Mixing it up; Woodgrain, Leather, Digital, Analog, DSP, and more.
It has been a great pleasure learning about Heavenly Soundworks from the founders Kevin and Jonathan Couch, a father and son team of music lovers. The passion and attention to detail that both of these gentlemen have moved them from lifetime music lovers to DIY speaker construction and finally to their creation of Heavenly Soundworks. Bootstrapping themselves into this business is a testament to their innate skills, love of music, and tenacity.
Kevin and Jonathan started with passive speakers and the meticulous process of passive crossover design and driver selection. Across a decade and many designs and iterations, they recognized that passive techniques would not meet their desire for their goal of "Perfect Sound." The journey to active speaker design had begun.
Active speaker design brings new challenges. Yes, the passive crossover goes away, but we add so much more to consider.
What do you design, buy, build? Do you jump on, say, the WiSA bandwagon? Each system has different DSP programming methods. The mechanical considerations of fitment, heat, serviceability, and quality require new skills! In the end, Kevin and Jonathan selected Hypex and their NCORE system.
One of the next big problems is driver selection. During the early years of their work, they found multiple issues with bad drivers that did not meet specifications and worse. It is a constant battle to keep the suppliers on track and validate each driver received! In the FIVE17 speaker, there are three drivers and two side-firing passive radiators. Sourcing, matching and, testing drivers could be a whole department! Avoiding the hype requires another department.
But, wait, there is more:
The Hypex DSP system is a blank slate. From the factory, it will not make any sounds. Fire up the HFD software on your PC, and you have a screen full of decisions, filters to design, and much more. There are many edges and limitations. Now the speaker designer must program, listen, iterate, and, at some point, stop and SHIP!
Do not forget the knowledge and skills needed to design and manufacture speaker cabinets. These speakers are hand-crafted at two US locations; they have a leather inlay and woodgrain veneer. The stands reflect the same esthetic.
I want to take to heart that all of the above have multiple vectors of influence. From the slide rule to software, from material and component selection to the brand look and feel, these two founders have accomplished something extraordinary!
** Perfect Sound **
"First off, 'perfect sound’ to us at Heavenly Soundworks means that you can't tell the difference between the original music or instruments, and the recording of the same played back through our speakers. There are times listeners will have to relearn, so to speak, what sounds right. The reason being that we all adapt to the speakers that we listen to all the time. We may believe that is what an artist or instrument sounds like, until we hear it live in person. This is one of the biggest reasons we offer a 30-day in-home trial. I would also suggest (though it may be difficult in the time we're living to do so) that during the trial period, our customers would go somewhere and hear a live performance for comparison to our speakers, or anybody's for that matter.
In other words, you should not be able to perceive the difference between that trumpet, vocal, or drum to the same sounds coming out of our speakers. We aim never to have a sound signature, just pure reproduction. "
- Kevin Couch
Now comes the hard part of a speaker review. Translating what I and those around me observe, feel and hear into something coherent, so you, the reader, grock the experience!
I have tried to articulate the goal of simplifying my music system. I am pretty close to that goal. The media side is 90% digital. Roon is my music player of choice, giving me access to Tidal and Qobuz streaming, my local library of about 70,000 tracks, and Internet radio.
The two main variables I am still solving for are the DAC and Speakers for my living room.
Late last year, I spent three months on the Buchardt A500 system. I also have the Dutch and Dutch 8C speakers in the mix.
I am unfair if I do not point out that the A500 system is less than half of the price of the FIVE17's. Those extra dollars spent are only part of the equation. The other comparisons are the Dutch and Dutch 8C speakers at about 50% more retail cost over the FIVE17's.
During this review, I have transitioned to the new server, and I have been evaluating DACs. The FIVE17 speakers came fully broken in, so I was able to get right down to listening. I started using the AURALiC Altair G1 DAC and my previous Roon server with an XLR Audioquest Water cable set. The same Sound Anchor adjustable stands individually supported the speakers.
Before I talk about sound quality, I want to talk about design.
The FIVE17 is my automatic switching A/D/pre-amp/amp/speaker. The DAC connects to the XLR analog input. The turntable to the RCA analog input. The Mutec MC-3+USB DDC connects via AES, and finally, the Bluesound Node 2i connects to SPDIF/Coax. Switching inputs is simple, pause what is playing, wait 15 seconds for the speaker to go back into input scanning, then press play on whatever you want!
Oh, I also added a Chromecast Audio to the TOSlink input just for Soundcloud!
With the DAC and the DDC having a USB connection to the Roon server, it is easy to swap zones and compare the differences. I want to see if there is a flavor difference between the digital and analog inputs on the FIVE17.
The first comparisons
The A500 is a three-way design and the smallest of the three with two inputs, WiSA and XLR analog. The WiSA hub provides additional inputs and features. The amplifiers in the speakers and the Hub are a standard WiSA platform design. The Hansong Hub is the weak point for me. Multiple software components did not fit my needs. The electronics in the A500’s get hotter than I would like.
