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 himself—something 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."

He pauses.

"I finally did."

The passion of old-timers
It seems there are some advantages to growing old after all—the 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 50Hz–35kHz. 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 resonance—not 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."

Real music
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.

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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 speakers—enough 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 breath—the 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 answer—it'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 Lab—not 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 tastes—it'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 reminder—to return them to the origins of their enthusiasm—and 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.

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Comments
Long-time listener's picture
Old, joyless, grumpy audiophile strikes back

Since you encourage older audiophiles to share their experience and wisdom, here's mine: No reader, old or young, wants to slog through endless amounts of prose about someone else's life while trying to find the actual subject of the column. Also, criticizing your target audience in unpleasant terms isn't generally a good idea.These things just make you seem like a bad, self-absorbed writer--typical of the young, I guess. Sorry if I'm joyless for not sharing your self-absorbed joy in writing endlessly about yourself (1,102 words), but that's me--a joyless old audiophile who doesn't want his time wasted. A line or two, or a paragraph or two, is plenty. I don't enjoy this any more than I enjoy Tyll Hertsen writing endlessly about his travels to audio shows on the Inner Fidelity website while hoping someday he'll actually review one of the many pieces of gear he's mentioned seeing there. I write this sentence just so I can use "young and self-absorbed" as often as you use "old and joyless." As I think you know, I enjoy your columns and always read them. I'm just afraid that next you'll start describing your sex life graphically online, like young people do these days.

JIGF's picture
And it is not just the old and grumpy

I am young and quite happy (as of now), and I do feel you should save the most of your life for an autobiograhy. As Long-time listener said, couple of paragraphs should be enough if you really need to write about your meanderings. Don't make a resource out of "if you don't like it, don't read it", improve man, make it worthwhile, if you want to share experiences, do so, but make it about them, not you.

JIGF's picture
Oh, and...

... good report ont he Marimbas, I am very intrigued by them. Have you come accross Tekton Audio? I would like you get your hands on the M-Lore and know what you think about them, its seems there is nothing but rave reviews out in the web.

Stephen Mejias's picture
yes, but . . .

Have you come accross Tekton Audio?

I've heard of the brand thanks to Steve Guttenberg's CNET reports on the Enzo and M-Lore. I'm not sure I can review these speakers, though, without talking too much about myself.

JIGF's picture
Yeah, that's where I fisrt

Yeah, that's where I fisrt heard about them as well.

Thanks for the joke, it sure made me laugh!

PS: Am I the only one who has go through the verification process for every post?

iListen's picture
Great read

I feel like I should have caps lock on. Maybe next time. 

Great article. I will call myself an audio enthusiast rather than an audiophile.

Audiophiles need to have bottomless pocket books. Enthusiasts just want good sound for however much they can spend at the time. 

I have to agree with Roy Hall on 2 way speakers. There is just something about them that, to my ear, just sounds "right".  I have had Maggies 2.7, Paradigm Sudio 20's and studio 60's and a few other speakers over the years. 

Currently, the Studio 60's reside in my living room. The maggies were wonderful, but required more of system behind them that I have. After years of going through speakers, I find there is something about a stand mounted 2 way speaker that drawls me like a moth to a flame. 

I will find that magical stand speaker someday. For now, I am looking at NAD integrated amps. I need simple, not bad sounding, small and clean enough to make decent sound. That is why I appreciate Stereophile reviewing inexpensive things like these little speakers that cost a mere $350. 

I remember reading an article ( on Stereophile.com) about the RS-6 ($1000 floorstanding speakers) and he had them hooked to a Creek integrated, the whole system costing less than $3000. Just goes to show, You don't have to spend a fortune to enjoy music. 

Blu's picture
An oldie who likes your writing

Thank you Stephen, I always enjoy your articles, and find your stories of life, the girls and cats, interesting, please don't listen to the grumpy one's, just continue with your refreshing writing style.

Blu,

Australia

Stephen Mejias's picture
thanks

Thank you, Blu! Hope all's well in Australia.

Ariel Bitran's picture
OUR cats?

Cats are owned by no man.

JohnnyR's picture
This is Stereophile NOT English Lit 101

I hardly believe that you write for the younger generation, because you take forever to get to the point that most young people would have given up and gone on to another article (attention span, rememeber that word next time you are tempted to thrill us with your meandering thoughts)

A speaker designed in the USA but built in China isn't going to be consisitant in quality. Voicing the final design by ear is only as good as the designer's ears plus I'm very doubtful that every driver made in China is going to meet the original specs over the lifetime of the speraker's run. Only by testing each speaker's response with measurements on the production line and compensating for it by varying the crossover component values will insure quality and it's not that hard or expensive to implement that. Mr Snell managed to do that ages ago in the age of clunky slow computers or by using none at all.

Claiming a cabinet is well braced then still hearing a hollow sound when struck with a knuckle isn't a good sign that it really is well braced. I would be curious to see some measurements by Atlinson on these "wonders" just for s**** and giggles.

Oh and also cats are very loving and show it to those that really care about them. I have seven of them myself.

Ariel Bitran's picture
Is that you JohnnyR?

