Review: Daedalus DA-1.1
This is a review of the Daedalus DA-1.1 which I posted recently but somehow fell off the internet.
A truly great loudspeaker is one that is able to transport the listener to the musical performance no matter what the genre. Over my many years as an audiophile and music lover, I’ve listened to a number of loudspeakers that seem to prefer one or another kind of music but fall short when they are asked to play against type. If your taste in music runs pretty narrow, or if you enjoy putting on the “hi-fi spectacular” for friends with your favorite audiophile recordings, you might enjoy some of these well regarded models more than I did. But my taste in music runs the gamut and I’m not much for replaying the same select group of recordings over and over again because they really make my system shine. Rather, for me, a truly great speaker has to do it all and do it damn well. The new Daedalus DA-1.1’s are just such a design and at their introductory price of $6800 must be considered one of the best buys in hi end audio.
I’ve been a big fan of Daedalus Audio ever since I purchased a pair of the original DA-1’s back in 2005. That speaker was purchased after a two-year effort to find a floorstander that retained the tonal authenticity of my former Harbeth Compact 7ES’s but with deeper bass and more realistic dynamics. The DA-1’s easily bested at least a dozen other speakers I auditioned during that time period, some of which cost considerably more money. My review of the original DA-1, posted here and elsewhere, cited a lengthy list of positive attributes--authentic tonality and dynamics, ease of placement and drive, fabulous aesthetics among the most prominent. However the DA-1’s gave up a little to my Harbeth’s in terms of midrange transparency--the Harbeth’s, like a good electrostatic speaker, can really bring vocalists right into your living room. The old DA-1 could also sound a little congested in the upper bass in a way that tended to thicken the lower midrange and detract from the otherwise impressive dynamic qualities of the speaker. Finally, the treble performance of the DA-1 lacked that last bit of refinement and extension when compared with some other well-regarded designs. Overall, however, I really loved my DA-1’s and had little interest in replacing them until I received word that Lou Hinkley, the man behind Daedalus Audio, was embarking on a thorough redesign of the speaker.
Over the past two years I have come to know and appreciate Lou as a talented loudspeaker designer, woodworker and refreshingly honest businessman. As a musician who got into the loudspeaker trade by building some of the best acoustic amplification modules in the business, Lou understands how instruments sound and strives toward their accurate reproduction (tone, timbre, dynamics, etc) in his home loudspeaker designs. The notion that Lou was going to take an already worthy design and improve upon it got me very interested.
For 2008 Lou has completed revamped his loudspeaker line, which now includes both home theater and audiophile models at various price points. The new Reference Series audiophile speakers (The Ulysses and the DA-RMa) aim to marry the dynamics and tonal accuracy Daedalus is known for with the kind of pinpoint imaging many enthusiasts cherish. In the process of designing the Reference Series, the Home Theater (DA-1.1, DA-2.1 and Center Channel) systems have received a complete makeover and boast new drivers, wiring and crossovers that are on par with the Reference Series. With equivalent components and design elements the main difference between the two lines is the number and arrangement of the drivers and the boxes that house them. As a result, while all the Daedalus models are high efficiency designs that get instrumental tones and dynamics right, what distinguishes the two lines is how they portray the music in your listening room. The Reference Series is for those who put a premium on precise imaging on axis (in the “sweet spot”), while the Home Theater Series is for those who value a consistent presentation far beyond the optimum listening position.
With some patient and invaluable coaching from Lou I finally decided to replace my DA-1’s with the new version DA-1.1’s. He assured me that the imaging and soundstaging of the new model was far superior to the old and, given the open floor plan of my home, the DA-1.1 would be a better choice than the Ulysses. I agreed and ordered up a pair in “mission” quarter sewn oak stained to match our Stickley furniture (this is one of several “upcharge” finishes that are available).
When the DA-1.1’s finally arrived I was absolutely stunned by the quality of the cabinets. Lou makes all his speakers out of renewable hardwoods, such as cherry, oak and walnut. His hand-rubbed finish is fine furniture grade. When I set the speakers in place flanking our Stickley entertainment center they quietly blended into the overall aesthetic of the living space. Needless to say, the WAF of these speakers is about as high as it gets. For a speaker of this size (46H X 11W X 16D) to pull off a disappearing act in a 23L X 14W X9H room is quite an accomplishment indeed. My wife was thrilled, but how would they sound?
The remainder of my comments will point out the key areas where the new DA-1.1’s improve upon their predecessors, since many folks may be contemplating the upgrade path I took. At the same time, however, I hope it will become clear why I think the DA-1.1 should be considered a truly great loudspeaker and, at its price, one of the greatest loudspeaker bargains in high-end audio.
The DA-1.1 are much quicker and more dynamic than the old model. The drivers start and stop with tremendous agility, revealing much greater inner detail and subtle nuances within the recording. I am discovering notes that I never knew existed as the new model completely avoids problems with smearing and timing I was unaware of in the old design. The new drivers are effortlessly responsive and the speakers have an impressive ability to project sound into the listening space. My amplifier seems to coast while the speaker thunders through complex passages. On a micro dynamic level the subtle details that bring the listener much closer to the live event are faithfully rendered, capturing the emotional context and musical synergy of the performance. Overall, the new DA-1.1 brings you at least two full steps closer to the live event and does so without the artifice common among so many speakers that achieve “high resolution” but somehow miss the essence of the musical performance. The new DA-1.1’s manage to approximate the detail and transparency of an electrostatic speaker while retaining the dynamic power of a large multi-way dynamic speaker.
