Many of us have heard an expensive system, comprising reputable components, that just didn’t seem to convey the level of musical realism we would expect from such a pedigree. Conversely, we have also probably come across a relatively humble system that delivered a level of performance seemingly far above expectations. Harmonious component matching obviously played an important role in the final sonic results.
As more specialty audio retailers, once a good source for system-synergy advice, close their doors, we are left to our own devices and end up relying on trial and error in repeated attempts to find a set of truly compatible components. Most of us feel we can sort it all out ourselves and that choosing a single-branded system is more in line with a “mass-market” approach that would lessen our “audiophile credibility.” There are often good reasons to be wary of complete systems; not many companies can do it all superbly. With some exceptions, most truly accomplished manufacturers specialize in a particular part of the audio chain, such as loudspeakers or electronics.
One of those exceptions is Music Culture, founded by the main force behind MBL, Wolfgang Meletzky, who sold his interest in MBL in 2005 and founded Music Culture shortly thereafter. MC makes components that can and should—I would argue, based on my four months spent with a complete Music Culture Elegance Line system that included the 501 CD player ($2995), 701 integrated amplifier ($4495), and RL21 loudspeaker ($2995)—be mated together. Mr. Meletzky started Music Culture to “get back to his roots,” and focus on more affordable gear than MBL offers. Even though Meletzky says, “MC is much smaller than MBL and we are not competitors,” any astute observer of the lower-priced MBL models and the MC gear under review will note more than a passing resemblance between them. When I asked MC’s U.S. distributor about this, VSO Marketing’s Tom Canavan relayed Wolfgang’s reply. “In the early days of MC, MBL and MC products were manufactured in the same production plant. Now, MC has its own production facility in Berlin.” I guess we will leave it at that. Wolfgang also reported that “the majority of the parts are sourced from the U.S., Japan, and Europe” and that the system is made in Germany.
The look and feel of the Elegance Line gear conveys understated luxury. The electronics are quite heavy and beautifully finished, and the user interfaces are well thought out with just enough, but not too many, controls. The CD drawer has a quiet, silky operation that inspires confidence. Both the CD player and the amp use an attractive LED back-lit, high-contrast, inverse-mode dot-matrix LCD-display that produces higher-resolution characters than the crude figures one typically sees with LED displays, although I wish the elapsed-track-time digits were larger.
At the heart of the system is the 120-watt 701 integrated amplifier, which has six high-level inputs (one XLR, four RCA, and a home-theater bypass), one preamp RCA output, and multiway speaker binding posts. Both the amp and the CDP offer more than the usual number of buttons on their respective faceplates (which I tend to favor because I don’t want to go hunting for the remote handset if I happen to be near the equipment), though neither unit appears cluttered or confusing. The volume control is a motor-driven potentiometer, chosen for superior sound quality, which also feeds a numeric volume-level indicator-signal to the digital display so you can readily see the volume setting from a typical listening position. (As is the case with any typical motorized volume knob, short taps on the volume up and down controls will not necessarily return the volume to exactly the same previous setting.)
The 501 CD player has both XLR and RCA analog outputs, both of which produce 2V RMS output, suggesting that the unit is not fully balanced internally. There is one RCA S/PDIF digital output to feed an external DAC or recorder, but no digital input for accessing the unit’s on-board DAC. The transport is a Philips VAM1202/12 and the DAC chips set is a Crystal CS8420, which upsamples from 16/44.1 to 24/96 and also handles antijitter clocking. Both the 501 CD player and the 701 integrated amp have heavy “resonance boards” bolted to the bottom of the aluminum housings of their respective chassis to help damp both mechanical and magnetically induced interference.
Rounding out the system, the beautiful RL21 stand-mounted, two-way, rear-ported loudspeaker sports a 1" soft dome tweeter and a 6.5" Kevlar mid/bass driver crossed over with 24dB slopes at 3kHz. Stated frequency range is 45Hz–30kHz (- dB), impedance is 4 ohms, and sensitivity is a lowish 84dB (1W/1m). The MC 701 amp is perfectly suited to the task of driving the RL21 speaker, and I actually found the RL21 a bit easier to drive than my 85dB (4 ohm) Dynaudio Confidence C1 speaker ($7000). There is a single pair of binding posts on the back, and the speaker’s slightly curved shape and general appearance are in keeping with the MC Elegance Line electronics. I used my own 26" sand-filled Dynaudio Stand4 for the majority of my listening. Right at the end of the audition period, MC USA sent along a 28" Sound Anchor “four poster” stand, a special MC version of which MC will make available to its dealers. Both stands worked very well. The Sound Anchor made the RL21 sound more rich and meaty, the Stand4 more fleet-footed and incisive.
