The speaker review in the July 1996 issue of the German audio magazine Stereoplay didn't hold back the praise. "Absolut Spitzenklasse III Referenz" was their overall rating, which I guess translates to "You'd better hear this, buddy," in American English. So when MBL of America's Marc Lawrence called to find out if I wanted to review the subject of that review, the MBL 111, I didn't need to be asked twice.
It was almost five years ago that I first spent some serious auditioning time with an omnidirectional two-piece speaker from German manufacturer MBL: the four-way MBL 111. When I reviewed the 111 in the April 1998 Stereophile, I had been extremely impressed with the speaker's stereo imaging, which was superbly stable and well-defined, with images that floated completely free of the speaker positions. The tonal balance was also excellent, with a rich midrange, superbly clean highs, and extended lows. "This Radialstrahler is one of the best tweeters I have experienced," I wrote. In fact, the 111 was let down only by bass frequencies that tended to lag behind the music slightly.
Take a casual look at the Mk.II edition of MBL's Reference 101E Radialstrahler loudspeaker, and you won't immediately see what's new compared with the original version, which I reviewed in October 2004. But the Mk.II has a shorter, sleeker bass cabinet, designed to, among other things, slightly lower the stack of omnidirectional drivers it supports. While the many other major revisions to this familiar and fascinating loudspeaker can't be seen, it's fair to say that, from the ground up, the Reference 101E Mk.II is a new loudspeaker in design, if not in concept.
Though each link in the audio chain is significant in its own way, we seem to spend more time agonizing over the choice and setup of loudspeakers than any other component. Floorstanding or stand-mounted? Full-range frequency extension or minimonitor coherence? Multiple-driver complexity or two-way simplicity? Pleasurable and forgiving or resolved and revealing? And even when money is no object, how much speaker do you really want...or need? It might sound splendid in the shop, but how will it couple with your room? How will it integrate with your other gear? Is it easy to set up and drive or will it involve specialized gear and a massive overhaul of your current rig?
Like most people, I'm not interested in long, windy essays about audio reviewing, having barely enough time and interest for audio itself. But I do perk up when the debate turns to the audio reviewer's purpose in life: Should I write about everything that crosses my path, or should I limit my attention to those products that interest me, and that stand a chance of being good?
In audiophile circles, it is the "Stuart"—electronics designer Bob Stuart of the Boothroyd-Stuart collaboration—who has received most recognition. The contribution of industrial designer and stylist Allen Boothroyd has gone relatively unremarked. Yet as I unpacked Meridian's D600 "Digital Active" loudspeaker, I was struck by Boothroyd's ability to make the humdrum—a rectangular box loudspeaker—seem more than just that. The man has one hell of an eye for proportion. From the first Orpheus loudspeaker of 1975, through the Celestion SL6 and 'SL600 (where AB did the industrial and package design), to this latest Meridian loudspeaker design, his brainchildren look "right," to the extent of making competing designs appear at minimum over-square and clumsy, if not downright ugly.
I am biased: On very little evidence, I remain convinced that, in the near future, high-quality music reproduction will be multichannel. While most multichannel demos are still egregiously and aggressively ping-pong, I have attended a few successful demonstrations of discrete multichannel reproduction that have impressed me so deeply that I hunger to have all the music I love transported to me (and me to it) in this way.
Nestled south of the North Downs in England's southeast, the Kentish dormitory town of Sevenoaks is about as sleepy a place as you can imagine. Yet 20 years ago, in the unlikely circumstances of the back room of a Sevenoaks pub, I witnessed the world of consumer loudspeakers changing. Meridian's Steve Hopkins was showing a pair of the company's active M2 loudspeakers connected directly to a 101 preamplifier.
Despite displaying its products at nearly every CES since 1985, Merlin remains essentially unknown in the US. Problems have plagued the company in this country: key suppliers have gone under, marketing efforts have lacked focus, and the principals of the company seemed to have gotten caught up in audio politics.
Mirage /ma-'räzh/ n [F, fr mirer to look at. fr. L mirari] 1: an optical effect that is sometimes seen at sea, in the desert, or over a hot pavement, that may have the appearance of a pool of water or a mirror... 2: something illusory and unattainable, like a mirage.
I only found out after beginning my auditioning of Mirage's M-1si loudspeakers that the film 2001, A Space Odyssey was, at practically the same instant, undergoing a brief theatrical revival in major cities around the US. I might have known. Perhaps it was the persistent Strauss melodies that rattled around in my head as I set them up. Perhaps it was the two 5'-tall monoliths that subsequently stared at me as I sat in my listening chair. For whatever reason, the M-1sis were an imposing sight, and the association with out-of-this-world events was not a difficult one to make.
It may surprise some readers to learn that all of the contributors to Stereophile do not get the chance to hear, at our leisure and in familiar circumstances, everything that passes through the magazine's portals. Not that we wouldn't like to, but there just isn't time. Nor are the logistics always right. I was therefore probably as intrigued as the average reader by LA's glowing report on the $5000/pair Mirage M-1 in the June 1989 issue. The M-1s had been on the market long enough for me to have heard them on several occasions, of course, but generally at shows and not under the best of conditions. I did get to hear them briefly at LA's later that same summer, but the hustle and bustle of a Stereophile Writers' Conference party isn't the optimum place for value judgments.
What's 1/16" narrower, over 1/2" shallower, and 3/16" higher than the Mirage M-3 loudspeaker? The new Mirage M-3si, that's what. Though the published dimensions for the old and new speakers are the same, my eyes told me there was a difference between them when I had them side-by-side in my listening room in Santa Fe. Being the compulsive type, I got out my trusty tape measure. No, my eyes had not deceived me—the M-3si is skinnier and taller. As I waltzed them into position, I sensed they weighed about the same as their predecessors; close enough that setting them on Arcici Super Spikes is a two-man operation. Though either speaker makes a definite presence in a room, I still find their high-gloss, black finish (the only finish available) unassuming, attractive, and elegant.
Audiophiles have long had a love-hate relationship with dipolar loudspeakers. These devices are nearly always a pain to position properly, they tend to dominate a room, and more often than not they're fussy about amplification. But when it all comes together, the best of them can make magic.