Listening #5 Page 2

Jacob George has made a name for himself as an innovator in this regard. In fact, earlier Rethm speakers had a sort of phase ring as a means of preventing unwanted waves from reaching the listener or even being propagated in the first place. But that has been replaced on all Rethm models by a custom wooden phase plug to which a perforated whizzer-like skirt is cemented. I'm not sure what the theory is behind the new plug, and even the designer describes its origins as owing more to empiricism than to anything else. From my own perspective, and while confessing a general lack of experience with these smaller-series drivers, I will say that the Third Rethm was mostly, though not completely, free from that bite I associate with the Lowthers I otherwise love.

Speaking of sound, Rethm has also carved out a place for itself as making Lowther horns that image—not that the other fellows don't, but Rethm seems way ahead of the game on this count. Even placed close to the rear wall, the Third Rethms sounded spacious, with uncannily stable and precise imaging for a Lowther, and a fine sense of depth. The trumpet that opens Martin Sieghart's recording of Schmidt's Symphony 4 (Chesky CD143) sounded appropriately distant, as if it were coming from some place outside of my room—which, in a way, I suppose it was. Now, if familiarity with minimonitors or other good imagers leads you to think this is no big deal, keep listening to that Schmidt—within a few minutes, as the orchestral forces gather, the Rethms do a trick that eludes most of the loudspeaker world's depthmeisters: The music gets bigger, and unexpectedly louder, and altogether more exciting and involving than you're likely to hear from something that lacks...well, a horn.

Welcome to Lowther Land.

I dragged out my AudioControl SA3050A spectrum analyzer for the Third Rethms (actually, I dragged it out for the Quads and just never got around to putting it or the microphone stand back in the basement), and I found that, placed 3' from the side walls and somewhere between 4' and 5' from the back wall, the Rethms had a very smooth curve, rolling off gently at both frequency extremes, and with no real nasties apart from a 4dB hump centered at 800Hz (which I believe was room-related) and a narrow 2dB peak at 5kHz (which I assume to be the remnants of the otherwise ameliorated Lowther Curse). So, yes, a smooth in-room curve—but one that's 4dB down at 160Hz, with no useful output whatsoever below 100Hz.

More work, clearly, was called for. But by bringing the Rethms as close as possible to the wall behind them, the best I could do was still about 12dB down at 80Hz. So already, the 50-lb, $4200/pair Third Rethms violated my Law of Inguinal Expectations: The harder it is to lift a loudspeaker without damaging myself, the more bass it should have.

Then, in an e-mail, Jacob George reminded me that the Third Rethms seem to do their when best firing across the short dimension of a rectangular room, with the long wall behind them. ±Sigh!w, as they say in cyberspace: a lot of schlepping for maybe one more note of bass? Just about—although when I tried it, I was reminded of how good the Rethms sounded that way at the Home Entertainment 2002 show in New York. Go figure—which they tend not to say in cyberspace but probably should.

Still, at their best, the Third Rethms remained sufficiently bass-challenged that they failed to satisfy me with most bog-standard pop. Steely Dan's "Doctor Wu" (Katy Lied, MCA 1594), stripped of its underpinnings, sounded tinny. And even though Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done" (Harvest, Reprise MS 2032) sounded immediate and captivating, the drama of the next song on the album, "Words," was all but lost, as the full depth of Kenny Buttrey's kick drum and floor tom went AWOL.

Turning from the Rethms back to my own PM2A/Medallion horns—without the Linn Sizmik subwoofer—restored not only a lot more bass depth and impact but also some of the silveriness of Ben Keith's pedal steel guitar. Yes, there was something amusing about reverting to a Lowther—any Lowther—in an effort to restore bass to my system, and airiness, too. But that's the way it was.

One respect in which the little Rethms reigned supreme was their sensitivity: They played significantly louder than my regular speakers, despite the latters' higher and thus more SET-friendly impedance. (In purchasing my own Lowther drivers over the years—I now own one pair each of DX4s, EX4s, PM2As, and PM6A silvers—I've usually opted for the 15 ohm versions, whereas the DX55s supplied with the Rethms were the standard 8 ohm variety.) And then there's that Lowther presence, immediacy, and—yes—tunefulness, all of which the Third Rethms had in spades. If you wonder what makes me and other Lowther nuts go off about weird-looking drivers with lively upper mids and an apparently unavoidable need for horn-loading in order to achieve even weak bass extension...well, it's hard to put into words.

Lowthers are different, no doubt about it, but perhaps you're one of the people who can appreciate that difference. Words fail me—or, more to the point, words fail them. Lowthers really must be heard, and the Third Rethms are a fine place to start.

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