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April / May 2009
Superior Audio Equipment Review

World Premiere
Aspara HL Reference Horn Loudspeaker
Easily a truly world-class speaker.
Review By Jules L. Coleman
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Aspara HL Reference Horn Loudspeaker  Two concepts that do not seem apt in the context of life-long bouts with audiophilia are fun and equilibrium. To outsiders, this may seem strange. Why, after all, would anyone consume as much of his resources as the audiophile does pursuing a hobby that brings neither balance nor fun to his life? Those of us on the inside know better. We know that to be an ‘audiophile' is to be ‘constitutional disabled from securing sustainable satisfaction and enjoyment from one's system.' It is our destiny.

The audiophile is like the compulsive golfer. Both are obsessively drawn to activities constructed on the premise that at any moment one must recover from one's most recent mistake — a poorly executed shot, a misconceived play; an amplifier unsuitable for one's speakers, speaker purchases unsuitable for listening, a lackluster power conditioner that sucks the life out of the music. It never ends. Still the allure remains: the blissful moment when the curling forty-foot side-hill putt (as if by divine intervention) finds its way to the bottom of the cup: the improbable recovery from behind a tree. Sometimes these moments can last an entire round of golf as one strings together one well-struck shot after another.

So too in the life of the audiophile: the day the power is just right, the system nimble yet assertive, the sound rich and dense yet fragrant and whimsical. Touched as only golf can touch one who is open to it, the golfer seeks access to the mystical, casting about for a glimpse into the meaning of life. Which audiophile among us would deny that in an occasional late night sonic revelry he had seen into the heart of what is real and valuable in life and accessed its fundamental truths — those not available by rational inquiry alone? Such is the nature of the disease.

Like golf, audio is a haven for romantics, dreamers and even mystics. On the other hand, there is no denying that it does attract more than its fair share of geeks. In the course of my life long ‘love affair' with music reproduction, I have lost as many battles as I have won. Maybe more. But I have had my share of genuine fun as well. Better yet, my search for an audio system that will bring me sustainable enjoyment and pleasure has reached a successful conclusion. In a way I owe it all to Aspara Acoustics. Let me explain.

 

On An Impulse...
Several years ago I owned a horn-speaker made by the now defunct British firm, Impulse. The Impulse H-2 was among my favorites: dynamic, lively, fun, musically engaging and quite compatible with all manner of amplifier that passed through my listening room. I especially enjoyed the speaker mated to a heavily modified Audio Note Meishu integrated amplifier.

There was even a culture of fun and idiosyncratic behavior built up around the speaker. The H-2 was (and may well continue to serve as) the reference loudspeaker for British audio critic, Jimmy Hughes, who, if I recall, actually set them up backwards so that they would fire directly into the rear wall and not away from it. This is not the sort of treatment one would feel appropriate for a pair of venerable Quad 57s, for example.

The Impulse H-2 was far from flawless. The midrange suffered a bit of horn coloration; vocals sometimes lacked clarity, which reduced their capacity to express or evoke certain emotions. The drivers did not integrate as well as one might have hoped with the net effect being an uneven tonal balance. Sonically, if not aesthetically, the H-2 brought a bit too much attention to itself.

Still, I remember my time with the H-1 fondly. The music had a bounce to its step that was both joyful and intoxicating. One simply could not help but feel good being taken along for the ride. Realizing that one might be able to put together an audio system that could be fun as well as expensive set me down a path in audio that I have been on ever since. The Impulse H-1 was not the answer, but it pointed me in the direction in which the answer would ultimately lay.

 

The H-2 And The Kid From Brooklyn
I learned from my time with the H-2 that I wanted an audio system to enable me to experience all the fun I had listening to music as a teenager and a college student but with more finesse and sophistication. I wanted my system to be an adult version of the kid from Brooklyn I had been. I didn't want my audio system to be a kid from Brooklyn who had just gotten older but no wiser nor sophisticated. On the other hand, I didn't want my audio system to be some stuffy pretentious gentleman in denial of his roots — someone who it never seems can remember anyone or any event from his childhood (someone who if pressed cannot even recall whether his parents were immigrants to this country).

