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Zu Audio Druid V Loudspeakers

12-13-2014 | By Danny Kaey | Issue 76

Zu Audio Druid V

'twas the year of our Lord twothousandandfive, when I had the very first opportunity to audition and opine about Zu's Druid loudspeakers following a local tube show in the valley of the angels. Many a historic composite has been penned about Zu; suffice is to say that back then—if you could make such bold historic claims—Zu was still a relative newcomer to the world of HiFi and audiofoolia, er. –phelia. Sean and Adam (still part of the crew back then as acting CFO, that is, cash-flow-operator) at that point where just getting started. Even so, the seeming disparity between Zu lovers and Zu haters was already in full swing.

The Druid of 2005 was about as simpleton as you could get—mind you, this was all prior to my love affair commencing with Zu's then still off-the-charts groov-alicious Definition (reviews of models Mk II and Mk IV I had penned here at PF sometime ago)—a lanky, tall, unusual looking cabinet mounted avec Zu's proprietary 10" full-bander with whizzer cone and a tweeter mounted below said full-range driver crossed over via a simple high-pass filter at around 16khz completed the package. Thus born was Zu's Druid cult-classic.

I remember the excitement schlepping the speakers back home and setting them up only to be well, how do I put this: disappointed? Yep. I was. Honest truth. Scout's honor! These things didn't sound anything like what I remembered them from the show just a day prior. Dull; boring; muddy; booming; in short, they were anything but audiophilia-maxima. Coming off my then pair of Marten Duke speakers (2-way mini-monitors with Velodyne DD-15 sub-stumper) these Druids positively didn't do it for me. Sadness. You see, I really, really, really wanted to dig these dudes (the speakers of course, Sean and Adam where and are super-cool dudes-squared, though Adam has since left Zu). It wasn't to be. Yes, Sean spent time on the phone giving me dial-in suggestions, mostly to no avail. These Druids simply didn't sing.

Zu Audio Druid V

You could say that my love affair for the Definition was perhaps a direct result of said experience as Sean essentially said straightforward: "I think you'll dig the Defs much more". The rest as they say is history. Once you get Zu, it's always Zu. Fast-forward to spring of 2014 and Sean yet again offered in kindness a pair of Druid Mk V and the king of low frequency exterminators, the Submission, an authoritative and all-knowing sub-stumper-thor-hammer-macher, all inclusive massive suspension, massive motor, massive sound. In general, essentially a Definition Mk IV cabinet with a downward firing 12" super-stumper with built in amp and eq box sans main drivers. "What color you want these in?" Why, thanks Sean, how about Aston Martin Baby Blue. So it was.

Delivering the Druids and Sub personally, a music party @ casa K was promptly organized; I have been hosting music parties at my house over the past three odd years for the simple reason that I want my local community and friends to also experience this great thing we call music. Traditionally, Zu speakers have never been too critical of setup. Zu again going pretty much against the grain, it's a sort of set it and forget it type mentality: scan your room, find two empty spots in relatively close proximity, pluck one speaker here, the other one over there and that's pretty much it. Naturally, tweaking the setup, using all sorts of "golden" rules, etc. will improve upon the sound to varying degrees, alas, Zu speakers are meant to be about as easy to setup as USB's plug-and-play. Adding Submission to the mix didn't prove too large a challenge either: a corner location to further enhance bass presence and drive is easily found and, given that Submission is self-powered (like Definition IV), all that's really necessary is an RCA connection (or speaker terminal if so chosen) to get the party started. Here, Zu does a fine job of adding that famous customer support as a life-line for novices and those not all too familiar with the sub's EQ, level and slope settings, which do have quite a dramatic effect on the overall sound. Sean is of course always happy to add his guidance and wisdom to any conversation, thus aiding in the setup procedure.

