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.