Zu Audio Soul Supreme loudspeaker Page 2

I was cheerfully surprised by how similar the First Watt J2 and Line Magnetic LM-518IA sounded driving the Soul Supremes. Both delivered an easy-flowing, articulate musicality that let me relax and slip into the music. Both did rhythm and momentum as well as the best amplifiers I know. Both demonstrated extraordinary tonal character. Both danced wildly and jammed into the mosh pits. Both did candlelit seduction. The biggest difference I could feel was not in how each amp sounded or played music, but in how each had its own special way of controlling the speakers and establishing the music's flow and viscosity. The First Watt grasped every note with a just-right grip that caused me to savor the music's tone and tempo. It liked twists and turns. It let the Zu show me the whole of the recording matrix and the extremities of the soundstage. The First Watt delivered well-toned flesh and pumping blood. In contrast, the Line Magnetic displayed a lighter, more feminine touch that emphasized vibrating textures, cathedral spaces, and flickering colors.

Sean Casey says that all Zu speaker models are designed with an ear to the human voice. Therefore, because the Zu's 10.3" nominally full-range driver hands over to the tweeter at 12kHz, the most important things I listened for were strangeness, sibilance, or discontinuity in the harmonics of the ranges of male and female voices (1–5kHz). I played a greater-than-usual number of recordings of sopranos, high-pitched sirens, and countertenors—such as my perennial favorite, Alfred George Deller, CBE.

When I'm not listening to Scott Walker or Miles Davis, I'm dreaming back to those times before our colonies rejected British rule. I'm especially fond of the music of Henry Purcell (1659–1695). I wish, dear reader, that you could have been here with me, sitting on my couch, as my beloved Deller Consort played and sang extracts from Purcell's King Arthur, sung to a text by John Dryden (LP, Harmonia Mundi HMC E200). Oh solemn joy and mild voices! Act I,ii opens with pomp and pageantry that gradually develops into restrained foreboding: even the choruses and solos that follow are less than joyful. My joy was in the listening. The Soul Supremes and LM-518IA played this semi-opera in a most enlightening way. The textures and spaces were revealed with a clarity and tangible realism that made for an enjoyable intimacy with the performers. Images were well drawn, in a way that enhanced my understanding of Deller's and Purcell's intentions. These American speakers responded supremely to the British Dryden-Purcell-Deller consortium. Joy and odes!

Using the new Hana EL moving-coil cartridge ($400, review in progress), I played more Deller and Purcell. This time, in a scene from Purcell's last semi-opera, The Indian Queen, released in 1969 on the collection Musique de Scène: Airs d'Opéras, Odes et Chants Sacrès (LP, Harmonia Mundi France HMD 218), Deller sings the aria "Wake, Quivera, wake!," accompanied by the most vivid viola da gamba imaginable. This stunning French recording—supreme analog at its goose-bump best—presents a clearly defined space that overflows with layered clouds of penetrating harmonics. The Zus and Line Magnetic were very happy I played it—they made every note a tasty, delight-filled morsel. Deller's voice was transcendent. The viola da gamba, played by Desmond Dupré, sounded so colorful, so ecstatically textured that I had to stop listening and read all about the history and manufacture of these bowed, fretted, stringed instruments and their lovely C-holes.

Continuing my search for problems in the lower treble, I decided to pull out all the stops with J.S. Bach's Prelude & Fugue in D, BWV 532, as performed by Hans Heintze on the Arp Schnitger organ of the Ludgerikirche in Norden, Germany (LP, Nonesuch H-71321). Through the Soul Supremes, this recording projected into my room fierce fugal power: Bass notes shook the floor and vibrated my desk. Treble notes soared to the top of the Zus' soundstage. High frequencies were pure and glowing. The mids were highly resolved, but between 2 and 5kHz I consistently noticed what sounded like the rise of a "presence region" that lent a bit of extra light, extra detail, and occasional brightness to short organ pipes—and, on other recordings, massed strings and female choirs.

Comparison: DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93
I hate comparisons, but Stereophile readers seem to love them. I hate comparisons because I loathe left-brain listening. I prefer to feel the music and dream along with it. Comparison means I have to think—maybe even quantify my experiences—and you all know I can't think and make love at the same time. (Can you?)

