All the World's a STAGE

by Roy Gregory | February 14, 2014

icture if you will a $100,000 audio system. Now, let me describe it for you. There’ll be a pair of large speakers, built from flat sheets of material and coated with an expensive finish, be it paint or veneer. They’ll be populated with off-the-shelf drivers -- although naturally, those will be "specially modified" units. There will be a stack of electronics, probably consisting of mono amplifiers, a line stage, a DAC and transport, and possibly a record player and phono stage too. Oh, and you’ll have completely forgotten to factor in the rack and cables when dividing up the budget.

Any way you want to cut it, $100,000 is a stack of change, but the fact is that even with that sort of budget to play with, you’ll actually be faced with a few hard choices in putting together any kind of dream system. Indeed, just the speakers for most people’s dream system would blow that budget, which tells us quite a few things but perhaps most importantly it demonstrates just how inefficient the conventional approach to building systems really is. What do I mean by inefficient? I mean that the system ends up costing more than it could (or should) for the performance delivered -- and not because the various bits and pieces are overpriced. It’s the nature of the market, the way we shop and the mix-and-match approach we’ve adopted, that is the root cause of the problem. So, if we look at our notional $100,000 rig, you’ll notice that each of the electronic boxes has its own chassis (the most expensive single component in the product) and power supply (the second-most expensive element). Lord help you if you specified a two-box line stage, ‘cos that’s another box on top of the one you are already paying for.

Now factor in the tiny quantities in which most audio equipment is built (and the higher the price, the smaller that number gets), the reliance on third-party suppliers for key components (everything from transformers to terminals) and the global market that demands price parity and a margin for distributors as well as dealers, and you can start to see how products end up costing what they do -- and that’s before you consider the whole question of interfacing and versatility. The reality is that in designing a power amplifier you don’t know what speaker it will be used with. So, any competent engineer will allow enough power and design a circuit that is capable of meeting a carefully calculated worst-case scenario. That doesn’t mean that any amp should be designed to drive any speaker -- just any speaker that the designer deems reasonable. The problem with that is, unless you happen to own that worst-case speaker, you are paying (financially and sonically) for capacity you really aren’t using. In fact, the whole system is laden with untapped potential: everything from unused inputs to balanced connections you don’t need, power-supply reservoir caps that never get close to full discharge and volume controls that never pass 10:00. Every extra part and every drop of unused capability carries its own associated price, its impact on the sonic performance and its contribution to the retail cost.

Now, let’s look at an entirely different cost structure. Let’s look at the notion of a self-contained, mass-produced system and examine the way the engineering and manufacturing costs stack up against achievable performance. Let’s make our notional system a source-plus solution, so it is designed to take a signal from the designated source component(s) and turn it into sound. These days, to do that it will require a DAC, control functionality, a power amplifier and speakers. Of course, by pre-designating the source (or range of sources) applicable, the designer can avoid any redundancy of inputs/outputs and all the hardware that goes with them. He can also put all the electronics in a single box, saving on casework and power-supply provision, as long as he’s careful to maintain power-supply integrity. It also does away with the requirement for further interface sockets and the cables that hook everything together, eliminating both cost and another significant variable in system performance -- definitely a win-win if you can make it work.

But the benefits really start to hit home once you reach the speakers and the vexed question of their interface with the amplifier. That relationship is the single most critical boundary in the system, the source of the greatest electrical challenges and the greatest potential redundancy. But specify the characteristics of the speaker system and you can tailor the amplifier’s performance and capacity to be a perfect match. In fact, you can take it a stage further and use the amplifier’s output to equalize the speaker’s performance, either in the form of an active crossover, or more cost-effectively by applying a quasi-active shaping of the amplifier’s output to help mitigate the demands of the speaker’s crossover and its acoustical characteristics.

