Rock and roll, by its very nature, is anti-establishment, yet so many consumer electronics manufacturers these days, even ones birthed in basements and garages across the United States, are anything but. In what can only be viewed as a sign of the times, many popular brands are no longer run by their original creators. Instead, they exist as part of a conglomerate managed by “suits” who often have little to no interest in the very products they produce, let alone music. I don’t slight these companies – they’re acting out of self-preservation, for if there weren’t investment companies many of the industry’s most beloved manufacturers would simply cease to exist.
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But not everyone has chosen to fall into line. There are still those out there who fail to conform; those who still believe in rock and roll. Ladies and gentlemen – I give you Zu Audio.
Zu Audio Then…
In the 11 or so years since Zu Audio’s launch, founders Sean Casey and Adam Decaria have experienced a rockstar-like life among the audiophile community, quickly rising to stardom only to fall from grace.
Early Zu speakers, such as the Druid, were widely praised and it seemed, at the time, that the sky was the limit for the Utah based manufacturer. However, like any good rock and roll story, success would be short lived for once Zu began making a name for itself, one born from word of mouth, Internet direct sales and customer satisfaction, the opportunity to expand grew too strong to resist. In 2008 Zu Audio abandoned a large part of what made them unique at the time, their Internet direct model, and began flooring product in dealer showrooms, a move that didn’t sell many speakers nor please their core fan base. Like a band that was once rock and roll turned country, Zu Audio’s thousands of loyal fans revolted and the company reeled despite the positive press their products continued to garner.
Something had to give and in the face of a global recession it appeared the once plucky upstart was headed either the way of the dinosaur or into the hands of a venture capitalist. Sean and Adam chose the latter and in an attempt to keep the company afloat, they turned to venture capitalist Kristian Pettengill to help them bring Zu Audio back to prominence.
The move proved costly and nearly destroyed Zu Audio.
Zu Audio Now…
Like a band dropped from their label, Zu frontmen, Sean and Adam, had a decision to make – keep going or accept defeat. Like so many reeling from the effects of a downward spiraling economy, both Sean and Adam were forced to adapt once again, only this time they didn’t turn to a new strategy or “suit.” Instead the duo dusted off an old ideal (one that isn’t as revolutionary today as it was in 2002): to manufacturer quality, affordable audio products right here in the United States and sell them direct to the consumer to ensure proper customer service and satisfaction in order to re-build the brand and brand loyalty.
In January of 2011 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Zu Audio re-ignited their “Revolution in American Hi-Fi” with the introduction of their Dominance loudspeaker ($40,000 per pair) and the OMEN lineup of speakers anchored by the OMEN DEF reviewed here.
The OMEN DEF
The OMEN DEF at $3,100 a pair sits atop the OMEN lineup of loudspeakers that includes a center channel, the OMEN Center ($650); a bookshelf speaker in the OMEN Bookshelf ($1,200/pair) and a small floorstanding loudspeaker, the OMEN Standard ($1,500/pair). While the OMEN DEF may sport a basic look it’s still a handsome loudspeaker clad in real wood veneer with finishes including Ghost Black (black ash), Honey Walnut and Sangria Red. Custom finishes, including automotive paint schemes, can be ordered at an extra charge. My review samples were all dressed to impress in Ghost Black. The OMEN DEF isn’t a large speaker like my Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond Series though it’s far from being confused with the svelte Triton Two from GoldenEar, measuring in at 47-inches tall by 12-inches wide and 12-inches deep. The OMEN DEF tips the scales at a very hefty and solid 78 pounds apiece, which I believe makes it a true heavyweight among its budget brethren.
The entire OMEN line shares largely the same construction, drivers and finishes with the OMEN DEF, employing two 10-inch paper coned full-range drivers mated to a single composite dome billet lensed tweeter or super tweeter. Both the 10-inch driver and super tweeter are designed and manufactured in Zu Audio’s Ogden, Utah facility. The OMEN DEF’s full-range drivers cover the bulk of the OMEN DEF’s frequency spectrum (30-12,000Hz) and employ no crossovers or filters of any kind. The OMEN DEF’s tweeter is brought in to provide a touch of air and sparkle from 10,000Hz and up. The OMEN DEF’s frequency response is a reported 30-25,000Hz into a nominal six Ohm load with an efficiency of 98dB at one Watt at one meter, making it an ideal candidate for tube amplifiers, especially single ended triode amps like my Decware SE84C+. I should point out that while the OMEN DEF’s specs may scream tube friendly, Zu Audio insists that you can drive them with anything including budget home theater receivers with excellent results. The OMEN DEFs are single wire only, sporting a pair of nicely appointed five-way binding posts capable of accepting quarter inch spade lugs, bare wire and banana adapted speaker cables.
