As a scientifically minded person, I find few things quite so satisfying as being proven wrong ... and few speaker systems in recent memory have delighted me quite as much as RSL's new $1,478 CG3 5.2 home theater speaker system.
You might think that I'm hinting at a poor first impression of the new speaker lineup, but that's not the case. At least not exactly. To be quite blunt about it, my initial thoughts upon unboxing the quartet of CG3 bookshelf speakers ($135 each) and CG23 center speaker ($200 each) could best be summed up as, "Oh." The cabinets, while sporting a lovely piano-black gloss finish, don't stand out in any particular way for speakers their size: 9.5 by 5 by 6 inches for the bookshelves and 16 by 6 by 6.4 inches for the center. The binding posts, while perfectly functional, appear to be standard Parts Express offerings. The drivers--four-inch Kevlar cones and one-inch silk-dome tweeters--certainly look lovely enough, but they could best be summed up as "tried and true" from a design perspective.
None of this should be considered a slight, of course. It's simply to say that anyone who has tested a decent amount of small- to mid-sized speaker systems will take one look at RSL's CG3 speakers and be reasonably confident in his or her assessment of their performance, without even hooking up the speakers. Given that they fit quite nicely between compact satellite systems and larger bookshelf offerings in terms of overall size, one's brain logically expects performance capabilities situated between those two broad classes, as well.
The one variable, of course, is the cigarette-shaped port lining the bottom of the bookshelves (and the sides of the center), the only outward indication of some pretty nifty internal technology--namely, RSL's patented Compression Guide, which allows internal sound waves to compress and expand in a very calculated way to minimized cabinet resonance. It's the same technology found in the company's Speedwoofer 10S subwoofer, two of which are included in the CG3 5.2 package. (I already reviewed the 10S sub in a standalone review). The technology is also found in the GC4 system that we reviewed a few years back.
Even my experience with the Speedwoofer 10S, though, didn't quite prepare me for the performance of these unassuming looking little speakers.
Setup of the system proved to be straightforward and uneventful, except that I elevated the front channels a few inches--mostly to compensate for the fact that I normally rely on significantly larger bookshelf speakers in my bedroom home theater system.
I used Anthem's MRX 1120 AV receiver to drive the RSL system for the duration of the review, although I did make some tweaks to its Anthem Room Correction setup throughout the process. Upon first running ARC, I studied in the in-room measurements and decided (against the advice of the software itself) that the speakers could handle an 80-Hz crossover point just fine. It only took a bit of music listening to realize, though, that such a crossover point was asking just a weensy bit much of the CG3 bookshelf speakers' four-inch woofers. A 100-Hz crossover point resulted in a much more seamless blend between subs and sats, not to mention the fact that it jibed with ARC's recommendations, as well as the speakers' reported frequency response on RSL's website.
As mentioned above, the CG3 5.2 system comes with a pair of RSL Speedwoofer 10S subs, each of which was positioned beneath and just to the outside of the front left and right bookshelf speakers. Custom-made interconnects bridged the gap between receiver and subs, and I used Monoprice Choice Series 12AWG speaker wire to connect the bookshelves and center speaker.
One thing worth pointing out is that I did set ARC's Max EQ frequency slightly higher than usual, at 600 Hz. This served to smooth out a slight (~3 or 4 dB) dip in in-room performance right around the 500-Hz point in the front left and right speakers, as well as the surrounds. Above that point, the in-room response of the speakers clung remarkably tightly to ARC's target curve, such that there wouldn't have been much if any EQ applied even if I had allowed it. For more thoughts on room correction and why I set a limit on EQ when I can, see my article Automated Room Correction Explained.
You'd think the neutral, even response would have been the first thing I noticed about the RSL CG3 system once serious listening began in earnest. And perhaps it would have been, if not for the speakers' big, bold, size-defying sound. To call it "room-filling" wouldn't be saying much, since any reasonably mid-level sub/sat system can pretty easily fill my 13- by 15- by 8-foot listening space with sound. "Room-saturating" would be a more apt descriptor. The first disc I threw at the system was The Ultimate Edition of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Warner Home Video), since I had just recently auditioned the opening scenes using the same receiver and two significantly larger speaker systems in the same room.
