REVIEW: HULGICH AUDIO ASTOR LOUDSPEAKERS
3-Way Floorstanding Loudspeaker
Amidst the whirlwind that was the inaugural Melbourne International HiFi Show in 2016, I was approached by a confident yet humble fellow in one of the crowded hallways of the show to take a listen to his speakers.
But this story actually starts some weeks earlier when I’d exchanged emails with Nicholas Hulgich, who would politely introduce me to his new loudspeaker brand out of Adelaide, South Australia.
Now to be fair, I receive no less than a half dozen of these emails monthly.
I wouldn’t say I was dismissive. In fact, I’m known for being a supporter and advocate of Australian manufacturers. You do have to cut through the fat though and look for a point of difference or a unique offering however.
The way I see it, we’re in the business of promoting HiFi and collectively progressing as an industry. But sadly, in the past many of our local manufacturers have had to ship their products overseas at great expense hoping for some exposure by way of exhibition or magazine reviews.
Over the last decade, many of Australia’s boutique brands have built their business almost exclusively on StereoNET’s own readership, and they continue to do so today – SGR Audio, Curious Cables, Lenehan Audio, KARRI Acoustic, just to name a few.
With this reach comes great responsibility as the owner of the organisation, but even more so as a reviewer.
My point? Don’t dismiss Australia’s brands simply because they haven’t won ‘Loudspeaker of the Year’ in overseas publications such as What Hi-Fi or Stereophile. The real-world cost involved in even being considered for these awards is prohibitive for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy life on this beautiful remote island.
Nicholas’ timing for Hulgich Audio didn’t quite line up with the 2016 Melbourne show for their debut. However I was promised their flagship speaker, the Astor, would be delivered to me for an obligation free listen and consideration of a review later the same year.
And with the knowledge that Nicholas was busy preparing and refining what could be considered his ‘first-born’, they did indeed arrive as promised, complete in elaborate plywood protective coffins that themselves were quite impressive.
Nicholas’ own story starts in 1965, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Like many of us, Nicholas was raised into an appreciation of music by his parents and grandparents all avid Jazz and Tango lovers.
Nicholas joyfully recalls:
The regular presence of their melodies and rhythms in our home made me appreciate the role of music in communicating emotion and moving people.
After gaining his degree in Industrial Design at the University of Buenos Aires, Nick emigrated in 2005 and says he “found his place in the world”, landing in Adelaide, South Australia.
Nick recalls it was around seven years ago that he decided to pursue his long-held dream of combining that expertise in industrial design with his passion for music. By his own admission, it would be a long journey to build a loudspeaker that would satisfy his ultra-high expectations.
After reaching out to Stockholm, Sweden based Göran Niréus of AudioExcite Loudspeaker Design, a collaboration was formed and the Hulgich Audio dream was underway. Göran is an accomplished speaker designer with over 30 years’ experience and is a published author on the topic of loudspeaker design.
Of interest, in his spare time Göran takes great pleasure in extensively measuring and designing new crossovers and modifications for commercially available HiFi speakers; the results and plans he publishes on his own website for all with only a voluntary donation requested in return.
With Nicholas heading up the aesthetic design, Göran handling the component selection, crossover design, and technical aspects, the team then measure, listen, and refine before Nick and local craftsmen hand-build the end product.
Each of the Hulgich Audio range takes its inspiration from a historic moment or person in time. In the case of the Astor, it’s been designed in honour of master Argentinian composer and musician Astor Piazzola.
His opus, comprising more than 1000 works, a characteristic career and an undoubtedly Argentinian flavour, continues to influence the best musicians in the world of all generations. A career characterized by his aesthetic power and his unique style, almost in a league of its own. It is all about the “language” he created, which is unique and can be identified as his and only his. With heterogeneous and rebellious elements (Jazz, classical music, experiments in sound) he produced a unique music under the drastic pulse of his Tango.
The Astor Flagship
Astor is a 3-way floor standing loudspeaker that weigh a whopping 75kg each. Standing 1.17m tall, its imposing but not overwhelming stance is as beautiful to witness as the finish and construction.
It’s available with a choice of real timber veneers in Oak, Walnut, Jarrah or Teak for the flanks, and a piano white or black option for the front panel; suffice to say that with this choice, the Astor will compliment virtually any décor. Depending on options, Astor sells locally for $11,500 through to $12,900 /pair.
Nicholas says the cabinet is constructed from heavily braced 25mm MDF with a 44m MDF front panel. The head unit comprising the 1” soft dome tweeter and 6.5” Nomex cone midwoofer is modular, and slots ever-so-neatly into recesses in the top face of the base unit.
The base unit features a 10” hard paper cone woofer and a single front facing port. I’m a fan of front ports as they seem more forgiving of room placement, and in my experience this also seems to result in better timing and blending of the bass frequencies.
Prior to the delivery, Nick revealed a late change from transmission line bass to the front ported design. Aside from sounding better overall, he also said it allowed more control for tuning and by shortening the port to be optimised at 27Hz, he says a boost of 2.5dB has allowed an even smoother blend with the midwoofer.
The frequency range is advertised as 25Hz to 20kHz (+/- 3dB), with a sensitivity of 86dB/1m and 4 Ohm impedance.
Perched atop solid aluminium outriggers the whole assembly is rock solid.
The internal wiring is silver plated copper while the crossover components are of the highly regarded Mundorf and Jantzen variety.
Many an enthusiast has walked through StereoNET’s HQ in recent months and with a cursory glance, the first comment is of Wilson Audio, at least in style. I do see the resemblance but in my opinion and speaking strictly aesthetically, the Astor integrates with a room’s décor just that bit more. I’m yet to see a room that doesn’t boldly scream, “Wilson Audio speakers are here!”.
