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Zu Audio Soul MKII loudspeaker review

  • Lone wolves.  Single-driver speakers and their crossover-free implementations are popular with some audiophiles because of strengths with imaging, soundstage depth, speed and an ability to better communicate tone and texture than their multi-driver brethren. Full-range drivers enjoy higher sensitivity (90+db) too. This opens the front door to a wider range of amplifiers. Without a crossover sitting between amplifier and loudspeaker you can be up and running with just a few (quality) watts; this is where many love affairs with ‘pre-cognitive’ SET amplifiers are ignited.

    However, such single driver designs aren’t free of compromises. Very few things are! They often display shyness with slam – a reluctance to shake their booty and punch the air. 47Labs’ Lens were great in communicating the crystalline acoustic beauty of Kings Of Convenience’s Quiet Is The New Loud but they weren’t as crash hot at reproducing the bigger crunch and drive of Ministry’s Psalm 69. More satisfying results came from more standard two-ways: the ProAc Tablette Reference 8 and ATC SCM 11. If your speaker of choice has more than one driver, it’ll probably also contain a crossover. And that crossover might knock purity and speed. It might also knock tonal/timbral communication. As the ad copy runs on the Zu website: “no matter how you bake ‘em crossovers are tone killers.”

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    The Soul MKII’s 10” Nano-tech driver (ZuCX/ND-8 FR) is designed to bridge these two worlds.  Zu Audio mainman Sean Casey wants you to have your cake and eat it.  Yes, it’s the same driver as found in the Union – not an off-the-shelf driver from Eminence, it’s made to Casey’s strict specifications. The FRD stands for full-range driver. ND indicates the (secret sauced) nano technology contained therein.

    There isn’t a crossover here. The amplifier talks straight to the driver. The nano-tech unit runs (as near-as-dammit) full-range – from 45Hz to 12kHz – after which the coaxially configured super-tweeter takes over proceedings – via a simple high-pass filter. Each driver gets 600 hours of factory burn-in time before being fitted to the cabinet and shipped. 99db efficiency – pretty much any good amplifier will have you whistling Dixie (more on which later). Nominal impedance is rated at 8 ohm. Cabinet height is identical to an Ikea Expedit shelving unit.  Mine are a mis-matched pair from B-stock – one Walnut finish is clearly darker than the other.  How much? US$3500 on home soil but Australians see some good news here: the Soul MKII are available for a limited introductory price of AU$2750/pair, shipped.

    Setup. You need to spend time on this. LOTS of time. Small changes in placement, lean and toe-in can solicit dramatic changes in sound. Ensure there’s some daylight between the bottom of the speaker and floor (at least 6mm). The downward firing finger-ports need daylight to ensure the ZuGriewe cabinet loading functions properly. The larger the gap, the more bass you’ll get. I experimented with longer, store-bought bolts to push low frequency slam to the maximum; too much for my room but proof that they’ll play ball in bigger spaces. MUCH bigger spaces.

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    If you’re in an apartment, you might find that the supplied spikes are too long. I’d urge the guys at Zu HQ to consider shipping their speakers with super-short spikes to accommodate some of the smaller living spaces that prevail in the UK, Japan and (to an extent) Australia.

    Get overall speaker placement wrong and the Souls will sound dry and scratchy. It took me several weeks of tweaks to optimize all that the Soul MKII can offer: firing across the room, 90cm clearance from rear (long) wall and only 30mm lift from the floor. Canting them back a few degrees also enhances imaging.

    Listening. The Soul’s midrange hits you RIGHT BETWEEN THE EYES. You don’t have to go to it, it comes to you. Vocals are thrust several paces in front of the speaker plane with imaging that makes it a cinch to forget that there’s a two-box illusion going on. Music grabs you by the lapels. “Hey buddy!”. Here is a loudspeaker makes you an offer you cannot refuse. They’re more boisterous than they are polite but there’s an abundance of tonal refinement on tap if your amplifier is up to muster. Let’s just call them ‘present’. Did I mention that you get dynamics that turn on a time? I did? Good.

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    The sheer honesty with midrange exposure is far superior to that of the outgoing Magnepan MMG. So too is soundstage width. And depth. Golly. It only took a couple of spins of Morrissey’s Kill Uncle vinyl to peg these three improvements.

