July 2004Ascendo System Z-f3 Loudspeakers
by Jason Thorpe
Subtlety, due to its very nature, can be hard to recognize. One would think that high-end audio components that cost a lot of money should immediately register upon the senses as superb. However that subtlety thing can get in the way.
The Ascendo System Z-f3, the subject of this review, retails for $22,500 USD per pair, which is a significant chunk of change in anyones book. When I tell people what this beautifully finished but unprepossessing speaker costs, their reactions are reasonably consistent. They sit down on the couch in front of the speakers as if theyre being strapped into a rocket car in preparation for an attempt on the land-speed record. When the music starts the listeners initially seem somewhat disappointed, as if they expected flames to shoot out of the ports. Instead only music comes forth, absent the expected cherubs singing hosannas from the upper corners of the room.
This happened recently with my friend Sid. Sid and I have had a close but adversarial friendship thats lasted over 25 years. The problem with us is that were both always right, and that can lead to tension-filled conversations.
Sid is always brutally honest about whatever system I happen to have hooked up, which often doesnt meet his criteria for what he considers good sound in at least one significant way. After his predictable initial reaction to the Ascendos price tag wore off and he found that he wasnt blown away in the manner of the old Maxell commercials, he sat quietly with his eyes closed for an entire album. Then he said, "Those are the best speakers Ive ever heard."
While it would be presumptuous of me to declare that the Ascendo Z-f3s are indeed the best speakers in the world (I havent heard every one, after all), these German speakers are at the very least a serious assault on the state of the art. Lets have a look.
The Ascendo story
Ascendo GmbH, based near Stuttgart, Germany, is a fairly young company that has its finger in several different audio-reproduction pies. Besides speakers, Ascendo manufactures its own DSP / A-to-D / D-to-A room-correction hardware, a mighty sophisticated acoustic-measurement software suite, and acoustic absorption panels. These guys arent just stuffing drivers into boxes.
And it sure shows. The speakers I received were both substantial and beautifully finished in Porsche GT Silver lacquer (yes, the same paint which covers that limited-edition car!) and are available in pretty much any color you can imagine. Ascendo makes use of the RAL color palette (colors from this palette are at no extra charge), which they claim is a European standard, but they can color-match to any sample you supply.
At first glance the System Z-f3 appears to be a two-way speaker using a ribbon tweeter in a separate head module and an 8" bass/midrange driver in the main enclosure. However, the presence of three separate sets of high-quality binding posts is your first clue that theres more to this speaker than meets the eye. Sure enough, theres a bass driver hidden inside the large enclosure, which breathes into the room via a 3" port, and that 8" driver on the front is actually the midrange. Crossover frequencies are unusual: a very high 3.2kHz from the ribbon tweeter to the midrange, and a very low 76Hz from the midrange to the woofer. There are no grilles supplied for the midrange or the tweeter, nor are any available from Ascendo.
Time alignment plays a large role in Ascendos design. The tweeter module rests on two stainless-steel rails and is physically separate from the bass/midrange enclosure. The tweeter module can be moved forward or backward according to a supplied chart in order to time align the tweeter to the midrange driver. It's easy to do. I measured the relevant distances between myself, the floor and the speakers and shifted the tweeter module backwards by the amount specified in Ascendos supplied chart. The speakers ended up 30" from the front wall, 40" from the side walls, and with enough toe-in so that they were pointing at the outside edge of my shoulders. The bass was insensitive to proximitiy to the front wall.
As I mentioned earlier, there are three sets of binding posts, and Ascendo doesnt supply jumpers. This means that you need at minimum two sets of speaker cables, and a set of fairly large jumpers (to extend from the midrange posts up to the ones on the tweeter module), but my experience suggests that the acquisition of three separate pairs of good-quality speaker cables would be money well spent.
The System Z-f3 is similar in concept to the Ascendo System M, which was reviewed on SoundStage! in July 2003. Many of the design and construction principles related in that review are relevant to the System Z-f3. The System Z-f3 is essentially a smaller System M; the System M employs an 11" woofer, while the System Z-f3 hides an 8" driver in its innards. As such, the System Z-f3 is a physically smaller speaker, measuring 10 5/8"W x 42 5/8"H x 17"D. The System Z-f3 is quite nondescript, especially in its fairly subtle and reflective silver lacquer. Its a reasonably dense little guy, though, weighing in at a chunky 95 pounds. However thats less than half the weight of the 210-pound System M, and a significant part of the difference is due to the System Z-f3s smaller, more streamlined tweeter module, which in turn obviates the need for the System Ms stainless-steel stand.
The tweeter and midrange of the System Z-f3 are essentially the same as those contained within the System M, with the only differences between the two being the smaller bass driver and the smaller associated cabinet and tweeter housing. As with the System M, the System Z-f3 features contour switches for both bass and treble, which, Ascendo claims, alter the impedance curve to match the damping factor of the amplifier in use. I never did find a setting for the switches that suited all the music that I listened to over the review period, but I did find the switches very useful for tuning the speakers based on what was playing and the equipment that passed through the system.