Stephen Mejias's picture
Marimba measurements

I would be curious to see some measurements by Atlinson on these "wonders" just for s**** and giggles.

John Atkinson's measurements of the Music Hall Marimba appear in our July issue, on stands now. I hope they make you shit and giggle.

JohnnyR's picture
Meh It's Adequate

Looks like what to expect from a mass production China based speaker. As usual Atkinson has trouble showing the low end response without the near field rise bump because of baffle diffraction compensation built into the design. It should be the same level as around the 300-400 Hz level, I am presuming that Mr Hall suggests it be placed on stands and well away from walls because of this.

The upper midrange has a 4dB rise at 1000Hz then it's got the BBC dip around 3-4 KHz. 5Khz to 12Khz looks sizzly from 4dB to 6dB higher than the  300Hz level.  Not exactly great. I would think some tweeking of the crossover would have made that flatter but then again we have no individual response of each driver so maybe that's not possible.

Since we also have no view inside the cabinet, the bracing question is moot also. Any cabinet that small should have good damping if the wall thickness or bracing is well employed.

All in all it's okay but better can be found online for those willing to do some DYI for the same price. At $349 per pair it's a bit pricey $275 would be better. I am guessing that it's costing Mr Hall $35 to $50 in parts and assembly cost ( maybe $10 per day per worker in China?)per pair.

 Just my 2 cents and I did giggle not so much shitting.

Alion's picture
New Here

This is the first article I've ever read from Stereophile, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed your personable writing and meshing of experience and analysis. 

I can tell you first hand, as a member of the 'younger generation', I have an attention span longer than a 30 second YouTube video and appreciate you taking the time to guide us through the meanders of your thoughts.

I think I'll stick around - thanks for the read.

Stephen Mejias's picture
awesome

Thanks so much. It's great to have you here.

jcbenten's picture
Write what you want..

...The editors will let you know when to change.

Personally I like your personal side as it gives context.  And I like the equipment you review; $20K amps and $100K speakers are probably nice but, really, how big is the audience that can afford that kind of equipment?

I have enjoyed your journey into vinyl and I occasionally check out the music you list.  Most of it is not my taste (I am older than you and drift to classic rock) but I keep checking.  I am wating for you to delve into compter audio and music streaming.  Perhaps I missed it?

I look forward to your next column.

Stephen Mejias's picture
not yet

Thanks very much.

I am wating for you to delve into compter audio and music streaming.  Perhaps I missed it?

I haven't gotten there yet. I'm moving in that direction—not entirely, of course, but slowly and surely.

partain's picture
Grumpy

    If all that don't appreciate your blathering are grumpy, I gladly join the ranks.

    I am most interested in the affordable gear, please turn covering these products over to someone competent to evaluate them.

Long-time listener's picture
More grumpy at Stereophile than Stephen

Actually I think Stephen is one of the bright spots in the Stereophile lineup, and as I said, I like his columns. If I'm grumpy its because of the magazine itself. Why? The writers seem to be writing for themselves and for the manufacturers, but not for the readers.

Take a look at the Dynaudio Excite x12 review. Nothing but superlatives: "perfect verisimilitude" and "no tradeoffs" despite its size and price. Yet it ends up in Class B. Obviously, there must have been tradeoffs, and its verisimilitude somewhat less than perfect. But Stereophile, the most authoritative stereo magazine on the planet, isn't going to tell its readers what they are so that they can make an informed choice.

Or the A+ rated NAD m51 DAC. It's not until you buy it that you realize its bass has none of the speed, punch, and definition of the merely A-list Benchmark DAC1. But Stereophile doesn't tell you that, you have to spend your money first.

Or the T+A Power Plant amplifier. Powerful, controlled basss and smooth, detailed highs. What about the midrange? Stereophile won't say a word about it; you have to read between the lines and realize that Stereophile's omission tells you something is wrong there. Why can't we get an honest review?

Who is Stereophile for? The writers and manufacturers, or the readers? Can't we get some better information?

Claude's picture
I love it

Hi Stephen

I love the Way you write. Its fun interesting and mirrors so many experiences and thoughts i have/ had/ would have liked to have. Definetly the best prose in the audiophile world. AND: the only prose which will likely apeal to those people we need for the future of our hobby.

this 44 Year old from Berlin Germany loves you!

Dont stop!

claudius

Stephen Mejias's picture
thank you

Thanks so much, Claudius. It's great to hear that the column resonates with you.

Research2012's picture
The New Generation

As a young audiophile I can relate more to your writing than others. That sense of being and relating to your really life makes it a crossover experience. To me the Old Grumpies of the audiophile world hold on to the experience of recreating the live event in their living room. I think the New Generation wants an experience. Something different but yet the same as a live experience.

It is funny because I think but subsets of the audiophile group want the same thing they are just expressing it in different terms. The Old Grumpies take the status quo and try to make it fit. The New Generation does not want the status quo and is looking for that experience to shine down on them to know that what they have is special.

Being young and living in this world I have a belief that one day I might be able to own a system that costs more than most people spend on a house or a really nice car. The reality is, that even if I don't, I enough every moment I have with the gear I love and the people I get to share it with.

