Much has been written about the guys at Zu Audio. Their occasional rebuff of traditional audiophile tendencies have a way of polarizing the hi end crowd from time to time. A quick trip into any of their audio show demo rooms will usually greet you with vinyl spinning delicately from behind a makeshift DJ booth comprised of stacks of amplifiers and record crates. And how often will you hear a Diana Krall default starting off one of their demos? Probably never (but they do take requests). Likewise their speakers are a bit unconventional to the rest of the high-end market. Most of founder and designer Sean Casey’s designs dance around the implementation of a full range driver with a single tweeter to handle the 12kHz and up “sparkle”. While Casey’s product line does reach into the true high-end range with his flagship Dominance ($64k) loudspeaker, he is perhaps more widely known for his sonic generosity to the workingman audiophile with his entry level Zu Omen ($1,500). This review will focus on his latest step up from the Omen. Now a mere $500 more will get you into the illustrious Soul Mk.II ($2k).
Like the rest of the Zu line, the Soul comes in an array of colors and can even be outfitted with your favorite customized finish/color for an additional fee. I’m a big fan of the vivacious Cobalt Blue Matte, but standard Ghost Black I reviewed looks marvelous and will undoubtedly be approved faster by a significant other. The finish on the Ghost Black is not a high gloss lacquer finish, but rather a more subtle, matte-ish concoction that lets the wood grain peek though. The silver brushed-metal look of the speaker hardware provides an eloquent contrast to the rest of the speaker design. As a whole the product looks just as refined standing next to your TV as it does on display as a visual trophy in a dedicated listening room.
The new Soul is a little shorter than the mid-size 3’ Omen. Reigning in around 31 inches, the Soul lands just under hip level. Even at this elevation speaker placement stills hits close to ear height when seated. The biggest physical difference between the two (besides their vertical dimensions) is the addition of a coaxial design within the full range speaker of the new Soul. The tweeter on this Zu is imbedded directly into the center of the full range driver replacing the phase plug found on the Omen. This combination works well with the height of the Soul, raising the tweeter up a few precious inches for a more direct line of sight. Listening to the Soul in smaller rooms with the speakers pointed directly into my ears led to a more directional soundstage. Imaging was extremely well-focused and true, but slightly larger rooms with the loudspeakers toed out a bit more pushed the staging to an even better position with a larger sweet spot. Each pair comes with both carpet spikes and round feet, its important to give the Soul a little bit of breathing room from the floor. Long slots line the edges of the underbelly of the cabinet on the side facing the floor. These slots provide the only port-like opening for air going in and out of the speaker. Placing the speakers directly on the floor would cut off this air circulation and make the speaker more of a closed design. This also impacts the bass quite a bit, so I recommend leaving a good amount of space underneath the cabinet, especially on carpeted terrain.
I have lived with a pair of Omens for quite some time, and have grown to love their natural, fun sound in a full range of applications. Even as a pair of front channels for home theater, the Omens feel very much like the apex where sweeping symphony meets rock and roll (with none of the awkwardness of those live performance mash ups). The entry level Omens feature high efficiency like the Soul (rated 99dB SLP @1W,1m) and handle crushing metal at full volume as well as they handle The Sound of Music in an apartment with a shared wall. So what do you get when you take a $500 leap of faith into the next Zu evolution? Quite a bit actually.
Fidelity. It’s the dragon that the top 10% of this market is chasing around like a kid to candy on Halloween. There are thresholds and expectations that flutter around each price point and the Soul shows you exactly where the page break is here. It clearly elaborates on the definition and resolution you didn’t know you even missing out on with the Omen. The 24/96 HDTracks download of R.E.M.’s Out of Time isn’t perfect, but through the Soul the album’s classic track Losing My Religion kept every bit of sonic secretion tight and harmonious as I’d ever remember hearing it. The gripping mandolin and driving beat sat perfectly defined around the tune’s energetic vocals. Even older tracks like the welcoming These Dreams of You by Van Morrison benefitted from the sonic acuteness of the Zus. This track features a wide swath of identifiable instruments that dart in and out across the song. From Van’s vocals to the introductory harmonica parts, everything seemed alive and unique. Both the saxs located on the right and the warm organ sounds on the left were brought to life with the delicacy and vibrancy of being “front and center” surrounded by instruments.
Top end energy. Having setup the Soul in three totally different environments (paired with five different amplifiers) the one thing that stepped out in each situation was the upper-mid to top-end energy. The way Soul Mk2 translates music is crisp like an autumn morning in the mid west. Crisp, but not crispy. Snappy, fast, and accurate, the sound it produces reaches out to you with an articulate voice that reproduces the recordings original energy with a surprising and delightful fist-pumping auditory power. Its drives the “sparkle” out into the field but leaves behind any peaky-ness or fatigue that can ruin an otherwise remarkable sound signature. Partnered with a prodigious extension to the north, the end result is a more responsive treble that pushes its realism above and beyond your expectations for a $2k wideband loudspeaker.
Realistic, dimensional vocals. From the Zu website: “Zu designs and builds full-range drive units that cover the widest bandwidth possible…with bias on the critical human voice.” If Sean’s creations are attempting to get vocals right, the Soul pushes its reason for being just that much closer. The mids from the Soul were rich and lifelike across many musical genres, and were brilliantly entertaining with the likes of Diana Krall or other singer-centric tracks. The forthright chorus of the simple vocals on the 24/96 Texas Rangers as sung by Rebecca Pidgeon came across as both textured and big. Delicate vocal nuances trickle outward until they hit that invisible threshold where unsung mouth noises become detectable in and around the notes. While the sound of an opening mouth or a rolling tongue isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing of details, it does make for an interesting measuring tape. The Soul receives full marks for both realism and fluid recreation of the original source throughout the midband.
The Omen does a great job handling bass for the price point, negating the need for an external subwoofer in some situations. Its solid punch and presence doesn’t reach to the very bottom of the sliding scale, but it can hold its own against most musical genres. By comparison the Soul’s low end feels just a hair lighter, but more nimble across the frequency. The lightness may be an optical illusion created by said nimbleness, but push the volume on either loudspeaker and you can still feel it in your chest. That being said, two channel/home theater hybrids may want to consider looking into an external subwoofer to handle the lowest gut-shaking rumbles from movies. The over-arcing bass presentation is completely viable for two channel listening, (the full range feels present and accounted for) but huge rooms may get better results from a larger setup like Zu’s Omen Def double stack.
Sean continues to create audiophile-quality wares for the masses without sacrifices to either build or sound quality. His entry level step up is a big one, bringing what matters most to the well-trained ears of the audiophile faithful, high fidelity. The Zu Soul Mk.II replicates music in a way that is both romantic and factual. It delivers this elusive refinement far beyond its asking price, making it a bastion for value and welcome addition to the $2k range of loudspeakers. I can’t wait to see what Sean and the rest of the Zu crew come out with next, well done.