Amphion Helium2 loudspeaker Page 2

I'm trying to avoid such gushing as "I heard familiar recordings as if for the first time!" But in many cases, I discovered new things on recordings that I've played dozens of times. On the most overplayed recording in my house (my son has the lyrics memorized; my wife goes shopping when she hears me cue it up), Janis Ian's Breaking Silence (LP and CD, Analogue Productions CAPP 027), I noticed for the first time how melodic a player of the fretless bass Chad Watson is, and what a wonderful tone he gets out of his instrument. Similarly, I found myself focusing on the subtle textural background details added by percussionist Jim Brock.

On my favorite Stereophile recording, Kohjiba's Transmigration of the Soul, from Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2), I noticed that, during the most bombastic passages, the flute doubles the cello. When a speaker is very revealing, it's apparent to me that John Rutter's Requiem (CD, Reference RR57CD) was recorded in a church. With the Amphions, I could estimate the church's size. Moreover, I noticed for the first time that the soprano soloist's pitch falters in a few passages. On "How am I Different," from Aimee Mann's Bachelor No. 2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (CD, Super Ego SE002), it was clear to me that the guitarist was playing through a high-quality tube amp, probably a modern 6L6-based design. And during the crescendo in the chorus of this wonderful tune, I got the chills running down my legs that I normally experience only when listening to very expensive gear.

In reviewing such a tiny bookshelf speaker, I would be negligent if I didn't address its bass extension and high-level dynamics. Again, I shook my head as, in these two areas, the Amphion behaved like a floorstander. The bass drums on such bombastic orchestral works as Stravinsky's The Firebird (LP, Mercury Living Presence/Classic SR 90226) and Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony (LP, EMI UK SLS 5117) were reproduced with perfect transients, weight, definition, and extension. Dean Peer's electric bass on "Lord's Tundra," from his Ucross (LP, Jazz Planet/Classic JP 5002-1), was articulate and appropriately rumbly. Cranked up to disco levels, the bass synth on "Feel No Pain," from Sade's Love Deluxe (CD, Epic EK 53178), cooked and shook the room. I was, however, able to crank the Messiaen to a level that compressed the orchestra a bit during the loud passages.

Which brings me to my one small reservation about this speaker. On just two recordings, there were loud passages—closely miked female vocals on Madeline Peyroux's Dreamland (CD, Atlantic 82946-2), and wailing upper-register alto sax on Jerome Harris' "The Mooche," from Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2)—where, within a very narrow frequency range, the Amphion exhibited a slight "hootiness." I don't know if, with these recordings, there was a very narrow resonance within the speaker that manifested itself, or if I happened to push the speakers just a bit too much (the volume level was high), or if these were anomalies in the recordings that the Amphion revealed. I'm anxious to see if JA's measurements and experience (he was the recording engineer on the Harris track) shed any light on this.

A new competitor
I compared the Amphion Helium2 loudspeaker ($1000/pair) with the NHT SB-3 ($600/pair), the Alón (now Nola) Li'l Rascal Mk.II ($600/pair), and the now-discontinued Alón Petite ($1000/pair).

The NHT SB-3's midbass was warmer and richer than the Amphion's, with an overall presentation that was more romantic and less detailed. The highs were sweeter and less extended than the Amphion's, but the NHT's overall presentation was well balanced.

The Alón Li'l Rascal Mk.II had a more dramatic lower-bass presentation than the Amphion, but its midbass was somewhat warmer. Although the Alón's rich midrange inner detail was excellent, the Amphion's was better still. The high frequencies of the Alón were less articulate and somewhat brighter than the Helium2's. At both extremes of volume, the Li'l Rascal's dynamic performance was the equal of the Amphion's.

The Alón Petite's midbass was as clean and pure as the Amphion's, and its high-frequency extension and articulation were excellent. But the Amphion seemed more even, more delicate, and more detailed in this region. The Amphion's lower-bass and high-level dynamic performance, however, were better than the Petite's.

A new benchmark
Usually, when one seeks a small, affordable bookshelf speaker, there are tradeoffs to be considered. With the Amphion Helium2, there were no tradeoffs. What can I say about a speaker that presented no meaningful shortcomings, and whose strengths are those I expect from speakers costing twice its price, or more? Overall, and by a wide margin, the Amphion Helium2 exceeded the performance not only of any affordable loudspeaker I've ever reviewed, but of any affordable speaker I've ever owned. It's a classic.

Company Info
Amphion
US distributor: Quartet Marketing Group
303 Crickett Court
Petaluma, CA 94954
(707) 762-0914
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