The Ascendo System Z Loudspeaker
Ein sehr guter Lautsprecher
22 April 2003
Type: Three-way S.A.S.B. technology built on modular construction
Size: Loudspeaker 11″ W × 61″ H × 13 ” D; Stand 15″ W × 51″ H × 23″ D
Weight: 250 lbs. (242 lbs. without sand filled stand)
Impedance: 5 Ohms.
Sensitivity 87 dB 1W/m
High Frequency Unit:
One High Frequency Ribbon Tweeter (with toggle -switch for high and low damping-factor of amplifiers).
Low Frequency Unit:
One 8-inch SEAS midrange driver with phase plug
One 8-inch Kevlar bass driver loaded into enclosure with SASB technology (with toggle switch for high and low damping-factor of amplifiers).
Finish: Black Piano
From Germany With Love
Without fame, fanfare, hype or high praise, the System Z loudspeaker from German speaker builder Ascendo, showed up at my door via BAX Global delivery after spending close to a month sitting in U.S. Customs. In fact, the only noise I’ve heard anyone make about this impressive-looking transducer-I first heard about it from Singaporean distributor and friend Hideo Kitazawa-came from the driver who shouted “600 lb. parcel delivery for a Clement Perry!”
The Ascendo design team of Norbert Heinz and Jurgen Scheuring must certainly think we Americans live in castles with doors the size of airplane hangars. At first, I couldn’t get these Teutonic monsters to fit through my front door. The wooden shipping crates they arrived in were so big and so heavy (600 lbs!) that we were forced to open them on the street right in front of my house. Curious neighbors and nosy passersby would occasionally stop and stare, which I didn’t mind-just so long as they didn’t ask to come over asking for a listening session that includes their 24-karat gold DCC recording of Jim Nabors’ Greatest Hits. Believe me, I’ve had those recurring nightmares. Now if your home is regularly featured in such publications as “Audio Video Interiors” or “Architectural Digest,”you’ll have no trouble getting these babies into your house, but chances are you’ll need to call a couple of friends, some really big friends.
The first thing I noticed about the Ascendo System Z loudspeaker (System Z from here on), was that it’s actually a three-piece modular design, which makes for relatively easy moving and setup. This is a big deal, especially if you have to take them up and down stairs-which seems to always be my situation. Let me be the first to tell you though, that making multiple trips up two-flights of stairs was much easier on this ailing back of mine, than attempting one single dead-lift of my unwieldy 210 lb. Talon Khorus X. Either way, your back’s still gonna ache at the end of the day.
With the help of my long-time friend Stacy Spencer (I call him Spencer Stacy), I was able to carry the System Zs to my third floor listening room. I took a pause and caught my breath, before beginning the task of setup.
Now a word about Stacey; he’s been a frequent attendee of Bally’s gym. So much, in fact, that he’s transformed himself from a Steve Urkell lookalike, to a Herman Munster facsimile-minus the green tint, neck bolts and cheap black suit-in less than two years. Having a friend with the needed muscular physique to move heavyweights like the Ascendos and Talons around proved a blessing in disguise. Every audiophile deserves a Herman Munster-type buddy for special occasions such as these.
The very first thing I noticed while removing the System Zs from their crates was the weight of the planar tweeter. Ascendo chose this particular model (RT2HA, made by Hi-Vi Research) and modified and designed it in their own unique style, which made it unusually hefty at about nearly 60 lbs. The tweeter’s dedicated cabinet also houses the crossover in an isolated chamber. According to Scheuring,
“This helps against harmful resonance and vibrations. The cabinet was designed with a stainless steel cylinder which actually consumes resonant frequencies through its unique tuning technique.”
The key element to the Ascendo team choosing this type of planar tweeter came from this transducer’s special membrane, which is made of Kapton film and aluminum conductors, sandwiched between two rows of neodymium and barium ferrite bar magnets. This design is what allows its high-power handling capability, in addition to a low-end frequency cut-off.
