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- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Friday, 01 March 2013 00:00
- Written by Doug Schneider
Note: Measurements taken in the anechoic chamber at Canada's National Research Council can be found through this link.
Music Culture was established in 2005 in Berlin, Germany, and the RL21 is the only loudspeaker in the company's entry-level Elegance series. (The floorstanding mc331, $11,995 USD per pair, is the only model in their Reference line, and the only other speaker they currently make.) The RL21 took me by surprise when I heard a pair of them in the room of Music Culture’s North American distributor, VSO Marketing, at the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The RL21’s appearance is understated -- it was easy to overlook them if you were passing by -- but the sound was not: so full and rich that I found it next to impossible to believe I was listening to a pair of stand-mounted speakers measuring only 14.3”H x 8.7”W x 15”D and costing only $3495/pair. Right then, I knew I needed to get a pair, to find out if what I was hearing at RMAF could be replicated in my room with my equipment.
The Elegance RL21’s front baffle is 1.2” (30mm) thick, while the rest of its walls are 0.86” (22mm) thick. Each RL21 weighs just over 30 pounds, which is quite a bit for such a small speaker, and it feels super sturdy. The cabinet walls are nonparallel, which helps reduce internal standing waves, and curved outward, which makes the speaker more attractive than the usual rectangular box. The edges of the front baffle are chamfered as well as rounded, to reduce diffraction effects, which is important to ensure the smoothest frequency response. High-quality binding posts flank the rear, and a grille attaches to the baffle with pins, which was the only thing I didn’t like -- old-school pins and holes are a bit ugly if you want to leave the grilles off, which is why more companies now use embedded magnets to hold speaker grilles in place, or find innovative ways to conceal driver frames and screws.
But there’s nothing to criticize about the black finish on my RL21s, which comes standard but is anything but -- the best word for it seems to be spectacular. It was polished perfectly smooth, with no ripples or “orange peel” that I could detect, and embedded with a light sparkle that gave the color depth and a more luxurious appearance. My reference for this sort of finish is Rockport Technologies’ speakers, all of which feature flawless lacquer finishes. Music Culture’s finish equaled that, to my eyes, which says plenty about the RL21 -- Rockport’s least expensive model costs about 20 grand per pair. A high-gloss silver finish is also available, as is a real-wood rosewood veneer with a satin topcoat, but they cost more.
Matching stands are also available for $799/pair, but I placed the RL21s atop my 24”-tall Foundation stands, which worked well in my room. However, I recommend considering their stands if you’re buying the speaker; they’re the most appropriate visual match.
The drive-units comprise a 1.1” soft-dome tweeter made by Usher Audio, of Taiwan, married to a 6.5” Kevlar-cone midrange-woofer from Davis Acoustics, of France. The drivers, which Music Culture says are modified, are crossed over at 2100Hz using fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley slopes. To augment the speaker’s bass response, a large port fires to the rear.
Refreshingly, Music Culture makes for the Elegance RL21 none of the bold or outlandish technical claims that many companies make for their speakers, even when there’s little new to crow about. Instead, the RL21 seems to be the product of good speaker-design principles, and Music Culture is willing to stand by that: a fairly linear frequency response on or off axis, with as much attention paid to the power response as to any one curve; a smooth impedance curve to ensure that the speaker won’t be too hard to drive; and low distortion. No voodoo or magic there. The RL21’s frequency response is specified as 45Hz-29kHz, its sensitivity as 85dB/W/m, its nominal impedance as 4 ohms, and its maximum output as 104dB (at 1m). Amplifiers rated from 60 to 100W are recommended -- par for the course for a speaker of this size and type.
Overall, the RL21 seemed exceptionally well built, which makes me wonder why it comes with a warranty of only one year. In my opinion, five years is the norm for loudspeakers (at least in North America), and three years is the bare minimum any company should offer. In the past, when I’ve made a similar criticism, other companies have extended their warranties. Perhaps Music Culture will do the same.
