Tekton Design Seas Pendragon vs. ZU Audio Essence
“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” Bertrand Russell.
Why is it that we disregard a quiet voice within ourselves that tells us we should go in one direction and yet we follow where others in greater numbers are traveling? Luckily, we possess wisdom gained from experience, thus, recently I had to perform a U-turn in my audio journey. Often times I think many audio hobbyists get caught up with parsing the words of other reviewers, trying to ascertain if our point of reference will line up similarly. While nothing beats first hand trial, not all of us can easily afford to shell out funds to make side by side component comparisons in our own home. This is doubly true of specialty brands where shipping in of itself can be cost prohibitive. Compromises are always made and jogging right behind those are the fruit of consequences…
Having the opportunity to buy and sell used gear alleviates much of the buyer’s remorse associated with bad purchases, not to mention avoiding steep losses on depreciation. The flip side to this used market is scarcity and timing. When one is new to this hobby, how do they know what they truly want, how will each component sound in their home and how can they figure out synergy without trial and error? Unavoidable! Reflecting on my real starting point with stereo, terms such as ‘bright, dark, recessed, and fatiguing’ frightened me toward the middle ground. The middle ground is where I safely stayed, in my cavern of naivety, for a couple of years. Only after a few component changes here and there did I enter a period of frantic and frenetic change.
The benefits today are absolutely obvious, even my wife whom like many other audiofool wives thought I was insane, yet understands the end results are spectacular. I took a self-funded crash course to gain knowledge and recognition. Dark and recessed terms now make sense to me as I sampled products from ADS, Polk Audio and Marantz. Moreover, I now know what absolute bright and fatiguing sound like thanks to a couple brands I will not mention. I took solace in the fact that each amplifier or speaker I brought home would ultimately bring me one step closer to identifying the exact sound I want and appreciate most. Reviewer’s nomenclature held greater sway as I could commiserate with experiences and epiphanies. Furthermore, another process by elimination offered itself; knowing specific preferences of reviewers allowed me to narrow down opinions that didn’t match my trials.
18 pairs of speakers later, I learned that I prefer lively and dynamic over recessed and polite. Speed and agility appeal to me over composure and absolute balance. Sadly, I ignored my gut instinct to try a specific domestic brand that could have ended my journey early. Moreover, had I listened to that inner voice three years earlier, I may have skipped the experience of 15 pairs of said speakers. This brings me to the main topic for this review, I pit brand new, semi-customized Tekton Design Seas Pendragons against a pair of 6 year old ZU Audio Essence loudspeakers. I was thoroughly shocked as I was pleased by the comparison.
Early in my transformation from passive music listener to active stereo hobbyist, the rambunctious attitude at ZU Audio caught my attention. Sean Casey and his crew where already established as a counter culture to traditional hi-fi and they appeared quite content with that epithet. One aspect to ZU would constantly and consistently pop up in reviews, either their listeners absolutely loved their speakers or there was a profound and rare hatred of their products. Wow, being anti-establishment is one thing, however, you still need to produce and sell enough units to keep the lights on and your website current. ZU must be doing something correct after 15 years!
I quietly logged all mention of ZU into the recesses of my mind, as a warm ember silently glowed. Early in 2014 I decided enough was enough, I must get my hands on a pair. I sent a down payment to have a new pair of Omen Def’s built. Fate had a different take, my daughter ended up with a dental emergency and daddy’s disposable cash evaporated as did my chances for a ZU product (mind you, these do not come up used very often). Forced to give up on the idea for a while, I turned back to the used market to satiate my appetite.
No less than 14 pairs later, it is late August 2015. I wanted off this merry go round, yet I still wasn’t convinced to dive back into the commitment required to fork out $3,800 for the latest version of Omen Def’s. Through endless review perusal, Eric Alexander was making a splash with his low budget, high value speaker lines. It was easy to see many of the parallel opinions of Tekton Design lining up with ZU Audio products. After all, both use Eminence drivers and very sparse networks. I called Eric Alexander, covered off on my listening preferences and ancillary gear. Both of us agreed the Seas Pendragon’s would be my best bet. I decided to go one better and asked for upgraded Clarity Cap’s, cabinets painted British Racing Green and added Soundocity 2.12” outriggers for a grand total build of $2583.00, I thought this would be a terrific savings over the ZU’s considering they charge $1,000 for custom paint. The only price option that really bothered me with Tekton was paying for grills – really, this should be a built in cost, but I digress.
