My wife had previously given me a rule that I can only spend no more than $300 at a time on audio gear, but she didn't stipulate how often. Eventually, she was getting sick of me spending money on audio here and there, and the house wasn't getting paid off. So she gave me an ultimatum - I must not spend 1 cent more on audio and concentrate my efforts on paying off the house. If I do this, then when the house is paid off (projected later this year) she will allow me to purchase a pair of high-end floorstanders that will last me until retirement. The additional budget she approved is $20K and I can sell whatever I have currently to increase what I have to work with. I've already sold a large part of my setup and my plan was a pair of speakers inc amplification up to around $35K, although less is better since I can use the monies on other non-essentials - centre speaker, ceiling treatment which I'm lacking, lifetime Roon, perhaps a new DAC but I haven't found anything suitable yet, and new power amps without the embarrassment of haggling.
Since my wife gave me this ultimatum last year, I have been spending a lot of my free time and weekends having fun auditioning, and then barely surviving during the week. I've read all the $15K, $20K speaker threads on SNA and followed up on all the suggestions in those threads. I've travelled all over Australia listening to speakers, mainly Australian ones, as I want this purchase to benefit and support local manufacturers. I've also listened to a bunch of speakers in the past at shows, in various countries so I know what some of the world's "best" sounds like. And I must say our local products are pretty darn close and much more sanely priced.
Being a Melbournian, I had some great choices, and I actually started off intending to buy from a local Melbourne brand (i.e. SGR, Osborn, Legend - sadly I didn't audition Legend speakers as I decided I didn't want to go down their DEQX route). Thing is, too many times I read a review where a guy who only compared an Aussie brand against one or two foreign brands and then raved about how great the Aussie brand was, no offence to those guys but I wanted to make a more informed choice. I wanted to "hear" all the choices available to me, so I can say "I listened to everything there is and I chose X". And oh boy I'm glad I did because the Hulgich Duke in Adelaide was the speaker I chose.
Those familiar with the Astor speakers, which are already superb, I recall @Marc saying it sounds like $25K speakers. But get this, according to Nick (Hulgich) they rank like so: Astor < Maestro < Ella MK2 < Duke. I've never listened to the Astor, but the Duke is a pretty significant jump from the Ella MK2. I'd say usually the improvement per dollar is logarithmic, but not in the case from the Ella to the Duke.
Usually, when I review, I despise talking about song impressions. I equally dislike reading people's impressions of how a particular song sounds. Such things to me, are hard to put into context. What I like to do instead is deconstruct the qualities of the gear I'm reviewing and let the reader's imagination put it all together. Like a de-constructed burger.
Before I talk about my sound impressions, let me talk about my preferences. The music I listen to is mostly rock, jazz, acoustic - in that order. I do have a bit of EDM and pop, and I'm sick of classical. I was raised on classical, I was forced to attend classical concerts regularly when I was a child, all my folks ever listen to is classical and I was trained in classical music growing up (voice and piano). My prefered tonality is natural and realistic, and I know what it sounds like from an audience perspective and also from the perspective of the performer. I sometimes have music jam weekends where my violinist and/or guitarist friends come over and we play a few songs together with me on piano. My piano is a $60K Petrof (the family model, not the mass-produced state-owned crap) which I also selected after a long time auditioning, I care about music enough to make sure I make no mistakes picking the absolute best of what is allowed.
If I could describe the Dukes in one word, it would be natural, it is the epitome of neutrality, it is a clean clear sound that tonally is completely like the real thing. There's no part of the frequency response that is slightly uneven. If it was any other speaker I'd be picking out and praising the treble, or the midrange or the bass. But not the Dukes, it is hard to talk about any particular part of the frequency range, all the parts of the frequency are done equally well and the transition is seamless from top to bottom, it is the complete package. It is halfway between smooth and fast. It renders timbre accurately. For example violin timbres - the timbre isn't dry, as some prefer, it has both the resolution, smoothness and thickness of the real instrument. In terms of energy, it has the drive and excitement, but it is not fatiguing and neither is it laid back. I think it is spot on.
I must admit the Dukes didn't grab my attention immediately because it was too perfect. My mind always tries to pick out the flaws in things before listening to it as a whole. Same way when I start learning a new piece of music, I automatically seek out sections of the piece I haven't perfected. Although one thing immediately stood out against all competition and it was the soundstage. The soundstage is deep, and the most accurate I've heard as of late. We're all used to descriptives like "floating notes" or "multi-layered", the Duke is neither of these and it shouldn't be. Real music is integrated, you should be able to pick out the exact positioning of an instrument, instead of parts of an instrument in different layers of the soundstage, (I'm not talking about poorly mastered recordings where the bass and treble notes sound like they're coming from two different pianos, properly mastered tracks should not have floating notes). This is exactly how the Duke portrays it, where each instrument is perfectly integrated, separated and focused.
It also satisfies my wife's requirements, which were:
No loss of sound quality at her preferred 50-60dB listening volume.
Believable tonality when watching movies (we tested movies too - i.e. gunshots, traffic, speech). Gunshots, in particular, were realistic and dynamic, and the speakers didn't give in to rapid fire either.
Looks good and a wide sweet spot that doesn't collapse when you move around the room. Though she said from the start she would overlook WAF since it's really my reward for paying off the house.
Co-incidentally, Nick is also going full Audio-GD - DAC, Pre, Power. Which is the direction I've been planning towards and I think I influenced his decision, and influenced Kingwa (owner of Audio-GD) in purchasing a pair of his Dukes too. I've already got an Audio-GD HE9 pre-amp and my plan is to get a pair of Master 2H monoblocks and run ACSS (their proprietary balanced connection) between pre and power. I will be running about 12m of cable and unlike XLR, one advantage of ACSS is it keeps signal integrity intact instead of gradually rolling off the high frequencies over that distance. Audio-GD is also extremely good value (like Nick's speakers) and hard to beat at any price point (like Nick's speakers). Where I brought along my pre-amp for auditions, it beat out the on-hand pre-amp every time, and some of these pre's were $30K and it wasn't my opinion.
Here's how I'm going to place everything:
Speaking to Nick, his new Duke speakers, completed earlier this year, has a better crossover design than the rushed version at last year's show (which still managed to win Highly Commended). The finished speakers have better clarity and evener tonal balance. I didn't make it to last year's show, was in another country for work at the time. Besides, show conditions are never optimal which is why I make appointments.
I listen to music (on my speakers) on average 10 hours per week. And each time I auditioned something new, I've always listened again to my own setup ASAP. It's ranged from no disappointment to moderate disappointment. But after listening to the Dukes, I've since barely touched my own speakers. Which made my decision to place a deposit on them. Be quick, for the current RRP on them are introductory.
Well, I hope y'all enjoyed my review. It's the most enjoyable speaker I've heard in all my auditioning, and ticks all my wife's boxes without compromising on my own preferences. I give the Dukes my 2019 product of the lifetime award!