Review: Zu Omen Defs vs. Tekton Pendragons

I have been interested in hearing a comparison between these two speakers for quite some time, and recently came upon the opportunity to do just that. I have owned two pairs of Omen Defs for several months now (one upgraded and one stock pair), and recently purchased the review pair of Pendragons from the ‘parttimeaudiophile’ Scot. I have had the Pendragons for several weeks now, and have tweaked the setup such that I think they have reached most of their potential.

Zu Omen Def


Tekton Pendragons

First off, I am not a professional reviewer, just an avid audiophile of about 25 years. I am not interested in starting a ‘war’ with those who may prefer one speaker over the other, I just want to point out my findings for those who may be looking at these 2 speakers and are looking for differences between them. I have a modest system — a pair of Wyred 4 Sound SX-500 amps (modified by Wyred with upgraded components), driven directly by a Wyred DAC 2. Music is via a Squeezebox Touch. All cabling is from Audience (AU24, with the speaker cables being the ‘e’ version). For multi-channel and video purposes, I have an Oppo BDP-93, a Marantz AV7500, and additional Wyred mono SX-1000 amps. The center and surround channels are also from Zu (an Omen center and the stock Omen Defs as the surround speakers).

Several months ago I was forced to sell my beloved Tyler Acoustics Decade D1 loudspeakers as my wife and I are fostering small children, and it became very apparent that those ‘shiny round things’ (even when hidden behind a grill) are just too tempting for little hands. I reluctantly sold off my Tyler system, and was looking at possibly turning to some in-wall speakers. During this search, I saw some Zu speaker ads, and noticed they came with plastic covers to cover the woofers — this looked to be exactly what I needed. I quickly read all the reviews I could find, and decided that a pair of Omen Defs would work nicely in my room (15′ x 33′ x 8′ loft area). I contacted Zu and soon a new pair of Black Ghost Omen Defs arrived.

As any audiophile who gets a new toy, I wrestled the big boxes upstairs to the loft area as soon as FedEx delivered them, unboxed them and quickly hooked them up to see if I had made a really bad decision (not that there really is a bad choice with Zu, as they have a 60 day money back guarantee). The first song I always play is “Your Latest Trick” by Dire Straits — I bet I have heard this song 3 or 4 hundred times. Wow, what a different sounding speaker. From the Tyler presentation, which is like that of a recording studio, I was transferred to the concert hall. I finally understood what the ‘Zu sound’ was that people kept talking about. I had never heard such an open sound. Dire Straits were right there in the room with me — it felt like I could get up, walk a few feet, and shake hands with them. The huge, open sound of the sax, the vocal, the guitars was different than anything I had ever heard. There was a ‘thereness’ that really captivated me. After recovering from the initial shock, I started moving through my music collection and experienced the same open, live sound with any type of music I threw at the Defs.

Once I had adjusted to their sound, I did start to notice that the bass did not go as deep as I had hoped. It was tight, but did not seem to provide the foundation that I was accustomed to with the Tylers. Also, there was a little excessive ‘sss’ sound with some female vocals, especially Martina McBride’s “God’s Will.” I talked with the Zu guys (a very helpful bunch) and they assured me that it would take a few hundred hours for the Defs to break in. So, I let them run 24/7 for about 3 weeks, and during this time, did in fact find the bass to start developing and the highs to smooth out.

After about a month, I began the process of really trying to dial in the speakers with the room. This is one part of the process that can be a little frustrating. The Omen Defs sound very good just about anywhere I plopped them down — imaging was very good, tone was excellent, but the bass was just not coming together as I had hoped. They still seemed to be a little bass shy, and it seemed to be a little out of balance with the superb midrange and highs. I read forums from other owners, and it seemed that the ‘gap’ between the speaker and the floor (or carpet in my case) was absolutely critical for dialing in the bass. I had mine on spikes about 5/8″ off of the carpet, so I started to adjust the gap down a little. At about 3/8″, things sounded quite a bit better (really difficult to see how 1/4″ could make such a difference, but it did!), but still didn’t seem like I was getting the best out of them. I used Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” (the last 45 seconds or so) and Rick Braun’s “Cadillac Slim” to work on the bass. I tinkered around about a week, adjusting the spikes and moving the speakers around the room, but never felt like I had hit the sweet spot.

