DALI Helicon 400 Mk.2 loudspeaker Page 2
A recent 180gm reissue of Joan Baez's extraordinary eponymous 1960 debut album (LP, Vanguard/Pure Pleasure)—a two-microphone recording made in a hotel ballroom—demonstrated the Helicon 400 Mk.2's impressive clarity, tonal purity, focus, and ability to delineate space. How could a 19-year-old sound and play with such daring and control? Though the jacket says "Stereo," mastering engineer Kevin Gray used the mono tape because the stereo one was in such poor shape. Even in mono, the Helicons carved out an eerily transparent, tonally coherent, and real-sounding vocal apparition, behind which could be heard a suggestion of the ballroom's space. Could it have used a bit more warmth and texture? Probably—but not at the cost of the clarity and freedom from midbass congestion that almost certainly would have resulted with this driver array.
Still, the 400 Mk.2' s overall pleasingly airy, spacious, and open balance on top, and its tight, nimble bass below, tended to accentuate the music's outer transient shell, somewhat inhibiting the full expression of its inner gooey harmonic center. Pianos were more about the wire, less about the wood; brasses were more metallic, less burnished; and voices were more vocal cord, less body.
The Helicon's dynamic abilities were surprising good, especially at the microdynamic end of the scale, where nuances of dynamic gestures were reproduced with an impressive clarity that lent believability to great recordings. With recordings of solo piano, however, I could often hear a slight, low-level "post-event" additive artifact, as if a cabinet or driver resonance were peeking through. But don't read too much into this—I heard this only in the context of also listening to the same very familiar recordings on speakers costing four and five times as much. Overall, the Helicon 400 Mk.2 was impressively free of congestion and confusion.
Macrodynamics were good, especially for this speaker's size and price, as I found out when I played Jerry Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony's stupendous-sounding Crown Imperial: Festive Music for Organ, Winds, Brass & Percussion (CD, Reference RR-112 HDCD). This mostly bombastic celebratory music (you'll want to march down the aisle or preside at a coronation) was recorded by Professor Keith Johnson in Dallas's Meyerson Symphony Center, which has a sound that's velvet-smooth yet remarkably open and spacious. It's a classic audiophile spectacular, with subterranean bass from the organ (an enormous Fisk instrument played by Mary Preston), brass that bites and warms, winds that exude air and woodiness, and percussion that slaps you in the face without causing injury. Johnson has always liked the big-stage approach; this recording is nothing short of gargantuan in its width, height, and depth.
After playing Crown Imperial through my big Wilson Audio Specialties MAXX 2s, switching to the Helicon 400 Mk.2s was a bit of a letdown—but consider the difference in the speakers' sizes, and the approximately ninefold difference in price. The Helicon Mk.2 did an impressive job of suggesting what it couldn't actually deliver without overreaching or producing false notes. While its response probably doesn't go below 30Hz, the lower organ pedals still sounded reasonably full and deep and, most important, well controlled. While the brass had a bit more bite than warmth and the winds more gust than wood, the Helicons' ability to reproduce a sense of the Meyerson's enormous space helped sell the recording, albeit from the perspective of the balcony.
In short, while the Helicon Mk.2s could play reasonably loud without losing their composure, don't expect the full dynamic swings of a symphony orchestra as heard from the front rows of the hall and you won't be disappointed.
When the first DALI Helicon 400 Mk.2 emerged from its box and I saw no midrange driver, alarm bells went off. It's one thing for a small, two-way, stand-mounted speaker—even an expensive one such as the Sonus Faber Guarneri Memento, which I reviewed in the August 2007 issue—to do without a dedicated midrange, but a floorstander? Yet, with a careful balancing act, the DALI designers have managed to produce an extremely capable-sounding, relatively inexpensive, and attractive-looking speaker that avoids both obvious midbass colorations and sounding too lean and crystalline, despite the inclusion of its extended-range ribbon supertweeter. But then, throughout its product lines, DALI has been building speakers using this scheme for years.
The Helicon Mk.2's strong suits are clean, deep, nonmechanical bass down to around 30Hz; extended, airy, smooth, grain-free high frequencies without excessive etch; and an enormous spatial presentation that wows at every listen. Its weakness is that it runs a bit hot on top and can sound bright. To compensate for this, I did much of my listening with the grilles on, which is unusual for me.
The Helicons are relatively easy to drive, and warmed up nicely when driven by the Music Reference RM-200, a 100Wpc tube amp. But they offered a different set of equally attractive qualities when presented with lots of solid-state power.
Can a $6300/pair speaker be considered "relatively inexpensive"? Back when Joan Baez was recorded, a pair of Acoustic Research AR-3as cost about $500. Taking inflation into account, that's the equivalent of about $4000 today. Considering the high quality of the Helicon 400 Mk.2's sound and appearance, the answer is "yes." At this price point you'll find a warmer, richer presentation from Sonus Faber's Cremona ($9800/pair as of August 2007), and greater inner complexity and resolution from Focal's 1027 Be ($7995/pair, and that beryllium tweeter is in a league of its own). But if, after listening to those speakers, you're still looking for greater speed, clarity, transparency, and—especially—space, be sure to check out DALI's handsome Helicon 400 Mk.2.