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Review: Acoustic Zen Crescendo Mark II speakers

I’d been enjoying Acoustic Zen speakers at California Audio Show rooms over the past 3 years. Adagios, Crescendos, and, more recently, the towering Maestros. Three years ago I wanted the Adagios. A year later I pined for Crescendos.

I had some serious ‘Zen envy.

Acoustic Zen Crescendo MkII

Late last year I finally resolved to exile my loyal pair of Paradigm Studio 100 v.5s to the home theater realm and upgrade the speakers in the main listening space. I knew that the Acoustic Zen Crescendo Mark II speakers sounded good in a hotel room. How would they perform in a 15 x 30 rectangular space consisting of a substantial picture window, troublesome corners, a marble coffee table, a glass and masonry corner table, a brick fireplace, and hardwood floors?

I wanted to audition them somewhere other than the Westin at SFO. I looked up AZ’s local dealers and began calling and emailing.

“We don’t have them in stock. We can special-order them, though.”

Any ideas where I could listen to them?

“No. I’m sure they’d sound great in your room, though.”

One dealer expressed doubt after I described the dimensions of the living room. “I think they may be too big for the space — both physically and in terms of sound.”

That was good to hear. Actually…well, I didn’t want to hear that, but at least the guy wasn’t assuring me I should share his blind faith in exchange for my credit card info. I respected that.

I plunged on. No luck. No one had demo models I could audition.

I found some pamphlets from last year’s CAS show and decided to throw a hail Mary. I emailed Acoustic Zen and mentioned that no Bay area dealers had the Crescendos in stock. I immediately received a gracious and detailed email from Robert Lee at Acoustic Zen. He offered to send me a pair of Crescendo Mark IIs for review, as well as speaker cables and XLR interconnects.

I said yes, please, thank you.

3155537239a411e3b9d822000ab5b45b_8On Christmas eve the speakers and cables arrived. The boxes were huge — we’re talking nearly coffin-sized. It took me about 45 minutes to unpack the speakers, ease them out of the boxes and remove the lovely drawstring fabric bags that encased the cabinets. I took a moment to catch my breath, then carefully tipped the speakers upright (probably should have had help doing that) and slid them on either side of the couch. After 10 more minutes I’d hooked up Acoustic Zen’s Absolute speaker cables, impressively-sheathed pieces of work roughly the diameter of a mid-sized firehose (and probably slightly less flexible). There was no slack in the cable to the left speaker; guess I should’ve gone for another foot or two…oh well.

I powered up the amp and put on a CD of Another Green World.

The music had just started and I was admiring the speakers’ glossy rosewood laminated finish when my better half walked in.

“They sound great out of the box, huh?”

“I didn’t know they were going to be so…big.”

“50 inches tall, if I don’t attach the spikes. They’re only a little bigger than the Paradigms…”

“They’re a LOT bigger! Can they be pushed back at all? They’re kind of blocking the way to the couch, and they’re gonna tower over people sitting there…”

“I didn’t get long enough speaker cables. There’s not enough slack. If you move the left speaker more than an inch or two back, it might disconnect. If that happens, I’m concerned it could short the amp out. I’ll ask Acoustic Zen if they’ll swap them for a longer pair of cables.”

She looked doubtful.

Reluctantly, I went on a week’s walkabout the next evening. In my absence, I asked my girlfriend to keep the amplifier on, with as much music as possible playing through the new speakers. The amp was still breaking in, too.

I returned just before New Year’s eve. I sat down with my new speakers and a very warm amplifier and piped a bunch of neato stuff through them:

Brian Eno Another Green World CD (Toshiba/EMI Japan “black triangle” 32VD-1114)
Michael Brook Cobalt Blue 24/96 FLAC (LP rip, 4AD UK CAD2007)
Sandy Bull Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo LP (Sutro Park SP1000)
Aragon Aragon CD (Invitation Japan VDR-77)
Janet Feder Songs With Words DSD (self-released via downloadsNOW!)
Bill Nelson Stereo Star Maps CD (Sonoluxe ‎UK CD035)
Locust After The Rain LP (Editions Mego Germany 205)
Sky Dies Irae 12″ (Ariola Japan K-15P-48)

Every hot-shit reviewer on The Absolute Sound and Stereophile‘s payroll has one or two pairs of hot-shit speakers waiting in the wings to compare against the reviewed pair of new hot-shit speakers. I don’t. I just have that 4-year old pair of Paradigm Studio 100s, and they’re in the family room now, far, far away. Anyway, such a comparison would be safely termed, as we say in the business, not a fair fight. So we’ll dispense with such comparisons.

Firstly, after unpacking your Crescendos, take the speaker grills off the upper and lower drivers. The grills look nice, but they enhance nothing but appearance. With the grills on, the highs sound veiled, the mids seem masked and the lows are muffled. Put the grills someplace where the cats can’t get to them. You can thank me later. Wrap the things up in those nice drawstring bags and stash them in the shipping cartons. You can always reattach them when grill-expectant company is anticipated.

