Terry's Aluminium Oranges. The Teutonic Tangerine. The Accordian from Mars. The jokes flew thick and fast when the MBL 101 first appeared outside of Germany, with industry smart-arses (myself included) refusing to believe that this louspeaker was any different from other oddball designs. Humbled and corrected, I am now at the table and hungry enough to eat crow.
Just why the hi-fi community was/is so unimaginative, so Luddite I can't imagine. You'd think that all concerned – retailers, reviewers and consumers, if not the opposition – would welcome any break from two cones on a box. But there have been far too many weird and costly speakers in the high end. And when they fail to carve out a chunk of the market, the companies go bust and those who bought the things are left with speakers which can never be repaired. And they always feature proprietary drivers.
The MBL speaker, however, has been around for nearly a decade and is the product of 20 years worth of research. This includes input from professors working at the Aerospace Research Department of the Technical University of Berlin, who undertook intensive testing to ensure not just that the chosen materials sounded best but that they also offered reliability.
Before you suffer palpitations upon reading the dreaded word 'omnidirectional', note that the three-way MBL 101 is not a Bose or Sonab-like cluster of conventional cones aimed here, there and everywhere. The MBL uses three radically-shaped dynamic drivers, stacked in a column and radiating in a true 360 degree pattern. The speakers have no front or back, other than the positioning of the logo badge...as you'd expect of a true omni.
Let's deal with the looks first, just to get over the main cause of so much merriment. With the grilles in place, the MBL 101s look like cylindrical towers and not so unusual as to stop people dead in their tracks. Indeed, they're undeniably handsome. Remove the grilles – sadly advisable because they compomise the transparency and affect stereo imaging – and you're looking at outlandish raw drivers, no baffles, all manner of struts, wires, framework and other assorted hardware not associated with either conventional boxes or panel-type systems.
The drivers all work on the same principle, acting as pulsating spheres, but differ in size and material. At the bottom of the stack is the large woofer driver, next is the mid driver and, capping it all, the tweeter. The mid and treble units are made from vertical sections consisting of carbon fibre strips, hand-assembled and pressed into a special former under high pressure and high temperature. The voice coils are fitted to the bottom openings of these orange-shaped modules, the voice coil carriers made of aluminium and floating in ferrofluid cooling material. Power handling is said to be in the kilowatt region for the whole system, so the build quality and overkill engineering seem to pay off as hoped.
The large bass unit is formed of laminated aluminium wedges, each reinforced with metal struts, and with its voice coil and suspension at the bottom. The entire assembly rests on a cast aluminium plinth, finished in an automotive-grade anthracite metallic paint. It contains the passive fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley crossover (operating at 350 and 1.5k Hz)and the magnet assembly for the bass driver. The trim struts around the bass of the woofer module appear to be solely for aesthetic purposes.
The review samples arrived fitted to an optional, taller base unit, the standard 101 measuring 750mm tall and 350mm in diameter at its largest cross section; the extra plinth raises the 101 by 350mm and its lowest section is a couple of centimetres wider. This eclosure extension may add volume to what seems to be, essentially, a non-cabinet design, although there was no way I could determine this without savaging 22,200 Deutschmarks worth of someone else's hi-fi if it provided extra loading for the bass driver. (The price breakdown is DM19,000 for the pair of 101s, plus DM3,200 for the stands.) At the very bottom of the plinths are four gold-plated terminals for bi-wiring, while links are provided for single wire operation. We removed the rubber feet and stood the 101s in Isopod cones.
Also supplied was the company's active centre-mono subwoofer, which added little reinforcement in my room. Additionally, the set-up involved running the 101s as satellites and it was painfully obvious that feeding them through another filter network severely compromised the transparency and transient response. Copping out, I disconnected the subwoofer and concentrated on the 101s driven directly from various power amplifiers. It should be noted, though, that there are three possible set-ups using the subwoofer, including a true bi-amplification mode which minimises the subwoofer filter's effect.
The science fiction aspects of the design extend to more than mere aesthetics. The frequency response, for example, is stated as 35-70k Hz, enough to elicit nudges and winks from not a few British speaker snobs. Impedance is a safe 4 ohms, but the sensitivity is only 80dB/1W/1m, so MBL recommends amplifiers rated between 200-500W. I stuck with the monoblock Beard P100 Mk II valve amplifiers for most of the listening period, but I also had fine results with some small amplifiers provided that I kept the wick turned down; the YBA Integre was a notable success provided I kept my listening to around 85dB at a hot seat 2.5m from the line of the speakers. One thing you do not want to hear is the sound of an amplifier being overdriven into the MBLs. The speakers don't seem to suffer damage from it, but the sound is horrendous. Give them ample juice and you'll never hear them squeal.
