Acoustic Zen Adagio Loudspeakers 
Home Theater Loudspeakers Floorstanding Loudspeakers
Written by Brian Kahn   
Monday, 01 December 2008

Introduction
Acoustic Zen has long been known within the audiophile community as a manufacturer of premium audio cables.  My local brick and mortar hi-fi store has been touting the virtues of Acoustic Zen’s cables for many years.  At CES, I had a candid, off-the-record conversation with an executive for one of the ultra-high end audio electronics companies who extolled the virtues of Acoustic Zen’s Adagio speakers, a new offering from the cable company.  With trusted industry insiders singing the praises of this relatively small manufacturer, I was anxious to see if the Acoustic Zen Adagios were truly world class speakers.

I arranged for a review pair of the Adagio speakers, as well as three Adagio, Jr. speakers for center channel and surround duties.  The Adagio retails for $4,300 and is a medium-sized floor-standing speaker measuring 48 inches tall, 13 inches deep and nine inches wide, weighing 78 pounds.  The Adagio, Jr. is a large stand-mounted speaker measuring 23 inches high and weighing in at 38 pounds. Visually the Adagio, Jr. appears to be the top half of the full-sized Adagio without the large opening for the transmission line.  The Adagio, Jr. features a rear-mounted port instead of the front-firing transmission line.  My review samples were finished with a beautiful burled walnut veneer; other finishes are available.  The cabinets are constructed out of MDF with curves, tapering to a narrower rear panel.  The curved and non-parallel sides reduce internal reflections.  The fit and finish on all of the speakers was outstanding and easily the equal of speakers costing twice the price of the Adagios.

The Adagios and the Adagio, Juniors feature identical driver complements, a pair of six-and-one-half-inch cones flanking a one-and-a-half-inch circular ribbon tweeter in a classic D’Appolito array.  Acoustic Zen takes great pride in the Adagio’s unique drivers, which are described in more detail below. Both midrange woofers are mounted on slightly angled baffles, which increase the effective thickness of the cabinet to approximately two inches, while helping to time and phase-align the drivers. The full-size Adagios use a transmission line to maximize bass performance, whereas the Adagio, Juniors are ported.  Despite their size differential, the overall frequency responses are quite similar.  The Adagio, Junior’s stated frequency response is 35Hz to 25kHz, whereas the full-size speaker reaches down to 30Hz.  This is quite amazing, considering that these lower frequencies are achieved with a pair of relatively small six-and-a-half-inch cones.  Both speakers feature a nominal impedance of six ohms and a sensitivity of 89 dB/1W/1m.

So far, the Adagio’s components sound like those of typical speakers, but upon closer examination, they differ from the norm.  The six-and-one-half-inch midrange woofers are ceramic impregnated fabric cones that are specially built in Germany just for Acoustic Zen.  The unique design of the driver extends beyond the exotic material.  Acoustic Zen promotes the drivers as being “under-hung,” meaning they have short voice coils that operate in a long magnetic gap.  This design is said to greatly reduce distortion by up to 95 percent over traditional designs. The under-hung design is also used by other high-end speaker manufacturers, such as THIEL.  The midrange woofers integrate with the ribbon tweeter via a steep 18dB per octave, third-order crossover at 3kHz.  The steep crossover is required in order to achieve linearity of response and impedance desired.  The one-and-a-half-inch tweeter was designed by Acoustic Zen’s Robert Lee and features a diaphragm made out of a .01-millimeter layer of kapton that covers 95 percent of the aluminum conductors.  Kapton was chosen because it remains thermally stable to minimize distortion and maximize linearity.  Neodymium magnets are used for all drivers.  The speakers have a single set of binding posts, as all internal wiring is Acoustic Zen’s own Satori cabling.  It would cost many thousands of dollars to bi-wire with better quality cables.

