By Lee Shelly
Well, a more accurate title would be “Life with the Hudsons”, but that seems less poetic, so there you go.
A few disclaimers before I get started. Yes, I’m a photographer who does a lot of work in the high end audio genre. With that said, AmpsAndSound is not and has not been a client of mine. I consider Justin, who owns AmpsAndSound to be a personal friend, though I really only see him at audio shows. With that out-of-the-way, lemme tell you about life with the Hudsons.
When I was chatting with Justin at AmpsAndSound about an upcoming modification he was making to his Kenzie headphone amplifier (a modification which would become their acclaimed ‘Encore’) he brought up his speakers. I knew Justin for about a year and didn’t yet know about his love for vintage horn speakers nor the depth of his commitment to designing new horn speakers. So I asked him to tell me more!
He explained that he had these speakers called the Hudsons which were 99db efficient and which featured a 15” front-firing ported woofer and 2 horn drivers all in a cabinet that didn’t require a palatial room in which to fit them. Needless to say, I was intrigued. Then he blew me away by asking me if I’d like to listen to them for a month at my location! The one caveat…I would have to write about my impressions and share them with the world. I figured the best way to do that would be to write a review for Part Time Audiophile. So I reached out to Scot Hull and here we are.
The speakers came via freight carrier in an exceptionally well packed crate that weighed in at a massive 450 total pounds. My studio is on the 2nd floor and I have no elevator, so we unpacked them on the first floor and fought gravity to get them to my space. Gravity may have lost that day, but it inflicted its share of damage on my back! Just something to keep in mind should you desire to acquire a pair of these!
Upon unwrapping then, we discovered the most STUNNING Rosewood finish. The depth of the grain and the sheen of the polish on the veneer was furniture grade…and we’re not talking IKEA here. These will be showpieces in the homes of their owners.
The next thing that was obvious was the care taken in building the cabinets. Knocking on the top revealed a completely dead cabinet, free from hollow echo and resonances. The back of the cabinet was held on with about 20 screws and was finished with the same care as the front, top and sides. The only thing to break up the plain backside was a single pair of binding posts per speaker.
Not wanting to waste any time, I put spikes on the bottom and hocked them up to the amp I had most recently been shooting, the new Pass Labs XA25. I used my laptop as a source and began streaming Tidal through the Schiit Yggdrasil DAC to break them in for a while before the critical listening would begin.
I was quickly struck by what seemed to be a lack of midrange. Not wanting to judge too quickly, I went away for a few hours and came back to find the same.
And then I sat down.
You see, I had been standing up and walking around while listening and casually performing other tasks. As soon as I sat down the midrange came out in all her female vocal glory. When Justin called me to ask if they had arrived ok, I asked him about this. He explained that the midrange horn, a CNC-cut horn that uses what he called hybrid tractrix flare, both controlled horizontal dispersion and limited vertical dispersion to make them very room friendly. Hence the fact that I was not hearing the full capabilities of that driver while standing up. Note that the cabinets are 34” tall (35” with the spikes) and are thus really meant for seated listening and may require low stands if you prefer to sit up high or do a lot of critical listening while standing. Another alternative if you fall into those two categories is to get taller spikes for the front and give the speakers a slight up-tilt. This was my long-term solution and it worked out very well.
So there they sat for 72 hours of break in while playing a playlist that includes everything from Pink Noise to Pink Floyd. It was after this that I revisited them in earnest.
I began with the speakers in a section of the studio with a brick wall about 8 feet behind and with a wall of windows on the left about 4 feet from the speaker. On the right, the room was more open. The sound here, while pleasant, was a little glarey and hard. I tried window shades on the left side which helped quite a bit, but I still felt there was an edge to the sound, likely coming from the hard wall behind. On to setup number 2.
At home, I’m very limited in space and am always fighting to get more space behind and on either side of my speakers. But now I was in my 2,700 sq ft studio, so I decided to use all that space to my advantage. I put the speakers dead center in the room. They had 30 ft behind them and about the same on either side. I placed my seat 15 ft from the speakers and had 15 ft behind me. WOW! What a difference! The glare was gone and the image was HUGE. The depth of the image behind the speakers was exceptional as was the width outside the boxes. I was NOT used to this kind of image from horn speakers. However (why does there have to be a ‘however’?) the bass was noticeable absent. As in gone. Despite the front firing woofer and ports, the placement was killing the bottom end. A call to Justin and a quick conversation about placement ensued. He explained that they rely on some reinforcement from the rear walls for their best output. Since I doubt many people will be placing these 30 ft from their back wall, I doubt it will matter much! On to the 3rd and final setup.
This one had the speakers placed 6’ from the back wall and 5’ from either side wall…a significantly more ‘real world’ arrangement. After tipping the speakers up about 5o from flat, I was ready to settle in for the long listen! I opened up with a few familiar tracks using Tidal’s new high rez library as my source.
I started with the title track from Mark Knopfler’s Shangri-La album. Right away, the bass was BACK! The Pass Labs amp had a vice-like grip, and the depth and volume were all there! Mark’s voice was liquid and had none of the bass-to-midrange hangover I’ve heard on other systems. I did feel like the presentation was a little bright for my taste…but I tend to be VERY treble averse.
I moved on to Donald Fagan’s The Nightfly. “Green Flower Street” has long been a reference for me, as had the title track. Both sounded wonderful. The central image was rock solid and palpable. But there was that brightness again. Fagan’s recordings are known for their dryness, so I decided to try something warmer.
I’e never found “Friend of the Devil” from The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty album to be bright, so on it went. It was warmer and more rich than either of the other albums, but still something seemed slightly reticent in the top register.