The no-holds-barred approach to ridding the System Z of resonance lies in its optional steel stand (minus the stand, the price reduces by $4k and comes with a different tweeter enclosure). The nearly 4′ tall stand resembles a steel suspension bridge, with the “suspension” part cantilevering the tweeter section above and independent of the mid/woofer section via a 14″ steel cylinder that is attached to the rear of the tweeter enclosure. I find this idea-the expulsion of unwanted vibration induced distortions-quite clever and somewhat unique (the Goldmund Epilogue’s “Epiframe” has a comparable function). “This technique eradicates resonance between the high and mid/low enclosures in a no compromise approach,” assures the Ascendo designer. Located alongside this steel cylinder is a metric scale (in centimeters) to insure accurate measurement of the tweeter sections on each speaker.
The System Z employs what Ascendo calls S.A.S.B. low-frequency drive unit (or dynamic current-damped woofer and semisymmetrical bandpass) technology. Stromdynamisch, the German term for current-damped, allows for the 8″ SEAS Excel paper cone midrange, housed in a small dedicated sealed box, to remain electrically damped and matched in impedance with the internally hidden bass driver. An 8″ Kevlar bass driver, built face up inside the cabinet using Heinz’s patented bandpass loading technique, is said to ” … further ensure there would be no break-up in the critical crossover range” (around 100 Hz).
Setting up the mid/bass section was a cinch. The mid/woofer section rests on three supplied spikes in a manner that shows the level of attention that went into keeping this transducer resonance free. Two spikes are placed on the mid/woofer cabinet’s front and are designed to rest on the stand. The third spike, curiously enough, is designed to ‘hang’ from a bridge located on the front of the stand. This pendulum-type apparatus, located on the back center of the mid/woofer section, connects to the bridge support. This essentially floats the mid/woofer section on its front two feet and thus further keeps unwanted resonance at bay. This we shall see.
Heinz, speaking through marketing partner and digital maven, Jurgen Scheuring, asserts that most of the R&D finance went into designing their sophisticated crossover. “Using a typical 3rd order, with a constant voltage kernel, its acoustic slope is much more than 18dB/octave and rises to more than 30db/octave in critical bands,” touts Scheuring. He also swears by the crossover’s build quality, stating, “We used only the best parts available inside each individual enclosure to insure against any non-linearity.” Crossover points between the mid and bass are stated at 100 Hz, while the midrange extends up to 2.2 kHz before the planar-tweeter takes over and extends up to well over 25 kHz.
The recommended System Z cable hookup is bi-wire. Standard, single-run cable can be done by simply running a jumper from the woofer to the tweeter terminals. But I found that the System Z performed at its best when bi-amped. This gave me good reason to believe they also like power and, perhaps due to their 87dB efficiency, they can be a bit power hungry. An interesting feature is the toggle switch behind each enclosure with the letters VD-H (Verstärkerdämpfung hoch) and VD-N (Verstärkerdämpfung niedrig). Ascendo claims the switch settings will affect the speaker’s sensitivity, according to the damping factor of your amplifier (i.e. high damping amplifier = VD-H, low damping = VD-N which is normal). I tried each setting for many weeks and decided that the normal setting was the most musical for my tastes.
Finally… how does this thing sound?
Setup was accomplished by placing each System Z in the same position that I had previously placed my Talon Khorus Xs with perhaps a little less toe-in. I left the tweeters measuring only 1″ back from the mid/woofer section. This would be ideal according to the chart’s datasheet. Finally, everything was ready. I’ve been enjoying the newly tweaked Zanden Model 5000 MkII DAC partnered with the JubiLaeum CD transport, modified by Zanden’s Mr. Yamada himself. This combo has been showing me what digital can really sound like when done as classy (and expensive) as this. It would be unlawful if I didn’t add that this digital front-end rested on the new isolation rack from Acoustic Dream’s Bruce Featherling. At $6k, I have to admit that it is un-Godly expensive, but then again, it took me a major step in the right direction, musically. The sound is more organic and less mechanical than other equipment racks I’ve auditioned. Also alive and kicking in my system were the new and exciting Tact M2150 digital amplifiers (two pair), via the new statement cables that Analysis Plus will be releasing on audiophiles called the Oval Gold speaker cables and interconnects. The nice thing was that all these aforementioned components arrived well before the System Z did, therefore I had a very good indication of what each component sounded like on my reference Talon Khorus Xs. Needless to say, I was more than ready to hear the System Z.
