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Connoisseur Series 450 loudspeakers
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
Iím originally from Texas, and I know a lot about thoroughbred horses. They start out untamed and hard to control unless patiently ridden by a top-notch trainer. Then you have something to own and show. The ESS Connoisseur Series 450 Heil Transformer loudspeakers are just as unruly and unconventional. Invented by Dr. Oskar Heil, the inventor of the FET transistor, the Heil driver is perched midway between two SEAS 7-inch mid/woofers in a sleek, contemporary-looking wooden floorstander. I first installed the 450s in my system by merely replacing my Avalon Eidolons. The sound was loaded with promise, but was splashy and technicolor. After much system tweaking, the 450s came into their own, and became show-stoppers!
The latest Heil drivers go all the way down to 1500Hz and up to 23kHz. The 7-inchers roll in at 1500Hz and go down to around 50Hz. There are two passive radiators in the rear, one behind each 7-inch driver. The speakers can be bi-wired, and have almost no crossover. The two-way design is about 93dB efficient, but requires a high-current source for best sound. The basic setup was easy. They sounded best about 7 feet apart, with a slight toe-in. I placed a pair of short tiptoes under the front edges to tilt them back a bit. Getting all of the drivers to blend flawlessly was a challenge. You want to tailor the bold and outstanding midrange to yield realistic, musical sweetness without dulling the performance of the Heil drivers.
A high quality solid-state amp is essential. Though my tube amp did a nice job, it could not produce the needed driver blend and dynamic range. I used the Plinius SA-201 to excellent effect. You also must use copper cables. Cables with any silver content cause edginess. The speakers are internally wired with copper Eichmann cables, and copper Eichmann loudspeaker cables were the best choice. I tried three other high-end speaker cables, but only the Eichmanns did the trick. I also replaced all of my silver-content power cords with copper Kimber cords, and used the cutting edge Harmonic Technology Cyberlight interconnects throughout. Almost all of the perceived colorations vanished, and the drivers spoke with one musical voice. Now I was ready to listen!
For $11,700 a pair, these 450s had better be good, and boy, are they. Their midrange and high-end definition was 80 to 85 percent as good as that of my Eidolons, at half the price! These babies are extraordinary detailers, with precise and solid imaging. The soundstage was wall to wall, and imaging was nail-down accurate. They sound a bit less fleshy than the $22,000 Eidolons, and their depth of field was somewhat reduced as well. The Eidolons have a mid-hall sound in my setup. The 450s have a front-of-the-hall sound, and are all about definition. Their Image height is superb. They will play both very softly and very, very loudly without any compression. Micro- and macro-dynamics are spot on, and delicious on violin. Just listen to the DG SACD of Hilary Hahn playing The Lark Ascending. The sound is sweet, sophisticated, delicate, and accurate from forte to pianissimo.
These 450s are nothing like the AMT 1s of the 1970s. Now made in Germany, they are vastly improved, with darn near perfect driver blend. The Plinius SA-201 sounded sweet, warm, musical, realistic, and powerful with the 450s. These speakers are very, very low in coloration if you choose your amp and ancillaries carefully. In order to maximize the sound, I had to pull components and cables from three systems. The 450s are for intelligent, dedicated audiophiles. If you want easy, no-brainer sound, try Sonus Faber, but you wonít get this kind of heart-pounding definition.
Though the highs and mids are top notch at the 450sí price point, and the imaging and detail are trend setting, the bass, though lean and fast, is just very good. This is a taste and design issue. These speakers may have the flattest response Iíve ever heardóthey are even flatter than my Eidolons. I heard nary the slightest lump or bump at any frequency. A little bass bump would be a welcome addition. You must either accept the leaner bass performance, or do what I did and add a subwoofer. I used my Rel Stadium III crossed over at 24Hz and set at about one-third volume. With the Eidolons, I cross over the Rel at 22Hz, so with the Heils, I wasnít adding much. I liked the additional weight and authority of the 450s with the Rel. You may also prefer a sub if you want to mine the lowest octaves. The 7-inch drivers in the 450 didnít float my boat, but they blended so beautifully with the powerful Heil driver that I canít argue with their selection. My listening room also has an opening behind the speakers, which does limit bass reproduction a bit (but oh, that glorious depth).
I was fascinated by the way that the Heil drivers, which are of a true dipolar design, did not seem to produce any cancellation or reduction in imaging. The unique cabinet design seems to disperse the rear radiation. The resulting sound is airy and open, like electrostatics or Focal titanium drivers, but with no power limitations. Iím a definition aficionado, and thatís what the 450s are all about. With the right amp, the 450s are also smooth and layered, with a sound you hate to leave at eveningís end. Listening to my newly-tweaked Marantz 10B FM tuner on the 450s was wonderful. With live sources, the sound was you-are-there live. I felt like I was in the control room at the radio station, monitoring the performance.
The ESS Connoisseur Series 450 loudspeakers are a lot of fun, and so extremely neutral that you hear into the performance. They produce extraordinary detail and imaging for speakers in their price class. Though relatively small, their dynamic range appears unlimited. Their build quality is excellent, and their performance in the mids and highs is startling. Their bass is a bit limited, and it is best to use them with a high-quality subwoofer. At their tweaked-out best, they are ultra-musical and precisely detailed. They require the best in front-end gear and solid-state amplification to come to life. Once they do, they are quite a ride. If you have the dough, and want to push the sonic envelope, the 450s are a solid recommendation. Robert H. Levi
Discs used in this review:
Connoisseur Series 450 loudspeakers