Sometimes the timing of an audio review seems inadvertently auspicious. Such is the case of my latest project: the Daedalus Audio Apollo full-range speakers. I’ve had these lovely wooden wonders here in my home for a few months now, but other pressing projects, both audio and non-audio related, kept placing the review on the back burner. I’ve finally had the pleasure of getting a solid month of critical listening and note-taking in, and it’s time to put pencil to paper…
Through no advanced planning of my own, I realized that my written review was initiated exactly 50 years to the day that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission first set foot on the moon. My parents recall setting me as a two-year-old kid directly in front of the television in a crowded room to view the event close-up due to its historical importance. I had the best seat in the house, or so I’m told. This event is one of my earliest dim memories of childhood, nearly as grainy as those first pictures of men on the lunar surface.
Since getting to know the Daedalus Audio Apollo speakers, I can say that they are themselves quite an auspicious undertaking. While certainly not inexpensive, I truly appreciate the careful design and implementation of these bespoke, hand-built wooden speakers. What I appreciate even more is how they sound, but we’ll get to that soon enough…
How I Review
With Apollos on the block, I’ve taken some time to really think about how I approach reviewing fine audio components such as these. I section my reviewing duties into three broad categories: objective performance, my own subjective response, and finally, value. Everything else, all the little stuff, falls somewhere within these three camps.
From the objective side, I carefully evaluate whether or not a component actually performs at the level its designer intended; in short, does it do what it is advertised to do? This type of evaluation is fairly easy. If the thing is a turd, this fact becomes evident fairly early on, in which case, we end the review.
The subjective side is a bit harder to describe, but it’s every bit as important. Here, I’m more about how a component makes me feel. It’s about my opinion, which of course may be different from yours or anyone else’s. This part of the evaluation takes into account my visceral response to both the sound and appearance of the gear. Do I like how it looks in my listening room? Does it engage me on a deep musical level?
Regarding the latter point, I have a simple test I use. I spend a lot of time at my desk, which sits off-axis from my listening arrangement. I work here, I write here, and I play here. If a component is a real stinker, I’m content to have no music playing while I work. If a component is good, I’m happy to have music playing all the time while at my desk. If a component is truly great, and it engages me on a visceral level, I find myself cocking my head over toward the speakers. Shortly thereafter, I’ll be over in the listening chair for the next few hours, guaranteed.
Value, of course, is reflected in the summation of my objective and subjective experiences with a given piece of gear. I ask myself the question: “If I had x amount of money in my account, and I were shopping for this type of component, would I buy it, or move on?” We’re talking pretty much the same value assessment any seasoned audio buyer would be making when in the market for a new component.
Introducing the Apollo
Before we get to outcomes, let’s take a moment for an overview of what these speakers are all about.
First off, it’s no secret that designer Lou Hinkley is a big proponent of using hardwoods as cabinet materials. You won’t find any MDF, aluminum, or plastic in his workshop. I think Lou’s speakers are stunningly gorgeous; he does some of the best furniture grade cabinetry in the business. No cheap veneer here, these guys are the real deal. My sample was adorned in special quarter-sawn walnut, a $900 up-charge from the standard cherry.
Hardwoods are heavy and expensive, so why does Daedalus use them — and use them exclusively? The answer is simple: Lou would argue that the sound is better. More open and natural, as it were. I favor this school of thought myself, as my son is apprenticing to become a master violin builder. You don’t make great sounding violins out of MDF or plastic… It’s spruce and maple all the way in his world.
Another aspect of Mr. Hinkley’s design philosophy, one I quite admire, is that his loudspeakers are of high sensitivity while still using traditional cone/dome drivers and cabinet design. For those who want the advantages of sensitivity but can’t manage horns, Lou’s designs could be the perfect solution. They’re also an easy load, as their impedance never drops below six ohms. Lou gives those of us who love flea-watt amps yet another reason to rejoice!
The three-way Daedalus Audio Apollos are big. They’re a lot larger than I had somehow expected once I got them unboxed and situated in my listening room. Each speaker weighs in around 100 lbs, but I was able to hustle them around the listening room myself without too much trouble. Once situated, I chose to install the supplied conical metal footers, which effectively coupled the speakers to my carpeted floor.
