Review: Zu Druid Mk. VI

I’ve been lucky enough to hear hundreds of uber priced hifi systems over the past few years, being a member of the audiophile press does have a few perks here and there. A constant presence at nearly every US audio show brings a lot of perspective to a selection of sources, amps and speakers that vary in so many ways there is nearly an endless supply of combinations to draw your sound from. But there is one thing I’ve learned from all that listening: big price tag systems don’t always sound the best. It could almost be considered one of hifi’s dirty little secrets. While many reasons and variables could all claim a piece of the responsibility for this – rooms, treatment, bad source material – it still lingers in the air of the audience every so often. On more than one occasion the demeanor of a group leaving a $100k+ audio show room could very easily be determined; whispers of discontent echoing down the hallway spoke volumes more than the nest of cables or the collection of paper, wood and metal ever could.

This however, is not one of those cases. When the Zu Druids ($10k) arrived at the lab here on a Thursday morn, the makeshift packaging quickly cobbled together by the crew from Ogden, UT had absorbed a few blows on its way over to the 100 degree heat of Los Angeles. The tumble was only skin deep thankfully, and the early production pair of Zu Druids Mk. 6 had made their way towards a review unscathed. The outside bore a message true to the candor and humor of owner Sean Casey and his band of audiophile misfits “Never Mind the Punk Rock Packaging, Here Comes the Druid 6”. Now if a nod towards Sex Pistols seems a bit on the fringe for your typical “audiophile” company, that’s exactly where Sean would like to be found, if at all. His audio show rooms are anything but typical, and his design elements often follow the same trend. Full range paper drivers, nano coates, whizzer cones – elements of audiophile folly or the combined genius of a modern day mad scientist? Having closely followed Sean’s creations for several years now one thing for certain, he has a vision and he is steadily marching his way towards a horizon of pure sound. That sound of purity might not always perfectly align with the trends of traditional high end in the US, but it appears true to its maker. Trends waver and market demands change. Back end conversations of “European” tunings can plague development and muddle the science of things, however the conclusions are made. Zu Audio creates products in a way that is unusually hip for the intended audience, whether that audience is keen to it or not.

So what’s new with the Mark 6? The question should probably be addressed front and center as the price tag for this progression of Druids has taken a fair leap since the last iteration (+$3k). The last time we saw Sean at an audio show he was demoing the very same pair of final production Mk. 6s that we received for review, finished off in Herman Miller Brown. His opening quip to the inverse of that question was “about four screws”. A quick rundown of the specs shows that the paper core of the 10-inch driver has held on to much of the same internal makeup, but with an updated membrane surface that Sean claims “improves resolution throughout the musical spectrum.” Like the Druid 5, there is also a Radian-based tweeter to help out with the high-end sparkle, but the final execution is a full-on custom job from the Orange County-based driver company and has also received major updates on its way into the Mk. 6. The cabinet work is augmented as well, constructed of a “wood cored fiber reinforced composite complete with full filleting” according to the Zu site. The design includes a rear-facing metal plate with an adjustable bolt in the center, however this is only something that should be handled during production and is not intended to be adjusted once the speaker leaves the factory. Aesthetically the speaker retains much of Zu’s boxy, straightforward approach. At 50” high, the Druid does stand a bit taller than the entry-level Omen and your typical Best Buy loudspeaker, but is not as deep or as “European slim” in orientation. The heavy base that gives the speaker its foot print is a square 12 ¾” size with Zu’s standard screw-spike adjustable feet. At nearly 100 lbs. apiece, the Druids can still be setup with a one-man crew in a pinch, but easily rotated on foot to adjust toe in or small movements in placement. The basic styling might be polarizing for some, but the appearance, fit and finish from the company has always seemed quite polished, regardless of what varnish graces the cabinet. Sean’s team appears quite capable of nearly any color, with textures that end up 100% professional, be it matte, gloss or anything in-between. The feel of the matte brown Herman Miller was high end throughout, well finished and massively unique against the backdrop of piano black and audiophile silver components. There are a hearty 5 finish options on the base model for the launch of the Druid 6, with several more boutique gloss finishes available for a surcharge.

With a preliminary evaluation of Benchmark’s DAC3 and AHB2 power amplifier already in the hopper, it was clear that the system was up to task for Druid listening. The pro-leaning monitoring system proved in no uncertain terms to ring true to source with endless amounts of detail and accuracy, no matter what was thrown at it. As with most of the Zu line, the Druid 6 is one efficient beast. It really doesn’t take too much to get some volume out of the tall boys and nominal listening levels were able to be achieved from the AHB2 on the lowest setting without issue. High resolution recordings were fed to the DAC3 via Audrivana Plus and the entire system was wired to completion with Benchmark’s stellar loop of matching cable. With a few days of burn in for good measure, it took very little to get the Zu’s rockin and rollin with some classic tunes. After that was done several audiophile-friendly tracks were loaded up to get a better sense of what was going on with Sean’s latest creation.

On more than one occasion Sean has projected the idea of centering a high value for speaker design around the “critical human voice”. Much of his work seems to emulate this currency. While lower price points within the Zu line may not harness the raw detail retrieval of specimens like the Druid, they all share a fondness for rich textures in and around this area of expertise. Tonal density, mass, a heavy tapestry of sound, whatever your metaphor the vocals are saturated in it if the sound is from a Zu. The newest Druid is no exception.

