Zu Druids, NAT and the quest for synergy

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by Danny Kaey on September 20 '06

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Danny Kaey tackles the Zu Druids, NAT amplification and the biggest questions in audio.

One of the biggest questions in audio: can you mix and match components from different price points to achieve sonic bliss? To some in the audiophile crowd this would almost come across as borderline blasphemy – generation iPod may look at this differently, hence this little exercise in opportunity...

First, the Zu Druids; formerly Zu Cable (now Zu Audio), truly has a total winner on hand, one that seemingly transcends the typical notion of what a (any!) loudspeaker does, much less one that sells for a most welcome and reasonable price point of $2800 (literally hundreds if not thousands of optional finishes available) instead of the usual and frightening stratosphere price points you are normally accustomed to in all things high-end audio.

What makes the Druids special and different? For starters, the single driver concept is executed to perfection, ie. The Druids feature one 101/2” main driver which while running full range (ie. There are no crossovers in the signal path which would cut off frequencies at either end of the spectrum) delivers 90% of the sound; a “super tweeter” is crossed over via a simple high-pass filter at 16k, which extends frequency response to well past 22k. Another outstanding attribute of this design is the phenomenal sensitivity of 101db – considering that about 90% of all loudspeakers have a sensitivity of around 86db, the Druids are explosive dynamic monsters.

You can look at it this way: the Druids (as well as their much more powerful big brothers, the Definitions also rated at 101db) where most other loudspeakers are in the “comfort” zone at typical listening levels of say 90db, the Druids won’t even be breaking a sweat, most importantly, your amplifier won’t even be outputting 1 watt (!) of power to produce such seemingly loud acoustic energy! That means gobs of natural dynamic range, far exceeding what you would typically hear from any loudspeaker, except for horn loaded types, though they have sometimes rather obvious issues. The Druids are indeed the first loudspeakers I have heard that manage to give you the benefits of horn loaded loudspeakers without any of the negative side effects.

So what’s all the fuss then? Well, coupled with the supreme NAT Audio Plasma tube line stage and Se2Se 80watt SET’s the Druids deliver amazing goods – sure, the NAT gear sits at a price point that isn’t really in the league of affordability ($12k for Se2Se’s and $5k for Plasma), but what the NAT’s manage to do is outstanding – no typical “tube” sound here: its supreme control of the Druids, bottomless bass, and naturally extending high’s with a midrange to die for (definitely no Bose here!) – the funny thing is, that’s pretty much the opposite of what typical SET amps sound like (makes me sort of wonder what NAT’s 200w push-pull “Generator” does?!).

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Now here’s the real killer: the source(s) for all this? You won’t believe it: the $300 Squeezebox 3 in stock form, without a fancy DAC. Indeed, you heard right – I think the SB3 is such an outstanding value in terms of overall sound, that you would have to spend far greater money on a source to best it – but given that this “wonder” source would be a compact disc player, you immediately lose out on all the supreme music access and UI features, which no CD player can ever hope to achieve, no matter the price point.
No doubt, I have begun to transfer my entire disc collection onto my computer and doubt I will ever look back again – the only thing left to do is add an “Über” DAC , though my crystal ball tells me my wishes may be answered sooner, rather than later… stay tuned!

The second source? The swanky $400 Music Hall 2.1LE I wrote about in my HE2006 overview. Yes indeed, a turntable for the masses, which anyone can actually afford, apart of course from my other cherry, the Technics 1210 MG5, though that one sells for around $600 without a cartridge. Sure, a giant killer it most certainly is not; what it does accomplish quite nicely however, is the overall “emotional” connection you get served with when listening to vinyl on even this modest turntable.

Connecting this network of tubes, sources and data files are Kubala-Sosna’s Emotion cables which are simply stunning (but don’t take my word for it: lots of mastering gurus and audio engineers speak with equal praise). Spinning up Massive Attack’s latest greatest hits release (which is pressed on premium 180gram vinly!) you hear everything you are supposed to, minus of course the minute little details you’d get from a better drive mechanism and/or cartridge combination.

Sonically, this system absolutely rocks. It's utterly musical and gives you the emotional connecting link to the performance, which so many other mega systems simply miss out on – sure, you can hear Miles Davis’s digestive organs during his performance of Kind of Blue, but who really wants to know that the Taco from last night was still being worked on? The Druid / NAT / SB3 / Kubala-Sosna combo managed to elevate music to an emotional rather than mechanical auditory experience – that my friends is no small feat, as is often evident when walking various shows, attending demo’s, visiting friends with mega systems, etc.

