Going on with the Mahler (this was the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Salonen conducting, on Sony Classical), in the last movement, which is a depiction of a child’s vision of heaven, Barbara Hendricks’ voice was suitably angelic. And the imaging was wonderful—Hendricks’ voice was suspended in midair between the speakers with no hint at all of coming from the speakers. Her voice was positioned a little further back than it sometimes is—the JansZens are slightly midrange-recessed compared to the somewhat forward sound of many speakers. This whole concept was an experience of the “who could ask for anything more” variety, offering a remarkable similarity to live concert music—a theme that kept coming up in my mind as I listened.
When I played my old favorite, Ofra Harnoy and Michael Dussek performing Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata [EMI], I was further entranced by the realism of the cello sound. (And this the day after an afternoon playing with a cellist.) This type of reproduced-versus-immediate memory of live sound is not an easy test for speakers to survive. But Harnoy’s cello sounded superbly cello-like, while the sense of another space being reproduced was also very good. People are always talking about wanting to have the impression of the instrument’s presence there before them. But sometimes this translates into a kind of generic sense of realism, rather than getting the exact sound right. In this case, there was not only some instrument seemingly really there, but in fact an actual cello, in tonal detail. And the piano’s top notes had the kind of unforced “glow” that the top notes of a fine piano actually do have.
The recording by Connoisseur Society of the Delius sonatas for violin and piano (Galina Heifetz and David Allen Wehr), recorded in 96/24, had a stunning purity, a sense of nothing really between you and the actual sound of the instruments. This was about as transparent in the true-to-life sense as audio is able to get, especially in the upper part of the sonic spectrum. And the purity really served Delius’ compositions well, their nature being somewhat out of this world in spirit. And David Hancock’s recording (which used the same ribbon mikes as on his famous orchestral recordings in Dallas) of Grieg’s violin and piano sonatas was truly fabulous, as near to the real sound of both instruments as one is likely to get and, once more, with a stunning sense of transparency, of hearing back to the actual musical source.
General Character and Limitations of a Sort
I could go on about how enjoyable these speakers were. But I suppose it is only fair to admit certain characteristics and limitations because the zA1.1s really are distinctive. After all, no speaker, however wonderful, is without some kind of character, because all speakers have to make a choice about how they radiate into the room.
In the case of the JansZens, the choice is to make the speaker considerably more directional in the upper frequencies than usual, with that directionality starting further down in the frequency range than usual. The directivity changes smoothly with pitch as far as I can tell, and the sound is uncolored. But the directivity increases very quickly so that already by around 2kHz the speaker is quite directional, and by 5kHz there is almost nothing in the overall room sound compared to the direct arrival. In fact, without the “AirLayer” option—a side-firing silk dome to fill in the upper mids/lower treble in the room response—the zA1.1s are quite dark in their room sound compared to most speakers.
This is not to say that the speaker is “beamy” in any head-in-a-vise sense—this does not seem to happen in any negative way. The mid/tweeter electrostatic tweeter unit is driven in the treble only over its center section in order to widen the dispersion, and this works well. Horizontally at least, one has no sense of discomfort for a centered listener, and there is even a reasonably wide listening area, though the high treble is somewhat rolled away from the main axis. (Vertically things are more constrained, but this is not so important in listening practice since most people make micro-movements of their heads only horizontally.)
By design, the speaker is intended not to bounce a lot of treble off the walls. In fact, it hardly bounces any. I found the AirLayer option appropriately used to fine-tune perceived balance, rather than for producing a Toole-esque synthesized spaciousness. Turning the AirLayer side tweeter up a great deal tended to undermine the JansZen’s magical treble purity. I do, however, recommend the AirLayer option for that fine-tuning—the option is well worth its modest cost and without it one has to sit really close to the speakers to get a natural balance, closer than most people will want to sit.
The zA1.1’s relatively narrow pattern produces a very precise and focused sonic image that floats free of the speakers when it should—and does so exceptionally well, actually. But these are not speakers intended to make bricks without straw as far as the “soundstage” is concerned (soundstage being something that is practically never actually on the recording but rather a by-product of interaction with the room). The imaging is precise, as it is supposed to be. But the sound is expansive when, and only when, the recording is—no synthetic soundstage here. The JansZens are at their best as nearfield monitors or something along that line, rather than as “room-fillers.” Of course, as one might expect, having a “soft” room sound is not unpleasant—just not quite what one thinks is on the recording, if one listens at large distances. And their presentation of space is outstanding when one listens to them up close. The emphasis on direct sound in the treble gives an unusually strong suppression of the acoustics of one’s listening room. With the right setup, one can feel that the room around is effectively gone.