MBL Surround System

Who says Money Doesn't buy Happiness?

Francis Vale

A limited edition $325,000 Bentley Continental T? Already have one, thanks. OK, a $5,000,000 chalet in Aspen, then? Got that, too. Well, maybe a 36' custom-built racing sloop? It's being retrofitted. So what's left? How about a $100,000 surround sound system for home theater!

Yep, the rich do live different from the rest of the folks, especially if they're smart enough to make sure their hundred large also buys an all-MBL speaker system. These German-made speakers comprise, without question, the finest surround rig this reviewer has yet encountered. This MBL system also puts to the lie many of the old shibboleths about what you have to have make a surround speaker system work properly. For you see, the MBLs are true omnidirectional speakers, from top to bottom.

All It Takes is...

But let's back up a bit, and tell you the magic ingredients for this ravishing review rig. First and foremost, there are the two stellar -- and truly unusual looking - full range MBL 101D speakers ($35,800) doing front right and left channel duties. Next are a pair of satin black MBL 111 full range speakers ($15,580, $20,100 in high gloss piano) holding down the fort at the rear. In of itself, the ready-to-launch looking 111 is a true Class A component, and could easily excel at the front channel chores. And in the center spot, sitting on top of the 34" Mitsubishi direct view set, is a first-ever from MBL, a specially modified upper half section of a 111 ($ to be announced).

Even though the 101D and 111 systems are both capable of low octave breathing, we all know that for boffo surround, you can never go too low. So here come the subwoofers. One is an MBL-supplied unit, its Model 201 ($4790). And then because we get a kick out of spilling the coffee out of the cups of our hapless high rise neighbors, we also put two rockem-sockem Sunfire MkII True Subwoofers ($1299 each) into the system.

At the heart of this awesome array of speaker firepower is the incredibly good Theta Casablanca surround processor ($13,045 fully configured). The Casablanca was happily perched in its catbird seat thanks to the very fine Billy Bags I Beam rack ($700). But because a roaring T Rex can unnerve the guts of even the best components, we swapped out the standard Billy Bags glass shelves for five, 18" x 14," Black Diamond Racing's vibration-thou-shalt-not-pass, carbon fiber shelves (The "Shelf," $495 each).

And as for amplification, if you were expecting maybe Krell or Levinson, you guessed wrong. Boston Edison was delivering the kilowatts via a slew of Sunfire amps, true world-beaters all. For driving the front 101Ds, we used two monster 600 watt/8 ohm (1200 watt/4 ohm) per channel Sunfire Signature amps ($2,995 each), vertically biamped. Despite their awesome output, these slick looking black critters are relatively lightweight, and always-cool running. For the two rear 111s, we used the five channel Sunfire Cinema Grand ($2,375), capable of delivering 200/400 watts per channel into 8/4 ohms, and also vertically biamped.

[Vertical Biamping: separate amplifier sections are used for the upper frequency and woofer drivers, using two stereo amps or four monoblocks. This is the next step beyond bi-wiring your speakers off a single amp. For best results, all the amps should be identical, although some high-end lunatics have been known to use tube amps for the mids/tweets, and solid state units for the woofs. Obviously, it's easiest to do this if your speaker terminals have two pairs of binding posts to support such a biwiring/biamp rig, and most quality speakers do.]

At 111 center stage, we used a regular Sunfire amplifier ($2,175) which outputs 300/600 watts per channel into 8 or 4 ohms. Thanks to Bob Carver's unique, patented downconverter and power supply technology, any at-the-moment unused watts from any channel are automatically diverted to a channel that has need of them. Consequently, the power of the unused channel in either the center Sunfire or rear Cinema Grand amplifier never went to waste.

As for interconnects and speaker cables, we used Nordost's top of the line "SPM," which are simply the best wires we have ever heard. A one meter SPM interconnect will set you back $1100. SPM speaker wire is $2900 per each two-meter pair. Being a surround rig, we naturally had call for many SPM interconnects, as well as for multitudinous meters of run-flat-under-the-rug SPM speaker wire. The total price for all this creme de la creme purple flat wire was about $18,000.

