Review: Acoustic Zen Adagio Speaker

Category: Speakers

The Acoustic Zen Adagio Loudspeakers

As I began to organize my thoughts for this review, I started to think about all of the different speakers I’ve had in my system over the years. Let’s see… EPI, Cerwin-Vega, Avid, Clements, Magnepan (4pairs/models), B&W, Dahlquist, Spica (two pairs/models), Acoustat (2 pairs/models), JPW, Vandersteen (two pairs/models), AAD, Spendor, Acoustic Energy, Meadowlark, Celestion, and probably a few more that I’m forgetting. I’ve also had the ability to get familiar with and do some extensive listening to Quad, Apogee, Proac, Allison, Mission, Rogers, Infinity, and yet again, others that I’m sure I’m forgetting. What has struck me is how much “Acoustic Memory” I have for some of these. I don’t really think that is anything terribly remarkable and I’d bet that most folks who love listening to music have the same proclivities. I just found it interesting as I began making mental comparisons to many of these when considering how to describe my current speakers, the Acoustic Zen Adagio. I guess the point of that opening comment is that the rest of what’s below does not come from a vacuum or a lack of experience.

That said, I am not going to beat around the bush here, so if you don’t want to read all the way to the end of this review you don’t have to! Put simply, the Adagio’s are the finest loudspeaker that I’ve ever owned, period. And they are also one of the greatest values I know of in all of audio. I know that for most folks, the Adagio’s price of $4500/pair may seem high for something like speakers, but in the rarified air of audiophilia, they are a bargain like no other. Are there better speakers out there? I’m sure there are, and there are some that quite honestly I’ve heard personally that could go in that bucket, but almost all are at a price point that is many multiples that of the Adagio, some by order of magnitude. How much better some of those are, is debatable, as many afford minimal gains in performance for substantial cost. So better becomes a very relative term. Ultimately, I know of no other loudspeaker that possesses the Adagio’s level of performance for anywhere near the price.

OK, so why do I make a bold statement like that? First of all you need to understand that I love audio equipment and have been fooling around with it for well over 35 years, but to me the reason for that endeavor is for the purpose of listening to music. I’m one of those folks that music speaks to on an emotional as much as any other artistic or practical level. It’s something that affects me mentally and physically. It makes me want to dance, boogie in my chair, play air guitar, laugh, frown, think, contemplate, or reduce me to absolute awe and tears. So, for me, the ultimate end of an audio system is for that purpose alone; to reproduce music in such a way that it reaches into my inner being and takes control of me on an almost spiritual level. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that I’ve always traded things in and out of my systems over the years, always looking for that next “holy grail” of musical abilities… plus, it’s fun!

I think that before commenting on almost any piece of gear, one needs to live with it for a while and really get to know it. Putting something in a system and immediately trying to describe its sound and character in a couple of weeks doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’ve had the Adagios in my system for almost a year now so I feel like I’ve come to know them pretty well, and considering how I’m usually itching to try different equipment, it’s kind of amazing how long I’ve had them. I believe that’s due to the speakers character, or maybe I should say lack of character, and how they reproduce musical signals. I think that’s really what I love more than anything else about them, their complete lack of adding or detracting much of anything from the sound they are fed. I have found them to be very consistent, coherent, and cohesive in their sound and they have an ability to make you forget you’re listening to an electronic “system” of any kind. They also have what is probably the lowest distortion of any speaker I’ve ever had, the most truthful timber, and outstanding dynamics both macro and micro even at lower volume levels.

