If you have scoured high end online sites or been to an audio show in the past few years, you likely have heard of Daedalus Audio speakers, and may know that they have been well received. They are one of very few audio products about which I can say that when I listened to them, in no less than five installations, I have never been disappointed.
Although hearing a product in person is not an infallible method of system building, a good way to zero in on favored products is by attending shows and hearing them in different rooms with disparate ancillary equipment. There is something to be gained from monitoring the hubbub associated with shows which typically appears on serious two-channel sites such as Dagogo.com. I still glance at the show favorites listings to see what items strike a positive chord. I prefer, however, to be the one finding the hidden gem and calling attention to it.
Although the Ulysses tower speaker can no longer be called undiscovered, it is a gem fine enough to work with, and currently would benefit from a review including the Daedalus Bass Optimization Woofer (BOW). Increased notoriety for this truly full range system is in order, especially considering the good showing the Ulysses/BOW system had at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2011. By that time I had heard enough of Daedalus; it was evident to me that it was a cut above the teeming masses of transducers and therefore worth my time. Lou Henkley, the owner of Daedalus, was enthusiastic, but production delays forced a months-long wait and use of the show demo units. In my experience these performed in a fully satisfactory fashion.
A musician’s speaker system
Lou is a guitar player who resumed playing in 1992 after a ten-year absence from performing. He noted a dearth of speaker systems for acoustic instruments: “The previous ten years had seen a huge leap in acoustic guitar pickups, mics and preamps, but there was not a single decent speaker system for acoustic instruments.” It was a niche waiting to be filled, which Lou promptly did, earning recognition from Acoustic Guitar Magazine for Deadalus cabinets as the “audiophile approach to acoustic amplification.” By 2002, Daedalus found its way into the home audio sector with the DA-1 tower speaker.
How might one best describe the Daedalus speaker brand? Perhaps it is as close to an acoustic instrument as a stereo speaker one can find. Its cabinet is crafted of solid hardwood and tuned to have high sensitivity. Daedalus designs attempt to emulate the properties which make, “…a great guitar stand apart.” Some speakers attempt to stifle all cabinet vibrations, but not Deadalus. Some speaker manufacturers, relates Lou, “… damp out these subtleties in their search for a clean, ‘pure’ tone. My philosophy dictates that those subtleties are necessary for an accurate reproduction.” The Deadalus design ethic is to remove alien resonances and harmonics, but to let an instrument’s natural resonance and harmonics be unhindered. A cabinet for a Daedalus speaker is far more than an afterthought. Having the sensibilities of an artist, Lou makes a product which is lovely to admire as well as hear. All cabinets are made with dovetail joinery and hand rubbed-oil varnish finishes.
Daedalus is by no means the first company to rely heavily upon natural materials. The inner baffle and the back appear to be of ¾” plywood, and according to Lou the internal bracing is maple. This is covered by another ¾” layer of solid wood, not a thin veneer. The four sides are of ¾” hardwood. When one peers into the cavity for the bass ports or the speaker binding posts the sheer mass of wood used for the cabinet impresses. Some designers prefer thin-walled inner cabinets of a bit softer wood, such as birch, while Daedalus builds it like a bomb shelter using maple and other hardwoods.
Which is more acoustically accurate? Lou relates, “Years ago JBL tested various cabinet materials and found a concrete culvert to be the best. It seems that stiffness, not just density, is the criterion.” And you thought concrete wasn’t suitable for speakers. There goes another misnomer down the drain! My own sensibility is that Lou is right. Whether aluminum, massive amounts of MDF, or solid hardwood, I tend to agree that very dense and very stiff is the way to go when it comes to a cabinet for a dynamic speaker. I find that a cabinet which is less rigid and damped can contribute an annoying “honking” quality to the bass.
A while ago, I got a good deal on a pair of Kirksaeter Silverline SL-220 towers because they had a slight blemish on the finish. Their performance is respectable for my family living room rig, my third rig after the office and listening room. Compared to a well-built bunker buster like the Ulysses, the lightness of the Kirksaeter’s construction becomes immediately obvious. Remember, we are talking of speakers separated in cost by a multiple of more than 14, so this should not be surprising. If a person never listens to speakers and wanders into a showroom they will not be aware of the contribution the cabinet may, or better yet may not, be making. But a bit of experience helps to discern cabinet involvement in the sound. In the case of the Ulysses, there is simply not a noticeable cabinet “honk” to be heard. With such a skillfully crafted speaker comes a lovely selection of woods; solid cherry or walnut, and for an additional $950 one can receive maple, quartersawn white oak, or ebonized walnet. Rosewood is off the list as Daedalus offers only renewable North American hardwoods. The show pair is medium walnut with light accents, which struck me as a suitable appearance for most homes.