Set-up
Robert Lee was kind enough to personally deliver the speakers to my house and assist with their set-up.  The Adagios were placed eight feet apart from each other and three feet from the front wall.  Toe-in was approximately 15 degrees. The Adagio, Juniors were placed on Acoustic Zen’s own stands.  The stands are made out of wood and are attractively finished in black.  The stand for the center channel speaker came with custom-made hard rubber pieces that followed the curves of the Adagio, Juniors’ side panels.  This allowed the speaker to be placed on its side and angled to the proper height.  The center channel was placed approximately two feet from the front wall, equidistant from the main front speakers, arranged horizontally and angled up slightly, placing the drivers on axis with the primary listening position.  The rear speakers were positioned vertically on the Acoustic Zen stands, approximately two feet from the rear wall and six feet apart.

I connected the Adagios to my two-channel system, which consists of Conrad Johnson’s CT5 tubed pre-amplifier driving Halcro’s excellent DM38 amplifier.  The source I used for all critical listening was a Classe CDP-202.  Power conditioning was provided by Equi=Tech.  All audio cables were Kimber Select, with Kimber Select KS-3035 speaker cables running to the Adagios. Power cables were by Kimber Palladian. 

The surround system consists of Marantz’s new AV8003 and MM8003, Halcro’s EC800 DVD player and a Sony PS3 for Blu-ray duties.  All the components were connected with Kimber audio and video cables.  Speaker cables were Kimber’s venerable 8TCs.  I ran the system both with and without MartinLogan’s Descent subwoofer.  I configured the processor to run all channels full range.  Critical listening was done with the Audyssey room correction turned off.

Lastly, the Adagios require a lot of time to break in.  What I first heard through these speakers was nothing like what I heard after they were broken in.  While this is important with all speakers, it is particularly crucial to make sure the particular samples you are listening to are thoroughly broken to before making any purchasing decisions.  I found that the majority of the break-in was accomplished in about 100 hours, but the speakers continued to improve slightly until they had a little over 200 hours on them.

Listening
I began my serious listening with the full-size Adagios in my stereo system and Holly Cole’s “Train Song” from her album It Happened One Night (Blue Note Records).  The Adagios did a remarkable job of reproducing Cole’s vocals with amazing clarity and accuracy.  There were nuances in her voice and instruments that I had not previously heard on a dynamic driver speaker system.  Clarity and inner resolution were extremely good.  Tonal balance was just ever so slightly to the warm side.  Each of the performers was solidly placed within the soundstage, but the stage itself seemed to be slightly on the small side, particularly with regard to depth.  The Adagios seemed to place me in the middle rows of the audience.  This track is well known for its acoustic bass.  The Adagios proved themselves to be capable of reproducing the acoustic bass with appropriate depth and impact.  The texture of the bass notes was not as richly detailed as the texture of the mids and highs, although this slight differential did not diminish the coherence or the listening experience.

After listening to “Train Song,” I decided to further explore the Adagios’ low-frequency capabilities by playing Sublime’s “Waiting for My Ruca” from their album 40 Oz. to Freedom (MCA Records).  The opening of the song contains a recording of a dog and cat that was realistic enough to have my dog, who normally sleeps through my listening sessions, run into the room looking around for his unseen animal visitors.  The deep, driving bass notes from this track, while visceral, didn’t completely pressurize my 12 by 17-foot listening room the way my MartinLogan Summits can.  To be fair, the Summits cost nearly three times as much and feature four powered woofers.  I was quite impressed by what the Adagios can do with a pair of six-and-a-half-inch woofers, but if deep, driving, visceral bass at concert levels is a requirement of yours, you will need to augment the Adagios with a subwoofer.

