A high performance wireless speaker system may be the Holy Grail to many home theater and lifestyle audio enthusiasts. Speaker placement, specifically surround speaker placement, is easily the most frustrating aspect of a surround system and often discourages consumers from even considering one for their home. It’s a legitimate concern, and one that Aperion Audio tries enthusiastically to solve with their $499 Zona wireless surround speaker system. Aperion literature promises audiophile-grade surround performanceso good that it can be used in a dedicated two-channel system, with all the convenience of wireless connectivity. That’s big talk and I like big talk.
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To call the Zona a wireless system is a bit of a misnomer as it is not completely sans wires. It does eliminate speaker cables and their associated hassles however. To be a truly wireless speaker, Aperion would’ve had to resort to using some sort of battery system to power the Zona loudspeakers. Aperion however eschewed battery power for the higher and more consistent performance that only AC power can provide. Each speaker therefore requires a power cord between it and your wall’s electrical outlet for the internal amplifier and associated circuitry. Provided the speakers live up to their claim of audiophile-grade performance, this is a compromise that I am prepared to live with.
Each Zona bookshelf speaker uses a one-inch soft dome silk tweeter, and a four and one-half inch woven fiberglass woofer in a ported MDF enclosure. The speaker is powered by an internal two-channel Class D amplifier, which supplies 20 Watts to each driver. An active crossover separates the high and low frequencies and routes them to the appropriate amplifier channel. Utilizing an active crossover provides some considerable advantages over traditional passive crossovers. For example, the amplifier channel driving the woofer is not burdened with high frequencies and therefore can dedicate all of it’s power output to making bass notes more articulated and deeper. Moreover, removing the passive components of a crossover can often increase the detail of the playback. Having owned fully active loudspeakers in the past I can attest to the attributes of the design. Active systems are often impractical for the average consumer as amplifier channels, and associated cabling costs add up quickly. My particular system required twelve pricey channels of amplification, which did not include a sub-woofer.
The wireless receiver circuitry is also hidden inside the speaker and communicates in the 2.4 GHz band and provides excellent range of up to 150 feet. The receiver circuitry constantly listens for other signals in the band and if an interfering signal is identified, it will automatically retune to a clear channel ensuring reliable performance. The hockey puck-shaped transmitter was designed with flexibility in mind. The receiver can be plugged directly into the USB port of your computer for streaming audio such as Internet radio or stored audio files. In addition, it can also accept analog audio signals from any device with a preamp output. The analog signal is digitized prior to transmission and the system offers resolution of 16 bit/48 kHz uncompressed. Zona supplies all the cabling that you will need for RCA or stereo mini-plug connections, which iPod owners will surely appreciate. The Zona speakers are exceedingly flexible and can be used in a wide variety of applications.
The Zona speaker system arrived in a single box securely packaged with form fitting Styrofoam cushions holding the speakers firmly in place. A soft cloth bag covered each speaker to protect the black finish. I was surprised to find only a small single sheet of paper for instructions however. Either this system was designed to be idiot proof, or I was going to be on the phone often with tech support.
I prayed for the prior.
While giving the speakers the initial once over I was very impressed by the level of fit and finish, especially at this price point. For example, Aperion finishes the cabinet edges smooth, leaving no seams visible; most of their competitors do not. The enclosure felt surprisingly solid and passed the knuckle rap test with flying colors. Threaded inserts on the back and bottom of the speaker were a thoughtful addition. Wall mount brackets for the Zona speakers are not included but Aperion Audio’s AWM-17 mount works well for these speakers. Another noteworthy observation was how easily the black finish was marked with fingerprints, as this may be a concern for the neat freaks among us.
Under the grill there were a few surprises beyond the woven fiberglass woofer and soft dome silk tweeter. A long but narrow rectangular cabinet port below the woofer extends nearly the entire width of the cabinet. Obviously, this serves to help extend the frequency response from 20 KHz down to the claimed 55 Hz. Most ported bookshelf speakers I have experienced port to the rear in order to conserve space. The downside of that is that the port interacts with walls behind the speaker, which may decrease performance if not carefully placed. Placing the port in front makes for easier speaker placement, especially important for surround speakers. Also present is a clear plastic flush-mounted ring whose purpose I would later learn is to indicate the link status between the speakers and the transmitter. A blinking ring means that there is no link, and a solid glow means that the transmitter and speakers are happily communicating. I also accidentally learned, by pressing the center of the transmitter, that the ring could light in one of three colors, blue, green or red. I was forced to call the Aperion tech support line to determine the significance of the different colors, as there is no mention in the users manual of ring color. The colors indicate different channels that the system will use to communicate. This feature is designed for multi-channel applications where blue may be used for the front speakers, green may be the surround channels etc. I’d like to mention that my experience with the Aperion tech support line was completely positive. My call was answered within two rings with none of the telephone tree nonsense. The tech that answered my call was not only pleasant, but also very knowledgeable. Good customer support is an absolute necessity if you plan to sell direct as Aperion does, two things Aperion does right.