I wanted an audio system that kept music meaningful in my life but in a way that reflected in its way both where I am in life and where I have come from. I didn't want a showpiece audio system – something for others to see and hear and thus something from which they might form ‘appropriate' judgments of me. I wanted an audio system that connected with me — who I am and where I came from. Music has a place in that narrative and I wanted an audio system that fit that narrative. This is the path I have been on (sidetracked more than once, but never waylaid altogether) from the day that Impulse H-1 speaker set foot in my house.

 

From Impulse To Aspara
Aspara Acoustics offers four speakers: the HL-1, HL-2, HL-6 and HL Reference, which is the company's top-of-the-line loudspeaker. The HL-1 and HL-2 are descendants of speakers in the original Impulse line. The HL-1 corresponds to the Impulse H-2 that I owned several years ago. The HL Reference takes the design concepts expressed originally in the Impulse H-2 as refined and altered where necessary in the HL-1, and expresses them fully and without compromise. I had a brief encounter with the HL nearly three years ago. Aspara's United States importer, Jeffrey Catalano of Highwatersound, was demonstrating them in his room at the Home Entertainment Show. Recently uncrated, unsettled by a long journey, barely broken in and compromised further by a small and sonically challenging hotel room, the sound of the Aspara Reference driven by Audio Note electronics was nevertheless intriguing and promising, leaving many visitors to the room — including many reviewers — suitably impressed. I had no thought of asking Jeff about reviewing them at the time, but the audio journey I was on made my doing so (at least in retrospect) inevitable.

 

The Trip And A Plan
Whatever its shortcomings may have been the Impulse H-1 persuaded me that I would be satisfied by an audio system only if it conveyed dynamic realism and allowed me to be immersed in the music. So much audiophile listening has become a form of viewing, as seeing the players performing somewhere in the front of the room, being able to pick them out, and draw outlines around them. When I want to view art I go to museums or galleries; I don't listen to music. Music engulfs and transposes me; and it cannot do that from a distance.

Without having drawn up or settled on a plan, the fact is that once I had the H-2 in house, I set my sights on constructing an audio system featuring high sensitivity speakers and low powered tube amplifiers. After the Impulse left, I read everything I could find on horns, high-sensitivity speakers from Western Electric to the Siemens Klangfilm speakers, to the JBL Hartsfields and beyond. I mixed and matched speakers with electronics searching to reproduce the sound I heard in my head.

All manner of speakers found their way at one time or another into my home: Voight pipes, Jerico horns, Lowthers and many of their back-loaded horn relatives; original Tannoys, original top loader JBL Hartsfields, Hornings, and the Auditorium 23 Solovox. Nearly as many low powered tube electronics graced my listening room: Audio Note (both UK and Kondo); Atma-Sphere, Transcendent Sound and ultimately Shindo.

Electronics from Shindo Labs changed everything for me. I recognized in those products the voicing of the music in my head: the dynamic realism, the sense of proper musical timing and flow. With Shindo I located a fixed point around which the remainder of my search could revolve. I added the Shindo analog playback system to my Catherine preamplifier and the unrivalled 300B Ltd amplifiers. Shindo persuaded me that the sound I heard in my head with the Impulse speakers was not merely aspirational, but attainable — if only I could find a speaker that could let me hear the sound that my front end and electronics had captured and wanted me desperately to experience.

With the exception of the large family of back loaded single driver speakers that uniformly suffered from phase shifts, bass notes behind the beat, and a bass produced by a cabinet and not a driver, every speaker I owned offered something musically persuasive, but each fell short in one way or another. I loved the Solovox best, but it was overmatched a bit by my electronics, being designed for electronics a bit further down the Shindo chain. There was more in my electronics than the Solovox could reveal. The Hartsfields were basically a glorious and outsized midrange speaker with musically accurate dynamics but a somewhat closed in top end. No speaker offered the tweeter to midrange integration of both the Horning Agathon Ultimates and Archibiades, but neither displayed a great integration of midrange to woofers. There was something missing in the upper bass and lower midrange, though there was no faulting either speaker in terms of its low frequency extension. I also felt that the woofers needed more power than I had available.

The many older Tannoys I owned had a way with a bassline that was not only beyond reproach, it was positively addictive. And while the integration of woofer to coaxial tweeter was always good and sometimes better than that, the Tannoys seemed to have something of a tire wrapped around their midsection: a little extra fat around the belly of the beast. Their top end could sound a bit closed in. I was left thinking that everyone should own an older Tannoy at some point to experience the pace and flow of real music, but that one might have to look elsewhere to experience how glorious finesse, agility and nuance can sound.

