A Bloody Good Omen

Posted on by Mike Quinn

Let’s just cut right to the fucking chase (this is what you want anyway): The Zu Omen ($1499/pair; www.zuaudio.com) is an amazing speaker. It reveals the essence and emotion of music in a way too few speakers can. For its very reasonable price, it is a no-brainer.

Zu Omen Loudspeaker in Sangria Maple

Okay, now to the stuff you won’t read…

This review is a bit late in coming, about two years late. Sincere apologies, but sometimes life gets in the way. I’ve owned this pair of Sangria Maple Zu Omens since they were introduced in late 2010, and have enjoyed them from Day One. Had I taken a few hours somewhere in early 2011, the review would have effortlessly written itself because these speakers are so engaging, so captivating, they instantly drew superlatives out of my mind like foam spewing from a bottle of warm IPA. But no, I had to let romance and drama intervene. Romance is over, my life returns to peaceful solitude, so these reviews should start rolling out on a far more regular basis from now on. Listening to any music I want, any time I want, is far more satisfying than getting laid a few times a month. I think. Let me get back to you on that one.

The Omen seemed an ideal choice for my bedroom system which is powered by a flea-powered Don Garber creation, the legendary Fi X amp (see our review here) employing  the venerable and increasingly rare 45 tube which, on a good day, pumps out a walloping two or so watts. As you can imagine, only a handful of “real world” speakers can appreciate such low power levels—I’d been using a wonderful pair of Tetra 120s for a few of years, but they just didn’t have the bass I craved, and they were not quite capable of the volume levels necessary for the occasional visit by Mr. Hendrix, or even Mr. Davis.

The Fi "X" Single-Ended Amplifier with 2A3 Tubes

Fortunately for us lovers of these low powered SETs, the good folks at Utah-based Zu Audio have focused, from the beginning, on producing affordable, high-efficiency speakers at reasonable price points, employing a mix of cutting-edge technology with proven ideas from the distant past. When they announced the Omen, rated at 97 db efficient, I was hopeful they would fulfill my needs, took the bait, and have been a happy landshark ever since.

Zu Audio Omens in Sangria Maple, Ghost Black and Electric Blue

My particular breed of Omen is a sleek, smallish, twelve by twelve column, thirty-six inches tall, finished in a handsome reddish-brown stained maple veneer, they call Sangria (other colors are available, keep reading). The heart of the Omen is a ten-inch, full-range, dual-cone (a ‘whizzer cone’ which handles the midrange and most much of the higher frequency range is positioned in the center of the standard bass-producing woofer cone) loudspeaker which covers the most crucial segment of the audible spectrum, from about 35 Hz to around 12 kHz, at which point a Zu-machined aluminum supertweeter takes over to handle those exciting overtones up to 25 kHz.

The cutting-edge part of the Omen is Zu’s method of extracting a yummy, unbelievable amount of beautiful, controlled bass from these rather modest enclosures. They have developed a unique driver/cabinet/room loading system—the manner in which the drivers excite and move air—that is partly based on technology from high performance motorcycle engine design. Don’t try to figure that one out, just be assured that it works! Bass is clean, deep and authoritative, never boomy, never slow. It never drags the music down in pace, but rather, the Omen’s bass insistently drives the music along just as it should. That’s the cutting-edge stuff.

Zu Audio's Full Range Driver

Meanwhile, anchors to older, long-proven technology the Zu Keepers employ include the use of full-range drivers, avoiding signal-perverting crossovers, and the use of old-fashioned paper cones in those drivers. The joy of paper cones is something I learned from my old pal Joe Roberts (remember Sound Practices magazine?) when he clued me in on what made those classic old Western Electric and Altec speakers sound so dynamic and REAL! Paper cones, people! Luckily, Zu clearly understands and respects this concept, unlike so many other speaker manufacturers. I’m always a bit dubious when I see speaker manufacturers touting their new plastic and metal cones. It’s usually easy to predict how such loudspeakers are gonna sound, and it ain’t pretty. Truth is, I don’t like plastic or metal drums either—give me those vintage maple shells any day for their delicacy and warmth.

Ok, so what do these things do with music?  In a word, the Zu Omens make music that sounds like music, they reveal the soul of the music, perhaps even the soul of the musician, at least as revealed by his or her artistry. They tilt slightly to the warm side of neutral, but that is my preference, though this may also be attributable to the rather warm character of my Fi single ended triode amplifier. But I’ll take that warmth over the etched glare I’ve heard from an endless parade of highly regarded speakers costing ten or twenty times the price of the Omens. Yes, these more costly options might be a tad more revealing of sonic details—an audiophile obsession—but who needs to hear the whooshing wind rustling through the nose hairs of a cellist passionately sawing away at a lovely Bach piece? The Omens offer something more important: the startling experience of live music being played by a real, emoting human being. But let’s be clear:  they are not in any way lacking in adequate sonic detail, there’s plenty of that too—lots of ping on cymbals, air around instruments and so on.

