Music Hall Marimba loudspeaker
Late last year, when I first heard of the Music Hall Marimba, I was happily surprised: One of my favorite hi-fi manufacturers had finally introduced its first and (so far) only loudspeakerand it was seriously affordable at $349/pair. I wanted to review the Marimbas right away, but grumpy old Sam Tellig beat me to them (see our December 2012 issue). My first chance to hear the Marimbas came last October, at the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where they highlighted a refreshingly small and simple system comprising Music Hall's MMF-5.1SE turntable with Cruise Control 2.0 power supply, and a Creek Evolution 50A integrated amplifier. The cost of the entire rig, including cables and accessories, was around $3500modest by most audiophiles' standardsand it sounded awesome: big, lively, detailed, and, most of all, fun.
While I was entirely impressed by the system's sound, I was slightly disappointed by the Marimba's appearance: Its boxy, black cabinet gives it an undeniably humble, completely unpretentious look, and though I can appreciate that, I want a little more stylesomething to set the Marimba apart from the countless hi-fi phonies lining the shelves of big-box stores and plastered all over Amazon.com. In terms of appearance, the Marimba is only slightly more attractive than the Dayton Audio B652, which I reviewed in January; and, while the Dayton, too, has a rather anonymous, generic look, that's something I can more easily accept in a speaker that costs only $40/pair.
Whatever. One evening, while Ms. Little was out, I replaced my beloved PSB Alpha B1s ($299/pair) with the Music Hall Marimbas, setting them exactly where the PSBs had been. After Ms. Little had gotten home, I asked her if she'd noticed the new speakers. Her eyes went wide. Her gaze drew an arc from left speaker to right. Her face expressed complete bewilderment, as if to say, "What new speakers?" As far as she was concerned, the Marimbas were the Alpha B1s; so while the PSBs strike me as being far more attractive, it stands to reason that most normal people wouldn't notice a difference.
Roy Hall, Music Hall's founder and "president for life," is responsible for both the Marimba's visual and acoustic designsa fact that will keep certain audiophiles (those especially old and joyless ones again) from ever listening to the thing. Hall's got a reputation for being a bit of a potty-mouth. And he likes Scotch. Audiophiles who are afraid of obscenities and alcohol are therefore afraid of Roy Hall, but I've had the pleasure of speaking with the man on a number of occasions, and he strikes me as warm, intelligent, and reasonablefrank when it comes to business, and rather romantic when it comes to life.
Why, after nearly 30 years as a manufacturer and distributor, has Hall decided to introduce his own affordable loudspeaker?
"Basically, to fuck the competition," he says.
While I'm sure that's true, there's more to the story. Music Hall is the North American distributor for Epos loudspeakers, many of which have found great success in the US. One of Epos's most affordable designs, the ELS-3 ($299/pair), was reviewed by Robert J. Reina in our January 2004 issue and held a place in Class C (Restricted LF) of our "Recommended Components" until it was discontinued, in 2009.
Had he entered the speaker market sooner, Hall would have been competing against himselfsomething that smart businessmen try to avoid. With the popular ELS-3 gone for good, and Epos making a turn up market, Hall sensed an opportunity.
On the face of it, Music Hall's strategy makes sense, but I've been told by several leading loudspeaker manufacturers that the time has passed for affordable passive bookshelf models, and that audiophiles now shopping for a sub-$500/pair speaker are more interested in powered desktop designs. What would Roy Hall say to those manufacturers?
"They may be right," he admits, "but as I never talk to them, I wouldn't know. I make decisions based on what I like to do. I've always loved two-way speakers. They fuck up the sound much less than more complex designs."
Hall fell in love with small, stand-mounted loudspeakers some 25 years ago, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, when he first heard a pair of Linn Kans.
"Alex Montenegro from [Linn's erstwhile importer] Audiophile Systems had set them up using a Naim [NAP] 250 [power amplifier] and a Linn Sondek [turntable]. The speakers were hard up against the wall and seemed to be peeking out of a curtain. They sounded unbelievable. I wished then that I could create something that sounded that good."
"I finally did."
The passion of old-timers
It seems there are some advantages to growing old after allthe realization of dreams, for example, a notion that strikes me as being both invigorating and daunting. How much growing can be expected of a person? Are we never done?
While Roy Hall spent four years in the late 1970s employed by Linn, building their famed Isobarik loudspeaker, the Marimba is the first speaker he's actually designed. He makes the process sound like something akin to grocery shopping, selecting drive-units and other materials as though they were cans of soup.
"I went to the factory with a mandate to make this speaker within a very tight budget. I used standard cabinets and off-the-shelf components to save money. I started at 9:30 in the morning, and finalized the design by lunchtime: I was hungry, and the boss was taking me to his favorite restaurant. I didn't want to miss it. I do love Chinese food."
Though its rear panel proudly states "DESIGNED AND DEVELOPED IN THE USA," the Marimba is made in Shenzhen, China, by "a company that's run by an audiophile the same age as me," Hall continues. "We bonded when he told me it was great to find someone his own age that was still enthusiastic about hi-fi, and we agreed that very few young people in the industry have the passion of us old-timers."
The Marimba has a 5.25" polypropylene-cone woofer and a 1" silk-dome tweeter, measures 10.9" (279mm) high by 6.5" (167mm) wide by 8.6" (221mm) deep, and weighs 8.6 lbs (3.9kg). Music Hall's specifications include a sensitivity of 87dB/W/m, a nominal impedance of 6 ohms, and a frequency range of 50Hz35kHz. Although the Marimba's MDF cabinet is modest in appearance, Hall insists that his greater ambitions are hidden beneath the surface: "The cabinet is incredibly well braced, both laterally and vertically. This is unheard of in a box [of its] price, and accounts for most of the [Marimba's] deep bass and distortion-free sound." Still, knocking on the speaker's side panel produced a clearly audible, hollow-sounding resonancenot unlike that of a marimba, in fact, and more or less typical of a $350/pair speaker.
The Marimba's Web page boasts that all final tuning was done by ear, with real music. "I think I used James Last, Led Zeppelin, and Andy Williams," says Hall. "Frankly, it was whatever crap they had in the factory."