When it was suggested that I call in on speaker manufacturer RBH Sound during a planned trip to Utah in the fall of 2001, my response was "Who is RBH?" To my embarrassment, the speaker company had not popped up on my radar screen since it was formed in Los Angeles in 1976. However, I had certainly heard some of the speakers they had manufactured for other companies, most notably the McIntosh models of the early 1980s, with their line arrays of dome tweeters.
In the past year, Stereophile has reviewed a number of cost-no-object flagship loudspeakers. B&W's Signature 800, MartinLogan's Prodigy, Burmester's B-99, Snell's XA Reference Tower, Krell's LAT-1, Linn's Komri, Dynaudio's Evidence Temptation, Sony's ES SS-M9ED, and Rockport's Antares have all passed through the review mill. Manufacturers like to submit their flagships for review for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the pride they take in showing what their engineers can do when given a blank check. However, while all these models do indeed provide great (if different) sound for the tens of thousands of dollars they demand from their owners, they are out of reach of the majority of audiophiles. It is important, therefore, for reviewers to spend time with real-world designs; when I heard the $1990/pair CS1.6 from Kentucky's Thiel at the 2002 CES last January, I requested a pair for review.
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.
"My god. This was better than any hi-fi I had ever experienced—I actually had Sergei Rachmaninoff in the room, playing Mendelssohn just for me. I am not ashamed to say that I wept." I wrote those words in the January 2001 Stereophile, about hearing a piano-roll transcription of Rachmaninoff performing Mendelssohn's Spinning Song (Op.67 No.34) on a Bösendorfer Imperial 290SE reproducing piano. I was in the middle of recording Robert Silverman's cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas at the Maestro Foundation in Santa Monica, where there just happened to be a floppy disk with Wayne Stahnke's transcription of the Rachmaninoff for the Bösendorfer mechanism, which Stahnke invented.
Such is the pace of development in digital technology these days that it is hard not to become convinced that digital playback is a solved problem. The measured performance aberrations are so low in absolute level—and, more important, so low compared with the typical threshold of human hearing—that it is difficult to see why digital components should sound different from one another.
I never "got" the spurs with which Jimmie Lee Robinson provided a percussive accompaniment to his singing and guitar playing, but I became a fan of Jimmie Lee's when I saw him perform on two successive nights at Acoustic Sounds' first blues festival in Salina, Kansas in September 1998. His subsequent live appearances at Consumer Electronics Shows and at HI-FI '99, Home Entertainment 2001, and HE2002 on behalf of Acoustic Sounds' associated APO label, were highlights of those events. (I took the accompanying photo at Jimmie Lee's May 31 HE2002 gig in New York with harmonica player Wild Child Butler.)
Of the small number of times I have been totally swept away by listening to recorded music, a significant proportion have involved loudspeakers from Wilson Audio Specialties. It was my experience of their X-1/Grand SLAMM in the listening rooms of reviewer Martin Colloms, then-retailer Peter McGrath, designer Dan D'Agostino of Krell, and manufacturer Madrigal Audio Labs, that led me to name it my "Editor's Choice" for 1995 and join my vote with those of the Stereophile scribes to make it the magazine's "Loudspeaker of the Year." I wrote in my December 2001 "As We See It" about how a cross-country road trip had begun with a listen to the Cantus CD on the Wilson WAMMs in their designer's Utah listening room. And, as I wrote in my April column, auditioning Peter McGrath's 24-bit Nagra-D master tapes on Wilson MAXXes in the Halcro room was, for me, the highlight of the 2002 CES.
Although I was trying to earn a living playing in rock bands in the early 1970s, I occasionally used to drag my Fender bass over to a school canteen in the next town for an after-hours session with what used to be called a "rehearsal band." (I have no idea what the derivation of that name is, except that, with the exception of a couple of veterans of the Ted Heath Orchestra, we were certainly in need of all the rehearsal we could get.) I would set up my Marshall stack the other side of the drummer from the pianist and sit behind a set of trumpet players, a brace of trombonists, and a scrum of players of the common saxophone flavors—a couple of altos, three or four tenors, and a baritone wielded by a gentleman with the magnificent moniker of Albert Bags. We played Glenn Miller and Woody Herman charts, and, on one memorable night, a Stan Kenton arrangement. Our technical chops didn't match our musical ambitions, but the feeling that welled up inside us when we all reached the final measure at the same time couldn't be beat.
It's the grain elevators that break the monotony of driving across the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle. As you pass one, another one appears on the horizon. Thus you know you're making progress, despite the fact that the landscape remains unchanged.