October 2000Heybrook Duet Loudspeakers
by Tom Lyle
I've always thought it would be cool to write a review for which I used only one type of music, and this single musical genre would determine whether or not I recommend a component. What would I choose? I might decide on classic rock, or maybe just small jazz ensembles on the Blue Note label recorded in the '60s. On the other hand, I suppose I might choose '70s progressive-rock albums, or perhaps psychedelic GOA-trance techno from Europe. Or Beatles CDs might be a good choice.
"I played no other albums through the Thingamabob Mark IIa preamplifier other than those that featured Mellotron. Therefore, I endorse this component because I became slightly lightheaded when listening to Tangerine Dreams Rubycon album [Virgin 2454C]."
Of course, this passage sounds more than a bit silly. Yet it wasnt such a long time ago when classical music was thought of as the only appropriate music to cite in a hi-fi review. And there are more than a few audiophiles who still feel that this is the only criterion for judging an audio products worth -- how well it reproduces an acoustic performance recorded in a real space. Sure, I listen to classical music. In a perfect world, using perfect equipment, the musicians on these recordings would sound as if they were playing in my home, or that I was somehow sonically transported to the actual event. But Im just as likely to spin a disc of Can, Bjork, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, PJ Harvey, Joy Division, or Kraftwerk. I put just as much importance on how my system reproduces these as when I spin an EMI LP of Andre Previn conducting a Shostakovich symphony.
This might have very much to do with why Im not a big fan of small speakers -- because I listen to so many different types of music. I need a speaker that can reproduce an emotional, delicate string quartet as well as a frenzied, throbbing electronic-industrial 12" slab of vinyl. But just because Im not a big fan doesnt mean I dont use small speakers. In the recording studio, thats practically all I use (however, studio tasks can be considerably different from the experience of enjoying tunes on the stereo). I have also had more than my fair share of minimonitors pass through my home system, and have spent many enjoyable hours listening to them.
But in my main system, I choose large speakers as my reference. Small speakers certainly have their merits, and its easy to understand why many listeners prefer them. Those with very small listening rooms have no choice, and for a second system where volume isnt going to be pushed upward, they make perfect sense. Id rather not discuss home-theater setups because thats hardly my forte, but you find minimonitors in practically every one of these systems too.
Duet to me
So I agreed to review the Heybrook Duet for a couple of reasons. First, these speakers were to be one of my first reviews for Soundstage!, and I did not want to seem ungrateful. Secondly, and of course most importantly, I was looking forward to reviewing what I thought was a good-looking and, considering its specifications and apparent build quality, relatively affordable speaker.
The British company Heybrook may be new to most Americans, but theyve been in business since 1978. Heybrook states in their literature that they have had quite a few models lauded by the British audio press, although most of those accolades were conferred on models designed and marketed in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Heybrook has a large line of speakers and has expanded their catalog to include electronics, stands and cables, although as far as I know, their speakers are their only components currently being imported into the US.
While unpacking the Duets, I was immediately impressed with their appearance, so I wasnt too surprised to learn that their cabinets are not the veneered MDF, as with most speakers within their price range. They are particle-board cabinets that are finished with a wood veneer in ones choice of rosewood, cherry or black finishes. Heybrook says that the reflex-tuned cabinet is constructed with a "figure eight" internal brace and a 30mm-thick laminated cabinet top and front baffle. The front and top are rounded to decrease diffraction.
In spite of their beautiful cabinets, it was the tweeters that were the first thing I noticed when I removed the speakers from their packing. They have an elliptical diaphragm that is sort of egg-shaped, very shiny, and very gold-colored. The tweeter itself is gas-filled, and the piezo polymer diaphragm is coated on both sides with pure gold. Heybrook claims that the design has ideal dispersion characteristics, and offers cleaner transients and less distortion. They go on to declare that the tweeter "has the clarity of electrostatic transducers without the confusion of multiple signal paths and produces excellent dynamic range, power handling, and efficiency."