Once you reach the speaker cabinets themselves, things start to get really interesting: mass production opens up a whole host of alternative manufacturing techniques, not the least of which, assuming we’re talking a reasonably compact speaker here, is injection molding. That means that you can create the whole cabinet carcass in one shot, with curved walls, optimized wall thicknesses, integral bracing, internal shaping and integrated port and connector elements. Sure, the tooling cost is high, but after that the cabinets come out cheap as chips. Apply the same logic to the baffle and you can shape it for optimum dispersion, profile it for optimum depth and even use sophisticated screw or bayonet fixings for the drivers -- because they will of course be purpose-built. That means that you can have not just the fixings you want but you can engineer the unit’s mechanical and acoustic behavior to purpose. It’s a world away from using off-the-shelf drivers, even with the limited range of modifications they provide. Throw in the additional response-shaping possibilities offered by the dedicated amplification module and suddenly you’ve got the potential to create something really quite special, a product that rewrites the cost/size/performance equation.

All of which helps explain why the High Resolution Technologies (HRT) STAGE is a product you should take very seriously indeed, whether you are an end-user or an audio manufacturer. This outwardly simple $1450 three-box system ($1650 with wireless capabilities, USB input and RF remote control), might look little different from a host of other desktop offerings, except for the slightly taller speakers and the slightly taller price tag, but don’t let its demure appearance fool you. Listen properly and the STAGE delivers a performance that is shockingly good. I say listen, because no matter how often I tell you how good it is, or how often other commentators repeat the same message, it is so hard to get past the tendency to listen with your eyes that until you actually sit down and you really do listen, you won’t believe how good this thing really is. I mean, it can’t be -- it just looks all wrong. Funny-shaped plastic control center and molded plastic speakers stuffed full of little drivers -- how can that work? Well, it does, and if the "economies of scale" argument hasn’t got you thinking, then perhaps the product’s pedigree will.

HRT is the brain-child of Kevin Halverson, of Muse Electronics fame, manufacturers of interesting and forward-looking digital solutions and high-end amplification. Always one of the industry’s digital innovators, Kevin was quick to see the potential for audio-file replay, and the compact and cost-effective HRT streamers rapidly became the industry benchmark in a market area that wasn’t just growing, it was exploding. Now, the STAGE desktop system takes the proven HRT streaming solution to a whole new level, factoring in Halverson's extensive experience with amplification and speaker systems too.

Back to basics

ook at the STAGE in detail and you find all of the design and manufacturing benefits outlined above. Open the boxes and your first impressions will probably be dominated by the domed plastic housing of the control unit/amplifier module and the molded speaker enclosures, but look a little closer and you find a string of unusual and encouraging details. The rear of the control unit reveals the modular nature of the design, with a separate panel for the input section and a large heatsink. The former allows easy updating of the connectivity or input options, so although in basic form the STAGE accepts either a USB digital input or an analog signal via a pair of RCA jacks, future upgrades to wireless communication, increased data rates or alternative connection requirements can be achieved with a simple module change. Given the pace of development in the computer world and the potential impact on and opportunities that presents for file-replay options, this upgradability is an important consideration.

The next positive is that large-area heatsink, indicating the presence of not only a conventional class-AB output stage, but a traditional linear power supply to drive it. Inside the STAGE control unit beats the heart of what any hi-fi aficionado would recognize as a "proper" amplifier. With most competitors' products using a combination of wall warts and switch-mode power supplies feeding class-D output stages, the HRT starts to look almost like an alien from another planet. Yet, in some ways it’s almost as alien to the audiophile crowd, with certain design decisions appearing so obtuse as to be deliberately bloody-minded -- but I’ll come back to that. The control unit’s front panel offers a vertical array of LEDs to indicate incoming data rate for the USB input, the STAGE accepting files of anything up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution (but not DSD streams -- yet). There are also four tiny push buttons that allow you to increase or decrease level, mute the unit or select the analog input. Besides that you get a proper IEC input and a pair of "LF Out" RCA sockets to feed a subwoofer -- in the unlikely event (A/V applications aside) that you should feel the need.

