It’s no secret to followers of this hobby that solid-state electronics and Red Book CD players have recently advanced to previously unheard—and for some, perhaps, unimagined—levels of musical performance. Indeed, recent articles in these very pages have discussed how the best of today’s solid-state electronics are exhibiting far lower levels of noise (and its attendant grain) and tonal darkness than designs of even the relatively recent past, while at the same time showing large improvements in low-level, tonal, and dynamic resolution. Likewise, not only are the best CD players traversing a similar sonic pathway, they’re somehow piecing digits together in a way that makes them musically involving to a degree most analog lovers never thought possible. That said, there’s good…and then there’s spectacularly good.
Which rather quickly brings me to the products made by the German outfit MBL. But before I explain why the MBL items under review here have for me redefined their respective categories, I need to touch on something that both reviewers and readers should remember—unless you’ve heard something either in your own system or one you know intimately well you haven’t really heard it, or at least not to a degree that makes for an authoritative opinion. So even though my amigo Jon Valin has been touting MBL’s gear for the past few years, and I, along with pretty much all who have heard them, have walked away raving about the company’s presentations at the past few CESes, it wasn’t until I actually heard these components in my own room that I was able to comprehend just how astonishing MBL’s achievements with electronics are. (At shows, after all, it’s all too easy to be razzle-dazzled by the company’s exotic looking Radialstrahler speakers.) For those who dare to dream of components that marry the best of tubes with the best of solid-state, who fantasize not about big-bosomed beauties but about a CD player that will instead let them enjoy digital playback nearly as much as analog, MBL’s designs come closer than any other I’ve heard.
As planned, this trio came my way when Bill Parish of GTT Audio visited in March to deliver and set up the Kharma Mini-Exquisite speakers, which were another highlight of the last CES. But eager as I was to hear the Minis, I decided that before we placed them in my listening room I first needed to hear the MBL electronics on my reference speaker of the past 16 months, Kharma’s Ceramique Reference Monitor 3.2. One by one Bill and I began replacing the gear I had been listening to with the MBL components. Now, what I’d been living with was hardly chopped liver. It was in fact the very fine and beautifulsounding Hovland HP-200 preamp I reviewed in Issue 162, along with Hovland and Nordost Valkyrja cables, an Arcam digital transport, and Musical Fidelity’s excellent Tri-Vista 21 DAC (Hovland’s RADIA and Kharma MP-150s did amplification duties). Each replacement—first preamp, then DAC, then transport—resulted in similar ear-opening and eye-popping experiences. For this phase of the process, we used but a single piece of music—the gorgeously played and recorded Stern/Bernstein version of the Barber Violin Concerto [Sony]. We’d play the first and second movements, switch in a piece of MBL gear, and play them again. Each switch brought dramatically improved levels of transparency, resolution, depth, air, tonal richness and beauty, dynamic shading as well as wallop, and a riveting involvement with every aspect of the music making. (And by the way, this isn’t MBL’s most costly level, nor even by a long shot the most expensive gear out there, though at $8382 for the linestage, $9130 for the transport, and $8910 for the DAC, ’taint exactly cheap, either.)
Never before have I experienced solid-state and digital components with the rich and lifelike tone colors I’m hearing here, or ones with the kind of transparency that allows you to imagine you’re “seeing” into a recording and “around” the players and their instruments. Never before have I known any solidstate and digital with such a convincing projection of “bloom,” attended by a lingering, ghostlike decay of notes and as deeply layered depth of soundstage. And perhaps most tellingly, never before have I experienced the kind of emotional pull, intellectual involvement, and sheer musical joy with solid-state and digital components than I am experiencing with this stuff.
Now, I’m not saying that the MBL components sound like tubes. They do not in ways I’ll discuss below (and which Jonathan tackles in some fresh ways in his companion piece that follows on the 6010 D). What they manage to do is offer a pretty wonderful mixture of what we appreciate in the sound of both transistor and vacuum tube electronics. And rather than say the MBL gear sounds “musical,” let me instead say that the MBL gear brings the music and its recorded space into my room in a way that frankly makes me care not a fig if the chassis are filled with tubes, transistors, or jellybeans.
For instance, if you were to play the beautiful-sounding Deutsche Grammophon CD of the Mutter/Levine reading of Berg’s Violin Concerto, you’ll notice a startlingly expansive soundfield of tremendous depth—though not necessarily width, the one area in which the MBL electronics are merely good, as opposed to exceptional—gorgeously rich and convincing tone colors, and a remarkably tiered dynamic range that finds Mutter’s violin sharing a dialogue-like exchange with other string players before the entire orchestra rushes in for a near chaotic and absolutely thrilling climax. This is a complex and occasionally busy composition that the MBL stuff not only handles with ease but conveys in a way that allows the composers intentions to shine through, unmolested. As JV points out, the MBL sound is a touch darker, perhaps a shade more beautiful than life, but in tandem with its remarkable air, transparency to the recording venue, and outstanding detail, I’d say that’s a compliment.
And this ability to bring the recording site home is one of the reasons the MBL designs bring music so fully to life. Take György Ligeti’s brilliant dark comic opera Le Grand Macabre [Sony]. This 1998 live recording from Paris presents a soundstage so magically laid before your listening seat, along with a spooky-palpable sense of the theater’s ambience (there’s a bit of audience noise and mild laughter) that makes you a part of the event. Ligeti’s complexly scored orchestra and small ensemble of singers are defined not only by exquisitely solid image placement but also by an unusual three-dimensionality—one that layers the musicians and singers back from the front plane of the Kharma Minis, and also allows you to track the singers movements across the stage, next to and around one another. This recording also highlights the virtues of solid-state—the ability to deliver hard and fast transients with pistol-shot-like speed, and a bottom end that has a mind-bending combination of richness, weight, and explosive power. This is by far the most “live” sounding system I’ve experienced in my home.
Now, this, and any review, is of course not only a review of the items under scrutiny but of the entire system or systems it has been part of. Therefore, credit must also be given to the associated items listed at the end of this article and especially to Kharma’s marvelous Mini Exquisite, which I’ll report on next issue.
One final thing about the MBL sound—and this relates especially to the 1521A CD transport and 1511 E DAC: Buyer beware. Because these products make listening to CDs such a fresh, lively, and deeply involving experience, you’re likely to start spending large chunks of your discretionary income on all kinds of new music. I know that I have.