JansZen zA1.1 Electrostatic Hybrid Stand-Mounted Loudspeaker
The last couple of minutes of the slow movement of the Mahler Fourth Symphony represent one of those pieces of Mahler magic, often built on an extended harp solo, where time seems almost to stop and a vision is presented of heavenly beauty. Such passages have an overpowering impact in concert—when things are going ideally, one is all but out of this world for a few moments. Somehow, this seldom works quite so well in home audio. People are always talking about the difficulty of reproducing the “big moments,” the gigantic climaxes, of the Romantic and post-Romantic orchestral repertoire. But the moments of delicate beauty are equally hard to reproduce, and perhaps even more appealing if done well.
Listening to this passage on the JansZens at close range was an experience remarkably close to the magic of a live performance. Or so I found it, and not just on this occasion specifically. The zA1.1s have, to an extent remarkable indeed, the ability to reproduce the beauty of live sound, especially in top-end purity. To look at, they are just box speakers of moderate size. But there is magic in those boxes. However, the sound of them, and indeed the whole idea of them as I understand it, is something unusual, particularly as far as the radiation pattern in the higher frequencies is concerned. They do admirably what they are intended to do—more than admirably—but what that is may be a bit of a surprise, as we shall get to later on.
While the JansZens present any number of identifiable audio things well, the specific source of their fascination, their “star turn,” is their treble. It has always been an article of faith in audio that the midrange is crucial, but of course the shape of midrange frequencies, their definition and transient behavior, and their harmonics all live in the upper frequency range—from, say, 1kHz on. And this range in the zA1.1s is in effect covered by the electrostatic unit alone. (The crossover from the bass/lower-mid drivers is at 500Hz, first-order.) The treble has a combination of definition, purity, and freedom from grain and distortion that is absolutely of the top class.
In fact, so extraordinary is the treble that one is led to rethink the whole question of the top end of CDs and, for that matter, vinyl. Now I am not suggesting that high-bit-rate digital is not worthwhile. SACD for instance still sounds better than the corresponding material on CD. But people may be surprised how much of what they took for grit and grain and impurity in the top end of CD sources was in fact the graininess of typical dome tweeters.
Some time ago, I wrote in TAS that metal-dome tweeters were like bloodthirsty beasts roaming the hi-fi jungle. Dome tweeters are better than that now. But electrostatic tweeters remain special in my view. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me technically, membrane tweeters sound purer and cleaner. And yes, more resolved. The opening of John Eargle’s Delos recording of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture comes to mind. One hears the repeated notes in the high strings with unusual precision, so that accurate rhythmic unanimity is preserved. With dome tweeters there is too often a certain smear; while the dome lets you hear what is happening in literal terms, the picture is slightly fuzzy. This effect is also really evident on high percussion. Cymbal crashes can seem a special weakness of CD digital—and to some extent they are. But not so much as most dome tweeters often suggest.
I am not trying to imply that the best dome tweeters are not really good drivers. After all, I have been using as a “reference” for some time the Harbeth Monitor 40s (original version), which have SEAS Excel tweeters. And good tweeters they are. But the electrostatic treble has a different character, and many people find it addictive and realistic in a way that escapes dome. At THE Newport Show just past (2015), a designer, who shall remain nameless I suppose, given that I do not have permission to identify him (it was not Janszen!), said to me: “I’ll never design a speaker with a dome tweeter again.” (His new speaker had a ribbon actually—same idea, that membranes rule the treble roost.) One can get the point once one starts to listen to the differences carefully. Which is right and in what sense? Hard to say, but different they are, in part because their radiation patterns are different.
Truth to tell, I think the electrostatic tweeter here even has an advantage over most ribbons, which tend to have a sight suggestion of the metallic somewhere in their range. The electrostatic tweeter in particular has the advantage of being made of a material with no real resonant signature of its own (Mylar film does not really have a sound), and while in principle the film’s behavior is chaotic in micro-structure (though pistonic in its basic motion), in practice the results are really superb, unexcelled in my experience (except for the legendary and totally impractical Tolteque plasma speakers, which moved the air directly but without horn loading, and therefore required truly vast amounts of power).
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.
Having a roll-off in the room-sound above 4kHz is very much consistent with concert hall sound (cf. regonaudio.com/Records%20and%20Reality.html). But without a little of the AirLayer in action, this roll-off seems to me to start too far down in frequency—in the rooms I tried at least. The AirLayer option will fix this up. And the result is then something truly akin to concert hall sound, as I mentioned also in my earlier review of the JansZen zA2.1.
