mbl 101E Radialstrahler loudspeaker Page 2
The velvety richness of the Rockport Technologies Merak II/Sheritan II combo (reviewed in the September 2004 issue) was pleasing, but the mbl's greater speed, transparency, and transient delicacy was like adding a $15,000 sports handling package to a softly sprung boulevard cruiser. I've been listening to "Sweet Black Angel" for more than 30 years, but never had I heard the recording's spaciousness and percussive grandeur expressed with this degree of conviction. Nor had the background details been so ruthlessly yet effortlessly exposed. I could hear into the sonic picture with greater clarity and far greater ease than ever before.
In one night's listening orgy, I tore through albums by the Weavers, Harry Belafonte, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Tony Bennett, etc.—all recorded live in Carnegie Hall. The results were nothing short of astonishing. I could walk around the room and not lose the soundstage: the perspective of the enormous Carnegie ambience simply shifted three-dimensionally. The eerie reality of the picture I remembered hearing at Gindi's had come home, minus the "Dear Lord let me forget" sensation of sitting in a darkened room, buttock-to-buttock in a row of wheezing audiophiles.
The mbl 101Es didn't offer the deepest extension or the most bass I've heard in my room. But in a room famous for problematic bass (footnote 1), a speaker the previous versions of which were once known for problematic bass delivered enough good, nimble bass to make bass not a problem. In fact, I preferred the 101E's slightly lean but tight bass to the slightly thick variety rolled out by the Rockport Mirak-Sheritans. Classic Records' four-LP Led Zeppelin set worked extremely well through the mbls: John Bonham's percussion was positively spine-tingling, with a tight but somewhat light kick drum, and cymbals that rang as convincingly as through any speaker I've heard. Bass extension was strong to 40Hz, far weaker at 30Hz, and nothing was delivered at 20Hz. But that was my room. In the right place, in a room with more solid boundaries, I'm sure bass would be strong to below 30Hz.
Playing Zep and other hard rock, such as the Who's Tommy (UK Track or SACD), demonstrated one of the 101E's weaker suits: dynamics. If you've got the power, the seriously inefficient (81dB, 4 ohm impedance) mbls can be made to play really loudly without strain, but they reach their macrodynamic limits well before the SPLs give out, and at that point there's a mild sensation of strain and constriction. Fortunately, that happens at SPLs you won't want to hear long-term; below that level, you won't have an original Quad-like experience, though greater mid-level dynamic expression can be had elsewhere.
The mbl's tonal balance leaned slightly toward the bright and less-than-rich side (less so than the Rockport swayed the other way). Another way of expressing this balance would be to describe the midrange as being slightly laid-back. Overall, instrumental timbres were satisfactorily convincing on both pop and classical recordings. Well-recorded massed strings had a feathery, woody, intoxicating delicacy, reeds had plenty of bite and buzz, and horns a velvety metallic purity that was just right. I haven't heard it through any other speakers, but a new SACD, The Trumpets that Time Forgot (Linn CKD 242), which features accompaniment on an enormous pipe organ, was absolutely mesmerizing.
Despite the mbl 101E's perceived brightness, record-surface noise and tape hiss were well suppressed. Perhaps the speaker's very top end is slightly rolled-off, but its overall treble quality was near ideal. I rank the tweeter as one of the best.
Having spent hours while reviewing the Rockports listening to engineer Tony Faulkner's new two-LP set of John Lill performing solo piano music by Schumann (LP, Greenpro 4001/2, distributed by Acoustic Sounds), I thought it appropriate to listen again through the mbls. Spatially, it was no contest: The mbls were magical in terms of imaging and soundstaging, producing a believably large context, and image size and focus that set them apart from everything else I've ever heard. It was the sort of "out-of-the-box" experience some claim to get from electrostatic and planar speakers, but without any of the negatives.
I found Lill's piano to be as tonally and texturally convincing as through the Rockports. The lower notes may have lacked a bit of weight, but they had a crisp shapeliness that had escaped the Rockports' grasp. The upper register may have been slightly softer as well, but the midband was on the mark, and the overall illusion of believability was as good as the Rockports, if not better. The dynamics were slightly constricted at the top end of the scale, but only compared to my recent memory of the Rockports.
There wasn't a genre of music or a favorite recording that didn't yield spectacular results through the mbl 101Es, or, in many cases, reveal heretofore hidden information—the resolving power of these speakers was astonishing. But more than revealing new information, the mbls delivered what I already knew was there with an unforced ease and grace that are unrivaled by any speaker I've heard. When finally set up correctly and surrounded by the right associated gear, they were positively addicting.
The $45,000/pair mbl 101E Radialstrahler is highly inefficient (81dB). Though mbl says 250Wpc will do, whether from tubes or solid-state, it requires as many watts as you can throw at it to come alive. When I bought the 1000W Musical Fidelity kW amplifiers, I told myself, "Now I'll have a set of good-sounding amps that can drive anything." I was happy to have them for this review.
The 101Es are tricky to set up, and when everything's not right, they're not fun to listen to. I've never had a speaker that, when not dialed in to perfection, made me so strongly not want to listen to them. But when they and all of the associated equipment were right, the sound—and it's a big sound—floated effortlessly in three-dimensional space as with no other speaker in my experience. More important, they created a believable musical reality.
At our annual summer block party the other weekend, I met a music-loving neighbor who'd held on to his 1960s rock LPs but hadn't played them for years. I invited him down for a listen, and despite his feeling that he "hasn't got the ears to tell the difference," he accepted. So in the middle of the party, tipsy on Margaritas (for me, add some Mike's Hard Lemonades, Smirnoff Orange Twists, and a few Coronas), we headed down the block to hear some tunes. One look at the mbl space cadets got him laughing. I put on the Beatles' "Baby You're a Rich Man," from Magical Mystery Tour (LP, German Hör Zu stereo pressing), and when the track ended, he looked at me wide-eyed. "I've never heard anything like that before."
I thought about my month with the mbl 101E Radialstrahlers. "Me neither!"
Footnote 1: I'm told that some dweebs on the Audio Asylum suggest I shouldn't be reviewing equipment because my room is so "bad"—not that they've heard it. I guess they prefer reviewers with problematic rooms who don't mention or perhaps don't even recognize the problems.—Michael Fremer