I listened to the Ascendos exclusively in my reference system, which itself went through several transitions, as various other pieces of equipment cycled in and out of the room.
The preamplifier was, for the most part, my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2, although the Emotive Audio Poeta joined the party late in the review period. The phono stage was my Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature. For sources, I alternated between my Roksan Xerxes/Artemiz/Shiraz analog combo and Museatex Bidat that was fed from a Pioneer DV-563A. Again late in the review period, the Pro-Ject RPM-9 turntable made a guest appearance, along with a Grado Reference Sonata cartridge.
I went through an extensive amplifier search in order to extract the best performance from the Ascendos. First up to bat were my EAR 509 tube monoblocks. Unfortunately these admittedly finicky amplifiers werent up to the task, sounding most anemic and muffled. A Musical Fidelity A3cr power amplifier was much better suited, so solid-state seemed to be the order of the day. From there on, each additional increase in power netted gains in bass power and imaging precision. The next stop was the A3crs big brother, the A300cr at 225Wpc. Near the end of my time with the Ascendos I received the Anthem Statement P2 amp, a 325Wpc juggernaut. This amp sounded the best of the four that I tried, which points to the Ascendos as being rather current-hungry beasties.
Cabling was Acoustic Zen Matrix between the amp and preamp, and a combination of Ascendos own speaker cable for the midrange and highs and Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval for the bass. Power cords were a mixture of Cardas Hexlink 5 and Virtual Dynamics David series.
Z-f3 and me
The first characteristic that struck me about the Z-f3s sound was the complete and utter lack of any form of grain, edge or harshness. In marked contrast to many other speakers that have passed through my system, I was instantly at ease with these German transducers. Each album that I played dragged me into the musical performance in a truly magical manner. I realize that the word magical is rather touchy-feely, and while it explains my emotional reaction to a musical experience, it fails to relay anything meaningful. So Ill break it down, bit by bit, to convey why Im so enamored of these speakers.
The treble is a good place to start. The Ascendo Z-f3s ribbon tweeter is one of those rare drivers that verges on invisibility while at the same time impresses with its grace and fluidity. I kept returning to Nirvanas MTV Unplugged in New York [DGC 24727], as the sparkle on the guitars and the shimmer of the cymbals bordered on the iridescent. I could almost see the fingers slide up and down the strings, so vivid was the System Z-f3s portrayal. Instrumental overtones and the harmonics of cymbals and guitars were slightly recessed in the soundstage in comparison to the fundamental, which served to increase the sense of space, but in a weird way this seemed to add to the detail provided by this ribbon tweeter.
Paradoxically the large amount of information projected by the Z-f3s tweeter was not accompanied by even the remotest sense of harshness or etch, or even an elevation in level. Instead, the cleanness and clarity, served up without any abrasiveness, drew me into the music. I actually noticed my neck craning very slightly forward, acting on a desire to move closer to the soundstage. This trait is at distinct odds to the more obvious audiophile trick of thrusting detail out at the listener via a forward upper midrange or treble. Instead the upper registers washed over me, leaving me drenched with musical information. Make no mistake -- the Z-f3s are not rolled off or, to use a euphemism for such a trait, sweet. The highs are there in full complement, which makes these speakers very revealing of ancillary equipment, but no matter what components I used with them, I was unable to get them to sound harsh.
The term transparency is much bandied about in audio today, and while everyone and his brother is laying claim to a transparent-sounding product, in my experience the real thing is quite rare. The Ascendo Z-f3 has the most transparent midrange Ive yet heard, be that in my room or at a show. Through the midrange, the Ascendos deliver an airy though very slightly recessed window into the music. These German speakers have the kind of crispness and speed for which electrostatic transducers are famous, yet at the same time theyre able to project levels of dynamic snap through this range that electrostatics would simply kill for.
In previous reviews Ive raved about a group called Giant Sand and especially their album Chore of Enchantment [Thrill Jockey Thrill079]. Well, the rave continues, as Ive garnered more pleasure from this record over the last year than from any other. Theres something in here for everyone -- from hard rock, to country, to folk, to sweet ballads. Howie Gelbs voice exemplifies the uncolored, expressive midrange of the Ascendo Z-f3s. On "Dirty from the Rain," Gelbs voice emanated from a disembodied head right there in between and slightly behind the plane of the speakers. The accompanying guitar had a delightful attack, each note decaying away with an almost supernatural sense of depth. This depth magic is especially notable due to how naturally its presented. A dip in the midrange is one shortcut to increased soundstage depth, as it serves to present instruments in this range at a lower level, which in turn tricks the ear into believing that theyre farther away. The Ascendos dont seem to resort to this tomfoolery, relying instead on the quickness of the midrange driver (which surprised me somewhat, as I dont tend to think of 8" midranges as agile) to place musical information in its correct location. Theres no smearing of images, which are placed in the soundstage with crystalline precision -- but naturally so, without artifice or emphasis on any frequency range at the expense of any other.