My BRC Seas Pendragon’s arrived just under two weeks later. Packaging was fairly good, not ZU Audio good, but they arrived safe from the typically exuberant man handling done at UPS. Out of the box I wasn’t sure what to think. First thing to catch the eye was a different 8” woofer than those on previous Seas Pen’s I’ve listened to. Upon closer inspection, there was the tiny logo in the rubber surround present, so still a Seas product, but as Eric does not send any literature with his speakers, I was left to call him and ask what gives. The new Seas units have fixed poles, heavy copper ring and a free air resonance of 29hz. I did not get an exact answer from Eric regarding this change beyond my finding the spec information via Seas own manufacturer website. Second ‘woops’ out of the box, no grills! So much for calling your customers to give them a heads up and mitigating any misperceptions or anxieties; clearly after two years of reprisals on the internet about communication and lead times, Tekton Design still has some demons to exercise. Another email to Eric and the grills arrived about 3 days after. Last quibble was the finish. I admit, I paid for what I got, a value oriented paint job reveals the, ah hem, efficiencies with application and consistency. I would have crucified ZU had their $1,000 paint upgrade looked like Tekton’s, but at 1/5 for optional cost, who am I to complain?
It was difficult trying to repress the beginning stages of buyer’s remorse….had Eric not been Johnny on the spot with return communication, this review would have been written very different.
My listening room is an odd shaped living room. With all previous reviews, this is the first at my new home, one where I finally broke down and succumbed to California over taxation. The new listening room is nothing like the last, a bit finicky and difficult to decide with final placement. Moderately sized and rectangular, total width is 16’ by 23’ deep. The ceiling angles in a cathedral fashion up to the left with clerestory windows (Special Note: this is probably the only time in my life I will reference clerestory in a sentence, so there you have it). There is a fire place in the back right hand corner, angled out with decorative stone and oak hearth. The long wall to the right has a large 10’ slider, flanked by one set of windows overlooking the balcony and foothill views. To the left, there is another 10’ opening for the dining area and kitchen access. The front wall I chose to use, where the very left is open and I only have 11’ to work with.
Placement was a demonstrable physical exercise. At 70 lbs. apiece, my biceps and legs would endure well over 40 repetitions before settling. My hats off to Soundocity, their 2.12” spiked outriggers were robust and proved effective at biting down deep into the cut Berber. Each adjustment required completely lifting the speakers straight up to execute any minute change. The goal with placement is to emphasize soundstage without sacrificing imaging and depth. After six days of experimentation, the byproduct was 30” from the back wall, 9.5’ spaced between center cones and 13’ to the listening position, just slight toe in.
A proper break-in is a big belief of mine, call me irrational, foam and seethe all you want, too many components have changed sonic signatures with play time in my presence, especially tubes. At about the 200 hour mark, bass was very impressive, probably the most impressive aspect of the Seas Pen’s. My First Watt F6 has plenty of gusto for what it takes to drive the 95 db Pen’s to foundation shaking levels. Lorde’s “Royals” is an easy test track for bass extension and the new 8” Seas implemented are good as advertised. They drive deep; producing prodigious bass compared to a former pair of modified and updated Klipsch Cornwall’s sporting 15” Eminence drivers. I did not hear any port chuffing, I did witness obvious cone movement with the wick cooking hot. These particular Seas have 20mm of movement and I would agree, even under moderate levels, movement was noticeable at a side glance. I operated the Tekton’s with the grills on and off, no cone break-up was detected from my listening position during testing.
The top end has sparkle with great vertical dispersion thanks to the triple stacked tweeters. The Seas Pen’s are odd with their MTTTM configuration. I will admit some hash at first break in that has diminished greatly with the passing hours. When I first plugged in the Pen’s I had an Esoteric AI-10 integrated amp with onboard DAC. Not a slouch of a unit at $5,000, yet, clearly a bad companion with the Pen’s. With my trusty Acer M5 laptop working server duty, signal passed via Cardas USB to a Bryston BUC-1 converter and then coax to the Esoteric. This combination was far too analytical, dry and fatiguing for me. With just three to four songs at moderate playback, the combination proved too much (shades of the Axiom’s were coming back to haunt me). On a side note, this was my second foray with class D amplification and my second disappointment. When one doesn’t want to listen to their stereo, this hobby is doomed…I had to make a big change and quick.
