Back Where I Should Be; The Acoustic Zen Adagio, Round 2

Life does crazy things to us sometimes. Just when we believe things are rolling along just fine, one curveball after another comes our way. Serious illnesses, family passing away, planning for moves… and then NOT moving, kids getting married, job losses. Seems like a lot can happen in a short span of time, and the past three or four years have been just like that for yours truly. We do all manner of things to wrestle our way through; whether spiritual, personal grit, mental discipline, help from family & friends - or unfortunately for some, self medication - we find ways to grapple with, or escape from, the stuff of life. What does that have to do with an audio nerd’s world? Well, a lot, especially if music and its reproduction in your home is an important part of your life and not just something you look at as a “hobby”. So, this is one of the first “reviews” I’ve written in years! Time to dive back into the pool of trying to prove to myself that I’m more intelligent and more eloquent that any of those magazine guys… (HA!)

Seven years ago, back in October of 2011, I penned a review of my Acoustic Zen Adagio’s that I had purchased on the used market. I’d encourage you to have a look at that review on Audiogon as a point of reference for my comments here. To say that I was enamored with the Adagio’s is a gross understatement; I kept that pair for probably 4 years or so, one of the longest stretches of time I’ve ever kept a loudspeaker. Other components came & went, but the Acoustic Zen’s stayed put. Truth be told, they may have stayed put even longer if not for some of the aforementioned complications of life. 

As an added benefit along the way, I was given the privilege of getting to know and even make a visit to the offices and production facilities of the Adagio’s designer Mr. Robert Lee. Not to stray too far from the path, but I need to state that Mr. Lee is one of the most accommodating, helpful and conscientious personalties in high-end audio I have ever met; and yes, I’ve met a few. Robert has a brilliant mind, an exceptional understanding of music and what it should sound like (he is a violinist himself), a history of designing and engineering high value  products, and a pleasant demeanor coupled with a true desire to care for and help his customers. A unique soul to be sure and a treasure for those that know him. That said, if you begin to understand some of Robert’s design principals, you’ll begin to understand how his personality infuses his work. His goal is to reproduce music, not create “HiFi”. Too many of today’s high end manufacturer’s, and press, seem more concerned with the latter than the former. 

Allow me to first describe some of the technologies and design principals that Robert employs in his loudspeakers:

  • Underhung drivers for the lowest possible distortion; keeping a driver’s voice coil within the magnetic field at all times and at all points of excursion. This improves linearity and greatly lowers any distortion artifacts because the driver stays under constant control of the magnetic field that’s in the gap of the driver’s magnet structure.
  • Ribbon tweeters that are almost devoid of distortion, extended, smooth and fast with wide but controlled dispersion.
  • MTM designs that eliminate “lobing” effects and helps the wave launch from the speaker reach the listener with lower phase distortion.
  • Flat frequency response, some of the best you’ll ever experience.
  • Transmission line bass loading. In my experience, when properly implemented (and that ain’t easy!), the best bass loading technique there is for a dynamic loudspeaker.
  • High efficiency, allowing the use of a wide array of amplifiers, including low power tube designs, and improving both macro and micro dynamics.
  • Extremely flat impedance that supports correct time & phase response. A critical factor in recreating music as it was intended to sound. Impedance characteristics with lots of peaks and dips causes phase response anomalies and ultimately causes amplifiers to distort the signal before it can ever even get to the speaker. Just have a look at some of the speaker impedance vs. phase traces in the tests from some of the major audio review magazines…
  • High quality crossovers built by hand with the highest quality components and that contribute to the principals of minimal phase anomalies and low distortion.
  • Rigidly braced cabinets… with gorgeous finishes!

What does all of that mean? Well, if taken from a technical standpoint, it should yield a loudspeaker that is easy to drive, is flat in response, is extended at the extremes with lifelike timbre, is fast & dynamic, is low in distortion, is phase and time correct, that throws a natural and big image, and is a heckuva lot of fun to listen to. But, the truth is in the listening.