Most reviews of stand-mounted or bookshelf two-way speakers come with some sort of caveat, apology, or excuse about their limited low end, which is an inherent byproduct of such speakers’ small midrange-woofers and cabinet -- designers can squeeze out only so much bass if they also want to keep the sensitivity reasonable. Although I don’t want to overstate the Elegance RL21’s low-end capabilities -- it can’t be considered truly full-range (i.e., have usable output down to 20Hz) -- its designers have nothing to be ashamed of. This remarkable little powerhouse plays more like a compact floorstander than something perched on a stand. The RL21 didn’t go quite as low as the floorstanding KEF R500, PSB Imagine T2, and AudioSolutions Rhapsody 80, all of which I’ve recently reviewed, and which respectively retail for about $2600, $3600, and $4200/pair -- but it was in their ballpark. These little speakers sounded big.
The RL21’s bass, which I estimated as nearing 40Hz in my room, wasn’t only deep and robust, it was tight -- when drums were struck, they sounded like a strike, not a thud, and low notes of acoustic pianos, which can cause many speakers, even quite big ones, serious strain, sounded full and forceful, not loose, obscure, or woolly. Even rap was well served -- Rick Ross’s bass-heavy “100 Black Coffins,” from the soundtrack to Django Unchained (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Universal Republic), energized my room with a thunderous bottom end and no sign of driver strain. The full, rich sound that belied the RL21’s size and type (two-ways don’t usually sound so deep and tight), and that stopped me dead in my tracks at last fall’s RMAF, was fully replicated in my big listening room.
Two things I hadn’t noticed at RMAF, but that impressed me even more in my room than the RL21’s bass, were: the general neutrality, from the lowest lows that the RL21 could reach to its topmost highs, which not only made the speaker sound natural with my setup, but had me thinking it would make a good reviewing tool; and an ultraclear, incisive-sounding midband, spiced up with just the right amount of presence, which helped make the Elegance sound even more real and totally alive. Fellow-writer S. Andrea Sundaram recently turned me on to Norika Ogawa’s recording of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas 10-12, an SACD release that’s also available as a high-resolution download (24/96, BIS/eClassical.com). It was rendered with the kind of tonal purity and crystalline clarity that only top-shelf transducers provide. This recording also told me a lot about the RL21’s highs, which were prominent in the same way as PSB’s Imagine T2, but never bright or objectionable. Instead, what I heard was an airy and “free” sound that consistently made for lively, engaging listening, regardless of the music I played.
The RL21’s superb midband performed something of a miracle with singers, particularly with recordings on which their voices had been captured with plenty of presence and detail. It’s no surprise that Adam Cohen’s voice on his new album, Like a Man (16/44.1 FLAC, Decca), is reminiscent of that of his father, Leonard; what did surprise me was how well the RL21s carved his voice out of the mix and let me hear every bit of detail that was there. Every bit -- I was missing nothing. I experienced the same thing with Mariza’s Transparente (16/44.1 FLAC, Times Square) -- the sound was thoroughly natural, and I could hear every nuance and inflection in her voice, along with the subtle cues around her. This kind of clarity, resolution, and transparency through the midrange, manifested in exceptionally realistic reproductions of voices, reminded me of PMC’s twenty.24, which is known for doing exactly that but costs considerably more (about $6000/pair when I reviewed it last year).
If I could choose just one word to describe the RL21s’ soundstaging and imaging, it would be extraordinary. The size of the soundstage obviously depended on the recording played, as well as how the speakers were set up, but it wasn’t uncommon for me to hear a soundstage whose width extended somewhat beyond the speakers’ outer edges, and whose depth went way, way back, clear past the front wall of my listening room, which was about 8’ behind the RL21s. Musicians were placed tangibly on that stage, superbly delineated from left to right and from front to back.