While the bass performance of the larger model is naturally somewhat superior—though this zA1.1 stand-mount has more bass than you might expect—this stand-mount model allows you to raise the speaker so that the mid/tweeter is at ear height. To me at least, this is important. The floorstanding model is tilted to position the ear correctly relative to the mid/tweeter axis, but, as with so many floorstanders, one is looking down a little at the music. The present stand-mount can also be mounted to make the music level with the listener, and the result is a kind of magical expansiveness—things like the Grieg sonata recording mentioned above can seem not only tonally convincing and transparent, but also spatially much like what one would hear if one were sitting and listening to the performers. This is one of those “must hear it to believe it” experiences that floorstanders seldom offer in this particular way.
These speakers will play loudly, for small speakers, but small they are, and they are also not high in sensitivity—nominally 85dB. At the same time, they are, according to the manual, not to be driven by an amplifier with more than 400 watts per channel. (An ultra-high-power amplifier can damage them.) Now the amplifier I was using, the Benchmark AHB2, is rated at 100 watts into 8 ohms, 190 into 4 ohms, and thus seems of appropriate capacity. (I was afraid to trot out the big Bryston and while I did try the Sanders Magtech, to admirable effect, I was feeling a bit nervous about doing so.) The Benchmark was clipping at loud moments in the Mahler—which I was not playing that loudly overall. In effect, there seems to be a window of opportunity here—I think something like 200 watts into 8 ohms would be ideal. The speakers are supposed to be undamaged by small amounts of clipping, incidentally. For a gigantic room, there is the floorstanding model zA2.1 and, recently, a fully active, bi-amplified version of this, which has large dynamic capacity and truly deep bass extension.
I should also mention that the model under review, like the floorstanders, offers phase-linear behavior, with a first-order crossover from the front woofer to the electrostatic unit at 500Hz. The blending of the drive units is excellent, and the electrostat covers the entire range of maximum hearing sensitivity. How much the phase linearity as such matters is, as always, a bit controversial, but in practice things such as the attacks of piano notes sound more correct than usual.
The zA1.1s have adjustable treble level—I turned it down a good bit in my room. (This is in addition to the AirLayer adjustment.) They also have a switch to introduce a notch in the bass if one wants to put the speaker against a wall. This seems to work well, though the speaker really gives of its best in imaging in free-space mounting on fairly high stands to get the treble unit at ear height. Incidentally, you can experiment with turning up the treble a little above the level that would seem natural if the speakers were aimed at you and then angling the speakers slightly away from you for various possibilities on total radiation into the room versus direct arrival.
Some people expressed concern about my earlier review of the floorstanding JansZen model, the zA2.1, because I emphasized the adjustments to an extent that made them nervous about getting the sound correct. Don’t worry! It is quite easy to dial the sound in, and the adjustments are really useful.
With most speakers, you are stuck with what the designer did, averaging in his own mind the possible types of rooms and positions. You cannot make things any better except by moving the speakers, treating the room, or using external eq or room correction. You are just stuck. With the JansZens, you have additional flexibility, and you ought to be grateful. Not all rooms are alike. In particular, the ideal AirLayer setting will be different in different rooms—but you will know easily when you have it right.
While the aforementioned purity, clarity, and general beauty of the zA1.1s’ sound are their most obvious features, the possibility of matching them exactly to your room in radiation pattern is really important. This is something that cannot be done by after-market DSP correction, as it were. DSP and eq in general have an important place in audio (far more so than people have fully realized, in my opinion). But they have limits. One cannot adjust radiation pattern with an external device. And it makes a difference. One can dial in the JansZens in a way that no other speaker really allows (except the other JansZen models). And anyone who tells you that the ideal pattern is the same for all rooms is kidding you, or perhaps himself. This fine-tuning is a lot more crucial to what you actually hear than most of the electrical tweaks people think matter so much—more crucial by orders of magnitude than changing power cords, say. This really has a significant effect and when adjusted just right, it gives superb effect.
