Like many long-time TAS readers, I have been on a multi-decade quest to achieve the absolute sound—the illusion of hearing actual acoustic instruments playing in a wonderful concert hall—through my stereo system. After years of trying, I recently made a giant step forward towards that goal with the addition of the remarkable Zellaton Stage loudspeakers to my reference system. The Stage is a revelation, and in a couple of important sonic dimensions better than any loudspeaker I have heard in all my years.
My first experience with the three-way, floorstanding Zellaton Stage was at the 2017 Munich High-End Show. The Zells were mated with YS Sound electronics and the remarkable Schnerzinger cables and Giga Protectors. When I entered the room, some hard-driving, dynamic electronica tracks were playing. I was immediately impressed by the reproduction of percussion instruments, particularly when they were playing fast transients. These transients came across so cleanly, clearly, and with such rhythmic drive that I almost wanted to get out of my seat and start to dance! I asked the Zellaton folks if they were using subwoofers—such was the low-end extension—but they said they were not. The noise floor was also astonishingly low, letting the most minute fine details emerge. On a wide variety of material, from rock to jazz to classical, this extraordinarily natural, uncolored, and transparent system simply drew me into the performance—to such an extent that I thought to myself, “I’d love to try these speakers in my own listening room!”
While I will report on the Zellaton Stage in a more comprehensive review in TAS, this blog will focus on a few of the breakthroughs the Stage makes that brings one closer to the absolute sound. This preview should be of special interest to those who are looking for a reference loudspeaker that captures the incredible midrange purity of the original Quad ESL but extends that reach-out-and-touch-you transparency and remarkable timbral realism throughout music’s entire range. The Zellaton Stage avoids other limitations of the original Quad in its extension at the frequency extremes, macro-dynamics, and overall sonic impact. There’s just more meat on the bone with the Stage, as instruments and voices are more fully fleshed out. The Stage can also play a lot louder than both the original and current Quads, is less colored top to bottom (and in between), and does a better job at putting all the performers in the listening room. The Stage (at ~$84k/pair) costs several times more than any of the Quads, but it is the only speaker that has had me seriously considering selling my Grotrian Steinweg Concert Grand piano to be able to snag it!
What originally drew me to the Quads and has kept me coming back to them (I’ve owned at least five pairs) is their remarkable transparency, retrieval of fine details, wonderful coherence, and sonic purity— particularly in the critical midrange where they sound more like the real thing, at moderate levels, than just about any other loudspeaker in my experience. I’ve been willing to live with their limitations because of what they do so amazingly well. . . until now.
HP spoke about the importance of transparency as a key element in attaining the absolute sound. He often referred to the window on the soundstage, as well as the veils between the listener and performers. Transparent components and speakers have a cleaner window, as if one used Windex on the glass prior to listening, thereby enhancing the illusion of listening to a live performance in one’s own room. The Zellaton Stage is the most transparent, uncolored full-range loudspeaker I have heard. Indeed, it doesn’t just clean the window looking onto the soundsage; it seems to remove the glass itself, banishing the veils between listener and performer!
The secrets to the Zellaton’s breathtaking transparency and coherence, as well as its ability to replicate the natural timbre of instruments and voices with lifelike realism are its hand-made, proprietary drivers, as well as its open cabinet design and superb electrical parts. Its unique sandwich-driver technology dates back to the 1930s and features a “lightweight, torsionally stiff rigid-foam diaphragm with ideal unit pulse response.”
The Stage has the most seamless integration of any multi-driver speaker I have heard, rivaled by some full-range electrostatics, such as the the large Sound Lab Ultimate loudspeakers. A key to its remarkable coherence is that its three hand-made (and optimized) sandwich cone drivers, including the tweeter, utilize the same materials and ultra-thin aluminum diaphragms on a foam substrate. The multiple drivers sound “as one.”
Throughout the years, Zellaton has continued to improve the design of its drivers and their sonic performance. The latest Stage features improved and more precisely matched Zellaton cones, new Duelund internal wiring, a revised Duelund crossover, and cabinet improvements derived from the Zellaton Statement speakers. The stands have also been redesigned for greater support and adjustment flexibility. Lastly, the semi-open baffle has been improved to allow better dispersion and cabinet tuning.
All genres of music I have auditioned on the Stage, to date, have been highly engaging and satisfying— and riveting. As in Munich, I started with some hard-hitting electronic music from Deadmau5 and Aphex Twin, and my jaw almost dropped to the floor. The clarity, immediacy, rhythmic drive, transient quickness, and impact were amazing. I eventually pulled out my Chemical Brothers double-album and played it so loudly that my wife was afraid the neighbors would complain.
More to my tastes, the Zells excel at reproducing classical music (including power orchestral), jazz, acoustic instruments, electric guitars, synths, and voices of all stripes. When I listened to MTT conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, the big tympani strikes almost jolted me out of my seat. The leading edges of transients were sudden and crisp, with no smearing. Both micro- and macro-dynamic swings were thrilling, with subtle details emerging across a broad and deep soundstage. As in a live concert, instruments had natural timbre and palpable presence.
If you have recordings of well-recorded live performances, like the brilliant MoFi Ultradisc One-Step pressing of the Bill Evans Trio: Sunday at the Village Vanguard, you are likely to feel as if you are part of the audience at the Vanguard while listening through the Zells. The reproduction of Scott LaFaro’s string bass is so articulate, coherent, and natural that you are really drawn into the performance and can fully appreciate his amazing artistry. Here, too, the leading edges of transients as he plucks the strings are so crystal clear, without any smearing, that you’d swear he was in the room with you. Bill Evans’ piano and Paul Motian’s drums are equally mesmerizing. Even the applause of the audience is shockingly realistic, and you can make out some of the conversations in the background too (and not just during bass solos!)
While this is a remarkable full-range speaker with bass extension to a reported 24Hz, it does not plumb the subterranean depths. However, I never felt the need to use my subwoofer, which would likely impinge on the Stage’s stunning purity and clarity. Actually, it took me a little time to adjust to the Zell’s bass since it was so articulate. Without the bloat, overhang, and lack of coherence of so many other speakers, it was that much more like the real thing.
There’s a lot more to say about the Zellaton Stage, but it will have to wait until my full review. Without spilling all the beans, I will say that I’ve never experienced the illusion of live performers in my listening room more often than I have with the Zellaton Stage. If you get the chance, go hear it. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford it, definitely put it on your short list. The Zellaton Stage is a remarkable achievement and helps move the audio arts several steps closer to the absolute sound.
The Zellaton Stage is available exclusively in North America by: