Darrel Hawthorne (who, along with his wife Diana, owns and operates Hawthorne Audio) is the kind of person who reminds me of why I got in to audio in the first place. True examples of old-world artisanhood, everything they sell is built by hand, often to custom specifications. The Hawthornes eschew a traditional dealer network in favor of a much higher-touch approach…although products are sold exclusively through their website, they like to make a personal connection with each of their customers, whether they are a DIYer buying only drivers, a well-heeled audiophile having a set of speakers custom-built to fit a specific room, or anyone in between.
The product at the center of the
Hawthorne Audio universe is the Silver Iris line of audiophile drivers.
Designed based on sonic wish lists from Darrel and built
exclusively for HA by Eminence Speaker LLC of Kentucky, the first Silver
Iris was a 15-inch coaxial driver, with an integral, rear mounted,
forward firing tweeter, optimized for open-baffle use. HA sells
many of these to DIYers, whose creations make
When I emailed Darrel about obtaining a
review sample of the Duet, he had just started receiving shipments of a
newly refined version of the Silver Iris called the
Fit & Finish
Construction on the Sterlings is clean
and very solid. There are no rattles or vibration issues to be found,
and the crossover (exposed on the rear of the speaker) is as beautiful
as one could be. The overall look from the front is quite tidy: a base
and top cap finished in oak, with nothing but an elegant swath of brown
grill cloth between them. Most of my visitors mistook them for
electrostatic speakers until they walked around and saw the massive
15-inch driver frames hanging off the back. While not tall enough to be
Open Baffles and You(r Room)
Technically, this illusion is created by positioning
the speakers in a way that the direct and reflected sounds arrive at the
listening position at the same time. Practically, this is accomplished
with the Sterlings the same way it is with any
My 25x13 foot room isn't far from the minimum width the Sterlings require to sound their best. Many positions worked well in one area or another, but I had the best overall results putting them four feet from the front wall and about two feet from the side walls. Forming an equilateral triangle between the speakers and the listening position worked best for me, although moving my chair backwards or forwards produced different effects that were fun with different types of music. The phantom center image snapped into focus with a bit of toe-in. The Sterlings do beam in the high-frequencies…everything sounded livelier from the sweet spot, although this could be spread out a bit by reducing toe-in, of course at the expense of a slightly diffuse sonic image.
The Sound Of Singing
I gave Rage's eponymous debut a spin on the Sterlings to test this. I need not have worried: "Killing in the Name Of" got me rocking so hard I thought I'd break my chair! The visceral impact and rhythmic drive of the 15-inch drivers proved incredibly involving and fun to listen to. There's a reason why muscle-car guys and subwoofer guys share the mantra "there's no replacement for displacement": the effect of having four 15-inch drivers in your listening room is unmistakable. Over the years of life as a budget audiophile I have grown to love the speed & imaging of a good pair of stand-mounted monitors, but the Sterlings have a weightiness in the midrange that I'm not entirely sure I'll be able to live without.
Bass reproduction is the Achilles heel of open baffle systems, which suffer an 18db/octave rolloff in the lower frequencies. Hawthorne Audio attacked this problem in the Duets with the Augie (Dick Olsher gave a more thorough write-up than I will be able to do of the Augie in January of 2007), actually two of them, 15-inch bass drivers optimized for open-baffle use. The idea here being that with bass, nothing succeeds like excess! Darrel insists on referring to the Augies as bass drivers, not subwoofers, although bass was more or less flat down to the mid- to high-30s in my room. Upper bass sounded nice and tight: Steve Swallow's solos (who does a lot of high-register activity on the five-string bass) had a good, crisp groove on Carla Bley's hard-swinging arrangement of "Old MacDonald Had A Farm" from her 2003 effort, Looking for America [Watt 31]. Sub-bass was a little soft around the edges; sharp transients didn't come across with quite as much bite as they did an octave up; but it was hefty and impactful nonetheless. The bass drums on Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's 2006 recording of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra [Telarc 80660] shook both the air and my floor.
Dancing About Architecture
Of course, not every recording is done with the same care as those on the Chesky label. Older jazz recordings with performers hard-panned to sides are a good example. While phantom center information, usually the bass player and/or other members of the rhythm section, is portrayed from deep within the soundstage, the horn players typically localize at each speaker's location. While this is anomalous, it is not entirely unpleasant…giving the impression of a three-dimensional soundstage with the drummer in back and the horns up front and to the sides, like they would be if they were actually performing in my living room.
Without question, the greatest strength of the Sterlings is their pure, unadulterated musicality. Sitting down to write the "technical" review of their sound took quite a while, as all I wanted to do with them in my system was listen to music (or get up and dance, but I'll spare you the visual). These aren't speakers that lend themselves to scribbling a lot of notes…they are hardcore music enjoyment machines. Darrel suggested that I try some material that I hadn't listened to in a long time, and not limit myself only to "good" recordings. I did quite a bit of that. For example, one afternoon I found myself blowing through all six sides of Sandinista!... twice (something I don't think I've ever done, even when I was a huge Clash fan back in the ‘80s). Another occasion I spent a very late night playing nothing but the Specials and the Pretenders really freaking loud.
The Sterlings reward this type of behavior. But how significant is that really? I mean, that I enjoy listening to music that I love(d) on them is a pretty low bar for evaluation. Fact is…audiophile rants about "PRaT" in four-figure audio systems have always rung a little hollow for me. Perhaps I misunderstand their concerns, but it seems to me that if hearing Grank Funk Railroad playing "American Band" on the in-dash radio of a ‘70s-era Dodge Dart doesn't make your pulse run quicker, you have lost your way. Great speakers like the Sterlings can bring impact and realism to our favorite recordings, but funky, rocking music ought to be funky and rocking no matter what it's played on. But what about music that is neither funky, nor rocking? What about music that is downright difficult? I wanted to hear what the Sterlings could do with the most avant-garde, experimental stuff I could find.
