Shahinian Hawk loudspeaker
The Fifth Element #24
John Marks, July, 2004
Shahinian Hawk loudspeaker
When John Atkinson compiled the list of Hot 100 Products for
Stereophile's 40th Anniversary issue (November 2002, Vol.25 No.11),
Shahinian Acoustics' Obelisk loudspeaker made the grade with a rank of 71.
"I first heard the quasi-omnidirectional Obelisk 25 years ago, and it
sounded as different then from what else was around as it does now. Richard
Shahinian has always gone his own way, guided by his overwhelming passion
for classical orchestral music; his speakers fall into the category of 'If
you love their sound, they're the best speakers in the world for you.'
However, for Dick to survive and even to prosper through the years lends his
efforts a credibility that cannot be acquired in any other way."
Before founding his own company, Richard Shahinian worked as an
engineer designer at Harman/Kardon. The Obelisk, released in 1976, was
Shahinian Acoustics' first speaker. The Obelisk remains in production today,
having undergone steady evolution to keep pace with driver-technology
developments and "lessons learned" about internal cabinet bracing.
Shahinian's speaker designs have long been controversial. He attempts
to actualize the theoretical ideal-of a point source propagating an
expanding three-dimensional wavefront-by use of unique cabinet architecture
and driver disposition. I believe that it is a misleading oversimplification
to refer to his designs as "omnidirectional," in that not all frequencies
are handled in the same manner. I think that "polyradial" is a more accurate
Shahinian's line includes designs that embody all his desiderata
(Diapason, Hawk, Obelisk), as well as speakers that, for reasons of cost,
represent compromises (Arc, Compass, Starter). There is even a conventional
front-firing box loudspeaker, the Super Elf, which is a bit larger than the
BBC LS3/5A, but has a detailed yet warmly inviting sound quite reminiscent
The Obelisk, which weighs 55 lbs and measures 29" by 13" by 15", looks
like a squat wooden replica of the Washington Monument. Currently priced at
$4000/pair, it is the least-expensive speaker that embodies Shahinian's
ideals. These include use of proprietary loading for the woofer. The 8"
woofer, on the front face of the lower portion of the Obelisk's cabinet, is
backed by a folded transmission line, with a stuffing of sheep's wool and
polyfill. However, unlike conventional transmission lines, which terminate
in free air, Shahinian's T-lines are terminated by a weighted 10" passive
radiator (footnote 2).
The good news is that, even with the Obelisk's comparatively moderate
cabinet size, its bass extension and volume are remarkable. Shahinian's
claimed -3dB point of 28Hz for the speaker seems very credible. The
Obelisks, driven by the right amplifier, could do justice to the string
basses and organ pedals of Robert Shaw's recording of Brahms' Ein deutsches
Requiem (Telarc CD-80092). I felt them as well as heard them. An added
benefit is that the quasi-aperiodic nature of Shahinian's woofer loading
means that, unlike ported designs, which depend on cabinet-cavity resonances
for bass extension, there was no sense of one-note bass.
The not-so-good news is that Shahinian's bass loading places
substantial (although not extreme) demands on the amplifier's
current-delivery and damping-factor capabilities. It would stand to reason
that once a bass note has been propagated, the weighted passive radiator
will continue to move through inertia, with the resultant air pressure in
the transmission line seeking to move the woofer itself, in cases even
generating back-EMF up the speaker wires.
Confronting this scenario is a job for an amplifier with
greater-than-ordinary current reserves and damping factor-it is precisely
the wayward motion of the woofer that the amplifier is called on to "damp."
Don't be alarmed-just about every dynamic speaker design (with the possible
exception of drivers designed specifically for horn enclosures, and which
have minimal cone excursion) requires at least some help from the amplifier
in the way of damping.
Little surprise, then, that some of the more successful amplifier
pairings with Shahinian speakers have long been Plinius' solid-state
designs, which appear to be unusually robust in terms of damping factor and
current delivery. Richard Shahinian owns a Plinius power amplifier, while
Plinius' Peter Thomson owns Shahinian Hawks. Fancy that.
