When I listened to MTT conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (from SFS Media’s marvelous boxed LP set of Mahler symphonies), the big timpani 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.
Indeed, several times I thought I was attending the actual performance while listening to the Stage. Although I did attend the live performance when the Mahler’s Eighth symphony was recorded at Davies Symphony Hall, listening to the complete set of MTT’s San Francisco Symphony recordings at home put me back in my seat at Davies. On the Eighth, the massed voices were not only powerful and thrilling but also delicate when required by the score, particularly when they sing in a whisper. As in the live performance, the soprano vocal soloist soared above both the orchestra and chorus, yet was never strident. The bass was extended and provided a solid and natural foundation to the music, particularly when the pipe organ was called upon. The Stage handled all the dynamic demands thrown at it effortlessly by this demanding recording, including on the fortissimos. It was a peak experience.
If you like Broadway musicals or opera, the Stage will keep you riveted to your seat on well-recorded material. Although taped in a studio, the brilliantly remastered, 180-gram, original cast recording of West Side Story [Columbia Masterworks] was absolutely thrilling. The Stage reproduced it with incredible immediacy, presence, and transparency—adding to the excitement. Its stunning clarity helps one understand the words being sung, as well as all the fingersnaps of the Jets. I felt like I was sitting in the best seat in the house.
My previous home standard for the reproduction of solo piano for well over a decade has been the Eben X-3 (by Raidho). The piano is a demanding torture test for any loudspeaker and the Stage excelled in its natural and realistic reproduction throughout my listening sessions. Indeed, the Stage outpointed my previous standard in top-to-bottom coherence, neutral tonal balance, clarity, and fine detail retrieval with a slight nod going to the Eben/Raidho in terms of dynamic headroom and concussive impact. However, I never felt the Stage was dynamically compressed, and I played it quite loud. A quick word about tonal balance—as Nojima traversed the full range of the piano, no part of the frequency spectrum stood out. The timbre of the piano remained faithful throughout with absolutely no crossover distortion or extraneous colorations. Fine detail retrieval was outstanding and the Stage provided a solid bass foundation to the performance. As for transparency, on the incredible new Reference Recording 45rpm reissue of Nojima Plays Liszt, I felt like my brother, a very accomplished concert and jazz pianist, was playing my concert grand piano in my listening room.
If you have well-recorded live performances, like the brilliant MoFi Ultradisc One-Step pressing of 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).
The Zellaton Stage excels at portraying voices and acoustic instruments with breathtaking naturalness, detail, and realism. Listening to the brilliant recording of William Byrd’s Missa in tempore paschali [Harmonia Mundi], I sat transfixed by the sheer beauty of the voices. Consonants were reproduced without any hint of added sibilance, yet all the fine details were there. Better still, voices were well-focused and sized appropriately. You won’t hear a female voice that seems like it is six feet wide. The ambient cues of St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco were so beautifully rendered that listening to this wonderfully recorded LP became somewhat of a spiritual experience.
The Stage not only transports you to the recording venue, it helps you “be at one” with the artist and delve deeply into the performance and the music. It’s perhaps the highest compliment I can give any loudspeaker. For example, jazz singer Dee Alexander’s voice on the appropriately named “Magic” tape [International Phonograph] was naturally well-focused and detailed, and so stunningly transparent that I almost felt like I was breathing with the singer.