Once the speakers were set in place and connected, I did some initial listening. The imaging and balance I’d heard at CES were there from the start, and the sound was better than expected with the speakers just installed in a new environment. Initially satisfied, I handed the remote control to Dr. Roland Gauder and Arturo Manzano. Upon listening, all three of us felt the location initially selected sounded very good. Dr. Gauder ran through a series of CDs he brought along with him to hear the performance of the system and make adjustments if necessary. My observation was that with each successive test track from his selected CD, he became more at ease. After some time had passed and the Dynamic Bass Control was adjusted +1.5dB to accommodate my room’s acoustics and the speakers’ position (which is more than seven feet out from the wall behind them), we switched to vinyl playback. This is where things really took off and the sound quality increased. Despite the vinyl format’s technical flaws, subjective listening still shows why it is often the preferred playback medium for many listeners. Since the setup and first listen went so well, we ended up playing vinyl from my collection for much of that afternoon. Most of my observations for that day were made off to the side of the listening area, since the distributor and manufacturer as my guests were sitting in the center position. What I can say is that even in the side listening position, I could easily observe proper placement of images and a tonal balance that was above average by a significant margin.
Later that afternoon, we switched the electronics to an Accuphase C-2820 preamp, A-70 amp, and DP-720 SACD/CD player. With the Accuphase electronics in the system, the Berlinas took on a slightly darker character with a generously full lower-midrange and upper bass. Some of the same songs had a bit more grunt and a little less sparkle. With either configuration, the RC 9 speakers were capable of providing significant amounts of music enjoyment and of revealing whatever hint of character the accompanying electronics possessed. The next day we did much of the same listening with different component combinations. In each case, the sound was above average by any measure I could think of.
I was pleased that the distributor and manufacturer were both happy with the sound they heard. Knowing the speakers only had 60 hours of playing time prior to CES 2015 and that there would be time for everything to settle in, I knew the sound would only get better (and it sure did).
While the Berlina RC 9 speakers were in for review, they were also used, in part, for my Ortofon A95 and Ayon CD-3sx reviews. Even though I could clearly identify everything reported during the review periods with my own speakers, when the Berlina RC 9 was playing, every aspect of the sound was cast in greater relief. The performance differences identified between the MC A95 and MC Anna were even clearer. The smooth operation of the Ayon CD-3sx was more apparent. The strengths and weaknesses of cartridges, turntables, phonostages, digital players, CD players, and other source components were heard with greater clarity. The preamps available during the evaluation (Accuphase C-2820, Dual Placette Active linestages, and the Siltech SAGA C1) showed clear sonic differences.
The amplifiers used with the Berlina RC 9 speakers were the most interesting in terms of equipment differences. Because this was a speaker review, I wanted to at least try a handful of different topologies. On my list of amplifier types were Class AB solid-state (custom 1500Wpc mono amps and the Sanders Magtech stereo amp); Class A solid-state (Accuphase A-70 stereo amp); tube/solid-state hybrid (custom 300Wpc mono amps); ZOTL (Berning ZH-270 stereo amplifier); and transformer-coupled tube amplifier (two VAC Signature 200 iQ stereo amplifiers). Trying all these amps allowed me to better assess the speaker’s characteristics with music (discussed later) and observe the behavior of the speaker/amplifier pairing to help determine what each component was doing.
The two high-power Class AB amplifiers paired with the Berlina RC 9s possessed near unlimited dynamics (from micro to macro), incredible speed, frequency extension at both ends of the spectrum, and a wide soundstage. They did differ in soundstage depth with the Magtech amplifier being a bit shallower, while the custom amplifier was as deep as the tube amplifiers. The Magtech had the greatest control in the bass of any of the amplifiers—some might think it was too controlled, but the bass was certainly very tight. The custom amplifier’s bass wasn’t as tight with the Berlinas, by comparison, and a little fuller sounding as a result. Midrange and high-frequency differences in clarity were also recognizable with both amplifiers.
The Class A Accuphase A-70 proved to be as powerful sounding as the Class AB amplifiers within its power envelope. This 60Wpc (nominal) stereo amplifier has a minimum of 3dB headroom, meaning it will produce 120Wpc into an 8-ohm load when called for. Additionally, the amplifier doubles its output as the load is halved. The Berlina RC 9s have 4-ohm (nominal) impedance (with an uncalibrated measurement I took of around just below 3 ohms at the lowest point). One additional feature of the A-70 is the ability to accurately track real-time power output on its display. With this amplifier in the system, I witnessed a local reviewer, who gave a listen during the manufacturer’s visit, push the amplifier to well over 400+ watt peaks during some musical passages. Dr. Gauder mentioned the speakers can take that kind of peak power (up to 580 watts to be exact) without damaging the drivers. Needless to say, the amplifier packs a lot more power than expected. The sound produced with this amp in the system was bolder, bigger, and slightly fuller. There was less high-frequency emphasis and a warmer midrange. The upper midrange remained intact but the overall presentation was slightly burnished. Overall, the sound was favorable, powerful, and very enjoyable.
With the hybrid tube amplifier, the RC 9 had sonic characteristics similar to the A-70 without the added heft and grip in the low frequencies. In some ways it was a more polite version of the A-70 with a less burnished upper midrange and more even emphasis in the transition to higher frequencies. What I missed with this amplifier was the drive of the all-solid-state amplifiers mentioned above. What I gained was a subjectively smoother and purer sound with a soundstage as deep as any amplifier on hand. Overall very nice sounding, very well put together, with a bit less flamboyance when the music called for same.
Even though the Berning ZH-270 has power output similar to the Accuphase A-70, driving the Berlina RC 9 was a bit of a challenge for it. This particular amplifier sounds wonderful with the right speaker, but the RC 9 is not a good match. At low volume levels, the sound was fine but once moderate-to-loud levels are required, the amplifier begins to sound compressed and to lose dynamics. To the amplifier’s credit, I’ve heard it do exceptional things with easier speaker loads in less demanding situations. In the case of the RC 9, this is a clear example of what not to pair the speaker with. Neither component will show its otherwise exceptional capabilities.
Pairing the VAC Signature 200 iQ Stereo amplifiers with the Gauder Berlina RC 9 proved to be as enjoyable as the pairing with the solid-state amplifiers. Interestingly enough, with two VAC stereo amplifiers, I was able to try two amplifier configurations (monoblock and stereo bi-amp) plus two tube combinations (stock and optional Russian tubes), in addition to the different transformer taps available. A pair of these amplifiers offers exceptional versatility for the end user. First listen was with the optional Russian tubes (Tungsol and Gold Lion). Paired with the Berlina RC 9 in mono configuration, the sound was full, warm, smooth, and ever so slightly round in the low frequencies. When I switched to stereo mode and bi-amping, the RC 9 created a bit more clarity through the upper midrange and treble, which the speakers reproduced extremely well. In this configuration, the sound character remained the same as in the mono configuration but with a bit more air. In some cases, a highly resolving speaker will benefit from taking a bit off the top, so to speak. The Gauders, however, can take as much low-distortion resolution as the electronics can provide. When I switched to the stock tubes for the Signature 200 iQ amps, the top end opened up and resolution began to pour into the speakers with clarity and purpose. What I has been missing with the optional tubes was now there without any loss of fullness in the low registers. In fact, using the stock tubes with the stereo bi-amp configuration was my favorite tube pairing with the RC 9. I suspect that any user who must have a tube amplifier would do well to try this combination—just make sure to try the stock tubes before making a judgment.