DALI Zensor 1 loudspeaker
I thought I'd review the procedure I typically use to seek out affordable speakers for review as, in the case of the Denmark-designed DALI Zensor, made in the company's facility in China, there was a twist at the end.
In preparing to review affordable loudspeakers, I typically put together a list of potential candidates I've discovered at audio shows, or that have been recommended to me by other Stereophile writers. I add to that list products I've learned about from press promotions, usually from companies whose products have impressed me in the past. I boil this down to a short list, then run it by Stephen Mejias to make sure I'm not tripping over The Kid's own quest for budget sonic nirvana. The result is then discussed with John Atkinson, who recommends an order for my next three or four review, to maximize the diversity of products in a given issue and, thus, our readers' enjoyment as well.
Given how long it takes for a pair of review samples to be requested, shipped, slotted into the queue, and evaluated, by the time I'm ready to compare them to similar speakers in their price range, I may have forgotten the review candidates' precise retail price. I always check with the manufacturer or distributor to be sure I have the current price before I select the comparison speakersand particularly with speakers subject to the fluctuations of foreign currencies, it's not unusual for that price to have changed since I originally requested the samples.
When I'd completed most of my listening to the Zensor 1, made by Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries (DALI), I looked at this diminutive bookshelf speaker and tried to remember its price. Based on its sound quality compared to other speakers I've heard, I guessed it to be somewhere between $1000 and $1200/pair. When I contacted DALI's US distributor, The Sound Organisation, I was shocked to learn that the US retail price of the Zensor 1 is only $475/pair. As with all of my equipment reviews, my comments in the "Listening" section, below, are made without consideration of the speaker's retail price.
The Zensor series is an attempt by DALI to provide an entry-level speaker series that, they say, meets "the highest standard at any price point"something that DALI has striven to do in all its lines over the years. The Zensor 1 bookshelf is smallest of the three Zensors, all of which share several design parameters. First, every Zensor has a smooth, linear impedance designed to present a stable load to any amplifier. The drive-units have been chosen to achieve a wide dispersion. The Zensor 1's woofer has a 5.25" cone of fine-grained paper pulp reinforced with wood fibers, for a blend of stiffness and lightness. The 25mm soft-dome tweeter has a low moving mass and a strong motor, to make possible very short excursions at high acceleration. The cabinet is built of machined MDF dressed in laminate, with the front baffle finished in high-gloss black or white lacquer. The speakers are available in light walnut and black ash vinyl; I found the black ash to be subtle and attractive. With the grilles, off, the sound was slightly more transparent, and the top end had a bit more sparkle, which is how I listened to them.
I was immediately struck by the Zensor 1's ability to render subtle low-level dynamic articulations in well-recorded jazz. In "One in Four," from The Paul Bley Quartet (CD, ECM 1365), John Surman's soprano sax floated delicately over Paul Motian's minimal cymbal and snare work, glued together by Bley's linear, dynamic piano. Similarly, I was captivated by the minimalist acoustic-piano trio arrangement of "Hey Joe," from Medeski, Martin &Wood's Tonic (CD, Blue Note 0946356942), in which Chris Wood's snare and cymbal textures emerged as the piece's focal point. But I was completely blown away by the interaction of Dino Saluzzi's bandoneón with the acoustic guitar of his son, José Maria, on Dino's Cité de la Musique (CD, ECM 1616). Bassist Marc Johnson sets up the foundation for this recording, in which the dynamic envelope of the Saluzzis' instruments provides a breathing, organic life form with clear linear delineation in the range from pppp to mf.
I know very well what the bandoneón and its cousin, the accordion, sound like. In 1987, as the warm-up act for a composer friend's vanity concert, I performed one of my own works on accordion at Carnegie Recital Hall. Now I found myself staring at the right Zensor 1Saluzzi's bandoneón is panned hard right for much of the recordingsaying to myself, "Damn. There's a bandoneón in the room."
Female voices are an excellent test for midrange timbral verisimilitude, and Joni Mitchell's in "Urge for Going," from her Hits (CD, Reprise 46326-2), was silky, warm, and round, with significant body and decay, and no trace of coloration. The DALI's extended, detailed, refined high frequencies were also evident in the reproduction of the harmonics of Mitchell's Martin flattop guitar on this track. From the same album, as Mitchell's guitar was subjected to more aggressive strumming in "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Chelsea Morning," the axe became appropriately biting and jangly.
The DALI's abilities in the resolution of high frequencies made it an excellent companion for reproducing well-recorded trumpet. Miles Davis's horn in his Filles de Kilimanjaro (CD, Columbia EK 86555) was biting and metallic, with a long, silky decay and plenty of air. John Zorn's chamber work Orphée, from his Mysterium (CD, Tzadik 8018), is a torture test for high-frequency resolution, and the upper register of Tara Helen O'Connor's flute was extended and airy, with just the proper amount of metallic bite. The rapid-fire percussive interplay of Stephen Gosling's celeste, David Shively's percussion, and Ikue Mori's electronic percussion was crinkly clean, extended, and airy, without a trace of smearing. And the explosive percussion solo (by Arthur Tripp?) in Frank Zappa's "Naval Aviation in Art," from Läther (CD, Rykodisc RCD 10574/76), was splattered across the soundstage with every dynamic nuance intact.