Add it all up, and this dream rig comes in at over $100,000, plus tax and tip. Get out that AmEx card and tell the kids not to fret about their college fund! And you should also plan on getting a budget-busting electricity bill. Between all the heavy lifting amplifiers and the two Sunfire MKII subs (each having 2700 watts), the total output tonnage was about 13,000 watts (at 4 ohms). And this was all ensconced in a high rise apartment in downtown Boston! (Fenway Park sometimes called us to borrow a few extra watts to light up the BoSox night games

Huh? Whazzat?

This mad, rich odyssey began about a year ago, when we suggested to Mark Lawrence, former Director of Sales and Marketing for MBL America, the idea of using their top of the line speakers to assemble a no holds barred surround system. (At the time, the specially modified 111 center channel was just a gleam in the eye of Juergen Reis, MBL's chief lautsprecher designer.) Gordana, Francis 's intrepid audiophile wife, had always been enchanted by the 101D's unique sculptural beauty. And sonically, what we had heard at shows also sounded pretty fine.

Thus it was that several months later; two huge crates (they could easily double as small walk-in closets for folks who need some extra storage) arrived at the Prudential Center Apartments. This pair of enormous boxes held the first installment of the surround system, the MBL 101Ds.

If you have never heard of the more than twenty-year-old MBL company, don't feel bad. 99% of the people reading this article in 21st probably haven't either, which is a marketing shame. In a world of me-too speakers, the 101D's design easily earns the moniker "unique." These 176 pound (each!) piano black beauties are like nothing you have ever seen. Usually, people who walked into our apartment didn't have a clue that these were speakers until we told them. Most folks thought they were some sort of exotic sculpture. One person even thought they were beautiful, futuristic looking flowerpots!

Encounters of the 3rd Kind

The 101D is a four-way design, which MBL specifies as having a frequency range of 20 Hz to 40,000 Hz. The bottom most part is a subwoofer. It uses a conventional 12" driver with a 4" voice coil, tightly sealed up in a gloss black, truncated pyramid. The bass notes escape this deeply energized enclosure via twin, 2" diameter ports. But at 110 Hz, the crossover point of the sub, the wavelength of a bass note is about 9 feet long. This is a tad larger than that small sealed enclosure and it puny 2-inch openings. As a consequence, the bass is forced to become omni-directional. Very clever, these Germans.

But the real fun begins with the three "Radialstrahler" (360 degree) drivers that are perched on top of the subwoofer. Of the three, the most visually striking is the upper woofer/lower midrange driver. This what-the-hell? ellipsoid pod is about 16.5" tall, and at its midpoint bulge, is approximately 10" wide. Its two ends are roughly 4" wide. This most unusual aluminum device is visually comprised of an alternating set of vertically running black and silver pleats. And if you look closely, you will also see thin copper-colored wires running up and down the unit's length. Even if this thing didn't work, it would still be way cool.

Sprouting like a fantastic blossom from the top of this silvery seed pod are the two radial drivers for the midrange and tweeter, which are significantly smaller in diameter. The tweeter has 24 high-stiffness carbon fiber "petals," while the midrange has 12 such segments. The spaces between the segments are sealed with silicon, which acts as a highly flexible sealant. All in all, the 101D makes for a wondrously different sight. It's no surprise our visitors scratched their heads when they saw these alien looking devices parked in our living room.

The 101's special design originated with MBL's president, Wolfgang Meletzky. Some fifteen years ago, Juergen Reis picked up the chief designer's torch at the company. According to Reis, the three Radialstrahler drivers consist of flexible segments that are fixed on the top side and mounted on the bottom to a moving coil. As the coil moves up, the segments flex outward, and when the coil moves downward, the segments flex inward. Thus when the segment surfaces flex out or in, the sound volume either increases or decreases. This very clever, but obviously difficult to implement, design allows the 101D, says Reis, "to come as close as is technically possible to a perfect sound reproducing and dispersing device."