I next listened to the all-time classic Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” from the Brothers in Arms album (Warner Brothers).  The speed of the mids and highs helped the Adagios do a wonderful job of revealing the layers of the opening riff.  Inner detail was effortlessly portrayed in an easy, laid-back manner.  The speakers were extremely clean without the pushy glare that often accompanies ribbon tweeter-based speaker designs.  The highs reproduced by the Adagios were certainly not rolled off, but they were never offensive, either.  Listening to this album, I noted the performance was consistent with the other pieces I listened to on the system.  The speakers had remarkably little coloration and great detail that let me hear many nuances that are usually masked.  This helped increase the sense of realism.  Dynamic ability was good across the majority of the frequency range, tapering off slightly at the bottom octaves.

Having enjoyed my two-channel listening sessions, I was anxious to try the speakers in my multi-channel system.  I began with one of my favorites, Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth album in DTS (MCA, DTS).  My experiences with this album, when played back through the Adagios set up as a 5.0 system without a subwoofer, were positive.  As expected, the Adagios did an excellent job of reproducing Lovett’s vocals and accompanying instruments.  They were tonally accurate and extremely clear, with solidly placed images.  The relatively shallow depth of soundstage I experienced with two-channel music was expanded with multi-channel listening.  Those familiar with this album are well aware of the great deal of low-frequency energy it contains.  The Adagios had no problems reproducing this at any comfortable listening level.  I never heard any signs of strain or compression.  When I added the subwoofer into the mix, the low end was noticeable extended, but I never felt deprived during my original listening without the subwoofer, despite being intimately familiar with the material.

I watched Pearl Harbor (Blu-ray, Buena Vista Home Entertainment) paying special attention to how the Adagios would handle panning across channels, particular between the Adagios and the Adagio, Juniors.  In several scenes, the characters change their relative positions, causing their voices to move from speaker to speaker.  The transitions were seamless; this was no doubt helped by the speakers having identical driver complements.  The seamless transitions remained when the scene switched from vocals to planes flying across all of the channels.  Even more important than seamless transitions was the speakers’ ability to clearly reproduce vocals to all listening positions.  I never had a problem with dialogue intelligibility, whether I was directly in front of the center channel or off to the side.  Even at low listening levels, the dialogue was clear and easy to understand.

The Downside
It is hard to fault the performance of the Adagios.  They perform extremely well within their design parameters.  They will not provide the visceral impact or slam for the lowest octaves that larger speaker systems are capable of, but if that’s what is desired, one may be better served by Acoustic Zen’s larger Crescendo speaker system.  The upper end of the frequency spectrum is more pronounced than that of the majority of the so-called reference systems that feature soft dome tweeters.  I personally never found this to be a problem, especially given the tweeters’ lack of distortion, but the Adagios may be too bright for some, especially when paired with bright electronics.  I was easily able to discern changes upstream from the Adagios that would normally be masked by less revealing speakers.

From a purely logistical standpoint, I wish that the Adagio, Jr. had a front-firing port.  The rear-firing port limits where you can position the speaker.  In a small room where the speaker needs to be close to a wall, this could be a problem.  I never had any problems with the rear face of the speaker one or more feet from the wall, although it sounded best a bit farther out.

Conclusion
The Adagio speakers are very revealing yet musical speakers.  I found them to be only ribbon tweeter-based speakers under $10,000 that I really enjoyed.  Unless your listening habits tend towards bass-heavy music at loud volumes, these speakers deserve a close listen for anyone shopping in the $4,000 to$10,000 price range.  Their slightly restricted bass should not be a problem at all in a subwoofer-equipped multi-channel system and was only noticed in my two-channel system with the most demanding bass-heavy material.

With the foregoing caveat, the frequency extension and impact was well beyond what I expected from speaker of the Adagios’ modest size.  The Adagios excelled with the critical midrange, reproducing vocals with an amazing amount of clarity and lack of artificial coloration.  The bottom line is that these speakers combine some of the best traits of planar and dynamic speaker designs, creating extremely capable components that let the music come through and be enjoyed.
Manufacturer Acoustic Zen
Model Adagio Loudspeakers
Reviewer Brian Kahn
Impedance 6-ohm





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