Hales Audio System Two Signature loudspeaker Page 2

These aspects of loudspeaker design are not trivial. To achieve low-frequency extension, the enclosure needs to have a large internal volume. A big enclosure means large panels which are prone to resonances, not to mention higher cost. The designer is thus forced to accept either reduced LF extension or cabinet resonances. The Hales System Two Signature solves this dilemma by lavishing a substantial portion of the build cost on making a large enclosure that is relatively resonant-free. I would speculate that the Signature's cabinet-to-drivers cost ratio is higher than that of nearly any other dynamic loudspeaker.

Internal wiring is Cardas, with the cable to each driver optimized for its particular frequency range. The woofer wiring is a large conductor in parallel with a smaller conductor, and the tweeter is connected to the terminal posts with a single small conductor. In addition, the two woofers receive their signals from dual runs between terminal posts and drivers instead of a jumper from one woofer to the other.

Clearly, the Hales System Two Signature is an ambitious and unusual design that reflects Paul Hales's emphasis on controlling cabinet resonances. The attention paid to the enclosure's influence on the reproduced sound is extraordinary. Build quality, finish, and workmanship cannot be faulted. The Signatures are obviously built with care and attention to detail.

After reviewing so many CD players and digital processors in recent issues, I looked forward to auditioning the Hales since it allowed me to do most of the listening from LP source. Although I'm certainly not "anti-digital"—it has made significant improvements in the past two years—I still prefer the ease of listening that good analog offers.

The Hales System Two Signatures replaced my customary B&W Matrix 801 Series IIA loudspeakers in my reference system. The fact that I have listened daily to the 801s, in the same room with the same system, gives me a good point of comparison for the Signatures. In fact, the two designs compete head-on at the $5000/pair price point. In addition, the B&Ws are well-known and represent a high degree of refinement in dynamic loudspeaker design. Any new entry into this market must regard the 801s as formidable competition.

After some experimentation to find the Signature's optimal position in the listening room, I installed the 14 supplied spikes, four in each speaker and three in each crossover. Positioning was a balance between high-frequency smoothness and a strong center image. With the Signatures toed in so the listener was directly on-axis, the sound was overly bright. When they were pointed straight ahead, the center imaging was weakened. The effort paid off: I was able to find just the right position in the room (38" from the rear wall, 32" from the side walls) and correct toe-in to achieve smooth tonal balance and solid center-channel image. My listening chair places my ears 36" above the floor, exactly on the Signature's tweeter axis.

I began the serious listening with solo piano. I find that piano is particularly revealing of a loudspeaker's basic tonal balance, and thus began the auditioning with Dick Hyman Plays Fats Waller RR-33DCD, recorded direct to CD. I was fortunate to have heard the Bösendorfer on this disc at length during the recording sessions, and find this CD indispensable for evaluating components. In addition, I like the music, and the recorded sound of the piano is very close to the real thing. I listen for left-hand notes that have a different character or seem to stick out, indicating mid- and upper-bass coloration. The attack of the hammers hitting the strings should be audible, but not "clangy," as it can sound on overly bright speakers. I also listen for integration between drivers. John Atkinson's piano recording of Anna Maria Stanczyk playing the Chopin Scherzo in b-flat on the Stereophile Test CD is also useful, especially for evaluating a component's ability to resolve the wealth of spatial information present in the recording.

After listening at length to both these recordings, I came to the conclusion that the Hales System Two Signatures reproduced the sound of solo piano more accurately than any other loudspeaker on which I have heard these recordings. On the Fats Waller disc, the tonal balance was surprisingly neutral and free from the colorations that plague many speakers. The lower registers were taut, controlled, without the sense of cardboard boxiness one sometimes hears from piano. The Signature's reproduction of low frequencies is the antithesis of tubbiness and bloat. There was a remarkable precision and detail in the bass that is rarely heard from loudspeakers. More on this later.

