Aspara HL Reference Horn Loudspeaker
Easily a truly world-class speaker.
Review By Jules L. Coleman
here to e-mail reviewer.
concepts that do not seem apt in the context of life-long bouts with
audiophilia are fun and equilibrium.
To outsiders, this may seem strange. Why, after all, would anyone consume
as much of his resources as the audiophile does pursuing a hobby that
brings neither balance nor fun to his life? Those of us on the inside know
better. We know that to be an ‘audiophile' is to be ‘constitutional
disabled from securing sustainable satisfaction and enjoyment from one's
system.' It is our destiny.
The audiophile is like the compulsive golfer. Both are
obsessively drawn to activities constructed on the premise that at any
moment one must recover from one's most recent mistake — a poorly
executed shot, a misconceived play; an amplifier unsuitable for one's
speakers, speaker purchases unsuitable for listening, a lackluster power
conditioner that sucks the life out of the music. It never ends. Still the
allure remains: the blissful moment when the curling forty-foot side-hill
putt (as if by divine intervention) finds its way to the bottom of the
cup: the improbable recovery from behind a tree. Sometimes these moments
can last an entire round of golf as one strings together one well-struck
shot after another.
So too in the life of the audiophile: the day the power
is just right, the system nimble yet assertive, the sound rich and dense
yet fragrant and whimsical. Touched as only golf can touch one who is open
to it, the golfer seeks access to the mystical, casting about for a
glimpse into the meaning of life. Which audiophile among us would deny
that in an occasional late night sonic revelry he had seen into the heart
of what is real and valuable in life and accessed its fundamental truths
— those not available by rational inquiry alone? Such is the nature of
Like golf, audio is a haven for romantics, dreamers and
even mystics. On the other hand, there is no denying that it does attract
more than its fair share of geeks. In the course of
my life long ‘love affair' with music reproduction, I have lost as many
battles as I have won. Maybe more. But I have had my share of genuine fun
as well. Better yet, my search for an audio system that will bring me
sustainable enjoyment and pleasure has reached a successful conclusion. In
a way I owe it all to Aspara Acoustics. Let me explain.
On An Impulse...
Several years ago I owned a horn-speaker made by the
now defunct British firm, Impulse. The Impulse H-2 was among my favorites:
dynamic, lively, fun, musically engaging and quite compatible with all
manner of amplifier that passed through my listening room. I especially
enjoyed the speaker mated to a heavily modified Audio Note Meishu
There was even a culture of fun and idiosyncratic
behavior built up around the speaker. The H-2 was (and may well continue
to serve as) the reference loudspeaker for British audio critic, Jimmy
Hughes, who, if I recall, actually set them up backwards so that they
would fire directly into the rear wall and not away from it. This is not
the sort of treatment one would feel appropriate for a pair of venerable
Quad 57s, for example.
The Impulse H-2 was far from flawless. The midrange
suffered a bit of horn coloration; vocals sometimes lacked clarity, which
reduced their capacity to express or evoke certain emotions. The drivers
did not integrate as well as one might have hoped with the net effect
being an uneven tonal balance. Sonically, if not aesthetically, the H-2
brought a bit too much attention to itself.
Still, I remember my time with the H-1 fondly. The music
had a bounce to its step that was both joyful and intoxicating. One simply
could not help but feel good being taken along for the ride. Realizing
that one might be able to put together an audio system that could be fun
as well as expensive set me down a path in audio that I have been on ever
since. The Impulse H-1 was not the answer, but it pointed me in the
direction in which the answer would ultimately lay.
The H-2 And The Kid From Brooklyn
I learned from my time with the H-2 that I wanted an
audio system to enable me to experience all the fun I had listening to
music as a teenager and a college student but with more finesse and
sophistication. I wanted my system to be an adult version of the kid from
Brooklyn I had been. I didn't want my audio system to be a kid from
Brooklyn who had just gotten older but no wiser nor sophisticated. On the
other hand, I didn't want my audio system to be some stuffy pretentious
gentleman in denial of his roots — someone who it never seems can
remember anyone or any event from his childhood (someone who if pressed
cannot even recall whether his parents were immigrants to this country).