Just a couple of details to round out my story before I get to my all important listening impressions. My original Adagio’s were earlier models, and after being asked by my employer at the time that I needed to relocate, I made the decision that I did not want to move them. So, I made the decision to not move them since they weigh in at about 75 pounds a piece, and I wasn’t exactly trusting of moving companies, and then worry about something new after the planned move. My original pair were purchased by a local audiophile friend, who I believe is still enjoying them, and the rest of the system was packed up for the move. Long story short, after much work to get it done and some of those “life happens” events, we did NOT move. So, the system came back out of its boxes, and I went through a number of different loudspeakers, from British BBC style monitors,  stand-mounts, big floor-standers, even some panels. After about 24 months of trying to recreate the sounds of music in my room, the light bulb popped on… and I called Robert. The Acoustic Zen dealer network is small, and there is none in my area. Since I’ve gotten to know Robert and he has helped me in the past with his products (along with his speakers, his cables, which populate my system), I thought I’d see if he could assist me in acquiring another pair of Adagio’s. He graciously agreed to sell me a pair direct. 

In about 3 or 4 weeks, a new pair of Adagio’s came off the shipping truck and into my humble abode. They were shipped strapped to a pallet, two boxes for each of the speakers and a third smaller carton that contains plinths, spikes, and manual. It was like Christmas for me and I was a little kid that just ripped open his new Buzz Lightyear! The speakers made it into my listening room with some help from my strapping 6’4” son and we proceeded to unbox and set them up. My pair came in what Acoustic Zen calls “gloss black”, but that actually is more of a deep anthracite gray metal flake. My son took one look at them and exclaimed, “Man, are those sexy lookin’!  Looks like a finish on an Aston Martin or something!”. He’s right, the finish is just gorgeous, and just different enough to make a little bit of a statement; I like it. The speakers are supplied with nice, gloss black plinths, brass spikes and brass discs if you need them for hard floors. I spent lots of time with positioning and tried a number of techniques to get the best spot for them. The smart thing to do is to leave the spikes out of the bases so the speakers slide around easily and then install the spikes when you’ve found the right locations. Eventually, they landed quite a way out into my room, about 5 feet or so, about 3 feet from side walls, with 7 feet in between, around 8 feet or so to my listening chair, and slight toe-in of maybe 10 degrees or less. 

The basic configuration of the Adagio has not changed over time. They still contain two proprietary 6.5” mid/woofers with doped paper cones attached to black, horizontal plinths on the cabinet front and that possess the aforementioned underhung design, above and below a unique, spiraled ribbon tweeter. The cabinet is tall and sleek with a large oval port at the bottom front of the speaker, curved sides, and substantial five-way binding posts near the bottom on the rear of the cabinet. In comparison to my original Adagio’s I did note a couple of differences with the latest model. First, the plinths that the mid/woofers attach to are both angled inward slightly, towards the tweeter, versus the plumb variety of the older models. My assumption is that this may improve imaging slightly, possibly enhancing the MTM design as a point source. I also noticed in the protective frame over the ribbon tweeter, there appears to be a small piece of damping material in the center not previously there. The cabinets also seem to be better braced. My original Adagio’s were extremely solid, but the “knuckle rap” test on the newer model will leave you with sore knuckles if you’re overly zealous about it. The cabinets are extremely solid and the finish is quite amazing. If you look the speaker over you’ll see that the craftsmanship is top rate; not a seam, groove, or joint to be seen anywhere. There’s a very high level of craftsmanship here.

It’s important to understand at this point that I’ve been listening to this pair of Adagio’s for 12 months. That’s right, I’ve had them a year, and even though I would have loved to jump up & down about them in the first two or three weeks, I just don’t think that makes sense. I’m always a bit astonished by reviewers that set up a speaker, play some background music on them for 100 hours, then listen for three weeks and write a glowing review (most of which seem amazingly similar one from another). I know, they have a magazine to get published, and they’re ears are more golden than any of the rest of us, so obviously they can discern differences and qualify sounds more quickly (mm hm). Personally, I think it takes months to really listen and understand what a loudspeaker is doing. It can even give you a chance to try different amps and components up stream to see how it reacts. My own personal test of whether a professional speaker review is really valid from end to end…? If the reviewer buys ‘em! That tells you they put their money where their mouth is and listened long enough to make that decision, instead of listening for three weeks, describing the product as a minor miracle, and then sending it back to its manufacturer. Oh well…