Actually, I'm not completely right-brain; I do measure the final value of all audio equipment by the quantity of musical connectedness it can provide.

DeVore Fidelity's Orangutan O/93s ($8400/pair) always deliver copious amounts of savory musical connectedness. So did Zu Audio's Soul Supremes. Both are very direct, exciting-sounding loudspeakers. Both are unusually expressive and very non–hi-fi. Both capture musical heartbeats well. Both love high-quality, low-power, class-A amplifiers.

But how, other than in price, do they differ? I suspect the answers lie in their crossover philosophies, their woofer loading, and, especially, the sound character and implementation of their paper cones.

To my ears, every speaker driver sounds like the materials of which its cone or dome is made. Other elements of the driver and the materials they're made of—iron, neodymium, beryllium, alnico, Kevlar, rubber, ceramic, plastic, etc.—also come into play. Each colors the music with its resonant nature—or at least I imagine they do.

As I listened to "Lullaby" through the Line Magnetic LM-518 integrated and DeVore Orangutans, singer Scott Walker sounded less present, fearsome, and tactile than through the Soul Supremes. His voice also sounded much finer grained and relaxed. The DeVores are noticeably smoother through the midrange than the Zus. The Soul Supremes made music sound louder and more direct, with amazingly lifelike macrodynamics. The distance between soft and loud seemed greater through the Zus than through the DeVores. Compared to the Soul Supremes, the Orangutan O/93s capture more microdetail and dynamic nuance, but seem to compress larger dynamic contrasts. Music seemed to flow faster and more forcefully through the Zus—they had an inescapable "wild woman" boogie factor that swept me up and took me for a Cadillac ride to the Promised Land. The DeVores are a different kind of abductor: They seduce me with their saucy smile, barefoot dancing, and sequined Gypsy clothes. Both induce submission to their charms.

To my ears, the biggest difference between these two excellent—but non-mainstream!—speakers was in the voices of their very different magnet and (paper) cone structures. The Zu woofer's voice reminded me just a little of my ancient and beloved Altec 604s: lightning fast, mostly neutral, wide open, and breathy, while the DeVore O/93s deliver a less open but more refined, colorful, and modern sound. What I mean is: the 10" DeVore woofer delivers less dynamic slam, but more nuance and tonal shading.

Sean Casey and John DeVore are both extremely talented designers. I suspect that each made difficult decisions in order to preserve what he believed to be important. Consider me a fan of both aesthetics.

An audio component must always do its jobs: play music in an enjoyable, enticing, elucidating fashion; be reliable (nothing beats a stereo rig that has two working channels every day); and let its owners feel good about themselves. I don't mean simple pride of ownership. I mean audiophile identity, as in: "These speakers represent how I believe music should be experienced in my home," and "These speakers represent what I value in audio engineering and interior design," and, most important, "These speakers get me and I get these speakers!" These were precisely the thoughts I had while reviewing the Zu Audio Soul Supremes.

Audio consumers need to be self-aware and self-empowered. Don't just buy into some pre-existing (ie, mainstream) audio aesthetic or belief system. Your ears, heart, and mind are far more sensitive and sophisticated measuring tools than any 'scope, calibrated mike, or analyzer—trust them. In my rustic hermitage, and to my ears and heart, Zu Audio's Soul Supremes delivered copious amounts of savory musical connectedness. Highly recommended.

Zu Audio
3350 S 1500 W
Ogden, UT 84401
(800) 516-8925

Odin 412's picture

Great review! I heard these speakers at THE Show Newport and I loved them. I went back several times to listen to more music. These are indeed speakers for music lovers - and that's what I like about them. An additional bonus is that the good folks from Zu always play really good and interesting music and not the usual boring 'audiophile' classical/jazz tracks.

crenca's picture

As an onlooker (I have never heard a Zu speaker myself - looking forward to it however) I have noticed more debate online about "the Zu sound" than is usual around a loudspeaker. These measurements go some way in explaining this. The Zu speakers strike me as the equivalent of a high performance British sports car - idiosyncratic, willing to do things their own way, yet just as competitive on the race track as the more mainstream cars...

chronoglide's picture

Terrific choice of music here Herb ... unexpected and most welcome.
I have been a little bored with the "audiophile safe" music at various shows I have attended. I miss the more daring and adventurous music which we all know exists.

