HOLISTIC AUDIO ARTS H1 SPEAKER
Price: $2,250 base price
Various DSP Options available
Dr. John Richardson
Around 20 or so years ago I had an audio revelation. I was at the time a graduate student and budding audiophile looking for the best possible reproduction of music. Since I was in a fairly cosmopolitan area, I had the run of several high-end audio shops (back when brick and mortar establishments still existed). Thusly, I had the opportunity to listen to a lot of equipment represented in a wide number of different systems and listening venues. Some of these systems touched me while others left me feeling underwhelmed; but such was the education of a new audiophile.
In one of these forays I heard something that totally changed my perspective: a pair of polydirectional Shahinian Obelisk speakers driven by quality vacuum tube amplification in a dark room. All I could think was “Wow, I’ve never heard recorded music sound so real!” Somehow, the speakers “let go” of the notes in a way that I had not heard before in that a very real sense of space was conveyed, much like one would hear in a concert venue. I must have been sold, since I have owned Shahinian speakers since that time. My point here is not to sell you Shahinian speakers, but to let you know that for many listeners, an omni- (or poly-) directional presentation just plain works. If such a presentation gets the listener closer to the real event, then so be it.
Good. I finally got it out. I like omnidirectional speakers. A lot. Not everyone is going to share my enthusiasm, as most audiophile types still prefer the traditional forward-firing driver approach. You know the drill: stick some drivers on the baffle of a box, point them in the general direction of the listener, and off you go. When done right, this is an excellent approach, producing a direct sound with little interaction with room boundaries (with near field listening, anyway) and other pesky annoyances. I’ve heard some box speakers that sound quite phenomenal and even keep a pair myself in my downstairs system, but I’ve never forgotten that initial experience with those Obelisks those many years ago.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2010. While attending the 2010 RMAF, I made a point to stop by the Virtue Audio room. Stereomojo has reviewed a number of this company’s products, so I wanted to see what was new. When I arrived in the room, I immediately noticed several strange looking cylindrical objects, which I presumed to be speakers. After asking a few questions, I quickly discovered that these speakers are manufactured by Holistic Audio Arts, a new company run by a tall, lanky dude named Jack Caldwell. In fact, Jack was present at the demo and seemed more than happy to wax poetic about his new creations. Playing at the time were his smaller speakers, the H1s, driven by the Virtue Audio Two.2 integrated amplifier. Jack cued up a Vivaldi concerto for me, and it all came flooding back: this was obviously an omnidirectional design! Everything snapped into focus: the walls disappeared, the instruments were holographically presented before me, and time stopped. It was like being in the presence of those Shahinian Obelisks again; the magic of a live performance was right there! After a bit of discussion, Jack promised to send me a pair of these wonderful H1 speakers for review: a world’s first. Based on what I had heard at the show, I was genuinely excited to spend some quality time with these little beasts.
A couple of weeks after RMAF, Jack gave me a call. He was planning an East Coast tour, and since I would be on his route, would he be able to drop the speakers off and help me with setup? Normally, this would be a Stereomojo no-no, as we like to have the same access to the manufacturer as a normal consumer, and no more. However, as we shall see, Jack’s request actually made sense, so I agreed to the visit.
You see, Holistic Audio Arts speakers aren’t to be simply cabled up to your amplifier. To work correctly, they rely on sophisticated filtering via digital equalization in order to maximize the holographic effect Jack was after, and he was still optimizing the settings just prior to dropping the speakers off. I can hear the collective groaning already… If you have to correct the frequency response of a speaker, then there must be something inherently wrong with the design. Yep, that was my first thought as well. But wait! Don’t speaker designers do this all the time when they “voice” drivers, cabinets, and crossovers? I just like to think of digital filtering as yet another way of achieving the same overall design goal. And the reasons for doing it will become more apparent as we get a bit further into some of the design aspects that make the H1 unique.