Accessories also include a pair of power supplies, one for each speaker, which are virtually identical to the one that powers my Dell laptop, however these include a much longer cord. When using an analog input you must use the provided wall adapter to power the transmitter, when connected to a computer the USB port takes care of powering it. Aperion also includes a handy remote control that can turn the speakers on or off, adjust volume, bass, and treble.
I began my review streaming music from my laptop and was pleased to find that simply plugging in the USB cable resulted in music. It could not have been simpler as there were no settings to change, no drivers to install, nothing. I was also very happy to find that that the system worked as easily with Windows XP as it did with the Windows 7 operating system. I was beginning to understand why the users manual was so small.
First, I launched the Pandora Internet radio service and listened to “Brown Eyed Girl” from the Van Morrison album Blowin’ Your Mind! (Epic/Legacy). I must admit that my expectations were fairly low thinking that the system was primarily designed for convenience, not necessarily performance. Hearing the music that was created by the Zona speakers was eye opening. What first struck me was the width of the soundstage that the Zona speakers created. Cymbal strikes appeared far outside of the left speaker, and the guitar picks were equally outside the right speaker. Both were delivered with remarkable clarity and openness. The cymbal had realistic shimmer and natural decay, while the guitar was warm and mellow. The chorus has several backing vocalists blended together to form a cohesive harmony; however they were easy to differentiate when I wanted to focus on each individual’s voice illustrating the detail that the system provided. The bass guitar notes were delivered with surprising power and could be felt through the floor at higher volumes. Most bookshelf speakers require a subwoofer to fill in the lower frequencies, but while listening to the Zona system I never found myself yearning for one. If I wanted a bit more bass I could just add one or two clicks of bass output with the remote control. Each click resulted in larger than expected increases in output and the sound usually landed on either side of what I consider “just right.” I would have preferred smaller adjustment increments to alleviate this frustration; however it was very convenient to have the ability to tweak the sound with the remote.
Next I streamed Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin” from the Full Moon Fever (MCA) album, which I had ripped to my hard drive. Again I found that the Zona system particularly excelled with guitars. The strums were clean and focused with individual strings easy to differentiate. Tom’s vocals were firmly anchored in the center of the room, delivered with plenty of gritty texture. His voice was placed well in front of the rest of the instruments and created a realistic stage for the performance. The kick drum was placed towards the rear of the stage and thumped hard even at high volume levels without sounding strained or sloppy.
Finally, I fed the transmitter an analog signal from my reference Mark Levinson 326S preamp. I increased the volume control of Zona system to full so the Levinson had full control of volume, then cued up my Esoteric DV-50 with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” from the classic album of the same name (Atlantic). The song hammers from beginning to end, with the wailing of Angus on guitar and Brian Johnson on vocals creating a powerful one-two punch. The low frequency foundation is Phil Rudd’s steady and precise percussion with the driving bass of Cliff Willams. As with most AC/DC songs the louder I played it, the better it sounded. That’s no slam on the Zona speakers; it’s just a fact that AC/DC fans will enthusiastically agree on. The Aperion speakers did an excellent job with the warm and bluesy guitar riffs of Angus and the crystalline high-hat and cymbals of Phil. Each instrument occupied a precise location in space and stood on their own with no smearing of the image even at levels, which my wife deemed “obnoxious.” The following day while she was at work, I decided to see how the Zona system would responded at even higher volumes and found that they were perfectly happy up to about the 75 percent mark of the Levinson’s volume range, which is plenty loud. Edging the volume a bit higher and the soundstage quickly started to collapse – the low frequency amp runs out of steam first. Bass notes and drum impacts began to smear together and lose impact. Reducing the bass level via remote helped, but the sound was not nearly as refined as it was at a slightly lower volume. At this point the amplifiers were clearly starting to clip. Understand that volume levels this high are certainly not what the Zona system was designed for, but they performed admirably up to their limits which were higher than I expected them to be.
After coming away impressed with the musical ability of the Zona system, it was time to move them to the surround position and replace my current Focal Domes for theater duty. Setup was simply a matter of plugging the RCA cable into the surround preamp outputs of my Cambridge Audio 650R receiver and moving the speakers into position.
