Like many longtime 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 made a giant step forward towards that goal at the end of 2018 with the addition of the remarkable Zellaton Stage loudspeakers to my reference system. As I indicated in my online preview at the time, the floorstanding, mid-sized, three-way Stage is a revelation, and in a couple of important sonic dimensions better than any loudspeaker I have heard in all my years. After living with the Stage for several more months, my appreciation of it has only grown. Upgrading other system elements in the meantime has also significantly increased its dramatic sonic strengths and diminished its minor shortcomings.
Over time, I’ve come to think of the Zellaton Stage as the Stradivarius of loudspeakers. Each Stage is exquisitely and painstakingly hand-crafted, is one-of-a-kind, benefits from multi-generational know-how, and reproduces sound gloriously—arguably better in some respects than any other loudspeaker.
My first experience with the three-way, floorstanding Zellaton Stage was at the 2017 Munich High End Show, where my colleague and friend, Jonathan Valin, encouraged me to listen to them. The Zells were mated with powerful YS Sound electronics and the remarkable Schnerzinger cables and Giga Protectors (see sidebar). 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 finest of 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.”
The Zellaton Stage breaks new ground in bringing one closer to the absolute sound. If you 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 through music’s entire range, the Stage should be of special interest. Fortunately, it avoids other limitations of the original Quad in 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. Admittedly, the Stage (at $90k/pair) costs many 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 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 soundstage; 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-back cabinet design and superb (and costly) electrical parts.
Zellaton’s unique rigid-foam diaphragm technology was developed by Dr. Emil Podszus, who filed a patent on his sandwich cone driver in 1930. It features a “lightweight, torsionally stiff rigid-foam diaphragm with ideal unit pulse response.” Dr. Podszus’ grandson, Manuel Podszus, continues the family tradition of creating these amazing drivers by hand. A multiple-composite rigid foam is located behind an extremely thin aluminum film. The tweeter’s diaphragm is only 0.006mm thick and weighs a mere 0.18 grams. Unfortunately, these drivers cannot be mass-produced, and the hand-crafted diaphragms alone take weeks to build. The thin, lightweight diaphragms and foam substrate are very difficult to work with and have to meet Zellaton’s demanding standards. The rejection rate is very high and is the primary reason these sonic wonders are so scarce.
The Stage has the most seamless integration of any multi-driver speaker I have heard, rivaled by some full-range electrostatics, such as the large Sound Lab Ultimate loudspeakers. Fortunately, the Stage has a much smaller footprint than the large ’stats and is far easier to drive (although the Zell is at its best with high-current amplifiers), and has greater low-end extension and dynamic range. 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.”
The intricate cabinet of the Stage is also unique and executed exquisitely. It is a multi-layered, matrix-braced, open-back design allowing the Stage to breathe with no compression of interior air flow. The enclosure offers many of the benefits of dipoles within a cabinet structure. The Stage includes oversized, silver-coated-copper Mundorf binding posts, which I found to be very effective, ensuring a tight connection with the speaker cable spade or bare wire. The cabinet is virtually silent with wall thicknesses up to 68mm, allowing the phenomenal drivers to do their job without interference from spurious vibrations. Additionally, the Stage is drop-dead gorgeous. The enclosure coating, painting, and polishing process takes months, and the finish is beautiful. Every loudspeaker undergoes a final week of fine-tuning and stress testing.
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 Coherent internal wiring, a revised Duelund Coherent 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 have been highly engaging and satisfying—as well as 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 (from power orchestral to chamber music to solo instrumental), jazz, acoustic instruments, electric guitars, and voices of all stripes.
Listening to chamber music through the Stage can really make one think that the performers are in the room. The second movement of a Harmonia Mundi recording of Schubert’s Piano Trio in E flat, op. 100 (it’s the haunting music used to such good effect by Kubrick in the movie Barry Lyndon) arrays three performers around the stage, and via the Stage you’d think you could touch them. The cello sounds rich, full-bodied, and coherent across its range, the piano’s melody sails beautifully over the accompaniment, and the violin’s sound is breathtaking. Micro- and macro-dynamics are handled so well that you not only hear all the fine details in the quiet moments, but the dynamic peaks are also negotiated without any stress or strain.