As for where all the 101D parts musically mesh together, the subwoofer section uses a highpass 2nd order crossover at 25 Hz, and a lowpass 4th order crossover at 110 Hz. The three upper drive units use, respectively, a highpass 4th order crossover at 110 Hz, a 4th order crossover at 600 Hz, and lastly, a crossover at 3500 Hz.

Given this speaker design's complexity, you might reasonably anticipate hearing some sonic discontinuities, especially in the transitional crossover areas between the different types of drivers. But incredibly, the 101D is sonically seamless. No matter how much you bob your head up and down, or do the audionut's squat down-stand up test while walking around the room (this is indeed a strange sight -- sort of an audiophile's ritual mating dance) the sound doesn't "venetian blind." When listening, all you hear is a perfect blending of notes, low to high.

The 101D is one of those strange designs, like a helicopter, that your instincts scream shouldn't work, but your brain is wondrously amazed when it does. It's probably this cognitive dissonance that also makes the 101D such a listening pleasure -- provided you feed it the juice.

Trouble In Paradise

When we first hooked up the 101Ds, using the Cinema Grand in vertical biamp mode, the sound was pleasant, but lifeless. No dynamics, no ooomph, lackluster transients, etc. High-end anxiety suddenly darkened the skies around the Prudential center Tower. No amount of fiddling with their location, using other similarly powered amplifiers, or changing speaker wires offered any help. Francis began to anxiously wonder what he had gotten himself into, as he stared at the where-the-hell-do-we-put-these enormous crates. But then came a fortuitous phone conversation with Randy Bingham, Sunfire's VP of Sales & Marketing. Randy spoke glowingly about Bob Carvers' new signed edition of the Sunfire amp, called, not surprisingly, the "Signature." This brute, although the same size as the regular Sunfire unit, puts out double the power -- 600 watts into 8 ohms and 1200 into 4. Randy also said that these amps really worked their magic when used in a vertical biamp configuration.

At this conversation juncture, the lights went on in Francis 's head. The rated sensitivity of the 101D is just 81-db/1-watt/1 meter. Reis maintains that the omnidirectional radiators, and the way they couple to the room, makes the very low sensitivity spec misleading in terms of how much Absolute Power the 101 requires. But Francis began to suspect otherwise. So he asked Randy for a review pair of the Sunfire Signatures. (A full review of this remarkable amplifier is forthcoming.)

Sunfire Salvation

The Signatures arrived shortly thereafter, and were quickly hooked up to the 101Ds. Mama Mia! The 101D suddenly began to sing its heart out, ecstatically liberated from its low watt prison. All prior 101D criticisms abruptly vanished. One CD, for example, Diana Krall playing her bluesy piano in "All for you," (Impulse, IMPD-182), just came alive. Before the upgrade, she sounded like a cheap date in a bad acoustic piano bar. But now Diana was seriously righteous when she sang "Hit that jive Jack."

The 101D demands more juice than does Louis the loan shark. Feed these speakers anything less than 400 watts per side -- god forbid using tube amps -- and they will lifelessly loll their radialstrahler heads about. Good audiocrazy that he is, Francis couldn't wait to get on the phone and tell all one and all about his marvelous discovery. The dark sonic clouds gathering around our high-rise had suddenly given way to musical sunlight.

Although the context of this review is a surround system (maybe one day we will do a stereo-only review of the 101D), some listening points have to be made about this remarkable speaker. First, the speakers are absolutely stunning in the mid and upper ranges. Female voices, like Diana Kraal's, never sounded better. Timbre is spot on. The 101D also has this uncanny ability to decipher heretofore unintelligible lyrics, like Tom Waits in "The Black Rider" (Island Records 324-518-559-2), a right over the top CD that's one of our perverse favorites (also recorded in Germany by the way, at the Thalia Theater of Hamburg). Transients are incredibly fast. And extensive musical details become part of a richly woven tapestry. The subwoofer was also very well integrated with the musical whole. Check out "Tropicalia 2" with Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil (Electra, D102770) as they bang out some hot Brazilian "Tropicalismo." This is a complex, poetical, percussion rich musical genre, and the 101Ds just thrived in this steamy tropical milieu.

