Hales System Two loudspeaker Page 4
Like the Signatures, the System Two has an unusual low-frequency character. Both loudspeakers lacked extension or a feeling of weight, and just didn't provide that visceral impact important to much music. However, the bass the System Two does produce is fast, precise, and exquisitely detailed. Although I much prefer this type of performance to a tubby, bloated, or colored LF presentation that constantly calls attention to itself, the System Two nevertheless left me wanting some meat and power in the bottom two octaves. Bass drum lacked the lowermost component that is the rhythmic foundation of some music. Large-scale orchestral climaxes didn't convey the weight and impact present in the recording as revealed by the Snell Type C/IV. The Type C/IV had far deeper extension, with a satisfying "kick" in the extreme bottom end. In addition, the ported loudspeaker had a punchy quality in the bass that made low-frequency dynamics seem effortless. The Type C/IV was so good in this regard, and so different from the System Two, that it made the latter sound anemic by comparison.
However, the quality of the System Two's bass was nothing short of stunning. Every minute detail was clearly audible, infusing the reproduced instrument with a palpability and realism. For example, on José Neto's acoustic fretless bass on Three-Way Mirror (Reference Recordings RR-23CD), the System Two revealed so much more of this instrument's sound. Every nuancefinger noises, the attack of the string, etc.was immediately apparent. This profusion of inner detail made music so much more intellectually compelling, but at the expense of a raw, visceral satisfaction. The Type C/IV's bass had far less inner detail, sounding instead somewhat "flat" (not in an amplitude sense) and bland.
The System Two's low-frequency presentation was interesting, while the Type C/IV's was satisfying in a primal way. When listening to the Two, I missed the C/IV's extension and effortless dynamics. When listening to the C/IV, I felt less illusion of instruments existing in the listening room.
Interestingly, the System Two seemed to have more bass than the larger Signature, even though the Signature has a lower specified 3dB point. I suspect that this is due to two factors: the System Two's woofers are closer to the floor (without stands), providing a greater degree of boundary reinforcement, and the System Two's enclosure is less rigid, allowing the cabinet to contribute some LF energy to the presentation.
Finally, I'll comment on the effects of different power amplifiers on the System Two's sound. Clearly, the Threshold S/550e brought out the System Two's best low-frequency performance. With this solid-state powerhouse, the bass was tighter, deeper, punchier, and more detailed than with the tubed VTLs. This isn't surprising considering the System Two's lowish impedance and the Threshold's ability to drive current into such loads. However, the feeling of depth, ease, and liquidity were superior with the VTLs. Considering that the System Two worked well with these two very different amplifiers, these loudspeakers should be happy with a wide range of amplifiers, provided they are of sufficient quality. The high resolving power of the System Two mandates the use of the highest-quality electronics, front ends, and cables. Like all loudspeakers, it is best to audition the System Two with the electronics with which they will be used.
Incidentally, I've heard that some listeners and dealers are less impressed with the Signatures than I have been. Indeed, I heard them at three shows and never thought they were anything special. However, careful attention to placement (especially toe-in) and upstream components are essential to getting the best performance from these loudspeakers. Arnis Balgalvis, who had heard the Signatures at dealers, was far more enthusiastic about their sound in my listening room during his visit last August for the Stereophile writers' conference. (The system was a Theta DSPro Basic/Esoteric P-2 driving VTL 225W monoblocks through an EVS passive attenuator.)
The Hales System Two does many things exceptionally wellthings that I find musically important. These include not only an accurate and uncolored midrange, but also the ability to recreate the transient envelope of instruments, resolve finely woven inner detail, and throw pinpoint images within a transparent soundstage. Most importantly, I enjoyed listening to music through the System Two immensely. They have the ability to create an intimacy with the musicat least for this listenerthat is difficult to describe. Whenever I listened to music through the System Two, I immediately forgot about the playback system and became involved in the music. This is perhaps the highest goal to which an audio component can aspire, and one that the System Two achieves. Based on these attributes, the System Two has earned a Class B recommendation in Stereophile's "Recommended Components."
The System Two comes under minor criticism for the slight excess treble energy that produced a forward upper-treble balance. Its main flaw, however, is the low-frequency reproduction: it just doesn't have enough bass. I would gladly give up a little low-frequency speed and detail for a warmer, fuller tonal balance. In addition, I missed the weight and power in the lowermost octaves provided by the Snell Type C/IV's excellent LF extension and dynamic ease. Many other Class B loudspeakers have more satisfying bass reproduction than the System Two (footnote 2).
Clearly, the System Two will not suit all tastes. What one music lover finds most important sonically may be less critical to another. Despite the System Two's relative lack of basswhich I miss greatlythere is something compellingly musical about this loudspeaker that allows me to overlook such a major deficiency. The overly lean bass may be an Achilles' heel for some listeners, however, and careful auditioning is recommended. Stands should be considered mandatory: without them, the presentation appears too low to the floor and suffers a loss of immediacy through the midrange.
Now, to return to the question that prompted this review: how close to the reference $4850 System Two Signatures does the $3000 System Two come?
Very. The two loudspeakers are nearly identical in character, but with the Signature achieving a slightly higher level of performance. No, they're not identical, but the ways in which the Signature excels are areas where even the System Two is an overachiever: tonal purity, transparency, resolution of detail, and imaging. I consider the differences insignificant in light of both loudspeakers' excellent performance. In addition, I actually preferred the System Two's slightly warmer, if marginally less detailed, bass. There is no doubt, however, about which pair will remain as my long-term reference.
On that basis, the Hales System Two gets a hearty recommendation. They offer the essence of what makes the Signature so musicaland at a far lower price.
Footnote 2: Muse Electronics has just developed a crossover board for their powered subwoofer designed specifically to mate with the System Two. Subwoofers aren't really a reviewer's favorite product, but I jumped at this one. Although I approach subwoofers with caution, the Hales/Muse combination could be stunning. I'll be reviewing it along with other subwoofers in the June 1991 or July 1991 issue.