April 15, 2010
Van Zyl Audio Frontline Loudspeakers
Loudspeakers -- Affirm Audio Lumination, Opera
Audio Consonance M12 Barque, JL Audio Fathom f110 subwoofers (2)
Preamplifiers -- Audio Research LS26,
Audio Research PH5
Power amplifiers -- Audio Research VS115,
Atma-Sphere S-30 Mk.III, Art Audio PX-25
Analog source -- Linn LP12 turntable on
custom isolation base, Graham Engineering 2.2 tonearm, van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital sources -- Meridian 508.24 CD
player; Mark Levinson No.512, Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD players; music servers consisting
of iPod Touch and Wadia 170iTransport, HP laptop computer, both connected to a Benchmark
Interconnects -- Audience Au24 e,
Blue Marble Audio Blue IC, Clarity Cables Organic, Purist Audio Design Venustas
Speaker cables -- Audience Au24 e, Blue
Marble Audio, Clarity Cables Organic, Purist Audio Design Venustas
Power cords -- Audience powerChord e, Blue
Marble Audio Lightning, Clarity Cables Vortex, Purist Audio Design Venustas
Power conditioner -- Audience aR6-T power
Were so used to passive crossover networks in our
speaker systems that we tend to forget how much they can degrade the sound. So why
dont designers use full-range drivers and thus avoid crossovers altogether? Mostly
because theres no such thing as a genuinely full-range driver. To get the
wide frequency response most audiophiles demand from our speakers, were pretty much
stuck with crossovers. But even if crossovers are necessary evils, there are still some
things that can be done to minimize their deleterious effects on the sound.
One such thing is to keep the crossover frequencies out of
the midrange, where the ear is most sensitive, by using for that region a wide-range
driver, and crossing over from that driver to the tweeter at as high a frequency as is
feasible. With such a loudspeaker, the audio signal is sent directly from the amplifier to
the midrange/bass driver, before it even "sees" the crossover -- thus, any sonic
degradations caused by the crossovers own inductors, capacitors, and resistors are
kept out of the midrange. A simple high-pass crossover is used on the tweeter.
This is the technique used in Van Zyl Audios
Frontline loudspeaker. Company president Johan van Zyl designed my Affirm Audio
Luminations -- massive horn speakers that use a single, very expensive 5" Feastrex
Monster alnico driver. Thanks to van Zyls tractrix horn enclosure, the Feastrex
driver actually produces decent output down to the middle of the 40-50Hz range. No other
horn design Ive heard comes remotely close -- so when I ran across the Van Zyl Audio
Frontlines at the Dallas Audio Fest, I immediately suggested to VZA that I review them.
Johan van Zyl believes that a good speaker has three
characteristics: fast transient response, which enables it to accurately track fast,
complex waveforms; dynamic realism, which enables it to accurately track all volume
changes, small and large; and, when no music is playing, silence. If a speaker cant
accurately track transients and dynamics, it will produce an output unrelated to the music
-- in a word, noise.
Because a pair of Frontline speakers sells for only $7000
USD in its standard Formica finish, Van Zyl Audio cant afford to use Feastrex
drivers, one of which costs more than a single Frontline. Instead, van Zyl uses the
popular Jordan JX92S driver ($180), a single 5.5" (140mm) metal cone. The nearly
full-range Jordan rolls off above 10kHz. To cover the highest octave, 10-20kHz, van Zyl
crosses over the Jordan to an Aurum Cantus G2Si ribbon tweeter, using a first-order
crossover at 21.5kHz. That means theres just a single capacitor on the tweeter and
no coil or low-pass crossover on the mid/woofer, which means that the latter is run
full-range. Of course, you may be skeptical that a 5.5" driver with an actual
radiating diameter of only 3.25" could possibly produce any bass whatsoever; after
all, most midrange drivers are bigger than that.
The Jordan driver has a reputation for ringing (i.e.,
a tendency to vibrate at a frequency unrelated to the musical signal), so van Zyl tries to
control the driver in two ways. First, he uses a rear-loaded horn to acoustically load the
driver over its full frequency range. Second, van Zyl uses some proprietary methods to
damp the ringing. Additionally, for better dynamic control of the driver, he connects it
directly to the amplifier, with no crossover between them. Typically, Im told, a
coil like those found in most crossovers will reduce an amps damping factor by 50%.
The higher the damping factor, the better the amplifier can control the driver.