At first glance the OMEN DEF appears to be a sealed design; however it utilizes Zu’s own Acoustic Loading Technology or ZuRG, which Zu states “…is a cabinet/driver/room acoustic impedance architecture… developed by Ron Griewe and Sean Casey while working on motorcycle / automotive engine systems.” The basic principle behind the ZuRG is to “increase bandwidth by improving power output through pulse and pressure management.” If you rest the OMEN DEF on its side you’ll see a series of narrow openings or finger ports that trace the bottom of the loudspeaker itself. Peer inside with a small flashlight and you’ll notice a pyramid-like structure that comes to a point near the halfway point of the speaker – this is the ZuRG system. The pre-installed feet on the OMEN DEF ensure that the ZuRG system functions properly by keeping the base of the speaker the proper distance away from the floor, thus allowing for proper air flow. If you have a thick carpet or area rug in your listening room, Zu recommends placing the OMEN DEFs on a solid platform or on spikes to maintain the speakers’ proper distance from the floor to ensure optimal performance. If you don’t allow the ZuRG system its breathing room, then the OMEN DEF essentially becomes a sealed enclosure and its performance figures, especially in the lower regions, will skew slightly.
All Zu Audio products, including the OMEN DEF, are handmade in the USA in Zu’s own Ogden, Utah facility and come with a five year limited warranty with a sixty day in-home trial and money back guarantee. For more on Zu Audio’s manufacturing, design methodology, business practices and history please visit their “About Us” section on their website.
My review pair of OMEN DEF loudspeakers arrived along with an OMEN Center and a full compliment of Mission speaker cables, also from Zu Audio. For those of you who may not be aware, Zu Audio started as a cable company and continues to design and manufacture quality speaker, interconnect, power and iPod cables for audiophiles on a budget. I demo’ed the OMEN DEFs using my reference Transparent and Mapleshade cables first in order to get a grasp of the OMEN DEF’s sound before I substituted in Zu’s Mission Cables.
I placed the OMEN DEFs in my newly completed reference system roughly in the same position where my reference Bowers & Wilkins 800 Diamond Series speakers sit. The OMEN DEF’s User’s manual has tons of information about speaker setup and room acoustics and is worth the read, for it will all but guarantee you get the best sound from the OMEN DEFs in virtually any environment. Since my room has been designed and treated by GIK Acoustics, I pretty much know ahead of time where review speakers will be placed, give or take.
I connected the OMEN DEFs to my reference rig consisting of Classé’s CA-2300 stereo amp and Classé’s Omega Preamp with source components comprised of an Apple TV / Cambridge Audio DACMagic media server, Sony universal Blu-ray player and Dish Network DVR.
For home theater use I connected the OMEN DEFs to my reference Onkyo receiver and for some esoteric, two-channel fun I fired up my single ended triode system from Decware. Regardless of the review system, my video displays remained the same: a 42-inch, 120Hz, Samsung LCD HDTV and my reference Anthem D-ILA projector / SI Screen / Elite Screen combo.
I let the OMEN DEFs, including the OMEN center, break-in for the better part of two weeks before beginning any critical evaluation.
I decided to begin my evaluation of the OMEN DEFs using the most affordable system I had on hand, one comparable in price to the OMEN DEFs, and then work my way up from there. I began by testing the OMEN DEF’s home theater performance courtesy of my Onkyo A/V receiver. I should mention that I ran the Onkyo’s auto setup program which included Audyssey’s digital room correction and found the results to be accurate in the OMEN DEFs placement within my room but detrimental to their sound quality, so I disabled the Audyssey EQ and ran the OMEN DEFs without digital aides.
Continue reading about Zu Audio’s OMEN DEF loudspeakers on Page 2.