Once again, lady luck smiled through US Audio Mart and I picked up a Pilot Run First Watt F6 (deserves an entire review of its own, for which Mr. Srajan Ebean at 6 Moons thoroughly covered) with the power Jfets and not the Mosfets. Next up, The Music Room in Colorado had a super rare, one owner Audio Logic MXL34 Tube Dac. Are you kidding me!?! Those who say brand new modestly priced DAC’s today are far superior to those of 5 years or older are full of monkey dung. I’ve had the latest Bryston, McIntosh, Bel Canto and SOtM in my rack, and all but the SOtM was completely bested by the Audio Logic unit. Add one Modwright SWL 9.0se for preamp duty and now the Tekton Seas Pen’s are far happier.
Now for the plot twist…
An irresistible deal presents itself in the guise of ZU Audio Essence for just less than a third of their price when new in 2009. No, not the Omen Def’s, but what better way to also kill another audio bucket list item by checking off experiencing what ribbon tweeters sound like? Back to that timing thing in used audio – either it works out one month and all the stars align, or you wait six more months for the next passing blue moon. I was having a blue cheese Sunday!
Waiting for the ZU’s to arrive; I familiarized myself with the Seas Pen’s hooked up to all the new gear. Sound stage was excellent, better job of integrating across from right to left with tubes in the signal path. There was still a bit of emphasis in LF to HF where the middle is there or isn’t. Three tweeters pulling midrange duty has its limitations, sonically not big as administered, I do not want to state this as some major drawback, more of a sonic flavoring tipped toward other frequency ranges. I’ve experienced this with a pair of Totem Acoustic Element Fires, which are my all-time favorite stand mount monitor. I think it fair to guess the ZU will already have a leg up on the Pen’s given the strangely modified full range 10.3” Eminence driver. The Pen’s are 52” tall with the outriggers and the driver array lends to great top to bottom dispersion, however, side to side movement collapses the sweet spot drastically.
The ZU Essence arrived after five days from Chicago to Northern California. The boxes looked like they took a detour to Tibet and came back via the Bering Strait. Alluding back to that excellent ZU packaging, the Tekton’s would not have fared this well in their boxes given the size of dents and punctures in the ZU boxes. Furthermore, the ZU’s have a nifty metal tin that covers the main drivers for safe travel, the Tektons have under two inches of basic Styrofoam to keep the main drivers from eminent danger. Hook up is a cinch, using the Cardas compression binding post’s, what fantastic hook ups for bare wire or spades, of course banana’s need not apply.
Because the ZU bass loading scheme is different, a la a smart plinth with a small air gap on all sides to compliment the transmission type loading, one can theoretically place them much closer to the back wall. Unlike the two fist sized ports out back on the Tektons, I was able to push the Essence 18” from the back wall and gain back a foot of my living room. This was the only change in placement; both speakers were still 9.5’ apart and I pulled the couch up a couple inches to compensate for increase listening distance.
The first song played on the ZU’s wasn’t done with much thought or planning, after all, first shot in the dark, I cleared my mind of expectations and as I did not want any biases to take root. I am not sure how many seconds went by when I just about said ‘holy crap’ out loud. I’m not sure three songs passed before I reached out to an audio buddy down the road from me and told him to get up to my house if he could, like now! My last review of the SOtM SDP-1000 DAC with vintage speakers was a lengthy homage to audiophile speak. In it I describe how audio playback quality exacts a certain level of respect for proper descriptive vocabulary. Here again, I had to come to grips with this mutual relationship, these ZU’s were forcing me to alter my points of reference and abandon the rhetoric thrown at them. They were unlike any pair of speakers I have heard before.
My true and honest first thought was thinking how the ZU sound like a fabulous bookshelf speaker with terrific bass. With my friend over only an hour after set up, he noticed the difference just as quickly. Texture! We both had this word in mind to describe the Essence. The ZU exhibit this textural quality to music with inner detail that is nothing if not lovely to listen to. Dramatic and dynamic! I played a track from Scottish Moors by Jeff Victor (1996) which features ambient rain and thunderclaps. BOOM, absolutely intoxicating dynamics. It wasn’t looking good team Tekton. Disclosure alert! Okay, fair practice dictate that I mention that in 2009, the Essence cost $5,000 to acquire through dealer networks before ZU pulled the plug on the program. Even under their direct to consumer marketing, one still had to fork out $3,600 plus shipping – so all things being equal, had I not received the Tekton Seas Pendragons on Sale, their original retail cost with options was maxed at $3003. Is this close enough of a gap to call an apple an apple? Since both are direct to consumer businesses, I tend to say yes.
