Lou Hinkley’s choice of using solid wood in his loudspeaker designs may be something of a throwback. An anachronism. I like to think of it as a semi-deliberate “up yours” to the armchair philosophers that have nothing but opinions, firm and loudly declaimed, about anything and everything audio related.
We’ve been told so many things about cabinets. Wood, you see, can’t sound good. It’s wood. It resonates. You. Must. Inert-i-fy. The. Cabinet. Or else bad things will happen, including but not limited to human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together and mass hysteria. Let’s put aside the whole thing about how most acoustic instruments are not made out of any proprietary composite materials for now, and focus on the real issue with making anything out of solid wood — the terrible jokes.
Sadly, I’m not above any of that.
Speaking of which, I’ll confess that I used to joke about Lou Hinkley, the designer of all of those wonderful Daedalus Audio loudspeakers. I got it into my head that he was altogether too reminiscent of Jack Palance, most especially the role Jack played in the movie City Slickers. Lou was tall, a bit shy and perhaps a tad aloof, but I remember thinking, “he can snap my neck like a twig”. After 500 finger-tip pushups. Just after winning the Iditarod. On foot. Barefoot. Uphill. Both ways!
It was funny. -Ish? Well, it was, at least in my head. In person, Lou’s about as soft-spoken as you’d like, and surprisingly gentle. No neck twisting, head-popping, or Hulk-smashing — at all. So much for first impressions! In some ways, it was almost disappointing. Really.
Even though he is a martial arts master. And can totally do 500 finger-tip pushups.
I’ve asked Lou about his penchant for going au naturel with his speakers. It is a little curious, after all, especially given the by-now axiomatic requirement that speaker cabinets be as dead as outer space, but Lou is sanguine about the whole thing and shrugs such considerations off. With proper design and adequate bracing, sonic artifacts are a non-issue.
I’m going to table most of that and simply say that the quality of Lou’s work looks remarkable. Dovetail joints on speaker cabinet edges are not something you see every day in today’s high-end. In fact, I remember only three times I have seen that level of attention and craftsmanship: one, the Power Broker from Wywires; two, the optional chassis case that Purity Audio used to make available on their monster preamplifiers; three, Daedalus loudspeakers.
After the 2006 RMAF I did some serious reevaluation of my home audio speaker designs. Until then I had been more focused on natural tone and a room friendly speaker than on imaging, detail retrieval and other audiophile concerns. I decided at that show to delve into the whole ‘audiophile’ experience and that meant a whole new approach.
From what I have experienced MTM designs had much to offer and few drawbacks, plus that approach looked very well suited for my work. Extending the MTM design to the woofers worked for my goal of an impressive speaker with a deep rich soundstage, and because the proprietary woofers are very fast and lively the whole image is exceptionally cohesive. We had to use two tweeters to match the efficiency of the woofers and just getting the perfect orientation was a challenge, in my DA-1 and similar models the two tweeters are offset at an angle to eliminate phase cancellations and for wide dispersion, but with the Ulysses I needed the dual tweeters to function as a point source for pin point imaging.
Next sculpting the cabinet baffle to effectively reduce baffle diffraction for the mids and tweeters while matching it all to the woofers required a lot of empirical testing and design trial and error. Finally this system had to be rock solid, so we added solid ash to the rear panel for total thickness of 1 3/8”, getting a large solid cabinet that would lose as little energy as possible is key to making the Ulysses perform at it’s very best.
Like the other Daedalus systems I was not willing to sacrifice any definition or finesse in the bass and mid bass for low-end extension, yet I have been surprised at how deep and solid the Ulysses can dig. That being said, the complete Ulysses system incorporates the BOW, which is a subwoofer system designed for the Ulysses.
The Ulysses was designed for large rooms and dedicated listening, and in those environs, can provide an accurate and unrestricted sound stage and presentation.
Like most designer-driven companies, I am constantly working to improve the products. So when a new ‘version’ is released it is an accumulation of what are called “rolling upgrades”. With the Version.2 I felt that the work of the previous several years had suddenly come to fruition, and together made a significant change, enough to warrant either a new product line or at least a new designation. The changes are in several areas and with some we may pursue a patent so I can’t give away too much detail.
The basic aspects of the V.2 upgrade are:
- Improved EMI shielding, as well as vibration control of the internal wiring, to virtually eliminate ‘over-ring’ and reduce phase distortion.
- Additional voicing using very high-end custom capacitors in the crossover networks.
- Enhanced bracing utilizing a variety of materials resulting in a much more inert and non-resonant cabinet while maintaining the reflective properties of solid hardwood.
- A whole new wiring harness based on years of empirical design work that helps to stabilize internal phase coherency and improves extension of both highs and lows with more detail and more body.
