Wealth by association is a funny concept. But that's never stopped merchandisers from exploiting weird non-sequiturs like Ferrari-badged wristwatches, Marlboro clothing or any of the perfumes which inevitably follow the success of a designer in the rag-trade. And while writing with a Harley-Davidson pen isn't quite the same as owning the motorcycle, it does seem to give a number of wannabees the requisite buzz. But why has it taken so damned long for the hi-fi community to understand this? Twenty years after Yamaha enticed an Italian to design its sloped cassette deck, a year after Aliante slipped the Pininfarina badge onto a loudspeaker, we have another of those all-too-rare-associations between disparate commodities.
Not that Rogers has actually issued the db101 as a licensed badge-wearer. Rather, the consumer is made aware of the fact that the aesthetics came from the same pen which shaped what many consider to be the greatest
The targets? That triumvirate's 'lifestyle' speakers, those tiny, flexible, injection-moulded mini-speakers beloved of studios, clubs, interior designers, home cineastes and trendies. Indeed, the kind of speakers loved by everyone but audiophiles, who always seem to have a problem when style has been applied to a hi-fi product. They still can't grasp the notion that something doesn't have to look like shit if it's to sound good. (You don't believe me? Then how come the - deservedly - best-selling high-end speaker of all-time, the Wilson WATT/Puppy, is also the ugliest?)
It's essential that you understand why JBL's Control 1, B&W's Rock Solids and the whole range of Bose's passive and powered mini speakers (including the AM5 satellite system) sell in numbers that would dwarf most traditional manufacturers' total career output. We're not talking a few thousand, but tens-to-hundreds of thousands of pairs. And for a smallish specialist to enter that particular fray, everything has to be just right. I was told the cost just for tooling up the db101's cabinet and realised immediately that it was the kind of commitment which calls for near-religious faith in the product.
Ostensibly a dinky little two-way speaker in a cabinet made from plastics, the db101 is quite clearly a generic match for the opposition, right down to the provision for the fixing of myriad types of hardware: brackets, stands, extra modules. But that's as far as it goes. Peter Stevens' design is swoopy, modernist and - depending on the finish - both cute
It's important, too, that you keep in mind the dimensions of the db101; the photos suggest something much larger unless some small item is included to provide a sense of scale. I certainly wasn't prepared for the review samples' diminutive presence, even though I'd seen shots of the prototype. A wildly finished speaker measuring only 270x190x193mm (HWD) and trimmed with lacquered aluminium is a jewel-like thing indeed, especially given the choice of side panels available as standard. Yes, there will be those of an automotive bent who'll want a facsimile of the blue-and-yellow limited edition produced in the Lanzante SuperCar race team colours, but that's taking the brand linkage to the extreme. And while I wouldn't be surprised to see db101s in Ferrari Rosso for the Modenese car builder, or in red-and-white for Coca-Cola, it's more likely that regular customers will settle for off-the-shelf trim. After all, custom finishes can only be offered in runs of 200.
What happens to the injection-moulded ABS cabinet besides the painting of the middle section is the fitting of aluminium side panels or 'cheeks', provided by a state-of-the-art aluminium 'fabricator' from the USA. I was shown the equivalent of a tailor's or decorator's swatch book, a selection of aluminium stampings finished in everything from a black-and-gold marble lookalike to a 'yoof market' metallic red panel covered with drawings in the style of Keith Haring to a choice of neon blue, red, brushed or natural aluminium with a tactile black matte centre 'V' flash. Within the range are enough types to cover staid dwellings, modernist 'bachelor pads' and, yes, boring audiophilic listening dens. Basically, if you're prepared to pay extra, Rogers will come up with any finish you like.
Who'll be the first maladroit to ask for wood?
Whatever anyone thinks of the performance, the db101 is gonna shift like crazy on the strength of the appearance and size alone. Stevens has succeeded is creating a look that's both genuinely modern and SF-retro; this speaker reeks of Flash Gordon serials à la Buster Crabbe and pre-Dr Who low-budget spacecraft. At the same time, depending on the finish, they can look like Egyptiana, Bauhaus high-tech-ery, studio minutiae, Faberge eggs or Christmas decorations. Amusingly, the review pair arrived unfinished, the ABS' natural colour being a tan just like the resin used for artisan-grade car model kits. What's so funny about this? In its natural state, the db101 would work a treat in any rustic setting, eg restaurants with a country theme. Hell, it looks like a nicotine-stained ceiling, so pub owners take note.
But aesthetics aren't everything. Because of Rogers' 20-plus years of LS3/5A building, the company has a nearly paranoid fussiness about the quality of its small monitors. So even though they have to 'get real' about the db101, which is about as mass-market a product as the company has ever produced, the compromises are not debilitating. No, it isn't an LS3/5A for the 21st Century. Neither is it a case of boom-box droppings.