Before the Essence arrived, I did the typical audiophile finger biting via looking up any review I could locate. Just like years past, there were individuals whom love their Essence and there are those who not only dislike the ZU’s, they appear to exhibit an irrational hatred for them and the company in general (some went so far to say they shouldn’t be in business…ouch). One such reviewer’s tirade was laced with expletives. Both I and my friend had read that review and after hearing the ZU’s live, dismissed him as a crackpot with an axe to grind.
The second and probably most valuable lesson the used ZU’s taught me, paper measurements are nothing but a generalized idea of helping one with what to expect and for component matching. I read one review where a third party commenter lambasted the tester because he didn’t dismiss the Essence for a bass suckout region in the audible spectrum. Well, to that I say, isn’t the sum of the total performance what makes for a likeable speaker? I have owned speakers with massively complex crossovers and four drivers dedicated to handle separate frequencies, sure it measured well, was mostly flat and balanced top to bottom, but in no way were they as fun or dynamic to listen to as the ZU Essence. Take your measurements to your own forum and stuff ‘em…this hobby is personal and the only one that needs to be happy is the owner.
So, back to the Seas Pen’s vs. ZU Essence. I gave it a couple weeks and pushed the Tekton’s back in place to see if I would change my mind on any given point. After a time of adjustment, I played two tracks that sum up the majority of my music collection, one from Buckethead and the other from Yo Yo Ma – The Goat Rodeo Sessions. From the album Colma, track titled “For Mom” (16/44 Flac) the Tekton’s still exhibited a narrow left to right sweet spot, despite having a tube preamp and tube DAC in place. Bass quality again made itself known right away, but now it was a little intrusive, a bit overemphasized if you will. Detail was very good, great guitar tone with nice depth. The drum thwacks had good authority and I could not pick on any one element outside of that limited off axis listening. On “Here and Heaven” from the Goat Rodeo Sessions (24/88 Flac), I actually didn’t write anything down for the Tekton’s. All was well; Aoife O’Donnovan’s voice had pleasing space around her in conjunction with the ensemble. Cello, Bass, Mandolin and Banjo were well delineated with zero smearing, of course this piece was chosen more for its intimacy vs. bombast or outright extremes; I have some heavy rock for which I do not like to push hard through the Tekton’s.
On the ZU side of the equation, I easily found for what it adds rather than what the Tekton’s subtract. Again that word came back, texture! For me, the inner details uncovered by the ZU’s make it my speaker of choice. On Colma, the drums sound more realistic, there is no lack of bass given up to two 8”’s versus one ten. Speaking of the ZU bass, LF integration is absolutely first rate at this price; I know quality components make or break this aspect, my system synergy hits a home run with the Essence. If anything, there is just a little more of everything good. The ZU’s disappear where the Tekton’s slightly bigger bulk cannot hide. The ribbon tweeter on the ZU is just too much for the three soft domed phase plugged units on the Tekton to compete with. Chris Thiles Mandolin is fleshed out, micro picking noises are more pronounced, but not in a clinical or grating fashion, they are just there to let you know he is only a few feet away from you. What FUN!
The bottom line for this comparison is one of a historical context in my audio journey, none of the conventional wisdom we are supplied was true to this specific case. If you want something different that isn’t upon the well-trodden path, you need to disregard cold, detached measurements. One has to be prepared to illicit dirty looks and snide comments from audiofools. I have not found the ZU sound to be like any of the previous 17 pairs of speakers I have owned (let alone all the demo’s), and for me, it is a sound which checks more boxes on my list, including ones I did not know existed.
The Tekton’s are good speakers for what they represent at the $2300 price point (just don’t bother with special paint requests, save the $200), and they are much better than any off the shelf units from BestBuy type retailers. In order to sell my Tekton’s, I will pay a hefty price on depreciation, which also went against my gut instinct to stick with used only. As I will end up letting these go for probably $500 less than I paid, the new owner would in fact be picking up a fabulous deal, which alters and levels the playing field against more expensive products. Furthermore, I ended up liking the Seas Pendragon's more than my fully updated Klipsch Cornwall's, which is saying a lot.
Lastly, for a full contradiction of my theme, if I started where I believed I should with ZU three years ago, I would not have learned to appreciate the level of sound better components supply. My journey is personal, so is yours, don’t let a snarky reviewer or electrical engineer dissuade you from trying a product. Now if I could just find a used pair of ZU Definition MK IV’s at 1/3 their original price……
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