Review: Dali Helicon 800 Speaker

Category: Speakers

Anticipating a move to smaller quarters with a smaller listening room, along with my bad back, I made preparations to downsize my speakers.

So, I sold my B&W Nautilus 802, and my VSA VR4-SR. I picked up a pair of VSA VR4-jr. to replace them.

With the VR4-SR gone, I dutifully set up the VR4-jr in my large listening room, for what I expected to be a short time. However with the housing market at such a low, I literally have amost no showings for months, so I dug in for the time being.

The JRs were pre-owned in excellent condition, so they were well broken in. The problem: I found them rather disappointing. Particularly in bass definition, regardless of lead shot, spiking, etc. The dynamics were not what I was used to. The cheaper tweeter, though competent enough, wasn't in the same league as the SR. I also realized I was kind of tired of the VR look and the unexceptional wood veneering and fit and finish of these Chinese-made products.

That's when, merely by chance, I heard the Dali Helicon 800. I was rather impressed not only by the sound, but by the gorgeous cabinet work and incredible veneering finished in a rubbed, high gloss finish. Photos don't do these speakers justice. They are simply scrumptious.

But I don't want a speaker based on appearance. Based on this audition, and Absolute Sound's speaker of the year award to the smaller Helicon 400, I decided to buy the 800's. I had the opportunity to buy a new pair at discount, and went with it.

Unboxing them, I was literally knocked out by their appearance.. After hooking them up, they initially sounded midrange distant and somewhat bright and disjointed. I made a desperate call to Dali USA, where they gently calmed me down, and told me to expect many stages of break in, with changes in different drivers at differing speeds. I was convinced I needed to wait and give them time.

After 50 hours, a coherent, musical sound emerged and filled my large listening room with music with a presentation different than my past speakers.

The Helicon 800 has a very airy, open, clear sound, likely due, at least in part, to the unique tweeter design. Even though the ribbon crosses over at 13K, it affects frequency ranges far lower. Cymbals, violins, brass, voices, nearly all instruments were surrounded and separated by a live cushion of air that was most appealing, musical and natural sounding. Images had an unwavering stability in the soundstage. You can hear into the deep reaches of the soundstage more than what my other speakers were capable of.

The Nautilus 802 is more forward and flattened in depth. It is also more aggressive sounding, particularly in the midrange, upper midrange and lower treble. The B&W did not have the delicate airiness or ultimate detail of the Helicon, nor the ultimate finesse, and it also had a metallic edge that became noticeable on certain material and lesser recordings.

The Helicon's bass is just a bit warm and bloomy, but is very pleasant and never boomy or uncontrolled. I prefer this type of bass to the overdamped, overtight bass that some audiophiles prize. The VR senior had the best bass of all, as well it should with the high quality metal drivers it uses. Still, I found the Helicon bass to be more than capable for most needs. This speaker can be played at very loud volumes and belt out the bass passages with no signs of distress.

The overall sonic picture is one of a very large soundstage, both in width and depth, though neither forward nor recessed. It is certainly less in your face than either the Nautilus or the VR senior, both of which are more forward sounding designs.

I found the Helicon 800 to be a speaker just slightly warm of neutral in the lower and mid regions, with a revealing and airy high end that is best served by trying different cable combinations and equipment matching. It will show you what's wrong with your equipment, but it will also reward you with easy placement, mellifluous, pleasant, and musical sound that reveals detail in an easy manner. It is simply a speaker to enjoy listening to music on, without feeling you are listening to a hyped up, hi-fi sounding speaker.

No speaker, or component for that matter, is perfect. But I have found the Dali to be such a musical, pleasant and beautiful looking instrument that I am happy to keep this speaker. At 90 pounds, it is a weight and size that is manageable and moveable. I have no knowledge of the Mark 2 version, which is said to have larger woofer magnets, which necessitated changing the crossover and the cabinet slightly to accommodate the electrical parameters. It may sound different, maybe better, or maybe some of the magic I hear will be gone. Hence, I have no interest in changing, plus the beautiful front veneering is gone on the Mark 2, which I enjoy admiring, as all my listening is done with the grills removed.

Dali is relatively new to the US market, but I anticipate the more exposure Dali speakers receive, the more admirers these fine Danish designs of impeccable fit, finish and sonics will garner. Do keep in mind that the speakers need to be broken in and their associated equipment carefully chosen. I have since heard Dali's at dealerships where they didn't sound that good at all.. But then, I don't have much respect for the majority of dealers I have encountered over the years, or their ability to hear, setup and match equipment competently.

At the price the Helicon 800 is available on the used market, it is a true bargain, and I know of no full range speaker that could match its overall abilities at this price level.

Associated gear
Conrad Johnson CT5 preamplifier
Northstar Transport
Bel Canto DAC3
Pass Labs X250.5

Similar products
B&W Nautilus 802
Von Schweikert VRjr
Von Schweikert VRsr
Zear, I searched and found where you had posted about your Helicons when you first got them. Your review is quite consistent with what you said before.

My friend who bought the 800s is pleased as pie. Whenever I stop over for a listening session, I find them to be a pleasure to listen to. The airiness is so beautiful and enhances the listening experience. If I had the money, I'd seriously think about buying a pair of Dali.