Even in the opening notes of Hans Zimmer's score and the swirling wind effects that weave their way through it, what impressed me most about the RSL CG3 system was its sense of scale and its utter seamlessness. And I mean that in a couple of respects. For one thing, even as the scene progresses and the bass starts to crank up (from the slow, low, permeating notes of the music to the hard-hitting slam of low-frequency energy as Thomas and Martha Wayne are shot on time for the eleventy-fourth time), and as higher-frequency directional sounds ramp up to match (the rustle of woods in Bruce's dream sequence, the tinkle of pearls on concrete), what struck me most is just how difficult it was to tell where subwoofer left off and main speakers picked up the slack.
For another thing, I was gripped by just how enveloping the soundscape was. Owing to the wide, even dispersion of the speakers, the handoff from front soundstage to surrounds was gracefully gap-free.
Even as I moved around the room, the wonderful sense of space rendered by the RSL system held together beautifully. Forget sweet spots. This system has a massive sweet zone, which should be particularly appreciated by those of you who share your home theater space with multiple listeners.
Skipping forward a few minutes to the recap of Metropolis' destruction from the Man of Steel (this time through the eyes of Bruce Wayne), I found myself especially impressed by just how dynamic the RSL system is. Explosions, debris, and Kryptonians slamming into the sides of buildings hit with the sort of impact you just wouldn't expect from speakers of this size.
But through all the cacophony, dialogue (what little of it punctuates these scenes) remained utterly clear and intelligible. Delightfully so.
So I decided to pop in my ultimate torture test for dialogue clarity. You know the one: the Mines of Moria sequence from disc two of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Extended Edition (New Line). As I've mentioned who knows how many times before, the main thing that makes this scene such a booger is the thick, dripping reverberation that accompanies the dialogue. If anything is amiss, whether it be egregious room acoustics, tonal imbalances, or timing problems, the words get smeary and hard to follow.
Right from the giddy-up, the RSL system's handling of the scene bowled me over. For one thing, as Gandalf utters the warning, "There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world," he moves from center screen to the right of the frame. As his voice tracked from center speaker to right front and into the right surround speaker, I was shocked by just how consistent it remained in terms of timbre. That in itself is quite a trick for speakers this size, especially given that the CG23 center speaker is a horizontal speaker with a mid-tweeter-mid driver configuration.
Even more impressive was the fact that, as I moved my head from side to side while evaluating the performance of the center speaker, I heard none of the phase problems (the "picket fence" effect) that often plagues M-T-M center speakers. Swinging my head as far to the left and right as my spine would allow, I heard nothing but consistent (and consistently great) sound from the center, which likely has much to do with the relatively small size of the mid-bass cones, but also points to the care taken in the design of the speakers to ensure proper spacing of the drivers.
Also well worth noting is just how wonderful a job the rest of the CG3 system did in filling the space in and around those difficult-to-render words. Glancing at my notes, I see remarks like "holographic" and "wholly enveloping" again and again. Although I'm unlikely to win the Pulitzer for such on-the-nose verbiage, I'm struggling to come up with anything more evocative. Put simply, the CG3 did as good a job as one could hope for in building the environments of Middle-earth aurally. I didn't feel like I was listening to a simulacrum of a fantasy space; I felt like I was in that space.
Confident that the RSL speaker system could handle pretty much any cinematic fare I threw its way, I turned my attention to music. I started with The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (Universal-Island Records) by Traffic, if for no other reason than the fact that the 2002 remastered CD happened to be on top of my music stack in the bedroom. The title track, in particular, proved to be an excellent pick to shine light on so many of the RSL system's strengths, especially in the deliciously neutral rendering of horns and piano and the excellent delivery of the song's dynamic punches.
As for the way the speakers reach out into the room during the song's percussive flourishes, I'll admit that at first I thought I had accidentally engaged the receiver's surround processing, until I scooted over to one of the surrounds and confirmed that it was silent. Even without the help of surrounds and center, a single pair of the CG3s (and, of course, the pair of Speedwoofer 10S subs) painted sounds in three-dimensional space in a way that positively defied speaker positioning. And it wasn't just the depth of soundstage that impressed me so, but also its width. Above all else, it was the deft mix of silky smooth midrange, sumptuous detail, responsiveness, coherence, and unbridled impact that impressed me most.