When the H1s arrived, I was able to give them a thorough look-see. As I mentioned before, the speakers are cylindrical, but diminutive, standing only a bit more than three feet high with a diameter of about ten inches. The single conical driver is mounted on the top half, with the magnet assembly above the cone. The driver fires downward into the base of the speaker, which in turn is acoustically insulated using a proprietary deadening material. Binding posts are mounted on the bottom surface of the speaker and are easily accessible by turning the speaker on its side. This task is easy as the speakers are light and easily handled. My only quibble here is that the speaker itself sits on the floor on its wooden endcap, which has a small notch cut into it to accommodate the speaker cables. If the cables are of the large gauge, highly shielded type, there just isn’t clearance. I ended up using some smaller gauge wire that Jack provided, which sounded just dandy. The bottom halves of the speakers were nondescript white, while the top parts enclosing the driver/magnet assemblies were encased in a nice-looking, coarsely woven fabric grille cover over a wire support. Jack tells me that multiple gloss or colorful patterned options are available for an upcharge. While attractive, the H1s in stock form tend to blend into existing décor instead of drawing attention to themselves; here they win spouse acceptance points. But…..
The bottom finish is left unremarkably white for a reason. No, not to look like a space heater, dehumidifier or one of those ionizer things, but to be a blank canvas for you (your wife, or someone else) to customize, limited only by the imagination. You see, you can paint directly on it, by paint I mean as in Rembrandt or Van Gogh. Create your own Sistine Chapel or contemporary work of art! OR you can wrap wallpaper around it to match your décor, carpet to match your rugs, a movie or any other kind of poster (perfect for you StarWars geeks), you could veneer them with any kind of wood or even metal, take them to your body shop and have them powder coated any automotive finish, or invite some kids from the hood to do a urban graffiti job on ‘em. Or leave them as is and let your rugrats use them as dry eraser boards for endless hours of entertainment. Seriously, you can do anything your mind can conceive.
Our illustrious publisher has put together some examples just to kick start your creative juices:
Cityscape, your guitar, red metal and green granite
Of course, if you’re married and really want to score some points, have a couple of glamour photos taken of the wifey (she’ll love that all by itself) and attach them to the speakers. Then just cue up the Barry White.
Or…if you’re single…
The H1's are also available from the factory in finishes like black lacquer (below), Asian Zen and others, some for an additional charge.
BACK TO REALITY
Now, let’s take a closer look at the technology behind the design. As I have stressed before, this is an omnidirectional speaker, meaning that the sound is emitted in all directions. This goal is achieved by firing the single driver downward into the speaker base, but allowing the sound to emanate from the backside of the driver cone and out into the room. The result is a radial distribution of sound in all directions, which also occurs in a real acoustic environment when, for example, a string on a violin is plucked or bowed. Jack Caldwell is also quick to point out another advantage of this approach. When sound is projected from a typical cone type driver, a certain “hootiness” occurs due to pressure waves that build up along the cone surfaces that interact with the sound waves as they escape the region of the driver. Think about an old time megaphone. Yes, it amplifies the voice by directing it along a specific axis, but it also adds unwanted coloration, which I suppose is one reason why opera singers don’t sing through megaphones. If the angle of the cone exceeds 180 degrees (as in the backside of a cone), the pressure waves are eliminated and this coloration is avoided. In short, the driver now has an easier time “letting go” of the notes.
A few problems of implementation exist, however. First, conical drivers are not designed to be used this way; they’re optimized from a frequency standpoint for a direct firing event. Second, we need to somehow eliminate the sound from the driver that is being fired downward (in the traditional sense) into the speaker column. Here’s where Jack really gets innovative. As he logically explained to me, these are problems that can be easily isolated and corrected. The solution to the first problem (the funny frequency response from the backside of the driver) is solved through digital filtering. The solution to the second problem (the unwanted noise in the tube) is solved using the proprietary acoustical treatment found in the base of the speaker.
