Review: Hsu Research ULS-15 Mk2 Subwoofer
He’s renowned for his polish and nuance, as in his work with The Crusaders, Steely Dan’s best selling album, Aja, and a slew of smooth jazz CDs. A prodigious L.A. studio musician in the 1970s, Larry Carlton’s signature sound graced chart-toppers, including some by Herb Alpert, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and Jerry Garcia. But don’t let his G-rated demeanor fool you. He’s also been known to take a deep drag from a cigarette, place it on the end of his Gibson ES-335 and let it rip before a cheering throng in a packed bar. This is best exemplified in his album, Last Nite.
Thus, it should come as little surprise that I would include a few songs from this album in my evaluation of the ULS-15 Mk2 subwoofer, which is Hsu Research’s most musical and “spouse-friendly” sub. It’s diminutive compared to their lauded VTF-15 H and VTF-3 Mk5 HP end table-sized behemoths. Yet, I had read that this sealed subwoofer could really dig deep and rattle the room with startling deft and impact, and I wanted to find out for myself.
The Listening Session
“So What.” Larry Carlton. Last Nite. MCA Records, 1987. Vinyl album.
It’s February 17, 1986 at the Baked Potato in North Hollywood, California. With the reels rolling, Carlton takes the smooth jazz gloves off and unleashes a meandering, introspective cascade of notes with his ES-335 electric guitar on this Miles Davis classic. It’s not long before acclaimed sessions bass player, Abraham Laboriel, joins the fray with a playful deft and hint of weightiness, promising good things ahead.
The payoff is almost immediate: Carlton scumbles over scales and chord progressions in masterful improvisation, with Laboriel’s lithe and thick sounding electric bass handling the twists and turns with great aplomb.
So far, so good. The ULS-15 Mk2 blends well with the Von Scweikert VR-5 HSE speakers in bringing this session to life; drummer John Robinson’s kick drum has weight and oomph as Terry Trotter’s keyboards take over solo duties. This is truly how a live recording should sound. The crowd applauds.
“Don’t Give It Up.” Larry Carlton. Last Nite. MCA Records, 1987. Vinyl album.
Robinson’s kick drum, Alex Acuna’s percussion and Laboriel’s bass set the stage, comping off Carlton’s Gibson before he embarks on a frenzied tear. The ULS-15 and the Von Schweikerts mirror the band, cohesive, accurate and fast in reproducing this riveting rock-edged romp. The overdubbed saxophones and trumpet (remixed later at Carlton’s Room 335 home studio) complements Carlton’s fiery and sassy guitar riffs, while Laboriel pounds out the bass line with passion and precision. My face is aglow as Carlton’s final flourish fades and patrons cheer.
“Forty Reasons.” Chad Wackerman. Forty Reasons. CMP Records, 1991. CD ripped to laptop.
Jimmy Johnson’s electric bass ambles in with dark and ominous overtones, full of depth and authority in this gem by the talented polyrhythmic L.A. sessions drummer, Chad Wackerman. With his kick drum counterpoints, Jim Cox’s keyboard and Allan Holdsworth’s minimalist fade-in comping, it’s a catchy start.
Suddenly, Cox explodes into a passionate and frenetic bridge; Wackerman’s toms, cymbals and kick drum sound balanced and amazingly good. Leading into the second verse, the keys set the stage for the mercurial solo of guitar synth guru, Allan Holdsworth, which starts out slowly but builds into an unsettling, but brilliant frenetic fusillade. All the while, the bass, toms, snare, and bass drum keep the vibe slamming.
Holdsworth uncorks a circumspect, slow brewing solo with hints of John Coltrane’s mathematical approach; it builds into a percussive inferno laced with reverb, power and slam.
And, like a thunderstorm passing, Jim Cox’s keyboards play out a melodic if mournful denouement, undergirded by Wackerman’s counterpoint and Johnson’s heavy-footed walking bass. It’s magic.
“Fearless.” Chad Wackerman. Forty Reasons. CMP Records, 1991. CD ripped to laptop.