Moving to the speakers, as soon as you pick them up you will be surprised by their solid, inert feel; the cabinets may be plastic moldings but these are no toys. They’ve taken full advantage of the design opportunities offered by the molding technology. Consider the carefully sculpted shape of the baffle and enclosure, the smooth contours of the driver surrounds and you’ll notice distinct similarities with some of the most expensive and well-respected loudspeakers on the planet. The driver lineup should seem familiar too. The 1" fabric-dome tweeter is mated to a trio of identical 2 3/4" bass/midrange drivers, their bowl-shaped aluminum diaphragms mated to large-diameter surrounds and 1" voice coils. Throw in Kapton formers, underhung magnetic structures and flux rings on the motors and it soon becomes apparent that those long-throw surrounds aren’t just for show. These drivers are capable of considerable controlled excursion, as you’ll discover once you listen to them.

The STAGE was conceived as a desktop system, that DNA running through just about every aspect of its design and operation. That makes it functionally specific, allowing it to concentrate on those facilities that matter in its intended role. Although it will accept an analog input and allow you to control its volume manually, the underlying assumption is that you’ll be feeding the USB input from a computer or other, probably portable device -- and that you’ll use the control functionality in the source software to set level along with selecting the material to be played. After all, if you have one hand on your computer mouse or the iPad in your lap, why would you choose to use the control-unit buttons instead? It’s a mindset that suggests that the inclusion of front-panel controls and even the analog input were something of an afterthought. Witness the lack of any volume indication on the unit -- because if you are driving it from a computer host, the level is indicated on the screen. Likewise, if you do connect just an analog source, you’ll still need to connect a generic USB-type power supply (you could use one from something like a Garmin unit or simply buy a universal model) to the STAGE’s USB input, to feed power to the control circuitry. Fortunately, there’s a small fob-type RF remote control available that duplicates the control functions of the front-panel buttons. In some markets it is an option, but UK Distributor Audiofreaks is supplying it as standard and included in the price. For anybody using a fixed-output analog source I’d consider it an essential.

But perhaps the most telling example of the STAGE’s lineage is in the choice of speaker connectors. The system comes supplied with an 8’ pair of (surprisingly good) ready-terminated speaker cables, equipped with the 12V type coaxial connectors fitted to both the control unit and speakers. Along with the fact that the control unit’s AC input is placed right below the heatsink, preventing use of anything other than a slim-line IEC connector, and it’s almost as if there’s a deliberate policy of preventing the use of audiophile cables or other frivolous upgrades. Despite that, the UK importer actually provided a pair of slightly longer and suitably terminated Cardas Twinlink 11C speaker cables, which ably demonstrated that, although the supplied cables really are pretty good, you don’t need to try too hard to do better. Likewise, the use of a fairly modest audiophile power cord offered a readily audible improvement in weight, body and dynamic range.

All of which should have you wondering just why you’d bother to impose (or expect) such niceties on (or from) a computer-based desktop system? The answer is simple: because the STAGE is -- or perhaps "can be" would be a better phrase -- so much more than that. It is probably the best off-the-shelf desktop solution you’ve ever heard. Or it can be an astonishingly impressive and capable conventional audio system -- just like separates, but considerably cheaper.

Rising to the occasion

s impressive as the STAGE is in its intended role, it’s once you redeploy it as a more recognizably hi-fi setup that its potential really begins to shine. Get the speakers out into the room, stood on proper stands, and pay a little attention to the system cabling and proper placement, and you’ll be staggered by the way this system responds.

Take a look at the speaker specs and you’ll start to understand why. With a claimed -2dB point of 45Hz, the HRT speakers should have the potential to throw out considerably more extension and weight than a lot of audiophile stand-mounts. Combine that with an amplifier that is tailored to both their electrical demands and their frequency response and these pint-sized packages deliver a sound that has real weight, scale and dynamic range -- along with the sort of dynamic integrity, coherence and control over musical density that will put many a budget esoteric starter system (and more than few full-scale rigs) to shame. The STAGE possesses a clarity and sense of musical organization and purpose that are genuinely compelling. The lack of intrusive coloration or dynamic compression combined with honest-to-god transparency to and resolution of musical and acoustic information makes it both engaging and informative -- and the wider you get those speakers apart the bigger and better the whole system sounds. The more room you give the system to breathe the more scale it delivers, the more solid and clearly defined its soundstage. Oh, yes, the STAGE really does image: not just that pinpoint lateral spread that you get from small mid-dominant transducers, but a genuine three-dimensional space, with width that can extend beyond the speakers, considerable depth and surprising height, all bound together into a single, coherent space enveloping the performers. But -- and here’s the rub -- to really push the STAGE’s limits you are going to have to remove it from its intended comfort zone and subject it to treatment and indignities that its designer never really intended or anticipated. Despite the results you need to remember that you are using the product in a way that it wasn’t designed for and isn’t ideally equipped to perform. That’s your choice, so you’ll have to live with its consequences.