This impression of bass control and precision extended to other aspects of the spectrum. The Signatures presented a highly detailed, though not forward presentation. Subtlety like the detail in the hammers striking the strings, the envelope of the strings' decay, and other nuances were revealed with astonishing resolution. The piano's transient characteristics (which, incidentally, are difficult to capture on tape) added to this detailed character. Transient leading edges were sharp and quick, further reinforcing the impression of a detailed presentation. More important, this finely woven rendering was not achieved at the expense of sounding aggressive. The Signatures successfully walked the fine line between presentation of real musical detail and an unnatural, overly etched, or analytical character. The resolution of hall reflections in JA's piano recording was exceptional. The Signatures presented a convincing illusion of hall depth and width with a feeling of hall size and position of the piano within the hall.

In relation to most other loudspeakers, especially the B&W 801s with which I am so familiar, the Signature's bass presentation was controlled to the point of sounding overdamped. This character added a dryness to the piano's lower registers that took away some of the Bösendorfer's sense of weight and power heard on the 801s, and also from the instrument itself. This leanness removed some of the piano's warmth and body.

Moving on to other music, I must start by saying that the Signatures are the most enjoyable speakers I have spent any significant time with. Record after record, CD after CD, they were unfailingly musical. The Signatures do so many things well it is hard to know where to begin. The Signatures revealed musical information I never knew existed in my record collection. It was not difficult to turn what started as a short listen into an all-night marathon. They are addictive.

The most impressive aspect of the Signature's performance is their tonal and harmonic purity. I had the sense of hearing the music itself, not the music as interpreted by the loudspeakers. The Signatures were a transparent piece of glass on the musical window, imposing very little of themselves on the presentation. Instruments had a natural timbre that seemed to exist independently of the speakers, belying the fact the sound was being produced by mechanical artifice. Vocals were smooth and velvety without excessive sibilance, heaviness, or boxiness. This lack of coloration provided a view into the recording chain. For example, it was apparent that a different microphone was used on Joni Mitchell's voice on the tune "Just Like This Train" than on the other tunes on Court and Spark (Asylum 7E-1001). Although I had been aware of this before, the different tonal color was much more obvious through the Signatures. This is exactly what a good loudspeaker should do: reveal subtle tonal shadings present in the recording without masking them with its own colorations.

Equally impressive was the Signature's imaging and resolution of spatial detail. Instrumental outlines were clearly delineated and sharply focused. The position of instruments within the soundstage was rock-solid, tight, and easily resolvable from instruments next to, or behind, one another. This ability to distinguish individual instruments in the front-to-rear perspective was outstanding. In addition, image size was natural and in proportion to the soundstage, without unnatural bloat. Jazz at the Pawnshop (Proprius PRCD 7778) was particularly impressive in this regard. The instruments' positions were palpable, creating a convincing illusion of sitting in the audience.

Centrally positioned vocals were a narrow, pinpoint image exactly between and slightly above the two loudspeakers. In this regard, the Signatures were as good as any minimonitors I've heard, and clearly superior to the vast majority of full-range loudspeakers. The Signatures' imaging was more focused and precise than that presented by the MartinLogan Sequel IIs (which I had on hand for comparison), but lacked the Sequel IIs' soundstage depth and feeling of the images floating on air. The Sequel IIs are more ethereal, the Signatures more precise. The Signatures' rendering of instrumental outlines was the antithesis of blurred, congested, and confused. Even at high playback levels on full-scale orchestral works (the Finale from Bruckner's Symphony 7, Telarc CD-80188), the Signatures maintained their ability to throw spatially distinct and focused images. Overall, I found the Signatures' soundstage presentation musically involving. With so much musical information present, my concentration was riveted on the music.

Another aspect of the Signatures' presentation I found appealing was their speed and quickness. This ability to preserve transient detail was evident throughout the spectrum. From bass drum to triangle, the Signatures were agile and effortless. I'm particularly fond of Brazilian music, and found the Signatures' speed and zip added much to the enjoyment of percussion instruments. Try the LP Cascades by the Brazilian trio "Azymuth" (Milestone M-9109) for intricate percussion work and remarkable sense of space.

The transient attack of drums was truly amazing. Although I found the Signatures lacked the dynamic impact of the 801s, the Signatures' greater feeling of attack comes from the suddenness with which the transient decays. There was no overhang or ringing to smear the dynamic envelope. However, I found the Signatures fell short of the 801s in sheer visceral slam, an area where the 801s excel. Rather, the Signatures presented a more subdued and polite rendering of dynamic contrast.

