MBL Rocks the Radiators
Long lines flooded out of the MBL room on the 18th Floor of the Waldorf=Astoria all weekend long, so I arrived at 9:30am on Sunday morning to see if I could get a good listen to the MBL system by myself. Upon arrival, MBL North America’s representative, Jeremy Bryan, was still setting up his smaller speakers, the mbl 120 Radialstrahler ($21,400/pair, without stands) along with their mbl C21 stereo power amplifier ($9200), mbl C11 preamplifier ($8,800), and mbl C31 CD player ($9,200), all members of their Corona line of electronics.
I sat to the side of the room while Bryan finished his set-up, centered in his listening position, and tilted his head back and forth. After the first ten seconds of four to five different demo tracks, Jeremy blurted, “Alright! I think we’re set. Come sit down.”
He added, “You know, we were having trouble at first with our set up. You see these radiators behind us?” Two massive radiators, one on each side of the wide room under two long windows, were covered by white sheets.
“We noticed they were causing problems. The radiators boomed at 40–180hz all by themselves. Just a slight bump on them with your fist…you were booming at over 70db, and that was before the radialstrahlers sent their waves everywhere. With the radialstrahlers going, the 40–180hz region was up 12db higher than the rest of the signal spectrum. ” To resolve the issue, Bryan and his team stuffed the radiators with 700 copies of Stereophile and The Absolute Sound they meant to hand out to room visitors. :-(. Cement blocks were then placed on top of the radiators in front of the windows to stabilize vibrations and focus the image at midrange height. After the treatments, pink noise increased by 10db. While they were still experiencing a 4-5db spike at 50 and 60hz, the MBL team decided to move on from there.
The first recording we listened to was a synthesizer-based adaptation of Bizet’s Habañera from the record Aria by the group Aria. My first noted impressions include a very clean and transparent sound but a touch thumpy. Maybe it was that 50 or 60hz spike.
Bryan knew I was a rock’n’roller so he played Metallica’s “Fuel” from their record ReLoad. I have banged my head many-a-time to this song while speeding through the hilly suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, searching for the excitement of steel clanging against steel and flaming pools of oil causing sweat to drip off my nose, the same search that would someday take me out of the lush green forests and stuffy houses to the industrial metropolis of New York City to work at Stereophile. I noticed bassist Jason Newstead’s massive tone, a much clearer picture of the vocal harmonies in the chorus, and a realistic crunch to Kirk Hammett’s guitar during his solo, the closest sound I heard at the show to a real guitar, which can be difficult to emulate. There are so many distinct tonal characters to a guitar raging from a tube amp that are difficult to emulate including the high-end bite without being piercing and the midrange-rich body that sustains notes from start to finish. The MBL system captured this.
I needed to hear more guitar.
Bryan played a song by the band Nightwish that started with pounding axes! Too bad the song was awful. I had to get involved.
“Do you have any Zeppelin?”
“I have How the West Was Won. Does that work for you?”
Before the public arrived, we listened to “Stairway to Heaven”. Jimmy Page’s jangly 12-string led the first half of the tune, but once Bonzo and JPJ kicked in for the latter verses, the thumpiness I heard during the Aria record returned. I forgot to mention, I also heard this excessive bass during Metallica’s “Fuel”. Gah. So many low-end problems at this show. Even when the manufacturer stuffed the radiators with Stereophiles, better sound did not permeate through the air.
“Do you have any Wagner?”
“I have Ride of the Valkyries.”
Damnit! No Parsifal! I was starting to get upset with the music selection in rooms at the show. It was mainly my own fault. I forgot to bring my compact discs on Sunday, but do you know how many times I have heard Ride of the Valkyries at the show already? Another exhibitor who popped in to take a listen asked, “Have you heard the Pilgrim’s March from Tannhauser?”
My enthusiasm unbridled: “Yes! That’s the kind of Wagner I’m talking about!” After hearing Valkyries so many times, I had become numb to its genius that was self-evident through the MBL system, which accentuated just the right level of stickiness to the brass and clung to your ears and demonstrated Wagner’s drastic dynamic changes as the MBLs could fade quickly to a hard and deep black.
Bass notes finally started sounding right on a solo piano piece, supple and non-overwhelming.
We then compared an HDTrack of The Who’s “Overture” to a DVD-A rip and a vinyl rip at 24-bit/88khz. While the HD track certainly sounded the most detailed, the vinyl rip was the easiest to listen to and gave more body to the drums. The listener next to me commented on how he preferred the DVD-A rip to the HDTrack. Fun stuff.
That was enough MBL for the morning, but Bryan promised the big speakers would be hooked up later in the day, so I promised to return.
A man of my word, I returned and made MBL my final stop for the show on Sunday for a grand conclusion. Listening through the MBL Reference Line System, including the mbl 101E MkII Radialstrahler loudspeaker ($70,500/par), mbl 1621A CD Transport ($28,000), mbl 1611F D/A Converter ($28,700), mbl 6010D Preamplifier ($26,500), and two mbl 9011 monoblocks ($53,000/each), which can also be used as a stereo amplifier, I decided to put back on the Zeppelin and hear what the bigger system could do.
“Could you put on ‘Black Dog’?”
“Sure thing.” Bryan responded, “Just give me a moment.” He prodded at his iPad, then gave the audience a warning, “We’re about to play some heavy metal, so for those of you who are the faint of heart, consider this a warning.”
I interjected, “Wait. What are you about to play?”
“No no no, please put on ‘Black Dog’.” There was zero desire in me to hear Metallica’s ‘Fuel’ again. That recording is way over-compressed, and I didn’t want to continue to overload the room with bass again.
“Gotcha,” said Bryan, returning to his iPad.
Cue the first few notes of ‘Stairway’.
“Woah woah woah! Could you please play ‘Black Dog’?” I felt bad halting the demo so many times and amidst the gear, the audiophiles, and the requests, I can understand how Bryan could get confused, but I knew what I wanted to hear and why.
Finally the right song began.
“Hey hey mama said the way you move / Gon’ make you sweat, gon’ make you groove.”
Uh! That was fucking visceral! Bonzo’s titanic drumming, Plant’s sexual sibilants, and the accuracy in Page’s Les Paul tone, accentuating the honey-sweet treble, put Zeppelin right in front me, possibly the closest I’ll ever get to the real thing. At one point, I thought Plant was singing behind me, but that was just a fellow fan. Everyone in the room was smiling, sharing in the experience of hearing the closest thing to what was live Zeppelin. The stage wide and tall, just like the real thing. Easily my favorite memory from the show: is there a better way to make new friends than through the hi-fi?