The Adagio’s are designed and manufactured by Mr. Robert Lee, famous for his line of audiophile cables (lots of which I also own and have a review here on Audiogon for as well, if you’re so inclined to investigate). The design utilizes a D’Appolito MTM array at the top of an approximately 49” tall, somewhat narrow cabinet, with sides that gracefully curve from the front to a narrower back to reduce reflective, parallel surfaces. The driver complement is two 6.5” mid/bass drivers on extended front panel plinths flanking a circular ribbon tweeter in a time aligned array. A large oval port for the system’s transmission line bass loading graces the bottom front near the floor. A single pair of high quality, five way binding posts can be found on the back panel and spikes are provided for coupling the substantial cabinet to the floor. The cabinet appears to be constructed of thick MDF and is finished in real wood veneers, which are quite gorgeous, especially at this price point. Mine are in the “figure red” finish described on the Acoustic Zen website. Internal bracing appears to be extensive as the “knuckle rap” test will tell you, but not to the extent you might think as there is some resonance to the body of the speaker, especially on the sides, but considering their performance something tells me that this is by design. Claimed sensitivity is 89db/1W/1M and impedance is said to be nominally about 6 ohms, so they are relatively easy to drive (although I do not have a way of doing a full spectrum impedance curve, so I’ll take the manufacturer’s word for it). Crossover is a 3kHz/18db/octave (3rd order) Linkwitz Riley type. Construction is first rate all around.

So, what we have is a 2 way, transmission line loaded system which may seem somewhat unremarkable, but the execution here is what makes this speaker shine. First, Robert uses “underhung” drivers, and without getting overly techno-geeky, what that means is that the voice coil is shorter than in most designs and always stays within the magnetic gap of the driver’s motor assembly. The down side of this type of driver is that it requires extremely high quality magnet assemblies as well as exceptional wire quality in the coils, and that gets pricey. But, the advantage is that underhung drivers are much lower in distortion artifacts than other conventional drivers because the coil is always within the motor’s envelope of magnetic flux. Ultimately, you get a much more linear and controlled performance from the driver as long as it is utilized properly within its pass band. Next, he uses a proprietary, circular ribbon tweeter. It’s been my experience that ribbon tweeters, whether “true” ribbons, “quasi” ribbons, “circular” ribbons, “line source” ribbons, etc., seem to be able to combine those elusive qualities of being extended, yet smooth in character all at once, unlike some of the ubiquitous metal dome types that are able to do one or the other but not both. Add to that what is obviously a very well designed transmission line bass system and you have the heart of this speaker’s phenomenal performance.

As I stated previously, I’ve had the Adagios for some time now, have experimented a bit with placement and have found while it’s not monumentally critical, and that you can get great sound with some very basic set up, spending some time to really “dial-in” the speaker through careful placement will certainly be rewarded. I must admit that my listening room is not the greatest; about 12’ wide with some shelving on both sides of where the speakers sit, which affords a bit of diffraction, a drop ceiling, drywall construction, and a concrete & tile floor which has been carpeted over. The room is quite deep and is broken in half by my main listening chair, everything behind which is essentially my office with lots of shelves and my desk. The wall behind the speakers is broken in half by a faux fireplace/hearth sort of affair and I treat the corners with some old bi-fold doors with sheets over them for some level of both diffraction and absorption in the corners. I’m always considering how to make the room better, but it always seems to wind up with the concept of tearing our walls and a complete remodel and my pocket book fights me on that idea. Currently, the Adagio’s front baffles are about 60” from the back walls and about 32” from side walls with a toe-in towards my listening chair where I can still just see the inner sides of the cabinets. I also have each speaker sitting on a granite slab, which actually seems to help in my room with coupling and bass performance because my floors under the carpet are a bit uneven so the granite slabs create a much more solid and stable platform for the speakers without raising them too high. I have tried them up on some stands that were about 6” or so high, but found that just didn’t work well as it wasn’t very stable and the speakers imaging abilities collapsed, I think because the tweeter and the effective “center” of the speaker were too high. It became obvious through that experimentation that the Adagios like to be firmly planted on the floor. I understand there is a set of outriggers you can get that are expressly for the Adagio so I may give those a try someday as well. The speakers sound just a bit more articulate with the grills removed, there are two on each speaker on each of the two woofers, but leaving them on does not have a hugely deleterious effect. The rest of my system is online and it has been somewhat stable over the last few months, although I have had a change in CD players, a change in power amps, and other little tweaks and toys along the way, but none of those changes have any effect on my comments about the Adagios.

