Zu Audio Cube Speaker System Page 2
Five Cubes Walk Into a Bar
I started getting acquainted with the Cubes’ home theater chops while watching the Blu-ray of It Might Get Loud (DTS-HD Master Audio), and that was a lucky break on my part. This documentary brings together three generations of rock guitarists—Jack White (the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Bad Weather), the Edge (U2), and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)—to talk about their life-long love affairs with their musical instruments, and electric ones in particular. Of course, there’s a lot of guitar playing, and when I turned the volume way up, the Cubes didn’t hold anything back. Few small bookshelf monitors can dish out this kind of raw power, and I savored every bit of the three players’ luscious feedback and distortion. I just had to turn up the volume to 11, and the Cubes took it all in stride.
These speakers really come alive with music, especially well-recorded Blu-rays such as Ernest Ranglin’s Order of Distinction (DTS-HD Master Audio) from AIX. Man, the grooves run deep, and the Cubes sounded like mighty towers. They handle high-volume playback and dynamics with rare ease, so they never sound like they’re working hard. AIX eschews dynamic-range compression and other forms of processing, so when you put the pedal to the metal, the musicians sound like they’re in the room with you.
The Cubes do loud really well, but what happens when you take it down a notch or two? The surround mix on soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom’s stunning Sixteen Sunsets Blu-ray (DTS-HD Master Audio) eschews the willy-nilly, pan-potted placement of instruments around you. Instead, you get a realistic portrayal of musicians playing in the front of the room. The Cubes utterly disappeared; it’s really startling to hear music that sounds so right. Of course, after I’d spent quality time with Sixteen Sunsets, a lot of commercial recordings sounded contrived and artificial, as the Cubes’ inherent resolution made clear.
Next, I popped in the DVD of House of Flying Daggers (Dolby Digital), Zhang Yimou’s masterpiece set in 859 A.D. during the last days of the Tang Dynasty in China. I never tire of the circle-of-drums scene where Mei (Zhang Ziyi) dances and kicks the hell out of a bunch of massive drums. Each drum thwack belied the Cubes’ stature, and the swordplay’s brash metallic clang sounded realistic. When I ramped down the volume, the Cubes’ agile dynamics weren’t shortchanged at late-night listening levels. I’ve played this movie over countless speaker systems, but the Cubes revealed more of the quieter ambience cues than most. In a palace or a forest, the Cubes put me inside the scene.
Frankly, it’s a little hard to pay attention to the sound on the season 1 Blu-ray of Homeland (DTS-HD Master Audio), as the story of a Marine-turned-terrorist and a pill-popping CIA agent tracking him down is so darn compelling. Yet I forced myself to focus on the job at hand, and the dialogue sounded thin. I wished the Cubes had more body, but the wide-open sound of street scenes was positively vivid, and music cues floated free of the speakers’ locations.
I also auditioned the Cubes with a set of floorstanding Zu Druid V speakers in the front left and right positions, and turned off the sub. With music, I didn’t miss the low-end support, but for special-effects flicks that rely on a subwoofer to really shake the room, I turned the sub on. With the Druid V speakers, the scale of the presentation grew larger; midbass punch was substantially improved. The Druids run $5,199/pair, but you might substitute Zu’s Omen Dirty Weekend floorstanders ($999/pair), which are the same price as the Cubes. I’ve spent time with the Dirty Weekends, and if you have the room, you can go for them with Cubes in the center and surround positions. There are a few other Zu floorstanding models that could also work; call up the company to determine the mix of speakers that would best suit your room and budget.
I also spent a good deal of time listening to only two Cubes with the PSB sub, driven by the NAD C 316BEE integrated stereo amplifier and the Oppo Blu-ray player. With just the pair of Cubes, the sound was a tad boxy compared with what I heard from five Cubes. Even so, two plus a sub will still kick out the jams in ways that smaller speakers will never match. A 2.1 system for movies and music might be an ideal setup for a bedroom or small apartment system where full surround isn’t possible.
The Cube is more dynamically alive than most comparably priced bookshelf speakers, but there’s no free lunch. The Cube isn’t tonally neutral—I sometimes felt it was forward and midrangey—but it’s never boring. Remember, even with its 10-inch full-range driver, there is less bass extension than most midprice bookshelf speakers. However, the Cubes’ razor-sharp imaging and superior surround envelopment are stunning. You don’t have to take my word for it: Zu speakers are sold direct from the company with a 60-day home trial, and if you choose to send ’em back, return shipping is free. Wait, there’s more: You’ll get 100 percent credit if you trade up to another Zu speaker within 90 days, and after that, you’ll get 50 percent credit to move up. With those kinds of incentives, it’s hard not to take a chance and hear for yourself what this unusual speaker does so right.