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Positive Feedback ISSUE 55
as reviewed by John Hoffman
Zu Audio was incorporated in 2000, and immediately made a positive impact with their refreshing perspective of what an audio company should be. Based in Ogden Utah, Zu Audio methodically developed an extensive line of cables that catered to the rabid audio geek as well as the frugal hobbyist. Value for the dollar became the main catch phrase when Zu cables were discussed, as they consistently performed at a level higher than what was expected for their price point. Over ten years have passed by since Sean Casey and Adam Decaria founded this company, and the original product lines have recently been retired. The previous generation cables longevity speaks to the inherent quality of the designs, and set the bar that upcoming products will be measured by. The Mission and Event cable lines were launched last year, and I suspect these new products will only further enhance Zu Audio's reputation as a company with high quality wire that is reasonably priced.
The Mission cable line is the "bang for the buck" package in the Zu Audio cable hierarchy and are quite attractively priced. These products are certainly not bargain bin priced by any stretch of the imagination, yet the cost is quite reasonable when evaluated in context of the materials used, and the innovative application of technology in the design. The RCA terminated interconnects sell for $299 a meter pair, and there is a XLR option which can be had for $319. A set of eight foot speaker wire costs only $399, and the six foot power cords are $349 each. Sean Casey at Zu Audio sent out a full package of the Mission cables for this review, and I was able to install the speaker wire, interconnects, and power cords.
The Mission interconnects use copper wire with a silver overlay. The geometry of the cable was developed in 1964 by WL Gore, which Zu has adapted for use in audio. Sean and Adam do not play a smoke and mirrors game regarding the development of their products, but credits all the companies who have developed the technology that gets incorporated into their cables. The WL Gore design is fundamentally different than other commercially available cables in that one channel of the interconnect is located in the ground plane of the opposite channel. (WL Gore and Associates was established in 1958, and is headquartered in Newark, Delaware. Their product lines are found in the electronics industry, medical field, automotive, aerospace, and many other fields. Gore-Tex is their most recognizable brand name, although their focus is the application of fluoropolymer materials.) The two channels are contained in a single bundle that shares dielectric space, but does not share a common ground plane. This cable design results in an evenly balanced left and right signal, and one with no DC offset. Another benefit to this integrated geometry is that each channel will have an identical response from environmental influences, such as vibration or RFI.
Back in the 1990's, Stewart Ono of Audio Directions observed an unusual trait of Teflon dialectic material which has influenced the selection of materials used in building the Mission interconnects. Basically, the color dyes used in the manufacturing of Teflon coating will have an influence on the signal a wire carries. The elements used to give Teflon coating its color will have a slight but noticeable effect on the signal, so the wire used in both channels of the Mission interconnect have a white casing. The RCA ends are machined from brass that contains a high percentage of copper with a heavy layer of gold plating with left/right markings banded into the collars. The connections between wire and RCA plug are formed with silver solder. This skinny and simple looking wire contains a surprising amount of technology, and may very well redefine what level of performance should be expected from a mid-priced interconnect.
The Mission speaker cable is built from US sourced single crystal copper wire that has five 9's purity. Sean makes a point that the claim of six nines copper is a essentially a bit of exuberant marketing by cable manufacturers, and that the purity levels achieved by US based commercial producers of raw wire is essentially five 9's. The speaker cable has a 13 gauge aggregate, with a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) sheathing. The spade terminations are copper with a cold forged ten ton crimp process. Locking banana plugs are also available, and they are fastened with the ITT Pomona soldering process.
Zu Audio refers to the Mission speaker wire geometry as the Tesla/Litz configuration. Sean took a moment to point out that the true inventor of the individually isolated wire bundle was Nicholas Tesla, and that Litz developed the commercial manufacturing process for the wire. Actually the Mission speaker cable uses a modified Litz arrangement where uncoated strands of wire are twisted together and then insulated for isolation. There are three bundles per side of the speaker cable, which are oriented into the Perfect Lay pattern.
The Mission power cord contains the same type of raw wire that the speaker cable is built from. Each leg of the cable is 13-gauge, for an aggregate of size slightly greater than 8-gauge. The three legs of wire are encased in a massive braided shield, and covered by a nylon sheath. The shield eliminates the effects of RFI and EMF, but also minimizes the effects of cross contamination with other system cables. The power cord is fitted with Wattgate plugs which lock tightly in place to the outlet and the audio component.
The Mission cables were installed in three separate steps, starting with the speaker wire. Each set of cables received a two hundred hour break in period on an auxiliary component before being installed into the main system. When the evaluation of one type of Mission cable was completed, the wire was removed and the Audio Magic Illusion 4D wire was returned to the system. At the final listening session, all the Mission cables were installed into the system in order to experience what the Zu Audio wire package has to offer.
The Mission speaker wire is an all copper design, which is fundamentally different than the silver ribbon Audio Magic cable that I have in my system. The defining characteristic of the Zu Audio wire is an intimate presentation of the music with a full bodied tonal balance. The silver ribbon cable has a quick and lively presentation, yet the Mission wire does not cede a significant degree of clarity or speed. The Mission speaker wire has that elusive characteristic of being able to engage the listener; which is the ability to convey the emotional content of the music. One of my favorite jazz standards is "Route 66", which Natalie Cole performs on the Unforgettable with Love disc. [Elektra 9 6TO49-2] With the Zu Audio wire in place, there is a noticeable lack of grain. And Cole's vocals have that "in the room" presence. The band playing with Cole has swing, and impressive dynamic range, which the Mission speaker wire conveys in a realistic manner. The electric bass is in this trio ensemble is prominently displayed, and while smooth as silk, still retains the texture and tonal color of the instrument. The drum set is quick and lively with excellent dynamics and splash on both the crash and hi hat cymbals. The piano passages are articulate and retain an even tonal balance; which is a difficult task for a mid priced speaker cable to achieve. Throughout the varied range of music on this disc, the Mission speaker wire performs admirably and consistently portrays the music with a pleasing balance between detail retrieval and an easy on the ears presentation.