Like a stripped down top fuel drag racer, this song is all muscle and no fat. It’s essentially a delicious drum solo comped by Holdsworth’s guitar and Johnson’s bass. Toms, snare, bass drum and and a large array of crashing cymbals explode in an orgiastic whir of energy, enhanced with echo and effects that leave one breathless. Wackerman is an immensely talented dude, and Team Von Shcweikert/Hsu delivers his payload across the finish line with checkered flags.
“Quiet Life.” Chad Wackerman. Forty Reasons. CMP Records, 1991. CD ripped to laptop.
In contrast, Johnson’s bass is surprisingly sensitive in a mournful, slow lead comped by Cox’s keyboard, then slides effortlessly into a deep, undergirding rhythmic role as Holdsworth’s guitar takes over in understated fashion.
Re-assuming the lead again, Johnson’s bass is seamlessly portrayed in its delicacy and detail, and when it’s time to play support in the lower octaves to Holdsworth — and later, Cox — his tone is a giant anaconda, alternatively menacing and captivating, as it snakes its way through the tune’s undulations.
The ease of Johnson’s transitions from lighter, fretless bass sounding leads to the massive leaden voicing emanating from the bowels of hell call to mind works by 20th century painter Francis Bacon, whose oils are often built up to several inches thick, but gently taper down to a very thin coating, sometimes revealing the bare linen canvas underneath. These seamless shifts are very well conveyed by the interplay of the ULS-15 and the Von Schweikerts (and the highly acclaimed LampizatOr Lite 7 DAC which, after all, does a sublime job of converting digital music files to analog).
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Pink Floyd. Wish You Were Here. EMI, 1975. CD reissue, ripped to laptop.
Gilmore’s guitar solo introduction is amply supported with the weightiness of Roger Waters’ electric bass and Richard Wright’s keyboards in this classic by the Uber rock group, Pink Floyd. Nick Mason’s drums and kick bass have plenty of oomph, locking in the rhythm and lower end well, while Gilmore’s brilliant and effervescent guitar holds court.
The snare, the toms, high hat and bass drum are tastefully understated but remain a solid presence. The table is set, and now the singing commences. Waters, backed by Gilmore and Wright on vocals come on in their haunting eulogy. Then, Dick Parry’s saxophone solo, like Gilmore’s electric guitar, is three dimensional and well articulated against the thick, dark rhythm section.
“Welcome to the Machine.” Pink Floyd. Wish You Were Here. EMI, 1975. CD reissue, ripped to laptop.
Basking in the afterglow of “Shine On,” I am roused by the rumbling introduction to this celebrated hit. It sounds and feels like a Mack semi-trailer truck backing into my living room, which tremors under the subsonic pressure. I think a couple thousand brain cells just died, the result of being vibrated into a fine jelly.
The rumbling abates as David Gilmore’s vocals take over this highly synthesized dirge. The Synth AKS keys, steel guitar, bass and drums weave an intoxicating trip, enveloping the room in a tsunami of sound. It’s mesmerizing and the ULS-15 really nails the lower octaves in impressive fashion.
“Another Early Autumn.” (up-sampled to DSD via JRiver Media). Jim Ferguson. Not Just Another Pretty Bass. A-Records, 1999. CD ripped to laptop.
This light hued jazz samba by bassist Jim Ferguson (who’s toured with country singer Crystal Gayle as bassist and backup vocalist and served as backup vocalist for the Statler Brothers, Dinah Shore and Tennessee Ernie Ford) brings welcome relief from the previous heavy-handed selections. His upright acoustic bass playing is impeccable and his vocals call to mind Chet Baker. Today’s presentation has plenty of detail, but I’ve never heard his bass hit the lows emanating from the the ULS right now. I’m half tempted to dial back the sub’s volume setting a touch, but quite frankly, I like it.
The interplay between the higher and lower notes of Ferguson’s bass, in juxtaposition with the drums, piano, saxophone and vocal leads are compelling. The bass solo is well crafted; the timbre of the bass in the upper registers are well articulated and defined, but when it slides into the lower octaves (where the ULS takes over) it meshes well and packs plenty of punch for a delightful listen.