But Jack didn’t stop there. He also, through a lot of trial and error, figured out how to extend the digital equalization to eliminate what he calls “time smear” which boils down to lack of coherent sound. When coherence of sound is lost, so are the spatial cues that make music more pleasurable and realistic to listen to. Jack figured this out by testing his designs in Europe as a holistic healing tool. As he told me, people who don’t feel well respond favorably to reproduced music, as long as it is reproduced correctly, and not in a way that the patient has to constantly make mental corrections in time and space to get closer to the real event. Jack found that as he tweaked his design, especially the digital filtering part, patients responded better. In fact, people liked the experience so much that they started asking him to build speakers for them. Thus, a diagnostic study tool became a product for all of us to enjoy!
A potential downside to all of this might well exist for some folks, and that is the digital filtering part. This filtering, or equalization, must occur in the digital domain before the signal ever gets to the digital to analog converter (DAC). If, like me, you are into computer audio, then this isn’t a problem at all. The required digital filters can be loaded into any music playback software that allows access to either its own or core audio equalizer applications. Even if one prefers to spin silver discs in a traditional transport, Jack can provide a standalone digital equalizer (in the form of the Behringer DEQ 2496 processor) that has the most sophisticated filter settings already programmed into it. All you need is an optical S/PDIF output on your transport (or computer) and a good quality DAC on the other side of the Behringer. However, the buyer must be aware that this corresponds to Holistic Audio’s top level offering and adds to the cost of the package (see below). If cost is an issue, I’d suggest starting with Holistic Audio’s most basic iTunes filter package and using the DAC in your existing computer sound card, as Jack assures me that one can get more than agreeable results in this manner. Wanna kick it up a notch? Invest in a decent external USB DAC.
Since we are on the subject of options, let’s go ahead and summarize the various configurations that are available for the H1:
Option one is the baseline configuration, priced at $2250, which includes the speakers themselves, plus several filter configurations in iTunes (either PC or MAC). The digital filters are installed by Holographic Audio Arts on the customer’s existing computer.
Option two, called “upgrade M,” consists of much more complex sets of filters employing parametric equalization over many more bands and is done using the core audio equalizer function available through Channel D’s Pure Music audio engine software. This is a MAC only option, and adds $1080 to the base price.
Perhaps the most flexible option is “upgrade P” which adds similar filters as “upgrade M” but packs them into an included external digital processor (Behringer DEQ 2496). With “upgrade P” the user can take the digital output from a computer or a conventional digital transport (as described earlier) and let the Behringer apply the digital signal processing prior to the DAC. This option adds $1710 to the base price of the speaker package.
Therefore, the total cost of admission would be $2250 for the base option, $3330 for “upgrade M”, and $3960 for “upgrade P”. As Jack explained, these cost increases reflect the massive amounts of time that were required to develop the far more advanced holographic digital filters. As I see it, the only people who might not be able to take advantage of all of this are the die-hard “vinyl-holics” out there who eschew any and all things digital. As a former one of those “vinyl-holics” out there who eschew any and all things digital, remaining on that boat today is a mistake, unless perhaps you have a $100,000 plus analog front end and a few thousand LPs that you yet to listen to and are not interested in anything of any genre being released only in digital. For the rest of us, digital has caught up to analog (at the very least) and has done so at remarkably reasonable prices. Keep your turntable for sure. Buy more vinyl; it's getting better, too, but don't turn your nose up at digital. The improvements in just the last 2 years have been vast ~ publisher
My initial impressions in my home listening room come from the evening Jack Caldwell spent with me getting the speakers set up and loading the appropriate holographic digital filter settings into my computer. Listening with me were Jack, his wife Michele, and my wife Jenny.