An additional aspect of this JansZen model being fairly small is that while it nominally goes quite low for a small speaker, an (optimistic, I think) 30Hz in-room being mentioned in the literature, these are not bass powerhouses. This is not a speaker to show off your collection of Romantic pipe organ recordings. The bass is very clean and resolved—and a little deeper than one might expect because there is a second bass driver on the back side that extends things further. But still, compared to many large speakers, the JansZens present a smaller picture tonally. There is not much output substantially below 50Hz, though there is also in my room a pleasing absence of the suck-out from the “usual floor dip” of floorstanders (between 100 and 300Hz). The JansZens sound warm and full but not weighty. If one wants the full physical weight (or even close to it) of an orchestra or a pipe organ, then one really needs to add a subwoofer. It does help to place the speakers in reasonable proximity to back and or sidewalls—and the directional behavior means one can get close to the sides without causing trouble.
For people who wonder about how things work and why things can be better today than in times gone by, it is worth noting that one of the essential design elements is the possibility of running the (forward-firing) bass/mid driver with a first-order crossover. While the nominal crossover point is 500Hz, the first-order part means that the bass/mid driver needs to run cleanly up quite far in frequency—which it definitely does. To have made this speaker decades ago would not really have been possible. Electrostatic tweeters were superb devices long ago. Designer David Janszen’s father, Arthur Janszen, introduced electrostatic tweeters to the world in the 1950s and superb they were, though the present versions are, I think, superior in dynamic range and dispersion character. Electrostatics have intrinsically low distortion, and the originals were excellent themselves. It was, however, not an easy matter to find drivers for lower down that would integrate gracefully with them.
In fact, it was not really possible. I recall various speakers over the decades that tried with greater or lesser success—this was a popular do-it-yourself idea. But almost always the electrostatic tweeters were in a sense too good for the dynamic drivers available for lower down. With the present JansZen line, this issue has at last been resolved. Integration is effectively complete, with no sense of change of character at the transition. The idea of an electrostatic goes back to the days of Rice and Kellogg in the 1920s. But the full realization of the possibilities had to wait a long time. It was worth waiting for.
Back to the Music
The JansZens are truly a high-end speaker in the sense that there are things they can do that are completely outside the scope of “mid-fi” speakers, the bass-plus-mid-plus-dome-in-a-box floorstanders that are all over the place at various prices, including very high prices. To listen to the ethereal beauty of the violin and harp passage at the end of the Flying Dutchman Overture in the recording referred to earlier is to hear a sound that is outside the world of speakers of that type—even the many expensive ones of that type which are anything but mid-fi in price. This is so not only in the purity of the sound, but also in the erasing of the room around you. At the same time, one does have to accept that the JansZens are going to sound quite different from wide-pattern floorstanders with dynamic drivers. This is by the intention of the designer, but it is in any case true. Familiar recordings may not sound—and indeed probably will not sound—exactly as you expect if you have been listening to them on wide-pattern speakers.
I have emphasized their differences from ordinary speakers, just so that people understand what goes on here. But it is also important to understand that what goes on may well strike you, as indeed in many respects it strikes me, not only as unique but also as uniquely good.
The great English mathematician G.H. Hardy was famous in his circle for his wit in describing public figures, and one of his code phrases was “Old Brandy,” for a person who was a rarified connoisseur in some direction or another (after a person they all knew who was unwilling to drink any alcoholic beverage except very old cognac). More than most speakers, the JansZen zA1.1s are Old Brandy. If you see them in someone’s house, you can be sure that that person is a true connoisseur, not just of audio as a whole, but of a certain kind of audio, of the pursuit of that almost mystical experience that one can have on occasion of leaving one’s listening room and moving into a world of ethereal beauty of sound, without giving up warmth and fullness.
The JansZens have a refinement and focus all their own, based on the purity of the electrostatic tweeter and the narrowed radiation pattern in the top end. For those with the appetite for this, there is nothing else quite like the JansZen zA1.1s. If your budget encompasses this price point, these are speakers you really should hear before you buy anything else. Old brandy may be the only drink for you.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Two-way stand-mounted box speaker with electrostatic mid/tweeter and dynamic forward-firing bass driver and second back-firing bass driver operated at frequencies below 60Hz
Crossover: First-order, 500Hz
Impedance: Nominal 8 ohm
Recommended amplifier power: 120–400W
Frequency response: 30Hz–40kHz (in-room)
Dimensions: 8″ x 17″ x 12″
Weight: 35 lbs.
Price: $4495 ($395 for AirLayer option)
JANSZEN ELECTROSTATIC SPEAKERS
480 Trade Road
Columbus, OH 43204
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