Audiophiliac speaker of the year: Zu Druid V

This skinny tower comes out of Utah, and looks and sounds a lot more expensive than it is.

Zu Druid V Zu Audio

The very first Zu speaker I ever heard was a Druid IV , and it bowled me over! There was a rare vitality to the sound. That was back in 2007, and every Zu speaker I've tested since then has been remarkable. The Druid V is not only a significant advance over any Zu I've tested, it's the best speaker I've heard at home this year.

The Druid V is a 50-inch-tall floor-standing loudspeaker, and it's bolted to an immaculately finished, machined aluminum base. The speaker sports the latest version of Zu's 10.3-inch full-range driver that covers bass, midrange, and treble frequencies up to 12kHz.; a 2-inch Radian 850 aluminum dome tweeter handles higher treble frequencies. The Druid V was designed and manufactured in Ogden, Utah, and almost all of the parts are made in the US, including the two drivers. I used a range of speaker cables in my collection with the Druid Vs, but I preferred the sound with Zu Event cables.

The Druid V is remarkably efficient -- it can make a big sound without a lot of power -- so I auditioned it with a bunch of amps, including an 8-watt-per-channel Woo Audio 234 , 40-watt NAD C 316BEE , and 100-watt Pass Labs XA100.5. They all sounded fine, but for most of my listening tests I used a 25-watt-per-channel First Watt J2. That little amp played very, very loud without sounding like it was working hard. There's something about the Zu sound, the liveliness, the way music's small and large scale soft-to-loud dynamic shifts always put a smile on my face. A lot of high-end speakers, including many far more expensive models, flatten those contrasts, the Druid V liberates them.

The Zu 10.3-inch driver and tweeter below it Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I popped on Neil Young's "Live Rust" concert CD and cranked the volume way up, and felt waves of Young's guitar distortion wash over me. To say these speakers rock is an understatement, they communicate the thrill of live music better than any speaker I've had at home, ever! My 6-foot-tall Magnepan 3.7 speakers play as loud, but don't sound nearly as convincing on rock.

So the Druid Vs can kick out the jams, but that's not enough to sustain a relationship. Jazz pianist Ruben Gonzalez's CD, "Introducing...," revealed another side to the Druid Vs' charms. That is, Gonzalez's small and large piano dynamics, and beautiful tone filled my listening room. The Druid V's resolution of fine detail put me in the studio with the band. This natural sounding recording was brought to life in ways that made me forget all about mere hi-fi, and just focus on the music.

It's not all about loud, the Druid Vs maintain their astonishing clarity at hushed, late night listening levels, and some of that extraordinary resolution has to be credited to the Radian tweeter. It's easily the best tweeter Zu has ever used, and takes the sound to the next level.

The Druid V's freewheeling dynamics, holographic imaging, gorgeous midrange, and vivid treble were put to good use in my stereo home theater teamed up with my Oppo BDR-95 Blu-ray player. Elvis Costello's "Live in Memphis" DVD rocked and rolled with real conviction, and dialog on movies was superb. Bass goes fairly deep, but few high-end speakers this size deliver deep, room-shaking bass frequencies. If you need that, add a subwoofer.

The most remarkable aspect of living with the Druid Vs was the way they brought me around to music I never really liked all that much before, like Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" CD. The recording felt cold and uninviting before, but now the funky groove on "Lose Yourself to Dance" gets me moving to the beat. Nine Inch Nails' "Hesitation Marks" CD was another one that bored me, but these speakers unraveled the dense mix and let me take it all in.

Zu's Sean Casey holding the Druid V's 12-pound tweeter! Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Druid V prices start at $5,200 per pair; custom, real-wood veneers and paint finishes are extra cost options. If the 'V is out of your league Zu offers a range of less costly models, starting with the $999-a-pair Omen DW tower speakers. Bona fide high-end sound has never been this affordable before.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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