Friday, May 2, 2008

Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker

Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker Hansen Audio Prince V2 loudspeaker HI-FI, Sterio, Home Theater, Audiophile, Amplifier, Speaker

No matter how well you think you know the specialized world of high-end audio, there are always new companies, new technologies, and new products you just haven't gotten around to knowing yet.

At the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, one company scored a perfect triple on that score. I wandered into Hansen Audio's room, where I met Lars Hansen, heard the Emperor loudspeaker, and was impressed by Hansen's proprietary drivers. The Emperors sure sounded like the real thing, and Hansen himself was a very impressive man, but geeze louise, how likely was it that a company would come out of nowhere with not just one product but an entire speaker line of seven models? It would take a ton of chutzpah to think you could do all that overnight.

Lars Hansen has that, all right. He really is an audio polymath, creating drivers, constructing cabinets, and slaying audio shibboleths—and, oh yeah, designing a whole line of speakers that rewrite the rules.

As the months went by, Hansen and his sales manager, Wes Bender, managed to convince me that I had to audition the Hansen Audio Prince V2 ($39,000/pair). "It's the right size speaker for your room," Bender assured me. Good thing, too—in their boxes, the Princes—42" high by 14" wide by 20" deep—barely fit in my front hall.

Princes have long hands and many ears
I start with the drivers," said Lars Hansen. "First, I found a tweeter so good that even I couldn't improve upon it. The motor assembly has so much control over the soft dome that it reproduces the silences between notes every bit as well as the notes themselves. I designed the midrange and the woofer to have the most inert cones available today—we use a sandwich of three layers. The first layer is made from an epoxy based material that is comprised of many components and is infused with glass fibers. The second layer is Rohacel (one of the lightest materials known). The last layer is also an epoxy-based material but with a different mix than the first. This ensures they do not deform deform in reproducing the musical signal. The dustcaps and the underhung voice-coils—even the cross section of the surrounds—everything is consciously designed to eliminate colorations from being added to the wavepath. "The cabinets are hand-molded of three layers of Hansen Composite Matrix, which contains up to six different components in each of the three layers, each of these layers has a different mix, a different thickness, and therefore a different density than the other two layers. After the Hansen Composite Matrix has been removed from the mould then a fourth layer, which is an acoustic damping material, is added to the inside [Hansen calls it "the cloaking device"—WP], and the final result is a shape that allows the widest dispersion and is extremely inert. If it was as simple as putting the drivers on a stick, that would be so nice, but every cabinet has an effect on dispersion, so I shaped the Prince very carefully, so it 'lets go' of the notes with the smallest possible effect on wave diffraction. It looks 'organic,' people tell me, but it is very calculated."

I asked Hansen what the Hansen Composite Matrix was made of. "I don't think it is useful to get any more technical than saying that it is a total of four different layers and each is made from an epoxy based material with numerous added components that took many months to get acoustically correct, and cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars to achieve" he said. "It's not rocket science—although there is rocket science in this loudspeaker."

Add to that a first-order crossover whose components are soldered, by hand, point to point with silver solder. "I use the midrange driver from around 100Hz out to 2500—and it remains pistonic for that whole range, so the woofer and tweeter can operate in their comfort zones, too. The big problem with first-order crossovers is that they frequently put too much strain on drivers at the lowest end of their range, but our drivers can handle that without any problem."

The Prince V2's enclosure has a port that fires out the front. Hansen cites the speaker's sensitivity as 87dB. The 25mm soft-dome tweeter is mounted on a "dispersion optimized" 6mm aluminum plate. The 7" (182mm) midrange driver and 10.5" (269mm) woofer certainly do not look ordinary. And the speaker, while not all that large, is heavy, as in well over 200 lbs each.