“Barra Da Tijuca” (Tijuca Bay)” John Patitucci. GRP Records, 1995. CD ripped to laptop.
The Brazilian influence continues with this gorgeous slow tempo samba showcasing the talents of Patitucci (most noted for his work with Chick Correa’s band) on double bass with Kevyn Lettau’s soprano vocals taking center stage; combined with lilting cymbals, high hat and John Beasley’s piano it makes for a lovely rhythmic ballad. It’s very holographic and natural in its detailed voicing with Michael Shapiro’s drum rim shots and Patitucci’s lower and upper register oscillations. The dialog between his bass and Beasley’s drums is simply outstanding. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen as Lettau concludes with her final vocal run, with the rhythm section parlaying an impeccably tight and enchanting support act that, if there was any doubt, aptly underscores the ULS’s ability to blend with the Von Schweikert speakers.
Pearl Harbor. Touchtone Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Buena Vista Pictures, 1991. DVD.
This popular World War II movie featuring Ben Afleck and Cuba Gooding, Jr. is rife with explosions and special effects that evoke the childhood wonder of watching fireworks for the first time when replayed with over good home theater equipment, and as a former owner of a pair of large Martin Logan reQuest speakers, I’d really been able to enjoy this show via the two 12 inch woofers anchoring each electrostatic speaker. I sold them to acquire the Von Schweikerts, whose improvements in midrange were superb — yet I missed the lower ended bass extension of the Martin Logans.
Not any more.
A Hsu-nami in My Living Room
The Hsu Research ULS-15 Mk2 subwoofer adds a whole new level of visceral experience to the viewing, as witnessed in the attack sequence at Pearl Harbor. The floor quakes. I feel the guttural growl of plane engines revving, explosions and tectonic rumblings reverberating in my feet, chest and skull. Yet, it’s not unseemly or exaggerated — just real — just like being there.
This is precisely why I picked up the Von Schweikert VR-5 HSE speakers: I wanted that live, in the room feeling. And with the addition of the ULS-15 Mk2, I have that added command of the lower end of the spectrum that I craved.
As I’d previously mentioned, I'd auditioned the REL T-9 subwoofer, and found it very musical and a terrific performer. Yet, that extra level of low extension, that chest slam that you feel at a live rock concert or with explosive action movies was missing. To borrow an expression from Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s the difference between cologne and sweat. Or, more aptly, it’s the difference between hearing Larry Carlton on a smooth jazz station and witnessing him live in a smoky bar.
Don't get me wrong; the ULS-15 Mk2 handles delicate passages or those demanding speed and accuracy with ease. Bottom line, it really works in my system and is fit company for the likes of Von Schweikert, LampizatOr, and Mark Levinson equipment whether playing music or presenting action movies. Therefore, I am heartily recommending it and buying my review sample.
· Toshiba Satellite C655 laptop computer with JRiver Media Center, ripped CDs, FLAC and DSD files
· Straight Wire USB Link USB cable
· Lampizator Lite 7 DAC
· Straight Wire Solo interconnects
· Technics SL1200M3D turntable retrofitted with a special replacement RCA cable out from Straightwire, Inc. with Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge
· Schiit SYS passive preamp
· Straight Wire Solo interconnects with CAMAC connectors on one end (to connect to the Mark Levinson amp) and the other with RCA connectors to the preamp
· One pair of AudioQuest Hard Y Adapter (1 Male to 2 Female RCA splitting the SYS output to the amp and the subwoofer)
· Audioquest/Cinemaquest HD-6-X CL3 75Ω Coax Video Cables with ITC-18/RCA gold plated connectors (to the ULS-15 Mk2 subwoofer)
· Samsung Blu Ray Player
· Toslink cable (basic $10 six foot cable)
· Mark Levinson ML-9 amplifier
· Straight Wire SoundStage SC external bi-wire cables
· Von Shweikert VR-5 HSE speakers