Interconnects containing a silver overlay on copper wire are often viewed with suspicion by audio hobbyists. Fans of silver wire see this type of design as a compromise; a sort of "poor man's silver cable". On the other hand, advocates of copper feel that the addition of silver undermines the tonal balance of a superior material, in effect imparting a hi-fi effect into the interconnect. There have been successful silver/copper hybrid cables, such as the Nordost Blue Heaven or Kimber Select KS1021, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Materials by themselves do not determine the overall performance of an interconnect for it is only one part of the design. The Mission interconnects are a successful combination of these two materials and highlight the benefits that can be achieved by blending these metals.
These interconnects certainly have familial ties to the speaker wire, especially in the midrange department. These cables present voices with warmth and texture, and the silver contributes an additional degree of clarity and focus to the music. The benefits of the Mission interconnect are apparent on "The Old Home Place" by Joe and Karena Prater [Cat Loves Crow; Seventh Wind Music SWR 727] The vocals from Joe and Karena are enticing with the smoothness and relaxed feel. The lower registers on the acoustic guitars are full and rich in a way that a pure silver cable is rarely able to convey. In the upper registers, the silver coating does make its presence known, and the guitar notes have a delicacy that is often found in cables that cost far more than the Mission wire. The acoustic space of the recording venue is well defined, and the performers are placed neatly within the sound stage. When compared to the Audio Magic silver ribbon interconnect, the Mission cable has more warmth and body in the midrange and mid-bass regions. High frequency information is not quite as detailed or incisive on the Zu Audio interconnect when compared to the Illusion 4D, but it does have a similar presentation. Bear in mind that you are comparing a $300 cable against one that costs $1200, which in itself speaks well of the Mission interconnect.
In my experience, the addition of a good power cord into a system will result in substantial improvements across the board in terms of sound quality. A basic Belden style power cord hamstrings the performance of a component and even an inexpensive cord will result in noticeable improvements. Since the Mission power cord uses the same wire as the speaker wires, there are certain similarities in sound between the two cables. When compared to the Audio Magic Extreme power cord I currently use, the Mission cord fills out the music in a far more pleasing manner. The midrange is robust and vibrant with all the sonic hallmarks of a well designed copper cord. The heavy duty shield helps lower the noise floor and this improves the resolution of audible low level detail in the music. These attributes are readily apparent on "Don't Fool Lizzy" by Nighthawks at the Diner [ Walkin' On Eggs; Challenge Music Publishing AL 75002]; especially with the tap dance passage at the beginning of the song. The steps in the routine are clear and sharp and the reflections created by the room boundaries are easily heard. The drum notes that come in a few moments later also have the same level of transparency and integrated seamlessly with the tap notes. Yet when the next portion of the song begins, it becomes apparent that the recording venue has changed as the reverberation pattern is certainly different. The Mission power cord moves the noise floor of my system lower than what the Extreme power cord is capable of which results in a higher level of definition and clarity. These improvements in resolution never result in a stark tonal balance, but instead present the music in a far more intimate fashion. The Mission power cord touches every aspect of the music and leaves it in better condition than many other cables that I have encountered.
With Mission cables installed in my entire system, I began looking for any practical limitations or short comings to this wire package. Try as I might, I cannot come up with any significant flaws to Zu Audio's new product. The melding of a small amount of silver to a majority of copper wire results in a cable system that is warm and nicely textured, yet still has a splash of detail that results in an engaging presentation of music. At the price point the Mission wires reside in, I cannot think of another product that can match its all around performance. Other comparably priced wires can have a touch more detail or a greater degree of warmth, which may certainly appeal to a certain set of listeners. Upper tier cables can out pace the Missions in most categories, but it will require the expenditure of a serious amount of greenbacks to accomplish this. The tonal balance of the Mission wires lend it an unassuming personality that just lets the music flow through them. I find the Mission wires capable of being a reference quality component, and I plan on leaving it in my system for the time being. I thoroughly enjoy the addition of this wire to my stereo for it combines an honest discernment of a recording with a genteel personality of a well executed product.
Zu Audio latest cable is certainly an unusual product, as the geometry is unique to the market and its performance exceeds its price. I find it refreshing that a wire manufacturer is willing to lay their cards on the table and tell you how their product is developed, instead of giving perspective customers a 'slight of hand' routine drawn from pseudo-scientific jargon. The fact that Zu Audio gives WL Gore credit for the wire geometry that has been adapted to the Mission interconnects shows the credibility of the personnel behind the company. The combination of high quality materials and a excellent fit and finish means that the company is making a genuine effort to produce a high quality product that sells for a reasonable price. The performance of the Mission wire package is impressive, and all three pieces performed equally well in my system. The Mission wires certainly meet all the standard parameters that hobbyists often use to judge cables. This wire has plenty of deep and tight bass, it images well, high frequency information is not ragged, and the sound stage is evenly spread out. Yet there is more to what a great set of cables should do, and that is to allow the listener to suspend disbelief, and experience the context of the musical performance. I enjoyed the expressive personality of these wires, and appreciate the ability of these cables to make that emotional connection to the music. In the end, this is what great audio products do, and the Mission wires are undeniably that. John Hoffman