Zu Audio Druid V

Invites went out, the public gathered—these Zu's where a hit. Fellow audiophile Owen Kwon, chief marketing guru from Astell&Kern also dropped by to show off native DSD playback via their portable super-player. Promptly cueing up Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love", a native DSD transfer, the faithful crowds assembled willingly and without the need for any coercion: "Man! This sounds KILLER" was uttered more than just once. Bass was filling the room; fast, quick, no sign of compression or defeat. The Druids meanwhile projected the appropriate studio stage behind the speakers; disappearing from the image altogether. Many Zu detractors claim that Zu's just don't have "it". They are missing resolution, imaging, and depth—well, to you, I'll say this: the Zu sound of 2014 is most certainly far more high-fidelity than anything you may have heard or read on some forum. To these ears, that equation is simply not there.

Long after the guests had left, I remained enveloped in a DK late night session: swapping my trusted EINSTEIN gear for the famous darTZeel integrated behemoth, the sound at once changed, clearly displaying the distinct difference of the individual component contributors. EINSTEIN the more organic, holographic sound; darTZeel the more bass impulsive and playful character. Missing resolution my ass. Song after song, Druid exemplified the Zu sound: connecting Hi-Fi with music. You see, I have long since recognized that what most modern day audiophiles look for isn't really music—it's spot lit characterization of their perception of music. In the real world, resolution in the audiophile sense of the word doesn't exist. There's really no sparkle or spot lit shine on top; in fact I'd even say that live music sounds somewhat flat and far less shiny than what you hear at your typical audio show—songs of potatoes and all not withstanding.

Now those late night sessions are something special with the sound of Zu. Exhibiting 101dB efficiency, they embody the virtual definition of shove, explosiveness and uninhibited dynamics—no doubt the crossoverless design speaks for itself. To be fair, there are of course other speakers that allow micro-defined late night sessions; it's just that Druids do it so effortlessly, so easily. Headphone listening is one thing—you get the gist of the recording, the music; alas, in no way can you ever begin to approach the breath and depth of music via cans—no matter how good they are; physically, it's simply not possible to recreate a massively scaled soundstage from within your head. It's just a different sort of listening you get used to. Not so with these Druids. Even at modest volumes these speakers exhibit plenty of audiophilia: keenly and dutifully handling anything you throw at them.

Druid V sparks a whole new generation of upgrades to the previous model. The cabinet is an all new, massively braced construction that is bolted onto a machined from billet aluminum base. Sean's Zu-Griewe (co-developed with Ron Griewe) designed bass loading system is now in its 3rd generation; essentially it is a cleverly engineered low frequency management system that improves power efficiency, bandwidth and noise reduction for cleaner, tighter, far better defined small acoustic space bass response. Tweeting duties are handled by the Radian 850. Have I mentioned Sean's a rebel. Name one other high-end speaker manufacturer who uses the Radian 850. Precisely my point. A massive—did I mention the tweeter weighs 15lbs (!)—super high efficiency compression driver designed to compliment the Zu 10" widebander, Sean feels it alone is capable of playing nice with Druid's system synergy. I'll say this: don't be fooled into thinking this isn't worthy of a high-end badge. Listen first, then speak.

Nina Simone Little Girl Blue? Check. Depeche Mode Violator? Check. Art Tatum on Pablo? Yup, that too. Each song, each album offers up a unique representation of the music played. Pixel-peeping takes a back seat to music. Nina's soultry, seductive, sensual voice is the corner stone of any Zu speaker—it goes together like bread and butter. No doubt a function of Zu's 10" full range driver, this widebander delivers vocals, both female and male, with expression that is second to none. Whatever information a crossover would drown out, the Zu full range driver deals with no such issues. It's practically a direct connection and output of your amplifier's speaker taps. Can't get any better than that. Druids tapped onto OTLs in particular deliver a quantifiable, dramatic upstaging of anything else—power, finesse, shove, check. The Radian 850 supertweeter handles its duties with aplomb. Micro articulation, nay, resolution in the highest registers are no big deal. Playfully engaged to the highest registers, yet never ahead or behind the widebander above it, the supertweeter offers up all the sparkle you need—never a dull moment.