The front baffles of the speakers are intentionally canted in toward the listener such that minimal toe-in will be required. Even so, I chose to toe them in just a bit to achieve the solid center image I crave.
During the review process, my ancillary equipment consisted of a Bricasti M1 Special Edition DAC (reviewed here) feeding a Linear Tube (LTA) MicroZOTL 2.0 preamp (reviewed here). Amplifiers were an LTA ZOTL 10 (reviewed here), First Watt SIT-3 (reviewed here), and a big-iron Pass Labs X250.8 (reviewed here), just to goose ‘em good.
Finally, the Sound!
From the objective perspective, the Daedalus Audio Apollos do exactly what their builder claims. They are wonderfully dynamic and expressive, whether propelled by 10 watts of tube power or 250 watts of solid-state goodness. In short, they play, and how!
But I know that’s not what you have parked yourself here to read.
Let’s get onto the more interesting stuff: what do I really think about these speakers?
In short, I’ll start by admitting that these transducers seize me emotionally and don’t let go. Honestly, it starts with their appearance. Their physical size, augmented by those lovely cabinets with their fine wood inlay, just grab the eyes and direct them to the source of the sound, even before any is produced. And that’s just the start of it…
Once the Apollos began to break in (which took a little bit of time), I found myself suffering from a stiff neck due to craning my head to the left while sitting at the desk. I was subliminally wandering into the sweet spot while I was trying to do something else altogether- so much for productivity.
Regardless of which amp I used to power the Daedalus speakers, the sound was sweet and alluring. Even so, little (if any) detail or resolution seemed sacrificed to the audio gods.
One of the immediate attributes I noted was that these speakers yield a remarkably coherent sound given their physical size. The three-way system sounded as close to an actual point source as I could imagine possible for such behemoths. Perhaps this fortuitous characteristic is a result of careful crossover design and driver placement? I can only wonder. Now couple this uncanny coherence with the physical scale and dynamics that only a large speaker can deliver, and you’ve got yourself a winner.
With those niceties out of the way, let’s get down to some specific observations.
With the LTA ZOTL
As Scot Hull would say, these are speakers that involve me to the point that I enjoyed spending lots of time “geeking out” to see what levels of performance I could wring out of them.
I was especially excited to mess around with these Apollos given their 96 dB efficiency. This means that I can spend quality time experimenting with the “flea watt” amps I so enjoy. One I really wanted to try was the 10 watt per channel tubed LTA ZOTL 10. This amp is amazingly clear, uncluttered, and neutral in character; I’m usually pleasantly surprised at how good it sounds with almost every speaker I’ve paired it with.
With the ZOTL 10 leading the sonic parade, what I got was live, up-front-and-center sound. I had no trouble whatsoever driving the Apollos to suitable levels with this capable little amplifier. Dynamics could shift on a dime, and the sound was always stunningly clear, yet still propitiously palpable and organic.
Good live jazz recordings were a revelation when heard through the Daedalus/LTA combo. Lately, I have been enjoying the lilting vocals of jazz chanteuse Cecile McLorin Salvant. Her album Dreams and Daggers (24/96 FLAC, streamed via Qobuz) features a number of live cuts recorded at the Village Vanguard in which she is backed by a pianist, string bassist, and percussionist. The recording is vivid and intimate, with Salvant’s vocals ranging from almost a “come hither” whisper to all-out wailing. Needless to say, the dynamic shifts of her voice, as captured by the recording, are immediate and awesome. This lady can start and stop on a dime and accelerate from zero to ninety in milliseconds!
By way of the Daedalus Audio Apollo speakers, Ms. Salvant’s vocals took on a “you are there” intimacy with all the trappings of honest tone and dynamic, both large and small. The same could be said of the accompanying instruments, which wafted in and out of the scene like a trio of wraiths. I found the delicacy of these instruments breathtaking to hear, with the finest of detail and touch resolved from my front row venue.
With the First Watt SIT-3
Swapping the tubed LTA ZOTL 10 amp out for the 17 watt per channel solid-state SIT-3 shone a slightly different but no less enjoyable light on the Daedalus Audio Apollo speakers.