Read more about the MBL 101s on Page 2.
Once you've recovered from another seemingly outlandish spec – a near-perfect 360 degree horizontal radiating pattern – you notice something truly uncanny if your hi-fi is placed between and behind the MBLs, as mine was. You walk over to your hi-fi, start the music and you realise that you're behind the speakers and yet you're hearing glorious, full-range, true 3D stereo.
Back out in front, you stand to the extreme left and you have no difficulty hearing the speaker on the far right, as with the Canon. You stand in line with the MBLs, either stage right or stage left and realise that you're listening in on 3D from the side of the soundstage. This is heavy duty stuff, bordering on the mystical. Your beleaguered brain says 'There is no "off-axis" position, there is no hot spot'.
But you sit down anyway, the MBLs being positioned at the symmetrical points of an isosceles triangle and targetted at the ears of a listener seated at the narrow end. Marvellous though the sound is in the unorthodox spots, you notice that things 'snap' into focus, the coherence improves, the images seem more solid. Shake your head, like a dog drying off, because you're disoriented. You are hearing something quite unlike all that has gone before.
During my spell with the 101s, at least 20 visitors enjoyed quick bursts. With remarkable consistency, they commented on two key areas of undeniable excellence. The first, and most oft-cited praise involved the MBL disappearing act. The speakers seem to vanish, the sound providing no clues as to the positioning. The only speakers I've hear which approach this level of 'invisibility' are properly installed Martin-Logans and Apogees. The other quality which elicited repeated praise is the seamlessness of the sound across the entire frequency spectrum. If you want to hear a three-way system which sounds like it has one full-range driver and no crossover, this is it.
With a vast range of material, from the glorious 'Mr Sandman' by the Chordettes (mono, CD and almost as old as this reviewer) to vinyl Beatles bootlegs to pre-release cassettes containing rap or heavy metal to audiophile yawners, the MBLs recreated some of the least coloured performances I've been privileged to hear. I've no doubt that the fundamental reasons for this sensation of utter transparency and clarity are the aforementioned seamlessness and 'invisibility', but there are other strengths which add to the pleasure.
First, there's the speed. What that tweeter – about the size of a golf ball – does for transients is...nothing. No smearing, no delaying tactics, blurring of the edges. With 'dangerous' pecussion – check out the musically barren but sonically thrilling Sheffield Labs drum extravaganza – the MBL handles every thwack, smack and crack with utter, nay, Germanic control. From bass drum through to frenzied Zildjians, you get thump and splash in the correct proportions. And you'll marvel at hyperactive guitar plucking, which suggests that Joe Satriani is faster than yer average domed tweeter.
Then there's the transparency. The MBLs are warts'n'all transducers of the most brazen sort, humiliating amps, pre-amps, cartridges, cables, even banana plugs without conscience. It means that they are unusable with second-string products, but who's about to use a speaker the price of VW Polo with budget electronics or sources?
The transparency allows you to listen in to the performance. It made me think of those whacking great computer games where you spend as much time wandering around the games' landscapes as you do playing them. It's like audio-only Virtual Reality
Which is about as high a compliment as one can pay to an audio product. The MBL 101 will probably never reach the audiophiles who would appreciate them because they're seriously expensive and/or too unconventional. These traits played roles in the downfalls of Alpa cameras, Harwood watches, the slope-fronted Yamaha cassette decks and far too many other worthy products. MBL, on the other hand, also makes electronics and affordable, conventional loudspeakers, so we're talking about a flagship, not a manufacturer's sole source of revenue.
What I'd love to see but which I'm told is anathema to the designer is a hybrid using the mid and treble units and a cone woofer. If it halved the price, the system would still be expensive but within reach of greater numbers of music lovers. Because music is what they're all about. Contradictory though this may seem, given the outre driver technology and the oddball styling, the MBLs are the kind of hi-fi product you forget about once the music starts. And that's as good a justification for the price and the styling as anyone can muster.
But they still look like naked satsumas.