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JansZen zA2.1 Speaker Review

JansZen zA2.1 Speaker Review

The JansZen zA2.1 attempts to deliver the advantages of a full-range electrostatic speaker, but in a small-footprint suitable for medium-sized rooms. Unlike planar speakers, which almost all require a large room to really work their magic, the zA2.1 was designed to fit into a less cavernous environment. With dimensions roughly equivalent to many mid-sized floor-standing box speakers, and drivers contained in a closed rather than open-back design, the zA2.1 can fit nicely into a room where even old Quad ESL-57s (one of the smaller planar electrostatics ever made) would have never fit properly. If you have always wanted to own electrostatic speakers but refused to move to a larger domicile to accommodate them, the JansZen zA2.1 could be YOUR electrostatic.

Basically the zA2.1 is a sealed cabinet, two-way design with a side-firing tweeter. But instead of a conventional tweeter the zA2.1 has two identical electrostatic panels mounted in a barometrically isolated sub-enclosure. At a 500Hz crossover point, the electrostatic panels hand off to a pair of 175mm alloy-cone midrange/woofers. The crossover slope is a very gradual 6 dB per octave, which means there is a fairly wide frequency range where the electrostatic panels and the cone woofers are both producing sound, the main advantage being the improved phase alignment.

To maximize the zA2.1’s flexibility JansZen added several level controls. The electrostatic panels’ level can be reduced by up to 6 dB via a variable control knob. The midrange/woofers have a three-position toggle that offers -3 dB, + 3 dB, and flat settings. Finally JansZen has a side-firing tweeter they call their “airLayer option” which can be continuously adjusted from off to very loud. 

The zA2.1 cabinet enclosure utilizes an acoustic suspension design for minimum group delay. With 25mm thick walls and a 63mm thick solid hardwood front baffle that features “front edge scoops” to reduce front panel edge diffraction, the zA2.1’s 91cm tall and 26cm wide cabinet is compact yet solid. 

The zA2.1 is very purposefully a limited dispersion design. Both horizontal and vertical dispersion parameters are restricted so less energy radiates out into a listening room’s reflective surfaces. Especially in the upper frequency range, early reflections from the walls, ceiling, and floor can have substantial negative effects on a speaker’s in-room imaging and harmonic balance. By limiting dispersion of the zA2.1 JansZen delivers an electrostatic that will have far less in the way of sonically negative room interactions.

 

The fit and finish of the JansZen zA2.1 was impeccable. I was sent three zA2.1s for my review so I could have a matching centre channel speaker for my 5.1 system. The right and left speakers were finished with a walnut front baffle while the centre channel was painted to match the cabinet’s dark charcoal tone. At 30 kg (66 lbs.) the zA2.1s are solid, yet still relatively easy to move and position thanks to their rubber feet. Spikes are also available, but especially at first using the rubber feet makes set up a lot easier.

While attention to detail during set-up will most certainly be worth the effort, the zA2.1 speakers were no harder to set up and fine tune than many dynamic-driver and hybrid designs I’ve reviewed in the past. In my primary speaker review room most speakers end up being placed somewhere within a ½ meter diameter circle. The zA2.1’s final positions were about 6 CM father away from the back wall and about 8 CM farther apart than the AV123 X-Static speakers that had been installed in the room prior to the zA2.1’s arrival.

The zA2.1s were toed in so the panels were facing directly at my central listening position. They were also tilted back via 5cm thick AudioQuest Sorbothane rubber pucks. It is vitally important to get the zA2.1s titled back so their tweeter panels are pointed directly at the primary listener’s head. If the speakers are not tilted back enough some high frequency extension will be lost. To hear what the loss of upper frequencies will sound like, you merely have to stand up. The zA2.1 is one speaker that you simply can’t listen to from a standing position. You will notice how the treble attenuates as you go from a seated to standing position, even at the primary listening spot.

The JansZen zA2.1s, like most electrostatic speakers, sounds different from a dynamic driver-based loudspeaker. But unlike many electrostatic speakers I’ve heard, the zA2.1 doesn’t sound overly cold, metallic or zingy. As a guy who’s ping-ponged back and forth from dynamic driver transducers to electrostatic panels for over thirty years, each technology has different aspects of sound reproduction at which they excel. 

The zA2.1 takes the good qualities from both technologies and largely leaves the negatives behind.

