Listening #64 Page 2

One pipe or two, the Saadhana carries on the Rethm tradition of distinctive styling. Looking more like a domestic periscope than a loudspeaker, it mixes straight lines and curves for a light, elegant effect, and the visual lightness is enhanced by the diffusers at the enclosure's base, over which the rest of the thing seems to hover: The Saadhana appears lighter than it really is. The molded surfaces of my review pair were sprayed a deep shade of copper, and while the sides of the first Saadhanas were clad in a veneer of padauk wood, Rethm has made the change to soft, acoustically absorptive side panels covered in silk.

A final touch: The internal wires are all Rethm's proprietary flat, thin, single-conductor copper, cryogenically treated for enhanced conductivity. "I was skeptical, initially, of the cryogenic treatment," George says, "but a friend in Madras said, 'Look, it's simple: Just try it.' I did, and when I compared the treated and the untreated, I was impressed by the difference between them."

Dido and Aeneas
I've owned Lowther drivers for a dozen years, and during that time a goodly number of Lowther-specific enclosures have impressed me. But my Lowther experiences have mostly been with that company's 7" driver—from which Rethm designer Jacob George has now moved on.

For its part, the Lowther DX55 has a cone only 5" in diameter, and its free-air resonance is specified as 80Hz. The lower limit of its power response is also specified as 80Hz: approximately the lowest note that can be played on that most visceral of all rock'n'roll instruments, the...er, the trombone. Which is to say: A loudspeaker that depends solely on that driver, howsoever cleverly loaded, will have its work cut out for it.

Happily, the Saadhana scheme seemed to work well. Before first measuring its in-room performance with my Audio Control spectrum analyzer, I turned the Saadhana's woofer levels all the way down, after which it was easy to get nearly flat response from 160Hz to 10kHz, with only a 4dB notch at 2.5kHz (possibly the aftereffect of Rethm's various Lowther treatments). Using the controls to blend in the low-frequency modules, it was similarly easy to achieve good, flat bass performance at the listening area—although I never quite shook a small response peak at 31.5Hz. (The best position for the Saadhanas in my listening room proved to be 22" from the sidewalls and 50" from the wall behind them.) Jacob George, who came by for a visit, recommended that I adjust the angles of the cabinets to get the spatial presentation I prefer; I did, and settled on having the loudspeakers aimed straight ahead.

The capsule review: The Rethm Saadhana may be the perfect loudspeaker for audiophiles who want the presence, immediacy, and musicality that the best low-power amplifiers are known for, but who don't want to give up the "soundstaging" that most of us associate with high-end audio in the more traditional sense. The pair of them had some of the best, most convincing image placement and wholeness I've heard from a SET-friendly speaker, not to mention wonderful stage width, depth, even height. The Saadhana was a bit more forward-sounding than the other Rethms I've heard, with trebles distinctly more substantial than airy. Instruments had excellent texture and lots of realistic bite—but no more than the music called for. The Saadhana was notably more sensitive than the Audio Note AN-E/Spe I've had the pleasure of using lately, being compatible with even my 3Wpc Fi Stereo amp, and—perhaps best of all—it played deep-bass notes with good impact and drive. It was, in short, a SET-friendly speaker that needed no excuses.

I could write an entire column about how the Rethm Saadhanas reproduced one LP in particular: the Anthony Lewis recording of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, with the English Chamber Orchestra and Dame Janet Baker in the title role (L'Oiseau-Lyre SOL 60047, reissued on CD as London/Decca 466 387)—probably the finest Dido on record, notwithstanding an unnamed Sorceress whose over-the-top performance brings the listener closer to the borscht belt than the Royal College of Music. From the first notes of the overture, the Saadhanas loaded my medium-small room perfectly, and presented the small orchestra with a sense of scale that I found almost startlingly believable: big—but not too big. And, as with most competent Lowther applications, the music was right there: tangible, whole, believable. The sounds of the musicians stood out in a manner that caught my attention immediately and thoroughly, much as a living human voice might startle a person who thought he was alone. (And really now: Aren't we all?)

