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A pretty girl smiles at us. We smile back. Oh, joy. Still, it seems as though an even prettier girl is invariably only a step or two steps behind, applying makeup, exhorting enthusiasm, boasting newer more refined technologies and better components. Damn, makes me want to roll some tubes. Hubba hubba.

When I jump up and down and exhort readers to audition these speakers, you may thus be forgiven for seeking out a draught or two of fresh air and reality. So I hasten to add that my unbridled admiration for the Acoustic Zen Adagios does not preclude my enjoyment of my long-time references, the Joseph Audio RM25 and RM7; nor diminish my sense of outright awe in the presence of the Dynaudio Confidence C1 minis. Each design has its own trick bag, sense of perspective, presentation and revelation. Each designer addresses certain trade-offs.

In attempting to convey a sense of those things a piece of gear does well, it is important to convey the relative trade-offs, possible faux pas and potential limitations. Especially with speakers. No other component in the audio chain is as room-dependent or subjectively pleasing as a transducer system. Okay, enough relativity.

The Acoustic Zen Adagios do indeed fulfill their claim of reduced transducer colorations and distortions. I found I could drive the daylights out of these babies without suffering the cumulative effect of glare. Right out of the box, the thing that impressed me the most was their clarity, coherence, lack of coloration, musical detail and bass extension. Once I broke them in, bass quality became even more impressive - tremendous dynamics, solid impact, tight and tuneful. They stop on a dime and are quick, really quick, with no overhang or lingering overtones or lugubrious colorations to queer the deal.

A warmly voiced pair of speakers then with no smoke and mirrors but honest bass down to 30Hz. No bloat, no overhang, no swampy colors obscuring the transition into the midrange yet no lack of round, profound bump and bounce. And that ribbon tweeter is something else - dry, clear, quick and uncolored. Incredible detail but not bright. In fact, given its high crossover point at 3K, some listeners used to a more aggressive top end might find the treble response somewhat subtle. Again, the overall voicing of the speaker is on the warm side. Given Robert Lee's insistence on removing speaker colorations and distortions, one trade-off was to sacrifice a bit of punch for true, tight, tuneful bass and a smooth, natural transition from the bass to the mids. As with any great speaker, the midrange is the glory of these Adagios.

Let's take a really state-of-the-art Jazz combo such as the soon to be released Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian [Nonesuch]. Tracked on ProTools and mixed down to ½" tape, producer Lee Townsend has once again overseen a stunning sonic depiction of the modern Jazz experience in a beautiful sounding acoustic space, Studio A at Avatar in NYC. The band evokes the best aspects of Americana, the Bill Evans Trios and the Monk Quartets. The Adagios' image specificity, timbral veracity and point-source characteristics made for a pretty impressive disappearing act. They are warmly voiced but convey that warmth as a mellow relaxed quality. Each instrumental image is beautifully depicted in its own acoustic space yet organically connected. A wealth of small details bespeak the nature of this trio's fourth collaborator - the room itself. Ron Carter's bass, a universe unto itself in terms not only of his physical presence but of the incredible complexity of his sound, is rendered in a manner the bassist himself might find pleasing. The woody details and reach are utterly convincing as are the harmonic details and image illumination and the acoustic bass' focus and immediacy in the mix.

As a drummer who has heard Motian live on many an occasion, I am on a first-name basis with Paul's 22" Paiste Formula 602 Dark Ride, his old riveted 20" Zildjian from the Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro days and those Gretsch drums with his fat, warmly tuned 20" bass drum and that barking wooden snare. The Adagios depict the immediacy of the initial strike as well as the fullness and rise time of the bass drum, the crack of his snare, the rich mix of overtones between batter head strike and snare-side rattle and buzz and the metallic splendor of his cymbals from the fundamentals on up. There is nothing zippy or italicized about the top end, which makes cymbals sound like white noise on some loudspeakers. The broad left-right dimensionality of Frisell's stereo guitar -- rendered dry or with full digital ambience -- is hypnotically persuasive as an actual acoustic event. The Adagios bring it back alive and put you in the room. The midrange resolution is really breathtaking. You get a sense of completeness about Frisell's sound that is all-enveloping.

Moving on, a reader told me at one point in an e-mail that a TAS lady reviewer had done a short, enthusiastic review of the Adagios, confessed to listening to classical music in the main and that she felt the Adagios fell short in terms of rock and roll. Not having read the review, I cannot comment save to ask, where is it written in stone that a speaker good for acoustic music would be somewhat lacking for rock or fun or electric jazz or hard blues? Given how effortlessly the Adagios handled symphonic music, chamber music and vocals, I decided to put this theorem to the test late one evening. I pulled out a selection of powerhouse recordings, both digital and analog, stereo and mono, featuring the likes of Edgar Varese, Andy Summers, Howard Roberts, Miles Davis' working band from December of 1970 (at the Cellar Door in Washington D.C.) and even some live-to-two-track cassette recordings (the latest thing, kids - and it's analog!) I'd made that afternoon of my band: drums & cymbals, Fender bass and a Korg Triton Studio 88.

The Adagios could pressurize a 14' x 20' room quite nicely without benefit of massive amplification but when I used better, more powerful amplification, the Adagios' relative lack of punch was not much of an issue (though the leading edge of transients did indeed pale somewhat compared to some designs). The Adagios give you plenty of clean honest output down to around 30Hz. That's pretty much the bottom B above A of the piano. When employing better amps like the Rogues, you get more punch, presence and immediacy but I could definitely imagine a subwoofer taking care of business below 60-80Hz or thereabouts. Presently, this speaker sacrifices some expansiveness in the three-dimensional sense to get better bass extension and midrange clarity.