In my view, what really makes the Frontline work is the
enclosure. Looking like an Affirm Audio Lumination with its top 14" lopped off, the
Frontline is still an imposing speaker, measuring 48.81"H x 14.5"W x
27.25"D. However, the Frontlines sloped rear panel means that, at the top,
its only 11.56" deep. Except for that rear panel, the enclosure walls are
vertical. The Frontline weighs 125 pounds, and even more when its internal cavities are
filled with sand. With a claimed driver sensitivity of 88dB, the Frontline isnt as
efficient as many horn speakers. Some horn enclosures load their drivers only in the bass,
filtering out the midrange and treble frequencies; but the Frontlines throat-loaded
tractrix horn loads the Jordan driver up to 1kHz. The mouth of the horn is at the bottom
of the enclosure, and it radiates omnidirectionally from there. Most horns promise good
bass, but I have yet to encounter any other that produces the quantity and quality of bass
of van Zyls horns. With a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, the Jordans actually drop to
5 ohms over much of the midrange. If you drive them with a tube amp, use the amps
Several visitors commented favorably on the
Frontlines Formica finish -- a remarkably realistic likeness of a beautiful
walnut-burl veneer. Its also available in a wide assortment of custom Formica
veneers (add $200/pair), domestic real-wood veneers (add $500/pair), or exotic wood
veneers (call for quote).
Johan van Zyl delivered the Frontlines to my listening
room, where he went through a finicky process of precise positioning. Placement was
critical with the Frontlines: too close to the front wall and they sounded hooded, with
the dreaded "cupped-hands" coloration; too far out into the room and they
With a driver sensitivity of only 88dB, the Frontline
doesnt encourage the use of low-powered amplifiers, but that didnt stop me
from trying. As its my amplifier of choice for my Affirm Luminations, I had to see
if my Art Audio PX-25, a 6Wpc single-ended-triode (SET) amplifier, could drive the
Frontlines. The PX-25 easily drives the 103dB-sensitive Affirms, but while it sounded
divine with the Frontlines at low levels, it ran out of steam on climaxes. So out went the
PX-25 and in went my Audio Research VS115, a 120Wpc tube amp, connected via its 4-ohm
I tried two sets of speaker cables, Clarity Cables
Organic and Audiences Au24 e; both are excellent, but with different sonic
signatures. I finally settled on the Audiences -- their high-frequency performance sounded
smoother with the Frontlines, and the extra-large spades I specified when I ordered them
perfectly fit the Frontlines huge binding posts.
The Frontlines drivers had been broken in already,
but not the binding posts and wiring. The sound seemed to stabilize after 100+ hours of
play, and I began my critical listening.
In my 23L by 20W by 12H room, the
VZAs bass was deep and powerful enough to reproduce most music very satisfactorily.
There was plenty of weight and impact -- no wimpy bass here. It didnt flex my
windows or liquefy my internal organs, but for most acoustic music, the bass was
surprisingly good. If the Frontlines 5.5" drivers hadnt been visible and
I hadnt known what I was listening to, I might have guessed I was hearing good
But the quality of bass is as important as its
quantity. Because the Frontline uses a single driver for the bass, midbass, midrange, and
most of the treble, all of these ranges spoke with the same voice. The small, light Jordan
cone was very fast, and the horn loading ensured that the cone didnt have to move
too far, so bass transients and details were just superb. If you want deeper bass,
consider a subwoofer; I tried the Frontlines with two of JL Audios Fathom f110 subs
and got a good match, with high-impact bass flat down to almost 20Hz.
In Telarcs SACD transfer of its very first digital
recording, released on LP (Telarc 5038) in 1978, years before the birth of the Compact
Disc, director Frederick Fennell, who loved percussion instruments, nearly turns Gustav
Holsts lovely Suites 1 and 2 for Military Band into drum concertos (SACD, Telarc
SACD-60639). This recording with the Cleveland Symphonic Winds introduced the world to the
famous Telarc bass drum, whose stygian depths made it compulsory demonstration material at
hi-fi shows everywhere. The Frontlines delivered surprisingly deep, powerful bass-drum
whacks that had me worried I might have to dodge cone-shaped projectiles flying across the
room. No fooling -- Ive heard 8" woofers that didnt do as well with this
recording . . . and, to be fair, some that do better.
The other area you may be curious about is the treble.
Heres the display of my real-time analyzer with the microphone at my listening
position; you can see that the treble extends up to 20kHz in-room, though not linearly.
The Frontlines treble was extended, with the sweet,
nonaggressive character I associate with ribbon tweeters. Although there was a dip in the
response curve where the Jordan cone crosses over to the Aurum Cantus ribbon, the treble
still had plenty of detail and sparkle. When I played "PercusienFa," the first
cut of Erik Mongrains Fates (CD, Prophase Music MVDA4585), I heard more
guitar overtones than Im accustomed to, and it was here that I fancied I could hear
just a smidgen of ringing from the Jordan. Usually it was well controlled, but apparently,
Mongrains aggressive recording possesses so much energy at just the right
frequencies that it overloads the normally effective damping.
