We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating — tech shows are about the people first, and the gadgets second. Earlier this year, we attended the Audio Engineering Society conference in New York City looking for studio monitor speakers and other pro-level audio gear to review. We stopped by a small booth filled with beautiful speakers, each with the same minimalist, almost basic design. It was there we met Anssi Hyvönen, founder of Finnish speaker maker Amphion. Though his company had been around for almost 20 years, we had no prior experience with their speakers — something we sorely regret now. Anssi gave us an intro into his design philosophy; his passion was immediately evident. Amphion suggested that we first review its tiny Helium410 bookshelf speakers. After spending a few weeks with the Helium410, we’re very impressed; Amphion’s technology may not break the laws of physics, but these speakers sound like they come pretty close.
The Helium410 are part of Amphion’s entry-level line of speakers, and use a paper cone midrange driver instead of the aluminum driver used in the company’s higher-end offering. Don’t let that dissuade you — the Helium features a titanium tweeter, the same high-tech waveguide as the rest of Amphion’s speakers, and is hand-built in Finland. We love the soft, minimalist, modern look of the Helium410. Our review samples came finished in matte white, with gray grilles covering their drivers, but only because we asked for an ultra-simple finish. For the more adventurous out there, the Helium410’s looks can be customized to taste: any combination of three cabinet finishes (matte white, black, or walnut veneer), two waveguide colors (white or black), and almost any grille color can be requested (check out Amphion’s website for examples). Whatever color you choose, we think you’ll be impressed by the Helium410’s build quality — except for some tiny spots of paint underspray, the MDF cabinets look, feel, and sound seamless, substantial, and solid, as if they were milled out of a single piece of material.
As much as we like the how the Helium410 look, their true value is in their driver technology. Each Helium410 speaker uses a one-inch titanium tweeter paired with a 4.5-inch paper-cone midwoofer. Though the Helium410 are rated at 8 ohms and are not extremely sensitive (86 dB), Amphion recommends only 25-120 watts to power them; we found that they were driven just fine from our relatively low-power TEAC AI-101DA. Though the Helium410’s drivers are not coaxial, Amphion avoids distortion by setting the tweeter back from the midrange driver and by adjusting the position of voice coils to achieve time and phase alignment between the drivers. Internally, a crossover shifts work to the tweeter at a relatively low 1600 Hz, outside the range of frequencies where the ear is most sensitive. Externally, Amphion’s signature waveguide ensures smooth dispersion of sound from the tweeter. According to Amphion, these designs work together to make the Helium410’s drivers sound like a point source driver (with all sound coming from the same point), with none of the disadvantages of a coaxial speaker. In our time with the Helium410, these tricks (or, really, well-researched and carefully-crafted design choices) seem to work — there was no distortion to our ears, and the Helium410 sound consistent around the room both vertically and horizontally.
What really struck us about the Helium410 is the extreme clarity and detailed imaging they produce. Whether it’s due to time and phase alignment, low distortion, driver speed, all we can say is that good recordings shine on the Helium410. If you ever have the chance, we highly recommend Alice In Chains’ 1996 MTV Unplugged live album; played through the Helium410, we could have sworn we were sitting on stage just inches from Jerry Cantrell’s guitar. This is where we find that Amphion can’t quite break the laws of physics: though Amphion says the Helium410 can be used without a subwoofer (frequency response is rated at 60-20 kHz), we’re not so sure. Although the Helium410’s modest bass extension is adequate for genres like rock (especially acoustic rock), the lack of response under 60hz is very noticeable with hip-hop and electronic music. The Helium410’s cabinets are ported in the rear, which improves their bass response to a degree (foam port bungs are included in the box, but we doubt you’ll need them), but genres that rely on low-end punch and rumble as an integral part of the experience can sound thin on the Helium410. That said, paired with a subwoofer and a crossover set at around 100 hz, the Helium410 is simply amazing for a near-field speaker setup.
Don’t get us wrong, the Helium410 are some of the best-sounding nearfield speakers we’ve yet heard. Their small size makes them easy to place, but it also necessarily limits their bass response, which makes them less than ideal for fans of bassy music or alone in a home theater application. We can’t say if the Helium410’s drivers might loosen up and gain some better bass extension in time, but there’s only so much you can expect out of drivers this size. If these limitations are compatible with your music preferences or system setup, we think the Helium410 is an excellent choice for those looking for excellent sound, beautiful craftsmanship, and clever technology. Paired with a subwoofer, we think the Helium410 would be hard to beat.
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