The rest of Shahinian's design brief includes handling the midrange
and lower treble with drivers that fire both forward and rearward but are
arrayed at an upward angle-and, for the highest frequencies, using tweeters
or supertweeters arrayed upward and pointing north, south, east, and west.
This would appear to mimic the behavior of the highest frequencies in a
classically designed concert hall. Obviously, Shahinian intends that room
reflections will be a major part of the sound perceived at the listening
chair. Just as obviously, this will stick in some (if not many) craws
Footnote 1: Up to the 1930s, horse or cattle hair was usually used as
a binding agent in base-coat plaster. The surface's resultant tensile
strength, and the resilience of the wooden split-lath strips the base-coat
plaster was troweled over, were largely responsible (along with most halls'
"shoebox" shape) for the warm yet detailed acoustics of the great concert
and performance halls of the classical era. Most attempts using modern
materials to reproduce the acoustical characteristics of plaster-on-lath
construction have not been notable successes. During the mid-1970s
renovation of New York City's Avery Fisher Hall, they added chopped-up
monofilament fishing line to the wet plaster. Needless to say, that hall's
problems persist. However, recently there have been some new developments;
RPG Inc.'s Baswaphon wall system looks promising.-John Marks
Footnote 2: At one time, this arrangement was covered by a patent,
which, I assume, expired about 10 years ago.-John Marks
Footnote 3: Another possible benefit of directing the midrange and
treble at the ceiling is that the direct sound that does arrive at the
listening chair will be substantially off-axis, and therefore contain fewer
driver distortion products, which become increasingly directional as
frequency increases. Perhaps this is why Shahinians are some of the few
metal-dome speakers I warm up to.-John Marks
On the Obelisk, the faces of the pyramid or roof are symmetrical, and
hold 1.5" dome midrange/tweeters firing back and front, and four 3/8"
supertweeters firing to the four compass points. The Obelisk's roof is part
of the same enclosure as the bass unit, and there is only one set of binding
With the Hawk and the Diapason, Shahinian moves into modular designs.
The bass modules are separate from the elongated-pyramid roofs, which rest
on the flat tops of the bass modules. The midrange and treble drivers can be
connected to the terminals of the bass modules by short umbilical speaker
cables, or the units can be biwired or biamped.
Each Hawk uses four 4.5" midrange drivers, two each pointing front and
rear, and four 1" tweeters, one on each face of the pyramid. Unlike the
Obelisk, the Hawk's roof has unequal rakes front and rear, the rear face
being more vertical. The Hawk bass module uses an 8" woofer and 10" passive
radiator, but the woofer is not the same as the Obelisk's (it has a much
larger motor structure), and is in a larger enclosure, with a claimed -3dB
point of 25Hz. The Obelisk's retail price is $4000/pair; the larger, more
complicated Hawk goes ka-ching at $8100/pair.
The Diapason is even more complex (footnote 4) Each top uses four
5.25" midrange drivers, two each pointing front and rear; two 1.5" dome
upper-midrange drivers, one each pointing front and rear; two ¾" low
tweeters, one each pointing front and rear; and six 3/8" supertweeters. Yes,
that's 14 drivers per side.
There's more. Each Diapason bass module contains two separate
transmission lines (which is why the Diapason bass module is called the
Double Eagle), each with the same 8" woofer and 10" passive radiator as in
the Hawk. Doubling up the larger enclosure from the Hawk results in a
claimed -3dB point of 23Hz. The ka-ching point for a pair of Diapasons is
$13,000, which, in today's world of dozens of loudspeakers costing more than
$30,000/pair, going all the way up to $100,000-with-a-straight-face per
pair, seems almost miserly.
I had initially asked for a pair of Diapasons because, since the last
time I'd had Diapasons in the house, their woofer module had been revised.
As it turned out, demand was far outstripping supply, but a pair of Hawks
was available. The Hawks were the only speakers in the Shahinian line I had
not already had extensive experience with. "Sure," I said.