Taken together this is a huge leap forward in an already fine speaker, enough so that I could have made cosmetic changes and introduced a new and more expensive line. Instead I chose to do this as an upgrade, as that seemed to be the fairest way to take care of my family of Daedalus speaker owners.
That bit about the “rolling upgrade” was pretty telling — Lou called me a month or so in to the review and asked for the speakers back. Curious, I asked why. He’d finalized another upgrade, after the speakers had shipped: “besides upgrading the 8″ drivers and related crossover to new spec, we recut the mid so it is flush; we also installed a couple of new bypass caps that I have, only in the last few weeks, decided to add to the XO.”
I was jammed as it was, so, off they went while I went off to Munich for my very first High End experience.
The speakers, on return, looked very similar to the one that departed. So much so that I couldn’t readily pick out the differences, even knowing what to look for. Given that the look is iconic, I suspect that’s on purpose. But for all you prospectors — all this stuff is what the new V.2 will carry. Essentially, it comes down to a nip and tuck here and there, and the net-net being a much more modern Ulysses.
The City of Troy, however, is in trouble.
The Ulysses are big speakers. Big and massive and heavy. You can insert a few more adjectives that are synonymous with ‘heavy’, if you like, as my back would appreciate the additional emphasis and recognition.
Happily, minute adjustments can be made pretty much willy-nilly, due to the attractive stands that these speakers ship with. Attached, mounted, rooted or “firmly planted” into your flooring via some impressively spiked outriggers, these are actually more platforms than stands, but whatever. Semantics. The coupling between the speakers and the matching-wood platforms is felt, so you can rotate the speakers back and forth to dial them in for that last little bit of micromanaged OCD-level perfection (you know who you are).
The speakers, as I mentioned, are quite tall, which puts the tweeter array pretty much spot on with your ear (assuming you’re not sitting on the floor, or at a desk). There’s a switch on the upper-back-panel that allows you to back off the tweeter in steps, if you feel that the coupling (ear to sound) isn’t salubrious to “good feelings” (thank you, Oaken), allowing for range of 1dB up to flat to .5dB down. A trio of rear-firing ports on the back of the speaker leads me to believe that a little space out behind is probably a good thing — experience had them fully 5′ into the room for “best imaging”.
I used the Ulysses speakers with a variety of amplifiers, including my reference BorderPatrol S10 EXS amplifier, a magical SET amp featuring a single pair of Western Electric 300b output tubes. At 97.5dB, I figured this would be an easy match. For grins, I also managed to lash them to a BorderPatrol P20 EXS, a push-pull design featuring a quartet of Emission Labs 300b tubes, a Zesto Audio Bia 120, as well as a set of solid-state electronics from Pure Audio.
Cabling for this review relied on the Diamond Series signal cables from WyWires, with a complement of power cords from TelWire and Triode Wire Labs. Power conditioning and distribution came from a Hydra Triton from Shunyata Research. My analog front end was a TW-Acustic AC-3, featuring an Ortofon Windfeld cartridge on a Raven 10.5 tonearm. My digital front end was a Bricasti Design M1 paired with an Aurender W20 server. The rack I have is a legacy piece from now-defunct AudiAV. All room treatments are from GIK Acoustics. Additional isolation devices/platforms came from Symposium USA, EdenSound and Herbie’s Audio Lab. The big black tubular things are RoomLenses from long-defunct Argent.
The speakers are big. Guess what? That’s also what they sound like. That’s not necessarily helpful, though, is it? Kinda circular. But there is this thing that Big Speakers can do that point-sources never seem able to pull off. Yes, cranking little speakers way over and backing them up with a massive amp will help, but a Big Speaker, even played quietly, still has a sense of grandeur that will always escape a little sibling. It’s a thing. I like it.
But what I don’t like is when a big speaker makes everything else big. This is my problem with panels, to be honest. I love the big Magnepans and the even-bigger SoundLabs speakers. These things are almost doors — Church Doors — and they can throw a stereo image that is otherworldly. But Bob Dylan just isn’t 8′ tall. Neither is his guitar. It bugs me.
So, when I run across a great-big-honking speaker, I’m always wondering about the imaging. Can it render appropriately intimate and life-size images, in addition to recreating a full rock-concert experience? Well, that’s a bit harder to do. With Rodrigo y Gabriela, two acoustic guitarists seem to battle each other on stage. Percussive smacks on the side of the guitar meet skirling solos, and the result is breathtaking. But on their self-titled release, the track “Tamacun” really ought not to make either of these two titans of acoustic magic actually into a Titan, or even approaching Titan-sized — and here, they were not. Percussion, dynamics, tone and precision is what I got out of the Ulysses’ presentation. Both players. Rocking a little, in their seats, but people, not Giants, pounding out music fast enough to boil soup. Freakin’ awesome.
