It’s a big hassle for me to audition speakers in my main listening room. My reference B&W Nautilus 800Ds are 275 pounds each and spiked, and I don’t have any help when I move them. Consequently, I told Dagogo’s editor, Constantine Soo, that I really didn’t want to review “midfi” speakers in that room – that I would listen to such speakers in any other room in the house, but not in my main room with the high-end rig.
As a result, I’ve had some very fine speakers to listen to and to pit directly against the Nautilus 800D. The least expensive that I reviewed in this time period was the Canton Vento Reference 7 ($7,000.00), which I was doubtful about because they were not full-range speakers, but which turned out to be absolutely great speakers.
This experience made me very open to reviewing the Daedalus Audio Ulysses, which at $10,500 are not cheap, but which are considerably less expensive than the “reference” speakers I hear and read about. I then discovered that unlike the Canton’s, which are the third model down in their Vento series, the Ulysses are Daedalus Audio’s top-of-the-line. “Wow!” I thought. “Either someone is misusing the term ‘Reference’, or this is a hell of a price for a reference product”. I’m happy to report that this is a hell of a price for a great speaker. Mind you, it is not designed to plumb the bottom reaches of bass-heavy music as some $15,000+ speakers, although there are actually many speakers over $15,000 that are not full-range, but if you’re looking to spend in the $9,000 to $11,000 range, these speakers should be in your final four, especially if you listen to a lot of acoustic music.
Anyone willing to spend $9,000 to $11,000 on speakers has some great choices, such as the Krell Resolution 2, the Sonus Faber Cremona (maybe not at current exchange rates!), and the Logan-Martin Summit, as well as several others. This is serious competition that includes a wide variety of design philosophies. The Daedalus Ulysses are made of hardwood, champion efficiency to obtain lifelike dynamics and PRAT, and have an unusual design in that they use two 1-inch Eton diagonally offset dome tweeters that are in the middle of the speaker cabinet between two 5” custom modified Fostex full range midrange drivers, which are in turn located between the two Daedalus Audio Dynamic low frequency drivers. Yes – the bass drivers are at the bottom and at the top.
The specifications on the Daedalus website describe the enclosure as a “Tuned Port Aperiodic Vent (Rear)”. Now, I’ve heard of an “aperiodic box” and of a “ported box”, but this is a new term to me and I regret that I can’t explain it to you. They have a single set of speaker terminals, and Daedalus obviously doesn’t think that bi-wiring or bi-amping is necessary.
You can get the Ulysses in oak, cherry or walnut, or for an additional $600 you can get them in maple or ebonized walnut. If you’ve ever known any master carpenters, you will know how stunning their work can be. Daedalus Audio’s speakers exhibit wonderful craftsmanship. If you love wood furniture, these speakers will more than satisfy your visual tastes and desire for finely crafted woodwork. The pair I received also had magnetic grills for an additional $300 and optional stands for an additional $500. The stands enhanced the speakers’ performance in my room, so I don’t hesitate to recommend them. If you don’t care about screening the drivers you certainly don’t need the grills, but I thought they were both attractive and functional, with the magnetic attachment scheme working better than the snap-in attachment methods I’ve encountered.
Daedalus Cabinets, or is it Daedalus Audio?
When I first agreed to review the Ulysses, I understood I was getting them from Deadalus Audio. However, I later heard the name “Daedalus Cabinets” and wondered whether that was a mistake. Lo and behold, there was no mistake.
Lou Hinkley, the proprietor of Daedalus Audio, has apparently for many years run an operation known as Daedalus Cabinets that serves the professional musician market, which can be very particular about how their instruments sound. He makes a range of instrument speakers designed for use with acoustic instruments. He also makes acoustic guitar amps that have quite a reputation. Daedalus Audio is the home audio side of Lou Hinkley. I always recommend that readers check out the manufacturer’s website for details about the products I review. In this case I suggest that you look both at www.daedalusaudio.com and www.daedalusmusic.com, because there is a very consistent design philosophy at work here.
Lou Hinkley is clearly a great believer in using hardwoods as the main material for speaker enclosures. He states this on both the Daedalus Audio and Daedalus Cabinets websites. He believes that hardwood enclosures are the best at reproducing the sound of instruments and voices, and it’s hard not to believe him after listening to his speakers.
Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself: “But my speakers are made of wood!” It is very likely that they are not. The majority of speaker enclosures these days are made of MDF – medium density fiberboard. MDF replaced particleboard, which in turn had replaced plywood as the enclosure material of choice. Of course, there are some notable exceptions to MDF: Wilson Audio Specialties with a proprietary phenolic resin, YG Acoustics with aluminum panels, and Wilson Benesch with carbon fiber. However, the vast majority of good speakers made today use MDF. This has not been without controversy, with some designers searching for some other material. Rather than argue, Lou Hinckley simply followed his ears and went with hardwood.
