MBL Radialstrahler 101E Mk.II loudspeaker Page 2
Anyone who's spent a lot of money assembling a system but who gets casual about cabling is missing the point. At the level of performance of the MBLs and my system, cables will spell the difference between supreme satisfaction and disappointment. MBL internally wires the 101E Mk.II with Wireworld cable. Jeremy Bryan had supplied me with a double run of Wireworld's Platinum Eclipse speaker cable that I'd first tried with the Wilson MAXX 3s. I found it to be darker and not nearly as transparent as TARA Labs' Omega Gold, but I had to wait for a second run of TARAs; until they arrived, I listened through the Wireworlds.
Had I reviewed the Radialstrahlers based on my experience with the Wireworld Platinum Eclipses, I'd now be telling you that the 101E Mk.II lacked the older version's "effortlessness, openness, transient clarity, and crystallinity." The Wireworlds were coherent, but to me that meant coherently dark on top, soft and warm on bottom, and lacking the TARAs' fast, clean attack, soaring sustain, and lengthy decays into blackness. Double runs of ZenSati #1 produced a similar openness, but not the TARAs' bottom-end weight and sense of completeness.
With double runs of TARA Omega Gold installed, the sound entered my comfort zone, which has narrowed as I've grown older and more particular. When it's not just right, it's all wrong.
Why belabor the point? No box above the bottom octaves and a 360° radiating pattern should produce imaging and soundstaging superior to that of any boxed or planar speaker, and once the speakers had been placed properly, the 101E Mk.IIs did just that, reproducing with eerie verisimilitude recordings of large orchestras as well as of small ensembles in intimate settings, such as a superb-sounding reissue of Johnny Hartman's I Just Dropped By to Say Hello (LP, Impulse!/ORG 176). The sound was intimate and properly sized, and produced Hartman's baritone with a natural warmth free of congestion or bloat.
Going back to some of the live Carnegie Hall tracks I listened to for my 2004 review reinforced the 101E Mk.IIs' astonishing spatial abilities. The speakers' presentation of physical instruments and musicians in space required no suspension of disbeliefthe holographically three-dimensional picture was just there. The Weavers' Reunion at Carnegie Hall 1963 (single-sided 45rpm LPs, Vanguard/Classic 2150) was reproduced with the singers arrayed holographically across the stage. The images of Ronnie Gilbert's and Pete Seeger's voices and the glistening acoustic guitars were as convincingly portrayed as I've heard them here, including the toe-tapping, the wooden stage floor, and the airy, open space. Lights out and you're there!
As for rock, you'd want to hear Neil Young's Le Noise (LP, Reprise 25956) through these speakers: They managed both the warm upper-string shimmer and the ground-shaking bass notes of Young's electric-guitar strumming, performed mostly on a split-pickup 1950s Gretsch White Falcon that allowed producer Daniel Lanois to carefully dial in and manipulate each pickup, as played through a vintage Fender Tweed Deluxe guitar amp. The 101E Mk.IIs presented the guitar as a whole, which was the idea (despite the two pickups), never letting the bass strings produce artificial-sounding, out-of-control bottom-end lump or bloat. The speakers produced bass weight that, while it didn't rival that of the Wilson MAXX 3s, was greater than I remember the original 101Es being able to manage.
Scaling the dynamic peaksor not
Despite the 101E Mk.II's low sensitivity, given sufficient wattage and current drive, it could play very loudly without strainas anyone who's heard a pair of them in a relatively large room at an audio show can attest. However, as with the previous iteration, at some point the sound gave way to macrodynamic compression: the increase in volume wasn't accompanied by the shifts in dynamics you get with some traditional moving-coil designs. However, you're not going to be listening at such SPLs for extended lengths, if ever, and I was more than satisfied with the combination of high SPLs and dynamic nuance with well-recorded rock records. There was never a problem with classical music, which has wider dynamic range and doesn't reach such high average SPLs.
The drum thwacks on "Boy in the Bubble," from Paul Simon's Graceland (LP), contain dynamics about as great as on any commercial rock record, and the 101E Mk.II handled them with ease, producing textural nuance, weight, and slam enough to please anyone but owners of giant horn speakers.
Microdynamic resolution and transparency remained the 101E Mk.II's weakest suits, compared to electrostats and the best horn and moving-coil speakers, but whether it was the melon's added "give" or other improvements, or the changes in my system, I thought the 101E Mk.II was dynamically more supple at lower SPLs than the earlier version, and more transparent overall.
Three solo-piano recordings played at realistically low SPLs demonstrated that whatever the 101E Mk.II gave up to some other speakers in this area was minor. I used: Endre Hegedüs's Piano Music in a Church, recorded in analog using two microphones (CD, Tone-Pearls TPRCD 1); a remarkable-sounding recording by Lydia Artymiw of Schumann's Humoresque in B-flat, recorded direct to Studer A80 at 30ips in 1980 and mastered with no compression or noise reduction (LP, Chandos ABR 1029); and John Lill playing Schumann, recorded by Tony Faulkner and mastered by Stan Ricker, and used in my 2004 review (LP, Green Room Greenpro 4001/2).
With all of these recordings, the MBLs produced as believable a rendering of the sound of a solo piano as you're likely to hear from any speaker, whether the instrument was recorded in a reverberant church (Hegedüs, Artymiw) or the drier-sounding Henry Wood Hall in South London (Lill). I played them at the approximate SPLs I hear from my seat in the center of the 20th row of Avery Fisher Hall, both toward the end of my listening and again as soon as the Wilson MAXX 3s had been reinstalled. Both times, all three sounded as believable as any recording can, but in different ways.
The MBLs produced the more convincing senses of space (stage height excepted) and image solidity, carving out with almost alarming specificity the contours of the pianos within those spaces, while the MAXX 3s produced more believable microdynamics at pianissimo and macrodynamics at fortissimo, with a greater harmonic and textural consistency overall, particularly at the low end of the keyboard.
But the results were closer than I think they would have been had the comparison been between the Wilsons and the original 101Es. As best I could tell, given the changes in my system since 2004, the Mk.II sounded more coherent from top to bottom, and richer and fuller overall, with less of a tendency to sound "slightly laid-back" in the midrange or lean "slightly toward the bright," as I said of the original 101E's sound.
The result of Jürgen Reis's Mk.II revisions is a far more coherent, controlled, and nuanced MBL Reference 101E Radialstrahler. The difficult job of stitching together cones and petals has, for the most part, been accomplished; fewer sonic seams are left showing in the sound.
The price for a pair of 101Es has risen from $44,900 in 2004 to $70,500 in 2012. That's unfortunate, but if you can spend $44,900 on a pair of speakers to indulge your audiophile passion, you're probably able to spend $70,500especially as you're going to need to drop another bundle on the highest-quality analog and/or digital front-end electronics, cables, power conditioning, and room treatments.
The Reference 101E Mk.II is among the most revealing speakers you're likely to hear. It ruthlessly reveals the sonic characters of the equipment it's hooked up to, which means that that system, including the cables, must be assembled with great care. It's also tricky to set up, and requires both an optimally sized room and careful placement in that room. Although my entire system has changed in the eight years since the first version of the 101E Radialstrahler was here, I feel confident saying that the sound of the Mk.II is more refined and well behaved, and far more capable of speaking with a uniform, focused voice. The combination of MBL's 6010D preamp and the 9011 amplifiers that I reviewed last month driving the 101E Mk.IIs was among the most formidable-sounding audio systems ever assembled in my room.