Music is entertainment and to me entertainment is life.To call on something you wrote before; some of us just like to sing, dance and laugh. It makes us happy.

JohnnyR's picture
Why?

"Being young and living in this world I have a belief that one day I might be able to own a system that costs more than most people spend on a house or a really nice car."

You don't have to spend that much for really good sound, that's the myth that has been spread for ages by those wanting your money. It's more of a status thing than improving the sound. Unless you have a great paying job, you aren't going to be able to afford that much less a house.

acawaigmail's picture
Testing

Please ignore.

mink70's picture
Hey Stephen— Loved

Hey Stephen—

Loved your column; great writing!

Kudos for bringing so much personality to a shopworn format. It ain't easy, and so nice  when someone pulls it off. Keep writing and don't listen to the cranks.

Best,

Alex Halberstadt

desperaudio's picture
Really????

I'm over 60yo. Am I 'old'? Maybe my body is suffering the ravages of a life of hockey, softball, football, three decades of bartending and another of hauling and installing satellite dishes and ballast on to the roofs of buildings all over the Canadian Prairies. But my mind isn't old. After I read Dudley's prose in every Stereophile I head straight to the "Entry Level" - and I enjoy the tales therein.

 Much of my time is spent repairing and selling vintage stereo gear. Much of it goes to the young audio enthusiasts. I also admin the local audio group (150+ members).

I have no children (that I know of).

 How can I talk to the the 20somethings without any perspective of what it is to be young in this century?

  The 'Entry Level' tales help me along that path.

 

Stephen - just you keep those stories coming.

niuguy's picture
Cool ones

You are one of those cool old guys. ;)

catachresis's picture
*Wisdom* from an Earlier Curmudgeonly Reviewer

Stephen, it's funny how our explicit atitudes can suggest the presence of other distinct, different feelings. Plenty of people would bash this textual psychoanalizing -- this abuse of the 'intentional fallacy' -- as pure hogwash. "I mean what I mean -- nothing more or less." they'll aver. But I read in your explicit irritation with critics of your tendency to illustrate your hifi observations with domestic anecdotes an underlying genuine whistfulness that they'd get over their pontificating about absolute truths born out by  expertise and offer something 'personal' to educate or entertain the young pundit, as well as readers interested in "The Entry-level." Tell me if I'm wrong. Maybe it's mostly aggro you're feeling.

But your young-man's 'curmudgeonlyness' reminded me of another more-or-less famous bit of reviewer's spleen, mixed in with something like urgent longing. It's striking especially as it comes from a writer who's famous for saying in different ways, "Take my writing for what it is and don't presume to question how it relates to me." Yet I'd argue that for all his defensive proclamations, Philip Larkin's passionate contempts and their entanglement in griefs and longings are what most attract fans of his poetry. Most, though not all, of Larkin's poetry fans know that he was a prolific professional jazz reviewer for almost thirty years. It often strikes me that his wild enthuasiasms for classic jazz are the ultimate remedy for the disaffection that's caused by his persistent cynicism about nearly everything else in modern life.

Here's the final paragraph from his Introduction to All What Jazz, the first major collection of his reviews and essays on the genre. it's good to note that the insidious youngsters he's condemning are the same generation as many of your older contempuous critics.

"My readers…sometimes I wonder whether they really exist. Truly they are remarkably tolerant, manifesting themselves only by the occasional query as to where they can buy records: just once or twice I was clobbered by a Miles Davis, or taken to task by the press agent of a visiting celebrity. Sometimes I imagine them, sullen fleshy inarticulate men, stockbrokers, sellers of goods, living in 30-year-old detached houses amongst the golf courses of Outer London, husbands of ageing bitter wives they first seduced to Artie Shaw’s ‘Begin the Beguine’ or the Squadronaire’s ‘The Nearness of You’; fathers of cold-eyed lascivious daughters on the pill, to whom Ramsay MacDonald is coeval with Rameses II, and cannabis-smoking jeans-and-bearded Stuart-haired sons whose oriental contempt for ‘bread’ is equalled only by their insatiable demand for it;  men in whom a pile of scratched coverless 78s in the attic can awaken memories of vomiting blindly from small tudor windows to Muggsy Spanier’s ‘Sister Kate’, or winding up a gramophone in a punt to play Armstrong’s ‘Body and Soul’; men whose first coronary is coming like Christmas; who drift loaded helplessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observances, into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet. These I have tried to remind of the exitement of jazz, and tell where it may still be found."

Source: <http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/larkins-jazz-and-mine/>

Stephen Mejias's picture
Gin & Jazz

Tell me if I'm wrong.

No. I think you've got it right. Thank you.

And thanks for the comparison to Philip Larkin. I can relate to a lot of that, but Larkin expressed himself better than I could.

I also enjoyed the linked article. If there isn't one already, there should be a cocktail called Gin & Jazz. One would taste great right about now, I'm sure.  

catachresis's picture
Indeed! --Just so long as the

Indeed! --Just so long as the "jazz" in a G+J doesn't relate to any bodily fluids. It can't be a variant of the 'White Russian'.  ;P

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