The Entry Level #30 Page 2
Why, after nearly 30 years as a manufacturer and distributor, has Hall decided to introduce his own affordable loudspeaker?
"Basically, to fuck the competition," he says.
While I'm sure that's true, there's more to the story. Music Hall is the North American distributor for Epos loudspeakers, many of which have found great success in the US. One of Epos's most affordable designs, the ELS-3 ($299/pair), was reviewed by Robert J. Reina in our January 2004 issue and held a place in Class C (Restricted LF) of our "Recommended Components" until it was discontinued, in 2009.
Had he entered the speaker market sooner, Hall would have been competing against himselfsomething that smart businessmen try to avoid. With the popular ELS-3 gone for good, and Epos making a turn up market, Hall sensed an opportunity.
On the face of it, Music Hall's strategy makes sense, but I've been told by several leading loudspeaker manufacturers that the time has passed for affordable passive bookshelf models, and that audiophiles now shopping for a sub-$500/pair speaker are more interested in powered desktop designs. What would Roy Hall say to those manufacturers?
"They may be right," he admits, "but as I never talk to them, I wouldn't know. I make decisions based on what I like to do. I've always loved two-way speakers. They fuck up the sound much less than more complex designs."
Hall fell in love with small, stand-mounted loudspeakers some 25 years ago, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, when he first heard a pair of Linn Kans.
"Alex Montenegro from [Linn's erstwhile importer] Audiophile Systems had set them up using a Naim [NAP] 250 [power amplifier] and a Linn Sondek [turntable]. The speakers were hard up against the wall and seemed to be peeking out of a curtain. They sounded unbelievable. I wished then that I could create something that sounded that good."
"I finally did."
The passion of old-timers
It seems there are some advantages to growing old after allthe realization of dreams, for example, a notion that strikes me as being both invigorating and daunting. How much growing can be expected of a person? Are we never done?
While Roy Hall spent four years in the late 1970s employed by Linn, building their famed Isobarik loudspeaker, the Marimba is the first speaker he's actually designed. He makes the process sound like something akin to grocery shopping, selecting drive-units and other materials as though they were cans of soup.
"I went to the factory with a mandate to make this speaker within a very tight budget. I used standard cabinets and off-the-shelf components to save money. I started at 9:30 in the morning, and finalized the design by lunchtime: I was hungry, and the boss was taking me to his favorite restaurant. I didn't want to miss it. I do love Chinese food."
Though its rear panel proudly states "DESIGNED AND DEVELOPED IN THE USA," the Marimba is made in Shenzhen, China, by "a company that's run by an audiophile the same age as me," Hall continues. "We bonded when he told me it was great to find someone his own age that was still enthusiastic about hi-fi, and we agreed that very few young people in the industry have the passion of us old-timers."
The Marimba has a 5.25" polypropylene-cone woofer and a 1" silk-dome tweeter, measures 10.9" (279mm) high by 6.5" (167mm) wide by 8.6" (221mm) deep, and weighs 8.6 lbs (3.9kg). Music Hall's specifications include a sensitivity of 87dB/W/m, a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, and a frequency range of 50Hz35kHz. Although the Marimba's MDF cabinet is modest in appearance, Hall insists that his greater ambitions are hidden beneath the surface: "The cabinet is incredibly well braced, both laterally and vertically. This is unheard of in a box [of its] price, and accounts for most of the [Marimba's] deep bass and distortion-free sound." Still, knocking on the speaker's side panel produced a clearly audible, hollow-sounding resonancenot unlike that of a marimba, in fact, and more or less typical of a $350/pair speaker.
The Marimba's Web page boasts that all final tuning was done by ear, with real music. "I think I used James Last, Led Zeppelin, and Andy Williams," says Hall. "Frankly, it was whatever crap they had in the factory."
The Marimbas sounded fine right out of the box and placed exactly where the PSB Alpha B1s had been, in their cat- and girlfriend-approved locations: on 24"-tall stands, the centers of their woofers 37" from my room's front wall, 96" from my listening position, and about 48" from the sidewalls. But I quickly found that the Marimbas would also respond well to more extreme placement scenarios, delivering a wider, deeper soundstage, with no apparent loss in bass impact or image focus, as I brought them closer to the listening position. I found the best results with the Marimbas placed almost midway between the front wall and where I sat, toed in so that their tweeters pointed just outside the plane of my ears.