Precisely, exquisitely, professionally produced electronica, such as Jessie Ware's latest double LP, sound astonishingly real. There's a sense of depth and drive that would cost far more up front in dollars and sense to reproduce elsewhere on the audio scale—if even possible. Peachtree audio can have access to any speaker they want—any. Yet, time and again, they choose to display their wares with Zu. Wonder why. Do yourself a flavor and go to the next Newport / Denver / Chicago show and check it out for yourself. "Ahhh… uhhh… ohhhh…" That's what the fuss is all about! Case in point, this past Denver show, Zu showed up with a pair of said Druids and a pair of Undertone subs (Undertone is to Submission as Druid is to Definition: same story, different dollar sign). Sean emceeing his way in and out of trouble, the sound filling the massively large showroom was stupendously groovy. Peachtree electronics running various LP rigs (I recall two or three Regas) produced stunning output, mega resolve and super-shuv. Everyone—everyone—was in agreement. Noodle through all the various show reports to see for yourself. Check-mate.

Sean is a bit of a rebel— no, make that a lot of a rebel; rebel squared. He cares about good, nay, great sound. He cares about feeding the other dozen or so renegades that Zu employs at their factory in Ogden. He cares about providing real value at real world pricing to real world music lovers. Audiophiles are a natural element to this vision. There's no free lunches. Part of what makes Zu stand out at shows, in rags, in opinion masturbators, is that they have a sense of causality, duality, relevance. Sure, Diana Krall and company are always a welcome rendition of what music is; so is Four Tet, The New Pornographers, Bill Laswell and the Sex Pistols. Ask Sean what he'd cue up at a show, at home and it's definitively the latter, not former that will come out spinning on top. There's never a dull moment. Much to the dismay of some opinion critics in the mainstream press; though they appear to be awakening to the embodiment of what Zu is all about. Sorting through all that is Stereophile, TAS, 6Moons (to be fair, Srajan's 6Moons has been a long time pioneer and advocate for the sound of Zu), one can't help but feel that the Zu crew is mostly mentioned as an after thought, not quite the main course. It is getting better.

A recent eBay find is an Israeli copy of Mario Lanza's greatest hits—issued on Living Stereo RCA. How fitting that Lanza, a rebel himself in many ways, sounds rather amusingly amazing via the Druid / Submission combo. Here again, we hear the effortless output of his voice, projected into the room with scale, solidity and image specificity that is hard to argue with. It's all about making music. Equally stunning is—on top of a far better recording—Johnny Hartmann's rendition of Waltz for Debby on Chad Kassem's Acoustic Sounds 45 reissue from a few years ago. Dude. Positively stunning. A small, compact arrangement, drums on the right, piano on the left, bass and vocals center, it doesn't get much more intimate. Scaling the trio to proper size and image, Druid V manages to delight and surprise all at once. Delight because Hartmann's soulful, baritone voice is the icing on the cake, surprising because whatever you may have heard about Zu simply gets squashed in an instant. Listen after listen you become quite smitten.

Naturally, bass heavy, dynamic music is the Druid's most propelling call: even without Submission engaged to warp the lower frequencies, Druid can very much stand on its own. Sure, the shock and awe of the dynamic impulses becomes somewhat less pronounced, alas, you still do very much get the scale effect. There's that shove that Sean likes to call out—call it the driving force behind the music. For around $5k, the Druid's asking price, I'd wager a challenge: you get made in America; you get warranty and support that's equal to the best there is; you get quality vs. quantity, and above all, you get a world class speaker at a real world price delivered to your door step, with 60 day return guarantee. Yup. Behind closed doors, Sean is rather vocal about the fact that the return rate is less than 1% - that's quite amazing.

From the start, Sean wanted to build a program that's based around the customer—knowing full well that dealers—good ones that is—are hard to come by and those who are around, sell multiple lines of whateverthenextbesthing is, thus competing for the same customer multiple times. That gets stale and old rather quickly. Selling direct does not. A growing worldwide audience, especially one reached entirely via a forceful and loyal online presence, is the name of the game. The Shark Tank crew would be impressed with Zu. No debt, all money. Sure, it's a tough business out there—Sean is a smart fella', supplementing the core speaker business line, his 1A priority, with Zu cables, his 1B priority, is his hedge against the volatile world economy. Smart, thoughtful and clever all together. You, the customer, have nothing to lose and everything to gain. As I said, even die-hard in the wool audiophiles are now coming around.