To cut to the chase, the Ascendo System Z loudspeaker is, tonality-wise, simply the most musical loudspeaker I’ve heard. In the depiction of a recording’s natural space it has set a new sonic benchmark for this listener, literally right out of the box. My aural senses were granted new vistas into each recording I fed my digital front end. Whether it be Soul Sista Aretha Franklin singing Ain’t No Way or the Cowboy Junkies’ funky Lay it Down, and almost every song I could manage in between, the System Z allowed the music to flow in a way I’ve never heard. Spatially, an all-new sense of instrument height, depth and harmonic flow unfurled itself, no matter the music, date or genre. The System Z’s amazing ability to convey the pace, rhythm and timing-the quintessence if you will-of each recording was always first-class and has literally forced me to re-evaluate my listening preferences and even my reference equipment.
A track from the new Harmonia Mundi CD sampler entitlednouveautés [Harmonia Mundi Jan-Jun 2002], served as a perfect illustration of the System Z’s startling transparency, harmonic integrity and overall superiority. This CD is very well recorded, from the first track to the last. For instance, the second track, Madrigaux de Paolo da Firenze’s enchanting “Amor, deh dimmi,” comes out hitting the proverbial bullseye with natural tonality and spot-on imaging. As good as I knew it sounded, I actually had to take a second look at the disc to be sure it was the same one I played a dozen times before on the Talon Khorus Xs. The System Z’s midrange infused new life into this CD and showed me that what I was hearing was not just special but rare. NO loudspeaker I’ve ever heard transformed both the CD…and the listener.
The Khorus’ cabinet is as inert as one could ask. While the System Z has similar build quality, for whatever reason (perhaps due to the sealed-box midrange or the S.A.S.B. technology), this loudspeaker cannot claim the same rigidity as the Talons. When playing music, I placed my hand along the sides and found the cabinet quite alive. Duly noted. Yet, at the same time the music never sounded more texturally rich, tonally accurate or harmonically right. Go figure.
Many loudspeakers that attempt to purge all resonance, end up sounding emaciated, dry and/or cold. At best, you’re still going to perceive the materials’ resonant effect on the sound. If these materials have poor sonic character, cancel Christmas. It was only then that I began to realize how important and vital some resonance is to bringing a recording to full bloom. The guys over at Shun Mook spoke about this concept years ago in designing their Bella Voce Signature loudspeakers (see review in archives). Contrary to popular belief, being too inert can have its own set of problems. The sound of a violin or cello’s strings, without getting too complex, isn’t the only sound heard when struck by a bow. There is a resonance to the body of the instrument that attributes to the overall sound. The ability to bring that to life, is what makes the System Z sound so special.
Hey, $25k is a lot of bread to spend on ANYTHING besides building an addition to one’s home, and the Ascendo is no exception. But I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if this isn’t perhaps the only loudspeaker that would make me want to forego the addition on my house; it is simply that good. Granted, I’ve not owned every highly touted loudspeaker available; nor would I want to. But when the opportunity comes (and that’s been rare these days) to find a loudspeaker that can delineate space, allow the listener to virtually “see” performers on a holographic stage the way these loudspeakers can, you should close shop, stop your search, hop on the bandwagon and enjoy the ride. This is perhaps the highest praise I can give. Isn’t it what this hobby is supposed to be all about?
So then, if it’s that good, how does it compare?