We started by listening with several digital filters Jack installed into iTunes on my MAC Mini. These had funny but descriptive names such as “mid-vivid” and “mid-vivid plus” that were meant to describe the sound of a given filter. Even using the simple ten-band equalizer in iTunes, the room was filled with lovely music that Jack had brought along in the form of a test disk whose contents he loaded onto my hard drive. Since this was the same music that Jack was demoing with at RMAF, I was eager to hear if my memories of that session were still spot-on. When I heard that Vivaldi piece again, I was swept back… the instrumental images were floating in space above, around, and between the speakers; it was as if there were no speakers there at all! Incidentally, we were listening to the speakers in exactly the same configuration that they were demoed at RMAF: amplification from the Virtue Audio Two.2 integrated amplifier, coupled with the Anedio D1 DAC, both of which Jack had brought along. I was left as impressed as I had been upon first hearing this system at RMAF! Furthermore, the music was equally well reproduced regardless of where one was located in the room. There was no “sweet spot” as we audiophile types are used to dealing with, no head in the vice requirement. Everyone commented on what a nice presentation we were getting, and it was as if the music were coming from “nowhere, yet everywhere,” to quote publisher James Darby’s show report on the Holistic speakers.
Jack also showed us that the speakers work well in a number of different configurations and positions. We tried them near field, far a-field, and everywhere in between. We experimented with the distance between the speakers themselves. We placed them near room corners and boundaries. No matter what we did, they still sounded good. The only real difference was in the realism of the audio hologram, which did vary somewhat depending on placement. The tonal qualities of the speaker, however, remained more or less consistent. Finally, before leaving, Jack presented me with a Behringer DEQ 2496 processor loaded with his most recent advanced holographic digital filter settings using the 31 band parametric digital equalizer provided. Using this device, I would be able to get a good taste of what the top-end “upgrade P” would sound like in my room.
So now it was off to the races. What to do, what to do… It somehow seemed that the options available with these little speakers were so endless that I barely knew where to start. As such, I’ll only recount a portion of the various things I tried.
While I was plenty happy with the sound I was getting from the various iTunes configurations, I was left a bit unsettled about not using Channel D’s Pure Music audio engine, my current fave for digital playback and the subject of an upcoming joint review with me and Mr. Darby. I can clearly hear the difference between iTunes and Pure Music, especially when playing back my high-resolution digital vinyl transcriptions, and I was missing that bit of extra body and resolution that I had become used to. By this time, I had determined that my favorite iTunes filter was the one labeled “mid vivid plus.” Was there a way to somehow bypass the iTunes equalizer and get these settings into Pure Music? Well, while Jack had been demonstrating some of the sophisticated parametric settings available in Pure Music, he also showed me a simple 10-band equalizer option. This is a core audio application, he explained, and therefore should be bit transparent (unlike the equalizer options in iTunes). Hmm… it didn’t take me long to transfer the “mid vivid plus” settings over to the Pure Music core audio EQ. The results were delightful! Now I had my preferred playback engine plus the required digital filters. Keep in mind, however, that this setup is different from Holistic Audio’s “upgrade M,” which uses Pure Music’s multi-band parametric option, a much more sophisticated setting that the one I was using. I was just happy that a user who likes Pure Music and who isn’t ready to spring for the upgrade can still use the simpler filter settings derived from iTunes.
I later mentioned this to Jack in a follow-up conversation, and he wasn’t surprised that I got good results, though he did emphasize that he hadn’t tested the option. Instead, he informed me that he plans to make available to customers who want to use a second-party playback engine such as Pure Music, Amarra, or AyreWave a software product called Audio Hijack Pro. This program diverts the bitstream, applies full bit-perfect parametric or non-parametric equalization, and then sends the data on to whatever playback engine the user prefers. Jack has extensively tested his advanced filters using this program, but I have not yet heard the results myself. I hope to report back later on this development in a follow-up review.
Since Jack took his leave, I have spent a lot of time with the H1 speakers, and I have yet to come away disappointed in any regard. These are wonderful speakers, especially from a music lover’s perspective. They sound good in any configuration, from the simple iTunes application to my self-rigged Pure Music deal, to the ultra-refined “Upgrade P” option. Yes, there are differences, but they are in the degree of refinement and development of the acoustic hologram. The basic gist: the more you pay, the more refinement in presentation you will get. I therefore did most of my listening either with the 10 band EQ settings in Pure Music, or using the top-end “Option P” upgrade, as these gave the best sound reproduction in my room.
