The Fifth Element #49

We continue the search for the successor to Fried's Q loudspeaker of yore. Renaissance Audio is the former Morel USA, so they have a long track record in both OEM driver manufacture and making complete loudspeakers. As I mentioned in my June column, their MLP-403.5 loudspeaker is a two-cubic-foot, sealed-box three-way with a dome midrange driver, at the near-improbable price of $1090/pair (footnote 1).

The first two pairs of review samples were damaged in shipping. Both boxes (two speakers in one box) were dropped with enough force to shear off the pins that secure the grilles, in both cases damaging a midrange driver. As a result, Renaissance has switched to one speaker per box. That should solve the problem.

Going from the Usher V-601s that I wrote about in April to the Renaissance MLP-403.5s, one of the first things that became apparent was that the treble of the MLP-403.5 is not "tailored." The tape hiss on Julie London's "Cry Me a River," from her Time for Love: The Best of Julie London (CD, Rhino R2 70737), did not call attention to itself at all with the Ushers, but was quite apparent through the Renaissances. Similarly, at the beginning of "In the Middle of a Kiss," London's mouth makes a small unsticking sound when she opens it as she gets ready to sing (footnote 2). The Usher had put that little sound in the background to the point that I never consciously noticed it.

Through the Renaissance, I could hear the breath vibrato of the flute solo separately from the flute tone itself in the introduction to London's take on "'Round Midnight"—which, again, I can't with the Usher. The few times the MLP-403.5's treble became just a bit much, such as on Paul Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale's recording of Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna (CD, RCM 19705), I simply used the Arcam Solo's tone controls to knock the treble down a click or three.

The next thing that became apparent was that the MLP-403.5 had bass! And sounded rich and full at lower volumes! The bass lines of both the acoustic bass on the old Julie London tracks and the electric bass (often doubled by kick drum) on Jackson Browne's Late for the Sky (CD, Elektra) took on lives of their own through the Renaissance, with real heft and impact. As heard through the Renaissances, the Michel Donato Trio's nostalgic guitar/accordion/double-bass cover of Laurindo Almeida's "Nocturno" (CD, Fidelio FACD023; and the FSI show CD), had wonderfully solid (if slightly too close-miked) bass.

It's not surprising that the MLP-403.5 has bass. The raw ingredients for good bass are there: Its cabinet is within inches of the size of the classic BBC two-cubic-foot monitor (3001 in3 vs the Usher's 1888 in3), and its bass driver is nearly 9" in diameter. What is a pleasant surprise is that Renaissance delivers the MLP-403.5's bass capability for just over $1000/pair.

The MLP-403.5's bass competence was quickly verified by the setup-check test-track, the channel IDs, and the phasing tests on my constant companion, Stereophile's Test CD 2 (Stereophile STPH004-2). John Atkinson's electric bass guitar had a snappy punch with real bottom impact. On speakers less capable of bass extension, the shifted balance between fundamentals and harmonics puts something of a pillow between you and the real sound. Another point in the MLP-403.5's favor was that the spatial/ambient difference between channels being in and out of proper phase was as great as I have ever heard. In my experience, that always promises great imaging.

Through the Renaissances, Herbert Howells' Master Tallis's Testament, from my Pipes Rhode Island (CD, Riago 101), sounded magnificent, with very true timbres on the solo stops and extremely gratifying power on the pedals. Great soundfield depth, too. On such tracks, the MLP-403.5's sealed rather than ported bass loading really shone, with no undue emphasis on any one note and a very smooth rolloff. Organists and organ buffs on a budget will love the MLP-403.5.

So: more on the top and more on the bottom. In that way, the MLP-403.5 follows Bud Fried's dictate that treble extension should mirror bass extension. By that measure, the Usher V-601 is not a "bad" speaker, just one with far more modest ambitions. The V-601 is very pleasant to listen to in a practical, real-world way. Usher's attitude with this model might be summed up as: Why spend more money to hear stuff that may be as likely to get in the way of your enjoyment of the music as add to it?

At or below the Usher's price of $700/pair, I'd rather listen to a speaker somewhat less revealing of fine detail but that has a timbral balance that is fatigue-free, than the reverse. While spending a long stretch listening to the combination of Arcam Solo receiver and Usher V-601s, I did not feel deprived. But when I swapped in the Renaissance Audio MLP-403.5s, I immediately got the sense that I was listening to a lot more speaker. And I was. And the ca 50% price increment ($1090 vs $700/pair) strikes me as making the MLP-403.5 a superb bargain.

Frequency extension at top and bottom was the biggest difference between the Usher and the Renaissance, but the midrange, which the MLP-403.5 handles with a 2.1" soft-dome unit, also struck me as another strong point in the Renaissance's favor. Its midrange was slightly richer and more solid, especially with female vocals—not only Julie London, but my current fave-rave opera ladies as well (see sidebar). Perhaps this is related to the limitations of Usher's two-way design.

Given all these positives, you might wonder why everyone doesn't just buy the Renaissance MLP-403.5s and have done with it. Well, there are tradeoffs.

In terms of sound, the Renaissance was not as coherent as speakers that are class leaders in that department. You can spend about twice as much for Harbeth's HL-P3ES-2, which is descended from the BBC's LS3/5a, and not get anywhere near as much bass—but, oh, the coherence! Well-set-up HL-P3ES-2s just seem to disappear, with no sense of separate drivers. The Renaissance MLP-403.5s, admittedly driven by budget electronics, never seemed to break entirely free from the perception of separate drivers doing their things in a box. Hand in hand with this less-than-world-class coherence was a touch of veiling overall—again, compared to the best, regardless of price. Also, at volumes higher than I would ever listen to for any length of time, some female vocals turned a bit raucous and shouty in the midrange.

The MLP-403.5 has a few non-sound tradeoffs as well: looks, fit'n'finish, and bulk. The Renaissance is built well enough, but it's obvious that the money has gone into the sound, not the cosmetics. The sides, top, and bottom are veneered in real walnut, but the front and rear are painted black, giving the speakers a somewhat dated, studio-only look. The grille-attachment grommets are nothing to write home about; nor are the grilles. The smallish single terminals at the rear are functional but little more; not EC-compliant, and not at all fancy.

The MLP-403.5 is more than half again as big as the Usher V-601, and its 1970s–80s look and feel don't help matters. Perhaps putting them on lower stands than I used might help them blend in. I used 24" stands, which put the tweeters at about seated ear level for me, but perhaps 18" or even 14" stands would help them blend in better. If memory serves, the stands for my similarly sized Spendor SP-1s are about 14" tall.

To sum up the Renaissance Audio MLP-403.5: Pros: tremendous value for money; sophisticated technical design and drivers at the price; full, extended bass. Cons: bulk, looks, and fit'n'finish; lacks the sonic finesse of speakers costing much more; can get a bit shouty when pushed very hard. Conclusion: If audio performance rather than eye appeal is what you're after, put the MLP-403.5 on your shopping list. $$$ for value.


Footnote 1: Renaissance Audio Group, 414 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA 02446. Tel: (617) 277-6663. Fax: (617) 277-2415. Web:

Footnote 2: I know, I know: TMI (too much information). EMI (even more information): Given the extreme closeness of the miking, the producer should have made London rinse her mouth with club soda every few takes. But things were less buttoned-down in those days. I recall seeing a session shot of Peggy Lee, singing into a now-priceless vintage AKG studio microphone, with a lit cigarette in one hand, inches from the mike.