Sunn 0))) -- while not to everyone's taste -- is crafted with as much refinement and mastering care as any audiophile record. Been a Sunn 0))) fan for many years and always thought this band would be a terrific choice, and it was so refreshing to finally see this being used. To future reviewers, please consider using more "out of the comfort zone" records in listening sessions alongside the classics ('Kind of Blue' etc).

If you want to "live dangerously", an even darker and deeper track than Sunn 0))) is the CD "The Place Where The Black Star Hangs" by Lustmord from 1995 (reissued on by Soleilmoon, no vinyl) - track 4 in particular which is 24 mins of the deepest, most layered and intricately textured piece of audio I know of. This will test ANY system.
Thanks for the great choice of music.

Herb Reichert's picture

Thank you for reading my stories . . . I am glad you like SunnO))) and just now I went to buy "Place Where the Darkstar Hangs" but for today it was a little too rich for current situation but I did bid on (and win!) "Purifying Fire" to get a taste of this interesting UK band and Williamson's art - thank you for putting me on to Lustmord !!! peace and crickets

jporter's picture

I think Scott Walker's music is so unique and he has an amazing voice. It seems like everyone at the audiophile shows likes playing Dean Martin. Scott is an infinitely better choice..."It's Raining Today" off of Scott 3 is perfect for testing a systems vocal reproduction. Another great one is "Farmer in the City" off of Tilt. Thanks Herb.

2marco's picture

Thankyou Herb for great review; regarding comparison to another speaker you reviewed last year (in the same off mainstream category )...... What about Zu Supreme vs Tekton Audio Enzo xl?

bijaya's picture

great reviews... not only for this speaker, but all of them which appeared in your list.. very very informative and descriptive.. just love them.. would like to know if any review had bn done on Bose 601 series iv floor-standing speakers.. i hv bn using these speakers since last couple of years with ONKYO A-9050 and 31+31 band graphic equalizer of PHONIC.. sound is good, but want to know if any improvement is possible..!!
thank u all and thank u stereophile.. keep it up.. love u..!!

Dr.Kamiya's picture

Paul Barton agrees with that idea, except he prefers fiberglass instead of foam. Makes a lot of sense too. The point of damping material is to get rid of excess energy going through the speaker, and that wave of energy is travelling mostly down the middle of the enclosure, not toward the walls.

alizaibkhan4's picture

Hey Herb

Great review! i heard these speakers at my friends place and i must say they sound amazing. However, would they be great party speakers? I throw parties every now and then and i am really looking for speakers with rich sound.

Thanks. Keep doing great work.


klosterman's picture

Has Stereophile relaxed their policy? Hopefully they have. I appreciate the 'support the dealers' spirit but there's so many direct to consumer firms, Salk, van Alstine, etc. They arguably need just as much or more visibility, sans dealer network. I think it's fantastic Zu was reviewed, and a cover pic no less.

John Atkinson's picture
Scott.Weinberg wrote:
Has Stereophile relaxed their policy? Hopefully they have. I appreciate the 'support the dealers' spirit but there's so many direct to consumer firms...

The "5 Dealer Rule" applies to products that are distributed through normal retail channels, but we have always reviewed products that are sold direct. For more info, see www.stereophile.com/asweseeit/307awsi/index.html.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

klosterman's picture

Thanks John for the clarification / reminder. Long time subscriber, big fan btw.

jdjaye's picture

Hi Herb-

Great review of he ZU Soul Supremes - I've had mine for about 3 years and love them!

Can you recommend an Integrated Amp for about $3k to drive the Zus?
Most of your enthusiastic subsequent Amp reviews are in a higher price range...

Thanks and Regards....

woodford's picture

I have an icon audio st40 tube integrated. It’s available from music direct, and I think would be a great match with the zus. Mind, I have not heard this combo, but MD has a 30 day guarantee, and the amp is not dissimilar to PrimaLuna or line magnetic amps.

klosterman's picture

I can tell you what I rotate on my Zu: Eastern Electric MiniMax (tube) & Sony TA-A1ES (ss). Both well under $3k. Both tasty & smooth. Really smooth.

Thomas Collins's picture

How do you quantify or qualify that characterization? What do they sound like? Do they impart some kind of sonic signature to the music that wasn't already there?