So, after living with the Adagio’s for close to a year, much of my original experiences with them remain unchanged. In fact, everything I liked about them initially have either stayed consistent or improved. I’ve had the opportunity to use both tube and solid state electronics with them from the likes of Quicksilver, Audible Illusions, Hegel, NuPrime, Job, and Rogue. Digital sources have been my trusty Oppo BDP105, or streamed via the Auralic Aries Mini with digital output to either NuPrime, Job or Hegel DAC sections. Analog rigs have been from a VPI Scout, to the venerable Technics SL-1200, to my current classic Sota Star fitted with a Fidelity Research FR64 tonearm, with cartridges from Audio Technica, Denon, and Lyra, and phono preampfification from Lehmann, Heed and PS Audio. Cabling has consistently been Acoustic Zen Copper Reference interconnects, Hologram speaker cables, Absolute Digital coax, and Tsunami and Gargantua power cables. Currently, the system is a Hegel H-160, the Oppo 105, the Sota/Fidelity Research rig, and a PS Audio GCPH phono preamp, all powered via a Balanced Power Technology BPT10.5 power controller. My musical preferences are extremely broad, from classical war-horses, to jazz, ambient, electronic, rock, modern folk and roots music. My tastes are extremely varied, and even though I have a handful of “audiophile approved” recordings, I could give a hang about whether what I listen to is “valid” as a source; I generally don’t succumb to such elitist snobbery.

What I have discovered after living again with the Adagio’s for a good length of time is what I discovered about them initially. They are, in my estimation, the finest reproducers of musical information of any loudspeaker at their price I have heard or have had in my home. To improve on them would probably require an order of magnitude in expenditure. The Adagio has a naturalness and ease like none other. Much of that is probably due to the flat impedance and phase response they possess and the design is incredibly coherent across the entire audio spectrum. Amplifiers simply don’t have to work as hard to drive and control them as they do others, allowing the flow and the timbre of the music to come through unscathed. Makes no difference if they’re driven by tubes or solid state, recreating a lovely female voice, presenting massed strings, or pounding out some groovy rock, they just sound right. They’re distortion is as low or lower than most panels and they beat them on dynamics without breaking a sweat, likely due to their high efficiency. The inner detail, midrange realism, and image they create is like a BBC monitor, but they’ll play louder and extend the frequency response in both the upper and lower registers. They have true bass response down to about 30Hz due to their transmission line loaded cabinets and it’s tuneful and accurate, not huffy and chuffy and a bit fake sounding like most ported designs. Why don’t more designers utilize transmission line systems? Probably because a standard porting arrangement is much easier and cheaper to implement, and the mathematics and engineering behind a transmission line takes more time, effort, and investment. The ribbon tweeter sings like songbirds in the springtime, but without shrillness or grain and integrates beautifully with the other drivers; no notches or “holes” in the frequency spectrum. The system sounds like a single sound source; you can’t discern the voices of separate drivers or their arrangement. And, those qualities stand up no matter what amp is driving them.

Listening to Jane Monheit or Norah Jones is always a treat, but through the Adagio’s, there’s an extra something that comes through that lesser speakers just cannot get. A smokiness and a resonance of their voices that is absolutely captivating. Listening to Sarah McLachlan sing “Angel” brings tears to my eyes as not only do you hear the song, but the sheer emotion of her voice rings through with incredible gravity and depth of feeling. I grew up going to the symphony once a month with my mother, who instilled a love of music into me at a very early age. Through the Adagio’s, listening to Beethoven’s “Symphony #6” by the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä, Prokofiev’s “Symphony #5” by the Atlanta Symphony and Yoel Levi, or Haydn’s “Creation” performed by the Gabrieli Consort and Players and conducted by Paul McCresh, you can hear through to the rosiny tone of the bows on massed strings while hearing the delicate subtleties as solo and ensemble teams within the orchestra unfold the melodies. Horns and percussion are dynamic and real, and their proportions in relation to the rest of the orchestra are spot on. Placement of instruments is natural, correct, and locked into place without drifting. The ambiance of the space is uncannily in the room with you as you listen and instruments have air and space around them without being over wrought or obtrusively “hi-fi”.