The adjustability of the zA2.1’s harmonic balance makes it rather difficult to pin down its “native” tonality. When set up for maximum neutrality as measured using sine waves and dB meter the zA2.1 can be very neutral indeed. And while the zA2.1 is neutral, as to whether it is or can be a full-range loudspeaker in your room depends on both your personal definition of full-range and your room’s ability to help out through low frequency room gain. According to JansZen the zA2.1’ s low frequencies can extend down to 30 Hz, but for maximum enjoyment, especially if you favour playback at higher SPLs, I recommend using a subwoofer. 

 

When I first switched from the dynamic driver AV123 X-Statik loudspeakers to the zA2.1 I was immediately struck by how much more lifelike vocalists sounded. There was less of a hard leading edge to their voices. Instead of the additive grain and texture of a conventional dynamic driver speaker, the zA2.1s rendered vocals with a more subtle and natural transient attack.

Another obvious difference between the dynamic driver X-Statik speakers and the zA2.1 was how the zA2.1 emphasized rather than minimized differences between recordings. In comparison the X-Statik rendered soundstages and original recorded harmonic balances with a subtle sameness. As I put on recording after recording that I knew well through the zA2.1s I was greeted with more musical information than through any dynamic driver speaker I’ve heard in my system. Also the zA2.1 speakers highlighted the subtle differences between merely good and truly great recordings.

For some audiophiles the primary sonic drawback of electrostatic panel speakers is their lack of dynamic impact. This isn’t the same as dynamic contrast, but rather the lack of “kick you in the gut” lower midrange and upper bass impact. While the zA2.1s aren’t quite as much of a rock and roll animal as my long-term reference Dunlavy SC VI speakers, they are still far less diaphanous than many electrostatic designs I’ve experienced over the years.

If you are the type of audiophile for whom imaging reigns supreme you may be somewhat disappointed at first with the zA2.1’s imaging prowess. Instead of the pinpoint imaging of a mini-monitor, such as the ATC SCM7, the zA2.1s produce a slightly less laterally precise soundstage. But some listeners may well prefer the more three-dimensional and organic soundstage characteristics of the zA2.1. On my own live concert recordings I heard more of the dimensional cues that emphasize the subtler aspects of the recordings’ sonic environment. The differences between the direct sound coming from each instrument and the reflected sound coming from the sides, rear, stage floor, and proscenium were easier to differentiate through the zA2.1 speakers.

Given the zA2.1’s purposefully limited dispersion characteristics I was concerned that the listening window might be small enough to recreate only a “head-in-a vice” sized sweet spot. I’m happy to report that unless you regularly jump up and down while listening the primary listening area was sufficiently large so that no amount of swaying side to side caused any image shifts or harmonic balance changes. 

During the first couple of weeks of the audition period I spent a goodly amount of time trying to dial in the zA2.1’s AirLayer side-firing tweeters. Every time, after many minutes of critical listening and adjusting, I ended up turning them off completely. In the western US we have the expression “tits on a bull” to designate something that is completely superfluous. In my room the AirLayer tweeter option qualified for this particular designation. Whenever I heard the additional side-fired output the effect was negative. The soundstage gained some width when the AirLayer driver was active, but at the expense of imaging specificity. I would strongly recommend listening to the zA2.1s both with and without the AirLayer active. You may well decide that you don’t need it. And ordering a pair of zA2.1s without the AirLayer option saves you money.

Almost all audiophiles love the sound of electrostatic speakers. Unfortunately only a small percentage of them have rooms capable of successfully hosting a large planar design. The JansZen zA2.1 speaker offers the joys and sonic advantages of an electrostatic design in a small footprint that will fit into many rooms where even mid-size conventional driver speakers won’t. 

With its hybrid design that mates electrostatic tweeter elements with metal dynamic drivers, the zA2.1 captures the magic of a low-distortion electrostatic while still retaining the jump-factor of a more conventional driver design.

Although not inexpensive, the zA2.1 ranks as one of the best I’ve heard in terms of resolution and overall realism. Especially for fans of minimally processed acoustic music, regardless of genre, listening through the zA2.1s is an experience that few other loudspeakers can match. If you can pay the price of entry, 

Details

Price: £9,995 per pair

Manufactured by: JansZen

URL: www.janszenloudspeaker.com

Distributed by: Soundsetup

URL: www.soundsetup.co.uk

Tel: +44(0)7941 330654

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