The Speakers Arrive
As has become my break-in custom with speakers, I first moved the Ulysses into my secondary listening room and let them play for three straight days connected to a Denon receiver playing music from the Sirius satellite channels. I then brought down the Plinius Tautoro preamp and SA-201 stereo power and started casually listening to music both from the DSS music channels and CDs played on a Pioneer Elite DV-38A, for about an hour a day for the next week. I used Shunyata Orion speaker cables and Antares interconnects and Silent Source Signature power cords. Only after I had ten days (240 hours) of break-in did I start some serious listening.
I don’t know exactly why, but the Daedalus Audio Ulysses sounded very good in my secondary room, which is a bit of a challenge in that the room regularly defeats higher-priced speakers that sound much better in my main room. It may be that since my secondary listening room makes it difficult to get good low bass reproduction, the Ulysses, not being a full-range floorstander, just sounds naturally rolled-off in that room.
Whatever the reason, the Ulysses immediately struck me as a very fine speaker for small to midsize rooms. Especially when playing acoustic music, they exhibited impeccable tonality. Pianos, flutes, violins, cellos, clarinets, trumpets, tenor sax, etc., they all exhibited a very accurate and natural presentation in a difficult room with lots of ceramic tile and reflective wood surfaces.
The Ulysses has a switch that allows you to adjust the output of the tweeter. It has a neutral position, and then +1 dB and -1dB. I played with all three throughout the course of my evaluation. However – and I mean this as high praise – each setting changed things a bit without making any difference in my enjoyment. By that I mean that I never felt the need to set the switch at -1dB because the treble was glassy or glaring. Conversely, I never set it at +1dB because of a need for greater treble detail. All three settings sounded good. Totally unexpected.
Moving the Daedalus Ulysses speakers was a breeze. At 115 pounds, they were 85 pounds less than the Coincident Total Victory IV I was reviewing, less than half the weight of my 275 pound B&W 800D, and not far off 1/3 of the weight of the 300-pound Usher Be-20 I had just received. Not only were they much lighter, but their smooth polished wood bottoms made them easy to slide on carpet, so they really only had to be lifted to be put up on the stands. They were so “lightweight” compared to the other speakers I had in the house that I despaired even before I set them up in my main listening room: how can I compare these to my “heavyweights”? Pretty well, as it turns out.
Version 2 – Let’s Start Again
I need to interrupt the story here, because my listening was interrupted. Lou Hinkley called me and told me that he had made some refinements to the Ulysses, and asked if I would like to hear them. “You betcha”, I said, so Lou sent me another pair of the Ulysses. He wasn’t kidding. I already liked the version he had sent me previously, but the newer one was clearly more refined and even more “natural” than the first. Consequently, the rest of this review will refer to the improved Ulysses.
I, again, put the Ulysses in my secondary listening room. As Lou had mentioned, this pair was already broken in, and they sounded absolutely great. I previously thought the Ulysses sounded very good in my secondary listening room, but the revised version wasn’t just good – it was truly great, making sense of a room that is very tough to tame. I decided not to waste any more time and moved it to the main listening room.
The Main Room
My main listening room has many great features that allow music to really flow. It’s got dedicated power supplies, acoustic treatments, a wide expanse to work with as a soundstage and synergistic equipment (see Ed’s profile). However, it does have one anomaly that I have battled for many years – standing waves.
I have tamed these standing waves with digital room correction via the Lyngdorf RP-1, and I have become a major believer in what room correction can do. However, one of the things that you need to do when changing speakers is to recalibrate room correction. Though it’s easy with the Lyngdorf RP-1, I played them initially without recalibrating. As expected, this wasn’t optimal, so I sighed and got up to recalibrate the Lyngdorf. On an impulse, I sat back down and switched the Lyngdorf to BYPASS, although I hardly ever play music in this mode any more, and spun a disc.
I was amazed. The Ulysses, possibly because it doesn’t try to go down to the lowest bass notes, sounded full and defined. Something about the combination of its bass and what turned out to be the optimal room placement for imaging also avoided the majority of my standing wave problems. The Ulysses still benefitted from recalibration of my Lyngdorf RP-1, but it needed less correction than any other speaker I’ve had in the room. I obviously can’t say that this would occur in your room, but it is nonetheless worth noting.
I used the Ulysses with both the Pass X-600.5 and Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks. The Ulysses mated well with both and benefitted from their high power output, despite the fact that it clearly didn’t need anywhere near such power. However, I have consistently found that good speakers can benefit from virtually unlimited power, even though a listener may ultimately decide that the benefit does not outweigh lower power amps’ advantages. This is especially true with respect to the bass, as well as overall dynamics.
