Vienna Acoustics Mahler loudspeaker Page 3

I had several amplifiers on hand to drive the Mahlers, including a Rotel RB-1090, Bryston 9B-ST, Thule PA250B, and a pair of Krell FPB 350Mcs (senior sibling of the FPB 250Mc, reviewed by Larry Greenhill in June 1998). The speakers were quite revealing of sonic differences between amplifiers, with the Krells sounding substantially better than any of the others.

The Mahler was at its very best when reproducing large-scale symphonic music, big-band jazz, opera, and musicals. The challenges in reproducing this type of material are formidable: the speaker has to be able to maintain the individual instrumental and vocal threads while allowing the blending that is characteristic of the real sound, and to retain its composure at the high levels that stress the individual speaker components. As the overall level rises, there's a tendency for a speaker to lose sonic details and for the sound to acquire a "pushed," strained quality, like a singer who's trying to produce a big sound that is beyond his or her comfortable range.

The Mahler was able to play at high levels with ease and smoothness, maintaining the level of detail that was characteristic of lower playback levels. In its ability to play at very high levels without sounding strained, the Mahler surpassed every other speaker I've had for review. The Dunlavy SC-IV/ADunlavy SC-IV/A, my longtime reference loudspeaker, starts to lose focus and to acquire a bit of an edge at levels at which the Mahler was still sailing along comfortably. The SC-IV/A is an exceedingly fine speaker, and if you do your listening at more moderate levels, the Mahler's higher dynamic ceiling may not be of much importance. Most of my listening is at fairly low levels, but once in a while I like to let 'er rip (footnote 2). At these times, I was able to listen with the certainty that my ears were going to give up before the speakers would.

At more normal levels, the Mahler's exceptional dynamic capability was evident in its communication of music's subtle ebb and flow, and in its ability to track transient peaks. The new La Bohème (London/Decca 466 070-2) seems to have been recorded expressly to test a system's dynamic capabilities: Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu at full tilt at the end of "O Soave Fanciulla" make an exciting, powerful sound, and maestro Riccardo Chailly keeps up a crackling pace in the Cafe Momus scene. The Mahlers took it all in stride, keeping up the pace and rising to the dynamic peaks. Opera fans who like to listen loud will love these speakers.

Allied to this sense of dynamic freedom was a great sense of openness, a kind of see-through quality, with the speakers somehow getting out of the way as apparent sources of sound, leaving only the music behind. The speakers were able to create a soundstage of exceptional width and depth, with a specificity of vocal and instrumental images that rivaled the Dunlavy SC-IV/As. To check the Mahlers' accuracy of depth information, I dug out Best of Chesky Jazz and More Audiophile Tests, Volume 2 (Chesky JD68), which has a clicker recorded in a large studio at various distances from the microphone. With most speakers, the audible differentiation of distances holds up to perhaps 50', the clicker sounding much the same at 60', 70', and 80'. However, with the Mahlers, the sound of the clicker continued to recede into the distance, to the limit of the recording. In the "General Image and Resolution Test" (track 47) people are marching around the room, with a plausible illusion of them passing behind the listener. The height of the soundstage was projected to be somewhat above the speakers, which is just how I like it.

The term "tonal balance" is an apt one, in that a speaker's tonal quality represents a kind of balancing act, with plenty of opportunities for slipping. It goes without saying that a speaker should not emphasize any part of the frequency range, but consideration of on-axis frequency response is only the first step in designing a speaker that sounds lifelike. There are certainly speakers out there that have a flat on-axis frequency response, but other aspects of their performance (eg, polar-response irregularities, delayed resonances, nonlinear distortions) make them sound artificial, more like mechanical contrivances and less like live music. The skillful designer balances all aspects of speaker performance that have an influence on its sound; arguments about objective "accuracy" notwithstanding, there is always a degree of subjectivity in making these design choices, as indeed there is in the listener's evaluation of the results.

To describe the Mahler as having a "musical" tonal balance—which is how I would describe it—is not to imply that it deliberately deviates from absolute tonal neutrality, but that the choices the designer made serve the music while adhering to the ideal of "high fidelity." Instruments and voices reproduced through the Mahlers sounded much as they do in life, with a minimum of mechanical/electronic artifacts to remind me that I was listening to a reproduction. The midrange balance was just about ideal: neither unduly laid-back nor consistently in my face. The top end was smooth and extended, perhaps departing slightly from absolute neutrality in the direction of sweetness, making it easier to listen to what are otherwise harsh-sounding CDs. The Mahlers also managed the difficult trick of providing high resolution of musical detail without sounding clinical or overly analytical.

Footnote 2: To give you an idea of the kind of levels I'm talking about: At the listening seat, the RadioShack SPL meter ("C" weighting, fast) indicated peaks of just below 100dB. The meter's ballistics are known to underestimate momentary peaks by 5-10dB, so I'd call that pretty loud.
Vienna Acoustics
US distributor: Sumiko
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 843-4500