And yikes, the transparency! The 101D is the most revealing speaker we have ever encountered. Subtle changes wrought by various make cables, CD players, DACs, etc., all came through in their unmistakable effects. The Nordost SPMs showed clearly audible advantages over its manifold competition, epsecially in the bass. Anybody who says wires don't make a difference should sit down in front of the 101Ds and try out their El cheapo zip wire in a comparison test. In this regard, the 101D may be the most powerful reviewer's tool on the planet. And of course, source material quality, the most blatant reason for dramatic changes in listening experience, was revealed in all its excruciatingly good -- or bad -- glory.

As far as the actual tonal character of the 101D is concerned, we are not sure it really has any. It just passes on the information you feed it, almost completely untainted by the speaker itself. So, it's a clear case of either BIBO (beauty in, beauty out), or GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Computer geeks will feel right at home with the 101D.

Odo, Meet a New Relative

But there were still some areas of lingering concern. Although transformed by their power grab for watts, the 101Ds lacked the jump-up-shake-your-bootie dynamics of the best pistons and domes. In addition, they were somewhat loose in the deep bass, and the low note freight train also began to run out of steam at around 35 Hz. However, even these carps went away with our installation of a 101D upgrade kit several months later. This relatively simple kit improved the structural integrity of the lower subwoofer chamber. Juergen Reis also assured us that this upgrade would not only make a positive difference in the bass, but would also yield beneficial results in the upper three drivers. In addition, we would get much better overall dynamics. All this from just installing a more solid means of anchoring the subwoofer structure to the speaker's brass feet? Francis and Gordana found this a little hard to swallow.

Well, it's still hard to believe, but Juergen called it exactly right. With just this one simple alteration, the 101Ds underwent (again) a remarkable transformation. (One more of these "changeling" acts and the 101Ds will earn a starring role in Star Trek Deep Space Nine.) A foot-pedal whacked against a kick drum now scored a solidly direct hit to the listener's midriff. As important, the 101Ds suddenly discovered they could dive down to about 28 Hz without holding their breath. And just as Reis promised us, the "jump factor" had tremendously improved. The kit-enhanced 101D could now boogie with the best. The hard charging jazz group, the Yellow Jackets, suddenly made you realize they weren't kidding when they entitled one of their CDs, "Run for Your Life" (GRP records, GRD-9754). Finally, the upper mids and highs had also became more crystalline clear, if such a thing were possible.

Sweet Spot Be Gone

Even before this upgrade, the 101D's soundstage was simply huge. No doubt, this was due to the 101D's unique omni design. But what is so remarkable about the 101D omnistage is that, contrary to all rational expectations, its imaging is rock solid. There is no vagueness whatsoever in instrument/performer placement. Everything is solidly locked in space. And what is truly striking about the 101D is that no matter where you sit on the listening couch, even at the far right or left, image localization stays put.

Simply stated, the 101D is perhaps the most un-sweet spot speaker ever. When you move around, the listener's perspective on the performance shifts accordingly. This is just as it is in real life, at a non-amplified, natural acoustic concert. This special spatial capability also has huge implications for surround sound, as one of the hallmarks of a really well executed system is this type of you-can-move-most-anywhere-it's-still-OK soundstage. However, in almost all surround systems, this image magic act is chiefly made possible by the center channel. But this was still only a two channel stereo rig we were listening to!

And just as important for great cinema sound, the 101Ds can be driven truly LOUD without breaking up. In fact, the more you crank up the volume, the happier they become (unlike our suffering neighbors).

We'll Take the Porsche

Next to arrive at Chez Vale were the pair of MBL 111 speakers for the rear surround channels. As already noted, these are extraordinarily good speakers in their own right. Some wags out there are probably tut-tutting about what a waste of such a fine speaker in such a secondary role. Well, go ahead and shake your heads. Just next time you say you want a Porsche, go buy a used Yugo instead. It will get you across town all the same. But it won't do it with anywhere near the style, power, or fun, will it? And that's the whole point of using the $13,900 full range 111s in the rear. Even more to the point, the MBL radialstrahler produces spectacular surround results, as we shall see.

