Dali’s Zensor blurs the boundaries between sub/sat and full size speaker packages
What is the Dali Zensor?If you are looking for five speakers and a subwoofer for around £1,000, almost by default the recommendations tend to be for sub/sat packages. This is not too surprising all things considered. Ever since the original KEF KHT system and other trailblazers like the Infinity Oreus and Mordaunt-Short Premiere, these self contained speaker packages have made a great deal of sense. They offer a big cinematic sound in a small space and in our constrained UK houses, where most customers will still be weighing up the pros and cons of a soundbar, they usually look like the best option.
Against these compact powerhouses, full size speakers can be bulky and dominate the room they are placed in. They rarely take kindly to wall mounting and are more demanding in placement terms. The benefits - far less reliance on the subwoofer leading to a fuller and more balanced sound and the ability to do without a subwoofer at all for music. This is not to say that speakers themselves can’t be furniture in their own right but at the £1,000 price point discussed here, the proliferation of wood veneers and really striking styling is limited.
There is a subset of ‘full size’ speaker packages that bridges the gap and potentially offers the best of both worlds though. Taking the smallest standmount from a range and pairing it with a compact subwoofer gives you a notionally full size speaker package that isn’t much larger than a sub sat one but one that has speakers able to work without the sub. Q Acoustics and Acoustic Energy have been particularly active in this sub category but the package you see here comes from Danish speaker brand Dali. The Zensor range is Dali’s entry level range but still features some of the company’s key technologies. Do these diminutive Danes deliver on the promise of the concept?
Dali Zensor DesignDali has been producing speakers since 1983 and although it has had a varying presence in the UK (although of late it has been doing rather well for itself) it is now one of the major European speaker brands and occupies almost every price point from the very affordable to budding oligarch. The Zensor range is the entry level box speaker from the company and comprises two standmounts, two floorstanders and a centre speaker. The system you see here can be selected a la carte or as a complete package.
Dali is known for their use of ribbon tweeters on their more expensive offerings but the prices of the Zensor range precludes that and instead a single soft dome tweeter handles the upper registers. The mid bass driver is able to make use of some unique Dali technology. The use of paper cones is relatively common in the industry and despite the relatively humble nature of the material, it is capable of excellent results. Dali however does something a little different. Their wood fibre driver is constructed in a similar way to a paper one but includes longer, unprocessed wood fibres that makes it stronger and more rigid. This also means that the drivers have a distinctive dark red finish that looks pretty smart. A 5.25 inch version of this driver and matching tweeter is used in the Zensor 1 and the Vokal centre speaker which augers well for the handover between speakers.
The big benefit of using the Zensor speakers is that the Zensor 1 might be small but it is designed to work as a standalone speaker. The low end response of 53Hz (at a respectable +/- 3dB) is hardly going to worry seismic survey teams but setting a 60Hz crossover instead of a 100Hz crossover makes a huge difference for me in terms of how I find a package works. It allows the subwoofer to get on with something approaching sub bass rather than trying to cover two octaves.
The Zensor range does not include a subwoofer to actually perform this role though. Dali has decided that rather than tack a sub into each group, it is more sensible to have a range of subs that customers can choose from. Logical to a fault, these are sized from A (presumably something the size of a Rubik’s cube) to Z (roughly the size of a London studio flat). They then have a number to denote the size of the driver and finally show which way the driver points. Therefore, the E-9F is fairly small and has an aluminium nine inch forward firing driver. This is powered by a 170 watt amplifier and has the usual controls you might expect for a package of this nature. This sub also works as part of the Fazon system which is a more classically sized sub/sat offering.
The Zensor pack is well finished and attractive in a subdued Scandinavian sort of way
The Zensors are conventional standmount speakers that work happily on a pair of stands but in a nod to convenience are fitted with a keyhole mount that would allow for wall mounting. Given that the Dalis are also rear ported it is unclear how this works jammed up against the wall but you have to assume that Dali wouldn’t have fitted it if the result was terrible. The Vokal can’t be wall mounted but given (like so many centre speakers I’ve tested recently) it is unusually deep, you could rest many TVs on it without an issue. The Vokal is front ported unlike the standmounts but this doesn’t seem to affect the way it reacts to the other speakers.
The Zensor pack is well finished and attractive in a subdued Scandinavian sort of way. There are limits to what manufacturers can do at this sort of price but the decision to finish the front baffles in gloss is a good one and the silver detailing helps to make the speakers look a little less oppressive. The other surfaces are finished in a black wrap which isn’t the most exciting thing going but is also well made and covers cabinets that feel solid and well assembled. The removable grilles are mounted in visible lugs rather than magnetic trim tabs but this is hardly the end of the world. Like all other Dali speakers in the company portfolio, the Zensors only support single wiring but do so via a set of good quality terminals. The E-9F sub might be notionally ‘rangeless’ but it is a happy aesthetic match with the rest of the speakers and is small enough to be fairly unobtrusive as well. The Zensors are also available in white although I’ve not seen any in this finish to comment on whether it looks any good or not. I think that Acoustic Energy’s Compact system is still the best looking of these packages but the Dali is never going to scare the horses.