I chose the Blu-ray disc “Green Zone” (Universal) from my library, took the prime seating location in my theater, then pressed play on the Cambridge Audio 650BD universal player. The opening sequence takes place in Baghdad during the opening salvos of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The scene opens with air raid sirens off in the distance, followed by a bomber passing behind the viewer. A short pause is followed by the explosive impact of the incoming ordinance. I immediately noticed the increase in low frequency information of the Zona system over my reference Focal Dome speakers. This was not unexpected as the Zona woofer is larger and plays to 55Hz, while the Dome response is limited to 80Hz and depends on the accompanying single Focal subwoofer to fill in the lower frequencies which works very well. However multiple sources of low frequency information provided a noticeable improvement. The result of the change was that I felt more immersed in the action; the spatial cues of the scene were more obvious and integrated with the front speakers. For example, moving through a firefight in downtown Iraq made gunfire over my shoulder more believable, sounding more like rifle cracks and less like rifle pops. They were also easier to locate in the soundscape. Another notable scene begins with a trio of helicopters flying in to Saddam International Airport. Two of the choppers are massive twin rotor Chinooks whose blades thump through the air as they pass from right rear to left front. Again I felt that the Zona speakers added another level of believability to the action. The Zona speakers performed just as well with high frequency passages such as creating the unmistakable pings of spent cartridges hitting concrete, and boots shuffling across gravel. The system did what all quality surrounds do which is to immerse the viewer in the scene. They shined especially bright during dynamic sequences.
Competition and Comparison
For the consumer that does not use computer-based audio, consider the slightly more affordable JBL On-Air Control 2.4G. This system only provides for analog input via RCA jacks, and has an RF transmit range about half that of the Zona. Another consideration is that the JBL system requires the two speakers be connected to each other via speaker wire. In doing so they eliminate one power supply requiring only the left speaker be A/C powered.
For more information on other wireless or affordable audiophile bookshelf loudspeakers please check out Home Theater Review’s Bookshelf Speaker Page.
The most obvious downside is that wireless speakers shouldn’t have wires – yet these do. If you need a completely wireless system, then scratch the Zona system off your shopping list. Also, if you require a finish other than black, the Aperion system is not for you as that is the only one offered.
Operationally, I was a bit frustrated with the large jumps in bass and treble control offered by the remote control. More often than not, one level increase/decrease resulted in more change than I wanted. If you are planning to play at extreme levels you may want to consider a system with a dedicated subwoofer.
The Aperion Zona system is an audio version of a Swiss-Army knife. Its flexibility is limited by the users imagination, and proximity to a power outlet. I found myself moving the speakers to various locations of my home including the garage, and backyard (Zona are not outdoor speakers by design) and found that they operated flawlessly through several walls and over wide distances. Couple these speakers with an on-line radio service such as Pandora and an iPod and you have very little need for any other audio gear.
The system was touted as offering audiophile performance and I’m sure you are wondering if it lived up to that claim. The answer is similar to the famous line of Bill Clinton who referenced his relations with Ms. Lewinsky in a way that depended on “what the definition of is… is.” The Zona performance question depends upon what your definition of the term audiophile is. These speakers aren’t going to blow away the cost-no-object audiophile with $10,000 per component tastes, but at the same time real-world clients may find them to be better-than-expected speakers for many unique solutions.
To replicate the sound quality of the Zona system would require a fairly high-end receiver such as the Marantz SR7005 and a mid-level speaker such as the Klipsch VB-15. Certainly these two items will cost significantly more than the asking price of the Zona system and that doesn’t factor in cable costs and speaks nothing to the flexibility of the wireless aspect of the Aperion system.
For the enthusiast who wants to add surround speakers to an existing system and can accommodate power cords, the Zona system is a no-brainer. It can also pull off two-channel duty and will be a nice step up for most consumers, especially if they keep listening levels reasonable. The genius of the Zona system lies in its combination of simplicity, flexibility and excellent sound quality. It’s simple to setup and intuitive to use. The robust communication link provided glitch-free operation even in my home, which has more RF systems than most cell towers. The system is a bargain when compared to purchasing a receiver and speakers, will probably sound better and certainly be more flexible. Aperion offers excellent customer support and a generous 30-day, no risk in-home audition. Anyone considering a wireless system, and even those considering a new receiver, should absolutely consider the Zona system before making a purchase. I suspect most users will discover that it delivers more performance and simplicity than they expect.