The Ascendos hidden driver produces bass thats deceptive, and this returns us to the concept of subtlety. For starters Ill list what the Ascendos dont do. They dont boom, slam or overtly shock. They also dont draw any attention to their low-end performance. What they do is sit there quietly until called upon. Then, without drama or histrionics, they produce bass and sub-bass thats tight, tuneful and thoroughly engaging.
And they most certainly go low with authority. A distributor recently stopped by to drop off a piece of equipment, and what was originally supposed to be a quick visit turned into a beer, cheese and vinyl listening session. (I know -- you cant really listen to beer and cheese, but they were given equal attention.) One of the LPs he brought over was an original mono pressing of The Modern Jazz Quartet with Laurindo Almeida, [Philips B 08193 L], which hes owned and listened to for over 20 years. Midway through the second track, we were both startled by some really low bass that tricked us into thinking it was coming from outside the room, or at least somewhere other than the speakers. Some quick checking revealed that it was actually a resonance that originated from the kickdrum, and was perhaps amplified by the stage upon which the drumkit was sitting. Whats important to note here is that this low-end performance was totally unexpected and was realistically produced, such that it extended the boundaries of the room and added an additional layer of realism to this live recording.
The Ascendo Z-f3s continue to impress when reproducing bass of a more pedestrian nature. These speakers walk that fine line between loose and full, tight and accurate. Lets put aside any doubts about their ability to play low and loud -- thats pretty much a given at this price point -- and instead concentrate on the quality of their bass. Ever heard of a band called Calexico? Neither had I, but Rob Doughty of Applause Audio, my local hi-fi emporium here in Toronto, turned me on to them. Calexico is based around the rhythm section of Giant Sand, and, true to their name, they have a southern, almost Mexican feel to their music. Its intoxicating stuff, and the Ascendos dig deep, both music- and bass-wise. On "Where Water Flows" from The Black Light [Quarterstick Records QS52] the Ascendos retain enough of a tight grip on the bass to keep the low-frequency information distinct, but dont over-damp it, and thus provide a solid foundation to this exuberant music.
Although my time with the Ascendos was truly a treat, things might not be so blissful if you live close to your neighbors. The Ascendos strut their stuff at medium to high volumes, and the total lack of edginess that I mentioned earlier makes them a pleasure to listen to at those levels. However at a lower volume, such as you might listen to late at night in a condo, they flatten out and lose some of their dynamics and incisiveness. Theres definitely a threshold at which the speakers come alive, and above that level the rewards are legion. At higher volumes the Ascendos retain their composure, with a fantastic sense of dynamic shading that encompasses both the microdynamic and macrodynamic ranges. I always get a charge out of listening to the way Keith Jarretts hums along with his piano playing. It sounds like hes in his own little world, grunting and moaning as he plays up a storm. The Ascendos portrayed Jarretts sub-vocal harmonics on Standards, Vol. 1 [ECM 1255] as a distinct, disembodied presence, one that provided dynamic contrast to the often-percussive attack of the piano. The end result was an engaging presentation -- one that heightened the illusion of a live performance unfolding in my room.
Lets get this out of the way. The Z-f3s make my Hales Transcendence Fives sound busted. Theyre over three times more expensive than the Hales speakers, so the Ascendos sure as heck should sound better. But Ive always considered my Transcendence Fives to be a good speaker, and I didnt expect quite this level of difference. There isnt a single area in which the Hales speakers are competitive with the Z-f3s, but the comparison is still instructive.
When I re-inserted my Transcendence Fives back into the system, the audibility of their metal-dome tweeters caught me completely by surprise. Ascendos ribbon tweeter has a silky clarity to its presentation that the Hales' tweeter cant even come close to approaching.
The Z-f3s further differentiated themselves from the Hales speakers down in the low frequencies. The Transcendence Fives are very extended, go very low, and are very tight, but after listening to the Ascendos, Id venture that theyre too tight. The Ascendos make the Hales speakers sound excessively dry and constipated. Theres more bounce and richness to the German speakers presentation, with an extra sense of warmth and dimensionality accompanying the music.
The midrange tonal balance of the two speakers is actually somewhat similar, but the Ascendos distinguish themselves with an additional helping of transient quickness that somehow manages to remain easy on the ears. Although not bright or forward in any significant way, the Hales Transcendence Fives have a midrange thats piercing in comparison.
In the end, how each different part of the Ascendo Z-f3's performance stacks up isnt as important as how well these disparate traits integrate into the whole musical fabric. The silky-smooth yet detailed top end balances with the quick yet very slightly recessed midrange and results in an intimate soundstage that draws you in and communicates directly to the heart. As if that wasnt enough, the addition of a noteworthy sense of slam helps the Ascendos present large-scale music on, well, a large scale. The Ascendos sound small when appropriate to the music and absolutely huge when its called for.
While Ive had other speakers in my system that have had deeper and tighter bass, a more extended treble, or better low-level resolution, I have always been aware that I was listening to speakers. The best of the bunch would, ultimately, leave me thinking "Wow! This is a really good speaker." And while thats impressive, the goal is to reproduce music, not alert the listener to the quality of the infrastructure thats reproducing it.
The Ascendo System Z-f3s, in contrast, seduced me and made me smile. How much is a smile worth?
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