The midrange exhibited all the detail and dynamics
youd expect from a small, light cone. Pepe Romeros Flamenco (CD,
Philips 422 069-2), remastered by First Impression Music for one of their spectacular K2
reissues (CD, First Impression LIMK2HD 022), is an amazing recording of a flamenco
concert, with singer, guitar, and male and female dancers. All of these participants were
realistically recorded, but the most startling was dancer Paco Romero. His foot stomps, a
prominent part of the art of flamenco, were brutally dynamic, exploding from the speakers
with enough force to frighten the unwary listener. The Frontlines captured all the detail
of Paco Romeros footwork, so inhumanly fast that you suspect he has four feet.
Rebecca Pidgeons The Raven has been an
audiophile favorite since its 1994 release on CD as Chesky JD115, though Ive always
wondered if the photo of Pidgeon on the cover hasnt sold as many copies as the
music. Im not saying thats why I bought it, but Im not denying it,
either. So when I learned that the original recording engineer, Bob Katz, had remastered The
Raven for 24-bit/88kHz download from the Chesky brothers www.HDtracks.com, I
couldnt resist. On the albums best-known track, "Spanish Harlem,"
Pidgeons delivery was delicate and pristine, enhanced by a pitch-black background.
The Frontlines captured the performances exquisite detail without stripping away any
of its tonality and warmth. They also clearly conveyed the smoother, less grainy sound of
the higher-resolution remastering.
Soundstaging was another strength of the Frontlines. During
the review period, I had on loan a rather expensive digital source: a Mark Levinson No.512
SACD/CD player ($12,000). I played an SACD through my Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD/CD player and
noted its spacious if slightly dark sound. When I switched to the Levinson, the first
thing I noticed was that the room sound -- that sense of spaciousness Id just heard
through the Sony -- was almost completely absent! The Frontlines made that unambiguously
Another soundstaging observation: The Frontlines were
unusually fussy about left/right channel balance. Many recordings that normally sound fine
with the balance control at its center, flat position required that the control be
adjusted a few clicks to the right or left before I could achieve a believable soundstage.
I think that illustrates that the Frontlines revealed more detail about a recordings
soundstage than do most speakers. It also underlines that if you use the Frontlines, your
preamp or integrated amp had better have a balance control.
Is it fair to compare $28,500/pair and $7000/pair speakers?
Probably not -- but I couldnt resist comparing the two Johan van Zyl designs I had
in the house at the same time: the Affirm Audio Lumination and the Van Zyl Audio
In the bass, the Frontline actually had slightly more punch
than its far more costly older brother, but the Lumination had just a tad more detail. The
Affirms Feastrex driver, however -- a good part of why it costs so much -- produced
a more refined tonal palette and a more elegant, naturally detailed sound. And although
the Luminations highs didnt extend as far, they were very smooth, and
completely devoid of ringing. The soundstages were about the same size, but seemed more
precisely limned by the Luminations. While all were audible, none of these differences was
huge; the Frontline exemplified the law of diminishing returns, providing about 85% of the
Luminations performance for 25% of its cost. I imagine the Frontlines bass
response would make some listeners prefer it to the Lumination, but neither speaker
reproduces the bottom octave at all.
Van Zyl Audios Frontline wont appeal to
everyone. It doesnt reproduce ultradeep, wall-flexing bass, and it wont
survive the volume levels for the hearing-impaired that some headbangers demand. What the
Frontline does do, however, is deliver fast, detailed sound with hard-hitting dynamics and
fully developed instrumental color. And even though it wont pin you to the wall with
deep bass, I found its bass quite satisfying with lots of acoustic music. Further, the
Frontlines sound quality is uniformly excellent across its entire frequency range.
The tweeters crossover at 21.5kHz is above the audioband, so the Frontline is
entirely successful at avoiding all audible crossover degradations -- a monumental task
that represents considerable design innovation. A power amplifier of medium output
(50-100Wpc) should be enough to drive the Frontlines; there are many good-sounding amps in
this power range.
The Van Zyl Audio Frontline excelled at most of the things
I value in a speaker -- detail, dynamics, soundstaging, tonal accuracy, texture -- while
delivering them in a package that looks good and wont leave your wallet whimpering
too loudly. If my description piques your interest, VZAs 30-day audition period will
give you time to try them out in your system.
For me, the Van Zyl Audio Frontline passed the acid test: I
could happily live with them for a long while. Very highly recommended.
. . . Vade Forrester
Van Zyl Audio Frontline Loudspeakers
Price: $7000 USD per pair in standard burl Formica finish; $7200/pair in custom Formica
finish; $7500/pair in domestic wood veneers (18 to choose from).
Warranty: One year on manufacturing defects. Manufacturer pays shipping for warranty
Van Zyl Audio LLC
902 Mill Spring Drive
Garland, TX 75040
Phone: (972) 740-6317