Put not your trust in princes
I initially installed the Prince V2s in my listening room with Krell's Evolution 202 preamplifier and Evolution 600 power amplifiers. Over time, I also used Conrad-Johnson's ACT2.2 preamplifier and Musical Fidelity's Nu-Vista 300 power amp. Sources included Ayre's C-5xe and Linn's Klimax DS. Cables were from Stealth, AudioQuest, and Shunyata Research, among others.

The Princes liked having room to breathe. In my listening room, I ended up with them facing straight ahead, their rear panels 56" from the front wall, their outside side panels 38" from the sidewalls, and their inside side panels about 77" apart. In those positions they opened up, delivering everything from staggering orchestral tuttis to completely convincing solo guitar.

Who made thee a prince and a judge over us?
My first impression was that the Prince V2 was indeed royalty in its presentation of the heft and weight of instruments. In fact, I began seeking out recordings I hadn't heard in a while, hoping to discover in them hitherto unheard felicities. I succeeded. One such disc was my copy of John Atkinson's 1997 live recording of guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Marc Copland, bassist Peter Herbert, and Billy Hart. I was at the concert and my goodness, what a monster Hart was that day! He was playing a leased set of drums with a piccolo snare and the smallest bass drum I'd ever seen, but his sound was immense—and his beat impeccable.

The Princes did a superb job of balancing Copland's Steinway and Abercrombie's electric squonk (the guitarist is old-school when it comes to effects— between soundcheck and gig, he'd spent a solid hour resurrecting an ancient Mike Matthews chorus stomp box). The Princes balanced that electric crunch and the piano's crisp, round transient attack. Add Hart's fundamental clatter and roar, and I was right back at that October night in Santa Fe.

But while the Princes were superb at rendering the sound of instruments in space, they were even better at getting to the music's white-hot emotional truth. On Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "The Old Rugged Cross," from Does Your House Have Lions? (CD, Rhino R2 71406), the Princes took me along on Kirk's ruminations about the crosses we daily bear to a wailing, ecstatic, foot-stomping gospel squawk of full-blown ecstasy. I doubt I've ever heard any other speaker get Kirk's leap from the root of the tonic to dancing right on the edge of the sublime to the same extent that the Hansens did. Is that something that can be measured? I wonder.

I had a similar experience listening to Eric Dolphy's "Hi-Fly," from Live in Europe, Vol.1 (CD, Original Jazz Classics 4132). Essentially a duet between acoustic bass and flute, "Hi-Fly" never seemed to come from the Princes themselves. Instead, the bass inhabited my listening room with regal heft and low-end authority, while Dolphy's alto sax soared like silver birdsong, taking flight on levels both sonic and melodic. Dolphy's statement that, once you've played a note, it's gone, was never more forcefully refuted than by the Princes. For the 13:49 duration of "Hi-Fly," Dolphy once again lived.

Then there's the immense soundscape created by certain albums—for instance, Jack DeJohnette's Oneness (CD, ECM 1637). On "Jack In," percussionist Don Alias and DeJohnette lay out a backdrop of drums that stretches from one end of the horizon to the other. Pianist Michael Caine and electric guitarist Jerome Harris splash tonebursts of color against that backdrop—it's not a natural soundscape, but for drama and sheer impact, it's hard to beat. The Hansens let the magic happen.

Princes are venison in heaven
I compared the Hansen Prince V2 with Wilson Audio Specialties' WATT/Puppy 8 ($27,900/system) for a variety of reasons. To many, the WATT/Puppy personifies the small-scale high-end loudspeaker, and the Wilson line is widely distributed; most audiophiles who've cared to have already become familiar with the sound of these popular monitors. The Hansens cost about 30% more than the Wilsons, so that should be taken into consideration.

Like the Hansens, the Wilsons fill large rooms despite a small footprint. Indeed, in terms of large-scale orchestral impact, the WATT/Puppy ranks among the best of the breed. Through the W/Ps, Bettina Wild and Aleksandar Madzar's recording of Erwin Schulhoff's Double Concerto for Flute and Piano (with Andreas Delfs and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie; CD, Decca/ArkivCD 444 819-2) creates a wide soundstage that just bristles with orchestral color, spiked through with the fierce timbres of flute and piano and laid out within the sustaining acoustic of a large concert hall.