Other horn speakers were not serious contenders. No names please. Some horn loudspeakers have followings I simply cannot comprehend (e.g. Avantgarde). I have heard some others sound good but only with more power than advertised (e.g. Acapella). None of this is by way of criticism. All speakers have issues; and I found myself ever more picky about speakers since it was the last piece in the puzzle. A mistake could undermine my entire plan. And a less than perfect speaker match would leave me in roughly the same place I had been for the bulk of my audiophile life: so close I can touch it, but just far enough away to feel that the quest would prove hopeless.

 

Hope On The Horizon
And that's just about where I was when I contacted my erstwhile publisher, Steven R. Rochlin, to ask him if he minded my pursuing a two year or so commitment to reviewing all manner of high-sensitivity loudspeakers. I cannot in good faith review electronics in my reference system because it makes no sense. I have the sound I love and it would not be fair simply to throw some other fine preamplifier or amplifier into my system only to have me complain about it — perhaps unfairly — because it doesn't' have the voice that speaks to me or because it does not match as well as my reference components do with my preamplifier or amplifier. No surprise there: they were designed around one another. I think most reviews run the risk of being unfair to begin with so if I could avoid making it worse, I should do so.

Speakers were something else. Would they let me hear what my system is capable of? Would they let the music flow or throw a roadblock in its way? Would they sing or snort? With that in mind, I lined up a series of speakers to review.

Note that I made other contacts as well and in the months to come I will be reporting on a very enjoyable speaker from Acuhorn and on a brand new speaker from Maxxhorn. I will also report on a Shindo speaker that the importer refers to as the 753 because it was built based on the importer, Jonathan Halpern's request for a speaker of the look and dimensions of the legendary Western Electric 753. There is also a good chance I will be reporting on the Auditorium 23 Rondo, the stablemate of the Solovox that to this point has been available only in Europe.

The first call I made was to Jeff Catalano. Jeff imports the Hornings which I have praised in the past and which I really admire. And of course I remembered my brief encounter with the Aspara at Home Entertainment Show. After a brief conversation during which time I learned of the Aspara-Impulse connection, Jeff and I agreed that I would review the Reference. Within a week he delivered a pair to my home in Connecticut.

Jeff has been to my home several times and we had a pretty good idea where the speakers would sound pretty good as an initial point of departure. He allowed as well that unlike many other speakers he has known, the Aspara were not particularly finicky about placement. And so we plopped the Reference down, listened for a bit, made a few minor adjustments, and off he and his crew went back to New York City. The Aspara were left behind, and for the next three months or so, I had the distinct pleasure of their company.

 

Beauty's Only Skin Deep
The Aspara HL Reference is a large two-way horn loudspeaker; it would create an aesthetic challenge in most listening environments. The speakers checks in at just under 57 inches tall and 21 inches wide. The woofer section is nearly 32 inches deep and the free standing tweeter horn is roughly 21 inches deep. The speaker is solidly constructed using hardwoods and a range of finishing veneers is available. The speakers I had in for review were finished in a light wood whose tonal color was somewhere between birch and bamboo. Each speaker weighs in at nearly 200 lbs. The 12-inch woofer is sourced from Fane Acoustics. The bass horn is constructed of 18mm birch ply suitably braced, to which is added 6mm of MDF panels. The veneer finishes are then glued to the MDF panels. The horn mouth is four square feet situated at the bottom of the speaker firing at the floor. The speaker sits on four wooden legs creating the necessary space between the mouth of the bass horn and the floor. The high frequency driver is a 2-inch titanium compression driver also sourced from Fane. The crossover feeding this is unusual in that it boosts the extreme top via a bye pass network. The driver feeds a radial horn that is molded from glass-reinforced plastic. The high frequency driver is more sensitive than the bass driver and the overall sensitivity of the speaker is 100dB/W/m.