Behind the diffuser/grille at the top is a 'floating' tweeter, a 19mm ferro-fluid cooled'n'damped driver with a 14mm polymer dome. Below this is a 110mm aerogel-coned woofer, with a double-edge would voice coil on a Kapton former. Unbelievably, the two fully-shielded drivers join to create a system said to handle up to 125W RMS. The crossover, working at 5kHz, contains five precision elements, it provides overload protection and is terminated for single-wiring in spring clips which just so happen to accept banana plugs. (An audiophile edition planned for the future may include bi-wiring.)
If you want to know the profile of the target user, look to the specs. A sensitivity of 92dB for 1W, a 4 ohm impedance, a recommended amp range of 25-150W and maximum spls of 108dB at two metres can mean only one thing: headbanging equipment wreckers. Make no mistake: the db101 is meant to survive anything that some half-deaf moron in a studio, a record shop or a disco can throw at it. But this sensitivity, high power handling and a frequency response of 75Hz-21kHz clearly define the role, and it's as 'specific-sounding' a speaker as I've heard since the bandwidth-limited but wholly musical Stax ELS-F81.
Depending on your politics, the characteristics are either virtues or curses. First and foremost is the need to hammer this sucker. It simply doesn't 'cook' when played softly, and - until I goosed it - I thought I'd entered a bass-free zone. Given my predilection for low playback levels, my own personal wish for the db101 is the rapid arrival of one of the mooted subwoofers: active or passive cubes, or floorstanders like the AB1. I'm guessing that it would ameliorate the bass-shy character at low playback levels. Just keep this in mind if you're an apartment dweller. The db101s do not assume the proximity of complaisant neighbours.
Then there's the in-your-face presentation, and I don't mean image positioning in your lap. Given an unsympathetic source - likely, when you consider some of the crappy budget or studio gear to which db101s will be mated - the db101 can shout. Hell, it'll bite your head off with a Windsor Davies impression straight out of . All of which means, for our purposes, the use of a system which won't emphasise the laddish, aimed-at--readers aspects of its performance.
Hidden behind its Umbro jersey and Ray-Bans is a speaker with such finesse in the midband, such impressive room-filling capabilities (images, as opposed to mere level) and a near-Colloms-pleasing boogie factor that you'll want to buy 'em by the six-pack. This is that rarest of hi-fi products: a 'fun' purchase. If a price tag of 399 per pair still allows one to call it mere 'fun'. Provided that you tame its aggression, as I did by using valve amplification and a 'sweet' CD player, and can utilise its never-less-than-loud performance, what you'll have is the audio equivalent of a Lotus 7.
It's all about the maximum bang for the buck, simplicity, style. Yes, it's a raggedly-ass ride, and you'll pray for a waterproof hood, softer shocks and a decent heater. But you'll enjoy every minute on the road with it. So, too, the db101, which is, despite the 'lifestyle'/fashion accessory concept, a party animal, a pocket rocket. Polite enough not to savage Lou Rawls with Dianne Reeves, soundtracks like and , or material of an unplugged nature, the db101 still prefers a diet of high energy/high protein/high octane, material which forces you to crank the knob eastward. This speaker was made for air-guitarists. Never will it scream in pain.
What would make me much happier, though, is auditioning the db101 in its Phase II mode, i.e. with some form of subwoofer. Until then, it will still be a thorn in the side of Bose, JBL, B&W and other manufacturers of speaker 'modules', albeit a small thorn until the Rogers promotion machine is fully underway. Once db101 does get rolling, though, it could be the product which serves as Rogers' ticket into the major league.
As for the db101's model number, I reckon that's the sound pressure level at which it starts to show its mettle.
Rogers International (UK) Ltd., 13 Bath House Road, Beddington Lane, Croydon, Surrey CR0 4TD. Tel 0181 683-2101. FAX 0181 684-6469.
SIDEBAR: THE db101's FUTURE
Rogers isn't just offering a compact speaker with the db101: it's offering a concept. Among the accessories, add-ons and upgrades which the company has planned are speaker stands which will raise the db101 to audiophile-approved listening height, vertical wall brackets and 'virtual array' brackets for multiple pairs in pubs, clubs, etc. Because an individual db101 weighs only 2.3kg, a bushel of 'em won't put too much strain on a ceiling-mounted fitting. Naturally, subwoofers and woofer modules are on the cards, plus a variant of the db101 to act as a centre channel. (All versions - regardless of purpose - are magnetically shielded, so there's nothing to stop anyone from using a 'stock' db101 on top of their TV.) To follow very quickly is a grille which fits into the grooves which form the 'V'. Perhaps the most interesting proposition, though, from an audiophile viewpoint, will be the cost-no-object limited-edition model to be made with a solid carbon-fibre enclosure, silver-wired, possibly bi-wireable and voiced to meet purist needs.