MBL 101 X-treme Omnidirectional Loudspeaker

Being There

Equipment report
MBL 101 X-treme Omnidirectional Loudspeaker

The exceedingly large, extremely heavy (better than a ton and a half), eight-chassis, twenty-six-driver, $263,000, omnidirectional MBL 101 X-tremes are, in almost every way possible, the best loudspeakers I’ve heard in my home—or anyplace else, for that matter. As true point sources (which is to say, literal pulsating spheres), they are capable of feats of sonic legerdemain that neither dipoles nor direct-radiating loudspeakers can match, chief among which is the trick of turning your listening space into a near life-sized diorama—an uncannily three-dimensional replica of the venue in which your music was recorded, of the artists who were performing in that space, and of the instruments on which they were playing—that seems less like it’s being generated in bits and pieces by membranes or cones and more like it’s been transported whole and complete from one place and moment in time to the here and now. It is a simply amazing feat of stereophonic magic that every high-end audio system aspires to but that only the X-tremes (in my experience) can bring off. To hear the way Ben Webster’s tenor sax and Gerry Mulligan’s bari (along with Jimmy Rowles’ piano, Mel Lewis’ drumkit, and Leroy Vinnegar’s standup bass) leap out at you in three dimensions on Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” (from AP’s Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster) —completely “there” in your room, only there within a soundfield that is manifestly not that of your room but of your room resized and blended with the acoustic of the studio venue in which this set was recorded way back in 1959—is to feel the time-machine chill that you only get when an approximation of musicians playing in a hall or a studio suddenly verges on the real thing.

How the 101 X-treme is capable of turning water into wine is a complex question that requires a complex answer. As I have reviewed this speaker once before—roughly a decade ago (celebrating its tenth anniversary is the occasion for this re-visit)—I will be drawing in part on what I’ve previously written, in part on what the 101 X-treme’s brilliant designer Jürgen Reis has shared with me, in part on what the late Siegfried Linkwitz, the highly influential audio engineer recently eulogized in TAS by my eloquent colleague Robert E. Greene, had to say about loudspeaker design and practice (Linkwitz was a great proponent of monopoles and dipoles), and in largest part, of course, on what I’m currently hearing from the newest iteration of these great transducers. I’ll try to keep things fresh, but if I repeat myself it’s because the best things about the 101 X-treme (and the operating principle it embodies) have not changed. 

Why Omnidirectional Loudspeakers?
There was a time back in the late 60s and early 70s when omnidirectional loudspeakers were the audiophile rage. Of course, it was the much-maligned Bose 901s that chiefly spurred this craze, followed by a busload of three-sided, four-sided, and six-sided imitators. Though the Boses were not true omnis, which is to say they weren’t generating equal amounts of sonic energy in all directions at all frequencies, they did use the listening room, and particularly the wall behind them, in a way that most other loudspeakers of their day did not—and that acoustic instruments in concert halls always do. 

You see, better than 70% of what we hear at a live event is not direct sound but indirect sound bounced off the walls, floor, and ceiling of the venue—reflected energy that profoundly affects the timbre, the dynamics, the durations, the imaging, the very character of the sonic presentation. 

Why hall reflections play such a large part in what we hear has to do with the way instruments make music. A violin, for example, doesn’t launch a series of notes in a single plane or in a single direction, as if it were emitting a tightly focused beam aimed directly at you, the listener; it radiates its energy throughout 360 degrees, both vertically and horizontally, casting sound into space the way a softly glowing bulb casts light. Of course, that violin isn’t generating the same amount of energy at every vector or at every pitch. But it is always radiating in three dimensions, and therefore always merging its direct sound with the indirect sound it is reflecting off the walls, floor, and ceiling of the hall in which it is being played. Another way to put this is to say, as Amar Bose famously did, that instruments behave acoustically like “pulsating spheres” (or point sources), which because of their spherical wavelaunch always produce a mix of direct and reflected sound in any room at any listening position. 

It is only a small (though daunting) step to conclude that if instruments invariably behave like point sources, loudspeakers should, too—that to accurately reproduce what an instrument sounds like in a concert hall or a studio, speakers should also mimic that instrument’s 3-D radiation pattern, which is so intimately tied to our perception of its tonality, dynamics, durations, and presence. 

That’s the theory, at least. And as I pointed out on the Gerry Mulligan/Ben Webster LP, with the 101 X-tremes the theory proves out beyond highest expectations. I personally have never before heard a baritone or tenor saxophone (or a piano or a bass fiddle or a drumkit or…you name it) reproduced with the same density of color, weight, solidity, and three-dimensionality—the sheer in-the-room-with-you presence—that the 101 X’s bring to the party. Those saxes (and other instruments) are just there, playing for you in your listening space. As I said ten years ago in my review of the original version of the X-tremes, “while we all listen, perforce, blind to stereo, the 101 X’s go farther towards compensating for our hunger to see what we hear—to fulfilling the definition of the word ‘stereo’ (which literally means ‘three-dimensional’ or ‘solid’)—than anything else I’ve auditioned.”

 In addition to their incomparably full and realistic reproduction of tone color and 3-D presence, omnis have obvious sonic benefits when it comes to soundstaging and imaging—one of which you can demonstrate to yourself by merely abandoning the “sweet spot” midway between those cone loudspeakers currently ensconced in your listening room. As you already know, when you move right or left of center, so does the soundstage, which tends to collapse towards the speaker you’re nearing, as if the instruments and vocalists were gradually sliding off a tabletop tilted in the direction you’re heading. 

This does not happen in real life. If you move from centerstage to a seat at stage left or stage right in a concert hall (or a rock club, for that matter), the soundstage does not “collapse.” Oh, the instruments located in the direction you’ve moved sound louder and more prominent (because they are, in fact, louder due to your closer proximity to them), but the rest of the orchestra or band still spans the stage in the opposite direction, the soloist/vocalist still sounds roughly centered, the hall’s ambience still encompasses all instruments evenly, rather than thinning down in the distant direction and thickening up in the proximate one. With an omni, you get the very same effects you hear in real life. Sitting, standing, shifting your head or your seat, you experience the same stable imaging and soundstaging. 

As a dyed-in-the-wool audiophile, listening alone with your “head in a vise” may be something you’ve grown used to (as I have), but it is certainly not the most natural or relaxing way to enjoy music; nor, when it comes to your non-audiophile visitors, is it the most congenial. I don’t know how many times I’ve told some bewildered newbie to “sit in the center”—and if, as is often the case, there is more than one such visitor, to “let so-and-so have the sweet spot.” It’s rude and embarrassing—and one of the chief reasons, beyond the baffling complexity and absurd expense, that so many FNGs find high-end audio off-putting. While omnis like the 101 X’s certainly won’t solve the complexity or expense problems, they will go far towards making listening to music the non-conditional joy it is (and ought to be).