Many high end audiophile speaker makers discuss their “furniture grade” appearance, but Daedalus comes to the consumer with a bit more rural appeal. The appearance reminds me of “old world” furniture as heirloom quality pieces. Such artisanal quality is easily distinguished from the mass produced speaker cabinets with glassy gloss and thin veneer over MDF. The Ulysses is not a striking speaker for its glitziness, but rather its attractiveness. There is a “take it as it comes,” rightness to the process used in making them, as the wood on the front baffles are not mirror image pieces. The BOW has complementary, two-tone accents to the Ulysses which allow it to sit beside the Ulysses and appear integral.
The side walls of the speaker are of unequal length, causing the rear baffle to be nonparallel to the front. As is in the case with many speakers of non-symmetrical cabinetry, this aids in breaking up sound waves within the speaker. Three bass ports in a triangular orientation near the bottom of the Ulysses can be directed toward the interior or exterior of the listening space depending upon the direction of the rear baffle. By switching the speakers around, the ports can be arranged to fire toward the opposite direction. I found this useful to improve the heft of the bass, and firing the ports outward I utilized the side walls of my room, which are eminently solid, to increase the liveliness of the bass. Note that toe-in also affects this, and I found I preferred the speakers toed-in just to the outside of my ears. Upon setup one can swap the speakers and experiment with bass port directionality and toe-in. This makes the Ulysses a more flexible speaker for smaller rooms.
The included maple hardwood stands are cut to the same shape as the Ulysses’ cabinet and come with Soundocity outriggers. This allows for the generously sized spikes to elevate the speaker well above even thickly carpeted floors. The outriggers are able to be adjusted so as to facilitate a backward cant of the front baffle, which is not to time align the drivers but to give the soundstage more height. I am used to rather large reference speakers and even the Ulysses at about 51” on the stand is not the biggest, though with the front baffle angled back it did not sound to me as being too low.
Inside, the Ulysses has hand built passive crossover networks by Guy Veralud, described by Lou as one of the behind-the-scenes gurus of speaker design. Internal cabling is silver coated copper. The drivers come in pairs per channel; 1” Eaton tweeters, 5” customized Fostex full range, and 8” proprietary Daedalus Audio Dynamic Drivers made in the U.SA. The mid and bass drivers are paper coned with cloth surrounds and treated to resist moisture for very long life. All connectors are gold plated, crimped and soldered with silver.
Observations on operation
The binding posts made by Cardas have a Rhodium finish and are deeply set into the cabinet. The plastic housing in which the posts reside is fairly small and the posts are a bit too close for comfort when using beefy spade terminations, so it is advantageous that they are solid metal allowing for a post wrench to gently cinch down the spade. I have no qualms over the posts themselves, but a bit larger housing with slightly more separation would be perfect.
A three-position tweeter attenuation toggle switch sits on the backside toward the top in its own niche allowing for flat (down), -2dB/.5dB (middle), or +2dB/.5dB adjustment. This has become a rather popular feature in high end speakers, allowing for a perceptually huge performance change to suit the owner’s preferences. Other speakers I have used with such switches include the Salk Soundscape 10 and Eminent Technology LFT-8B, both of which I found to be highly compatible with a variety of tastes. The Ulysses joins them in this regard. The largest effect perceptually upon attenuating the tweeter downward was an increase in the midrange. With the tweeter position up, one senses the treble and bass as bookends encroaching ever so slightly upon the midrange, and conversely expanding the midrange proportionately when in the down position. My recommendation for use with most of these attenuation devices is to try running the treble in the +2 dB mode and contour the system with cabling, as past experience has proven for this to yield maximum detail without stridency.
Lou rightly has an issue with what I will call “speaker sizzle,” that is, a speaker which impresses with copious amounts of definition but induces listener fatigue; Lou remarked “I will not build a speaker that emulates other stereo speakers or focuses on showroom wow.” The Ulysses has a rather low listener fatigue quotient; perhaps one could say it simmers rather than sizzles. I describe the phenomenon of irritating treble as “Cringe Factor,” and the Ulysses scores very low in that respect. But this is not to be construed as it being a “laid back,” or uninvolving speaker. I consider Vandersteen speakers to be laid back, running the risk of being unexciting. Not so the Ulysses, as it is snappy, vibrant and lithe. It does not offend, even though it is more “in your face” than a Vandersteen or a Salksound product. I used the +2dB setting nearly the entire review period. However, it should be kept in mind that my room is extremely well built and tuned, and has a very thick Berber carpet with a thick underlay. I would expect that a person with a livelier room may not use that setting for the tweeter.
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