Late night listening is (again) enjoyable, the Druids simply lowering the volume instead of scaling the music down to a smaller, more diminutive size. The other end of the extreme, levels of around 110db+ (when the neighbors are gone!) are a sight to be seen and heard: absolutely no dynamic compression of any kind, the Druids merely “warming” up as to say “hey, finally the heart rate is somewhat elevated!” The Druids have to be the first speaker I spent serious time with that allow for this seemingly endless 0-100-0 performance, day in, day out.

Noteworthy is the fact that any and all upstream/downstream changes made in the system (for example swapping out my cables for my new reference K-S), become immediately available. Loudspeakers are always an exercise in trade-offs, they do something really well, while being less then optimal for other tasks. Here again, the Druids seem to have more of the former and far less of the latter then many speakers in recent memory.

Look for more info soon…

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The Slim Devices transporter would be a natural upgrade path for a Squeezebox 3.
Danny Nice to read your writing again. I heard the same pair at Francisco Duran's and there was a veiling in the lower treble, which I also heard at HES. Is that gone, now? What about seating positions? Is there one, or maybe three reasonable seats for satisfaction, or is there a broad dispersion of the entire frequency response?
The UberDAC is out already .... It's the Benchmark DAC1, which the best I have heard. Truly amazing. Now give me a DAC1 for 399 USD. and I will be happy. Audio setup : iTunes (lossless) >Airport Express> Benchmark DAC1 > Primaluna Prologue 2 > Proac Reference 8 Signatures
sorry, but i have to disagree. the large drivers create terrible dispersion issues at the high frequencies (beaming worse than manger drivers imho). moreover, i felt that hearing them at ces, they're asking too little drivers to do to much. yes, they're efficient, but at the cost of ability to provide any real dynamic swings and lacking in overall resolution. musical? i consider these attributes big contributers to musical. my $.02
Danny, Now here is the real test. With speakers that efficient you should be able to take out the $18000 worth of tubes throw in a $500 AV reciever and get a good/decent result. I look forward to reading more!
I have Vandersteen IB speakers which do lots of things for not alot of money.They are now 1C models for about $800 USC and soundstage like planars.They also do bass and are pretty efficient.Alot of speaker for the money and one thats been in production for almost thirty years.
@ everyone: we seemed to have some hosting issues which may have prevented you from posting comments: issue is now fixed and you are perfectly free to write great literature! @ David: The Druids are deffinitley not the "drop'em here and play" type of loudspeaker; they require careful setup - however, once setup they deliver the goods. Their sweetspot isn't as wide as say that of my Marten Duke's and I don't think I actually ever heard the Druids in their proper bliss and glory at any of the road shows and CES... having said that, I think that 2 of the features you will discover immmediatley are awesome dynamics and an utterly seemless intergration top to bottom. Listen to some Cash or Cohen for vocal excellence... Kraftwerk for dynamics that are truly outstanding. Quite honestly, I don't know of any loudspeaker in the 3k range that can match the impact the Druids have!
@ Larry: the veil has been lifted! God save the Queen! The veil has been lifted! on a serious note... the "veil" you hear is what happens when you listen to the Druids off axiss, or are not aligned with the directional tweeters. Their sweetspot is not wide and a veiling is exactly what you hear as a result of not sitting optimally. The tweeters are quite resolving on their own; they give you more of an "honest" representation of the high frequencies rather then this more common insanity of juicing up the treble and thereby faking "resolution".
Driving my Druids with a Yamamoto A-08 45 SET amp, with 2 Wpc! Can sound very intimate, with great resolution, and can also offer superb dynamics even with so little juice. Great integration through the frequency range, with the bass more than satisfying on most material (down to about 35 Hz, more than enough to capture the lowest note of a double-bass and all but the last few keys of a piano). In an admittedly small-medium size room. The guys at Zu are doing some wonderful things!
I haven't heard the Zu's, but I have heard the hype. I have read here a number of posts that say that the Zu's need to be placed perfectly and you have to sit in just the right spot to get the promised sound-- that sounds like a niche product to me, and not worth my time. If a component is that inflexible, then it has serious flaws. My Totem model 1 sigs and Cremona Auditors provide great imaging and sound from sound, even when far off axis, In fact, the Totems are so good at the spacial cues that I feel I get the sense of the recording space most anywhere in the room. How could that be? Tonal accuracy and balance goes a long way towards imaging capabilities. Yes, the Totem's are energy hogs, but I will say that one of my most memorable listening moments was when my main amp was out for service and I had my Wave 8's hooked up. Even at low levels the system clipped once in awhile, but everything else sounded wonderful, and even at low power, I could still move about the room and enjoy the music.