I fired up Saving Private Ryan on Blu-ray (Dreamworks Video). The
opening scene at Arlington was beautifully accompanied by John
Williams’ score and presented in its full glory by the OMEN DEFs. The
music was sweet and delicate and rendered with a deft touch. The
soundstage cast by the orchestral performance was cavernous in that it
was deeper and wider than I recalled but still appropriate and well
defined. Because of the OMEN DEFs efficiency and speed, subtle
atmospheric details such as the rustling of trees and even the sounds
of wind whipped grass were also audible without calling adverse
attention to themselves. As the image faded from the serenity of
Arlington National Cemetery to Omaha Beach, I was reminded of why so
many mastering studios, post production houses and theaters use
high-efficiency, high-output speakers when working on or presenting a
film, for they need to be responsive in order to convey and capture all
of the drama the viewer is witnessing at any moment, something the OMEN
DEFs do exceedingly well. However, unlike a lot of high efficiency
loudspeakers that rely on horns, the OMEN DEFs don’t “shout” at high
volumes. There was a violence to the OMEN DEF’s sound during the Omaha
Beach scene that was, simply put, raw and very unnerving. Do not
mistake what I’ve just said for fatiguing or harsh, the OMEN DEFs
sounded appropriate and created a complete sonic picture unlike
anything I’ve heard before at their asking price. In truthfulness there
were aspects of the OMEN DEFs sound, at least when it came to home
theater, that reminded me of the Meyer Sound X-10s, which I know Hans
Zimmer used on The Dark Knight because I experienced it first hand.
Another aspect to the OMEN DEF’s sound that captivated me during my
demo of Saving Private Ryan was just how coherent the whole experience
was. While the soundstage and surround sound performance, especially
across the front three channels, was accurate, there was no I can hear
the tweeter or I can hear the sub moment – the presentation was more or
less a seamless and somewhat enveloping wall of sound that I found
myself easily getting lost in. Lost in a good way. The OMEN DEF’s super
tweeter does exactly what it was designed to do and that is provide
that last ounce of sparkle or in the case of the attack on Omaha Beach
– that edge. The OMEN DEF’s super tweeter captured the scene’s raw,
metallic edge that the imagery demanded and that the sound designers
Satisfied that the OMEN DEFs could handle explosive home theater
material, I switched gears and went with something a little less
bombastic and cued up the romantic comedy Morning Glory (Paramount) on
Blu-ray. Morning Glory has a delightfully plucky soundtrack that
underscores Rachel McAdams character throughout the film and like the
opening score in Private Ryan, the OMEN DEF’s infectious musicality
rendered the upbeat soundtrack brilliantly. At some of the film’s
quieter moments or during a few of the montage sequences the score was
treated more like a two-channel performance versus a ham-fisted
The biggest surprise for me was how natural and decidedly un-boxy
the film’s dialog track sounded, which shouldn’t come as a surprise for
we ourselves are not composed of tweeters, midrange or bass drivers.
I’ve always liked the way dialog sounds via an electrostatic
loudspeaker; however some electrostats have dynamic limitations that
make them less than ideal when the time for talking is over and the
need for action kicks in – not the case with the OMEN DEF for they
possess all the speed and transparency of a good electrostatic but can
get down and dirty like a good, full range floorstanding speaker
If I have any complaint regarding the OMEN DEF’s home theater
performance, it’s that they may come off as being a bit forward and
when mated to lean sounding electronics, like most A/V receivers,
careful system matching is important. While I generally like my Onkyo
receiver’s sound I’m not sure it’s the best fit for the OMEN DEFs;
instead I think I’d direct potential customers to check out comparable
A/V receivers from the likes of Marantz or better yet affordable
separates from Outlaw Audio.
Also, the OMEN DEFs aren’t exactly full range loudspeakers. They’ll
play plenty deep but in order to capture every nuance and impact that
your favorite films are putting out, you’re going to want a subwoofer
or two – just be sure it’s up to the challenge for the OMEN DEF’s bass
performance, like everything it does, is fast on the attack.