There is a thing that smaller speakers can do — take a small, stand-mount two-way loudspeaker, for example. Those, or so the stereotype goes, can (figuratively) vanish, creating a point-source effect, where coherence and immediacy rules the day. Big speakers, by contrast (again, according to stereotype) sound … well, not like that. Exactly what big speakers do sound like, however, is a little variable (“it depends”!), but while coherency isn’t always on the menu, bass usually is. Which is why Ulysses, which has both, is interesting. Well. One reason.
I’m not suggesting that anyone interested in the Ulysses will be listening to them in the near (or near-ish) field. But you could. The driver array, with two tweets, two mids and two woofers, all spiraling out from a center-point, seems to create a near line-array effect. Most of my listening was done between 6′ and 9′, and I don’t see much reason to worry about your distance, unlike what an Avantgarde horn array, or even the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96, would require before the sound “knits”. Again, not an issue with the Ulysses. And I had the impression, here and listening to this speaker at audio shows in much bigger spaces, that they’d be better-than-fine regardless of the venue they find themselves in.
Overall bass reach is impressive. Deep. Driven from the 7 watt mega-amp from BorderPatrol, I was hearing deep notes dropping easily below 30Hz in-room (overall performance is rated to 28Hz). Translated into music, I was very tempted to reach into the bin and pull out some chestnuts — like “No Sanctuary Here” from Chris Jones. The bass intro on that audio-show-torture-track is thunderous, resonant, and darkly threatening. On many speakers, there’s an approximation of the sound that this track can bring. A hollowing-out, a narrowing, or maybe just some sad, pathetic hint of what might be in store if you had some big ass transducers flexing your walls for you. You know. Like the Ulysses.
On the top end, the speakers seemed a bit dark. Detail was there — I got the full bugs-and-birds treatment from “Roadhouses and Automobiles” from that same Chris Jones album that I thought I had successfully retired, but it wasn’t until I fiddled with the toe in — and remembered the treble toggle on the rear — that things snapped into place. Heh heh. Whoops!
What I heard, in toto, was a “wall of sound” presentation. Large scale music, like the Chávez Symphony #2, “Sinphonia India” (Everest), was rendered full scale. I’ll be honest, I’m not familiar with the work of Carlos Chávez; this was a recommendation I was handed, and I picked it up just so I could wave it at Dr Karavitis, who’s sure I’m a benighted heathen when it comes to my taste in music. What I found in the sheer complexity of this music made for an exciting listening session, crashing and clashing, with lots of kettle drums. Big, round, holy-crap kettle drums. Everything is better with kettle drums. Just saying.
Speaking of drums, spinning the knob up on Malcolm Arnold’s A Sussex Overture (Reference Recordings, available as a 176kHz FLAC download from Acoustic Sounds), I found it to be just delightfully stuffed full of splash and bombast. Cymbals crashing, with some lucky guy also pounding away on a giant drum — this hardly seems like “classical music” to my poorly-trained ears. Right about now, Dr Karavitis is laughing at me, I’m sure. But this stuff is great! The recording is stereotypical for RR — huge dynamic swings catapulting out of near-silences, it just begs to be turned up. WAY up. Which, of course, is almost suicidal. Ha! I will admit to scaring the dog out of the basement with this recording. But, here with the Ulysses (as opposed to a much smaller loudspeaker, like my Living Voice Avatar OBX, for example), the scale of the swings is the thing that clubs you about the head-and-face. If you’re going to have homework, this is the stuff to have. Again, the characteristic I noted most clearly was the fullness (what I also like to call roundness) of the bass notes — that is, they go all the way down and around, and don’t halt at some half-assed point. You’re getting your scale’s worth, here.
About this point in the proceedings, I had cause and ability to get my hands on the P20 push-pull amp from BorderPatrol, and lash that to the massive EXS power supplies. 20 watts, arranged in a more muscular topology, had a startling effect — the Ulysses just came alive with more on tap. And when I say, “come alive”, I mean that — kapow! The Ulysses get drunk with power.
I queued up a Copland’s Fanfare (Reference Recordings), and from the first kettle-drum strike, I knew sh*t was about to go down. Holy cow! How loud was that?!? That track also has some pretty remarkable dynamic swings (whoops, sorry dear!), and my notes are filled with bits about “transient attack” and “ka-blam” (a technical term) … and vague, unimportant complaints shouted from two floors away.
Yes, the Ulysses are almost 98dB. But, for some reason (perhaps the crossover required for three sets of mirrored drivers), there’s something joyful that happens when you feed them a healthy, red-meat kind of diet.
Which brings us to the 65 watts of solid-state juice coming from the Pure Audio pair. Bass? Mo’ betta’. Stronger handling down low and better extension up top, and what I heard was very much more in line with what I’ve heard at audio shows. Perhaps one of the reasons why big ModWright amps have been used so successfully to show them off? Dunno. But in my experience, no, you don’t need power (or solid state amps) — but with that power, what I heard was different. Stronger. More knock-you-back-in-your-seat. More manly. More Jack Palance. Bwahahahaha!