 

Easy To Place And Easy On The Ears
.Aesthetically challenging, as Jeff had suggested the Aspara put far fewer demands on room placement than most speakers with which I have had extensive experience. I ended up placing them three feet off the back-wall and roughly ten feet apart (measured from the center of the tweeters). In this position, the speakers were able to energize the entire listening room in a way that only one speaker before and one speaker since has. My room is reasonably large and over the years I have settled on two listening positions – whether I am listening critically or for enjoyment. One position is roughly eight to ten feet from the speakers (depending on how far out into the room the speakers are placed), and the other position is roughly sixteen or eighteen feet away – again depending on speaker placement. Toe in on the speakers — when necessary— is adjusted of course depending on my seating position.

Almost without exception there is a noticeable drop off in energy between the two positions, and the sound loses some life and excitement as one moves from the nearer to the further position. As a result, all of my friends who come by to listen seriously naturally gravitate to the closer in seat and only in time and over the course of many hours move back and forth. There is something to be said as well for the presentation of the music in the far-field listening position.

Not so with the Aspara HL Reference. There was nary a difference in energy, life or musical excitement between the two listening positions. Indeed, the HL Reference energized the entire room and was one of the very few speakers I have had in home that were satisfying to listen to off-axis. Thus, they were not only undemanding in terms of set up; they were equally undemanding in terms of listening position. The complete opposite of, say, a conventional electrostatic loudspeaker.

Beyond that the speakers were a constant source of enjoyment and pleasure. They played all kinds of music with equal aplomb and with appropriate scale. The initial impression of the HL is that they play as big as they look; and they do. This is in contrast, say, with many single driver back loaded horns – which are not only more demanding of set-up and significantly more directional, but are also significantly more intimate in scale. Their presentation is immediate and dynamic, but the scale is invariably diminished. It is no wonder that single driver back loaded horns are the darlings of those who favor recordings of acoustic jazz trios, small classical ensembles and live recordings of pop singers in small venues.

The HL Reference could sound big, very big in fact, on everything from recordings of large orchestras to choral music to a live performance of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But they could sound equally at home in more intimate settings, such as Leonard Cohen's stirring ‘Tower of Song' on I'm Your Man. In short the HL speakers were unfazed by matters of scale, large or small. Given its heavy and cumbersome looking aesthetic, I was pleased by the speaker's relative agility. It had bounce and the music flowed naturally. The compression driver in particular was quick and able to turn on a dime, thus expressing subtle micro dynamic shadings through the midrange and upper frequencies beautifully well.

 

Revealing Horns
Horn loudspeakers make very little demands on amplification. On the other hand, in my experience they are the most revealing loudspeakers one can own. This is ironic in a way because so many listeners complain about horn colorations, but the fact is that horns are better able than any other loudspeaker type with which I am familiar to reveal the tonal colorations of associated equipment. Good horns don't require large amounts of power, but they do demand the best power you can find. Anything less, and you will hear it… and you are unlikely to enjoy what you hear.

The same is true of the differences between analog and digital. I have suggested before that most modern loudspeakers have an homogenizing effect on the sound. The conventional wisdom is that the difference between good tube and good solid-state amplifiers is narrowing and that there is a similar narrowing of the differences between analog and digital playback. I don't doubt for a second that this accurately reports most listeners' experiences, but my suspicion is that what they are hearing is the consequences of insensitive loudspeakers. I have never had any such experience through high efficiency speakers. Invariably digital is revealed as the highly processed and artificial sounding medium that it is; and the gap between it and very good vinyl is nearly unimaginably vast.

I had first been alerted to the depth and breadth of the gulf between analog and digital when I reviewed the Auditorium 23 Solovox which I subsequently purchased. The Aspara HL Reference was as revealing of the difference between analog and digital as had been the Solovox and more so even than the JBL Hartsfield's that had been my other reference loudspeaker for the past two years.

While the HL Reference speakers were in my system, I also had in the latest digital combination from Reimyo whose one box CD player had been my favorite digital component. The Reimyo DAC and Transport about which I will be reporting next, constitute the best digital front end I have heard to this point. They do not approach the sound of my analog set up, but the Aspara revealed just how much more musically persuasive the Reimyo combination is than is the digital components it replaced (which shall go nameless) as well as the Meridian and Raysonic players that have replaced it. The Meridian and the Raysonic are both very credible players. But they are nowhere near as musically convincing as the Reimyo. In this regard the Aspara HL Reference makes for a wonderful reviewer's tool as well as a wonderful loudspeaker for listening to music.