With home theater out of the way it was time for some good old
two-channel fare, which meant a whole new stack of electronics grounded
by my Classé Delta CA-2300 and Classé Omega preamp. Beginning with Andy
McKee’s album Art of Motion (Candy Rat Records) and the track
“Nocturne,” the OMEN DEFs proved that sometimes a little resonance is a
good thing. I know resonance is a four letter word among audiophiles,
for a loudspeaker is supposed to be inert. However many of the
instruments a loudspeaker is asked to recreate are not – for instance a
guitar, which last I checked is hallow and thusly possesses a certain
resonance internally. It’s this resonance that many traditional
loudspeakers, especially high-end loudspeakers with all their bracing
and wiz-bang cabinetry, don’t get right – thus the guitar always sounds
like a reproduction whereas with the OMEN DEF, McKee’s guitar sounded
more like the real thing than just about anything I’ve heard regardless
of price. Of course the OMEN DEF’s recreation of McKee’s “Nocturne”
also had a lot to do with its speed, coherence and efficiency but
because there is an “analog” or “organic” quality to the way the OMEN
DEFs are designed and built instruments such as the guitar sound more
like a guitar. In terms of dynamics the OMEN DEFs didn’t disappoint nor
did they shrink in terms of soundstage when only employing two speakers
instead of five.
In order to test the OMEN DEFs two-channel vocal performance I cued
up Beth Hart’s “Mama” from her debut album Screamin’ For My Supper
(Atlantic/Wea). Hart has a Joplin-esque sound to her voice and while
many of the album’s tracks are very studio sounding, “Mama” comes off a
bit more “live” and as such has moments where the sound becomes a bit
raw. Still, emotionally, “Mama” may be Hart’s best performance and
while the recording may not be perfect, the OMEN DEFs never
editorialized nor backed down from the fight, ensuring every gut
wrenching lyric was presented with the proper emotion and fervor that
Hart clearly intended. There was an intimacy to the sound that, despite
the OMEN DEF’s somewhat up front nature proved to be quite seductive
and alluring. The OMEN DEF’s ability to capture the air surrounding the
performer was also very noticeable and again, like with McKee’s guitar,
made for one hell of an organic and natural sounding performance.
I ended my evaluation of the OMEN DEFs by connecting them to my
single ended triode system. With a whole two Watts of power to play
with, the OMEN DEF saved their best for last for the Decware/Zu Audio
combination was amazing. Not only did the addition of tubes curb a bit
of the OMEN DEF’s slightly forward sound, it also added additional air
and dimension to the mix, making for one hell of a performance when
listening to an old favorite like “Say Goodbye” from Dave Matthews
& Tim Reynolds’ album Live at Luther College (RCA).
But don’t think that just because my SET rig produces a scant
two-Watts that the OMEN DEFs are acoustic only. No sir, something I
proved when I fired up “American Idiot” from Green Day (Reprise
Records). With peaks in excess of 90dB the OMEN DEFs captured the
raucous nature of Green Day brilliantly and the drum hits and fills
sounded natural in both their tone and scale. Dynamically, the OMEN
DEFs are in a league all their own, able to start and stop on a dime
and explosive in ways few loudspeakers can match. While my amp may have
limited the OMEN DEFs output in terms of volume, it didn’t limit their
rock and roll spirit, for the OMEN DEFs are the first truly tube
friendly speakers I’ve heard that don’t sound out of place playing back
Hendrix or Guns and Roses.
Of all the systems I utilized to test the OMEN DEF’s performance, I
feel the Decware system was the best in terms of overall sound quality
though the Classé rig had the power to take the DEFs to the moon and
back. Though I must say I would welcome the opportunity to review other
Zu Audio speakers on a pure Class A solid state rig from the likes of
Pass Labs or Musical Fidelity (hint-hint).
Which brings me to my final point: unlike many modern loudspeakers
the OMEN DEFs don’t need to be powered by mega-Watt amps or high ticket
components to sound their best, for their core essence is so pure that
even a $300 NAD integrated would make them rain and probably embarrass
a system costing multiples more. But that’s the point and the allure of
not only the OMEN DEFs but of Zu Audio as a whole, for at the end of
the day both put the music first and ego second.
Competition and Comparisons
There aren’t a lot of mainstream loudspeaker manufacturers employing
true, full-range drivers these days. There are a few, more esoteric,
companies that do (use a full-range driver) but not at the price points
you’re going to find at Zu Audio. So in terms of competition I’m going
to base my findings on overall sound quality and price versus design
and construction, for at its $3,100/pair asking price the OMEN DEF is
in a class all its own when it comes to build quality.