The futuristic-yet-retro looking MBL 111 dispenses with the unique, and expensive to make, ovoid lower midrange driver of the 101D. Instead, the 111 uses a conventional, upward firing 5" moving coil unit to handle the duties between 130 Hz and 670 Hz. But like its much more expensive sibling, the 111 uses the MBL-unique Radialstrahler "MT 50" for the midrange, and the Radialstrahler "HT 37" for the tweeter. The 5" driver fires up into a conical diffuser mounted beneath the magnet of the MT50, thereby achieving its own 360-degree dispersal pattern. An origami-inspired felt sonic diffuser affixed around the MT 50's magnet finishes off this midrange assembly's dispersal job. Finally, like the 101D, a sealed, dual-ported, omnidirectional 12" woofer does the heavy lifting at the low end, but it's crossed over somewhat higher, at 130 Hz. The 111 also carries identical frequency range specs as the 101D, 20 Hz to 40,000 Hz.

Affixed to the top of the 111 is a pyramidal four rod assembly, capped off with a gold spike. Its job is to provide high frequency diffusion. This imposing spiked array gives the 111 a certain anti-missile defense system chic. (Francis happily imagined it as a Scud-buster ready to shoot through the floorboards of an upstairs complaining neighbor.)

Despite its use of a conventional 5" driver for the lower-mid, the rated sensitivity of the 111 is actually lower than the 101D, an amp straining 80 db/1 watt/1 meter. But as some compensation, the 111s do weigh in a touch less, at a svelte 132 pounds each. As with the 101Ds, we vertically biamped the 111s, using the Sunfire Cinema Grand. The 111s, when used in this role and with this amplification, signaled us that it was more than happy with its lower wattage diet.

With regard's 111 setup, we followed Juergen's e-mail advice, and adjusted the rear system with the front channels off, and then changed the settings so the loudspeakers sounded good in a regular stereo environment. The goal was to try to get a similar acoustical result for both the front and rear systems. For gauging the proper distance to the rear wall, we moved the 111's back and forth using male and female voices as a reference playback. According to Reis, if the 111 is set too close to the wall, you will hear a kind of notch filter in the 1 kHz to 2 kHz region and this will cause the voice to sound unnatural. If you move it too far away, the voice will no longer be easy to localize. (MBL's recommendation is to set them a minimum of 20" out.) The goal was to get a natural sounding voice with proper localization. And that's what we ultimately achieved. But strangely enough, we got best results with the 111s sitting as close as possible to the rear wall. Go figure.

The tall 111s also placed the mid/tweeter drivers right at ear level, which worked out extremely well. Now, some "experts" maintain that placing the rear speakers six feet up, firing well over your seated head, is the only way to go. In fact, we have successfully tried that up high approach with some other surrounds (e.g., the Aerials). But the 111s, even at ear height, still operated super. Who knows, maybe credit goes to the anti-missile diffuser spike.

Front and Center!

Then finally came the day that the special-built 111 center channel arrived. This hefty little black beauty (we guesstimate about 45 pounds) stands 20.8" high, with a square base of 11.1" x 11'1." If we had a pull down screen with projector, we would probably have asked for a complete, full range 111 to do center channel chores. (If you're feeling flush, hell, go the distance and just order up a third 101D!)

The 111 top part has an initial slope of 24db, and its 5" lower mid-range driver was designed to hand off frequencies below 130 Hz to its usually associated 12" subwoofer. This made for some fun experimenting. Fortunately, the Theta surround processor was up to the task. In the Casablanca, you can run any one of the five speaker channels full range, or cross it over via a sub. The Casablanca offers high pass hinge points of 40, 50, 60, 80, 100, and 120 Hz, and each filter has selectable slopes of 6, 12, 18, or 24dB/octave (1st order though 4th, respectively).