Around back, there’s a bi-wire speaker connector plate, and a pair of connections for the supplied jumper cables between the base and head unit.
The devil is in the detail as they say, and from the Hulgich Audio etching on the speaker connector plate through to the Hulgich Audio badge around front, there’s no denying that Astor is a work of art and finished to an impeccable standard.
Across a variety of amplifiers on hand, my main-stay is a pair of AVM Audio Ovation MA8.2 Mono amplifiers. Rated at 600w into 8Ohms, designer Udo Besser will tell you that they “do not build any sonic signature on top of the music”. They are completely neutral, to which I would whole-heartedly agree.
The Astor has a nominal impedance of 4Ohms, which the MA8.2 amplifiers will respond to with a huge 1100 watts on tap. I suspect Nick’s power handling rating of just 200 watts is ultra-conservative.
It occurred to me as I sat down to start listening that everything to this point, the months of emails, not to mention Nick years of development, all hinged on what happens next. You see, no one in the world has reviewed these speakers. In fact, few outside Nick’s own circle had even heard them.
As the system sprung to life and I cued one of my Roon playlists, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nervousness. Perhaps I was channelling Nick’s own anxiety over what my thoughts might be, or even subconsciously I was mulling over how I might approach the dreaded phone call to explain that I just don’t like them?
But as Xavier Rudd’s reggae-inspired ‘Nanna’ and the title track kicked in, a sense of calm came over me.
The Bansuri starts with soft and delicate tones from the side-blown flute, joined by tribal chants before Rudd adds his story-telling. The build-up was not only inspiring, but hauntingly surreal.
As the bassline joined the mix and the track exposes its full self, Rudd proclaims “I believe in you”.
While Rudd’s story is not even remotely related to speaker design, could there have been a more fitting first audition track?
Melodically beautiful, Rudd and his accompanying backing vocalists were placed with pinpoint accuracy and as the tempo increases at the 4:10 mark, it’s becomes clear to me that I’m listening to something quite special.
As it turned out Nick had nothing to fear.
Some weeks would pass playing the Astors before I’d sit down for a critical listen once more. Experience has taught me that not only speaker drivers, but also the crossover components need more than the magical 100-hour mark to sound their best.
In the meantime, my dedicated room also serves for home theatre duties for the whole family. Several movies were played during this time which I always find a good test for loudspeakers. The limitations of a loudspeaker are simply just not realised when exclusively playing traditional ‘audiophile’ tracks; something to keep in mind when auditioning loudspeakers at retail outlets or shows.
The Astor’s 10” bass driver is highly capable and digs deep when called upon and what became apparent as I delved deeper in to my playlists was the sheer power handling of this 3-way speaker.
Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Daddy’ is a track I’m more than familiar with but when played back through the Astor loudspeakers I just couldn’t help myself. Reaching for the remote I had to smile as I increased the wick. Drums with real impact, scale, and the rawness of the recording that must be heard to be appreciated.
And while I wasn’t there in 1976 in a six-by-nine-meter room of the “windowless wooden building” to witness the recording of Rumours, I’m not sure I even care.
Engineer Ken Caillat, apparently complained at the time of the room’s “lack of ambience” and while I would agree that this is in fact reflected on the recording, the tones that come through in this recording along with the speed and impact when played through the Astors are as raw and authentic as I’ve ever heard this track.
The unmistakable sound and melody of Jeff Beck playing ‘People Get Ready’ transported me to B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York, no lyrics required. You can literally hear the body and the unique signature of each drum. Like the opening credits of a House episode taking a journey through the human body’s organs, veins, and arteries, you get a glimpse of the music from the inside. The music speaks for itself and the Astors are as invisible as they are musical.
The uplifting Neshama Carleback’s ‘Hu Elokenu’ will have you forgetting all the troubles in the world as soon as the opening piano plays. The protégé of her late father and Jewish singer-songwriter, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, her full name “Esther Neshama Tehora Shlucha” translates to “a pure soul that descended to this world”. The Astor loudspeaker is faithful to the stunning vocals and the pureness of this track.
From Daft Punk to Pink Floyd, Beatles to Brahms, there is synergy, coherency, an enveloping engagement that is as musical as it is detailed and portrayed with finesse.
A Final Word
Listening to music, provided you’re not just going through the motions while performing some other activity, is an emotionally engaging experience. If you’re connecting with the music and being swallowed up in all its glory it transports you to another place. It’s no wonder Jimi Hendrix called music his “religion”.
As an audiophile, we tend to get caught up looking and listening for faults and being critical rather than appreciating the music itself. I made very few notes in this review as I really enjoyed the Hulgich Audio Astor for all its capabilities and its very few flaws.
Priced at around $12,000 for a pair depending on the finish, what resonates with me is that it’s a realistic investment for a serious music lover or enthusiast.
The HiFi world is full of large format speakers costing upwards of substantially more than a first-home deposit. What Nicholas Hulgich has created with the Astor is a 3-Way floorstanding speaker that makes a visual statement as much as it is highly capable, sonically. But, it’s offered at a price many can afford, or can at least aspire to own in the near future.
Joining the ranks of VAF, Lenehan, Whatmough, Osborn, SGR Audio and many more, Australia now has another loudspeaker manufacturer we can be proud of.
For more information visit Hulgich Audio.
Hear Hulgich Audio for yourself at the 2017 International HiFi Show, November 3rd-5th, Albert Park Melbourne.