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.
Listening to one of the most iconic and controversial singers of all-time, Maria Callas, was another peak experience through the Zells. On Maria Meneghini Callas sings Operatic Arias by Puccini [EMI], the Stage let me feel like I was able to bond with Callas and experience her emotional swings without being distracted by any extraneous colorations or discontinuities. Her palpable presence made it seem like it was just the two of us! It’s wonderful to delve so deeply into the performance, enriching the listening experience.
The Stage doesn’t just sound palpable and grain-free on female vocals, it also excels on male vocals. These can be somewhat difficult to reproduce naturally in typical multi-driver speaker systems as the male voice’s range traverses both the midrange and woofer drivers. On lesser speakers, even those costing several times more, one can often hear some midbass bloat or chestiness in the crossover region, but not with the Zells. On Schubert’s Winterreise [Proprius] Erik Saedén’s voice was pure and uncolored throughout his range, avoiding added sibilance or midbass bloat. The Zells made this wonderful recording transcendent and absolutely breathtaking.
The Stage is equally adept on male vocals in all genres of music and is not limited to classical. Sam Cooke’s velvety smooth voice soared on Nightbeat [Analogue Productions/RCA] and was rich in timbre and highly engaging. Here, too, the Stage put him in my listening room. Two MoFi Ultradisc One-Step LPs, with their very low surface noise, were also models of clarity, immediacy, fine detail retrieval, and smoothness. Listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Trouble Water and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On I marveled at the artists’ outstanding performances while also appreciating their uncolored presentation through the Stage.
Although the Stage excels in the reproduction of acoustic instruments and voices, it can also kick butt with rock music. I have never heard one of my all-time favorite performers, Jimi Hendrix, sound better. On a Hendrix compilation of some of his best works, Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix [Legacy], I heard more fine details via the Stage than I’ve ever heard on highly familiar tracks. Mitch Mitchell’s drums were blazingly fast with ultra-clear transients supported by solid, articulate and extended bass from Noel Redding on “Manic Depression.” Better still, Hendrix’s voice was reproduced without any grain or added sibilance, and his guitar playing was not only articulate but also hypnotic. It made me feel like I was at the recording session and helped make up a bit for missing him at the Fillmore East prior to his tragic, and untimely, death.
While this is a remarkable full-range speaker with bass extension to a reported 24Hz, it does not plumb the subterranean depths. If you’re looking for concussive bass with a lot of air moved in the lowest octave you may need to look elsewhere. Although the pipe organ in Virgil Fox: The Fox Touch [Crystal Clear Records] was nicely extended, the Stage didn’t move as much air down low as my REL G1 subwoofer does. However, I never felt the need to use the REL, 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.
The Zellaton Stage will reward you as you improve the quality and purity of your associated system elements. No, it is not ruthlessly revealing like some speakers, but you’ll immediately notice if its stunning transparency or absolute sonic purity have been diminished or enhanced. To get the most out of the Stage, you’ll want to use electronics, sources, and cabling as uncolored and as transparent as it is. After switching to the latest generation of Conrad-Johnson electronics, the Stage’s sonic purity and transparency increased still further. This appears to be a match made in heaven, and it’s no wonder CJ’s new CEO, Jeff Fischel, owns Zellatons. (I plan to review the amazing CJ ART 150 amplifier in an upcoming issue.) Using Cardas Clear cables and power cords also enhanced the performance of the Stage, letting more fine details emerge and broadening the soundstage while improving focus. Lastly, I used Schnerzinger’s highly effective Giga Protectors throughout the review period, as well as its amazing cables, albeit briefly (see sidebar).
The price of the hand-made Zellaton Stage is out of reach for most of us and that’s a shame. However, it’s far less than the price of a handmade Stradivarius or Guarneri del Gesu violin—other masterpieces of the acoustic arts. A few weeks ago, I bought a Mega-Millions lottery ticket when the jackpot was very large. Riding home in the car, I let myself dream about what I’d do with the winnings if I lucked out. Besides helping other family members and paying off my mortgage, one of the first things I thought about was snagging the Zellaton Stage—it’s the stuff of dreams.
