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I listened to an enormous amount of music during this period. The Tones had me pulling out album after album in an effort to find their Achilles heel. Since Sean is a Mike Watt fan, I spun lots of Minutemen and Firehose LPs, mostly Double Nickels on the Dime [SST 028] and If'n [SST 115]. Back in the mid eighties, the Minutemen as well as fellow label mates Husker Du and the Meat Puppets were among my favorite bands. Those two also garnered plenty of airtime via Zen Arcade [SST 027] and Meat Puppets II [SST 019]. Other discs included Sonny Rollins' Plus Four [Prestige PRCD 7038 2], Jackie McLean's Swing Swang, Swingin' [Blue Note 9013], Cheb i Sabbah's La Kahena [Six Degrees 657036 1111 2], Radiohead's OK Computer [EMI 855229], Britten's Peter Grimes [Decca 467 682-2], Wilco's Kicking Television [Nonesuch 79903], Thievery Corporation's Outernationalsound [ESL 75] and Ricardo Muti's set of Tchaikovsky's symphonies [Brilliant 99792] recently re-released at a budget price. How's that for a broad cross section of music?

I shall forgo the usual blow-by-blow menu list of the Tones' sonic attributes and get right to the point. Above all else, if you dig directness, coherence, speed and dynamics plus a warmish tonal balance, you've found your next pair of speakers.

Any first-time experience with single-driver and even 1st-order time/phase coherent speakers is a little unnerving. Our ears are so attuned to decoding and processing the distortions of conventional multi-driver, high-order crossover-equipped designs that you might think the new kind of speaker is broken. But give your ears time to adjust and you should quickly suss out why some people simply cannot go back to mainstream speakers afterwards.

The standard modern loudspeaker is invariably comprised of two or more drivers placed in a box with a crossover network directing signals of various frequency bands to individual drivers designed to handle a limited range of frequencies. The highs go to the tweeter, the bass to the woofer and so forth. However, the more drivers you add and the more complex the crossover becomes, the less efficient the speakers turn and all sorts of phase and timing issues will raise their ugly little heads. However, the real culprit is the energy-robbing crossover. It tends to suck some of the magic out of music.

With a single-driver speaker, there is no crossover. If the driver and enclosure design are up to snuff, the results should be the attributes I listed above. The most important? Directness. It's a sense that there is nothing between you and the musicians' intent. It's hard to describe to those who've never experienced it. It's like sitting at the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl rather than watching it on the telly. That's what a good single driver speaker does.

However (there's always a however, isn't there?), if full-range drivers were perfect, we'd all own 'em. There are a few caveats. To some, those are unacceptable. Frankly, I lean towards the unacceptable side. Any driver no matter how wide-range will experience increasing difficulties the lower and higher it moves past its comfort zone. It's simple physics. A one-inch dome can do treble better than an eight-inch cone which in turn handles lower mids and bass better but runs into trouble in the highs.

Adding a whizzer cone can help. It looks a bit as though someone stuck a flared skirt right in the middle of the main driver, sharing the same voice coil. This more or less works but the additional cone can create potentially bothersome distortions i.e. Doppler effects. I believe that's why some loud, complex signals with lots of high-frequency energy can sound fuzzy, edgy or dirty depending on any particular whizzer-fitted driver and accompanying enclosure. Be that as it may, the resultant single-driver sound is usually far more direct and vivid than what's possible from conventional loudspeakers.

Some designers attempt to work around a wide-bander's limitations by adding a super tweeter. Or you could add a subwoofer. One could also argue that once you start adding super tweeters and subwoofers, you've destroyed
the whole crossoverless advantage. Zu's 260FR/G2 offers a huge bandwidth: 40Hz to 12kHz. There's little musically relevant data beyond it. The addition of an augmenting tweeter and/or subwoofer should therefore intrude far less. In the end, there is no perfect design. There are pros and cons for each. If done right, a wide-band driver can be an excellent music maker. The trick is to hide its peculiar distortions as much as possible. The Zu Tones perform admirably in that regard.