Comparing this loudspeaker to my reference Talon Khorus X is unfair for two very valid reasons: one, at nearly $10,000 more, they are not in the same price range. And two, sonically, the Talon simply doesn’t compare. This doesn’t mean that the Talon isn’t a standout loudspeaker. I proudly held it as my reference for more than two years. It is still the best bass-producing loudspeaker I’ve heard. And while I should mention that you can crank the Ascendo quite loud too, it probably can’t reach the insane levels the Talon can, but then again, I don’t know of any loudspeaker that will play that loud without falling apart. Tierry Budge certainly made the consummate head banger of a loudspeaker in this design, no question.
That said, the System Z is no slouch in the lower bass regions either. But that’s not where it deserves its highest praise. This loudspeaker proved revelatory for what it does across the entire musical spectrum. The Ascendo’s bass is deep and very articulate, but not at the expense of its luscious palpable midrange. Moreover, its amazing treble response and delicacy will grab your attention; not just for what it does, but also for what it doesn’t do. There are simply no editorializing goings-on here. The Ascendo, due to its hidden woofer, fooled everyone into thinking its bass performance was coming from the midrange driver, and that the mid and treble was coming from its planar driver; that’s how smooth it sounds. The 1961 recording of Sunset, by Kenny Dorham from his Whistle Stop CD [Blue Note 7243-8-28978], sounded very UN-sixties-like when played through the System Z. The image palpability, harmonic cues, and instrument location came across with so much more bloom that the recording sounded more modern than I recalled. Almost too compliant in their response, the Talons propelled the sound into the room almost intrusively by comparison; instead of transporting you to the acoustic space the way the System Z does. It’s not that I find the Talon’s presentation offensive by comparison-that’s just the way Talon voices their sound. Some people may still choose the sound the Talon recreates, especially bass freaks. When I attempt to qualify their sound, I’m now under the notion that their cabinets might be a tad too inert, which effectively shortens overtones. This takes away from instruments sounding more real, and worse, prevents me from hearing into the recording’s true space. I don’t think the Talon’s are alone in this area and I still think they’re one of the best loudspeakers available. But to say the System Z didn’t reveal the Talon’s imperfection in this area would be a fib. Further, these are observations I could not have discovered without the System Z providing me this view. I’m enjoying the new scenery.
These observations have obviously changed my perception of not just how many loudspeaker German designers there are, but also how talented they obviously must be. The Audio Physic, MBL, Avantgarde and German Physiks, to name but a few, have grown in popularity over the years. Build quality, design and fit’n’finish have always been their trademark. Along with those traits, the System Z should also earn high marks for its innovative design and, more importantly, for what it seems to do best: play music. To recreate such high degrees of musicality from a relative newcomer only speaks volumes for the Ascendo design team. Hats off to Norbert Heinz for his obvious diligence and creativity.
The Ascendo System Z speaks the seldom-heard and often-misunderstood language that needs no interpreter. It is the language of the heart simply known as musicality. A new reference.
Greg Petan Testifies
“I’m in love, I’m all shook up!…” – Elvis Presley
A few months ago, Clement began singing the praises of the Ascendo System Z, like he was trying to reach the finals of “American Idol.” While Clement has sounded the alarm on many other products in the past, there was a seriousness in his tone this time around, that let me know it was time to venture across the state border, from Manhattan to New Jersey, and put my ears to this new find that has been keeping him up nights.
Armed with a cache of reference CD’s, we went to work. We began by listening to nearly the entire Cowboy Junkies’ disc, “Lay It Down.”Now, I have listened to this disc a thousand times and felt pretty confident that there were few, if any surprises left in this sonic and musical masterpiece. But never have I heard it like this. The System Z revealed such an enormous amount of spatial, textural and dynamic information, that it was as if hearing this music for the first time. The collective effect is one of slowing down the musical event in a way that allows the listener, at any given moment, to immerse one’s self in the event on an intimate level. The System Z reveals information on a microscopic level, yet does so with a completely musical foundation. Disc after disc only served to confirmed my initial impression.
This experience only goes to show that the state-of-the-art in speaker design is not only populated by well-established brand names, but also, as in the case of Ascendo, by a young up-and-comer capable of shaking up the high-end establishment with serious vigor. In these brutal economic times, this is a company I am really rooting for.
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