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Positive Feedback ISSUE 46
november/december 2009


acoustic zen

Crescendo loudspeakers - Effortless Musical Liftoff, Part 1

as reviewed by Jim Merod







TETRA 606s (also: Apogee Stages, SP TECH Time Piece 1.2s, Vandersteen 2Ce-modified, Acoustic Zen Adagios, van Scweikert VCL-15 monitor reference and sub, Tetra Manhattans),

Z Systems UDP-1, Birdland Odeon-Ag 24-192/SACD Upsampling DAC, Manley Shrimp, Meridian 518 mod plus, Audio Research SP-8 Dahong Seeto version preamplifiers. McCormack 125 Platinum Full-Rev Edition, Nuforce P-9 mono blocks, KR VT600-MK tube mono blocks, McCormack 0.5 "Lady Day" Edition amplifiers.

OPPO DV 970HD, Denon 1650-AR, Pioneer Elite DV-45A , Samsung DVD R135, McCormack CD Drive-plus, Alesis ML 9600 MasterLink 24-96 digital recorder, Tascam RA1000 DSD recorder, Marantz "Professional" Recorder, Tascam RW750 Pro CD Recorder,

Nordost Valhalla, Stealth Meta-carbon and Stealth ZERO limited edition, Kubala-Sosna Emotion and Emotion "cryo'd", van den Hull carbon, Acoustic Zen Matrix and Silver Reference "Exact", Magnan Silver Bronze, Silversmith Paladium, Analysis Plus ULTRA PLUS, Wireworld Eclipse III, Audience Conductor, Bogdan Silver Spirit, Silverline "Alan Yun Special Edition" balanced digital, Acoustic Zen MC-Squared, Magnan digital RCA. Kubala-Sosna Emotion, Analysis Plus, Acoustic Zen Absolute. Gargantua, Krakatoa, and Tsunami power cords, VH Audio Flavor 4, Stealth, PS Audio, WireWorld power cords.

Audience AdeptResponse 12 outlet power conditioner and Magnan ultra power strip.


Why did it take so long?

I'm a fussy audio listener. I'm incorrigible, a pain in the derriere when the topic—and, more important, the moment—is all about sound quality. Or its partial appearance... you know what I mean here.

How many times have you sat in your "sweet spot," right smack in the middle of Audio Nirvana, and whatever "nirvana" means to you right then… perhaps like that time long ago when you were peeking through Jane Smiley's bedroom curtain from your twelve year old perch on her plum tree. Oh, sure, the adorable Jane was right there before your libidinous youthful gaze. She was, alas, amazingly disrobing and you were actually there to watch the whole hilarious festivity: her sprightly young breasts, your hungry eyes; her blithe insouciance, your anxious hopefulness.

All that, but no cigar, bozo! You put yourself in that lofty sweet zone only to discover that, well Jane inexplicably kept her back to her partly open window while her curtains wafted far too flappingly wide. Your tenuous grip on your fragile perch was flat out uncomfortable. So the whole idea, which made sense when you put it together, collapsed once our slippery seat gave you nothing of hers.

That's pretty much the way it is across the vaunted glory years of "The Age of High-End Hi-Rez Audio Perfection." Gumba.

Here we are, dig? Where do we go from here?

First, a question. Why else do so many "audiophiles" swap out components and cables endlessly in search of "more"... more audio glory; more musical enchantment; more erotic, amorous lyrical titillations?

Answer. Because their audio "sweet spot", ain't so sweet. Listen up, Flap-jack. You know all this as much as I do and, still, you suffer onward seeking some micro-boosted sonic advantage that will take the sting out of your aching audio-hungry soul. You reposition your speakers. More toe in. No, less toe in! Or you relocate everything and then add baffles because, surely, these final adjustments are going to do it once and for all.

But no "final" placement or set up arrives. Your search for audio nirvana continues unabated. Some of you, frankly, get pissed and junk the whole damn hobby. I know that for a fact because I've had two innocent, earnest pals who did just that. And I've had dealers confess their good luck, tinged with sadness, when some bloke staggers in on a Saturday (always a Saturday, it seems) and dumps a carload of gear on the showroom floor. Bargain basement day for "Dave's Fine Stereo" or "Perfect Sound Forever"... a bleak defeat for Alonzo who only wanted a musical retreat from secular pressures and the Little

Lady's nagging encouragement for them to play Gin Rummy with Joe and Tarina Boffo down the street.