The Dutch and Dutch 8c speakers are a more elaborate design, with AES and XLR analog inputs. The front of the speaker is a large waveguide. There is an open baffle design where the main woofer chamber's rear is open to the room. Finally, there are two rear-firing drivers to create a cardioid dispersion pattern. I do not know what the amplification and processing platform is. The speakers have a small fan and vents on the bottom to cool the electronics. Finally, they are the largest of the three speakers and weigh in at close to 60 lbs. each. They overwhelmed the front of my living room.
The 8c provides a web-app for operation. They currently do not use the network interface for digital input. They have AES and balanced XLR inputs. Recently the firmware has been updated to work with REW to help correct some room acoustics.
The FIVE17 three-way design is a bit larger than the A500. The left speaker is the master for digital inputs, and it controls the right speaker using SPDIF and transmitting the right channel data over that link. They have AES, XLR, RCA, TOSlink, SPDIF inputs along with XLR and AES pass-through. There is an IR remote control for volume and DSP control, and a bit more.
Jonathan Couch brought the speakers up to me, and the first afternoon that the FIVE17 speakers were in-house, we did an extended listening session moving between all the speakers to get each's flavor. Following that, I have spent a couple of days with each speaker to improve my memory. A three way A/B/C of speakers is a lot of work. For this comparison I have been using XLR and the Hugo 2 DAC. My family has spent time, and one of my trusted listeners spent an afternoon.
The FIVE17's like to have a bit more air around them, needing more space behind them than the others. Getting the toe-in just right locks in the soundstage. The A500s sit in the same place very nicely and have a bit less need for precise placement. The 8c's like to be closer to the wall, and their DSP setting compensates for location.
The mid-bass on the 8c does not have the presence and the detail of the FIVE17. The A500s fall in the upper registers. There are essential missing details in the music—the 8c's exhibit much of that detail but not the layer separation that the FIVE17 have.
I wrote about how much I liked the vocals in my A500 review. The FIVE17 is a different beast with vocals. JUST WOW! I do not get any of the same feelings from voices with the 8c's. NOTE others have suggested I try the AES inputs on the 8C's. They are gone, so that will not happen.
The A500 speakers have automated correction at lower volume levels to compensate for human hearing. The FIVE17 speakers take a different tack; they have three DSP settings for different sound pressure levels. The FIVE17 has the most natural presentation I have ever had in my home. Sitting in the living room reading with music at the background level is extremely pleasant. There is a natural organic presence I love.
Many of the speakers I have listened to provide an “Impressionist Painting” view of the music. The FIVE17 speakers present a high resolution photograph.
All three of these speakers have attractive response curves in the lower registers. They each work very hard to reach down. The larger drivers in the 8c's can move a lot of air, and their dispersion pattern produces a robust lower register. The tiny little A500 with the dual front and rear-facing drivers tick this box pretty darn well. My room may be a bit large for them, but still, they have a comfortable presence there.
I am still trying to find the right descriptive language to express what I feel from the FIVE17 low registers. There is a depth there you have to hear to understand. By the end of this review, I hope to work out the right words to describe my amazement at what I hear.
During the second phase, I have been using my Hugo 2 as the DAC in the system. The Hugo 2 output is singled-ended, so I use RCA-XLR cables to an isolation transformer and then through the Audioquest cables to the speakers XLR input. This was not ideal, but workable.
I listened to see if I could hear sound quality anomalies between the digital and analog inputs. There are subtle differences, but I cannot attribute this to double-DACing or the like. The audio/digital paths external to the speakers vary. The Hypex NCORE system performs very well. I cannot wait till I get balanced output DAC to try in the system.
I have just now been able to finish up my listening sessions comparing the Kii Three speakers and the FIVE17s. The Kii Threes have been in my living room for a while. I had set them aside for the second part of my listening. Three speakers in a test are almost too much, and four would be impossible. Also, note that I did not have the BXT modules available in the final part of this test.
The Kii Threes' retail cost plus the Kii Control is about 60% higher than the FIVE17. There is a functional difference between the Kii Three and the FIVE17. The Kii speakers require manual operation to change inputs. You cannot have both AES and XLR Analog as you have to go into the settings and change the input type.
The setup is the same. The Sound Anchor stands for support. My new music server and the Mutec DDC to the AES inputs on both systems.
I started with the Kii Threes playing to refresh my memory. Next, I ran through a subset of my "test tracks." I swapped in the FIVE17s and let them play for a bit, and re-ran through the "test tracks." I have been switching back and forth between the speakers to firm up my observations.
The Kii Threes present a very clean and open soundstage. There is a lot of detail in the music, and they have a useful bass extension. In comparing them to the FIVE17, the Kii Threes are dry and somewhat analytical. The FIVE17 speakers are more "organic," have more PRAT, and a more comfortable listening experience. The bass extension is significantly lower.
