Amphion Helium2 loudspeaker
I recalled covering Amphion's attractive, floorstanding Creon2 in my HE2002 show report in September 2002. I had also run across Stirling Trayle several times in my reviewing career, first when he dealt with MIT products at Transparent Audio Marketing, and later at Sumiko. I knew Trayle had a history of associating with interesting high-quality gear.
"Sure, John. Ship 'em out!"
A new face
Amphion was founded five years ago, in Kuopio, Finland. The company builds speakers designed by Antti Louhivaara, and currently produces eight models of hi-fi and home entertainment speakers, ranging from the Helium2 ($1000/pair) to the Krypton ($16,000/pair).
The Helium2 is a small, two-way, rear-vented satellite sporting a 1" titanium-coated aluminum-dome tweeter and a 5.25" Nomex-cone woofer, the drive-units custom-tailored for Amphion by Audax and Peerless, respectively. All of Louhivaara's designs share two key design parameters.
First, all Amphion models have fairly low crossover points, set below the critical hearing range of 3–5kHz. Thus, according to Amphion, all the frequencies to which the ear is most sensitive are produced by the tweeter. Moreover, because the wavelength of the Helium2's crossover point of 1.5kHz is greater than the distance between the ears, having a crossover set to that frequency should improve a speaker's imaging—again because only the tweeter handles all frequencies above that point, the range in which the human ear is most sensitive to directional amplitude cues. In addition, the tweeter's low moving mass is designed for faster transients and lower distortion. Finally, the woofer, relieved of handling upper midrange frequencies, is able to produce cleaner, tauter sound.
Second, all Amphion tweeters incorporate a proprietary tweeter waveguide that uses Amphion's Uniformly Directive Diffusion (U/D/D) technology. This waveguide is designed to attenuate all frequency areas evenly as the listener moves off-axis, thus optimizing the speaker's dispersion. Amphion claims that their speakers' responses in anechoic chambers and real listening rooms are very similar. This should mean that Amphion speakers will perform well even in acoustically challenging rooms.
The Helium2 is available in Black or Silver for $1000/pair; add $250/pair for Finnish Birch or Cherry. I thought my Birch review samples, with light gray grillecloths, looked stunning, the total effect understatedly elegant. As usual, I set the Amphions on my trusty 24" Celestion Si stands loaded with sand and lead shot.
A new sound
As I finished up my listening sessions, I pondered what makes a component a "classic." I decided that a classic is musically satisfying, exhibits no meaningful flaws, and possesses strengths that one would normally find only in more expensive components. By this definition, my Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge and Creek 5350SE integrated amplifier are classics. The Amphion Helium2 is another. And the three together are dynamite.
I find it difficult to describe the sound of the Helium2. With one possible exception (discussed below), I can't think of a single area in any frequency range in which the Amphion meaningfully deviated from neutrality. Using other measures, the Helium2s exhibited a wide, linear, organic rendition of micro- and macrodynamics and, with all well-recorded acoustic works, "disappeared" as they presented holographic images of instruments on a wide, deep soundstage. The transient attacks of all acoustic and electronic instruments were perfectly realistic, with speed and immediacy but without a trace of artificial hardness or sharpness—the Helium2 may be the affordable speaker for percussion fans. And all vocals, male and female, were silky, liquid, and naturally rich.
But I haven't addressed the one attribute that made the Helium2, for me, a special speaker. On all recordings and in all frequency ranges, the Amphion exhibited a level of resolution of detail that I've never heard from a speaker at or near $1000/pair. I'm not talking about clinically analytical "music under the microscope with a halogen light" resolution. Sure, I was hearing things on recordings I hadn't expected to hear, but at the same time, the Helium2 always created an extraordinarily involving musical experience, regardless of the sound quality of the program material.
It took me much longer to review this speaker than I'd expected, but not because I couldn't get a grip on its merits—those were apparent after the first hour or two of listening. Normally, my standard reviewing procedure is to play four- or five-minute excerpts of two dozen recordings. With the Amphion, those excerpts grew longer and longer; with each excerpt, I got so involved with the music that I was reluctant to move on to the next. The sophistication, articulation, and delicacy of the Helium2's resolution of detail I found simply intoxicating.
Although I enjoyed all of the CDs I listened to through the Helium2, if you really want this speaker to strut its stuff, I recommend dragging out original jazz pressings on Prestige or Columbia, or classical Mercury Living Presence, RCA Living Stereo shaded dogs, Nonesuch, or British EMIs, as well as any of the fabulous reissues from Acoustic Sounds and Classic Records.
On Thelonious Monk's Solo (LP, Columbia CS 9149), the master's lower-midrange tones were rich, woody, and vibrant, with perfect transients and extended highs in the upper register, as well as crystalline and articulate upper harmonics. All dynamic gradations were extraordinarily lifelike, and without a trace of compression on high-level dynamic passages. On the Dizzy Gillespie Octet's The Greatest Trumpet of them All (LP, Verve MGV-8352), I felt the musicians in the room with me and realized that it was possible for a mono recording to portray a sense of depth. The oddball Eric Dolphy's In Europe, Vol.1 (LP, Prestige 7304) was a hoot. I reveled in Dolphy's breathy, airy, naturally metallic (but without a trace of hardness) flute on side 1 of this saxless recording, as well as his honky, hooty, spitty, clacky bass-clarinet wails on side 2. The natural forcefulness of the Cecil Taylor Quartet's Jazz Advance (LP, Transition GXF 3121), from early in Taylor's career, was a dynamic showcase for his rich, woody piano tone as he traded fours on standards by Duke Ellington and Monk. After I'd exhaustively mined my jazz collection, my summary notes read: "the most natural acoustic bass sound I've heard from a bookshelf speaker."