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ZU Audio Loudspeaker Philosophy & Design

Sean Casey – Founder of Zu Audio

Boiled down Zu Audio designs are based on experience, physics, common sense, and attentive listening to all forms of music and sounds—real and recorded. Our efforts to make playback fun and accessible are achieved in our loudspeaker, cable, turntable and other hi-fi home audio products, which use original concepts and engineering to restore aliveness and realistic fidelity to playback.

Zu incorporated in 2000 with an overarching objective to better enjoy music—through product, its people, and the market path it creates. We at Zu design and build innovative products and processes for our own diverse pleasure, believing that others will see value in our work and want to also benefit from and support our efforts. Zu has proven its commitment to re-establishing the relevance ‘made in the USA’ to high-value, affordable, high-efficiency music systems for regular consumers without bottomless wallets.

As a brand Zu personifies innovation and efficiency in product, as well as in marketing. Through selling direct and stripping back orthodox distribution channels to the bare minimum, Zu brings the designer and user closer together, lowers the price and increases the market. The closer you are to Zu the closer you are to the music.

Zu Audio brings lifelike sound back into the living rooms and lives of regular homes and people. The ‘Zu sound’ is compelling, bold, efficient, dynamic, real and gives upfront blood and guts veracity to playback. Our architectural designs and endless finishes are as nice as the sound, and when combined with our innovative and efficient U.S. manufacturing you get reasonably priced state-of-the-art audio products that working-class music lovers can afford.

Zu Audio products are designed and manufactured by us—this is important to us and we think it should be to you. Better built, better performance and since they are built in our own “back yard” we are constantly striving to reduce waste and minimize pollutants—yes, poor design and poor build are pollutants.

And so you can know for yourself in your own home with your own gear we offer the best trial experience anywhere complete with a liberal 60-day return policy.

Since the beginning Zu has been an engineering-driven research, development and manufacturing company direct marketing innovative and compelling audio products at prices that reflect cross-industry value-visible relationships. This positions Zu to directly compete for discretionary dollars from non-audio products and moves Zu much closer to the mainstream consumer economies, as well as participating in reflating and expanding the hi-fi market. Zu was and still is an American brand with all products manufactured in the United States of America.

Zu products perform, offer sincere value and are priced to reflect genuine economics and not arbitrary whims—and they look as good as they sound. With Zu, voices sound human, instruments are genuine, impact and resolution of musical details are consistent from extended treble through deep bass. Zu is about maximal tone, texture, stereo, and dynamic realism. Performers and sounds are as recorded, and captured color and shading is unmasked and recordings becomes alive and compelling. How? We design by ear first, using tests and measure to assist, not govern our sensation of tone. Against the grain, surprisingly. And to keep our creative edge and quality of build Zu products are designed and manufactured in our home town of Ogden, Utah.

A REVOLUTION IN AMERICAN HI-FI

In the late ‘90s the founders of Zu wondered, “Why had high fidelity audio become so clinical and dead, so widely unmoored from its pioneering past and the music and physics that had set it off?” The founders of Zu believed they had the passion and experience to create products that would exceed expectations, loudspeakers, cables and other products that would return realism to the music and continually satisfy the listener. So building upon the foundation their innovative audio forefathers established, Zu set out on making performance centered products music lovers want and could afford. Today you can see the influence of the early giants in Zu’s products: the manufacturing attitudes of Western Electric, RCA, Lansing… the invention and detail of Tesla, and hard work of Edison. Combining the past with Zu’s comprehensive design approach and modern U.S. manufacturing, Zu is busy creating the next American classics and is dedicated to bring back the stereo as the most important and rewarding furnishing in the home.

