Hales Design Group Transcendence Five loudspeaker

Paul Hales has been a busy guy lately. In little over a year, he has designed and brought to production four new speakers in his Revelation series (footnote 1); his cost-no-object flagship, the Alexandra, which had been seen but not heard at a number of shows, was finally demonstrated at the 1999 CES; and he has introduced the new Transcendence series, which replaces the Concept series. (He's also produced a brand-new baby girl during this period, although I believe his wife made a significant contribution to that project.)

In creating the Revelation series, Hales admits to having been particularly cost-conscious in the selection of drivers, but there were fewer cost constraints in the development of the Transcendence series. At $5990/pair, the Transcendence Five is well past the level of entry, but still below the top-of-the-line $9790 Transcendence Eight, and positively bargain-priced compared to the Alexandra (no price announced yet, but expected to be in +$25k territory).

Description and design
The Transcendence Five bears considerable similarity to the $2195/pair Revelation Three. Each is a 40"-tall three-way unit that features the diagonal sculpted line in the grille that is a Hales signature. The Revelation Three's grille is integral with the cabinet, with a grillecloth that's tricky to remove; the Transcendence Five's grille is a separately fabricated structure that can be slid off easily if you want to hear the sound of the naked drivers. (I do, and I did.) The Transcendence Five weighs 10 lbs more than the Revelation Three, much of the difference being attributable to the extra weight of the grille.

The other obvious visible difference is that the Transcendence Five's cabinet has a backward-leaning stance. An angled front panel is often claimed to help time alignment, but this is relevant only if the crossover itself is time-coherent; ie, first-order. The Transcendence Five uses fourth-order crossovers, and no claims are made for time-coherence. So why the slanted cabinet?

It looks cool! Although audiophiles don't like to admit that a product's appearance is important to them (sound is the only thing that matters, you know), I've heard one speaker designer (not Hales) state that if a speaker doesn't have the right look, most customers won't even listen to it. The Transcendence Five's slanted cabinet does have more èlan than the Revelation Three's rectangular box; many will prefer it for just that reason.

A major difference between the Revelation Three and the Transcendence Five is in the driver complement. The R3's woofer is a custom Hales design, but the midrange and tweeter are off-the-shelf Vifa units. The T5 uses the same woofer as the R3, but the other two drivers are different. The T5 tweeter, also built by Vifa, has, according to Hales, much higher power handling and an enhanced dispersion pattern. The design lets Hales dispense with the phase plug found on most metal-dome tweeters (and the Revelation Three's).

But the most sophisticated driver in the Transcendence Five is probably the midrange. Built by SEAS to Hales' specifications, this unit has a magnesium cone and is said to behave in a highly pistonic manner to produce high sound levels with minimal distortion. (The Transcendence Eight has the same midrange and tweeter as the T5, but uses two magnesium-cone woofers.)

Hales matches drivers to within ±0.125dB, a process that involves sometimes having to reduce a driver's sensitivity with a resistor network, or adding a second magnet to increase sensitivity.

Like the Revelation Three, the Transcendence Five sports Cardas binding posts, but two pairs compared to the R3's single pair, which allows for biwiring. The crossover uses polypropylene capacitors and OFC air-core inductors. In typical Hales fashion, the enclosure is very solid, with a 4" sculpted baffle and 1" and 2" walls, all of MDF, and features extensive internal bracing. The Transcendence Five is supplied with three brass cones that screw into the speaker cabinet itself, a much better arrangement than the loose felt-topped cones supplied with the Revelation Three. As with all Hales Design Group speakers of my experience, the Five's quality of fit'n'finish is outstanding.

When it came to setting up the Transcendence Fives, it was dèjà vu all over again. The ever-affable Casey McKee, Hales' sales and marketing manager at that time, came by for a visit to help set up the speakers and make sure that everything was working properly. He spent an afternoon listening, measuring distances, moving the speakers around, and checking toe-in with my Checkpoint P-770 laser alignment tool, until he finally announced that he was satisfied with the setup.

As in Casey's setup of the Revelation Threes, the speakers' included angle from the listening position was narrower than my standard setup, but I thought I could get used to it. And I tried; I really did. However, I eventually came to feel that, just as with the Revelation Threes, the narrow-angle setup did not produce as expansive a soundstage as I like, and the sound seemed too confined to the speakers.

Please don't tell Casey, but, once again, I abandoned his careful handiwork and started adjusting speaker positions myself, moving the speakers farther apart. The final position was with the midrange driver of each speaker 101" from the listening chair, 113" between the speakers, 38" from the back wall, and 30" from the side walls (all measurements from the center of the midrange driver), the speakers set up along the 16' side of my 16' by 14' by 7.5' listening room. The included angle was about 70º; the speakers were toed-in so that they pointed almost (but not quite) at the listening seat. This arrangement resulted in a much more open, airy sound than the narrow-angle setup, with a wider soundstage and a more even response throughout the bass range.