Once you get the idea that the STAGE is a tabletop system out of your head and start treating it like the real hi-fi that it is, it starts to respond like a real hi-fi. Sit the speakers on either end of a sideboard and you’ll marvel at the sound they produce. But it’s still nothing compared to what they generate once you get them properly positioned on stands. The manual does actually acknowledge the fact that end-users might have other ideas about deploying the STAGE and includes advice for placement when used with a TV system or on stands, recommending that the latter should be between 21" and 24" tall. Now, the market for speaker stands isn’t what it was, so the range of available models has shrunk pretty dramatically. Combine that with the speaker’s tiny footprint (4.8" x 7.1") and your options might be somewhat limited, especially if you want something sufficiently sturdy to really do the STAGE speakers justice.

Luckily, those obliging folks at Track Audio managed to produce a set of custom top plates (a standard service) in double-quick time. Unlike the speakers, these had parallel sides, but I’m sure a pair tapered to fit the speaker’s footprint precisely would be possible, given a little more lead time! One other facet of the Track Audio stand’s modular design came in handy: I was able to investigate the benefits of different stand heights, and in my room at least I actually found that 28" worked rather better than 24", adding a greater sense of height and volume to the soundstage, as well as greater independence from the room boundaries. But as excellent as the Track Audio stands are, they cost nearly as much as the STAGE system, making them way too much of a stretch for the budget-conscious owner looking to wring the last ounce of musical return from their investment.

With that in mind, I’ve also been investigating more affordable options, and it looks like the Atacama Duo 7 with a suitable top plate will deliver 24" of elevation at somewhat closer to $100. Fill the stands’ pillars (and add the optional heavy damping plates to the bottom) and you have a pretty darned effective solution at a real-world price. However, whether you opt for the likes of Track or Atacama, as with all serious, high-performance speaker systems, you’ll need to take the time to get placement spot on, as well as vertical attitude and rake angle. The Tracks’ easily adjustable feet and built-in spirit level make that easy, but most more conventional stands just require a spanner, spirit level and a little time. Take the trouble; it’s worth it.

Moving on to the control unit, despite the cross-hatched molding on its underside, it responds positively to a solid interface and some care in terms of what you sit it on. I was using the STAGE in our lounge, so it was placed on a USM sideboard, with its space-frame and metal-panel construction. That hardly seemed fair, so I put a small laminated beech platform beneath it, to good effect, while adding three solid aluminum couplers lifted things another notch. The music gained color and presence, image separation and dimensionality. Overall, focus and immediacy improved as did the sense of musical coherence and direction. It should be no surprise that a thin steel panel provides less-than-ideal support, but it does underline just how seriously you can (and should) take the STAGE in terms of setup and optimization. We’re not talking fancy or expensive here, just basic common sense for the audio initiated. One word of caution though: the input panel is a submodule and carries PCB-mounted connectors, so I’d hold hard on the heavyweight audiophile interconnects, even if they’ll fit into the tightly spaced RCA sockets. Stick with something lighter in weight and diameter, closer to what the sockets were designed to support.

Of course, all of the comments above apply, regardless of source. But just like every other truly capable amplifier and speaker combination, the STAGE responds to the quality of that source, which is why the inclusion of that analog input is so interesting. Many of the end-users who wind up installing the STAGE will be doing so because they’ve already bought into the quality or convenience available from file replay, whether that means ripped CDs or high-res files. But the inclusion of an analog option means that music lovers who remain suspicious of or simply uninterested in the world of computer audio can still access the benefits of the STAGE’s clever engineering and enjoy the spectacular bargain it represents.

Which means that I guess it’s time to talk musical turkey. So where is the audio equivalent of a ‘phone box when you need one?