ZU LOUDSPEAKER PHILOSOPHY & DESIGN

Zu products do the following or they don’t get released: voices will sound human, instruments genuine, impact and resolution of musical details will be consistent from deep bass through extended treble and dynamic scale will not be hindered. Zu is about tone, texture, stereophonic and dynamic realism. Performers will be located where intended in the recreated stereophonic event—so long as the detail is in the recording. Zu products will allow the color and fidelity of other components in the system to come through, especially amplification. Full-spectrum color and shading will be unmasked and music will sound alive and compelling.

In searching for fundamental understanding in audio systems, Zu has realized the profound interplay of each element, device and discipline, and so approaches performance solutions as a whole. For a loudspeaker to recreate a sonic event with all the intimacy and glory possible requires the highest dynamic range potential and the lowest possible distortion—a basic statement, but one that presents an incredibly complex set of problems. To approach dynamics as the main design element is not overwhelming, likewise for broad-band amplitude response (frequency response) but a balancing of the two can overwhelm even the most experienced designers; and that is to say nothing of the complexity generated when time and three-dimensional space are factored. The loudspeaker system’s complexity and the current design environment which is saturated with assumptions have resulted in a market full of unsatisfying products. These less than rewarding objects reflect the single-minded approach of a designer’s particular belief. Zu’s design philosophy is a comprehensive view of the dynamic system. This panoptic vision, with a focus on fundamental development and understanding allows Zu to find and implement real and satisfying solutions.

Zu designs and builds loudspeakers that are true to the sound and music, only using tests and measures to qualify and control quality. While this seems like a given, the state of the market when Zu launched in 2000 was contrary to this natural idea and was a stark departure to the trend which had been building since the 1970s, which was to use tests and measures as the design and sign-off of performance.

Zu designs and builds full-range drive units that cover the widest bandwidth possible and weighted for bass, loudspeakers that are as dynamic and efficient as possible with bias on the critical human voice. This was also very contrary to the trends which had been building, in this case since the 1960s. Even famous high efficiency brands like Klipsch had all but turned their back on this concept for the home audio market. Why? Solid-state amplification had made high power cheap and plentiful, and it allowed loudspeaker engineers to make flat and extended frequency response graphs with the simple manipulation of passive filter components and cheap targeted bandwidth drivers—and all the while shrinking the size of the loudspeaker cabinet, a design trend the furniture and domestic architectural company Herman Miller helped to fashion back in the day.

HISTORY ON ZU LOUDSPEAKER PHILOSOPHIES

The searching and experimentation of Sean Casey from 1980—2000. Sean was drawn to high efficiency sounds at an early age. In his twenties however, he fell into the “engineering superiority” of the smooth and even frequency response graphs offered by the European speaker-driver offerings. Of course only specific to the home audio designs, but after a decade of experimentation and listening with hundreds of the drivers Sean reached three points of resolution: (1) High efficiency from a full-range speaker-driver centered on the human voice is the prime requirement for a home audio loudspeaker to sound real and compelling. (2) Use as few parts as possible, and preserve phase coherence and time integrity. (3) Couple the room with acoustic area and acoustic impedance matching rather than leaning on cone excursion for bass. These three points cut across the grain for home audio, with other companies using dozens of electronic components to shape and manipulate the response, but at the expensive dynamic range, intimacy, timing, and in the end an enjoyable product.

After two decades two critical apparatuses were refined to the point of commercialization. The first was the Zu-Griewe acoustic loading technology developed by Sean Casey and Ron Griewe in the ‘90s. The second was a new/old full-range driver platform—much of it based on very early work from the ‘30s and the majority by the great RCA company (Harry Olson specifically)—that when mated with Zu-Griewe loading facilitated elegant solutions to Sean’s goals and aspirations. In 2001 Zu launched the first loudspeaker to incorporate these ideals, the Druid loudspeaker. Zu Druid allowed direct coupling to the amplifier without the need for crossover, expressed high efficiency and dynamics and produce a natural frequency balance in normal quarters. All rolled up in a product that looks awesome and occupies a modest footprint.