I didn’t need an audiophile recording with a minimalist miking technique to hear this. Van Morrison’s 1987 release, Poetic Champions Compose (16/44.1 FLAC, PolyGram), blew past the walls of my room: the musicians “appeared” beginning at the plane described by the speaker’s baffles, and from there were ranged farther and farther back. Even Sade’s Diamond Life (16/44.1, Epic), which I’ve mentioned in a few recent reviews (largely due to S. Andrea Sundaram’s article about the recent vinyl remastering from Audio Fidelity), sounded impressive, despite the recording itself being abysmal. “Smooth Operator,” the worldwide hit that launched Sade to superstardom, sounds threadbare, with a piss-poor soundstage, no matter which version you play -- but even that track was rendered with noticeable depth and sharp, precise images through the Music Cultures.
The one place the RL21 fell back was in an area I expected it to: sheer loudness. A compact two-way, no matter how well designed, can competently move only so much air. The RL21 is capable of quite high output, and in my very large room certainly played loud enough at what most would consider “normal” listening levels. I have no doubt that, in the typical listening room, a pair of RL21s would be just fine. It’s just that they can’t play as loud as, say, KEF’s R500, which is extraordinary in this regard, or even as loud as the like-priced PSB Imagine T2, which can’t play as loud as the KEF but can still move a lot of air. To the RL21’s credit, when I did hit its output limits, it showed no signs of audible distortion or obvious strain; instead, it began to gently compress, and its dynamics swings narrowed. At that point I knew it wasn’t a good idea to go louder, or things might get nasty.
And on the flip side, the RL21 performed better at super-low listening levels than many similar speakers of moderate sensitivity. The sonic strengths of the RL21 already mentioned -- great bass with loads of detail, high neutrality and transparency through the mids, superb soundstaging -- held true from the highest volumes the speakers could capably play down to the lowest at which I could listen before my room’s ambient noise took over. They sounded extraordinarily good and completely alive, with details emerging from a background of complete darkness, even at levels just above a whisper -- which meant that I ended up listening to them much later into the night, after everyone had gone to bed. We don’t talk about a “noise floor” when we talk about speakers -- that’s the domain of electronics -- but if we did, I’d have to say that the RL21’s floor was exceedingly low.
The buyer should expect to get a lot from a pair of Elegance RL21s -- $3495 ($4294 with stands) is not an insubstantial amount of money for a two-way minimonitor, especially when many good floorstanding speakers cost that much. To Music Culture’s credit, the RL21 delivers the goods. It can successfully compete with all speakers near its price, whether they sit on a stand, a bookshelf, or the floor.
The RL21 presented me with little to criticize and plenty to praise. Most notable were its deep, robust bass; exceedingly clear, highly detailed, and thoroughly transparent midband; well-extended and effortless highs; and outstanding soundstaging and imaging. The cabinet has an attractive shape and is finished in a manner befitting a speaker at a much higher price. And the speaker’s few flaws have nothing to do with its sound: its pin-attached grille and too-short warranty are things that Music Culture can easily remedy if it wants to.
It does this unassuming gem of a speaker from Germany something of disservice to call it one of the best two-way, stand-mounted speakers I’ve ever heard. At anywhere near its price, it’s one of the best speakers I’ve heard of any type.
. . . Doug Schneider
- Loudspeakers -- AudioSolutions Rhapsody 80, KEF R500, PMC twenty.24, PSB Imagine T2
- Amplifiers -- Eximus S1, Simaudio Moon Evolution 870A
- Preamplifiers -- JE Audio VL10.1, Simaudio Moon Evolution 740P
- Digital-to-analog converters and digital sources -- Ayre Acoustics QB-9, Cambridge Audio Azur 851C
- Computer -- Sony Vaio laptop running Windows Vista and JRiver Media Center 17
- Digital interconnect -- AudioQuest Carbon
- Analog interconnects -- Nordost Valhalla
- Speaker cables -- Nirvana S-L
Music Culture Elegance RL21 Loudspeakers
Price: $3495 USD per pair in standard finish; stands, add $799/pair.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
Music Culture Technology GmbH
Phone: +49 152-28-967-567
Fax: +49 30-484-98-35-50
16 Passaic Avenue, Unit 6
Fairfield, NJ 07004
Phone: (973) 808-4188
Fax: (973) 808-1055