Equally dynamic but less tonally forward, the Princes presented the large ensemble a shade less forcefully, and the overall ensemble sound was a touch smaller—although the sense of the ensemble within the large acoustic was very palpably there.

Three months ago, I had never heard this disc, which is part of Decca's Entartete Musik series from the mid-1990s, so I can't speak as to which presentation is "correct." If pressed, however, I'd probably choose the Hansens for nailing the sound of a large, but not huge, ensemble so solidly within the hall's acoustic.

Simone Dinnerstein's recording of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (CD, Telarc CD-80692) has lately been getting a lot of play chez Wes—almost as much for the sonic brilliance of the sound of its 1903 Hamburg Steinway as for Dinnerstein's aggressively breakneck romp through the variations following her leisurely treatment of the Aria. The WATT/Puppys gave the Steinway a big, clattering character—the instrument was a veritable cannon firing salvos of notes into the rear of the room. Boom-boom. The Princes were again a tad less brash, the piano seeming more tailored to the hall (the auditorium at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City). Call it extremely precise small-arms fire. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat.

The alternate take of Wayne Shorter's "Pinocchio" on the remastering of Miles Davis' Nefertiti (CD, Columbia 467089) is one of those tracks that unfurls as it progresses, more or less pointing the way to the even longer form of Davis's In a Silent Way. Davis, Shorter, and pianist Herbie Hancock splash languid tonal colors against the skittering rhythms of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Wilson. The WATT/Puppys accentuated this drama, which I found exciting. However, the Hansen Prince V2s emphasized the track's sustained narrative in a way that I found more convincing. Forced to choose, I'd say the Hansens gave me more of the music's flow, the Wilsons more of its moment-to-moment drama. Both approaches have their adherents, but I found the Hansens more musically credible.

With truly large orchestral forces, such as on Mountain Music—a collection of three symphonies (2, 50, 66) and a tone poem, Storm on Mount Wildcat, all four works by Alan Hovhaness, dedicated to various peaks, and performed by Gerard Schwarz and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (SACD, Telarc SACD-60604)—the WATT/Puppys moved more air than the Hansens. The Wilsons get that approaching-the-acoustic-limits-of-the-room thing much more right than did the Hansens, which seemed a tad restrained. That won't be a shortcoming for some, though I do enjoy cranking it up to "11" every now and then.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how wonderfully the Hansens handled voices of all sorts—if you value singing, the Prince V2 is a truly special speaker. Any kind of singing, from Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's Raising Sand (CD, Rounder 9075), to Anne Sofie von Otter's Terezín/Theresienstadt (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 4776546), to the Clovers' "Devil or Angel," from The Doo-Wop Box (CD, Rhino R2 71463). The Princes gave singers body without loading their voices up with too much physicality. Voices floated free—and soared. Take your favorite vocal performance and listen to it on the Princes, but be careful. Everything else may then suck hind tit.

Princes and asses must always be urged
"Hansen Audio Speakers are meticulously hand built in Canada," it proclaims on Hansen's website. Hand-built? I'm not sure that any $39,000/pair loudspeaker is "mass-produced." When you get to that level, no matter how mechanized your assembly line, I suspect you're still hand-building speakers.

Even so, from the hand-assembly of the drivers to the individual casting of suspensions to the building up, layer by layer, of its cabinets, Hansen Audio's Prince V2 seems a bit more hand-built than most. Lars Hansen would say—has said—that he's not interested in building loudspeakers any other way than his.

Is that a reasonable way to run a business? It depends on what you want to accomplish. Hansen's goal appears to be to make an unreasonably fine loudspeaker—one he's proud to put his name on. I'd say, "Mission accomplished."

Related Links...