TESTED: Hyperion Sound Design HPS-968 Loudspeaker

Equipment report
Hyperion Sound Design HPS-968
TESTED: Hyperion Sound Design HPS-968 Loudspeaker

A few years ago, I reviewed the HPS-938 from Hyperion Sound Design, a promising young company formed by dedicated audiophiles who, like many of the current luminaries in the business, started out believing they could build a better mousetrap. Their goal was to produce high-performance loudspeakers at prices within reach of more audio enthusiasts and music lovers. Their decade-long development cycle resulted in patented, proprietary midrange and woofer drivers that were remarkable for their low distortion, clarity, transient speed, and ability to maintain composure at high dynamic levels. I was quite taken with the performance of the HPS-938, particularly from the midbass to the upper midrange, where it had ’stat-like quickness and low coloration, but also was easier to drive and more dynamic and had better bass extension than most full-range electrostatics. While the slight forwardness of its short-horn-type silk dome tweeter belied its “of-one-cloth” coherence throughout other parts of its range, the HPS-938’s performance was so good, and its price so comparatively modest, that I nominated the Hyperion for an Editors’ Choice Award and made it my value-priced, dynamic loudspeaker reference.

While the HPS-938 remains in Hyperion’s expanding product line, the company has a new flagship model—the HPS-968, priced $2500 higher than the HPS-938. Listening to a variety of source material, I was pleased that the HPS-968 matched or exceeded the remarkable clarity, transient speed, and coherence of its sibling from the midrange through the midbass. On Universal Japan’s reissue of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, I could hear an amazing amount of low-level detail from Drake’s acoustic guitar, along with lightning transients without any edge or overhang. This new Hyperion employs a second-generation “spider-less” carbon-fiber midrange driver with Hyperion’s patented Synchro-Vibrate-Flattop (S.V.F.) technology, whereby the driver’s flattop cover, sound basin, and sound ring are connected into what is effectively one body, which is synchronously vibrated to emit sound. Magnetic fluid damping is used to replace the spider, eliminating another source of vibration and coloration while increasing the speed of the driver. The HPS-968’s midrange unit is built with a hard surround and a “device to minimize the rear pressure reflection influence.” The result is a reference-quality midrange that is quicker, more immediate, and less colored than previous Hyperion drivers.

This new Hyperion model not only builds upon the formidable strengths of the HPS-938, it also addresses that speaker’s two minor limitations—namely, bass extension and treble balance. By means of a taller bass cabinet, lower crossover point, and two S.V.F. aluminum woofers, instead of the 938’s twin polypropylene graphite ones, Hyperion is able to coax more bass out of its new model and improve bass articulation and coherence. I was struck by the deep tones this relatively compact speaker system reproduced; the extra half-octave of bass extension (reported to go down to 25Hz) is a boon to electronic music, and movie soundtracks like Black Hawk Down [Decca U.S.]. The organ’s pedal tones, if not quite full-weight, are still rendered surprisingly well in Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony [EMI]. On the Cisco reissue of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, the low notes of the piano resonate naturally, without dynamic constriction, providing a solid foundation that helps make Emil Gilels’ superb performance riveting.

The HPS-968 replaces the copper short-horn-type tweeter of the 938 with a silk dome tweeter for more air and sweetness in the highs, and better coherence with the rest of the range. One can vary the tweeter level in 2dB increments via a potentiometer at the rear of the top cabinet. While breaking in the speakers, I kept the level at –4dB, but returned to the neutral (0 dB) setting thereafter. The top cabinet’s rear can be elevated through an ingenious lifting mechanism so the midrange driver can be aimed at one’s ears, using the supplied laser pointer—to help to lock-in the sweet spot and improve image focus.

The result of all these improvements is a remarkably well-balanced speaker that will likely thrill a wider range of music lovers, no matter what genre of music tickles their fancy. It has the dynamic output, drive, and low-end extension to delight fans of Audioslave and Radiohead, and it reproduces the body of woodwind instruments like saxophones and clarinets, as well as acoustic guitar, wonderfully. Massed voices and strings are naturally rich and detailed, and if you are a percussion fan, be prepared to be startled by the transients of kick drums, tympani, cymbals, castanets, and finger-snaps. Here’s a speaker that reproduces female voices beautifully, without stridency or extra sibilance—from Peggy Lee to Mirella Freni. Admittedly, there may be a bit of extra warmth here, but it’s welcome (and you can always dial-up the tweeter if you prefer). On Vladimir Ashkenazy’s performances of Beethoven’s Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas on London (two of my favorites), one is repeatedly reminded that the piano is a percussion instrument, as you can almost feel the hammers striking the strings.

With its quick, low-distortion drivers, purity of sound, and enhanced coherence, the HPS-968 shares many of the attributes I love about electrostatics, but without their limitations in deep bass and dynamic output. No, it doesn’t quite match their boxless sound or coherence, but it comes surprisingly close. One is only occasionally aware of the Hyperion’s cabinets in the deep bass. Of course, with most ’stats and planars, this low-bass information is M.I.A., and once you’ve heard the Hyperion’s deep tones, it’s hard to give them up. Moreover, the 968 throws a wide and focused soundstage with holographic imaging that’s quite captivating.

Admittedly, this new Hyperion falls slightly short of some of the best, yet far more costly, reference transducers in a few areas While its fit ’n’ finish is quite good, the Hyperion can’t match the fanatical build-quality of the similar dual-cabinet, Wilson WATT/Puppy, or the inertness of its cabinets. The HPS-968 has soundstage depth that seemingly goes beyond the back wall, but it does truncate the sides of the stage compared to the remarkable Vienna Acoustic “The Music” loudspeakers, which reproduce the edges of the soundstage as well as any speaker I’ve heard. Lastly, the Hyperion doesn’t move the air in the bottom end that the larger Vienna Acoustics reference speaker does (felt as the pressure on the breastbone that one senses at a live concert), nor does it match its remarkable bass weight and control. However, the Hyperion does provide the solid low-bass foundation and dynamic explosiveness that makes power music thrilling.

My biggest complaint about the HPS-968 is that the setup is a bit tricky, particularly for one person, requiring the top module’s three brass posts to be fitted into the three supplied disks that one places on the top of the bass cabinet. This is best done by an experienced dealer or two people, as the disks invariably move during the placement of the top cabinet, and can result in small scratches on the top of the bass cabinet if one is not careful. I wish Hyperion would affix some permanent, aligned disks on the top of the bass cabinet, but this is a minor quibble.

The good news for audiophiles and music lovers alike is that there are several excellent loudspeakers in this segment of the market that have some reference-caliber performance characteristics The Hyperion HPS-968 skillfully integrates low-distortion, proprietary drivers to achieve a level of transient quickness, immediacy, and clarity that is difficult to beat at any price, rivaling my restored original Quads. It offers full-range performance, smoothness, and a touch of warmth throughout its range, phenomenal soundstage depth, plus very good dynamic impact and reproduction of fine detail. Because this speaker is both efficient and presents a benign load to the amplifier, it can be coupled with more affordable electronics, like the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Two, to create the core of a high-value setup that rivals systems costing far more. Its performance is so good that the HPS-968 has replaced its HPS-938 sibling as my new value-priced, dynamic loudspeaker reference.