Connect the STAGE to a desktop computer and stand the speakers either side of the screen and you’ll be bowled over. My home setup relies on the Focal XS 2.1 sub/sat system, a compact and elegant solution that costs more than most computer speaker setups but sounds way better -- as it should for an asking price of $599. At over twice that, you might think the HRT would be a stretch, but once heard, there really is no comparison. Even with its separate subwoofer, the Focal setup can’t match the weight and scale of the STAGE -- and doesn’t even get close when it comes to integration, coherence and dynamic range. Tonal color, instrumental character and identity, vocal shadings and nuance are all in another league on HRT system, which makes the Focal sound small and tinny, colored and congested. As impressive as the Focal is in its own market sector, when compared to the cheaper combination the twice-the-price STAGE system is way more than twice as good -- and that’s before you get it off the desktop, allow it to stretch its legs and give the speakers a lift by placing them on stands.

I’m not going to spend any more time on the subject of the STAGE as a desktop solution simply because its sheer excellence and elevated price make it a no-brainer. You’ll know whether you need this sort of quality from your office setup (or not), and if you do, this is the way to go. Nothing I’ve heard gives the STAGE any sort of competition in terms of sonic and musical quality, especially when it comes to scale and dynamics. The new (and as yet unheard) Eclipse TD-M1 system, with its single-driver speakers and filter-less DAC, will appeal to a small hardcore of purists -- and promises to excel when it comes to musical communication -- but for more traditional audiophiles with more traditional systems, it’s the bandwidth and overall balance of virtues that will put the HRT firmly at the top of the list -- that and its ability to grow beyond the confines of your workspace, if the opportunity arises.

Hi-fi buyers have a record as long as your arm for buying into "upgradeability" and then failing to exploit it. How many CD players were sold off of the promise of upgradeable internal DACs that would make them future proof? How many of them were ever upgraded? How many of the upgrades ever appeared -- although that’s a different story: audio consumers just love the idea of insuring their next step on the hamster wheel of interminable upgrades -- presumable as an aid to justifying their latest purchase, either to themselves or their partners. But, although the STAGE does indeed offer some element of future proofing, that’s not what I’m talking about here. This is all about performance potential and realizing (in every sense of the word) just what this unassuming little system is really capable of.

Once those speakers are spread apart and stand-mounted, it’s one of those "Clark ‘Table Top’ Kent becomes Super System" moments. No sooner does it step out of the metaphorical telephone box and this system grows muscles, stature and genuine authority. Okay, so it passes up the natty threads, but who’s lookin’? You’ll be too busy listening! Just for fun, let’s see what it does with something no tabletop system should be able (or asked) to deal with: Beethoven’s 7th Symphony -- and not just any 7th but Kleiber and the VPO. Using a DGG 24-bit/96kHz download version replayed from a MacBook Air running Pure Music (via the recommended powered USB hub) the STAGE takes this monumental performance in its stride, delivering a coherent, crisply defined and beautifully layered soundstage. Instrumental tonality is natural, with the contrasting character of horns and woodwinds easily separated, the weight and woody resonance of the double basses perfectly placed and underpinning the sheer momentum in the performance. Shut your eyes and the speakers disappear, leaving the orchestra arrayed beyond them. But what’s really impressive are the unfettered dynamics and enthusiasm that the STAGE brings to proceedings. The more Kleiber demands of his orchestra (and he demands a lot) the more the STAGE delivers. It’s almost as if nobody told it that it shouldn’t be able to do what it’s doing -- and it’s not just doing it, it’s doing it really well. As the music swells in scale and volume, so does the STAGE; as it jumps in level, so does the STAGE; and as the orchestra reaches full output, so does the STAGE. Take things too far and the sound will -- eventually -- start to harden up and get congested, but I found that in general I was giving up long before the STAGE did. But when all is said and done, what really impressed me about this HRT system is not the individual sonic attributes or its unburstable nature. It was the sheer intelligibility of its performance that set it apart. You listen, you hear, you understand. In fact, you understand so clearly that you forget to question. You no longer worry about what is or isn’t there -- because what the speakers give you is so naturally organized and arranged that it just makes sense, even if the performance comes from Kleiber, with all the scale and dramatic contrast that implies.