A person can learn a lot about a pair of speakers (or any audio component, for that matter) by just looking at the types of music one gravitates toward while in possession of the speakers. In the case of the H1s, I found myself listening to very healthy doses of acoustic jazz and small-scale classical works. These observations make sense upon realizing two things: these are small speakers, and they reproduce a sense of space very well.
On the first count, the laws of physics must hold true. Small speakers just aren’t going to reproduce the sense of scale and dynamics that bigger speakers can, and the H1s are no exception here. Jack Caldwell tells me that they can extend nicely down into the 40 Hz range in real rooms, and my observations tend to support this claim. They do go deep. However, it is in the area of dynamics that I felt they came up a bit short. The primary case in point was when I listened to large-scale bombastic symphonic works with large macrodynamic swings. There just wasn’t as much difference in dynamic between low-level and high-level passages as I get with my Shahinian Compasses. Of course, when I add my Shahinian Double Eagle subwoofer into the equation, then we’re talking a whole new ballgame altogether.
Obviously, this situation could be somewhat alleviated by integrating a subwoofer with the H1s. I did spend some time with the H1s playing along with my Double Eagle sub, and I found the combo to be fairly rewarding. However, the integration was not quite as seamless as I get with my Compasses. Jack tells me that adding a subwoofer takes some special filtering, and this is an option that he offers for customers who want to go down that road. In fact, he has already developed a method for including a Velodyne DD10 sub, which he will no doubt offer as a package deal at some point.
As I have said before, I think that one of the H1’s greatest strengths is in the reproduction of acoustic space. One can literally hear the space in which a recording was made, and in some instances, almost be transported into it. I found this remarkable effect to be more readily achieved when listening to smaller ensembles in more intimate venues, but it was always present to some extent. I also found the sense of space to be most realistically conveyed when the speakers were well out into the room, away from corners or other boundaries. In fact, I really ended up liking the H1s placed a few feet in front of my Compasses and a bit closer together, almost in a nearfield configuration. The audible images thus projected could be almost scary: often the acoustic plane began right about where the Compasses stood and then went on back from there, sometimes even extending upwards to the ceiling. It was as if my listening room had become the performance venue itself, and the performers were laid out before me, thus demonstrating the so-called “holographic” presentation that Jack often refers to. I can see now why such a presentation could make people feel good!
An excellent example of a recording that highlights the H1’s strengths is the Melos Ensemble’s performance of Beethoven’s Septet in E flat (stereo LP, L’oiseau Lyre, SOL 60015, digital transcription). One of the things that most struck me was how well the strings were reproduced, as there was appropriate warmth and presence, upon which was superimposed a most wonderful sheen. Furthermore, French horn entrances burst forth with a lovely sense of burnished “blat” that conveyed a real illusion of you-are-there impact. All of this, of course, was presented in a lifelike sense of space that again assisted in providing the illusion of reality.
Another such recording is The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields’ rendition of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, recorded in 1968 (Stereo LP, Argo ZRG 575, digital rip). Here we have beautifully reproduced instrumental timbre, both in the strings and woodwinds; the string basses especially have excellent heft and grunt through the H1 speakers. I also noticed a good sense of microdynamics, with the speakers showing no signs of stress when instantaneously going from moments of quietness to relative loudness. The H1s did a beautiful job of letting go of the notes, exhibiting no sense of stress, strain, or distortion. I also heard a great deal of speed and litheness, with no muddiness whatsoever. And my, the detail! At one point I could easily hear the keys moving madly during a particularly fast (and close mic’d) oboe outing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the H1’s performance with vocals, as Jack Caldwell told me that the human voice is one of the standards upon which he voices his speakers. I could use any one of a hundred different examples here, but I’ll mention one that particularly speaks to me. I greatly admire the choral works of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and one of my favorites in this genre is his Dona Nobis Pacem, which is really more or less a war requiem. In my EMI recording (Stereo LP, EMI SLS 5082, digital transcription), which is part of a box set featuring Vaughan Williams collective choral works, I chose to focus in on the third movement, a lovely recitative for baritone and chorus. The text, which is taken from Walt Whitman’s poem “Reconciliation” focuses on a warrior confronted with the corpse of an enemy soldier whom he killed earlier, “a man divine as myself.” The H1 speakers do a great job of conveying the emotion and futility of the moment as the baritone sings dolefully against the counterpoint of the chorus in the strangely uncomfortable, but beautiful, dirge-like setting. All in all, the H1 speakers made for some especially engaging listening here.
