Acoustic Zen’s Adagio Loudspeakers

I am a pinch hitter for this review. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the original reviewer had to bow out, leaving a large gap of time from delivery to publication. It happens. I had spent quite some time listening to the speakers at the original review location, in fact many, many hours. So, the transition from auditor to audition was smooth and bump-free.

It turns out that Audiophilia’s bad luck turned into my personal good fortune. I got to spend a few weeks with Robert Lee’s Adagio loudspeakers in my own domain, quite a bit different from the original large room. The time spent was extremely pleasant, the sound so refined and the look so comely.

Audiophilia’s New York contingent has reviewed quite of few of Lee’s superb cables (Robert is the head of Acoustic Zen, a very successful cable manufacturer, and until now, a speaker-free zone).

Lee’s cables and cords have been given uniformly excellent reviews, so much so that our reviewer, Marty Appel, has purchased several speaker and interconnect cables and power cords. Lee has continued loving care on his speakers, using quite unique topologies and producing a gorgeous fit and finish. You get a lot for your USD$4,300.00.

Technically, the Adagio’s are feature rich. Lee describes the topology and design of the Adagios as ‘… a two-way transmission line system featuring a 1.5 inch circular ribbon tweeter and dual 6.5 inch midrange/woofer “underhung” voice coil drivers. The drivers are configured in a time and phase aligned D’Appolito configuration providing lifelike imaging over a larger sweet spot range. The Adagio features superior cabinet construction and aesthetic contours that actually reduces cabinet diffractions. The Adagios are perfect for any room in the house, providing music with detail, clarity and accurate music reproduction.’ A very pithy description for what is a very well thought out and careful design. The transmission line really gives the bass some oomph, yet unlike some other transmission lines I’ve heard, integrates it well with the midrange and unique tweeter. The circular ribbon tweeter (a 5/8” shielded 3.5 oz high flux energy and high temperature resistant magnet structure) also figured well in the overall sonic picture. The ‘underhung’ mid/woofers feature a short voice coil and long magnetic gap.

I spent many hours in the original location listening to the speakers with other audiophiles. The ancillary gear was Bryston and Sony. Basic bread and butter stuff, but commensurate in price with the Adagios. Via solid state, the speakers were punchy, clear as Evian, and layered the sound in a very lovely manner. As the source was CD only, we played lots of the JVC reissues and Reference Recordings, top of the line, these days. The setup took some time. I liked the look of speakers firing directly into the room, but, they did not sound their best. A slight, 10 degree toe-in helped enormously. The soundstage was maintained and the imaging snapped into place. The sound was whole and satisfying. When firing out, there was a nagging sensation that the listener was missing something. As such, I kept the 10 degree toe-in at my place, too.

Keith Johnson’s recording of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances is a star CD. Lifelike strings (don’t faint) with the obligatory power brass and delicate woodwinds compete for top honours with a gorgeous soundstage and very good imaging. Under these conditions, the speakers played this weathered CD with ease — the power was awesome, and the Brystons ate it up. Later, the Audio Research VS110 tube amplifier kept the power and added a little depth to the stage and more lifelike sounds to the instruments. The amplifier’s control over the music’s subtleties was evident. The differences in good equipment was heard easily, but the Adagio’s essence remained — a fine attribute for speakers costing a little over 4Gs.

Over to my place, a mere 5 kms away. Here, the room is smaller and solid state confined to the LCD TV. The speakers remained focused positioned closer to the side and back walls. But here, there is vinyl. Lovely, beautiful, engrossing vinyl. Oh yes, CDs, too! And an iPod, as well. Gulp! As I was deep into the review of the Musical Life O turntable (review forthcoming), my primary listening was LP. I had about 100 stacked against the Adagio boxes, and it was pure pleasure to go through them and enjoy the sounds produced by quality equipment. Tubes, at least my tubes, did soften the edges ever so slightly (Bryston gives a kaleidoscopic sound), but I preferred it. Really sweet flutes and violins, with the power instruments enjoying being on top! And at 89dB efficient, the speakers will be single-ended friendly.

My collection of reference LPs held my attention for a week of intense listening. The Classic Records’ reissue of LSC 2449, the Royal Opera House orchestra playing music from Faust and Carmen, was spun often. What a superb record! The power of the brass and the players’ placement was very clearly defined by the Adagios. Bass was excellent and blended well with middle and higher tessituras. And yes, I could hear Holborn tube station trains rumbling along merrily! At the price point, the speaker had no right to perform as it did — it punched at a much higher weight class. Very refined.

The refinement continued with Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, another Kingsway Hall RCA (LSC 2419). This recording is a stickler for a clear presentation. I don’t think it is the best recording from the great man, Kenneth Wilkinson. Most of his recordings are home runs, but this one has the LSO really ‘thick’ in the mics. Adding a Clearaudio Titanium cartridge helped (at 6Gs, it better!), and the orchestra became clearer, if not clear, through the Adagios. Once again, the speakers were able to recognize subtle ands not so subtle shifts in position, recordings and equipment.

After a week or so, I had the measure of them. The essence? Refinement and excellent dynamics. The integration of the transmission line, traditional woofers and circular ribbon tweeter was good. Mighty difficult, I would imagine. Other companies have tried to integrate ribbons and woofers and failed, and returned to more traditional setups. I can think of three or four mainstream companies from both sides of the Atlantic falling under this category. So, good for Lee. The speakers cannot get the last ounce out of organ pipes, and I’ll admit that the tweeter, while very good, is not among my favourites. That said, you won’t find a better speaker out there with these looks, style and excellent sound at the price.

The Acoustic Zen Adagios are a marvelous achievement. Lee has great designer chops! The speakers feature excellent design, look stunning (the striking picture does not do them justice), are very reasonable in audiophile dollars, and play music of all types superbly with micro to macro dynamics. The equipment used with them ranged from entry level to expensive, and lots in between. The Adagios did not suffer under any of the gear we used. In fact, they shone. As such, I urge you to hear them at a dealer where they are set up properly and you can hear them at their best. Recommended.

Further information: Acoustic Zen Technologies