Dali Zensor SetupThe Dalis have been used connected to both a Cambridge Audio 751R and Pioneer SCLX57 AV receiver with sources used including a Cambridge Audio 752BD Blu Ray player, Sky HD and Netflix via the Panasonic portal. Audio has come via the UPnP streamer in the 752BD and via the Arcam airDAC tested recently. Material used has included Blu Ray, DVD, standard broadcast material and Netlfix. Music has included lossless and high res FLAC and streaming services such as Spotify and Grooveshark.
Dali Zensor 5.1 Sound QualityThe pack delivered for review had clearly seen a bit of use before I got my mits on them so no running in was really applied to them. Installation was completely painless and took ten minutes all told. The E-9F sub was completely happy in either of the two locations, forward or at the back of the room, but I settled on the front location as I found that as the E-9F only has a phase switch rather than a dial, it was easier to get a happy stereo performance from it at the front.
Initially, the Dalis were called upon to do broadcast TV which ranged from the challenging (Game of Thrones, The Good Wife etc) to the banal (hour upon hour of Peppa Pig and Baby TV) and this began to reveal some interesting and largely positive traits about how the Zensors go about their business. For starters, this is a usefully sensitive speaker package. The bald numbers of 86.5dB/1 watt don’t really signal that this is the case but the Zensors still sound clear and lively at low levels in a way that some small speakers can struggle to do. This makes ‘normal’ TV impressively clear and easy to follow. The second is that dialogue is extremely well handled as a function of this. Even running at late night levels, programs like Elementary - that would give the BBC’s Jamaica Inn a run for its money in mumbled dialogue are still easy to follow and pleasingly immersive.
Of course, you don’t buy speaker packages for their performance at kitten’s breath volume and when I wound the levels up and stuck in the plot vacuum of The Last Stand, the Dalis respond superbly. These are extremely capable speakers that never sound strained or harsh even with gunfire, explosions and Johnny Knoxville going at full tilt. They manage to sound bigger and fuller than even comparatively well sorted sub-sat speakers can manage because they are moving that little bit more air a little bit more effortlessly. Compared to KEF’s blindingly good E305 package, they lack a little top end energy - that new KEF tweeter is really very good indeed - but they never feel especially soft or warm.
The other area that is more noticeable with climbing levels is that integration between the speakers is truly excellent. The Zensor 1s have a wide dispersion - if you listen to them in stereo, no toe-in is required to have a seamless soundstage with no gap in the middle. When you add the Vokal to this already comprehensive front soundstage, the result is an utterly seamless wall of sound across the front speakers with no indication of where one ends or one begins. The panning of effects from front to back is equally accomplished and the Zensors constantly feel like they were designed to work as well like this as they were as stereo pairs.
The part of the package that truly elevates the Zensor 5.1 pack to something approaching greatness is the E-9F sub
The final piece in the puzzle and the part of the package that truly elevates the Zensor 5.1 pack to something approaching greatness is the E-9F sub. To be clear, there are more powerful subs at this price point - I think that both Q Acoustics and Acoustic Energy have designs that could produce greater sound pressure levels but this misses the true ability of Dali’s baby. The E-9F is like the Zensors in that it never sounds forced or dominates the performance. It hands over perfectly to the speakers and provides deep, clean and extremely well controlled bass. It is able to keep the lunacy of Pacific Rim in check and with something more nuanced like Rush it is truly in its element. Like the speakers, if you absolutely must have the most exciting package available for action films, the E-9F is perhaps a little too refined but for long term use it is almost perfectly set up. I almost felt inclined to use it for two channel music which is an unusual accolade for me.
I didn’t use it for two channel though because, this is where the decision to go for slightly bigger speakers than would be the case in a true sub sat package really pays off. To be clear, the Zensor 1 is not a bass monster but it has enough low end extension to work on its own. The performance that results is filled with the same attributes as in 5.1. The Dali sounds convincing from low levels, has plenty of detail and has a presentation that makes long term listening very easy indeed. Compared to my slightly larger (and pricier) Mordaunt Short Mezzos, there is a restraint to the top end that can rob some instruments of a little sparkle but equally, the Dalis are happy with poor recordings and brighter amplifiers (which many less expensive AV receivers tend towards) in a way that the Mezzos simply aren’t. If you do more than pay lip service to music, the Zensor like other packages in this category is an elegant proof of concept that slightly larger speakers pay rather greater dividends for stereo use.
- Exceptionally refined and detailed sound
- Easy to drive
- Excellent subwoofer
- Not especially attractive
- Can sound slightly restrained
- Crude wall mount
Dali Zensor 5.1 Package ReviewWith the honourable exception of the distinctive wood fibre drivers, there is nothing in the specs or technical treatise of this pack that suggests anything truly out of the ordinary will result when you plug them in. Compared to the technology supposedly at use in rivals complete with marketing puff that reads akin to the conquest of space, these little Danish boxes can seem a little dull. In reality the Dalis demonstrate a consistent ability across film, broadcast TV and music that can make many rivals seem rough and poorly integrated. For a relatively sensible outlay, the Zensor 5.1 pack is able to do a great deal right. It isn’t the most beautiful thing going and there are a few moments where a little more ballistic aggression wouldn’t go amiss but as a set of speakers to use all day, every day, the Dalis excel. The concept of a surround package full stop is losing ground to the soundbar and persuading people to go for anything larger than satellites is a tough sell but this pack is a potent demonstration of why it is worth doing so.
Value For Money8
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