One final point worth making is that I found the H1s to work nicely with a wide range of amplification options. No matter what I tried them with, from the Virtue Audio gear to my old standby Threshold SA 3.5, to my Audio Analogue Puccini SE integrated, the results were universally good. The really great news here is that with the Virtue Audio Two.2 integrated, the listener on a budget can get a darn good sounding and eminently musical system for less than $3000, assuming the availability of a computer. In fact, we just noticed that Virtue Audio sells the H1 on their site. I bet you can get a good package deal there.
Efficiency: Omni-Radial 87dB (Equivalent to 90dB at 2.83V/1m front firing)
Recommended Power: 30 to 70W per channel
Impedance: 7 Ohms, mostly resistive.
Dimensions: 81cm (32”) high by 24cm (9.5”) diameter Weight: 10Kg (22lbs)
Designed for optimal “in home” performance, the H1 has extended bass down to the low 40's in most medium sized rooms. Exceptionally linear in-room from 40Hz to 18KHz.
Note: H1 does not need or benefit from a stand, it is designed for optimal in room response.Yes, the Acoustical Hologram will elevate and float well above the speakers... sometimes beyond the ceiling.
Most listeners will not need a sub-woofer unless they need to play it really, really loud. If you're that kind, contact Holistic, they have some good suggestions as they are Loudiophiles too!
I think that anyone, from the music lover to the dyed-in-the-wool audiophile, would do well to listen to Holistic Audio Arts’ H1 speakers. They are tonally correct and engaging, and I can’t think of another speaker near the price that reproduces recorded space as well. Besides, as Jack Caldwell continues to tinker with and develop new digital holographic filters and implementations, I can only see the design improving with time.
You DO need a computer available to get the fullest from these speakers unless you order the Behringer option, factory loaded with all the DSP goodies. That's $1,200. If you Google the company or check Audio Circle, Caldwell often runs significant discounts, or just call him and tell him you read the review in Stereomojo and you want great deal!
Worried about the complexity of the digital filter settings themselves? Don’t, as Holistic Audio Arts will provide them already installed on the customer’s computer, thus making the H1 system, in whatever configuration one decides upon, utterly plug ‘n’ play (and infinitely customizable). No worries.
Holistic Audio Arts’ new H1 speaker system is a great all-around performer. It specializes in presenting a realistic, coherent presentation of music by virtue of its omnidirectional design and specialized digital filters. Do you relish the idea properly reproduced space and lifelike holographic imaging when you nestle in for a listening session? Then you must check this speaker out. An added bonus is the well-defined upgrade path that employs more sophisticated digital filters at each level, thus providing different levels of refinement as the user desires.
Still another bonus is the ability for the owner to customize the plain white finish any way they can imagine. You can do-it-yourself, call a local professional artist of graphics service or Holistic will do it for you. We don't know of any speaker that gives you all those options.
The Holistic Audio Arts H1 is a bargin at its pricepoint and greatly deserving of our MAXIMUM MOJO AWARD. It is also asstrong candidate for a 2010 Product of the Year. We absolutely love finding unknown outstanding values like this for our readers.
Note: We will also be reviewing the big daddy H3 model soon. From what we hear in Denver, THAT should be something special.
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