Now those cables—when Sean dropped off the Druids, he also included his Event speaker and Mission power cables. Why not. Setting aside those preconceived notions of that Zu sound, the cables themselves are worth considering even as a non Zu speaker customer. Many in fact do just that. Even here, the core Zu sound is clearly audible: speed, transparency, tone and shove. Resolution a plenty. Price point? Here's that real world deal again: Mission power cable, $269; Event speaker cable, $780. Try that on for size. Mega buck? Mega luck. No need to drain that retirement fund, again. Last but not least, Zu audio also sells modified Denon DL-103 cartridges. Say what? Yes. Take one global phenomenon, the Denon 103 MC, sold since oh, the early 60s (!), replace the plastic body with a machined to Zu spec aluminum body, dampened with a super-secret formula of an epoxy-glue compound and voila, you have Bumble-Bee transforming into mega warrior. Zu service and support all inclusive. Though not part of this review, I figured I would at least mention this score. Mounted on my reference Brinkmann / 4Point / EINSTEIN phono rig, you get goose bumps. How could this be? You ask yourself—repeatedly. A cartridge selling for $650 can't possibly sound this good. Yes it can.

Case in point: Argerich playing Ravel's piano concerto in G on Deutsche Gramophone (ironically, a Clearaudio reissue—yes, that Clearaudio). The second movement begins with Argerich masterfully engaging her Steinway, releasing an onslaught of both micro and macro dynamic tones. Here, the full-on Zu conversion of Druid and Submission cleverly play to each other strengths. Long I have held the position that full range sound is much more than just for bass—even here, with merely a delicate Steinway humming along, you feel the sense and presence of something real projected behind the imaginary speaker wall. Scale, soundstage width and depth, yes, the attack, sustain and decay of each note is fully embodied by these Druids. Unlike prior versions of the full range 10" driver, this latest generation excels with a far wider audience perspective too: whereas before you had a fairly defined sonic footprint, these new Druids are much more open to group session listening. Cinemascope for everyone in the front row is the name of the game.

Scale the room size, scale the image: no better demo'd than at various high fidelity shows. What plays well in my living room scales to even greater presence and life elsewhere. 101dB efficiency guarantees that your ears will run out of headroom long before Druids ever will. Modest amplifier size included. Or, go big. EINSTEIN's OTLs generate around 90 watts. darTZeel's integrated closer to 300. You get the picture. My trusted Quad II? Yes, those too—albeit with only 15 watts to play. Call me silly, but please do point out another speaker with that kind of a range. Druid can and does stand on its own—very much so. Even greater scale—though at a slight loss of intimacy (a natural thing when going up in speaker size)—is generated by Zu's Definition. The extra 10" wide band driver and dual built in 12" bass drivers add a dash more Goliath to David (some years ago—I think it was at CES 2009—Zu launched a cost-no-object reference speaker that positively shock the walls of the show. I heard it do so. Dominance—aptly named—was Zu's answer to the call of "what if". Loaded with an front baffle machined entirely from solid billet aluminum, it housed three 10" wide-band drivers, 2 Radian tweeters and a massive 15" long throw downward firing sub. How's that for the ultimate Zu?).

The Druid and submission combo are special. You get full range sound that doesn't drain your bank account and leaves plenty for other stuff. 60 day money back guarantee all inclusive. You don't like the sound? No problem, send them back. My guess is, you won't—Zu will capture and define your search for a musical speaker. Sound engineering principals all built right here in the USA don't have to come at a price point that makes you think twice about your retirement fund being depleted. It's all about the music. Cudos to Sean and his team for not straying from that equation over the past decade and half – the future looks shiny and bright. Give these guys a try, would'ya? A++++ Most highly recommended! Danny Kaey

Druid V
Retail: $5400


Zu Audio