While the lyrics for Jimmy Web’s Just Across The River tune P.F. Sloan might not be the Bob Dylan of his generation, the production on the track from this album is a solid sample of immediacy, good mixing and strong, balanced sound. Jimmy’s voice can sound grainy or scratchy with lesser systems if not reproduced just so. The Zu Druid 6 came out the other side unscathed and butter smooth. The mids connection to the highs is seamless, and so is the listener’s ability to draw out emotion from the music. Gone are any unnatural hard edges, replaced instead with a true sense of realism that even untrained ears are capable of picking out on the first listen. That’s not to say the detail is muffled in any way, however. Information retrieval feels very much on par with the best of the best out there, but doesn’t really fiddle with the high end too much to get it right. One of the characteristics that often make the best even better is the “Big Voice” illusion. Not only does the positioning of the main vocals have to be razor sharp within the perfect center between the speakers, the illusion of size has to create another layer of evaluation. This is perhaps where fine audio reproduction starts to depart from real life a bit, as a human’s head is only so capable of producing big sound out in the wild. But through amplification and proper imaging, big sound can create an even bigger head, so to speak. Great systems may feel like the listener is staring down the barrel into the mouth of a giant Diana Krall, or standing next to a 12-foot cello. So it is with the Druid 6, Jim’s voice hung in a particularly large fashion between the two drivers. Given the height on the speakers, the image was centered a bit higher than usual, but that only added to the overall relative size in a positive way.

Next up was a 24/96 recording of Jason Mraz’s I Won’t Give Up. The bare vocals of the track once again reaffirmed the deftness of the Druid’s capabilities to recreate the human voice, but the isolated bass guitar opens another interesting window on the low end. The lone bass is perhaps clear enough to make out the brand of guitar (if one is into that kind of thing) but for the purposes here, it made its way out the 10” driver (and holes in the bottom of the cabinet) with a solid refinement and a definition all its own. The Druid 6 does have a downward-facing opening through the metal baseplate, so owners should keep that in mind during setup and installation if they want the loudspeaker to sound its best. An elevated stance with some space inbetween the carpet via the included spikes is best, as a full seal with the floor could cloud low-end delivery in an adverse way. This also could be helpful with positioning near a wall in a pinch, but if someone is taking the time to purchase a speaker of this magnitude, then hopefully they also dare not put baby in a corner. The bass is tight, low reaching and creatively relevant for most 2 channel setups. There are limitations however to what you can squeeze out of single 10” full range driver. Those looking for that home theater LFE rumble will most likely benefit from an external sub to make a grab for the very bottom end of the frequency spectrum. But what was really impressive from the track wasn’t the bass guitar, but rather what happens when the rest of the band hits together for the first time. Occasionally when listening to high end speakers at audio shows, I get scared. Not in a murder-chasing-down-a-dark hallway scare, but rather something deep from my internal system that gets temporarily tricked into thinking that reproduced sound is getting too real, like its own acoustic uncanny valley. This usually comes as a knee jerk reaction to absolutely smashing dynamics, a start and stop to a level that comes so fast it reflects real life for a second – like a car crash. And there it was, tucked into the bridge of this slow burner of a song. No doubt a byproduct of the entire system, but clear as day an indicator of the Druid’s capabilities on that front. Robust, fast, reactive… and slightly scary.

Upper regions of the spectrum complement the richness and organic splendor of the mids very well. It avoids the pitfalls of exaggeration for the sake of compensation or the illusion of more detail. The render is high definition at its core from the start. The image is large and extends in all manner of direction outside of the points of origin, including upward. The treble is extra creamy, like a finely crafted ice cream. Never dull or laid back, it hits a perfect balance that makes the highs feel more believable than most hifi experiences. To reinstate an old audiophile saying, the speakers fade away and just leave the music. A listen to the Zu Druid Mk. 6 is more music and less speaker, catching your attention from outside the framework of traditional boundaries and enlightening you to what could be, or what should have been. Comparisons to ELAC’s recent crop of solid performers might be scoffed at by some, but consider it a point a reference against something that quite a few people can relate to given their extension to the market, and something that might help shed a little more light on the subject. The 3-way UB-5 is tops in its category when it comes to detail, but against the backdrop of the Druids the treble appeared crunchy, and its excellent high end extension muted a bit by the far more natural presentation of the Druids. Bass quantities were surprisingly similar on many tracks, however reach on both sides of the frequency range still went to the much more expensive Druids. There were similarities in the tonal formula to Zu’s own entry-level Omens, however those similarities ran a bit short as the Druids were able to muster much more detail retrieval overall, as well as assorted recipes of liveliness across the board.

The standout points for the Druids are its keen balance between trueness to source without overextension for the sake of resolution. The Zu special sauce is a tasty treat of tonal density, high dynamics and smooth transitions across the spectrum – less crunch, more punch. Drawbacks for many will be price of course; the $10k starting price puts them out of reach for many who find themselves in the middle of the hobby, but the previous model should stick around for a while at $6,750 for those interested in the local flavor. Like almost every high-end speaker, they are quite a presence when placed in any room, the near shoulder height raises them up a bit more off the ground, but then places the Radian driver at a more precise ear level if one was sitting on a traditional height couch or chair. The effect of having the main driver sit a little higher above the listening range does play nice with the intent of extension and imaging, but it contributes to making the speaker a bit more of an aesthetic force to be reckoned with. Best to paint them a favorite color and place them as an altar to the audio gods, a talking piece – for Bose satellites these are not. If you are in the market for this type of investment then you owe it to yourself to give them a listen, Sean and his team do frequent audio shows and even publish upcoming “Tour Dates” on the Zu site. The speakers are sold direct from the company via the site, email or phone – its fairly easy to get a hold of someone if you have questions or are seeking advice. It’s a nice touch in this hands-off digital world we now find ourselves in.

More information: http://www.zuaudio.com/