A couple of days later, I was poking around in the garage and found some excess MDF board crammed into a corner. I had an idea, so I cut a couple of pieces into 14″ squares and placed them under the Defs. Wow, now we are talking. Suddenly the bass took on a new depth and power. Now I had a near full-range speaker, outside of the deepest of bass (I am a bass freak, so a sub is pretty much mandatory for me). My room is such that there is a bass ‘suckout’ at the listening position around 40Hz, so a sub really helps smooth that out. But with the MDF slabs underneath the Omen Defs, I was getting bass down to low 30s (I measured down about 4 db at 31.5 Hz, dropping off very fast after that).

After fiddling some more, I ended up with the Defs tilted slightly back, about 3/8″ gap between the speakers and the MDF slabs, toed in to where the speakers cross about 3′ behind my head. The speakers are a little over 9′ apart (they seem to like a wide spread) and I sit just short of 11′ away. They are about 5′ from the back wall, and about 24″ from the side walls to the front of the speaker. After finally getting them positioned well in my room, the Omen Defs provide the most convincing sound of any speaker I have ever heard. There is a magic in a full range driver speaker that has to be heard to be appreciated. Vocals are absolutely phenomenal — clear, full, up front, and forceful. Guitars are just like at a concert (to be expected since the driver is based off of the Eminence driver). Soundstage is huge — both wide and deep. Even my wife, who can’t understand why so many ‘boxes’ keep coming and leaving our house was impressed. “The singer is right here in the room with us.”

The Defs sound equally well on all types of music. I am not really a country music fan, but my son has started to like some country stuff (met a ‘girl’ that likes it, so you know how that goes). Listening to country vocals on the Defs is really an experience. I am not sure I would say vocals are over-emphasized, but they really take the focus of the music with the Zus. Absolutely stunning. The Zus evoke more emotion from me than any other speaker I have ever heard. Again, such a different presentation from any other speaker I have heard as well. Another obvious benefit is the Defs will play LOUD. I mean, really LOUD! And they do so without breaking up. They are so clean and fast that I often find myself listening to music at a much higher volume than I normally would. Not that I need to — the speakers sound terrific at low volumes as well — but because I can — the Zus do not show signs of stress till way past a level that is not dangerous to the neighbors!

I listen mainly to rock and jazz music, and the Defs are fantastic. They convey the power and intensity of the music. My son is a drummer, and he actually laughed when he listed to a drum solo by Neil Peart — it sounded so real to him. The Defs are not the last word in high end detail (the Tylers were more detailed), but they do not mask anything either. I hear all the details in the music, but it is just not as prominent — the midrange takes precedence. I even listened to some classical music (not really my cup of tea, but I have some so I can at least appear ‘cultured’), and it was fabulous as well. One thing I notice with the Defs is that they seem to present the ‘whole picture’ rather than emphasize the individual. For example, when listening to Ein Straussfest, I didn’t find myself identifying the individual instruments within the orchestra, but rather was drawn to the whole performance. Not that the individual instruments cannot be picked out (they can), but that is not what you are drawn to.

You can tell I really like the Omen Defs. However, they are not a perfect speaker (is there really such a thing?). They will not plumb the extreme depths, and I still like using my subwoofer with them (I run the speakers full-range, and the sub is crossed over around 40 Hz). The sound is more up-front than my Tylers were — this is not necessarily good or bad, but one needs to be aware of this. You are not sitting in the middle of the concert hall with the Omen Defs — you are in the first few rows. And, as I chronicled above, they take a little patience to get the bass dialed in. Reading comments from many that have owned/or currently own the Defs, I think many have sold the Defs short in the bass area because they have not been able to find that magical gap/tilt position. It can be frustrating, but once the bass is dialed in with the room, the Defs are really an extraordinary speaker.

Fast forward about 3 months, and I purchased a pair of upgraded Omen Defs from a fellow Agon member. They were upgraded with Mundorf silver/oil caps on the tweeters, and the bass drivers were upgraded to the HO drivers found in the Superfly model. This results in a net increase in sensitivity (101 db vs. 98 db at 1 watt). Without going into great detail, the upgrade was a worthwhile investment to me. The top end became more detailed and yet smoother at the same time. The new HO drivers are more agile, the midrange seems to have even more dynamics, and the bass is extended slightly further. The upgrade is not revolutionary, but evolutionary, and yet, when played side by side, is readily identifiable. After the upgrade, I can honestly say vocals are the best that I have ever heard — period (I can only imagine how the Def IVs must sound!). The upgraded ones are definitely smoother, and are a little more forgiving of subpar recordings (though they are still extremely revealing). Is the upgrade worth the extra money? That is a little harder to assess. The stock ones are so good, and are a great deal at their delivered price, it is difficult to encourage one to invest the extra money for the upgrades. However, if your system is up to it, and you want the absolute best, then go for the upgrade.