The approximately 6.7" bass/midrange driver is composed of a "composite acrylic polymer gel" cone. (Im not usually one to gripe about a manufactures hype, but isnt polymer a composite? Maybe the cone itself is made of a composite acrylic and the gel a polymer?) The hard-wired crossover is first order, and crosses over at 4kHz. On the speaker cabinets rear panel are four BFA speaker binding posts to allow for bi-wiring. These posts, presumably a British invention, are not compatible with banana plugs. I guess if you do a little minor customizing of the posts, bananas would fit, but like almost every piece of British hi-fi equipment, they will not accept dual plugs. Near the connections is a label that says to "use BFA sockets or make bare-wire connections." Ignorant Yank that I am, I do not own (and have not even seen) BFA sockets, but I managed to wrestle the spades of the MIT bi-wire speaker cable onto the terminals without too much trouble.
The Duets claimed frequency response is from 45Hz to 35kHz. They operate with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms and with a sensitivity of 91dB/W/m. The cabinets measure roughly 17" high, by 9" wide, and are 11" deep. Each weighs 19 1/2 pounds, which is relatively considerable for their size. The review pair was shipped without grilles, but the Heybrook normally includes a rubber-mounted black grille that snaps into the four mounting holes in the front of the cabinets -- although I cannot imagine displaying these speakers without their gleaming ovoid gold tweeters exposed.
After the speakers were broken in with what I would estimate to be more than 50 hours of continuous play, I started some serious listening. I set the Duets on the 24" stands that I use with the almost identically sized PSB Stratus Minis that I normally use in my recording studio, also small two-way speakers (their retail price is $1095 USD per pair). The stands are filled with marble chip, so theyre rather weighty; as a result, they are very stable. I can bolt the PSBs to the stands to make speaker and stand almost a one-piece unit, but when I compared the PSBs and Heybrooks in my listening room I simply placed either pair of speakers directly on the stands platform. I used a bit of DAP Fun-Tak to secure the speakers. Fun-Tak is identical to the audiophile-approved Blue-Tak (its also colored blue, if thats important to you), but it sells for about 20% of the price. It's available at most large hardware stores. I set the speakers a bit closer together than the distance to my listening seat, which was about eight feet away. After much experimenting, I ended up placing the rear of the cabinets about two and a half feet from the front wall, and I toed in the speakers toward the listening position.
Throughout the review period I used the Duets in quite a few configurations, with both low- and high-powered amplifiers, and some changes in source components. Although the Duets seemed to perform best with certain types of equipment, certain characteristics of the speakers became apparent regardless of the associated gear. I always had the similarly sized and specd PSB Stratus Minis on hand for comparison, which have been my reference for affordable small speakers for quite some time.
I started out with some jazz. The saxophonist Charlie Rouses album Yeah! [Epic BAI7012] re-issued on Classic Records is out of print, but some dealers still have stock. It is worth searching for just for the recording quality, but also because its an excellent performance by Rouse and his small combo. The Heybrook speakers reproduced this recording as well as I had hoped, with no segment of the frequency range calling that much attention to itself, except for the bass -- but not in the negative sense. I guess the first thing I notice with most modern speakers this size is the amount of bass that they manage to produce. However, more significantly, the quality of the Duets' bass was very good. It was the equal of the PSBs' bass, with a solid, pitch-stable sound. Of course, this bass didnt go any lower than the specified 45Hz, so much of the perceived weight of the bass was from the midbass on up. Yet there wasnt much of an attempt to pump up this midbass to make the low end appear any fuller than it was on the recording. The port was judiciously tuned to fill out the low-frequency sound, and the bass remained stable enough even during complex passages to give a very natural portrayal of the acoustic bass. Unless I really went overboard with lots of power and lots of volume, the port didnt make any "chuffing" sound. That is, unless I placed the speakers too close to the rear wall. It is interesting that a British speaker would be designed with a rear port rather than one on the front baffle. Many listening rooms in the UK are on the small side, and quite often English audiophiles have no choice but to locate the speakers near the walls.
