A high performance wireless speaker system may be the Holy Grail to many home theater and lifestyle audio enthusiasts. Speaker placement, specifically surround speaker placement, is easily the most frustrating aspect of a surround system and often discourages consumers from even considering one for their home. It's a legitimate concern, and one that Aperion Audio tries enthusiastically to solve with their $499 Zona wireless surround speaker system. Aperion literature promises audiophile-grade surround performanceso good that it can be used in a dedicated two-channel system, with all the convenience of wireless connectivity. That's big talk and I like big talk.
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To call the Zona a wireless system is a bit of a misnomer as it is not completely sans wires. It does eliminate speaker cables and their associated hassles however. To be a truly wireless speaker, Aperion would've had to resort to using some sort of battery system to power the Zona loudspeakers. Aperion however eschewed battery power for the higher and more consistent performance that only AC power can provide. Each speaker therefore requires a power cord between it and your wall's electrical outlet for the internal amplifier and associated circuitry. Provided the speakers live up to their claim of audiophile-grade performance, this is a compromise that I am prepared to live with.
Each Zona bookshelf speaker uses a one-inch soft dome silk tweeter, and a four and one-half inch woven fiberglass woofer in a ported MDF enclosure. The speaker is powered by an internal two-channel Class D amplifier, which supplies 20 Watts to each driver. An active crossover separates the high and low frequencies and routes them to the appropriate amplifier channel. Utilizing an active crossover provides some considerable advantages over traditional passive crossovers. For example, the amplifier channel driving the woofer is not burdened with high frequencies and therefore can dedicate all of it's power output to making bass notes more articulated and deeper. Moreover, removing the passive components of a crossover can often increase the detail of the playback. Having owned fully active loudspeakers in the past I can attest to the attributes of the design. Active systems are often impractical for the average consumer as amplifier channels, and associated cabling costs add up quickly. My particular system required twelve pricey channels of amplification, which did not include a sub-woofer.
The wireless receiver circuitry is also hidden inside the speaker and communicates in the 2.4 GHz band and provides excellent range of up to 150 feet. The receiver circuitry constantly listens for other signals in the band and if an interfering signal is identified, it will automatically retune to a clear channel ensuring reliable performance. The hockey puck-shaped transmitter was designed with flexibility in mind. The receiver can be plugged directly into the USB port of your computer for streaming audio such as Internet radio or stored audio files. In addition, it can also accept analog audio signals from any device with a preamp output. The analog signal is digitized prior to transmission and the system offers resolution of 16 bit/48 kHz uncompressed. Zona supplies all the cabling that you will need for RCA or stereo mini-plug connections, which iPod owners will surely appreciate. The Zona speakers are exceedingly flexible and can be used in a wide variety of applications.
The Zona speaker system arrived in a single box securely packaged with form fitting Styrofoam cushions holding the speakers firmly in place. A soft cloth bag covered each speaker to protect the black finish. I was surprised to find only a small single sheet of paper for instructions however. Either this system was designed to be idiot proof, or I was going to be on the phone often with tech support.
I prayed for the prior.
While giving the speakers the initial once over I was very impressed by the level of fit and finish, especially at this price point. For example, Aperion finishes the cabinet edges smooth, leaving no seams visible; most of their competitors do not. The enclosure felt surprisingly solid and passed the knuckle rap test with flying colors. Threaded inserts on the back and bottom of the speaker were a thoughtful addition. Wall mount brackets for the Zona speakers are not included but Aperion Audio's AWM-17 mount works well for these speakers, which you can find at Aperion Audio's website. Another noteworthy observation was how easily the black finish was marked with fingerprints, as this may be a concern for the neat freaks among us.
Under the grill there were a few surprises beyond the woven fiberglass woofer and soft dome silk tweeter. A long but narrow rectangular cabinet port below the woofer extends nearly the entire width of the cabinet. Obviously, this serves to help extend the frequency response from 20 KHz down to the claimed 55 Hz. Most ported bookshelf speakers I have experienced port to the rear in order to conserve space. The downside of that is that the port interacts with walls behind the speaker, which may decrease performance if not carefully placed. Placing the port in front makes for easier speaker placement, especially important for surround speakers. Also present is a clear plastic flush-mounted ring whose purpose I would later learn is to indicate the link status between the speakers and the transmitter. A blinking ring means that there is no link, and a solid glow means that the transmitter and speakers are happily communicating. I also accidentally learned, by pressing the center of the transmitter, that the ring could light in one of three colors, blue, green or red. I was forced to call the Aperion tech support line to determine the significance of the different colors, as there is no mention in the users manual of ring color. The colors indicate different channels that the system will use to communicate. This feature is designed for multi-channel applications where blue may be used for the front speakers, green may be the surround channels etc. I'd like to mention that my experience with the Aperion tech support line was completely positive. My call was answered within two rings with none of the telephone tree nonsense. The tech that answered my call was not only pleasant, but also very knowledgeable. Good customer support is an absolute necessity if you plan to sell direct as Aperion does, two things Aperion does right.
Accessories also include a pair of power supplies, one for each speaker, which are virtually identical to the one that powers my Dell laptop, however these include a much longer cord. When using an analog input you must use the provided wall adapter to power the transmitter, when connected to a computer the USB port takes care of powering it. Aperion also includes a handy remote control that can turn the speakers on or off, adjust volume, bass, and treble.
I began my review streaming music from my laptop and was pleased to find that simply plugging in the USB cable resulted in music. It could not have been simpler as there were no settings to change, no drivers to install, nothing. I was also very happy to find that that the system worked as easily with Windows XP as it did with the Windows 7 operating system. I was beginning to understand why the users manual was so small.
First, I launched the Pandora Internet radio service and listened to "Brown Eyed Girl" from the Van Morrison album Blowin' Your Mind! (Epic/Legacy). I must admit that my expectations were fairly low thinking that the system was primarily designed for convenience, not necessarily performance. Hearing the music that was created by the Zona speakers was eye opening. What first struck me was the width of the soundstage that the Zona speakers created. Cymbal strikes appeared far outside of the left speaker, and the guitar picks were equally outside the right speaker. Both were delivered with remarkable clarity and openness. The cymbal had realistic shimmer and natural decay, while the guitar was warm and mellow. The chorus has several backing vocalists blended together to form a cohesive harmony; however they were easy to differentiate when I wanted to focus on each individual's voice illustrating the detail that the system provided. The bass guitar notes were delivered with surprising power and could be felt through the floor at higher volumes. Most bookshelf speakers require a subwoofer to fill in the lower frequencies, but while listening to the Zona system I never found myself yearning for one. If I wanted a bit more bass I could just add one or two clicks of bass output with the remote control. Each click resulted in larger than expected increases in output and the sound usually landed on either side of what I consider "just right." I would have preferred smaller adjustment increments to alleviate this frustration; however it was very convenient to have the ability to tweak the sound with the remote.