Have I yet made my point that the Omens offer a measure of musical pleasure sadly lacking in most loudspeakers. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of Glenn Gould grunting out his Bach, countless sides of Miles Davis in all his guises, infinite amounts of The Beatles, Kate Bush, Annie Lenox, Keith Jarrett, and so much more, and I never cease to be amazed at the way the Omens open up a new sense of connection with the music and the musicians. I could spout on and on about the technology, about the soundstage and imaging (which are top notch), and so on, but what matters, let’s face it, is the music. That’s why we are here.

As I write this paragraph I’m listening to Ansermet’s 1958 recording of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a piece I’ve heard a million times on recordings and in the concert hall. The Omens handle the size of this rather dauntingly HUGE piece of music without breaking a sweat. There are several orchestral swells punctuated with a thunderous bass drum, all of which come through with mass, punch and excitement, just as they would in a live performance. Strikingly so, I’d say, no pun intended.

Earlier I was enthralled by the Omen’s deft grasp of all the joy contained in Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” from Keith Jarrett’s Standard’s Trio CD, Whisper Not. Of course the unequalled fluidity, percussiveness, and finesse of Jarrett’s piano poured from the speakers effortlessly, with lots of ambience and “air” in evidence, but the top and bottom surrounding him, the shimmer and sizzle of Jack DeJohnette’s Sabian cymbals, and the rotund, palpable profundity of Gary Peacock’s acoustic bass, were present in a way that made me pay attention to the music, made me meld with the performance. The frosting on the cake was all those delicious aural details which added a nice level of realism to the party.

I’ve spent many nights spinning the beautiful, classic Pentangle recording Cruel Sister in which they interpret a lovely collection of traditional English folk tunes—clear, strong voices accompanied by their artfully played acoustic (mostly) guitars, standup bass, vibes and so on. You should not pass this disc, my friends! In any case, through the Omens, the magic of John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Jacqui McShee Terry Cox and Danny Thompson comes alive in the room. I know that sounds like an audio review cliche, but goddamn it, with the lights off, you would swear they’d snuck into the room to play just for you. This is especially true of their enchanting vocals which are portrayed in a strikingly lifelike manner. Zu should be happy with this observation since they profess to designing their speakers around the human voice. Good work, dudes, you seem to have achieved your goal!

Speaking of the power of the voice, Levon Helm’s award-winning Dirt Farmer always carries me to the Arkansas hills of his birth, and the Omens make sure that trip is believable on all levels, but once again, the emphasis is on the voices. Levon and his backup singers, most notably his daughter Amy, create a haunting, eerie, spookiness that sets that plaintive atmosphere of the Dirt Farmer’s pain and suffering front and center, and the Omen’s deliver that feeling in spades. That these speakers also pump out the punch and slam of Levon’s vintage drums in a believable fashion is even more reason to celebrate the qualities of these fine little boxes.

Okay, I said I enjoyed the Omens from Day One, and I honestly have liked them from the beginning. However, after about six months (!), I began to love them! These speakers will loosen up and mellow over time, so be aware that, though they may sound fine right out of the box, the real rewards will be some time coming. The more you play them, the faster you will get there, and, owing to the soul-grabbing fun of music played through these speakers, it won’t be hard to log those necessary break-in hours very quickly. In sum, I’ll repeat: The Zu Omens make listening to music fun, and that is what it should all be about.

A couple of practical notes about how these guys operate: Since Zu is represented in only a few brick and mortar retailers, they offer a very fair and generous 60-day trial period so you can give their speakers a fair shake in your system, in your room. Should you find them unsatisfying (not very likely), they’ll not only refund your purchase price, but they’ll pick up the shipping as well—pretty solid and confident policy. I’ll bet they have few takers on that return option. Another cool thing is that Zu makes almost all their components in-house, or in a machine shop next door to their facility in Ogden, Utah; I wonder if they play a lot of the Osmonds around the shop?

Also worthy of note is the quality of manufacturing. These suckers weigh nearly 60 pounds each, reflecting a no-holds barred approach to cabinet construction which plays such a large role in the quality of the sonics of these speakers. Fit and finish of the cabinets is exemplary, and you should know that the Omens come in a variety of interesting satin varnish colors as follows: Ghost Black Maple, Gray Maple, Sangria Maple, Natural Maple, and Electric Blue Maple so you can match the box to your decor and your personality.

I can’t recommend the Omens highly enough, particularly if you operate with a low wattage tube amp, or a low wattage bank account. Reprise: The Zu Omen is an amazing speaker. It reveals the essence and emotion of music in a way too few speakers can. For its very reasonable price, it is a no-brainer.

*****

Note: just as we are posting this review to our website, Zu has announced a slightly updated version of the Omen, the Mk.1-B which offers some interesting upgrades. Nothing wrong with making a great product even better…especially at the same price point as the original.

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