One of my favorite jazz records is the Verve reissue of “Jimmy and Wes, The Dynamic Duo” by Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery. Both are favorites in any of their solo recordings, but the need for toe tapping is infectious on this LP. The Adagio’s bring out the tone of Montgomery’s guitar like no other speaker I’ve heard and Jimmy’s B3 is just rollicking throughout. Tower of Power’s “Back to Oakland” should have you in the middle of the room dancing on just about any system, but with the Adagio’s the joy of listening, and digging that incredible boogie factor that starts with the incredible rhythm section of TofP with their standard setting horn section over the top is just a blast! 

These speakers ability to drill deep into the sound and pull out subtleties you may miss otherwise is uncanny. Much of that is probably due to the ribbon tweeter which is fast and detailed and allows you to pick up subtle cues that otherwise might not be heard. If I can pick at any nits, it may be with that same tweeter. In some rooms, especially smaller ones like my own, it’s extension can require just a very minute amount of “smoothing”. Acoustic Zen to the rescue. They can supply a set of “wings” for each side of the tweeter that yields just the slightest amount of dispersion and softening of the top end ever so slightly without any loss of fine detail. It seems to be a very clever way to adapt the speaker to differing room acoustics and I say “hats off” to Robert for this effective little option. Personally, I think they should just be standard with every pair, but if you need them, you can just contact Robert and he’ll send some your way.

I’ve always appreciated systems that can get the bass right. We talk about midrange purity over and over, but sometimes we forget that the fundamental tones of much of the sound spectrum are down low. The middle of the piano is only 440Hz after all. One of the beauties of the Adagio is it’s bottom end response. As it drives deeper and deeper, it does not not lose power, speed or realism. It does drop off quickly below 30Hz, but even the 20Hz synthesizer tones in Enya’s “Watermark” or Seal’s “Crazy” come rumbling through. I love listening to Peter Gabriel’s tune “Digging In the Dirt” to hear how a speaker deals with Tony Levin’s bass guitar. The reality is that most speakers just can’t get it, but the Adagio allows you to hear every pluck, every nuance and every note, where most just create a mish-mash of unarticulated bass noise. 

And, you wanna have some fun? Just throw on Billy Gibbons and the BFG’s, Dire Straits, or for a real rip-roaring time, some Monster Truck! Not sure if I’d call the Adagio’s a party ’til the cows come home speaker, but they sure can have me banging away at my air guitar with no fatigue! So not only are these speakers accurate, dynamic, extended, and pure, they’re just downright fun to listen to!

So, I hope you can see that I’m as sold as I was the first time around, even more so in round two. I know of no other speaker at a $4500.00 price point or even multiples thereof that can come close to all of the qualities of the Adagio. That’s not to say there aren’t some outstanding speakers on the market including some I’ve not heard but, the Adagio could be one of those “last speaker purchases” for many music lovers in my estimation. The only speaker that I’ve heard at length that beats the Adagio, is Acoustic Zen’s own, much larger Crescendo which, at $22k is a bit of a stretch for my meager pocket book… maybe some day. So, if you’re looking for a speaker that will give you MUSICAL enjoyment like no other, seek out the Adagio. It’s been in production for many years, has had somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 pairs produced, and you’ll notice they come up rarely in the used market (and that should tell you something). They are worth the time to seek out. The rewards will be great and I would not hesitate to recommend them to any of my audiophile and music loving friends. Actually, all I have to do is have them sit down in front of them for a few minutes, and the die is cast! 

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Thanks for the extensive review.  I’m glad you found your speaker, dog. Enjoy the hell out of it!
Very moving. Awesome review. Thanks much.