Set up on its feet, the Hawk is 37.5" high, 17" wide, and 13" deep;
the combined weight of the bass and upper modules is 80 lbs. My review
samples arrived in light genuine oak veneer, with black grilles on the
woofer and the roof.
The first issues confronting a new Hawk owner are amplification and
wiring. I had requested back from JA the exceedingly scrumptious darTZeel
NHB-108 amplifier, both for the Hawks and for another speaker that has not
yet arrived. I was very pleased with the darTZeel's overall performance with
the Hawks-the combination filled the room with sweetly layered, dimensional
music, and could play louder than the room acoustics and my comfort level
indicated was sane. However, the darTZeel's 100Wpc, which does not double
into 4 ohms, was perhaps not the optimal match for Shahinian's bass
loading-though the idea of biamping with darTZeels is very tempting!
Seeing as I was using just one stereo amplifier, and one that had only
single terminal pairs at that (Euro-Nanny terminals, come to think of it), I
decided to run speaker cables to the bass modules from the amp, and then use
short runs of cable from the bass-module terminals to the upper-module
terminals. In the event, I used the ultra-spiffy Stereovox speaker cables (I
know-they cost almost as much as the Hawks do) to run to the bass modules,
and Nordost Valkyrja to run from the bass modules to the top.
For a digital source, I had finagled the return of TEAC's Esoteric
D70/P70 transport and DAC combination. That duo reaffirmed itself as
providing the best "Red Book" CD playback I have yet heard. I think you had
better buy them before Esoteric changes its mind and stops making them. The
connection from the Esoteric DAC to the darTZeel amp was made by Stereovox's
new balanced cables, with proprietary Xhadow XLR connectors. They sounded
The speaker terminals on both modules of the Hawks are located so as
to minimize their visual intrusiveness, but this has the effect of limiting
cable options. The bass terminals are on the underside of the bass module,
with the binding posts themselves set at a 45 degrees angle to the floor.
(Clearance is provided by the bass modules' approximately 2"-high,
hard-rubber legs.) Furthermore, the terminals appear to be spaced closely
for double banana-plug connections. Didn't those go out of fashion at about
the time Jimmy Carter was having The Captain and Tennille serenade Queen
Elizabeth with "Muskrat Love"? But I digress.
The situation is even more limiting at the upper module, in that there
is less clearance, and the connections are not binding posts; they accept
only banana plugs. Perhaps to avoid accidental disconnection, the banana
receptacles face front (but at the same 45 degrees downward angle). This
means that, to exit rearward, your speaker cable must be able to make a 135
degrees bend in a space less than 1" high. Some will be able to, some won't.
Fortunately, I have always found Nordost cables to be a very synergistic
match with Shahinian speakers, and Nordost's Valkyrja speaker cables were
sufficiently thin and flexible to serve in this application.
In search of even more bass wallop, I substituted Plinius'
overachieving model 9200 integrated amplifier ($3500) for the darTZeel.
Although the much less expensive Plinius did not quite equal the darTZeel's
sweet treble refinement, its 175Wpc did surpass the Swiss amp in dynamics
and bass extension and control.
Footnote 4: The Diapason was reviewed for Stereophile by J. Gordon
Holt in May 1993.-Ed.
On the subject of getting the most out of these idiosyncratic
speakers, Dan Banquer of RE Designs passed along to me the experience of one
of his customers, who solved the problem of integrating the Diapasons
(which, like the Hawks, are modular) into his room by use of a multichannel
preamplifier with separate trim pots for each channel's volume, and a master
volume control. This, of course, requires biamplification, but if you've
gone that far you probably would benefit even more by being able to adjust
the balance between the bass modules and the upper modules for the
conditions in your room. For that RE customer, it was (surprise!) a preamp
from RE Designs that saved the day. I was fascinated by this prospect, but
there was not enough time to obtain the necessary equipment and try it.
Perhaps for the Diapasons...