Enter the Tekton Pendragons. A quick assessment of non-sound related qualities, I think the Zu finish is more refined (but for extra money, the Pendragons finish can be upgraded to just about anything you could want). The shipping cartons for the Zus are very robust and definitely have an advantage over the Tekton packaging (though mine traveled to the east coast and then all the way to AZ with just a couple of nicks). Both companies are terrific to deal with (Gerrit and Sean of Zu, Eric of Tekton). The Pendragons are definitely larger, being 4″ deeper and about 8″ taller then the Defs. They weigh about the same, and the ‘knuckle’ test on the cabinets would seem to favor the Defs, though I do not hear any cabinet ‘nasties’ from the Tektons.

I started out with the Pendragons set in the same location as the Defs, and things sounded pretty good. After playing with the location for several days, the sweet spot seemed to be slightly closer together than the Zus, and they are angled in to point directly at the listening position. At first listen, they are definitely in the same vein as the Defs. Very open and dynamic. Starting at the bottom, the Pendragons are able to go lower than the Defs — they have very, very good bass. I was worried when I saw the 2 large rear ports, but I do not hear any port anomalies. This extra bass weight is not apparent on all recordings, but if the recording plumbs the 20s, the Pendragons will deliver. If one is looking for a full-range speaker, the Pendragon probably better fits the bill (though I still like using my subwoofer with them as well, but that is most likely due to my room).

Moving up to the midrange (I will be comparing the stock version of the Defs as they are very similar in price to the Pendragons), the Pendragons are again somewhat similar. However, this is where I give a definite advantage to the Defs. Vocals and guitars just sound more ‘there’ with the Zus. Vocals have a greater power and clarity with the Zus — really quite evident on male vocals. Kenny Chesney’s (I know, country music, but it is revealing) “When the Sun Goes Down” really accentuates this. On the Zus, his voice is deep and powerful and clear — when turned up, you can feel his voice against your chest. On the Pendragons, though still excellent sounding, they lack that ultimate power and force. With the Zus, his voice grabs you and holds you. With the Tekton’s, the voice is there and clear, but lacks the emotional impact provided by the Zus. Now, don’t get me wrong — vocals on the Pendragons are excellent, better than most speakers I have heard. For me though, the Zus have a magic that really captivates me. Same with female vocals. The Zus ooze with power, clarity and emotion, the Pendragons are more reserved. To some, the slightly more reserved presentation might be preferred, though all the people who have heard both in my room definitely preferred the Defs.

Moving up to the highs, I again give the advantage to the Zus. Neither speaker draws attention to itself in this area, and neither would be classified as highly detailed nor ultra airy. Yet I never sense that I am missing anything with either speaker. Percussionist Jim Brock’s “Tropic Affair” is one of the best CDs to test for cymbal clarity and air, and the Zus seem to better delineate the highs. I had two friends come over while I compared the two speakers, and both of them like the additional clarity of the Zus, but again, were not dissatisfied with the Tektons at all in this area.

When just listening to music (Rush, Kansas, Rick Braun, Passion Band, Dream Theater, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jason Gray, Christy Nockels – best female vocalist I have ever heard, Dire Straits, David Benoit, Norah Jones, etc.) I did gravitate to the Zus more than the Tektons. The Defs are more up-front than the Pendragons, but vocals and guitars (that crucial midrange area) have a ‘you are there’ realism that is simply not matched by the Pendragons. The midrange is full-bodied like no other speaker I have ever heard. They are the one speaker I have heard that gets the grunge sound of Creed right. They evoke an emotional response to the music that I have never experienced outside of a live performance.

Could someone else like the Pendragons better than the Defs? Absolutely. They are definitely a full-range speaker, and are able to reproduce sounds into the low 20s that the Defs simply cannot reach. They are not as forward as the Zus, and since they do not exhibit the sheer power and dynamics in the midrange, they are a little more forgiving of bad recordings. If one desires true full-range capability without the addition of a subwoofer, the Pendragons would be the route to go. I do enjoy switching to the Pendragons for a change of pace, and I am struggling whether to sell the stock Defs or the Pendragons (wife says either one of those has to go or I have to go!). I recently contacted Eric about upgraded crossovers for the Pendragons, and am looking forward to seeing the differences that will make.

 

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