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This review first appeared in the February 2011 issue of hi-end hifi magazine High Fidelity of Poland. You can also read this review of the Ascendo System ZF3 SE in its original Polish version. We publish its English translation in a mutual syndication arrangement with publisher Wojciech Pacula. As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end shows an e-mail address should you have questions or wish to send feedback. All images contained in this review are the property of High Fidelity or Ascendo - Ed.

Reviewer: Wojciech Pacuła
CD player: Ancient Audio Lektor Air 
Phono preamp: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC
Cartridges: Air Tight Supreme, Miyajima Laboratory Waza
Preamp: Ayon Audio Polaris III with ReGenerator II power supply
Power amp: Tenor Audio 175S and Soulution 710
Integrated amp: Leben CS300XS custom
Loudspeakers: Harpia Acoustics Dobermann
Headphones: AKG K701, Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro 600 Ω
Interconnects: CD-preamp Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, preamp-power amp Wireworld Platinum Eclipse, speaker cable Tara Labs Omega Onyx
Power cords: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300 (all equipment)
Power conditioning: Gigawatt PF-2 Filtering Power Strip
audio stand: Base under all components, Pro Audio Bono under CD
Resonance control: Finite Elemente Ceraball under the CD, turntables change continuously
Review component retail in Poland: €27.500/pr

According to Stefan Köpf, representative of Ascendo who facilitated this review, the concept behind their System ZF3 was a medium-size loudspeakers offering performance as good as possible. The external design was chosen for its functionality rather than just good looks. The most significant distinction from other speakers is the adjustable treble/mid module to achieve perfect phase coherence.

For its customers the company provides a simple Excel spread sheet. You input basic data like distance between listening seat and speakers; ears height; plus the specific Ascendo speaker model you own. Hit enter and you get your result as the distance between the modular head unit and the front of the speaker. This spread sheet can be downloaded.

The chosen tweeter is a large ribbon whilst bass is handled by two drivers, one a paper cone woofer that’s visible, one a compound-loaded invisible woofer inside the enclosure that runs on a Kevlar diaphragm. The speaker itself is placed on a special spiked plinth. The review loaner was the Special Edition version. Presently Ascendo offers the ZF3 model in four iterations: basic, plus (with the decoupling elements of the SE), SE (designer’s reference) and SE/WE (with external crossover).

In Ascendo's brochure the review version is fully identified as Ascendo 2010 System ZF3 Special Edition. The pamphlet also states that these are reference speakers tweaked by Norbert Heinz, the same man behind the company who created the special editions for the System M, System ZF3, SUB1 and TOS. Stefan Köpf shared that when preparing these hot-rodded all-out versions they were focused on solutions that would reduce mechanical energies which are usually stored inside the enclosures.

Optimizations thus made were within three areas:
• the decoupling of the modules from each other and the listening room
• the reduction of electromagnetic signal modulation at the amplifier's output
• the reduction of the energies accumulated in the crossover parts and internal cabling.

It is possible to adjust bass and treble output. There are two switches between the speaker binding posts. One allows to set the treble to neutral (VD-N) or add 2dB above 2kHz (VD-H). I preferred the neutral position. The second switch allows you to shelf down the upper bass between 120 and 310Hz (-3dB at 120dB). This was my preferred setting.

The black piano finish was simply perfect. There are three modules per side, the integral plinth with steel spikes, the twin-woofer bass module and the mid/high head unit. In the SE version the crossovers install inside the enclosures. There are two sets of binding posts on the bass module and one on the head unit. If you want to use a single speaker cable (highly recommended), you need to use the included jumpers. This jumper cable doesn’t look terribly impressive and after closer inspection I realized that the plugs were of quite poor quality. I understand how the firm wanted to use something with as little metal content as possible but comparing these plugs to the fantastic Furutech posts fitted elsewhere they seemed to be a joke.

Sound: Discs used for listening sessions - Stereo Sound Reference Record. Jazz&Vocal, Stereo Sound, SSRR4, SACD/CD; Tron Legacy, OST, muz. Daft Punk, Special Edition, Walt Disney Records, 9472892, 2 x CD; Cassandra Wilson, Silver Pony, Blue Note, 29752, CD; Chris Connor, Witchcraft, Atlantic/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-25166, CD; Depeche Mode, Hole To Feed/Fragile Tension, Mute Records, CDBONG42, CD; Donald Byrd, The Cat Walk, Blue Note/Audio Wave, AWMXR-0009, XRCD24; Harry Belafonte, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, RCA/Sony Music, 7783322, LPCD-M2 Mastering, No. 0953, HQCD; J.S. Bach, Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin, wyk. Pavlo Beznosiuk, Linn Records, CKD 366, SACD/HDCD; Linda Ronstadt, What’s New, Elektra/Lasting Impression Music, LIM PA 046, gold-CD; Michael Jackson, Thriller. 25th Anniversary, Epic/Sony Music Japan, EICP 963-4, CD + DVD; Norah Jones, …Featuring, Blue Note, 09868 2, CD; Santana, Abraxas, Columbia/Mobile Fidelity, Collectors Edition, No. 06452, UDCD 775, gold-CD; Suzanne Vega, Close-Up, Vol 1. Love Songs, Amanuensis Productions/Cooking Vinyl, COOKCD521, CD; Wynton Kelly Trio& Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ At The Half Note, Verve, 2103476, Verve Master Edition, CD; Will & Rainbow, Going For You, Eighty-Eights, VRCL 18003, Master Sound, SACD/CD.

Part I
I'd been waiting for an opportunity to review Ascendo speakers for 10 years. That’s a long time but perhaps was required so I’d mature to Ascendo’s level and that of high-end hifi in general. Ten years ago I had a lot of experience already but in a recording studio as sound engineer and acoustic specialist. I knew a lot about recording sound but very little about how that sound is later reproduced by an audio system. From my present perspective I realize how poorly sound engineers in general are prepared to understand both poles of the recording process – making it and playing it back.

Usually they are great specialists in the former but know almost nothing about the latter whilst believing they know it all, certainly better than anybody else. That's why the final results of many recordings might be so frustrating to audiophiles. But that's another matter. I merely wished to point out that during the last 10 years I have learned a lot about the other side – how music behaves through high-end systems.