Again, take Dreams and Daggers as an example. Rather than parked against the stage at the Village Vanguard, imagine yourself a few tables back, looking up through thin wisps of cigarette smoke toward the performers. If the LTA amp was up close, clear, and personal (no, you can’t quite count the bassist’s nose hairs…), the First Watt amp gave a slightly more distant and integrated perspective. Instrumental images were a little hazy around the edges, but there seemed to be an injection of tonal vibrancy that made the notes remind me of spices well-married in the musical stew. I sensed a little bit more of the performance venue, as if there were a reflection or two from the side walls. I kept coming back to the adjectives of “spacious” and “colorful” when describing the overall sound of the SIT-3 coupled to the Daedalus Apollos. Imagine the performers being a little more distantly mic’d, and I think you’ll have a picture of what I’m trying to convey.
Mind you, the differences between the amplifiers that I describe here are small. I don’t mean to suggest that the First Watt amp gives up large amounts of resolution or intimacy relative to the ZOTL 10. Rather, each amplifier provides a subtly unique take on the performance, but without yielding much, if anything, to the overall coherence, scale, and slightly sweet, romantic character of the Apollos themselves.
With the Pass Labs X250.8
Alright, this pairing is exclusively for you “go big or go home” folks. You know who you are…
For me, pairing a 96 dB efficient pair of speakers with a 250 watt per channel big-iron amp seems about as ludicrous as putting a 400 horsepower high-performance engine in a Prius, but what the hey? Daedalus’ specs say the speakers can take that kind of power, so let’s see what happens. Grip, control, extension: that’s what happens. Not to mention thunderous dynamic shifts. Headroom is the term that comes to mind, as in having the power at hand to go really fast when we tap the gas pedal.
Listening to rock and dynamic orchestral pieces was great fun. Bass seemed enhanced, both in control and quantity, and big dynamic shifts were eerily realistic. I indulged readily in stuff like Led Zeppelin Celebration Day, the Cowboy Junkies Trinity Session and Whites off Earth Now, as well as rollicking orchestral works like Sir Malcolm Arnold’s classic English, Irish, and Scottish Dances (all FLAC, streamed via Qobuz).
Was there any trade-off? You bet… Even though the music was exciting and bombastically presented, I found it harder to engage on an emotional level than I did with the smaller amps. Again, this is my subjective side speaking. The deleterious effect was almost subliminal, but extended listening brought it out for sure. The big Pass Labs X250.8, when coupled with the Apollos, tended to ever so slightly thicken the upper midrange. At first, I thought it was actually a bit of brittleness or hardening of the sound, but extended listening told me that something altogether different was going on. What I was hearing was more like congestion or smearing of that part of the spectrum toward which my ears seem to be overly sensitive.
I doubt that those who like their music played back loud would be too put off, but I found myself missing that special touch and transparent clarity offered by lower powered amps. Did I hit the sweet spot? I’m honestly not sure. I’d love to hear these speakers driven by a more powerful tube amp like the McGary SA-1 (reviewed here), or even the ultra-transparent solid-state Bakoon Amp-41 (reviewed here), two altogether different amplifiers that I swooned over last year.
Daedalus Audio Apollo: Let’s talk value
You thought I’d never get here, did you?
Finally, here’s to value, which is the final summation of my overall objective and subjective musings of the Daedalus Audio Apollo speakers.
Objectively, the Apollos are big winners. However, it’s the subjective summary that we really need to re-cap. First off, if I haven’t made a big enough deal about it yet, these speakers are stunningly beautiful. From the exquisitely finished solid wood cabinets to the fine inlay, to the dovetailed top and bottom panels, these things are fine furniture and objects of art, as well as world-class audio transducers. They’re just gorgeous.
Most importantly, the Apollos never failed to both enchant and challenge me in my own listening. They strike an almost perfect balance between studio-monitor accuracy and listener engagement. There’s some kind of magic that designer Lou Hinkley injects into his speakers that makes me want to just keep listening all day long. A sprinkling of romance perhaps? I don’t really know, but whatever it is, it really works!
Without a doubt, I consider the Daedalus Audio Apollos to be of reference-quality at their $18,500 price point, and probably well beyond that. I’d happily invite them into my home for the long haul- and you may well wish to consider doing so as well. Seek these out if you can… I’d suspect that you’ll be more than delighted that you did!
Price: $18,500 per pair; $20,000 as reviewed. For more information, see Daedalus Audio, online here.