I’ve stated elsewhere what my musical tastes are, but to make it simple they are widely varied from classical to jazz to rock & pop, and I could care less about what is “audiophile acceptable”. Although I do own some of those audiophile approved selections, it’s what I enjoy listening to that counts and I really don’t give a rip whether any of it is acceptable to the prevailing audio cognoscenti. So with that in mind, I’ll make no apologies for some of my listening notes. One of the first things that became apparent to me with the Adagios is how natural and coherent they sound across the entire frequency spectrum and the ability that they have to make instruments sound like, well, instruments. Guitars sound like they should, drums have the impact and resonance they ought to posses, strings have the rosiny sound of the bow drawing across them, and horns have the timbral brightness as well as body you expect. In other words, things just sound right and natural. In listening to Mark Knopfler’s “One Take Radio Sessions”, you get the sensation of sitting in the studio itself as you can hear that certain rasp and harmonic body that a tube guitar amp creates. Eric Johnson’s “Bloom” has the warmth and broad tone spectrum that you hear from him if you get to see him and his band live. I love the Simon Rattle recording of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” because its finale is massive in scale and the Acoustic Zen’s have no challenge in reproducing it to an extent that it takes my breath away. There are few if any speakers that I’ve had the pleasure of owning that have ever been able to do this across the entire spectrum of my music library. It make little to no difference as to whether the source is analog, CD, SACD or a ripped file played back from my computer and Squeezebox, the Adagios always perform. I’ve heard this type of smoothness and coherence before, especially from various panel type speakers like electrostatics and planar magnetics, but that’s usually at the expense of natural dynamic contrasts at differing volume levels. One of the things that I truly love about this speaker is that it sounds just as dynamic and realistic at low volumes as it does when playing at natural, and even unnatural, levels. To the former, listening to internet radio in the background while I’m working at my desk is exceptionally satisfying and to the latter, crank up a little ZZ Top and have some fun! This speaker has clout and can provide just about all the visceral impact you’d want. Listen to “The Bug” or “Heavy Fuel” from Dire Straits “On every Street”. “Heavy Fuel” has drum and guitar impacts that it should and will punch you square in the jaw, and “The Bug” propels you forward and forces your feet to tap whether you want to or not.

I believe the success of Mr. Lee’s design is due to incredibly low to almost zero discernable distortion. All transducers posses some level of distortion since they are spending their time converting an electrical signal into a mechanical one. Coupling a musical signal to the air is not so easy to do without some level of signal distortion and it is apparent to me that Robert has found a way to reduce those distortion factors to vanishingly low levels. Truthfully, I find it difficult to describe the Adagios with some sort of “character” because they quite simply have none. They are a truthful transducer of the finest kind. It’s not just a matter of the middle registers sounding correct as they do in other speakers that are described as natural sounding either, but extended out into the frequency extremes as well. Cymbals and high strings have the sheen and crystalline clarity they should without being harsh or out of balance and the transmission line bass system displays power and body while at the same time being punchy and tight. One of my favorite tunes to check bass performance is peter Gabriel’s “Digging in the Dirt” and through these speakers you can clearly articulate the bass lines and their dynamic contrasts that lesser systems just turn to mud. Essentially, whatever the music demands, the Adagios deliver. And, they deliver all the details buried in the music as well. There are some things in my music library that I’ve listened to for years and know intimately but the Adagios have enabled me to mine things out of some selections that were previously unnoticed. They were probably there, but not to an extent that you really noticed them and how they become a part of the musical whole. A newer selection is the Speakers Corner vinyl reissue of the Verve release from Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery, “Jimmy & Wes; The Dynamic Duo”. Through the Acoustic Zen Adagios this album is simply stunning and I cannot get over how much the pure joy of this recording gets pumped into the room. The detail of Montgomery’s fingers plucking strings and the “click” of the keys of Smith’s organ are all there. But all that detail is not there in a clinical fashion; it’s part of how the music should sound and not some sort of antiseptic reproduction. Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony No.3” seems to be ubiquitous these days (and why shouldn’t it be…!?) and the Adagios ability to deal with the huge dynamic contrast that you find especially in the work’s first movement is beyond reproach. The David Zinman conducted version on Elektra showcases this wonderfully as the Adagios give you the ability to pull every nuance from the performance from the incredibly soft pianissimo of the opening strains all the way through the thundering fortissimo the piece builds to without ever losing the real emotional depth of the music. In other words their sound appeals to the heart as well as the head and has the soul and life that music should while delivering it with honesty and accuracy.

