Thursday, May 22, 2014

Zellaton Reference with Analog Domain Iris, Sperling, Allnic, Loit and Schnerzinger

External crossover with Duelund parts


"Zellaton Reference with Sperling Turntable as its source produces one of the quietest musical presentation at the MOC."


The three-way, five-driver Zellaton Reference loudspeakers ($99,750/pair) fronted a very clear-sounding system that drew me in not so much with sheer impact, but by following, tenaciously and non-mechanically, every melody that the source and electronics threw their way.

TAS - by JV

I’ve been impressed by Zellaton loudspeakers at previous trade shows, but in Munich in 2014 the sound of the company’s flagship—the three-way, five-driver (three cone woofers, one cone tweeter, and one cone midrange that covers the entire critical band between 100Hz and 8kHz), $99,750 Reference, driven by an Analog Domain Audio Isis integrated amplifier and an Allnic H-3000 phonostage and sourced by a Sperling L-1 turntable—came very close to being the most lifelike I’ve ever heard at a trade show. Indeed, with one big proviso, it came very close to being the most lifelike I’ve heard period.

Here is what the Zellaton Reference does better than any other cone speaker I’ve auditioned: Reproduce LPs and digital media with simply unparalleled speed, openness, and resolution. Everything from entire vocal and instrumental lines in large ensembles to the tiny timbral and textural details that characterize (and humanize) the performances of soloists is reproduced with such newfound clarity and realism (and with such a complete absence of the usual metal, plastic, paper, ceramic, diamond, or carbon-fiber cone/membrane sonic signature) it is as if the recordings themselves have been remade—remixed and remastered by the world’s greatest mastering engineer. And the Zellaton References do this utterly astonishing trick without ever sounding “analytical.” Indeed, on this day in this venue their tone color was well nigh perfectly natural from top to bottom, and their “disappearing act” nearly complete. Not without reason does their U.S. importer, Gideon Schwartz of Audio Arts, call them “Quad 57s with meat on their bones.”

The secret to the Zellatons’ lifelike sound is their incredibly rigid and lightweight drivers, which are hand-made (in a process that takes up to six weeks for each driver) by Manuel Podszus, the grandson of Dr. Emil Podszus, the man who invented the sandwich driver in 1931. Although tools and materials have improved greatly over the years, the basic idea remains the same: Each cone comprises an ultra-thin layer of aluminum foil (six one-thousandth of a millimeter thick in the tweeter), a layer of hard foam, and a tissue-like backing of paper. As the foam is 85% air, the entire “sandwich” is featherweight (0.18 grams in the case of the tweeter), giving the driver the superior transient speed and resolution of a membrane and the superior damping and linearity of a cone.

So where’s that “big proviso” I mentioned earlier? Well, take the famous Turnabout LP of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, newly reissued (to superb effect) in a 45-rpm, 180-gram, two-disc set by Analogue Productions. Although this recording has always been a bit dry and forward (due, I think, to the narrow, shallow stage that the Dallas Symphony, under conductor Donald Johanos, was recorded on), and the performance itself overly brisk and aggressive, the LP is still a wonder of inner detail and floor-and-wall-shaking power. The Zellaton References reproduced it with more detail (and I mean loads more detail) and greater realism than I’ve ever before experienced—and I’ve been listening to this LP for four decades or more, and my current reference speakers are the highest-resolution transducers I’ve ever had in my home. However, in spite of the Zellaton’s superb speed, color, and resolution (and these qualities extended all the way from the treble to the bass), the Rachmaninoff didn’t have quite the “punch” on big orchestral tuttis I know it should’ve had.

This limitation in large-scale dynamics—which is linked to the very-wide-bandwidth Zellaton midrange driver’s relative skittishness when it comes to power-handling (the References lost one driver to a troublesome amp at the show—and the Ensemble loudspeakers I so adored many years ago, which used a Zellaton midrange, famously had issues when driven overly hard) has always been the knock against Zellatons.

Be this as it may, if you listen to small-scale music (folk, rock, jazz, or classical—vocal or instrumental or both) it may be that you can’t do better than these extraordinary transducers. Even if you favor large-scale music (provided it’s classical or jazz), you may be able to live contentedly with the Zellatons, provided that you don’t regularly push them into the 90-to-100dB SPL range (save on occasional peaks). I’ll find out for sure in the future, as I intend to review the References if and when they are made available to me.

Best Sound of Show (cost-no-object): Zellaton Reference loudspeaker driven by an Analog Domain Audio Isis integrated amplifier and an Allnic H-3000 phonostage and sourced by a Sperling L-1 turntable.

Best Sound of Show (for-the-money): Avantgarde Acoustics Zero 1 active, digitally optimized horn loudspeaker.

Most Significant Product Introductions: Estelon Extreme loudspeaker, Magico Ultimate III loudspeaker, MartinLogan Neolith loudspeaker, Constellation Inspiration Series electronics, Audio Research Corporation’s retro-looking GS Series electronics.

Most Significant Trends: As at CES, the plethora of analog playback equipment, which was found in virtually every room (Magico, as usual, being a notable exception). In Munich, I’d also have to say that the plethora of cutting-edge designs, both horn and dynamic-driver, was striking, though planars and electrostats were relatively scarce on the ground.

Most Coveted Product: Zellaton Reference loudspeaker.

TAS - by RH

Best Sound (cost no object)
I’m thought three systems were extraordinary: the Zellaton Reference loudspeaker, Rockport Altair loudspeakers driven by Absolare electronics, and the Raidho D-5 (see Jonathan Valin’s report for the system details).

Most Coveted Product
For sheer beauty of sound, nothing in the MOC equaled the Zellaton Reference loudspeaker.