The Saadhana's ability to convey human touch was also noteworthy—Thurston Dart's harpsichord continuo became more than just sonic wallpaper, catching and holding my attention more effectively than usual—and its pacing was faultless. Some two dozen bars into Dido, when the tempo really picked up, the Saadhana followed lines of notes with ease, allowing the lively performance to sound lively on playback. Yet, again, it was in the spatial domain where the Saadhanas stood out from the pack, said pack comprising the current crop of loudspeakers that can be driven by very-low-power amplifiers. It proved itself an emotive, engaging, and altogether musical speaker—yet with very good stereo imaging capabilities.

Truth and taste
From the folder labeled Duh: Various loudspeakers can present certain types of information very differently from one another, yet still be considered high-fidelity products. The most obvious example is that of perspective: We've all heard any number of forward-sounding speakers, and a comparable number of very laid-back speakers—yet even in the eyes of the spottiest old gurus, we are all (I think) still free to choose the perspective that we prefer, and that accordingly complements our favorite music, without having to be so foolish, so naïve, or so downright wrong as to say that one is more accurate than the other.

So it goes with other, arguably less tangible qualities—the "airy" top end of one speaker vs the chunkier, more substantial trebles of another, or the manner in which various speakers seem capable of portraying physically small sounds more believably than larger ones, or vice versa...

So, too, do different loudspeakers strike me as having different bass qualities—which can be maddeningly difficult to describe. I remember thinking that the superb Lamhorn 1.1 had a pleasantly puffy-sounding bass register, while the superb Linn Sizmik subwoofer that I owned for a while played the same notes with a little less air, and a little more effort and grunt. Each sounded more correct with certain recordings than the other, and both will please different listeners for different reasons.

Describing the Rethm Saadhana's bass quality is similarly difficult—and best accomplished by observing the records it seemed to favor. Overall, it had more of a flair with pop recordings. It suited the electric bass and kick drum on Bryan Ferry's In Your Mind (Atlantic SD 18216)—my favorite of his solo albums—with a snappy and colorful sound, and worked equally well in getting across the deep-bass pedals throughout Classic Records' LP reissue of Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Atco SD 2-401). On the other hand, while I enjoyed the Saadhana's contributions to orchestral music, and appreciated the fact that it found some notes that other speakers miss, I noted that those notes occasionally seemed a bit more forced than the real thing, and didn't emanate—didn't simply occur—in quite the same manner as I hear from the corner-loaded Audio Note AN-E/Spes. And while the Saadhana had an excellent sense of scale overall, and was capable of sounding either small or large as appropriate, the spatial scale of the bottom octaves was smaller than that of the rest of the spectrum.

To simplify: The Saadhanas weren't as good as some loudspeakers at making, say, the orchestral bass drum in any recording of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius sound as naturally, organically huge as the rest of the ensemble; yet those other loudspeakers weren't as good at propelling a song such as the Move's "It Wasn't My Idea to Dance." (That was the song I played over the Saadhana the first time I heard it, in New York City, at Stereophile's 2007 Home Entertainment Show.)

Perhaps less significant but equally obvious is the matter of aesthetics: As with every other Rethm loudspeaker I've seen, the Saadhana's very Bauhaus design gives it a distinctive appearance—one that, again, you'll either like or dislike. It has an undeniably modern look, yet I found myself more drawn to it than I am to most modern furnishings. In my smallish listening room, the predominantly reddish-brown Saadhana jelled nicely with my cherry floorboards, blue walls, and Indian Mahal carpet. I wouldn't expect it to work equally well with all décors, but that's not for me to say.

When I asked Jacob George to explain the speaker's name, he told me that the life of an Indian classical musician goes through three stages: Maarga, during which the musician searches to determine what his or her musical voice shall be; Saadhana, the years in which the musician devotes the most time and effort to perfecting the craft; and Moksha, which is the attainment of artistic salvation and enlightenment.

Appropriately, Rethm's current entry-level loudspeaker is named Maarga ($4250/pair). Just as appropriately, Jacob George has yet to achieve his Moksha—the realization of which will take him a good deal more time. Meanwhile, George and Rethm are working on still other projects—including a turntable with a drive system the like of which has never been seen in domestic audio—and slowly but surely perfecting their craft.

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