So I placed another call to Justin and asked what he suggested. He said “NO PROBLEM!” It seems that the crossover had the ability to attenuate both the midrange and tweeter independent from each other. A few minutes with the automatic screwdriver and I had the backs off.
Two quick aside comments here: First of all, seeing the cabinets from the inside reinforced the solid nature of the speakers. If Justin ever needs a new career, he should consider furniture making! Second, the crossover is a serious piece of kit. There are some proprietary designs involved, so I’m not at liberty to share pictures, but trust me, this is not some off-the-shelf afterthought!
So, after Justin walked me through dialing back the tweeter one notch and spending a few more minutes with the screw-gun (did I mention there were about 20 screws on each cabinet?), I was back in business.
I revisited all four of the tracks I had first tested and gone was the etch that had bothered me. Free from what I call The Audiophile Etch, I was able to better enjoy the male vocals and the exceptional imaging. The walls disappeared and closing my eyes made it feel like I was in the studio with the artists.
Time for some female vocals, said I. I’m an unabashed Sade fan. Unfortunately, I find the digital versions of her recording pale in comparison to the vinyl. So into the system went my ModWright preamp and VPI Avenger turntable (with 3d tonearm and Ortofon 2m Black). I dropped the needle on Sade’s Promise album and from the first track (Is it a Crime) was blown away. The richness of her vocals was lovely and the placement of the instruments was precise. The speakers were able to handle the dynamic range from the loud intro to the quietest details with equal aplomb. There were rare times when I felt like I could discern the crossover between the midrange and treble, but I can’t swear it wasn’t my own imagination and me listening for something that wasn’t there. When I let myself relax, it was ultimately just involvement and enjoyment of the music.
While I had the turntable fired up, I decided to hear what the horns could do with…well…horns!
I pulled out my copy of Chicago II and went straight to 25 or 6 to 4. Now THIS felt like what these speakers were meant to play! As nimbly as they had handled the small scale productions, they seemed to really sing with a larger and more diverse group of instruments. The horns had a brassy sound that was simply ‘right’. I found myself turning the system up louder and louder until I felt like I was an a concert. Until, that is, my neighbor from above ‘gently’ reminded me that there were others trying to conduct business in the building.
I next pulled out my MoFi copy of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. If I had pumped some smoke into the room, I would have felt like I really was there. Again, the horns sounded so natural and the subtle detail retrieval was exceptional. It’s cliche’ to say “I heard things I had never heard before”, but that was the reality. The breath into the trumpet was palpable.
I had come to my conclusions and was ready to begin writing when I got another call from Justin. He had one of his amps that he wanted to send me to try with the Hudsons. Yeah…like I was going to say no. So I waited a few days for UPS to show up with The Bigger Ben and a pair of KT88’s.
Bigger Ben is a 2-channel Single-Ended tube amp that delivers between 5 & 7 watts of power and is made to mesh well with an efficient horn speaker…like the Hudsons. So out came the Pass Labs and into the system went the Bigger Ben. I also swapped out the ModWright preamp and put in my own Kenzie headphone amp to act as preamp with it’s cousin.
I listened back trough the digital tracks above and my notes include comments like ‘Liquid’ and ‘Engaging’. When it came to the top end, I actually went back to the original treble setting since the Ben was so smooth and lacking in etch that I was able to get even more enjoyment out of the sparkle without feeling like it was too analytical. The biggest change was in the lower region. The Ben lacked the nth degree of control exhibited by the Pass amp but presented a rounder and more complete texture.
I decided to explore this more and popped on Jazz Variants by O-Zone Percussion Group. This features some of the deepest and most air-moving bass I’ve heard. The combination of the Ben and the Hudsons demonstrated a capability that I didn’t sense from the solid state amp. Again, while not showing quite the same control, the depth and sheep air pressure from the Ben/ Hudson combination was something you need to experience.
Let me begin by saying i have generally not been a ‘Horn Guy’. I warned Justin about this going in and I appreciate that he was willing to take the chance that I would not have glowing things to say. And to be fair, it also meant the my expectations were lower than they might otherwise have been.
Having said all that, my expectations were not merely exceeded, they were destroyed. I have never heard horns image the way these did. I haven’t heard them sound as liquid through the midrange before. Most horn speakers have sounded nasal to my ears, but these did not. If you want tight, ultra-fast bass, pair these with a top-end solid state amp, like the Pass Labs. If you want deep, warm, lush and SPL producing bass, I can wholeheartedly recommend AmpsAndSound’s own Bigger Ben. How they squeeze that kind of oomph out of 7 watts is beyond me, but they do.
Add to the wonderful sound, the fact that they are stunning pieces of furniture art that are not so large that you’ll need to build a room around them. In addition, if you like to tinker or have a difficult room, you have a myriad of adjustments at your disposal.
All of this adds up to a solid recommendation.
- Preamps: ModWright SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition with Phono Stage, AmpsAndSound Kenzie Amps: Pass Labs XA25, AmpsAndSound Bigger Ben
- Cables: All AudioQuest Interconnects and Speaker Wire
- Sources: Mac Laptop feeding Schiit Yggdrasil DAC via Audioquest USB, VPI Avenger with 3d Tonearm and Ortofon 2m Black
- Cabinet: 34”H x 24” W x 16” D
- Weight: 145lbs/per cabinet
- Quoted Frequency Response: 34Hz – 20Khz -3db, 99db
- Sensitivity: 99db 1W/1m, 200 watts/maximum power handling
- Drivers: 15′′ woofer in a direct-radiating configuration that is front-ported, CNC-cut midrange horn which utilizes a hybrid tractrix flare and is mated to a 2′′ large-format midrange compression driver with a 4′′ voice coil, tweeter combines a 1′′ compression driver coupled to conical-tractrix hybrid horn.