I wanted an audio system that kept music meaningful in
my life but in a way that reflected in its way both where I am in life and
where I have come from. I didn't want a showpiece audio system –
something for others to see and hear and thus something from which they
might form ‘appropriate' judgments of me. I wanted an audio system that
connected with me — who I am and where I came from. Music has a place in
that narrative and I wanted an audio system that fit that narrative. This
is the path I have been on (sidetracked more than once, but never waylaid
altogether) from the day that Impulse H-1 speaker set foot in my house.
From Impulse To Aspara
Aspara Acoustics offers four speakers: the HL-1,
HL-2, HL-6 and HL Reference, which is the company's top-of-the-line loudspeaker.
The HL-1 and HL-2 are descendants of speakers in the original Impulse
line. The HL-1 corresponds to the Impulse H-2 that I owned several years
ago. The HL Reference takes the design concepts expressed originally in
the Impulse H-2 as refined and altered where necessary in the HL-1, and
expresses them fully and without compromise. I had a
brief encounter with the HL nearly three years ago. Aspara's United States
importer, Jeffrey Catalano of Highwatersound, was demonstrating them in
his room at the Home Entertainment Show. Recently uncrated, unsettled by a
long journey, barely broken in and compromised further by a small and
sonically challenging hotel room, the sound of the Aspara Reference driven
by Audio Note electronics was nevertheless intriguing and promising,
leaving many visitors to the room — including many reviewers —
suitably impressed. I had no thought of asking Jeff about reviewing them
at the time, but the audio journey I was on made my doing so (at least in
The Trip And A Plan
Whatever its shortcomings may have been the Impulse
H-1 persuaded me that I would be satisfied by an audio system only if it
conveyed dynamic realism and allowed me to be immersed in the music. So
much audiophile listening has become a form of viewing, as seeing the
players performing somewhere in the front of the room, being able to pick
them out, and draw outlines around them. When I want to view art I go to
museums or galleries; I don't listen to music. Music engulfs and
transposes me; and it cannot do that from a distance.
Without having drawn up or settled on a plan, the fact
is that once I had the H-2 in house, I set my sights on constructing an
audio system featuring high sensitivity speakers and low powered tube
amplifiers. After the Impulse left, I read everything I could find on
horns, high-sensitivity speakers from Western Electric to the Siemens
Klangfilm speakers, to the JBL Hartsfields and beyond. I mixed and matched
speakers with electronics searching to reproduce the sound I heard in my
All manner of speakers found their way at one time or
another into my home: Voight pipes, Jerico horns, Lowthers and many of
their back-loaded horn relatives; original Tannoys, original top loader
JBL Hartsfields, Hornings, and the Auditorium 23 Solovox. Nearly as many
low powered tube electronics graced my listening room: Audio Note (both UK
and Kondo); Atma-Sphere, Transcendent Sound and ultimately Shindo.
Electronics from Shindo Labs changed everything for me.
I recognized in those products the voicing of the music in my head: the
dynamic realism, the sense of proper musical timing and flow. With Shindo
I located a fixed point around which the remainder of my search could
revolve. I added the Shindo analog playback system to my Catherine
preamplifier and the unrivalled 300B Ltd amplifiers. Shindo persuaded me
that the sound I heard in my head with the Impulse speakers was not merely
aspirational, but attainable — if only I could find a speaker that could
let me hear the sound that my front end and electronics had captured and
wanted me desperately to experience.
With the exception of the large family of back loaded
single driver speakers that uniformly suffered from phase shifts,
bass notes behind the beat, and a bass produced by a cabinet and not a
driver, every speaker I owned offered something musically persuasive, but
each fell short in one way or another. I loved the Solovox best, but it
was overmatched a bit by my electronics, being designed for electronics a
bit further down the Shindo chain. There was more in my electronics than
the Solovox could reveal. The Hartsfields were basically a glorious and
outsized midrange speaker with musically accurate dynamics but a somewhat
closed in top end. No speaker offered the tweeter to midrange integration
of both the Horning Agathon Ultimates and Archibiades, but neither
displayed a great integration of midrange to woofers. There was something
missing in the upper bass and lower midrange, though there was no faulting
either speaker in terms of its low frequency extension. I also felt that
the woofers needed more power than I had available.
The many older Tannoys I owned had a way with a bassline
that was not only beyond reproach, it was positively addictive. And while
the integration of woofer to coaxial tweeter was always good and sometimes
better than that, the Tannoys seemed to have something of a tire wrapped
around their midsection: a little extra fat around the belly of the beast.