What you say about the bass I agree with. It can sound killer and be fairly tight, but not as tight as the best I've heard. It's recording dependent though. Certain recordings sounded quite defined. But I guess I'm like you. I'd rather have a slightly richer sound than bass that is so tight it sounds constipated. As you said, nothing's perfect and we often forget that in this hobby. Recordings vary so much they can make a great system sound like crap. Everyone needs to keep that in mind and have some well recorded discs that they know well to use in making decisions on equipment. I know some so-called audiophiles who use some pretty wretched recordings to judge equipment, and they end up making some wrong decisions on equipment based on those recordings.
It is always gratifying to hear positive feedback from other audiophiles on pieces I own.

The airiness we both find I attribute to the Vifa-Scanspeak silk dome / ribbon arrangement. Having never owned a ribbon or electrostatic design, this experience has shown me that there are qualities beyond just the typical dome design.

You made an astute comment on recording quality. One cannot truly evaluate a high end design without using high quality source material. Nonetheless, I still think it important and informative as well to listen to lesser quality recordings and from different genres, as most listeners will be listening to a significant number of recordings that are less than of audiophile quality.
My friend and I listened to a must hear recording yesterday on his Helicon 800. The CD is "Wood" by bass player Brian Bromberg.

The bass is so powerful and demanding, you best have speakers and electronics that can handle it. The Helicons amazed me, as they were moving air and pumping out heavy, tight bass at loud levels without breaking up. This is definitely a system tester recording.
Nice review, Zear. Your system sounds like it is carefully put together and must sound excellent.

You mentioned that you had not heard the Mark 2 version. I mentioned before that I have a friend with Helicon 800 like you. Like most audiophiles, he was wondering how the Mark 2 sounded, and asked me to go to a fellow's house who owned the Mark 2 version.

Obviously, not the same room, but the same amplifier, and my friend brought his preamp and digital player with him, along with his interconnects. So, this was as close as he could get to having a similar system.

The Mark 2 bass was yet tighter, but we both felt it was somewhat sterile sounding and lacking in warmth. The midrange and highs sounded quite similar, though we wondered if some of what you call "the magic" was gone. When you fool around with magnet sizes and crossover changes, you change the sound of the speaker.

I'll have to say in the end my friend had no desire to change from his Mark 1 Helicons.
You and your friend's findings on the differences between the Mk1 and Mk2 are believable, considering your friend went through considerable efforts to make as meaningful a comparison as possible, outside of having the speakers in his own system. He certainly went the whole mile by bringing his player and preamp and even cables for the listening session.

I agree with you on design changes. I remember a speaker designer who told me he increased the magnet size on a particular woofer, and was never able to achieve as fine a sound, despite exhaustive crossover changes or other tweaks. A change in electrical parameters, such as a woofer magnet, can change the sonics.
After perusing another thread on the Helicon 800 I had posted to previously, I wanted to address a few issues brought up in that thread, which I will do here and in the other thread.

As more hours were clocked on my Helicons, their lovely sound continued to improve.

It is correct that the impedance curve on this design is quite easy to drive; that is why they perform well with tubes or solid state.

It is also true that different cables will give you different results. I feel this is a key to getting the best sonics that suit your ears the best.

The Helicon 800 has a nice body to its sound and is just slightly warm. The treble is where its revealing nature and uniquely airy quality can provide a new world to your ears, but it can also give you the true nature of some of your bright, tinny recordings. If you want the air and resolution, you don't get a masking of the ugliness on the top end of some recordings. Solution? Throw in a really warm interconnect when listening to these types of recordings. I've been told that Cardas Golden Cross or Cross would be possibilities.

I recently tried Cardas Golden Reference and Golden Presence interconnects and found them to be remarkably musical. The hidden gem here was the Golden Presence, which I found to have a particularly open, large, airy, and detailed. It has a beguiling character to its sound that perhaps surpassed any interconnect I have had in my system. This struck me, as nearly no one talks about Golden Presence. It is truly excellent.

With the small amount of discussion on the Helicon speakers, it appears only a small number of people have discovered these outstanding speakers.
Since I wrote this review, I was presented with the opportunity to exchange other gear for a new pair of Helicon 800 MK2. This was a somewhat an impulsive decision, as I wasn't sure what the newer version sounded like. Although I haven't fully broken the MK2's in, here are my impressions.

The bass is definitely tighter and it is capable of higher power handling, not that this was an issue. The originals play quite loud. The somewhat high calorie fullness of the original has been reduced, but I am not suggesting the Mk2 is lean. It still has much of the Dali sound, though much tighter. This is probably due to the design changes made to the woofer; namely, they have nearly doubled the magnet size and redesigned the spider design to control the woofer's movement. This can be seen by watching the woofer's movement on certain bass demanding recordings. In the original, the woofer displays much more movement, whereas in the MK2, the woofer shows a tighter and more control excursion.

Additionally, the crossover has upgraded components to more closely match their very expensive Euphonia series.

Interestingly, the tweeters, which remain the same, seem to be more forgiving to poorly or brightly recorded material. This was a pleasant surprise. Perhaps this is the result of the crossover upgrades. Also, the changes made to the woofers and midrange would necessitate some crossover design changes as well.

There also seems to be even more detail and unraveling of the musical threads, which was already outstanding in the original.

I will report back when I have put more hours on them. I must say that the bass capabilities of this Mk2 are very impressive, with no cabinet vibrations or any hint of breakup at the loudest volumes I would care to play. Not many speaker designs with dual 8" woofers are capable of this level of bass refinement and volume, in my experience.