For this, I turned to Erstwhile Records. Erstwhile champions a music known as electro-acoustic improvisation, or EAI, although most of the artists on the label probably dislike this (or any other) categorization. Far beyond the mere abandonment of traditional notions like rhythm and melody, EAI challenges even the most open-minded definition of music that I know of: organized sound. I picked up one of Erstwhile's most recent releases, One Day [Erstwhile 053], a collaboration between Toshimaru Nakamura and the Seoul, Korea-based duet English, comprised of Joe Foster and Bonnie Jones. Instrumentation is non-traditional in the extreme: Foster plays trumpet (although never in a way that resembles the sound traditionally associated with the instrument) as well as digital delay pedals and electronics; Jones plays digital delay pedals and microphones (probably as feedback generators); and Nakamura plays the no-input mixing board (a portable mixer with the output plugged directly into the input, Nakamura twiddles the knobs to manipulate the resulting feedback). It's practically impossible to tell who is doing what on the recording, the three work together to produce a unified sonic tapestry of various throbbing drones, ultra-high frequency sine waves, trumpet gurgles, and dozens of different types of static. Despite all this, there is a variety of texture & tone across the album's three tracks, which range from minimalist washes of faint white noise to loud blasts of raw electronic tones. Like a gallery showing Jackson Pollack paintings in the ‘50s, the Sterlings hang this music in 3-D space for clear contemplation. Several questions arise: Is it noise? Is it irritating? Is it music? The answer to all three is yes (a resounding yes on the last one). The close study that the Sterlings provide reveals what virtuosi these musicians truly are, albeit in a "DIY" musical vocabulary that is completely original.
Taking a few steps closer to the mainstream, one of the most significant reissues of the year, at least in avantgarde jazz circles, is alto saxophonist/composer Roscoe Mitchell's Nonaah on Nessa Records [Nessa NCD-9/10]. Originally recorded in 1976-77, this is the first time this music has seen the light of day on CD. While that may seem trite now that reissues on vinyl are becoming all the rage, I assure you this well-mastered disc takes full advantage of CD's strengths. The original double LP was bookended by the title track (the CD has 5 unreleased bonus tracks at the end), opening with a solo recording from the Willisau jazz festival (one of the most confrontational musical performances on record) and the final being a quartet for four alto saxophones (Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, Wallace McMillan, and the leader). The quartet piece is particularly fascinating on the Sterlings. It is divided into four "movements", examples of the score in the liners label them as "Vamp", "Slow Section", "Disjointed Section", and "Quick Section"; although the line between these last two is somewhat indistinct. The four players are spread fairly evenly across the soundstage, although Mitchell (panned almost hard right) is by far the easiest to pick out.
The opening "Vamp" consists of the angular Nonaah theme being repeatedly tossed back and forth between the four altos, varying almost imperceptibly over time. Improvisational/contrapuntal interplay is so tight they sound simultaneously like one voice and more than four. The "Slow Section" glows in warm contrast to the opening, with four-part harmonies subtly shifting into three-part harmonies, two-part dissonances, etc. The "Disjointed Section", about ten minutes in (and, if I'm hearing it correctly, only lasts about a minute before launching into the "Quick Section"), is the first place where you can clearly hear each player, as they pass between them an improvised melody constructed, at first, only of distinct quarter notes. The final "Quick Section" is quick indeed (in tempo, not duration) and climaxes in "a bracing and infectious release to the tension induced by the vamp" (from Terry Martin's liner notes). This is far from soothing Sunday morning jazz, but the Sterlings did an excellent job communicating both the emotion and intellectual rigor of Mitchell's uniquely structured compositions.
Amp Rolling on the Sterlings
While my solid state rig worked fine with the
Sterlings, I wanted to hear them running on glass, so I invited a friend
over who makes a hobby of refurbishing tube amps dug out of old console
systems. He brought two: a single-ended unit pulled from a Motorola
console stereo, and a much heftier push-pull job from a
First up was the Motorola. This was a light-duty amp with rather small transformers, and while transformer size isn't everything, it sounded entirely too precious for my taste. Top end detail was exquisite, but the lower mids were seriously rolled-off: Steve Swallow's bass solos all but vanished from the aforementioned Carla Bley recording.
Of course, not everyone will agree that Hawthorne Audio's way of presenting music is best. Some may prefer the more "warts and all" über-transparency that comes from some circles of high-end audio. Personally, I love music, and a system that gives me more sound than music just wouldn't be any fun. Similarly, I've talked to some of the world's greatest recording engineers, and while they use brutally revealing studio monitors at work, they prefer systems with a high degree of musicality at home. Didn't have any of them over during the review period, but I'm certain they would find things they like in the Sterling Silver Iris Duets.
If that sounds up your alley, I encourage you to drop Hawthorne Audio an email. $2500 a pair is no small investment in my tax bracket, and you can certainly spend more adding some of Darrel & Diana's choice modifications (oriental silk wrapped, sand-filled baffles, anyone?). But considering the hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind nature of what you would likely end up with, not to mention a gorgeous sound that could satisfy for a lifetime, the Sterlings are a bargain. For the devout music lover, they get my highest recommendation.
Sterling Silver Iris OB 15" Coaxial
Silver Iris OB 15" Augie