The Album "Live in Paris and Toronto" by Loreena McKennitt demonstrates this rather dramatically. The Kii Threes reproduce the music in great detail; the FIVE17 covey the experience, the instruments, the audience, the rooms, and Loreena's voice. It is fun to listen to her later recordings to hear how her voice and style have progressed. Listen to her album: "Nights from the Alhambra," to give you a taste of the changes about a decade can make.
I have only had the FIVE17 speakers for about three weeks, and I am still learning what they have to teach me. Some days I feel like a slow learner.
One of the initial findings with FIVE17 speakers is that they need careful placement for the best staging. For this, I set out 2ft x 2ft MDF on the floor. Using Herbie's Audio Lab gliders under the spikes I can move the speakers around till I find just the right spot! I then remove the MDF and plop the stands down in the "right" place. I could never get away with the MDF long term!
In my experience, speakers in my living room benefit from mechanical isolation. I have used Isoacoustics isolators in most designs. For floor standing speakers, I use the GAIA bases, on the tabletop, the ISO-Pucks. I have tried the GAIA bases on speaker stands with less than stellar results. Over the last three months, I have been listening to the OREA Series under the speakers. I have been delighted with the results by placing the OREA's under the FIVE17s improved sound stage, clarity, and more. I will re-test when I get the factory stands for them.
I use the OREA isolators under the electronics in my cabinets. The OREA isolators are very specific on their load range, so choose wisely.
In my living room, we listen to music in three different fashions. One is filling the first floor with MUSIC! The second is background while reading and relaxing. The third and most important to me is sitting down and listening to my choice of musical performances! The FIVE17 speakers fill all three roles with great aplomb! I am delighted with the DSP setting for different sound levels.
I am trying very hard not to overemphasize my feelings here. The puzzle pieces are fitting together for me, fifty years on with this avocation!
The sound quality fits what my ears want to hear. The simple remote for the Hypex module works nicely. Looking for downsides, the only one that I see is providing room correction for all the inputs. I can use Roon for that side, but not for the Turntable, etc.
I am looking forward to seeing what comes next while happily listening to the FIVE17!
I am still at a loss to describe what I hear in the low end of the FIVE17 speakers. Do they move the room? Design, DSP engineering, and driver selection magic?
I am in the process of purchasing the review samples and ordering the matching stands. I have settled on two of the three needed items for my system. DAC next!
- Heavenly Soundworks FIVE17 $10,000
- Matching Stands for the FIVE17 $1,000
- Chord Hugo 2
- Mutec MC-3+USB
- Rega Planar 8 Turntable
- Musical Fidelity MXVYNL
- Bluesound Node 2i
- http://www.paretoaudio.com/ Server
- Puritan Audio Labs Power conditioner and cables
- Transparent Cable Power filter and power cables
- My Grandmothers Victrola Cabinet re-imagined!
I want to thank Kevin and Jonathan for putting up my questions and style. In addition, my patient wife for letting me keep all those speakers and boxes in the dining room for over a year.
The COVID is frightful, but the MUSIC is delightful! Welcome to 2021.
Shot on iPhone, produced on Mac.
*** The Heavenly Soundworks stands shown in the pictures are dummy prototypes, not finished product. The speakers are first production run models where the amplifier plate is proud of the cabinet. For final production the amplifier plate is in-set.
UPDATE OCTOBER 8, 2021
Updating my Heavenly Soundworks 517 Review
I noted in my review; I used the first production run models of the speakers. Heavenly Soundworks finalized the production units during the interim and implemented some exciting software updates. On July 9th, Jonathan Couch, one of the founders, delivered production speakers to me. A small group of my friends met, and we conducted a formal A/B of the two speakers.
We used the Pro-Ject CD Box RS2 T as the source, using the A.E.S. output to the pass-through on the speakers. We set the levels using a pink noise track, and we carefully placed the speakers relative to the listening position and spaced them out well in the room. Furthermore, we adjusted the levels and muting using the remote, thus allowing a single button press to swap the active speakers.
We all noticed a significant difference in the characteristics of the Pink Noise during the setup: let the listening start! More on that in the interview below.
In review, the fundamental hardware/electronics is the same. The company updated D.S.P. firmware to improve the frequency response curves. They also used a new midrange driver and made some cabinet construction changes. Finally, enabling the nine-band parametric equalizer to allow for room correction or personal taste changes.
A couple of weeks later, I have continued to optimize the system. I returned the Project player as the family did not want to use a top loader. I purchased a Teac CD front loader that is a Player/Transport.
With help from another audiophile, I adjusted the speakers' toe-in and put the spikes under the stands in the room. This change opened up the sound stage and improved the low end. One final “temporary room treatment” was to hang a lightweight fleece blanket over the mirror on the wall between the speakers. The blanket has a very low W.A.F., but it gives me a noticeable improvement in the room's sound. New rule: Put up blanket when listening and take it down when done!
It is now October, and I have been working to “finalize” the electronics in the system. I have been writing about that in a couple of other threads on Audiophile Style.
Note: After the listening session, we recorded an interview with Jonathan Couch for The Three Techs YouTube channel.
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