At $2,500 a pair, GoldenEar’s Triton Two are formidable competitors possessing surprising musicality with a
larger than life presentation that will plunge deeper than the OMEN
DEFs, thanks to their built-in subwoofers.
Another challenger would be Aperion Audio’s Verus Towers, which at $1,798 a pair are almost half the price of the OMEN DEFs
and like the OMEN DEFs come with an in-home, money back guarantee, not
to mention they too are sold direct via the Internet.
In terms of sound quality (overlooking price) I believe the OMEN
DEFs compete favorably in many areas with Paradigm’s Signature S8s ($6,000) and even Bowers & Wilkins 805 loudspeakers ($5,000).
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The OMEN DEFs are very capable performers both in terms of sound and
build quality but there are a few caveats I need to report. First, the
OMEN DEFs (like all Zu Audio loudspeakers) do not have speaker grills.
There are plastic speaker covers that can be used to protect the paper
drivers when not in use but during listening sessions the 10-inch
drivers must be au natural. Those with small children and/or pets –
consider yourself warned.
Next, the OMEN DEFs require a bit of space to sound their best. They
are not speakers you can place close to a wall or corner. Furthermore,
the OMEN DEFs are capable of extremely high sound pressure levels and
may not be suitable for all rooms. Sure you can play them softly but to
truly experience them you’re going to want to turn them up from time to
time and if your room is in the realm of 200 square feet or less you
may want to consider the smaller OMEN loudspeakers. My reference room
is just under 400 square feet and the OMEN DEFs were at home in my
space but could easily fill one larger without strain.
While you can power the OMEN DEFs by just about anything with a
pulse you’re still going to want to take care to select the right
amplifier or receiver to pair with them. Due to their speed and detail
some may feel the OMEN DEFs are a little bright or lean, when in
actuality most speakers are really bloated and slow. That being said,
if you mate the OMEN DEFs with a lean or bright sounding amp or
receiver you may be in for a rough experience. Conversely, if you have
dark or lush sounding components, the OMEN DEFs may put some pep into
For home theater use I would recommend, when at all possible, that
you run the OMEN DEFs without engaging auto room correction programs
such as Audyssey. Auto EQs, in my experience, tend to boost upper
midrange and treble frequencies to create the illusion of more clarity
and detail, which isn’t going to go over well with the OMEN DEF. You’re
better off treating your room versus using digital correction to
account for it – trust me, the OMEN DEFs will thank you.
Lastly, because Zu Audio doesn’t offer a subwoofer at the present
time be prepared to shop around for a capable subwoofer, one that is
musically up to snuff with what the OMEN DEF is throwing down. Mating a
sub with the OMEN DEF isn’t impossible but it’s more akin to mating a
sub with an electrostatic speaker versus a traditional cone and dome
loudspeaker, for the OMEN DEFs are that fast and that articulate. Word
is Zu Audio is working on a subwoofer (they’ve made them in the past)
though no official street date has been given.
At $3,100 a pair Zu Audio’s OMEN DEF loudspeakers are an amazing
achievement and one that I feel will help Zu Audio re-establish
themselves as a formidable American speaker company. Sometimes we have
to experience hardship in order to appreciate what we have and it seems
Zu Audio has done precisely that, for it took almost losing it all for
them to realize what made them truly great in the first place …
Truth be told, the industry and enthusiasts alike need companies
like Zu Audio if for no other reason than to remind us all of what’s
important when it comes to enjoying our music. Because at the end of
the day, being an audiophile isn’t about how much money you have or how
blue chip your components are, it’s about your connection with the
music. It’s that same connection that drives Zu Audio forward and has
resulted in the creation of a loudspeaker like the OMEN DEF. While not
perfect, the OMEN DEF gets so much right that they never fail to
connect the listener with their favorite artists in ways few speakers,
regardless of price, can match. They are one of the few speakers that I
can honestly say I could live with, long term, without wanting for
While the whole world may have gone corporate before our very eyes,
it’s nice to know there are still a few companies, like Zu Audio, who
believe in the power of rock and roll. For without rock and roll, being
an audiophile would just plain suck.
• Read more floorstanding speaker reviews by HomeTheaterReview.com’s staff.
• Explore subwoofer options to pair with the Zu Audio OMEN DEFs.
• Search for the right amplifier or receiver to match with these loudspeakers.