We found optimal results were achieved with the center 111 speaker crossed over to the subs at either 100 Hz or 120 Hz, depending upon program material, with a 12 dB slope. Curiously 80 Hz worked well for some period of time, then ceased to be effective. This may have to due the MBL and Sunfire subwoofers breaking in over time, although we can't be 100% certain.

[The front 101D channels, when used in surround mode, were initially cut over to the subs at 40 Hz, and we also used a 12 dB slope. But after the small, but oh so potent upgrade, we ran them full range. The deep bass was now going to about 28 Hz without any flabby complaint. As for the 111 rear surrounds, we just gave them their head, and let them also run full range].

Also, we found best effects were achieved by tilting up the rear of the center 111 a couple of inches, squarely aiming its gold MBL logo right between the listener's eyes. In fact, it scored an audible bulls-eye. The 111 center channel, once properly set up, worked wonders. It didn't have the expansive, punchy sound that Aerial Acoustics' excellent center channel speaker, the CC3 ($1,200) does. However, the CC3 also goes down to 55 Hz. But the 111 provides, we believe, a much more realistic listening experience. This is chiefly due to the fact that almost all the spoken dialog in a movie comes from the center channel (try turning it off sometime just to see what happens).

The clear superiority of the MBL Radialstrahler drivers in reproducing vocals paid off huge dividends. Complex, fast paced screen dialog was rendered distinct and clear. Jim Carey's speed of light wisecracks in "The Mask" now found their dimwitted targets with unerring accuracy. And finally, that oh-so-special omni soundstage was way superior to the conventionally driven CC3. (Regardless, bear in mind that the 111 will cost thousands more than the Aerial unit. The CC3 is still one hell of a great product.)

Movie Magic, at Last

There has been a forever-ongoing debate about what makes for good speaker design in a multichannel system, especially for the rears. There are dipoles and bipoles, and traditional point sources. Some argue that Prologic and THX mandate their own special speaker designs and rear placement conditions. Meanwhile the all discrete, all full range format of AC-3 and DTS is producing its own special demands, and what do we about that? And on and on these discussions go in the pages of audio rags, Internet news groups, dealer salons, etc.

In the end, though, the question everyone is seeking to answer is this: How can the viewer/listener be immersed in a perfectly seamless, spatially correct, sonic illusion; i.e., audio VR? In real life, our ears/brain process audio while swimming deep in a sea of sound, and that's what has to happen if the movie magic is going to work. The surround goal, then, is that there be no obvious holes or lousy image localization anywhere in the sound field. If audible gaps appear or related sonic events are disjointed, then the brain says phooey on this, it's all a hoax, and starts thinking instead about what's for dinner tomorrow. The movie's spell, and its emotional hold on us, has been broken. Bummer.

Francis and Gordana had already listened extensively to what many consider to be the best in rear surround speakers, the SR3 ($2,400 pair) by Aerial Acoustics. These versatile speakers from Aerial also go down to 55 Hz and feature switch selectable dipole or bipole operation. But the full range 111s smoked right past the SR3s. It was simply no contest. Moreover, we expect the results would be the same no matter whose conventionally driven surrounds we compared the 111s to.

This clear-cut 111 win all comes down to its no-matter-where-you-sit-it-works omni soundstage. But even more important, when you couple that rear 111 omni-stage with the one being cast by the front 101Ds and center 111, here's what you get:

1) nearly perfect listener immersion,

2) accurate listener perspective no matter where you sit, and

3) all the benefits of near pin point image localization.

Kids, if you play with the MBL radialstrahlers, it's a whole new surround sound ballgame.

A great example of the MBL's omnificent benefits is found in the DTS laser disc, "Casper." (Note: we only use DTS-encoded laser discs for our reviews as we consider it sonically superior to AC-3, or at least until DTS-DVD arrives. We also evaluate with Dolby Prologic source material.) Casper has one of the very best sound tracks done to date. It clearly shows what a system can or cannot do. Casper's creaking, groaning mansion never sounded more smotheringly decrepit than with the 111s working the rear.