The Aspara shone a light on all the upstream components — not just the digital front end — and in this context, nothing could have made me happier, which brings me to the next part of my quest for a music system I could live with long term. The Aspara HL is the first full range loudspeakers I have had in house that allowed me to hear what my Shindo electronics are capable of. Maybe I should just stop here. Nothing could have been more important to me at the time.

After all, I must have had a good dozen speakers in house in the hopes of recreating the sound I had in my head — the sound I heard when I was first stimulated by the Impulse H-2. It was the sound I knew was possible when I connected with Shindo electronics. To be honest, I had heard the sound for real and not just in my head a couple of times via the Shindo Latour loudspeakers. Once in a loft and once at the distributors apartment. But I had not heard it in my home, and if owning a pair of the Latour loudspeakers was the only way to create it in my living space, I feared that I would never have that sound in my home. The Latour were a bit out of my reach financially.

Other speakers had brought me close. The Solovox reproduced the dynamic realism, flow and harmonic richness that I longed for, but not the weight or extension, scale or authority. Both Hornings produced that wonderful midrange presence and finesse. The DeVore Silverback, though a conventional dynamic speaker did much the same. Both the Hornings and DeVore's display an integration of tweeter and midrange that is without equal in my experience. Both left me yearning for upper bass, lower midrange energy. The Hartsfield's had that in spades and a seductive midrange and lower treble, but the music came out of a box that would not disappear from view and just let the electronics sing in their voice... the voice I longed to hear.

Then came the Aspara HL Reference and for the first time in a full range loudspeaker, in my home, I could hear that voice: the easy and natural flow of the music. Ah yes, the lush and immediate midrange and the weight and authority of the bottom end. Not just some of the time, but all of the time. And not just on some music, on all of the music.

The Impulse H-2 showed me that audio in the home should be fun and can be fun. It also pointed me down the path I had to follow to find enduring satisfaction from a musical playback system in my home. The Aspara HL Reference put me within a hair of completing that system. For all its virtues, the HL is not without a few shortcomings. Compared to the incredibly smooth and nuanced presence region of the Hornings, the HL is just a bit rough around the edges. It is, in other words, not as refined as the very best hornspeakers with which I am familiar.

Aspara favors the ‘dead box' approach to loading the woofer. The aim is to kill internal resonances created by the horn loading. This is a perfectly sensible approach and in this regard the Aspara takes the same approach that many conventional loudspeakers do. This is not the approach, for example, that Horning takes. It is not the approach Shindo takes. It is not the approach Auditorium 23 takes. None of these designers uses MDF either.

In my listening, this feature of the Aspara had three consequences that detracted from the otherwise exceptional performance of the loudspeaker. First, relative to the compression driver midrange/tweeter, dynamics are marginally suppressed. Second, the lower frequencies are not quite as transparent or immediate as are the midrange and upper frequencies. Third, the bass is not quite as well pitch defined as is the rest of the speaker. There is no problem of integration between woofer and tweeter. In this regard, the HL Reference is a major improvement over the H-2. But there is a difference in character between the woofer and tweeter that is small but noticeable: differences in dynamics, pitch accuracy and transparency. These are minor issues that do not detract in any way from the overall success. In every way the HL Reference is a world-class speaker. Like every speaker it has its imperfections. It opened my eyes as well as my ears. Find a pair and listen to it; I am betting it will open yours.

 

Specifications
Type: Two-way full range horn loudspeaker
Frequency Response: 30Hz to 20 kHz
Upper Range: 2-inch titanium compression driver loaded by a radial horn
Bass: 12-inch driver supported by a 42-inch folded horn
Horn configuration type developed by Aspara.
Horn mouth is situated at floor level, mouth area 4 square feet
Crossover: high frequency first order and bass is second order
Cabinet: Engineered birch plywood cabinet and high quality veneer of custom finishes
Price: Approximately $22,000 per pair

 

Company Information
Aspara Acoustics
6 Dunstanville Terrace
Falmouth
Cornwall TR11 2SW
UK

Voice: (+44) 01326 212291
Fax: (+44) 01326 212291
E-mail: info@asparaacoustics.co.uk
Website: www.asparaacoustics.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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