In conclusion, 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.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Three-way floorstanding speaker system
Driver complement: One 1.6″ full-cone tweeter, one full-cone 7″ mid/woofer, one full-cone 9″ woofer
Frequency response: 24Hz–40kHz
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 18″ x 46″ x 25″
Weight: 220 lbs. each
United Home Audio UHA-Phase 12 tape deck; Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L.101 turntable with Tri-planer U-II and Kiseki Purple Heart cartridge; Conrad-Johnson TEA1-S3 and Audio Alchemy PPA-1 phono preamplifiers; ModWright-Oppo BDP-105 digital player; Mytek Brooklyn DAC; Conrad-Johnson GAT, MFA Venusian (Frankland modified) and BAT VK-33SE preamplifiers; Hegel HD80 integrated amplifier; Conrad-Johnson ART 150 amplifier, and BAT VK76SE and PrimaLuna DiaLogue HP monoblock amplifiers; Magnepan 3.7i and Quad ESL-57 (PK modified) loudspeakers; Silver Circle Audio TCHAIK6 power conditioner; Shunyata Research Alpha Digital power cable; Cardas Clear interconnects, power chords, and speaker cables, Nordost Tyr2 cables and power cords; AudioQuest Niagara interconnects and Metro speaker cables; Critical Mass Systems amplifier stands
If you’ve ever heard Zellaton speakers demonstrated at high-end audio shows, you’ve probably noticed several small boxes with antennae sitting in the room alongside thick off-white cables. Both boxes and cables are from a German company called Schnerzinger. Along with other system elements, these unique products have contributed to the system’s multiple accolades, including “Best Sound—Cost No Object” awards from me and several of my TAS colleagues.
For more than three decades, the Schnerzinger team has scientifically worked on new methods of transmitting energy and of eliminating the harmful effects of RFI, EMI, and other sources of electrical interference. Throughout the review period, I used a set of Schnerzinger Giga Protectors to great effect. A set consists of two pieces: one small transmitter box with an antenna and one small receiver box with an antenna. Derived from military technology, the system protects the audio signal from “high-frequency interfering fields.” The Giga Protectors are designed to cover a frequency range of up to 5GHz, and their nine channels are easily adjusted, via switches, to allow the user to dial-in the right tuning.
When turned on and optimized for my room, high-frequency grain was eliminated, the noise floor dropped, and there was an increase in clarity and fine detail retrieval. The performers became more palpable and the soundstage broader and deeper. Fortunately, there were no deleterious side effects on high-frequency extension. Indeed, the timbre of instruments improved as the overtones were reproduced with greater purity.
One of my “go-to” recordings of female voice is Mirella Freni: French & Italian Opera Arias [EMI]. After I switched the Giga Protectors on, the timbre of her voice sounded somewhat richer and more ethereal, and more fine details and ambient cues emerged. These are somewhat subtle changes, but important if you want to get the most out of your system. For example, one day I inadvertently forgot to turn on the Giga Protectors. While listening, I thought that something was missing from the system, as its stunning performance had been somewhat diminished. It was then that I noticed the Giga Protectors had not been activated. By flipping one switch on each box, the system’s magic was restored.
Towards the end of the review period, I received some Schnerzinger interconnects and speaker cables. These, too, yielded an increase in clarity, transparency, and fine detail retrieval, but also improved dynamic range and soundstage width and depth. Schnerzinger uses a proprietary cable technology it calls Atomic Bonding to minimize audio signal transmission losses and sound-damaging dropouts, while increasing audio signal density. As I understand it, the cable conductors are specially formatted for several months to create an extremely stable structure for true and accurate signal transmission. In short, more of the subtle audio information gets through.
Does the Zellaton Stage sound glorious without the Schnerzinger Giga Protectors and cables? Yes, it definitely does, but that reference-quality performance can be further improved by the addition of these highly effective Schnerzinger products. They help make a great system sound even better.
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