No speaker is absolutely perfect and if I had to find a quibble with the Adagio it’s that it doesn’t reproduce the last octave of or so of bass. It drives deeply and cleanly into the 30 Hz regions and then rolls off gracefully below that. If you’re into fully fleshed out pipe organ music or some rock material that contains lots of synth laden moments, you probably won’t notice, but the addition of a subwoofer may afford some improvement and augment an already stunning performer. Don’t misunderstand, the Adagio has incredible bottom end. Listening to the Saint Saens “Symphony No. 3, Organ” finale, or to Seal’s tune “Crazy” with its low synth lines at about five minutes in, the bottom is all there and doesn’t break up, just not to that last degree of extension that makes your frame rattle internally and that usually requires a lot more size and dollars. The only other caveat, they are on the heavy side and may not be the easiest beasts to move around but once you get them placed, that shouldn’t be a big deal.

I’d like to try some other electronics somewhere along the line, like maybe something from Ayre or Belles, or BAT, or LFD and see how that may affect the Adagio’s performance but I can only imagine that an upgrade anywhere along the chain will not adversely affect it. If it’s truly an upgrade, you’re gonna hear it with this speaker! There are some other speakers that intrigue me as well and that I’d like to try, maybe Harbeth or Vienna or Gallo, but I wouldn’t want to do that without having the Adagios firmly in place to compare the others to, and even at that, I’d bet they would stay firmly in place after those comparisons. I have had the opportunity to hear the larger Acoustic Zen Crescendo and that would certainly be an upgrade, although they may be a bit much for my room and at $16k a bit much for my bank account, but again I believe that speaker performs well beyond the abilities of most that are even an order of magnitude higher in price. Not sure how Robert gets all the sound he does at his price points but his work is truly refreshing amongst much of what’s out there in the audio world today. Hats off to him for a spectacular design that’s musical, accurate, and one heckuva bargain!

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I've heard these speakers at a couple of shows, too - and I think they are really good. Perhaps a tad laid back... musical... my taste leans that way. I don't know about what amplification is best for them. Dogmcd - do you use a DAC with your squeezebox?
Peter S,

Thanks for your comments! I've used my current Red Dragon amps for quite a while with the Adagios and previously had a pair of Aleph clones and both sounded extremely good. Considering that they have a relatively easy impedance to drive, amp selection may not be too much of a hassle. I know that Robert likes to demo with triode tubed amps, so they don't take huge amounts of power to get going but they will reward you if you give them some watts. Like I say, I would like to try them with some different amps sometime myself.

Yes, I do run my Squeezebox with a DAC. Right now I'm running the digital out to the DAC in my Marantz SA8004 which is quite good.

I'm intrigued by your comment of the speakers sounding "laid back". Not saying that's a bad or incorrect comment by any means, I'm just curious about what you'd comapare them to that's not "laid back"? I'm thinking I might agree with you, but I may term it "non-agressive"....