Upon first hearing the Tones in my room, I fired off an email to Srajan noting how much they reminded me of the Green Mountain Audio Callistos. I'm not suggesting that you couldn't tell them apart in a blind listening test. In fact, it would be child's play. What I was getting at in my missive to the boss was that the Tone and Callisto, while very different in design, were both cut from the same cloth: speed, coherence, timing and most noticeably, immediacy. The Tones do the presence and immediacy thing to a greater degree even than the Callistos.

The GMAs are leaner and more transparent, the Zus perhaps a little fuzzy in spots. However, the Tones have a nice big, thick, warm -- pardon the pun -- tone. And so it goes. Both are terrific in my book. Considering how the Tones are about a grand less than the Callistos, that's damn amazing. Nevertheless, to some the Tone will seem lacking in upper-band detail and perhaps add a little too much warmth. It's not a speaker I'd recommend to detail hounds or by-the-old-book audiophiles. Go buy some Focal/JMlabs instead. For music lovers on a budget who find modern speakers too bright and boring (I'm one of those), the Tone is manna from the heavens.

Try as I might, I could not detect the dreaded Lowther shout nor the honky-tonk nor weird cone breakups. I'm sure engineers will tell me they must have been present but Sean & Co. are hiding them well. Just as Roy Johnson so eloquently hides the less welcome effects of crossovers in his Green Mountain Audio speakers, Zu has accomplished much the same disappearing act with their with full-range driver designs. I did occasionally detect a subliminal cupped-hands effect but only just.

Due to the large size of the main driver, the further off center I sat, the more lower treble rolloff I noticed. As I mentioned before, larger-diameter drivers will have difficulty reproducing higher frequencies as they become more directional the higher they are asked to work. This was primarily noticeable on classical music, which tends to be fairly busy in the upper mid/treble ranges. Every now and then, some instrumental or vocal detail would become slightly murky or indistinct. But I somehow only noticed that when I swapped in the Callistos. As mentioned earlier, the ear quickly adjusts. Very odd. I can't say I've ever noticed that with any other speaker.

Set up correctly, the Tones are incredibly direct, dynamic and exceptional music communicators. Rather than listening to musicians performing in a space behind the plane of the loudspeakers, I instead heard their ideas and interpretations if that makes any sense. There wasn't any of that Hifi, tipped-up, airy, super- detailed recreation where images float somewhat ghostlike in space. This was far more visceral & tactile. It was so much easier to get to the heart of a performance, be it a poorly recorded power trio grinding out three-chord guitar noise or an eloquently transferred disc of 18th century chamber music.

The supplied Zu cables were excellent as well, especially the Libtec. They were remarkably transparent, with bags of low-level resolution. I found that I didn't need to crank up the volume as much as with other cables. All that detail and subtle musical information was evident already at lower volume levels as though the cables played louder for less signal voltage. This was true with the Gedde interconnects too. These are not tone controls. The Zu cables are all about having as little effect as possible on the signal. If your system sounds bright or edgy, don't blame the Zu cables. Something else is responsible. The bargain- priced Birth power cords were transparent and lively but not quite as smooth and grunge-free as the GutWire Power Clef or the BPT L-10. However, those retail for around a grand and $500 respectively whereas the Birth goes for a mere $149!

With the exception of the potential caveats noted above, the Tones are excellent speakers and a terrific value if qualities like velocity, directness and jump factor dynamics get your blood pumping. Plus and perhaps most importantly, they are way fun. My wife summed it up succinctly. "These are the only speakers I've liked anywhere near as much as the Callistos." I wish these were around when I first got into music some 20 years ago. I'd have saved myself a tone of dough by avoiding all the mistakes I made along the way. Hook these up to a good small amp such as the $3295 Leben CS-300X, throw in an Eastern Electric Minimax CD player at $1095 and you'd have a killer system. Way recommended. I'm a frugal 'phile of limited means but if I can scrape up the scratch to keep the Tones, I will. Then my wife and I can take turns listening to the Tones and the Callistos since she has her own system around the Audio Zone AMP-1 and Apex DVD player in our TV room. Heck, we've been doing just that throughout this review. However, if I won the lottery, I'd go straight for Srajan's Definitions in a heartbeat, unseen and unheard.
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