Baling out, you ask yourself why it took so long to give up. You cash your feeble check, giving you back roughly 22.5% of what you invested on audio equipment... and take solace that the futile search for musical heaven is now buried without recourse. Goom-bye Krell mono-blocks. Sayonara Thiel thing-a-may-jigs. Hasta la vista all that Audio Quest spaghetti. The money extracted from the bale out is just about enough to repaint your 1979 Ford truck... a better investment, you think, after all the teasing agony.

Why not take your time?

Of course there's the radical alternative sitting right before you. Who said you ought to rush this inevitably incremental business of getting (making; crafting; nudging) great sound into your private realm?

Dorko, you need a "radical" alternative to (a) buying and swapping, then moving, selling, and hauling ever new gear only to (b) give up in frustration. Is that possible?

Sure it is, Slap Happy! Why not calm down awhile? How about putting your musical craving on idle and just learn what the hell is going on with ONE piece of gear. Only one… okay?

How about doing your due diligence (which comes in several forms of empirical and theoretical investigation)? Read the critics and reviewers you trust, no doubt for inadequate reasons; then borrow an amplifier, for example, that you think just might be a contender for your heart.

Next, listen to all sorts of sounds, musical genres, and dynamic textures. Get a feel for this piece of gear's characteristic audio footprint. Scope out, if possible, its quirks and virtues. I'm not kidding. I'm not making up this game of calibrated patience. It works.

But there's a trick to this subversive guerrilla war approach, you see. In order to "know" (experimentally, via the work of evidence gathering), you have to take notes on what you hear and what you listen to, at what volume levels, with what ancillary gear in tandem.

You begin there. Then what do you do?

Hint: you change one piece of accompanying equipment in your system. ONE. Only one and you want to choose which one component and which specific make and model of that replacement component you might gain insight into—say, your amplifier (are you with me here?).

Probably you're getting the point. There are virtually only two ways anyone lands a truly fantastic, mind-boggling, soul-shattering, heart-warming, erotically musical engine of sound reproduction: you get lucky on your first or second try at putting together a top to bottom system; or, like quantum-gravity research physicists everywhere, you isolate your potentially successful choices on purely theoretical grounds and then relentlessly trudge ahead with small increment as experiments in component matching—always keeping in front of you those crucial notes that are clear, detailed and reliably able to prevent you from repeating unneeded steps redundantly, all the while you enjoy (actually feel in control of) the process of scoping out how pieces of gear mix and match and miss but sometimes (every now and then) lock in together.

How about emulating Van Gough?

I mean that. Good ol' Vincent never had a Little Lady who tempted him to madness nagging his ass toward the Boffos' bloody Gin Rummy nonsense. Vincent Van Gogh was willing to drive himself nuts without any help. And that's your best option if you really want to put together a sound system that will constantly put you in a front row seat at La Scala or the Village Vanguard,

Seriously. Think about it. How else can you ever assemble the sort of audio world that is adequate to your musical lust unless you stalk its creation, piece by careful piece, just the way (at eighteen or twenty) you stalked Jane Smiley's alluring beauty once you'd both grown up…

You didn't climb any dumb ol' plum tree looking for a quick glimpse. You made sure (i) not to blow it with Jane by being rash; (ii) you mapped out a plan of engagement; (iii) you carried out your strategy without doubt or deviation; (iv) you suffered, therefore "savored," every moment of stealthy courtship; and (v) when you'd reached the inside realm that defined the object of your approach, you had your parts in order and your mojo working. Wink-wink.

It's the same damn thing with audio, Herkimer! You can't count on luck. Only rely on savvy, patience, evidence gathering, deliberate listening (experimentation along with note taking), thus executing your own perverse curiosity like a crazy man—like Van Gogh, who insisted that the object of his artistic love was to "consume" the French rural landscape.

Don't you get it? This audio beauty stuff, searching for "nirvana" or whatever, is much like the physicist's precise experimental research and the artist's crazed fulfillment of focused irrationality. No one ever proved that musical enjoyment at its highest and deepest incarnations is a sane event. Or normal. Or "productive" of anything but the fulfillment of your animal and angelic spirits brought together much like Nietzsche, in his youth, proposed Apollo's sunny rationality as the exact supplement for Dionysus's drunken inspiration.