Lou was right, the imaging and soundstaging characteristics of the new DA-1.1 are far superior to the old model. With the old DA-1’s, the owner had to accept a clear tradeoff--excellent off-axis response for an imprecise and diffuse soundscape. Most fans of Lou’s designs willingly accepted this trade-off, since live music really lacks the highly precise imaging most audiophiles seem to relish. However, the new DA-1.1’s are somehow able to square this circle--they image incredibly well AND offer a wider listening window in which the frequency response and soundstage hold together far outside the “sweet spot”. The new DA-1.1’s provide all the subtle clues (depth, height, width) that you would expect from a loudspeaker like the Vandersteen Quatro but add off-axis listenability that few, if any, speaker can match. If anything, the images presented by the DA-1.1 are more authentically sized than other speakers I have heard (including the Quatro)--realistically portraying the performers as they appeared in the recording venue rather than homogenizing them within the sonic landscape of every recording. Additionally, the performers seem to emerge out of an utterly black void--there is a three dimensionality to this speaker that very few can match.
The new DA-1.1 retains the tonal authenticity and organic character of the prior design but is more faithful to the recording and sounds more tonally neutral than the old DA-1’s. By comparison, the DA-1 exhibited a mild thickening of the lower midrange, which gave it a warmer, less vibrant hue. The chestiness of certain male vocals and the excessive richness of cello and bassoon as portrayed by the old model are gone. With the new DA-1.1’s instrumental timbres are spot on and have all the richness and warmth of the real thing without the added thickening present in the previous design. Vocals have an immediacy and authenticity that rivals some of the best dynamic and electrostatic designs. Instrumental timbres are spot on--rich, present and highly resolved. The new, highly modified Fostex midrange driver is a real darling--open, honest and thoroughly engaging. With the old DA-1’s distinguishing between recording venues, mastering engineers and record labels was much more of a challenge. The new model allows all these qualities of the recorded performance come through and not always to good effect. In fact, there have been a few moments (while listening to less than stellar recordings) since obtaining my new DA-1.1’s that I missed the more forgiving nature of the old model. But as with life you simply can’t have it all. The new model is so much more revealing, extended, dynamic and real sounding that I am willing to accept that a few recordings will simply get less rotation in my system than they might have had I not changed speakers. This point is not to be overstated--the new DA-1.1’s retain the non-fatiguing merits of Lou’s earlier designs, it is simply a matter of hearing more of what is on the record, for good or for ill.
According to Lou, the crossover has been substantially reworked for the new models. While the old DA-1 impressed with its seamless presentation, the new model takes coherence to the point of perfection. Solo piano, which will often reveal crossover anomalies in lesser loudspeakers (such as the Sonus Faber Cremona I auditioned some time ago), is reproduced with incredible fidelity. There is no sense whatsoever of one driver handing off to another. For a multi-way, multiple driver design to get this so right really moves this speaker into another realm and puts it on par with the best (and costliest) designs that I have had the pleasure to hear. Lou has once again worked very closely with Guy Veralud on the crossover design for the new models and it is clear this partnership is one of the most symbiotic relationships in all of hi end audio. While the superiority of the new DA-1.1 is no doubt due to a variety of factors, the improvements to the crossover have to be considered most responsible for the overall success of this design. I have never heard a multiple driver loudspeaker that sounds so impeccably coherent as the new DA-1.1--period.
Finally, performance at the frequency extremes is radically improved. While the bass response is clearly better than the old DA-1 (deeper, tighter, leaner, more resolved and utterly lacking in bloat or overhang) it is the treble performance that really shines. The Vifa tweeter from the old design has been replaced by a model from German maker Eton and it is a wonder other designers have not found this little gem. For those contemplating the upgrade from the old model the gain in high frequency extension, air, delicacy, speed and resolution is worth the price of admission alone.
The DA-1.1 comes with magnetic grills and can be ordered with matching platform stands that many feel contribute to improved performance. As with my old DA-1’s, I have opted for threaded inserts that accept Star Sound Audiopoints, which provide suitable anchoring of the speaker to the listening environment.
With the new DA-1.1 there is simply very little in the way of trade-offs--you get a high efficiency, dynamic and natural sounding speaker that will compete with anything I’ve heard below $20K. In fact, there are really only two speakers I can recall hearing whose overall performance might rival the DA-1.1--the Vandersteen Model 5A and the Harbeth Monitor 40. Only these speakers have the weight, authority, tonality, transparency, delicacy and realism that rival the DA-1.1, but the Daedalus does this at less than half the price (or more). And unlike these two speakers, with the DA-1.1 you get all this in a gorgeous, handcrafted package that will enhance any decor. I have to admit, I was reluctant to let my old DA-1’s out the door. Distance prevented an opportunity to audition the new model and I was happy with my old setup. But my faith in Lou has been rewarded tenfold and as a result I am here to tell you that these speakers will surely grace my living room for a long, long time to come.
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Esoteric X-03SE/Symposium Svelte Shelf
Audio Research SP-16
Audio Research 150.2
Empirical Design Cables and Power Cords