THE TWO CAMPS IN LOUDSPEAKER DESIGN

Decades ago, Loudspeaker development had fractured into two basic camps: the “dynamics or bust” camp and the “measure flat or don’t bother me” camp. To realize that these camps are married to the overall dynamic behavior of a loudspeaker system is essential for the progress of loudspeakers. Further, to know that dynamic range is a fundamental characteristic, one that cannot be improved through signal manipulation will result in a loudspeaker that better serves music. While signal manipulation can correct for loudspeaker dynamic behavior errors in both time and bandwidth, it is at the expense of overall dynamic range and in varying degrees, resolution, stereophonic recreation and intimacy. Many other parameters must be considered but truly emotional playback is best accomplished through very high efficiency loudspeakers—with a capacity for the broadest dynamic range, wide-band linear dynamic behavior and capable of digging down to at least the second octave of the audible scale. Engineering of a fundamentally correct transducer combined with an enclosure that will not hinder its performance provides many benefits.

Amplitude non-linearity must also be resolved in the transducer as crossover and filter networks impinge significantly on the intelligence of the signal. The loudspeaker engineer must consider every element and design to resolve the smallest transient, preserve phase coherence and time integrity for convincing presentation of sound-spaces, strive for natural frequency balance in typical living rooms, propagate bass impact with surface area and efficiency rather than excursion and package all these qualities beautifully in products that can be used and appreciated in normal homes.

ZU CABLE PHILOSOPHY & DESIGN

Zu cable products are engineered on an electrodynamics level and then refined with materials selection. Simply throwing exotica and bling on something is not a solution for performance. Zu cables provide industry leading performance in every category, and for less than their next closest competitor. Correct cable design is rooted in electrodynamics and not special sauces, fancy secret boxes or “special” conductors. Approaching a design comprehensively like this results in products that perform, offer sincere value, and are priced to reflect genuine economics and not arbitrary whims.

Like Zu loudspeakers, Zu cable products do the following or they don’t get released: voices will sound human, instruments genuine, impact and resolution of musical details will be consistent from extended treble through deep bass, and dynamic scale will not be hindered. Zu is about tone, texture, stereophonic and dynamic realism. Performers will be located where intended in the recreated stereophonic event—so long as the detail is in the recording. Zu products will allow the color and fidelity of other components in the system to come through, especially amplification. Full-spectrum color and shading will be unmasked and music will sound alive and compelling.

ZU’S COMMITMENT TO MANUFACTURING

Zu is an ambitious bunch, believing innovation and quality are only realized when those most passionate about the product are the same people actually making it. Zu products are conceived, engineered, and made in Ogden, Utah—the community that raised us, gave us opportunity, education, and encouraged us to fully explore all the great sports the mountains of Utah provide. Giving back through building a strong company that makes cool stuff, and individually participating in our local community is important to all of us at Zu.

“When a tangible products company loses its hands-on connection with the objects it makes, maximizing margin instead of product performance, originality is usually lost and the product is debased. Consider Western Electric, Edison, RCA, Tesla, Altec and so many others once well known for ground breaking creativity. When innovation and quality cease to be a company’s motivating force, sayonara to inspiration and personal satisfaction.” —Sean

Currently, Zu manufactures hundreds of thousands of feet of wholly original audio-specific cable a year, on machines that are also of our own design (original cable design demands original cable manufacturing equipment); terminates hundreds of specialty connectors each day; and ships hundreds of products a month to customers all over the world. In loudspeakers, Zu has manufactured and sold well over a thousand pair, and has continually expanded production capacity and efficiency to facilitate continued growth and quality improvements.

Zu manufactures the following in-house or next door: cabling, including all of our B3 geometries, cable harness assembly, connector fabrication and termination, loudspeaker driver assembly, machining of driver components, mill work, precision CNC cabinet work, composites application and layup, loudspeaker finishing, machining of turntable accessories and pickups, and assembly and QC of all our products.

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