack of transparency. Very dense mixes could get just a bit murky as well.

Experimentation with positioning and changing rooms and equipment did not obviate the issue. On the great Dave’s True Story’s self-titled album, Kelly Flynt’s voice has a clear-as-glass quality that cuts right through you. The comparably priced Amphion Ion just floats her voice out there. The ATC 10A-2 (which makes a lot of speakers sound veiled by comparison) puts Ms. Flynt in the room with you, as the audio cliche goes. The Tone sounds the slightest bit thick in the middle, but again, the music is otherwise so well timed and unrestrained that engagement is not seriously impeded. I haven’t heard enough single (or near single) dynamic driver designs to know if this is endemic to the breed; the natural gains in coherency from a single source coming with the cost of that driver having to do too much. In any case, I always got into the performance with the Tone, and a sub-2K design will present tradeoffs.

So let’s compare compromises, looking at the Tone versus the Ion and ATCs; comparably priced speakers that I happen to have on hand. As noted, the Tone can’t match the transparency of those two, but wins on timing, particularly against the Amphion. It can also play louder, much louder, than either of them while at the same time sounding lively at low volumes. If you have a medium to large room to fill, and you’re going with a bookshelf-sized speaker, the Tone would be a good way to go. I also found them to be nearly plunk ‘n play -- they worked wherever I put them with whatever I hooked them too. An uncomplicated communicator is pretty easy to live with over the long haul.

* The manual deserves kudos and elaboration. Subjects covered in addition to the usual suspects of placement, power handling and the like, include pages on audio theory, listening evaluation factors, and recommended readings on acoustics. Nice to hear the designers’ voice and get a little TLC as you drop 2K. Nice too to throw a rope to neophytes, who the audio industry desperately needs to engage. Thought through, informative manuals should be a given in the A/V world, but 5K and up products with a xeroxed sheet crushed under the packing material is not uncommon.


No contest here... The ProAc 1SC by a mile...
I like the Proac, but I think there are a lot of contenders: ATC and Amphion among others.