I began my serious listening with the Marimbas mated to PSB's SubSeries 1 subwoofer and driven by NAD's C316 BEE integrated amplifier. I played mostly CDs using NAD's recently discontinued C515 BEE CD player. (A sample of the replacement model, the C516 BEE, arrived at our office in late February; look for my review sometime this summer.) Lengths of Kimber Kable 8VS speaker cable connected amp to sub, while longer runs of QED X-Tube 400 Signature connected sub to speakers; interconnects were Kimber PBJ.
To become acquainted with the Marimba's sound, I, unlike Roy Hall, really used real music. These days, the disc I most often turn to when evaluating a system's bass character is R. Kelly's Double Up (CD, Jive 708537). With the SubSeries 1 still handling the lowest frequencies, its Crossover control set to around 105Hz, I heard neither more nor less bass than I'd grown used to with the PSB Alpha B1s, but I immediately appreciated the Marimbas' startling imaging capabilities: voices, instruments, and stereo effects were exceptionally clean, clear, and precisely placed, sometimes appearing from points well off to the sides of the speakersenough to send Stringer dashing from one end of the room to the other, above and behind the entertainment unit, in search of the source of the sound.
Next, I removed the PSB subwoofer and QED cables from the system and ran the Kimber 8VS directly from the NAD C316 BEE's outputs to the speakers' gold-plated binding posts. While this resulted in obviously less bass and a somewhat diminished sense of space, it also revealed the Marimba's bass to be impressively tight, tuneful, and fast. And because there was no appreciable loss of low-end impact and no muddying of the overall sound, I was able to continue listening happily sans sub.
Listening to "Hymn of Remembrance," from Keith Jarrett's Hymns Spheres (2 CDs, ECM 1086/87; see Richard Lehnert's review in our April issue), I was surprised by how well the Marimbas transported me to Ottobeuren Abbey in Germany, where the work was recorded; these improvisations on pipe organ seemed to originate from an appropriately far-off place. In his review, RL writes, "You can hear Jarrett listening to the yawning silences as they slowly fill with and empty of sound." Through the Marimbas, I was happy to hear what RL heard. By contrast, my PSB Alpha B1s produced a softer overall sound and a larger and more forward perspective, doing more to bring the performance into my listening room than to transport me to the original event, while sacrificing some of the Marimbas' long, graceful decays and high-frequency detail.
But the Marimbas never sounded better than when I turned to one of my all-time favorite albums, Miles Davis's In a Silent Way, in a recent high-resolution remastering (SACD/CD, Columbia/Legacy/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD2088). I absolutely adored the vast stage width, the brilliant sense of touch, the unerring rhythmic drive. And when Miles's trumpet finally swirled and sighed onto the stage, I almost lost my breaththe effect was pure magic. The PSB Alpha B1s make this music sound larger, softer, slower; the far more physically beautiful Wharfedale Diamond 10.1s ($350/pair) add warmth, detail, texture, and control. But still: Thanks in part to the Music Hall Marimba, in part to MoFi's faithful remastering, and in part to my own loneliness, this was the grooviest, sweetest, most memorable re-creation of In a Silent Way I'd ever enjoyed at home.
The gritty truth
The motivation behind the Music Hall Marimba was simple: Roy Hall will tell you that he wanted to make a small, two-way speaker that kicks lots of ass and costs little money. I think he also wanted to bring an old memory back to life. Any way you look at it, he succeeded. But who, other than Hall himself, would want to purchase the Marimba? Who is his target customer?
"My customer is anyone who wants a great sound at a reasonable price," says Hall.
But I can't accept that answerit's far too pragmatic, far too polite. I've seen Music Hall gear, including the Marimbas, being sold in small independent record stores and hip, youthful shops like Insound.com, Urban Outfitters, and Turntable Labnot exactly the haunts of traditional audiophiles. Is this an attempt to reach a wider, younger audience? Is it even important that high-end audio manufacturers reach a wider, younger audience?
"You just answered your own question," Hall tells me. "Look at where it's sold. We make gear that is great sounding and affordable. Most other high-end manufacturers have no clue about the young people of today. They should watch Girls and get the gritty truth."
Exactly what I've been saying all along. And despite what Roy Hall claims, the Music Hall Marimba is not a loudspeaker that any old audiophile will enjoy. Instead, it will appeal to special tastesit'll sound best to audiophiles who maintain a sense of wonder, who are young at heart and who hold fast to dreams. The especially old, joyless audiophiles, however, might purchase a pair as a reminderto return them to the origins of their enthusiasmand a second pair as a gift for their children.
Now that Hall has designed one successful loudspeaker, does he have plans for others?
"Absolutely not! This one is great. I'll quit while I'm ahead."
I have a hard time believing that Roy Hall will ever quit, but I guess time will tell.