The accuracy of the bass reproduction was particularly striking on the title tune of Andy Summers' Green Chimneys: The Music Of Thelonious Monk [RCA], a high-output, audiophile-quality electric Jazz recording. On many playback systems, the immensity of the amplified upright bass could be overpowering but on the Adagios, it was cleanly focused with no loss of roundness or scale, no diminution of low-end pop. Better yet, the spacious ambient quality of Summers' stereo guitar, the tonal qualities and dynamic rises and falls of Peter Erskine's cymbals and drum kit were beautifully portrayed. On guitarist Howard Roberts' out-of-print LP Antelope Freeway [Impulse! AS-9207], the Adagio effortlessly fleshed out a variety of complex, circa 1970-1971 Record Plant stereo mixes (state of the art for that time), featuring wildly distorted and clean sources as well as a variety of goofy sound effects. When a motorcycle raced from left to right across the stereo field, the Adagios tracked the leading edge of the transient and the roar of the engine with stupefying veracity. On another out-of-print recording, The Varese Record [Finnadar SR 9018], an amazing 1950 mono recording of the composer's urban-industrial percussion masterpiece "Ionisation" (recorded under Varese's supervision), the Adagio again made sense of a swelter of clean and funky images. I was particularly impressed by how clean and believable its portrayal of the bass drum's low end roar and gong-like radiation was - a clearly delineated sonic universe unto itself.

On Miles Davis: The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 [Columbia/Legacy], not only did the Adagio accurately portray the acoustic reality of this nightclub performance with a perfect balance of large and small details, it was unnerving how well each instrument was fleshed out amidst the ambience of the room. I'd hear Keith Jarrett's keyboard or Miles' electrified trumpet emit some nasty distortions to get paranoid that maybe I had knee-capped the tweeter when from another portal in the soundstage came one of Airto's percussion instruments as clean as a whistle, its fundamentals and overtones blissfully intact. Oh doctor! For one evening, I was transported back to the music of my youth, right there at a table a few rows back and I forgot all about the presence of a sound system. I wanted to buy Miles a drink who might've bitch-slapped me for my impudence. I was driving the system very hard, so hard it occurred to me that I wasn't hearing the soundstage crumble like a dry cracker. Finally, in listening to a Sunday rehearsal's cassette playback of my trio's rehearsal, I was struck by the honest portrayal of my room's spatial dimension and a degree of detail in the bass drum and the cymbals that one would generally only experience from the drum stool itself. Maybe there is something to Robert's obsession with these underhung drivers?

Last Rites
To reiterate, while the image specificity of the Adagios is super and the soundstaging quite wide, it might prove a little reticent and laid back for some folks - a bit shallow in the absolute sense. But you can push the Adagios so hard that one's sense of soundstaging opens up by degrees.

While this speaker essentially portrays a fairly flat neutral soundscape, it nevertheless reflects Robert Lee's subjective sensibility, a violinist by training. His is a "voiced speaker" as most would be at this price point. Lee's subjective judgments are serenely musical and his tradeoffs work for my experience of live music and what I enjoy in the way of full-range and two-way systems.

The depth of field seems more fleshed out on the Josephs, perhaps a factor of their comparably brighter, snappier voicing what with those metal cones. Too, their bass perspective is a little more forward than the Adagios'. Clearly, Robert Lee chose to emphasize focus and linearity over boom. Still, with little loss of roundness or bounce, his babies really boogie quite nicely. They are warm and transparent, non-fatiguing and richly detailed. Those looking for ultimate punch or greater depth of field might wish to broaden their search but on many levels, these speakers are so harmonically correct and uncolored, and depict such clearly defined images across a broadly balanced, transparent soundstage that they surely rate a serious audition. Best of all, because the relationship between these underhung drivers and the amplification is so constant; because the Adagios present such an easy load to drive; they sound superb at low volumes yet you can push the piss out of them without dropping a bass bomb on your immediate neighbors or removing most of the skin on your scalp.

So, we have honest bass, linearity, timbral accuracy, a lack of colorations and distortions, a glorious midrange, a lightning-quick top end and the ability to fully pressurize a room and produce convincing concert levels in an average size space in a handsome speaker cabinet that is only four feet high and weighs in at a reasonable 78 pounds.

Finally, with their fit & finish, solid tuneful bass and sweetly laid back perspective, they will not scare the wife or those listeners for whom high end audio can sometimes represent too much of a good thing. No, the Adagios are damn easy to listen to. Everything is where it should be, you have a true foundation in bass and you don't have to put on a radiation suit and sunglasses to listen to them for hours on end.

As I was putting the finishing touches on this review, a reader e-mail allowed as how Robert Lee, like any other audiophile, was not content to let the grass grow under his feet. According, "...I just wanted to let you know that as of last week, all new models have the slightly tapered baffle... Robert figured out a way to make the already great bass even better... it has a little more focus... it is now locked in at the expense of 2-3% in soundstage..."

Color me nonplussed. Cough. I can't comment in any way as to any changes or purported improvements save to say that if you encounter the speakers we have just evaluated in a retail establishment, I would not hesitate to drop down the drachmas if you like what you hear.

Manufacturer's website
You might want to visit Chip's own website, still very much under development "but chock full of cool content" [click on image]"