At the other end of the scale it’s just as impressive. The spoken exchange that opens Ryan Adams’ album Heartbreaker [Cooking Vinyl B00004YRZD] retains all the natural expressive qualities you hear on a really big system, its humor and verbal interplay an acid test of a system's sense of timing. On the STAGE, Adams and David Rawlings are precisely spaced and placed, and if you don’t get quite the overall sense of acoustic and depth that you get from a full-range system, the spatial definition is still mightily impressive -- as is the musical punch as the band launch into opening track, "To Be Young. . .". That’s partly down to dynamics and partly down to the astonishingly satisfying weight and scale those six little long-throw bass-mid drivers can produce -- in turn a result of their speed and the lack of congestion in the sound.

That dynamic freedom and absence of compression are two of the things that set the STAGE apart from similarly priced (or even significantly more expensive) separates. The other is its genuinely low-distortion sound and lack of coloration. Listen to the STAGE for the first time and you can’t miss that startling life and clarity -- startling because those qualities are more normally associated with far more ambitious systems at considerably more elevated prices. What the STAGE delivers, partly because of its design integrity and partly because of its economies of manufacturing, is a slice of genuine high-end audio communication at an entry-level hi-fi price. It’s a serious all-rounder too. If the mark of a good system is the breadth of material it can handle, then the STAGE sits right at the front of the queue. Whether you are feeding it high-res files, ripped Red Book or CD via its analog input, there’s little the STAGE won’t turn its hand to. Grand opera holds no fears, nor do large-scale romantic symphonies. Jazz, irrespective of era, plays straight into its penchant for rhythmic integrity and dynamic coherence, while vocals are natural and expressive, whether small scale and intimate, raucous and intimidating or pattering forth over the rock-solid support of the Blockheads. Indeed, if anything shows the extraordinary expressive range of the STAGE it’s Ian Dury. The system happily reproduces every snarl and sardonic twist, the bitter humor and biting wit that informs his lyrics, the perfect phrasing and half-sung style. Norman Watt-Roy’s bass lines are mobile, solid and purposeful, the intricacy of Chaz Jankel’s arrangements fill out the soundstage. This is no pale imitation -- it’s a very real thing.

HRT’s STAGE comes late to the party; it’s the first of its kind -- certainly the first to deliver what it does -- but it’s been preceded by a host of previous claimants, all duly hailed with the "bridge product" appellation. Meanwhile the audio industry has sat back and expected a new generation of customers to cross those bridges and promptly buy into the way things are -- or at least the way we see them. But it hasn’t happened, and I’m not sure that the STAGE is going to change that. For me, this really is the first bridge product, but it qualifies by dint of quality. The bridge it builds goes to a different place altogether, linking the super integrated, computer-based, multi-functional devices that are now the norm for so many consumers to genuine high-end sound quality -- that definitely isn’t. To match this performance with a separate DAC, amplifier and a pair of speakers is going to cost you several times the price of the STAGE. When an iPad Air represents the upper limit of performance and capability -- and let’s be honest, it really is amazingly capable -- it redefines a generation’s expectations of the price/performance balance. In that context, the STAGE is a credible step up in price and a demonstrable step up in deliverable performance. It is also the first product that has successfully combined serious high-end audio sensibilities with the architectural, operational and price dictates of the computer-driven music market, a natural extension to the integrated functionality a new generation of connected users expect. It might not look like our accepted notion of a "hi-fi system" but then Superman wears tights. It might be the first word rather than the last in this particular debate, but it’s one that any audio manufacturer or dealer who wants to stay in business should pay serious attention to.

How serious? I listened to the STAGE for a shorter-than-normal period, but even so it has generated three serious sales leads for the system, visitors who finally saw and heard what they’ve been waiting for. Who says you can’t sell audio equipment on the basis of good sound? Who says that good sound has to come from the sort of systems we expect? I said right at the start of this article that this is one product that you’ll need to hear to believe -- and anybody with a real interest in reproducing music at home should do just that. Visitors to the Bristol Sound and Vision Show will have just that chance -- don’t pass it up.

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