Their top end could sound a bit closed in. I was left thinking that
everyone should own an older Tannoy at some point to experience the pace
and flow of real music, but that one might have to look elsewhere to
experience how glorious finesse, agility and nuance can sound.
Other horn speakers were not serious contenders. No
names please. Some horn loudspeakers have followings I simply cannot
comprehend (e.g. Avantgarde). I have heard some others sound good but only
with more power than advertised (e.g. Acapella). None of this is by way of
criticism. All speakers have issues; and I found myself ever more picky
about speakers since it was the last piece in the puzzle. A mistake could
undermine my entire plan. And a less than perfect speaker match would
leave me in roughly the same place I had been for the bulk of my
audiophile life: so close I can touch it, but just far enough away to feel
that the quest would prove hopeless.
Hope On The Horizon
And that's just about where I was when I contacted
my erstwhile publisher, Steven R. Rochlin, to ask him if he minded my
pursuing a two year or so commitment to reviewing all manner of
high-sensitivity loudspeakers. I cannot in good faith review electronics
in my reference system because it makes no sense. I have the sound I love
and it would not be fair simply to throw some other fine preamplifier or
amplifier into my system only to have me complain about it — perhaps
unfairly — because it doesn't' have the voice that speaks to me or
because it does not match as well as my reference components do with my
preamplifier or amplifier. No surprise there: they were designed around
one another. I think most reviews run the risk of being unfair to begin
with so if I could avoid making it worse, I should do so.
Speakers were something else. Would they let me hear
what my system is capable of? Would they let the music flow or throw a
roadblock in its way? Would they sing or snort? With that in mind, I lined
up a series of speakers to review.
Note that I made other contacts as well and in the
months to come I will be reporting on a very enjoyable speaker from
Acuhorn and on a brand new speaker from Maxxhorn. I will also report on a
Shindo speaker that the importer refers to as the 753 because it was built
based on the importer, Jonathan Halpern's request for a speaker of the
look and dimensions of the legendary Western Electric 753. There is also a
good chance I will be reporting on the Auditorium 23 Rondo, the stablemate
of the Solovox that to this point has been available only in Europe.
The first call I made was to Jeff Catalano. Jeff imports
the Hornings which I have praised in the past and which I really admire.
And of course I remembered my brief encounter with the Aspara at Home
Entertainment Show. After a brief conversation during which time I learned
of the Aspara-Impulse connection, Jeff and I agreed that I would review
the Reference. Within a week he delivered a pair to my home in
Jeff has been to my home several times and we had a
pretty good idea where the speakers would sound pretty good as an initial
point of departure. He allowed as well that unlike many other speakers he
has known, the Aspara were not particularly finicky about placement. And
so we plopped the Reference down, listened for a bit, made a few minor
adjustments, and off he and his crew went back to New York City. The
Aspara were left behind, and for the next three months or so, I had the
distinct pleasure of their company.
Beauty's Only Skin Deep
The Aspara HL Reference is a large two-way horn
loudspeaker; it would create an aesthetic challenge in most listening
environments. The speakers checks in at just under 57 inches tall and 21
inches wide. The woofer section is nearly 32 inches deep and the free
standing tweeter horn is roughly 21 inches deep. The speaker is solidly
constructed using hardwoods and a range of finishing veneers is available.
The speakers I had in for review were finished in a light wood whose tonal
color was somewhere between birch and bamboo. Each speaker weighs in at
nearly 200 lbs. The 12-inch woofer is sourced from Fane Acoustics. The
bass horn is constructed of 18mm birch ply suitably braced, to which is
added 6mm of MDF panels. The veneer finishes are then glued to the MDF
panels. The horn mouth is four square feet situated at the bottom of the
speaker firing at the floor. The speaker sits on four wooden legs creating
the necessary space between the mouth of the bass horn and the floor. The
high frequency driver is a 2-inch titanium compression driver also sourced
from Fane. The crossover feeding this is unusual in that it boosts the
extreme top via a bye pass network. The driver feeds a radial horn that is
molded from glass-reinforced plastic. The high frequency driver is more
sensitive than the bass driver and the overall sensitivity of the speaker
Easy To Place And Easy On The Ears
.Aesthetically challenging, as Jeff had suggested
the Aspara put far fewer demands on room placement than most speakers with
which I have had extensive experience. I ended up placing them three feet
off the back-wall and roughly ten feet apart (measured from the center of
the tweeters). In this position, the speakers were able to energize the
entire listening room in a way that only one speaker before and one
speaker since has. My room is reasonably large and over the years I have
settled on two listening positions – whether I am listening critically
or for enjoyment. One position is roughly eight to ten feet from the
speakers (depending on how far out into the room the speakers are placed),
and the other position is roughly sixteen or eighteen feet away – again
depending on speaker placement. Toe in on the speakers — when
necessary— is adjusted of course depending on my seating position.
Almost without exception there is a noticeable drop off
in energy between the two positions, and the sound loses some life and
excitement as one moves from the nearer to the further position. As a
result, all of my friends who come by to listen seriously naturally
gravitate to the closer in seat and only in time and over the course of
many hours move back and forth. There is something to be said as well for
the presentation of the music in the far-field listening position.
Not so with the Aspara HL Reference. There was nary a
difference in energy, life or musical excitement between the two listening
positions. Indeed, the HL Reference energized the entire room and was one
of the very few speakers I have had in home that were satisfying to listen
to off-axis. Thus, they were not only undemanding in terms of set up; they
were equally undemanding in terms of listening position. The complete
opposite of, say, a conventional electrostatic loudspeaker.
Beyond that the speakers were a constant source of
enjoyment and pleasure. They played all kinds of music with equal aplomb
and with appropriate scale. The initial impression of the HL is that they
play as big as they look; and they do. This is in contrast, say, with many
single driver back loaded horns – which are not only more demanding of
set-up and significantly more directional, but are also significantly more
intimate in scale. Their presentation is immediate and dynamic, but the
scale is invariably diminished. It is no wonder that single driver back
loaded horns are the darlings of those who favor recordings of acoustic
jazz trios, small classical ensembles and live recordings of pop singers
in small venues.
The HL Reference could sound big, very big in fact, on
everything from recordings of large orchestras to choral music to a live
performance of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But they could sound equally at
home in more intimate settings, such as Leonard Cohen's stirring ‘Tower
of Song' on I'm Your Man. In short the HL speakers were unfazed by matters
of scale, large or small. Given its heavy and
cumbersome looking aesthetic, I was pleased by the speaker's relative
agility. It had bounce and the music flowed naturally. The compression
driver in particular was quick and able to turn on a dime, thus expressing
subtle micro dynamic shadings through the midrange and upper frequencies
Horn loudspeakers make very little demands on
amplification. On the other hand, in my experience they are the most
revealing loudspeakers one can own. This is ironic in a way because so
many listeners complain about horn colorations, but the fact is that horns
are better able than any other loudspeaker type with which I am familiar
to reveal the tonal colorations of associated equipment. Good horns don't
require large amounts of power, but they do demand the best power you can
find. Anything less, and you will hear it… and you are unlikely to enjoy
what you hear.
The same is true of the differences between analog and
digital. I have suggested before that most modern loudspeakers have an
homogenizing effect on the sound. The conventional wisdom is that the
difference between good tube and good solid-state amplifiers is narrowing
and that there is a similar narrowing of the differences between analog
and digital playback. I don't doubt for a second
that this accurately reports most listeners' experiences, but my suspicion
is that what they are hearing is the consequences of insensitive
loudspeakers. I have never had any such experience through high efficiency
speakers. Invariably digital is revealed as the highly processed and
artificial sounding medium that it is; and the gap between it and very
good vinyl is nearly unimaginably vast.
I had first been alerted to the depth and breadth of the
gulf between analog and digital when I reviewed the Auditorium 23 Solovox
which I subsequently purchased. The Aspara HL Reference was as revealing
of the difference between analog and digital as had been the Solovox and
more so even than the JBL Hartsfield's that had been my other reference
loudspeaker for the past two years.
While the HL Reference speakers were in my system, I
also had in the latest digital combination from Reimyo whose one box CD
player had been my favorite digital component. The Reimyo DAC and
Transport about which I will be reporting next, constitute the best
digital front end I have heard to this point. They do not approach the
sound of my analog set up, but the Aspara revealed just how much more
musically persuasive the Reimyo combination is than is the digital
components it replaced (which shall go nameless) as well as the Meridian
and Raysonic players that have replaced it. The Meridian and the Raysonic
are both very credible players. But they are nowhere near as musically
convincing as the Reimyo. In this regard the Aspara HL Reference makes for
a wonderful reviewer's tool as well as a wonderful loudspeaker for
listening to music.
The Aspara shone a light on all the upstream components
— not just the digital front end — and in this context, nothing could
have made me happier, which brings me to the next part of my quest for a
music system I could live with long term. The Aspara HL is the first full
range loudspeakers I have had in house that allowed me to hear what my
Shindo electronics are capable of. Maybe I should just stop here. Nothing
could have been more important to me at the time.
After all, I must have had a good dozen speakers in
house in the hopes of recreating the sound I had in my head — the sound
I heard when I was first stimulated by the Impulse H-2. It was the sound I
knew was possible when I connected with Shindo electronics. To be honest,
I had heard the sound for real and not just in my head a couple of times
via the Shindo Latour loudspeakers. Once in a loft and once at the
distributors apartment. But I had not heard it in my home, and if owning a
pair of the Latour loudspeakers was the only way to create it in my living
space, I feared that I would never have that sound in my home. The Latour
were a bit out of my reach financially.
Other speakers had brought me close. The Solovox
reproduced the dynamic realism, flow and harmonic richness that I longed
for, but not the weight or extension, scale or authority. Both Hornings
produced that wonderful midrange presence and finesse. The DeVore
Silverback, though a conventional dynamic speaker did much the same. Both
the Hornings and DeVore's display an integration of tweeter and midrange
that is without equal in my experience. Both left me yearning for upper
bass, lower midrange energy. The Hartsfield's had that in spades and a
seductive midrange and lower treble, but the music came out of a box that
would not disappear from view and just let the electronics sing in their
voice... the voice I longed to hear.
Then came the Aspara HL Reference and for the first time
in a full range loudspeaker, in my home, I could hear that voice: the easy
and natural flow of the music. Ah yes, the lush and immediate midrange and
the weight and authority of the bottom end. Not just some of the time, but
all of the time. And not just on some music, on all of the music.
The Impulse H-2 showed me that audio in the home should
be fun and can be fun. It also pointed me down the path I had to follow to
find enduring satisfaction from a musical playback system in my home. The
Aspara HL Reference put me within a hair of completing that system. For
all its virtues, the HL is not without a few shortcomings. Compared to the
incredibly smooth and nuanced presence region of the Hornings, the HL is
just a bit rough around the edges. It is, in other words, not as refined
as the very best hornspeakers with which I am familiar.
Aspara favors the ‘dead box' approach to loading the
woofer. The aim is to kill internal resonances created by the horn
loading. This is a perfectly sensible approach and in this regard the
Aspara takes the same approach that many conventional loudspeakers do.
This is not the approach, for example, that Horning takes. It is not the
approach Shindo takes. It is not the approach Auditorium 23 takes. None of
these designers uses MDF either.
my listening, this feature of the Aspara had three consequences that
detracted from the otherwise exceptional performance of the loudspeaker.
First, relative to the compression driver midrange/tweeter, dynamics are
marginally suppressed. Second, the lower frequencies are not quite as
transparent or immediate as are the midrange and upper frequencies. Third,
the bass is not quite as well pitch defined as is the rest of the speaker.
There is no problem of integration between woofer and tweeter. In this
regard, the HL Reference is a major improvement over the H-2. But there is
a difference in character between the woofer and tweeter that is small but
noticeable: differences in dynamics, pitch accuracy and transparency.
These are minor issues that do not detract in any way from the overall
success. In every way the HL Reference is a world-class speaker. Like
every speaker it has its imperfections. It opened my eyes as well as my
ears. Find a pair and listen to it; I am betting it will open yours.
Type: Two-way full range horn loudspeaker
Frequency Response: 30Hz to 20 kHz
Upper Range: 2-inch titanium compression driver loaded by a radial horn
Bass: 12-inch driver supported by a 42-inch folded horn
Horn configuration type developed by Aspara.
Horn mouth is situated at floor level, mouth area 4 square feet
Crossover: high frequency first order and bass is second order
Cabinet: Engineered birch plywood cabinet and high quality veneer of custom finishes
Price: Approximately $22,000 per pair
6 Dunstanville Terrace
Cornwall TR11 2SW
Voice: (+44) 01326 212291
Fax: (+44) 01326 212291