And the scenes employing an impressive array of special effects, like the harrying ride down into the secret laboratory of Casper's father, were truly special with the 111s. You are totally immersed in stomach wrenching sonic space. With an all-MBL system, you can skip going to this eventual Casper theme park ride and get the same up-comes-lunch effects while sitting at home. Cool.

Another great demonstration of the radialstrahler-effect is in the now classic Jurassic Park. The scene in which our ravenous T-Rex makes lunch of the tour jeep is simply amazing via the MBLs. There is a moment when the muffler or some other metal appendage of the vehicle goes skittering away. It's a small detail, usually lost in the sonic bombast. But this time around, you had a palpable sense of, "Uh-oh, it's going to break something in the house!" as this metallic part went ricocheting off in the distance. And you know what else? That big dino is truly scary now. His low guttural voice while he plots his next frightening move makes your skin crawl. You can almost feel his viscous breath coming off the screen. Your brain is being wonderfully tricked: "Uh, this maybe really real. Yikes!"

Finally, when it comes to DTS-encoded CDs, the sound stage took on amphitheater proportions. On the live performance cuts of the Eagles in "Hell Freezes Over" (DTS CD 1006) the MBL omni surround stage plunked you right down in the midst of thousands of crazed, chemically enhanced rockers. If it were any more real, even Bill Clinton would been forced to inhale.

What About the Boom-Boom?

The AC-3 and DTS formats feature all-discrete five channel sound, plus every single channel can span the frequency gamut of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. So, as these full range formats proliferate, moviemakers will probably start to experiment with putting some deep boom-boom back in those rear channels (even though both surround formats implement a dedicated special effects subwoofer channel for just this purpose). In fact, this lowly rearward trend is already underway. But most people, with their bass-wimpy surrounds, just don't know it yet. We do. For example, Francis and Gordana were shocked to hear how much back channel woof Spielberg put into his Jurassic Park T-Rex. When that hungry dino was stomping his way through lawyers and everything else, the full range 111 was rocking the house with a low frequency pounding. Who knew this raucous rear bass was even there? (Maybe just a secretly smiling Steven?)

Speaking of deep bass, let's talk a bit about the MBL 201 subwoofer, which offers user-selectable low pass cross over points at 48 Hz, 68 Hz, and 98 Hz. The high pass filter is 6th order, and set at 25 Hz. This self-powered (300 watts, peak), 55 pound sub utilizes an 11.8" driver in a specially designed enclosure meant to complement the unique acoustical properties of the 111 and 1011D. According to MBL's Reis, the phase response of the 201 sub is different at the bottom end (at 25 Hz) than that of the 101D or 111, so the active 201 sub is mainly intended for use as an effects channel and not for real music information. The rated max SPL of the 201 is 110 dB at a somewhat high 25 Hz.

This high-ish SPL spec is a sure tip that the 201 is not meant to be a shake down the house monster sub. The Sunfire MkII True Subwoofers will go down considerably below 25 Hz, and at foundation-quaking SPLs; especially when you use two MkIIs stacked on top of each other, like we did. The MBL 201 is really more a 101d/111-subwoofer "augmenter" than a true stand-alone subwoofer. Used in this deep bass augmentation role, and with its crossover set at 48 Hz, the 201 did its 101D-assist well enough.

But hey, surround sound is mostly all about big, macho, let's-blow-everything-up Hollywood movies, right? (If all you watch are those dialog drenched foreign jobs, better you should spend your money on a new analog LP system.) So if you want to get the whole jelly-belly surround deal, you will have to either put a second, way down deep subwoofer in the system, or perhaps forgo the 201 entirely and use something like the Sunfires.

But our suggestion is still to use a 201, set its SPL level using Joe Kane's excellent "Video Essentials" (available on either LD or DVD), and then use that same level to dial in the additional subs. This is what we did, and thanks to the comprehensive bass management capabilities of the Theta Casablanca (which can accommodate up to five subs), it was a breeze to do. Dialed in just this way, the deep bass was clean and tight across all three subwoofer systems. Between the subs and the 101Ds and 111s running full range, we had a total of seven heavy breathing woofers pumping out the SPLs. (They're still checking our high rise tower for structural damage.)