Happy Listening!
Since you like them so much, have you considered the Response Audio crossover upgrade?
Nice review. I also own the Adagio's and love them. Like you, I find they are very responsive to upstream equipment. Also like you, I love Magnepans, and these are some of the only cone speakers that capture almost all of the Maggie magic but with the dynamics of a cone speaker. I often have upgrade-itis, but the only speakers I've heard at shows or dealers that interest me are generally much higher priced - Avalon, Thiel's high-end, the top of the line Vandersteen, Wilson Sophia, etc.
Go up withe the Crescendos, you will be in heaven, I have mine with Ayon Triton, not looking for upgrade anytime soon.

I felt in love with the Az speakers min one after listened to them, wow this is like benign at the Blue Note, with live musicians, first time i listened to the music while i forgot about the gear,

good luck
Thanks for the responses folks...!

Roxy 54, no I have not considered that. I'm sometimes a little suspicious of mods (even though I've done plenty myself over the years!), but it may be worth some serious investigation. I'll check it out!

Junglem, I'll bet your Crescendos are awesome, especially with those Ayon tubes! The Crescendo is one of the speakers I will lust after and hopefully my pocket book will catch up. I have had an opportunity to hear them, and I have to say that I think they are stupid good for the price! I'm like Darkj and can honestly say that the only things I've heard that might bear some consideration in comparison are many times more expensive, like the Wilson Sasha or Vandersteen 7 or some of the better Avalon's, and even then I'm not sure how much you'd gain in performance against the Crescendos.... If I ever get to own a pair of those it will probably be my last speaker purchase ever. For now, I will happily live with my Adagios that get me about 90% of the way there!

In re-reading some of my comments about the Adagio, I notice that I said little about the speaker's sounstaging & imaging abilities. Maybe that's because, like the rest of their presentation, those properties are so natural it almost goes unnoticed.

I personally have found that loudspeakers that seem to cut instrumental and vocal images out with an X-acto knife don't appeal to me, mainly because that's NOT how real music sounds live. Yes, you should be able to localize things, but as a whole, music being played in a real space has a certain "blend" that reaches your ears. An example is massed strings. If you listen in the concert hall, they come to you en masse from an "area" that you localize but you don't generally hear each instrument cut in stark relief from the whole, unless one is grossly out of tune and even then, it will take you a bit to get the offender identified within that whole sonic cloth. Some speakers unabashedly allow you to hear each and every instrument, noise, voice or pin drop in stark relief within their soundstage in your listening room, and that actually just reminds me that I'm listening to an electronic reproduction rather than just listening to a musical performance.

So, the Adagios throw an excellent soundstage that spreads beyond the outter edges of the speakers themselves, but not unnaturally so and they also have the ability to give you a perception of the depth of the venue as well so that what you hear is not just a flat picture but one that has appropriate dimensions to it. A good example is when you listen to "Bird On a Wire" from Jennifer Warnes' "Famous Blue Raincoat", Vinnie Colaiuta's drums are in the right place in the center rear of the mix, and his toms are in the right positions as he plays through the opening riff's, but they all still blend approriately with the overall presentaion. I've been listening recently to the DG/Archiv recording of Haydn's "The Creation" with the Gabrielli Consort & Players conducted by Paul McCreesh (great recording and an outstanding performance by the way, go get it! Archiv 477 7361) and the overall soundstage has the size and depth that it should with the players and chorus in the right places, and they stay firmly rooted and stable throughout.

So, the bottom line for me is that the Adagios create a "real" soundscape that doesn't make you stop and "look" at each performer like they're a two or three dimensional cut out doll. They sound like music as it would if you were there, with the correct size, depth and weight. Just another plus in their considerable arsenal of qualities!
An interesting update...

Not long after finishing up my review, I noticed something was suddenly not quite right with my system; some of the life was gone, the image was collapsed, the sound was dull, just not right. After a little investigation I found that one of the tweeters in the Adagios had something wrong with it. It was very muffled and obviously down a couple of dB from the opposite speaker. Popped the tweeters and noticed a huge difference when checking their resistance with a DVM. Not good!