I read a lot of reviews of speakers where the writer alleges that speakers are genre-specific. “Oh, these are great for female vocals. And trip-hop. And world music recorded before 1989. Not like my Altec Santanas — they’re the only thing I’ll play Bitches Brew through.”

Barf.

I threw everything I had at the Crescendos. Black Sabbath’s first album. Wishbone Ash. Charles Mingus. Nils Frahm. Arcangelo Corelli. Bill Frisell. Achim Reichel. Blaze Foley. Beth Orton. Cassandra Wilson. Stars of the Lid. Renaissance. Gentle Giant. Cluster. The Louvin Brothers. Nine Inch Nails. Yo La Tengo. 10cc. Neu!. Lucinda Williams. Joe Walsh. Vangelis. Traffic. Tuxedomoon. FLACs. LPs. CDs. WAVs, AIFFs and DSD.

There was nothing the Crescendos couldn’t handle with grace, depth, and aplomb.

Let’s look at some faint-praise weigh-ins. These speakers occupied a prominent place in The Absolute Sound‘s 2015 Editors’ Choice Awards, wherein, yea, verily, it was spaketh thusly:

…what the Crescendo lacks in ultimate bass extension, it makes for it with superlative time-domain performance, easily exceeding that of the ubiquitous bass-reflex enclosure.

I’m not sure I fully grok that back-handed remark about “ultimate bass extension.” The Crescendo’s bass extension is wonderful. Yeah, okay, so it maybe doesn’t rival a quarter-million dollars’ worth of, say, Wilson Audio cabinetry. But it more than holds its own at a relatively small fraction of the price, and I don’t need a crane to move them. And my girlfriend, while still thinking they’re slightly large for the living space, doesn’t tell me they look like something better suited to the surface of Jupiter, either. And I know “time-domain” has something to do with math and the temporal plane and spatial relationships, but heck if I’m going to encourage slide rules and oscilloscopes in my living room. A line has to be drawn somewhere.

I may not know much about the time-space continuum and its relationship to speaker design, but I know enough to posit that Acoustic Zen’s Crescendo Mark II speakers are worth the money. If you have a good-sized room and a decent — or indecent — amplifier and a discerning ear, they’ll please you. These speakers are considered (and worthy of the term) full-range, but if you find their bass response running astray (doubtful) you can always put one or two subwoofers behind them, if that’ll make you feel better.

The best thing about the Crescendos? They don’t sound like speakers. They sound like music. Select some up-to-snuff source material, preamplify and amplify it rightly, sit back, and enjoy. Your system will get out of the way, and, if you’re not careful, the music will happen.

These may have been “review units,” but Acoustic Zen isn’t getting them back. I bought them, and I’m keeping them.

(Oh, and that too-short speaker cable? I emailed Robert at Acoustic Zen and told him I’d screwed up on the length. He quickly (and fairly) calculated what a longer run would run me, I sent him a check, and the new cables were in my living room before I’d sent the shorter ones back. The speakers could then be pushed back out of the way of guests — or, alternately, pulled forward away from the evil, standing-wave prone corners — and harmony in the household reigned once more).

2 comments

  1. Dev

    I stumbled across your blog while doing some research on Amplifiers. What a coincidence on the equipment that we have in common – PS Audio DS DAC, Acoustic Zen Crescendo MkII, Parasound A21. The only difference is the preamp – I use a Cary SLP-05 and by the way I am from Bay Area also. I am contemplating between a Pass Labs or go directly to tube amps since the seductiveness I heard in all Robert’s shows comes when he pairs the Crescendos with the Triode TRX845 set amps. Between, the Crescendos need a lot of time to break in – my speakers took almost more than 2.5 months to come alive. Reading your other blog on Pass X250.8 gives me some hope – Since the Crescendo’s are fairly easy to drive, I was even considering XA series full Class-A. Have you ever thought of going the XA.8 route instead ? Just like yourself, I don’t know a place where I can audition.

  2. Paul

    Thanks for your comment. I like your system! (of course I do, it resembles mine!)

    I agree the Crescendos benefit from the extra break-in. As I mentioned in the Pass X250.8 review, my whole system was having growing pains throughout the beginning of 2015. Right now I feel it’s settled in well, with some minor room treatments the only thing left on the to-do list.

    I haven’t thought about upgrading to the Pass XA.8…yet. I’m still liking the X.8 combined with the Zesto Leto/Andros preamp combination. However, as budget allows (and I’m still kind of reeling from the effect of all the late-2014 upgrades on my wallet) I wouldn’t rule anything out. I’m even considering a preamp upgrade to a pre-owned Pass unit at some point.

    As far as tube amplification goes, it’s tempting. I like to have power in reserve, though, and the heat from tubes (as well as the cost of the tubes, and their temperamental nature when driven hard) makes me reluctant. Mind you, however, I haven’t gone through a summer with the X250.8 up and running in the late afternoon yet. I’m sure it’ll keep the living room very….toasty.

    How do you like the Cary/Parasound combination with the Crescendos?