Let's Be Honest

It's time to brutally frank: Almost nobody spends a hundred grand on toys without also thinking about getting some bragging rights. So how well does this hundred K system holds up under that kind of pressure? Well, word soon got out to some of our non-audiophile friends about this surround extravaganza we were reviewing. Naturally, they were very skeptical, if not a bit caustic in their comments. So, one day, we invited over some of the most hard core cynics. We played a medley of blockbuster scenes for them, including the spectacular bridge blowing up finale in the Long Kiss Goodnight; the scarily impressive T-Rex from Jurassic Park; the room shaking take-off sequence in Apollo 13; Casper's uncles' great helicoptering-in scene; and a few other choice special effects goodies.

At the end of our sixty or so minute demo, their faces were ashen, their dropped jaws scraping the floor. As one member of this hapless party succinctly put it, "My god. It takes your breath away!" Indeed it does. Indeed it does.

So, got the money, and the itch? Don't even think twice about it. The all MBL-surround system as reviewed here is the only way to go the movies. And then some.

US Importer: MBL of America, Scottsdale, Arizona, Tel. 602 991 8001, Fax 602 991 8797

Manufacturer: MBL GmbH, Berlin Germany, Tel (county code 49 when dialing from US) (030) 851 80 74, Fax (030) 851 80 62

MBL 101D Loudspeaker Specifications

System: 4-way
Frequency range: 20 Hz to 40,000 Hz
Impedance: 4 ohms
Sound Pressure Level: 81 dB/W/m (2.83V)
linear max: 106 dB
Cross-over frequencies:
110 Hz, 600 Hz, 3500 Hz: Linkwitz-Riley, 4th order
Acoustic center:109 cm
continuous: 320W/500W
peak power: 2200 W

Woofer low: 300 mm, 12-inch cone driver (mbl)
Woofer high: Radialstrahler TT100 (mbl)
Mid-range: Radialstrahler MT 50, cross-directional CFK (mbl)
Tweeter: Radialstrahler HT 37, unidirectional CFK (mbl)

Finish: High-polish black piano or satin black

400 x 400 x 1800 mm (BxTxH)
16 x 16 x 70 inches (WxDxH)
Weight: 80 kg, 176 lb. (each)

MBL 111 Loudspeaker Specifications

System: 4-way
Frequency range: 20 Hz to 40,000 Hz
Impedance: 4 ohms
Sound Pressure Level: 80 dB/W/1 m
linear max.106 dB
Cross-over frequencies:
30 Hz, 670 Hz, 3500 Hz; Linkwitz-Riley, 4th order
Acoustic center: 109 cm
Power: continuous: 300 W / 500 W; peak power: 2000 W
Woofer system: 300 mm, 12-inch cone driver (mbl)
Mid-range low: 130 mm, 5-inch double voice coils (mbl)
Mid-range high: Radial 50, cross-directional CFK (mbl)
Tweeter: Radial 37, unidirectional CFK (mbl)
Finish: High-polish black piano or Satin black

400 x 400 x 1600 mm
16 x 16 x 63 inches (WxDxH)
Weight: 60 kg, 132 lbs. (each)

Associated Review Gear:

Surround Processor: Theta Digital Casablanca

Speakers: Aerial Acoustics CC3 center & SR3 surrounds; Sunfire True Subwoofer

Amplifiers: Sunfire Cinema Grand, Sunfire and Sunfire Signature stereo amplifiers

Laser Disc player: Pioneer CLD-D702


TV: 34" direct view Mitsubishi, CS-35601

Tuner: Rotel RH10 'Michi'

Digital Playback: Meridian 508.20 CD player

Cables and interconnects: Nordost SPM Reference interconnects and SPM speaker wire;

Equipment stand: Billy Bags "I Beam"

Tweaks: Black Diamond Racing: The Shelf, The Source, Cones Mk 3 & 4, and Those Things; Joe Jane's "Video Essentials"

Copyright 1998, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved


21st, The VXM Network,