I was also impressed with these speakers' ability at revealing low-level detail, as there was occasionally a glitch in this recording, such as a slight amount of distortion that was perceivable. When I was reviewing the John Shearne Audio Phase 2 Reference integrated amp, I thought a good match would be it and the Duets. While listening to this combo, I threw on Jimi Hendrixs Live at the Fillmore East [MCA D2 11931]. It was patently evident that this recording was cleaned up considerably since its very much younger sister, the album Band of Gypsies [CAP 93446B], was mixed down in the late '60s. The Duets' clarity was mostly due to this treble being both clear and natural-sounding. The slight bit of grain that I noticed on this CD was almost certainly due to the recording or the integrated amp, not the speakers.
The treble was one of the Duets' best characteristics. This album might not have been the best choice to demonstrate this attribute, but it was apparent even on this program material that the tweeters were indeed capable of reproducing whatever the recording or source components delivered. If I played an "audiophile approved" album such as the gold CD of Miles Davis Kind of Blue [CBS 64935B], sure, it sounded great. Yet what more often occurred was noticing the Duets' qualities on old favorites, since the speakers were set up in my listening room for quite a while, and I played a host of different types of music through them. As long as I didnt get carried away with playing music that was clearly not appropriate for this type of speaker, such as power orchestral, techno, etc., all the Duets' positive traits that I've mentioned were clearly identifiable. That goes for the aforementioned Hendrix album too. It was good as long as I didnt pump up the volume too much. So I didnt.
Im a sucker for a distinctive female vocalist. I guess thats why I picked up the Macy Gray On How Life Is CD [Epic EK 69490]. This is really not a bad recording for a modern pop album. When I listened to this CD on the "big system" (to be precise, through the Legacies and with lots of power), it was much easier to tell that the tracks were either recorded or mixed at various recording studios. As good as the Duets' low-level resolution was, these differences werent nearly as noticeable. Still, even with only 50Wpc driving them from the Shearne integrated, it was still easy to tell that the recording was good, but not perfect. Many times when listening to small speakers, I find they are so enjoyable because they are not as critical of the recording or source that is feeding them. The Duets were still high-end, high-resolution loudspeakers worthy of high-end systems, although they possessed some of this "non-criticalness" too.
However, there was a shortcoming that was very noticeable, especially when the Duets were compared to the lower-priced PSBs: the soundstage of the Duets was lacking. As good as their frequency response, natural sound, and low-level resolution were, there was no sense of envelopment that I get from even the most affordably priced minimonitors. When they were compared directly to the PSBs, this was painfully obvious. I dont expect to have an epiphany every time I turn on the stereo, but I still expect a kind of wonderment that comes from a high-end rig. The Duets just didnt do that. Yes, I occasionally was impressed by the realism of the sound of a single instrument in an ensemble, but usually the speakers' lack of soundstaging and imaging was too noticeable to ignore. I could cite recordings that exhibited this flaw, but it was across the board. I just couldnt coax much of a soundstage from these speakers, regardless of positioning, associated equipment, or recording.
There was a center image with the Duets, although when it was made up of many instruments, these instruments didnt vary much in their depth. Nor did the instruments bunch up in the center of the speaker as with a cheap-o consumer-grade audio appliance. Plus, with judicious positioning (as far away from the rear walls as possible, but not too far apart from each other), I was able to get more of a soundstage out of them, albeit a rather two-dimensional one. Still, these are small speakers, and one of the reasons many folks are partial to speakers this size is because of their soundstaging and imaging prowess. The Duets were a disappointment in this important area. I know -- this is an extremely subjective observation, and this failing may bother some folks more than it may others. But I didn't hear what I didn't hear.
The Heybrook Duets, for all of their merits, are a mixed bag. They look great, have an ample amount of quality bass for their size, have transparent mids and highs, and natural sheen in the treble. They seem very efficient, which might make them perfect for the SET crowd, and they are competitively priced. These traits might be all you are looking for in a small speaker. However, their imaging and soundstaging were upstaged by the abilities of PSB Stratus Minis in these areas -- and probably a good number of other speakers too. Audio equipment involves trade-offs for sure, and for the Heybrook Duets, these mean some good sound in some ways, not so good in others.
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