I found myself just as moved and captivated by the CG3 system's performance with Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (in this case, the 2009 remastered edition from Mercury UK). There's simply nothing to complain about here, and much to laud--from the swirling, multi-layered tinkly-tinking of the opening melody to the blasts of organ that punctuate and punch through it. The finale of Part One is where the system truly comes together and shines, though, especially in its ability to juggle the thick bassline, the Glorfindel-box-laden guitar, and all of the various instruments named one by one as the chugga-chugging rhythm section lulls the listener into a hypnotic stupor. At one point, while listening to the buildup to Vivian Stanshall's narration, I said a very naughty word. Right out loud. And true, one could argue that the price of the speakers played a large part in my estimation of their impressiveness (a 2.2-channel system would run you just north of $1,000, for point of reference), but I would be inclined to argue back. The speakers are just that good.
It took a lot of music listening to find a track with which the RSL didn't absolutely blow me away, and I finally found it in Beastie Boys' "Hey Ladies," from the 20th anniversary remastered edition CD release of Paul's Boutique (Capitol Records). The issue stems from the fact that the track relies on a lot of hard-hitting punch in the 100-Hz range, right where the subwoofer and bookshelves are shaking hands, and where neither of them is at its strongest. Mind you, the system handles so many other aspects of the song so well, especially that funky phase shift in the intro, but the only way I could really get that kick I was looking for was by turning down the volume a bit and moving much closer to the speakers.
It's not unsurprising, mind you, especially given the size of the cabinets. And I did find that moving the crossover point up to 120 Hz helped a good bit, but I quickly moved it back down to 100. The tradeoffs simply weren't worth it just for the handful of tracks in my music collection where this is an issue.
After noticing this, I went back and watched a number of movies (okay, full disclosure: I watched all seven Star Wars movies available on Blu-ray, as well as the Ip Man trilogy), specifically listening for similar shortcomings in upper bass dynamics, and I never found them.
It is worth pointing out that my 1,560-cubic-foot room proved to push the speakers right up to their performance limits. Not past them, mind you. The only time I sensed any appreciable strain was when I cranked the volume up a couple of dB past reference listening level. This isn't a complaint, just a caveat. Physics is physics, after all. I'm simply saying that, if your room is much bigger than mine and if you like it loud, you might consider stepping up to a system comprised entirely of the larger CG23 monitor/center channel, which boasts higher sensitivity and deeper bass extension than its CG3 bookshelf counterpart. That said, for their size, the CG3s crank out a pretty incredible amount of sound.
Comparison and Competition
Of the speakers I've tested in recent memory, I think the system that compares mostly closely with the RSL CG3 is the Elac Debut B6. The Elac bookshelf is substantially larger and, as such, boasts better bass extension. But the RSL speakers benefit from substantially flatter, more neutral performance (especially in the midrange and upper frequencies), better detail, better transparency, and noticeably wider, smoother, more consistent dispersion.
The one speaker system I truly wish I could have compared head to head with the RSL system is NHT's Super Surround 5.1. Similar price. Roughly similar specs. The RSLs can handle a bit more power, which is worth pointing out, but the smaller NHTs do have deeper rated bass extension, although without the benefit of RSL's Compression Guide technology.
If you're looking for bang-for-the-buck and a high performance-to-size ratio, SVS's Prime Satellite 5.1 package also deserves a look (and a listen) at $999. Like RSL, SVS relies on Internet-direct sales and has a better at-home trial period (45 days versus 30).
At $1,478 for a complete 5.2-channel home theater speaker package ($1,079 if you opt for the CG3 5.1 system with a single sub), RSL's CG3 system represents an incredible value, needless to say. But that's only part of the reason I love these speakers. Their neutral sound, dynamic punch, and fantastic dispersion characteristics make them worthy of attention, price be damned.
When you factor in their size (and their noteworthy lack of resonance for their size), it's hard not to be blown away by these amazing little overachievers. RSL has something quite special on its hands here. If you're in the market for a relatively compact bookshelf home theater system that outright rules with two-channel music, you owe it to yourself to audition this one.
• Check out our Bookshelf Speakers category page to read similar reviews.
• Visit the RSL website for more product information.
• Rogersound Labs CG4 5.1 Speaker System Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.