I called Robert and he said he thought he knew what the problem was and asked that I send the tweeters to him. So, I sent the tweeters off to Robert in California and waited patiently next to my system, wimpering and getting cranky because I had no tunes.

Well, in just a few days, I received the tweets back, repaired, along with new gasket material and some silver solder to reconnect them to the speakers. Robert worked on them himself and repaired the internals of the ribbon tweeter assembly and made sure the pair were properly balanced. I hooked them back up and the sound was back to its original glory. Everything is again right with the world!

The point is this... On top of desiging and manufacturing what I believe are some of the best speakers and cables in the world, Robert Lee also cares about his customers and stands behind his product. I believe a shout out is always deserved when someone goes above and beyond the call to work directly with a customer and help them out when they have a problem. One more reson that I for one will be an Acoustic Zen customer until the cows come home!

Thanks you Robert !!! :-)

I'm about to buy a pair. Robert Lee said my Pass Aleph 30 amp would sound "very excellent" with the Adagios. I have heard the speakers at shows being driven by Red Dragon amps, so I was amazed when I saw you are familiar with the speakers being driven with both Red Dragons and Alephs (though clones).

Could you describe the DIFFERENCE you hear in the speakers depending on which amps you use?

Russellreich, my sincere apologies for the extremely late reply! Haven't been engaged on the site much for a couple months due to work, family, life in general getting in the way!

To answer your question, the differences between amps can be readily heard through the Adagios but all can put their best foot forward. The pure class A Aleph clones were extremely smooth with very sweet midrange performance where the Red Dragon's had a masterful grip on the frequency extremes, especially the bottom end where the bass was powerful yet articulate. The Red Dragons also afforded lots of dynamics due to the simple fact there was plenty in reserve when needed! In both cases though, the Adagios were musical, articulate and beautiful to listen to.

Interestingly, I've changed amplification again. I am now running an Ayre AX7e integrated, which I think may be the best amplification device I've ever owned and the sound is sweeter and more truthful than ever... but I still have the Adagios, and I guess that should tell you something in and of itself.
Hi,in my search for reviews on the Adagios I cam upon yours. To keep this real short,I have had some bad experiences in my quest for "Hi end audio" and was about to give up and just get some cheap Polks or something (I have a H T so I need something). I have a line on some Adagios for $1775 shipped and I am hesitating! Seeing your review and your equipment I realize maybe I can have a good system on my budget (speakers under 2k,cables in the $100s,amp or amps under 2k)Bottom line is I would really like to talk to you because you have the Adagios and if I buy them that's what I would be building my system around.If you could email me you phone# and the best time to call it would be greatly appreciated. If you don't feel comfortable with this I will understand,thank you in advance for your time,Larry
Hi Larry,

I'll contact you separately, but allow me this; what you will find with the Adagio's more than almost any other speaker, is one that plays MUSIC! The only other speakers that I've ever run across, and listened to, that come close are Harbeth's and Spendor's (BBC style speakers). In my experience, the Acoustic Zen's have that same level of real life musical expression as those BBC style monitors along with better dynamics and better extension at the frequency extremes. And, the only speaker I've heard that I think would be an upgrade are Robert Lee's Crescendo's (and I'm trying to figure out how I afford a pair of those someday!).

Just my personal opinion that you don't see lots of reviewers jumping up and down about the Adagio's because they don't have all of the bombast or sparkle or unnatural sounds that sometimes drive reviews, not always because a speaker is accurate or sounds correct, but because it sounds "different" and has a huge "wow" factor. The low distortion and proper phase relationships that the Acoustic Zen's provide are more natural. Not to denegrate some very good, very expensive products, but it's interesting that most Acoustic Zen owners just settle in for the long haul, and I think that says a lot!

And, for $1775, you'll steal 'em!