Going back to my earlier comments about the overdamped bass, I found this to be the Signature's most perplexing character. Although the Signatures presented an astonishing amount of LF detail, I found the bass presentation somewhat lean. Rather than being immediately aware of the bass player's contribution, I felt I had to consciously listen into the presentation to hear the bass line. When I did, however, I was rewarded with nuance and detail one doesn't usually associate with low frequencies produced by loudspeakers. The Signature's ability to clearly resolve pitch and render subtle tonal shadings was remarkable. I must add that I prefer this presentation to an underdamped, loose, tubby, and inarticulate LF rendering. Despite the leanness, they still managed to present a credible feeling of weight and power of pipe organ on the Dorian CD of Pictures at an Exhibition (DOR-90117).

Turning off the Phantom Acoustics Shadows, an active low-frequency control system, added some body and low-frequency warmth to the presentation. Since the Signatures will be most often used in rooms without low-frequency control devices, this is probably the more representative presentation. In addition, driving the Signatures with the Krell KSA-200 gave the bottom octaves more weight and dynamic impact. This was my first experience with a Krell amplifier in my listening room. The KSA-200's low-frequency control and punch are remarkable. However, even driven with the KSA-200 and the Shadows turned off, the Signatures still lacked the slam and punch of the 801s. There were, however, many aspects of the presentation where I felt the Signatures excelled: transparency, transient detail, imaging, and timbral accuracy.

In thinking of the Signature's sound, the analogy of a fine Swiss watch comes to mind: precise, controlled, detailed, meticulous, exact, finesse. No euphonic coloration here.

As you might have guessed, I can enthusiastically recommend the Hales Audio System Two Signature loudspeaker. It is a significant achievement in dynamic loudspeaker design and, with its attention to cabinet construction, may be a harbinger of the moving-coil loudspeaker's future. It is surprising that two 7" drivers and a dome tweeter could produce the kind of musicality that would make even planar devotees take notice. Even more surprising, however, is that this world-class loudspeaker is the first commercial effort from such a young designer.

The areas in which the Signature excels also happen to be those most important to the listening experience: smooth tonal balance, a remarkably uncolored midrange, freedom from boxiness, precise imaging, and the ability to reveal instrumental detail and nuance. If you audition the Signature, be sure to try a solo piano recording with which you are familiar. This is a particularly difficult instrument to reproduce, and thus a good loudspeaker test. Significantly, the Signatures came closer to recreating the sound of the B;dosendorfer on Dick Hyman plays Fats Waller than any other speaker on which I've heard this recording. Considering their ability to reveal nuances in the signal fed them, topnotch electronics and front ends are a must to achieve their full potential.

The Signature's minor faults—too bright a balance on-axis where the best imaging was, and overdamped bass—tended to be of less importance musically. Through experimentation, I was still able to achieve superb imaging and a tonal balance that only hinted at being on the bright side. With regard to the bass, I found its lean and somewhat dry rendering interesting rather than viscerally stimulating. It may not suit all tastes, however.

This review would not be complete without conveying just how much I enjoyed listening to music through the Signatures. Beyond adjectives describing individual areas of performance, I found them unfailingly musical and involving. After a lengthy listening session that began in the late afternoon and continued well into the evening, I turned off the power amplifiers and closed up the listening room for the night. Then, I suddenly had an urge to hear a particular piece of music. This music led to more and more and more. It is just this ability to engender the desire to continue listening that distinguishes a great loudspeaker from a merely competent one.

The Signature's $4850/pair price tag pits them squarely against the popular B&W 801. Their respective musical presentations (and appearances) are sufficiently different that potential purchasers of either system must audition both before deciding. A plus for the Signatures is their exquisite cabinetry and fine furniture-like appearance. They are as beautiful to look at as they are to listen to, and are obviously handcrafted with pride and care.

The Hales System Two Signature loudspeakers are worthy of my highest recommendation. I will certainly miss the Signatures when it is time to send them back. This is perhaps the best testimonial to their ability to provide musical pleasure.

Hales Audio
Company no longer trading (2006)