Over the last twenty-five years I’ve heard a lot of fine equipment at trade shows around the world. Only twice have I been stopped in my tracks by a sound so uncannily realistic it literally made me do a double take. This happened, a decade or so ago, at CES with the Scaena Iso-Linear loudspeaker array. And again, just three years past, in Munich with an earlier version of the speakers I’m about to discuss, the Zellaton Reference MkIIs. In both cases I was so amazed that, one by one, I tracked down every other member of our staff and dragged him back with me to hear what I’d heard. It should go without saying that, in both cases, I immediately asked for review samples.
Alas, the Scaenas didn’t fulfill their promise in my listening room (not wholly the speakers’ fault, BTW), but the Zellaton References, now in their MkII iterations, are a different story. Before I tell that story, you should know that the Reference MkIIs are not for everyone, and I don’t just mean because of their incredibly high price tag ($150k per pair). Unlike several other truly great loudspeakers (e.g., the $129k Magico M Pros and the $70k Magico M3s), the Reference MkIIs are targeted quite specifically at one kind of listener and one only—the kind this magazine was dedicated to at its founding. If your taste runs to classical music, large-scale or small, or acoustic music from jazz to pop, then the Zellatons have certain virtues that other cone transducers—even other far more expensive cone transducers—don’t have (or don’t have to the same extent). If, on the other hand, you’re into rock, electronica, or other types of hard-driving amplified music and simply can’t live without the whip-crack transients and midbass slam that certain speakers deliver in abundance, you can do better (or, at least, substantially different) than the Reference MkIIs for a lot less money.
So, why would anybody in his or her right mind contemplate purchasing speakers that cost a fortune and have somewhat limited appeal? Well, for the two or three of you who are still reading with genuine interest (or morbid curiosity), let me see if I can come up with an answer.
To begin with, the Zellaton Reference MkIIs don’t sound like any other dynamic loudspeakers I’m familiar with. Indeed, at their best, they don’t sound like loudspeakers at all. They simply haven’t got the usual metal, plastic, paper, ceramic, diamond, or carbon-fiber cone-in-a-box sonic signature. For better (and a bit of worse, as you’ll see), they are almost as colorless as the air in your listening room. Indeed, if you were to blindfold yourself (as a few of my on-line critics would prefer I do—and gag myself while I’m at it) and then guess what you were listening to, you would probably say an unusually neutral, three-dimensional, deep-reaching, full-bodied electrostat, or, with select recordings of voices and instruments played back at the right volume levels, the real thing.
To explain why the Zellaton drivers are so exceptionally low in material coloration and so seamlessly matched from woofer through tweeter that they sound like a single-driver ’stat (or the real deal) requires a bit of a history lesson. And, as it turns out, only a few other companies still extant have a longer history than Zellaton.
Even though you’ve likely never heard of this little German marque (based in Munich), its pedigree dates back to June 9, 1930, when its founder, German engineer and physicist Dr. Emil Podszus, filed a patent on what was then the first “sandwich” cone driver.
To quote from my Hi-Fi+ colleague Alan Sircom’s excellent article on Zellaton (http://www.hifiplus.com/articles/meet-your-maker-zellaton/): “Podszus began working on loudspeaker drive units back…when electrical recording and replay were still in their infancy. Materials science of the 1930s was in its infancy too; materials we take for granted today, like PVC and polystyrene, were at the forefront of technological progress at the time, and inter-war Germany was one of the great centers of excellence in plastics development. In this period of intense growth, Dr. Emil Podszus set himself the task of improving the performance of loudspeaker units, both in terms of high-performance audio and the more pressing issue of loudspeakers within telephones.