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 Classe's CA-2300 stereo amp and Classe'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.