If I had to criticize the Obelisk, it would be because that speaker's
8" bass driver has to handle a substantial part of the midrange as well,
before it hands off to the 1.5" midrange/tweeter. The Obelisk's midrange
thus had a slightly velvety character, and the upper bass could be plummy.
(The latter phenomenon could be related to floor reflections selectively
canceling and reinforcing the woofer's output.) The Hawk addresses those
issues by crossing over its bass driver (which is mounted higher off the
floor) from 250Hz up, and having the four 4.5" midranges on the roof handle
most of the middle octaves. This arrangement also gives the Hawk much more
The one thing that would still keep me hanging on to Obelisks is that
each Obelisk uses four 3/8" supertweeters to cover the entire soundfield
(the same device that the Diapason uses six of), while the Hawk uses four 1"
tweeters. I found the Obelisk to have a wonderfully airy and open character
in the upper treble, while the Hawk was warmer and more solid in that
region. (I think it safe to say that this is almost entirely within the
realm of personal preference. Also, I listened to the Obelisks with their
To get a good idea of what the Hawks do best, you should hear them
playing very-well-recorded orchestral music with lots of bass and dynamics.
One excellent contender is a characterful recording of Geirr Tveitt's One
Hundred Folk Songs from Hardanger orchestrations (CD, BIS CD-987), which you
really should own. (If you buy it and hate it, then just stop taking my
advice. It's that good.) Playing the Tveitt disc, the Hawks gave that
floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall soundstage that many fans think of as one of
the raisons d'être of Shahinian speakers.
Another sonic blockbuster, this one perhaps better known, but which
doesn't seem to get the respect it deserves, is André Previn's recording of
Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (Telarc CD-80126). Don't pass it up just
because it's meant for kids-it has some of the best-recorded orchestral
instrumental timbres I know of. But even historical recordings with so-so
sonics, such as an apparently unauthorized release of a Barbirolli/Boston
Symphony recording of Delius' The Walk to the Paradise Garden (Music & Arts
CD 251(2), no longer available), are arresting and entrancing. Organ
recordings, of course, are particularly well served. By the way, one of the
reasons you should visit the Shahinian website is that the site has a page
with quite a few recommendations of recordings, most of them orchestral.
Ironically enough, the strongest impression the Hawks made on me
during the time I had them was to reconfirm what a screamingly amazing
bargain the Obelisks are, at half the price. In my medium-sized room, I
never even remotely approached the limit of the Hawks' ability to move air.
A quick consultation with my good chum and longtime Hawk owner Scot
Markwell, formerly of The Abso!ute Sound, confirmed this impression. Scot
said that, apart from the previously mentioned issues of velvetiness and
plumminess, the Hawks will decisively show their mettle over the Obelisks in
a much larger room, or on huge orchestral transient peaks.
When I listened critically, the Hawks were less colored, more seamless
and smooth, and more coherent than the Obelisks. But at twice the price,
they should be. Vasken Shahinian, Richard's son, hastens to point out that
the Hawk is not an Obelisk on steroids, but a junior-varsity Diapason.
So it becomes a question of whether, taking into account ascending
price, the airiness of the Obelisk outweighs its slightly compromised
midrange and upper bass; whether the Hawk's overall coherence and power
outweigh its less airy treble; or whether you should just have it all by
buying the Diapasons. There are perhaps half a dozen speakers I could live
with indefinitely, and the Diapason is on that list. (The others, in
alphabetical order, a Aerial 20T, DALI Megaline, ESP Concert Grand, Peak
Consult InCognito Grande, and Wilson Benesch Chimera.) However, the Obelisk
remains my go-to recommendation for classical music lovers who have to stay
within an average budget.
To sum up the Shahinian Hawk: Pros: magisterial bass, huge soundstage,
remarkably rendered instrumental timbres; in general, addictive to listen
to. Cons: need an amp with high current and damping; stable-mate Obelisk has
airier treble, and for most people will be better value for money (despite
being more colored overall); few US dealers; usually a waiting list for
speakers. Verdict: One listen will tell you whether you love the Hawks or
just don't get them.
And if you don't, that's okay. We can still be friends.
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