If you want the whole sonic magilla, you gotta commit yourself to the research, Dumbo ! Both that and your final victory are devoted to the same culminating fulfillment: musical explosions of infinitely subtle mini-gradations of transparent bliss (or something like that—you decide how you want to cash in on your real "sweet spot," not the youthful one when you almost busted your head falling off the plum limb.

All that is prologue.

…to this: Robert Lee's finest creation, the Acoustic Zen Crescendo speakers. How could such acutely luscious sonic joy cost so little ($14,000)? Let's explore their bedrock realty.

Before we speculate on the bargain price of such high-performance behemoths, let's sort through concrete reasons these speakers are magical additions to a system patiently (sometimes not so patiently) evolving, again and again over nearly a quarter century, in the right direction; a system at moments lurching sideway but, for the most—when I finally "got it" (see above sections)—inching toward "real sound exactly representing live musical stages"—delivering music as it was made in live time and space, which has almost always been my asymptotic sonic Holy Grail. Damn near an impossible attainment, but not utterly, completely out of reach. I've approached that elusive reach several times only to diminish my approach by precisely the sort of arrogant or over-eager gear swaps castigated above.

What are these Crescendo speakers doing that is so "magical" you ask?

They get out of the way: they are essentially invisible to the forceful delicacy of sonic textures and dynamics. You get the slam and nuance of a live recording in three-dimensional space as if that space is three-dimensionally present right before your somewhat amazed witness;

The Crescendos are full-range, top to bottom, blockbusters that are astoundingly flat right at 20Hz and tip-toeing up to (and quite literally past) 20kHz;

The integration of each driver in this three-way transmission line "under hung" system is spooky: very few speakers, at any price, achieve the sonic coherence so effortlessly delivered here;

Ease of amplification is an index to the Crescendos' music-friendly affinity: at 90dB efficient, they can be driven to awe-inspiring sound pressure levels that do not break up or show evidence of distortion… a puzzle, in some very real sense, because—while the better the amp driving these big speakers, the better sonic results obtained—one can throw fairly inexpensive, undistinguished amps at them and discover remarkable musical output that, in my experience outflanks ANY speaker I have heard over a sustained listening period;

All of these virtues (and mysteries) notwithstanding, the sound stage mapped by the Crescendos appears as an innate, organic extension of the microphone techniques employed: to wit, a two mic Ortofon arrangement, well placed, accomplishes a sense of nearly infinite right to left (left-right) openness… as if, without phase cancellation of any sort, the recording simply delivers itself with a 180 degree sweep and directness that, rendered on speakers with such accuracy, feels very much like a surround sound presentation from only two boxes—a grand illusion, in fact "an illusion," but exactly the sonic and musical/staging illusion every recording engineer with an ounce of devotion to the ideal of "real music in real space" lives to create;

Monitor-grade acoustic accuracy is, in its own right, a "holy grail" ideal sought by recording engineers of varying kinds; but the rub, with such an ideal, has been the traditional use of single driver monitors in many (many) studios—sonic iteration that has been both degraded by inferior technology and essentially a "dual mono" signal delivery that vastly compromises what the ears laying tracks down in a studio (such as, for example, "Mad Hatter," Chick Corea's former studio). That noted, I will assert here that Robert Lee's Crescendo speakers are that rare thing: a full-range, musically engaging, soul-embracing signal delivery system without obvious warts or constraints that, simultaneously, offers monitor-grade, pristine acoustic accuracy {note: I await the next behemoth speaker able to match this counter-intuitive result};

Foot-patting, heart-throbbing musical joy: that is the balls-to-the-wall ultimate achievement of these speakers… they are thoroughly alluring when you listen to the Guarneri Quartet playing late Beethoven string quartets just as they are shockingly immediate when Duke Ellington's classic 1956 Newport concert locks into "Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue." Paul Gonzalves takes more than a dozen gate-banging solos on tenor sax and the blonde woman in the front row of Peabody Park cranks into dancing high gear. You can feel why George Wein, the concert director, was on the verge on stopping action on stage. Thousands of screaming, roaring fans with libidinous mojo makes a startling force. You hear every bumping groan and ferocious stomp as if time ran backward and Newport's crazed mob as well as the Duke's throbbing big band sat right in front of you;

Low level sonic detail that escapes notice by veiled speaker performance stands up clear and proud through the Crescendos' affinity for replicating each whispered moment of sound, speech and music.