For comparisons sake, I should draw a couple more lines here, starting with $13k/pair Living Voice Avatar OBX-RW loudspeakers, one of my personal references. I find that speaker to be “extremely fluid” — with a magical mid-range presentation and a seamless, non-fatiguing-but-still-detailed top-end. Bass, however, is only “adequate”, which is its tragic flaw. Transitioning from that amazing speaker to the big Daedalus was very much an inversion. The first thing that the Ulysses “do” — the thing that jumps out at you — is the shelf-rattling bass. From this new vantage point, that magical, immersive Living Voice midrange actually feels pushed.
Turning to the DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96, a speaker that I’ve spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time with these speakers (as they’re another reference), I find that it has bass that approaches that which I find on the Ulysses. But the O/96 also have a mid-range voicing that puts it closer to the Avatars. Splitting the difference? Let’s unpack both of these a little.
In direct comparison, I’d say that the Ulysses has a much fuller, and more resolute, bass character than either of the other two. In terms of the Avatars, this isn’t saying a whole lot, but in comparison to the DeVore, the bottom-end on the Ulysses is just far less plump. That is, it’s faster, tighter and more responsive. Modern music fans will be better served with the Daedalus, I think. Moving up the spectrum, the Ulysses is also voiced more linearly — so, to my ears, the mid-range is “in line” with the bass response, all cut from the same cloth, as it were, with nothing standing out. The O/96 to some extent, and the Avatars to a much greater extent, do sound more “forward” in this region. The analogy that comes to mind is 300b (Avatar) vs KT88 (Ulysses). Moving on up to treble, all three speakers “do” high-end, but the sparkliest of the bunch is the DeVore, with the Daedalus farther along the arc toward “non-fatiguing”. Note that this is tweakable, at least to a minor extent, with that toggle switch on the back. I personally found the +1 setting best for my setup, but YMMV.
That’s tone. Dynamically, the Daedalus is undoubtedly the champ here — that 6Ω nominal load at 97.5dB sensitivity really shows, with glee, regardless of the amp that I threw at. The swings from silent-to-holy-crap were addictive and roller-coaster-like. This kind of response is exactly why we throw monster amplifiers at “regular” speakers — the ability to throw quality instead of quantity means, generally speaking, that my enjoyment (at least) goes way up.
The Ulysses from Daedalus Audio have been around for a while; I’ve found them time and again at various audio shows across the country. For good reason. They sound fantastic. They’re big, they’re massive, and they sound like it — so yes, they “do” that “big speaker thing” and do it to a fare-thee-well. Sonically, they’re easily accomplished enough to render scale and drama in a way that’s not only satisfying, but scary.
Aesthetically, I think they’re “handsome”, in an artisanal way. Prices start at $15,850/pair, with the final price determined by options (maple, or ebonized walnut, will add $900, for example; quarter sawn white oak adds $1,200, grills and decorative wood work adds more) during a personal consultation from Lou. Given that, the final look is kind of up to you. Regardless of your choices, the Ulysses are definitely not going to vanish into your decor, given their size. They would be your decor.
I find the workmanship astonishing — especially today. There is no veneer — again, this is 100% solid wood. It’s not dipped in plastic, either — sorry Jaguar — but instead, it’s a hand-rubbed oil varnish finish. The speakers look and feel hand-made. I think that, in this 21st century disposable world, these Daedalus speakers are exactly the kinds of anachronisms we need more of. It’s Craftsman, or maybe Mission, not Art-Nouveau or Post-Modern. And those that appreciate that aesthetic will appreciate the Daedalus.
But there are others that will appreciate them too — horn lovers. No, the Ulysses are not horns. Nor do they really sound like them — they’re far too linear for that. But what they, and horns, do? Dynamics. Big, swinging, heart-racing, pulse-pounding, skull-crushing, wall-flexing thrills abound here. This is absurdly difficult to find in “modern” speakers! So, for those folks drawn to horns, but without the cathedral-like space required for a reference-grade horn system? And what if you also happen to be one of those masochists that crave a chest-thumping bass response? Well, then your choices are severely limited. Fine, yes, this latter bit at least is something you could solve with a subwoofer or two (and, happily, Daedalus has a matching pair that are actually designed to work with the Ulysses, for those of you with cathedrals or a penchant for arm-chair concussions) but that’s cheating. And a space hog. And, if you’re spending this much money anyway, why can’t you ask for everything, all at once, in a single hand-rubbed package? That’s Daedalus, to me.
I really enjoyed my time with the Ulysses. They’re magnificent. Unexpected. Unique. Highly recommended.