    The all-round transparency that the Zus lord over the Maggies highlighted some hitherto undiscovered errors in one of my turntable rigs. They didn’t just shine a torch into the odd corner; they lit up the entire room under full house lights. For better or worse, very few secrets will get past these loudspeakers. I couldn’t say that about the Omen. The Soul MKII a more mature, less naïve design. Their honesty can be brutal. Play a bad recording and it’ll sound terrible, play a good recording and it’ll sound amazing. If you don’t like to hear these differences writ large, the Soul MKII probably isn’t your next speaker.

    The acoustic guitar plucks that usher in the title track on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here arrive beautifully formed: attack, decay, sustain, release.  Decay wings don’t get clipped.  If it’s in the recording – or your hardware – you’ll hear it all. These Zu take you  closer to the (herp-derp) soul of  that which precedes them…

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    …and funky town. Turning to David Byrne’s 3 Big Songs EP. The squelchy afro-rhythms of “Big Business” – that are only an heard as undercurrent via the MMG – are given space to dance their way forwards to greater prominence when placed in Zu hands.

    Amplifier choices. The Soul won’t smudge or smear what they are fed. You can tap most the Soul’s inner-glory from just a few watts but – be warned – you won’t get a free lunch by cutting corners. Something like the Miniwatt N3 will get you up and running but it will shave back acoustic mass and shrink the soundstage.

    Here’s the key: these Zus sound best when paired with amplification that’s big on tone. The NAKSA 80 jumped to the job. Red Wine Audio’s Signature 15 / 16 would also be a sound match. Even the natty little Rega Brio-R would go OK here. Go for something a bit softer in the presence region (upper mids).  If you don’t already own a DAC, the Peachtree Nova125 makes for a terrific choice. Mellow Class D implementation + switchable tube buffer = a sound that’s sumptuous and inviting. This Nova iteration might have proven a shade too laid back for the Magnepan MMG but it’s a perfect fit for the already-up-and-at-‘em Soul MKII. No wonder these two manufacturers sometimes do shows together.

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    A Weston Acoustics Topaz (AU$1800) push-me-pull-you is where it’s at for majesty and harmonic glory. Here is an amp-speaker pairing that’s ideal for both kick-ass rock n roll and long-fingered elegance with acoustic fare. Make sure you have a room of sufficient size though – both soundstaging and dynamic energy are tremendous when the Soul are paired with Earle Weston’s handmade beauty. Acoustic mass is C-H-U-N-K-Y.

    Dynamism and excitement. It’s tough to sit and listen with music as a background concern. Like all Zu loudspeakers, even at low volumes there’s a party going on. The Ogden-based team have welded the speed and imaging of a single driver sound to the heft and dynamics that’d you’d find in a more mainstream two-way design. They can be polite when the music calls for it…BUT when kicking back with a cup of coffee and some Nick Drake one lazy Sunday, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Souls were sitting on their hands, just waiting to kick it up several gears with some Zomby or James Holden.

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    Soul mining. Paint this mental abstraction: an open cavity exploration of music – one that finds the inner-voice of song, the mouth inside the mouth. Imagine too the saturated tonal colours of an oil painting where detail is conveyed with tip-of-the-paintbrush finesse. Pour in the thrill of a motorbike’s corner lean. That’s the essence of Zu Audio’s Soul MKII.

    They arrive dressed to impress. They keep their manners tight at family gatherings: they know when to say please, when to say thank you, to stand up when a lady enters the room……but they’re not afraid to swear or pinch yr Mom’s ass when no-ones looking. Ha! (“Mind your sass, boy”). Y’see, the MKII Souls are better deployed as classy party-starters, arriving with a keg under one arm, a couple of hot girls on the other. Loudspeakers for the music fan who digs the bombast of Skrillex as much as the gentility of Joni Mitchell.

     

    Associated Equipment

    • AURALiC Vega
    • Metrum Hex
    • Weston Acoustics Topaz
    • Wyred4Sound mINT
    • Peachtree Nova125
    • NAKSA 80
    • Magnepan MMG

     

    Audition Music

    • David Byrne – 3 Big Songs (1981)
    • Morrissey – Kill Uncle (2013 Remaster)
    • Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (2011 Remaster)
    • James Holden – RA.367
    • Zomby – With Love (2013)
    • Nick Drake – Way To Blue: An Introduction (1994)

     

    Further Information

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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