These speakers strapped into a home theater set up, flanking a large screen television (say @ 73" Mitsubishi), recreate the most hellacious, ass-kicking sonic booms, hisses, and floor-rattling thuds and whomps I have ever heard outside a public movie venue. You think your home theater set up is pretty good, I imagine. Terrific. Now challenge yourself and put these heavyweight blasting boxes in place. Then fasten your seat belt. Bruce Willis movies love these speakers. The new Barbara Streisand concert in Las Vegas on Blue Ray disc will blow you away: great camera work; excellent large scale audio recording work. You are there in the audience. Only better. Period.

While few will care as my (nutcase) self cares, the Crescendos reveal details of recording work that lesser speakers simply cannot divulge. An east coast recording partner sent me a disc with recent recordings he'd done. On the initial audition, I was sure that he had used Schoeps mics. I called to ask if that was accurate. Affirmative. My point is simple. Crescendos tell the sonic truth. The down side here, of course, is that—if you are playing well worn vinyl a great deal or have fallen in love with terrific music recorded with inferior gear or techniques—you'll "enjoy" your old favorites through the Crescendos with newfound appreciation for well-recorded albums.

Price tricks and treats: Happy Halloween!

I confess that I do not understand how Acoustic Zen arrived at the ridiculously low price point of $14,000/pair for speakers that are not only literally "world class" but that hold their own (and possibly, in some reproduction areas, surpass) very good and very, very expensive speakers—such as Dali's impressive "Megaline" speakers and MBL's 101.ii brilliantly sculptured speakers.

Wes Phillips at Stereophile once remarked that the test of a great speaker may well be if you find that once it resides in your listening world, you cannot (or do not want to) "live without it." I'll conclude the first part of this two part review by agreeing with Wes' aesthetic outlook, wondering simultaneously how Robert Lee's gang at Acoustic Zen is able to deliver the Crescendos at retail for $14,000. My best speculation is that someone is giving them a break on costs that do not translate into inferior materials or construction/build. Or, perhaps, they have calculated the lousy economic context for audio survival at present and accept less in return in order to compete against a veritable glut of high-end speakers on the audiophile market. If that is the case, then the Crescendo speaker represents not only a genuine bargain for discerning audio buyers, but something close to charity on the part of Robert and Benton Lee, two cheerful brothers whose generous and optimistic outlooks help to define the best of a bad time for audiophile reality.

I do not want to proceed further without these speakers. And so stay they will, exactly where they now reside: at the heart of my listening and mastering universe… a place where simple pleasure often is second to the hard work of evaluating gear, including scrupulous assessment of my own recordings. I do not want to live without the Crescendos and so I won't. But in some way, at once irritating and doubtless inevitable, I find that I cannot proceed apace without them since they've solved so many logistical audio problems for me over the last four months of constant use and evaluation.

And yet I'm nagged by this elemental existential question: why did it take so long? Why did I have to wait into my ferocious and cranky geriatric-hood to snag a pair of 'take no prisoners' music reproduction savants? Do you think it's been fun hauling heavy speaker boxes in and out for twenty-plus years? Do you want to copy my bad habits? I wouldn't think so. Thus, I suggest you forget my example and perhaps my recommendation, too, and just do it your own way with elegant savvy waiting for the long odds of sheer good luck to land in your lap.

Yet again… the $14,000 Acoustic Zen Crescendos are alluringly seductive and, in a world where you could (if you were able to) pop a quarter million dollars down for a pair of fancy speakers that may or may not have soul or magic, you're better off checking out these Rolls Royce boxes in their various gorgeous wood finishes. I hate to be right about this because it may put your butt in the musical sweet spot more often and then your Little Lady will be unhappy. You might also put on a few pounds because Balvenie tastes so much better with great sound, especially right before you want it. Then you'll be cranky.

As a momentary "final word" before I soon write the second part of this report, I'll note merely this: if the sky's limitless horizon is the only permanent background for thought and knowledge, then speakers as refined and bold as the Crescendos are demonic companions for knowledge and thought… with a feeling enhanced by the exotic perfection of the sky's endless reach. Jim Merod

Crescendo loudspeakers
Retail: $14,000 a pair

Acoustic Zen
web address: