as reviewed by John Zurek
I'm no stranger to Lou Hinkley's Daedalus line of loudspeakers. Back in 2004, I first heard the DA-1s, and reviewed them in the July/August 2005 issue of PFO. A few years later in May/June 2008 I listened to the flagship Ulysses speakers, to this day one of my all-time favorites. Well, it's been a few years. When I recently found out about a new offering from Daedalus, the Athena, Lou and I agreed on a tentative timeframe to conduct a review.
The Athenas fall in the middle of the Daedalus line, right between the awesome Ulysses and the smaller Daedalus Audio-Reference Monitor-a, or DA-RMa. The Athena is a one-piece version of the DA-RMa, and size-wise I would call it a medium floorstander at 38.5"x11"x14.5" with a 1-inch soft dome tweeter, a 5-inch midrange driver, and an 8-inch woofer.
When I think about describing this speaker I'm somewhat ambivalent. On the surface they don't seem to be much different than many others: 3 drivers in a medium-sized cabinet. That could describe scores of speakers. When you do drill down into the details however, you find much more.
First the cabinet. Construction is solid hardwood with dovetail joinery and a hand-rubbed oil varnish finish. They may resemble other rectangular cabinets, but when you look closer you'll find many complex angles, and a sculpted front baffle that certainly required many hours of skilled labor to produce. I can't think of any other cabinets in high-end audio that feature this type of construction and this level of detail and craftsmanship.
How about the drivers? The dome tweeters are made by Eton, the midrange driver is a 5" Fostex full-range modified to Daedalus specifications. The 8" woofers are also made to Daedalus's specifications. Because the construction is paper cone/ cloth-surround, and the drivers are treated to resist moisture. Lou tells me they will perform to spec for decades. Efficiency is high, as with all Daedalus models: 96dB 1w/1m. They are designed to use 5 to 350 watts per side.
Crossover networks. Designed and built by Guy Veralrud, the Athena comes standard with the All-Poly capacitor upgrade option which is the main driver of the latest upgrades to the Daedalus line. High-voltage polypropylene and Teflon capacitors, along with the highest quality resistors are used in this circuit. In addition, Lou alluded to using a yet-to-be-named high tech material to damp critical parts of the crossover.
Internal cabling. Silver/Copper wire from the Bolder Cable Company. All connectors are gold-plated, crimped and secured with a touch of silver solder. The binding posts are Cardas Rhodium. Even the tweeter switch is mil-spec with platinum contacts.
The aperiodic port. A port covered from the inside with fabric. Increases efficiency, and lets the speaker behave—for the most part—like a sealed enclosure. The fabric helps the cabinet function as a sealed enclosure above the tuning frequency.
Any one of these features would intrigue me, but as you peel back the onion and look at them jointly, you realize that this product really is unlike any other in its so-called class. A complex hardwood cabinet, an ultra-high quality crossover and internal components, the aperiodic port, and all hand-made in the US. I don't think calling the Athena unique is out of line.
The Athenas, like their predecessors, were easy to set up and place. I did not have to go through the normal stress of new speaker positioning that can sometimes take weeks. You can easily control the size of the sweet spot by moving them a few inches one way or the other. The three-position tweeter switch gives you added flexibility. Straight away I was able to construct a listening area that was not constricted. Nice. Once the right placement was locked in I listened to a few discs, then set up the isolation outriggers. The outriggers were fairly easy to attach, and once in place I made the final adjustments to the speakers' position. This was perhaps a little harder that most because the spikes—which were some of the sharpest, keep-their-shape, top-quality spikes I've ever seen - are on the ends of the outrigger and balance can be tricky if you're doing this by yourself. The effort was worth it. I was rewarded with deeper, tighter bass, and the entire presentation became more focused.
After a few weeks of listening what really struck me was the near-seamless presentation that reflected an elegantly engineered integration of the drivers. Because they worked so well together, the resolution of minute detail was stunning. The mids were pure, and the upper end was incredibly revealing without the fatigue that can enter into the picture with some speakers that are too ruthless in this respect. Midbass reproduction really stood out. Solid, satisfying, not overbearing, and the transition to the lower bass—not the lowest octave, you wouldn't really expect that from these speakers—was damn-near perfect. Again the Athena was able to work its resolution magic, this time on the low end. This balance is the one of the real strengths of this design.
Daedalus speakers have never lacked for dynamic chops and the Athena is no exception. Large-scale orchestral works were treated with respect, and electric blues, jazz, and rock just, well, rocked! I love the fact that you can virtually use any amp with Daedalus speakers. I know Lou prefers to use high-power amps for maximum dynamic swings, but I achieved good results with tubes as low as 11 watts. The 50 watt Quicksilver mid-monos that were used for most of this review had no trouble driving these 96dB efficient transducers to high levels that I normally shy away from. The Athenas are chameleon-like. They reveal all that a recording has to offer, but can also channel upstream components and cables. They have an uncanny talent of accurately reflecting the qualities of different amplifiers.
Overall I heard almost everything that made me love the Ulysses. The Athenas could not manage to go quite as low or loud, or provide that large floor-to-ceiling effect the Ulysses are so good at. Understandable since the Ulysses contains twice the drivers with dual array in a much larger cabinet. The biggest difference between the older version of the Ulysses I reviewed and the newest model of the Athena was the degree of resolution and refinement that I'm assuming the all-poly crossover is responsible for. The air around vocals was simply palpable, and the balance of body, texture, and precision were just outstanding. Instruments benefitted as well. The reproduction of both string and electric basses was very satisfying, and I did not have to strain to pick out bass lines. I heard no hardness in the upper octave, just smooth detail and focus without any added coloration.
At 10k and change the Athenas are expensive. No bones. But, what do you get for your hard-earned scratch? A very unique product that uses the best quality components, and is designed to last a long, long time. A designer/manufacturer with a musician's ear that is completely committed to the product. Limited production models. Hand-built in the US. Did I mention a sound that is superb?
When was the last time you regretted paying a fair amount for a superior product that you'll really love, and will make you happy for a long, long time? John Zurek
Isolation outriggers: $285