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Can a great pair of speakers turn you into an audiophile?

The Zu Audio Soul Supreme speakers can bring out something new for a listener.

Robert with his Zu Soul Supreme speaker Steve Guttenberg/CNET

This speaker review takes a very different course than the sort that usually fill this blog, because I auditioned the speakers in my friend Robert's home. He was looking to upgrade from his old Fluance towers, and after listening to a bunch of speakers, I suggested he get in touch with Zu Audio's Sean Casey.

Robert was seriously considering the entry-level Zu Omen Dirty Weekend speakers, but after a series of emails and phone chats with Casey, Robert bought the Soul Supremes. As a professional photographer he understands what jumping a few levels in gear can make -- he likened high-end speakers to high-end film cameras like Leica or Hasselblad that were designed and made by craftsmen for other craftsmen to use.

The Soul Supreme is a small tower speaker, measuring just 38 inches (96.5cm) tall, and it weighs a hefty 70 pounds (32kg). Impedance is rated at 16 Ohms, that's higher than most speakers, but the Soul Supreme is a super-easy load for amplifiers. My 25-watt-per-channel, solid-state First Watt J2 amp would be a terrific match, and I've heard Soul Supremes sing with 5-watt-per-channel Almarro A205A tube amps. Don't worry, the Soul Supreme can also rock out with monster amps; maximum power handling is 300 watts. The Soul Supreme uses the same 10.3-inch full-range driver and 2-inch super tweeter as my Speaker of the Year for 2013, the Zu Druid V.

Robert has heard high-end audio at my house since 2007, but he was perfectly content to listen to a Technics shelf system for a few years, then he moved up to Fluance speakers, Adcom electronics and a Pro-Ject Debut turntable in 2008.

Earlier this year he swapped out the Adcom for a 1982 Sansui G-6700 stereo receiver, and that seemed like it would be a good match with the Soul Supremes, until I brought over an NAD PP2i phono preamp and NAD C 316BEE integrated amp. They turned out to be considerably more transparent than the Sansui. The old receiver didn't sound bad, just hazy and lacking in dynamics and bass control. Vintage receivers are hit or miss, sometimes they're terrific, but in this case the low-priced NAD electronics were clearly better.

Soul Supreme in Red Zu Audio

Shortly after he received the Soul Supremes Robert switched back to the Fluance towers, and he thought they "sounded like a car stereo going by, there was no bass or treble, it was really soggy." The Soul Supremes' clarity was the difference. Robert had been perfectly happy with the Fluance speakers for five years, but once he heard something radically better there was no going back.

The thing that always strikes me about Zu speakers is they're fun to listen to, you tap your feet, bob your head, you feel the music's energy more than most other speakers. That was certainly the case when we played the Beastie Boys' "The Mix-Up" CD. We listened to a bunch of LPs and CDs and the Soul Supremes' dynamic life always brought out the best in the tunes.

Robert is now seriously considering ditching his Pro-Ject turntable for a new Rega RP3. I'd say Robert is now officially an audiophile!

The Zu Audio Soul Supreme sells for $4,500 a pair in the US and £3,600 in the UK with a 60-day satisfaction guarantee. In Australia the speakers run AU$7,000. Custom gloss, matte and real wood finishes are available at extra cost. Zu speakers are handcrafted in Ogden, Utah.