Just prior to the arrival of the Transcendence Fives, my listening room underwent a bit of a structural change: a 23" by 51" opening was cut in the ceiling (near one of the corners farthest away from the speakers) and a trap door was installed, allowing access to the attic, providing much-needed storage space for equipment boxes. This, plus the installation of a set of Argent RoomLenses (see Vol.20 No.11) and removal of most of the previously used acoustical treatment, has led to a change in room acoustics. I'm still trying to get a handle on the exact nature of the change.

In any case, the frequency response of the Transcendence Five (RadioShack meter, Stereophile's Test CD 3, measuring at the listening seat) showed a suckout of about 5dB in the 100Hz region that I was unable to eliminate by varying speaker position. (The suckout was greater when the speakers were closer together.) The Revelation Three had a similar suckout in my room, but John Atkinson's measurements showed no problem in the 100Hz region, so I would assume that the suckout observed with the Transcendence Five similarly represents a room interaction. (The Dunlavy SC-IV/A, set up in much the same position, did not have this sort of suckout; but the Dunlavy, with its over-and-under symmetrical positioning of two woofers, loads the room differently than speakers with a single woofer like the Transcendence Five.) I can't say that I was aware of any suckout as such in normal listening, which may reflect the general rule that valleys in the frequency response are less audible than peaks.

Late in the listening period, I received another pair of RoomLenses to supplement the three already in position. These were placed to form a more extended "wing" next to each speaker, each new RoomLens offset just behind the plane of the one already in place. The addition of the extra pair of RoomLenses resulted in a significantly wider soundstage, greater bass extension, and an even more "airy" sound. It had no effect on the midbass suckout.

The Transcendence Fives arrived just after I finished the review of the Cary Audio CAD-572SE single-ended triode amplifiers (Stereophile, December 1998), so it was natural to try them together. The combination proved less than ideal. The sound was pleasant enough: very smooth with no trace of harshness—but a bit too mellow, with restricted dynamics, and bass that was much weaker than what I knew the speaker to be capable of. A pair of Bryston 7B-ST monoblocks, used in the parallel mode, provided a much more suitable match; the sound was then taut and dynamic without becoming hard or clinical, with excellently controlled low bass. (A recent production pair of these amplifiers sounds even better.) The Sonic Frontiers Power 2 was another excellent combination, a bit more "tubey" in character (as expected).

The starting point for loudspeaker performance has to be midrange quality. If the midrange is good, the speaker's other attributes can increase the overall level of attainment; but if the midrange is peaky, uneven, too laid-back, or too forward, it's like having a building with a major structural fault, or an orchestra with a bad string section.

In designing the Transcendence Five, Hales most assuredly got the midrange right: it has a smooth, relaxed, tonally neutral quality that is crisp when that's called for, and highly resolving of musically relevant detail. That magnesium-cone midrange driver is a winner! I could hear no metallic colorations, nor any peakiness at the top of the driver's passband—a reported characteristic of this type of driver that the crossover obviously has well under control. And, in case you were wondering, good string sections of orchestras sounded very good indeed, with much the same silkiness these instruments have in real life. Voices, male and female, had a very natural quality, with plenty of presence but without sibilant emphasis. The integration with the tweeter sounded seamless, with tremendous coherence from the midrange up to beyond audibility. Coloration due to cabinet resonances seemed to be at a very low level.

One of my finds of 1998 is Christiane Noll: A Broadway Love Story (Varèse Sarabande VSD 5956). Noll is an up-and-coming musical theater performer—she was in the Broadway cast of Jekyll and Hyde, and is the singing voice of Anna in the new cartoon version of The King and I. Hers is a special voice, with a unique timbre and wide range, and she sings with a real sense of involvement. The technical quality of the recording is unlikely to give engineers at Chesky or Dorian sleepless nights, but it does capture the beauty of Noll's voice, and the Transcendence Five communicated every nuance, expression, and variation in vocal color. When she sings the ascending phrase "Happiness comes in on tiptoe" (in "A Quiet Thing"), there is only the voice floating in mid-air, with no sense that the sound is actually being produced by bits of metal, rubber, and plastic.

The soundstage thrown by the Transcendence Fives (aided and abetted by the two pairs of RoomLenses beside each speaker) extended well beyond the boundaries of the room, both laterally and in depth. The sound was quite detached from the speakers, making it easier to sustain the illusion that what I was listening to was real, not a reproduction. Imaging within the soundfield was excellent, with a lot of three-dimensionality to the images.

The Transcendence Five's dynamic behavior was similarly exemplary, especially in the delineation of fine dynamic shadings, such as Robert Silverman's subtle control of dynamics in his recording of Liszt piano works (Stereophile STPH008-2). At the top end of the dynamic envelope (within reason), the Transcendence Five was able to create a big sound without evidence of strain or distortion.

Footnote 1: See my review of the Revelation Three in the February 1998 issue of Stereophile, and of the Revelation surround system in the February 1999 issue of Stereophile Guide to Home Theater.—Robert Deutsch
Company Info
Hales Design Group
16812 Gothard Street
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
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