I also used the Ulysses in my main room with both Silent Source Silver Signature speaker cable and Shunyata Orion speaker cable. The sound was somewhat different between the two, but the fundamental nature of the Ulysses came through each time. Now this may not seem like a big thing, but I’ve auditioned some speakers where changing the speaker cable affected how much I liked (or disliked) the speaker. The best speakers do not seem to have such variability, and I found the Ulysses to be enjoyable with several amps and speaker cables.
Natural Presentation, Natural Details, Natural Balance Between Richness and Detail, Natural Dynamics and Natural PRAT
When I say “natural”, I mean this in virtually every way. However, I’ll focus on two in particular.
First, and most importantly, the tonality of every instrument, especially acoustic instruments and voices, was spot-on “right”. You could sense the wood cavity of the instrument and the breathiness of the singer. This covered instruments playing in the treble, midrange and bass, even when the recording included bass that goes lower seemingly than what the Daedalus was designed to reproduce. It was not artificial-sounding in details but had a genuine sense that this is the way an instrument should sound. It’s not that you “hear the bowing” on the cello – you get to hear the integrated effect that the bowing technique produces when you hear it live.
A good example of the first of these “natural” characteristics showed up in “Touch of Trash” on Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool. The vast majority of speakers I’ve heard, including speakers regarded as being “best in class”, produce excessive sibilance when Barber sings the phrases, “a south beach tan under a sun-streaked do”, and “she smells the gas then lights the match”. The Ulysses reproduces every single “s”, “sh” and “tch” without ever making you think even once about excessive sibilance. It sounds like a live performance behind a properly set up microphone.
The second way in which the Ulysses sounded “natural” was in the speed, pace, rhythm and timing of the presentation, which was ideal without the need for any tweaking. Some speakers I listen to only achieve the correct speed when I place them on stands or points, add damping, or when I engage the Quantum Symphony Pro that I keep around for that purpose.
Not so with the Ulysses. It exhibited proper speed and PRAT right out of the box. Moreover, the Ulysses wasn’t too fast or disjointed, which I sometimes experience with electrostatic speakers that seem too fast overall or where the treble is faster than the supplemental cone bass driver. With the Ulysses, speed was properly integrated at all levels. Moreover, the Ulysses did not artificially “speed up” music that was meant to be slow and languorous.
Microdynamic details were plentiful, but if the tune was meant to be dreamy, it was dreamy, not “peppy”. For example, both Jiang Jianhua’s “Left Alone” and Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers” could be played consecutively and the listener would never think that “Left Alone” was too fast or that “Nothing But Flowers” was too slow. I’ve heard some expensive speakers that almost always make the former too fast and the latter too slow – they homogenize the speed of the presentation.
The Ulysses also sounds “natural” in other ways. For example, some systems sound etched, a trait often mistaken for “detail”. Though the Ulysses is very detailed and resolving, it is resolving in an effortless sort of way. It doesn’t push the details at you like your grandmother pushes food at Thanksgiving. Rather, the details are available for your selection and presented in a tasteful way. You can focus on the tasty microdynamic morsels or gorge yourself on the main course – it’s up to you.
The soundstage of the Ulysses is quite good, with a broad and naturally (there’s that word again!) soundstage. It is easily competitive with other speakers that image well. In my system, it presented good depth even where the space between speakers was obstructed and irrespective of whether the room width was constrained.
The only thing that I wished the Ulysses could have was the type of bass/kickdrum performance that you can get with the Wilson Watt Puppy or an Usher Be-20 – which of course would mean that these wouldn’t be $10,500 speakers but $20,000+ speakers. Perhaps Lou Hinkley will let me play with these a little longer so I can try to integrate them with dual subs….that is, if I can find the time outside my regular job…sigh.
The Daedalus Audio Ulysses is the most natural-sounding speaker I recall listening to. This is particularly true with acoustic instruments. The Ulysses’ natural presentation covers the entire frequency spectrum, double bass to piccolo. Even though it does not reach the lowest bass notes (which it was not designed to do), anyone other than the most curmudgeonly bass fanatic will smile when they hear these speakers.
I heartily recommend these speakers for rooms that range from small to medium/large (30’ x 25” or so).
Many thanks for such a clear and thoughtful review. I truly appreciate the expertise and perception it took to ‘hear’ our concept for these speakers.
You pegged it that first and foremost my goal is natural sound. A big part of my approach to getting there at an under $20K price point has been to NOT focus on the half octave below 30 Hz,… I’d rather use a sub (if necessary) to augment that range than to make sonic compromises in the two or three octaves that are at the heart of music. That’s not to say it can’t be done, just thanks for recognizing that we weren’t trying to get a flat response below 30Hz. BTW, the next project is a larger ($20K plus) system that will be bi-amped, move much more air and get close to 20Hz.
Thank you Ed, for your efforts and skill, and to Constantine for the opportunity to have this review.
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