MBL 111B loudspeaker Page 2

Once I'd got the speakers optimally positioned in my room, the most immediately obvious difference between the MBLs and the Wilson Audio Sophias that had preceded them (review in last month's issue) was how insensitive they were. The volume control of my Mark Levinson No.380S preamplifier had to be set around 10dB higher than it had with the Wilsons to get the same listening level. I wouldn't use less than a 100Wpc amplifier with the 111Bs.

Bass was obviously well-extended, but without the spikes, the 111B's low frequencies again lagged a bit behind the music's pulse. On piano, for example, the left-hand register had a somewhat "hummy" quality—not unpleasant, but not realistic. Fitting the spikes did a lot to cure this problem, the leading edges of bass piano notes coming into better balance with the body of their tone. But with the spikes cleaning up the low-frequency register, I became more bothered by the MBL's behavior at the other end of the spectrum. While the level of the high frequencies seemed natural, their quality was a little hashy. Without being balanced by the hummy pre-spike lows, this hashy quality became irritating.

Visiting friends were commenting on this problem, so it seemed an ideal opportunity to remove the grilles. We were listening to "Mexico," from James Taylor's superb 1993 Live album (Columbia C2K 47056), and to say our jaws dropped when I took the Nu-Vista CD player out of Pause is no exaggeration. Not only did the hashy quality vanish with the 111B au naturel, but there was now an airy freedom to the upper octaves that was pure magic. The speaker looks distinctly unfinished without its grille, but that's a price I willingly pay to get such magic.

And with spikes and without a grille, the MBL 111B's balance was seamless from bottom to top, with no sense of any discontinuities between the four different drive-units. At Home Entertainment 2002, Stereophile columnist John Marks had pressed a CD of Morten Lauridsen's luminous work for chorus and orchestra, Lux Aeterna (RCM 19705), into my hands. As John described in his "Records To Die For" entry last February (pp.71-72), the work begins with an orchestral D chord "six octaves tall." Via the MBLs, the depth of that chord in both pitch and spatial dimensions raised the hairs on the back of my neck, just as John had predicted it would.

The clarity of the grilleless 111Bs was addictive. During the review period, I was listening to some trial mixes for Against the Dying of the Light, the new CD from choral group Cantus, scheduled to be released in the fall (footnote 1). As I have in all of my two-channel recordings, I used two different pairs of mikes for this project: spaced omnis for natural tonal balance and a feeling of envelopment, and ORTF cardioids for imaging precision. The trick in post-production is to balance the levels of the two pairs and bring them into time alignment to preserve all three aspects of sound quality. When the 111Bs had their grilles on, the time alignment didn't work the magic I was expecting from my experience with past recording projects. With the grilles off, and when the time alignment was just right, the sense of focus was unambiguous.

Despite the reputations some omnis omnidirectional speakers have for unstable stereo imaging, the 111Bs' soundstage was well-defined. Yes, although James Taylor's voice in the live CD mentioned earlier hung in the space between the speakers in a most palpable manner, I could hear slight changes in the exact position of his voice depending on the pitch of the notes being sung, presumably because of the different contributions of room reflections at different frequencies. But on the solo disc of Bob Dylan's The Bootleg Series Volume 4: Live 1966 (Columbia C2K 65759), the opening up of the soundstage as the mono Nagra recording of "Desolation Row" is spliced into the three-track stereo recording for the last verse was easily audible.

Despite their low sensitivity, the MBLs played loud without strain, the dynamic limit set by some graininess creeping in in the upper mids rather than any feeling that the speaker was running out of headroom. And like some other Class A speakers, not only did loud instruments get louder when I turned up the volume (Duh!), but the dynamic contrast between those loud instruments and the softer ones also increased. In "The Division Bell" from Pink Floyd's live Pulse set (Columbia C2K 67064), the song opens with a tolling bell at stage left and another, quieter bell closer to the center. As the song builds in intensity and loudness, the bells become masked, but after the post-cathartic climax, they re-emerge. Via the MBLs—compared with the Sophias or the Revel Studios—I could swear the bells took longer to become inaudible at the start of the song, and reappeared earlier. Extra treble energy in the room, or simply superb resolving power? Hard to say, but I liked what I heard.

"Doing It Differently," I wrote for this month's main cover line. But even as it does it differently, the MBL 111B's goal is the same as that of all high-quality loudspeakers: wide dynamic range; superb extension at both frequency extremes; a neutral, musically communicative midrange; clean, grain-free highs; and stable, accurately defined imaging. These German speakers can certainly reach those goals—providing you drive them with a powerful amplifier and stow their grilles well away from the listening room!

Footnote 1: Cantus' earlier CD, Let Your Voice Be Heard, which I engineered, can be purchased from the "Recordings" page.—John Atkinson
US distributor: MBL North America, Inc.
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New York, NY 10023
(212) 724-4870