As for sound quality, I will spill the beans here: If I were in the market for a small, musically accomplished, nice-looking system under $11,000, I would buy the MC system. I thoroughly enjoyed long, engaging listening sessions with the MC system, primarily because it seems to have just the right balance of resolution, rhythmic verve, and the ineffable appeal that music invokes in us when the music flows well. Unlike some gear that we often call “musical,” the MC system does not appreciably gloss over musical details inducing an obvious “soft focus.” Rather, the MC system has better-than-expected resolution and refined upper frequency presence that is beautifully blended with the midrange in a way that allows the music to pick you up and carry you along with its myriad moods.
In comparison to a live orchestra, the system favors the midbass on up through the high treble, simply because the RL21 speaker’s bass extension is necessarily limited by the speaker’s size. No surprises here, but please keep in mind that in no way is the system bright, fatiguing, or aggressive. Within the context of the system’s own bandwidth, it balances midbass support and midrange richness with speed and upper-frequency extension to deliver engaging musical experiences. While the MC does not exactly thunder, music with heavy drum beats and deep bass, like “Song of the Stars” by Dead Can Dance [4AD], still has enough low-end presence to lend a respectable level of heft and foundation. The MC system has an inviting disposition but also delivers plenty of “audiophile” goods like inner detail, imaging, and especially dynamic shading (which seems to be integral to conveying the musicians’ expressiveness through the use of phrasing and varying intensity). If the folks at MC maybe added a touch of even-order harmonics to illicit a bit of euphony, I could not identify it—nor did I much care. I just played more music.
Also in the context of unamplified live music, I will say that the MC system can recreate much of the exhilaration and emotional involvement one experiences at a concert and that it comes closer to maintaining the propagation, development, and decay of ppp to-f dynamics better than any other gear I have heard that totals about $10,500 (sans cables and stands). The MC system delivers very good overall resolution, and it does so without leeching the human element right out of the listening experience, as too many systems with “accuracy” pretensions do at this price level. Mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton’s lip sounds and subtle phrasing on “So Pretty” [RR] came through convincingly on the MC system, for example. The song’s ironic message comes across because the MC system does not add distracting aberrations that would otherwise interfere with one’s ability to follow the song’s arc from beginning to end.
Compared to other gear, each MC component faired favorably to a similarly-priced group of components I had on hand: Marantz SA11-S1 SACD Player ($3500), Hegel H200 integrated amp ($4400, Issue 212) and Wharfedale Opus M2 loudspeaker ($3000, review forthcoming). This System B assemblage of components had deeper bass and greater macro- dynamic freedom, mostly owning to the Wharfedale speaker’s larger size and 8" woofer and, to some extent, the additional power provided by the Hegel amp, but it did not have the MC’s finer resolution, finesse, and dynamic coherence. The MC system just tracked notes from beginning to end better and therefore sounded more musically complete.
I do not mean to suggest that each piece of System B performed categorically worse than the corresponding MC piece. The Hegel H200 integrated amp, for example, sounds better when mated with a Marantz DR-17 player (instead of the SA 11-S1). The H200 could be substituted for the MC 701 and would deliver a more liquid presentation with a larger soundstage, and its additional power and control also seemed to extend the MC RL21 speaker’s bass enough to lend a feeling of greater heft. I favored the MC 701 amp in this context because the H200 came across as almost too liquid, and it could not quite match the rhythmic propulsion and speed of the MC 701 amp. As mentioned, the Wharfedale M2 speaker had deeper bass and could handle larger dynamic swings, but the MC RL21’s superior ability to track transients and subtle details would lead me to forgo the M2’s “bigger sound” and opt for the RL21’s more dynamically coherent and emotive qualities. Going upmarket, switching in the B&W 805 Diamond speaker ($5000, Issue 210) yielded a slightly larger, more defined soundstage, and more precise imaging, but also came with a reduction of bass presence, which tended to rob too many musical selections of a sense of foundation. (Please note, the 805 Diamond also gains additional bass extension when driven by the more powerful H200, although the MC RL21 still has deeper bass.) The Marantz SA11-S1 SACD player sounded a bit warmer and more forgiving than the MC 501, and I can completely understand how some listeners would favor the Marantz SA11-S1, but my preference tilted decisively to the MC 501 player for its better rendering of micro-details and its dynamic completeness, which helped make reproduced music more believable and interesting.
A common theme across these comparisons is that the MC system has an engaging immediacy that makes it easy to live with its shortcomings: a slightly narrow soundstage, not quite a “peer into”-transparent soundscape, and insufficient bass for some listeners’ needs. Given its sonic positives and upscale appearance, for $10,500 I am duly impressed. Music Culture offers ways to improve on those shortcomings, and presumably still retain some system synergy, by offering other, more ambitious gear, like amplification separates, a floorstanding speaker, and other models in the works.
Summing up, the Music Culture system makes it easy for listeners to get a reasonably-priced taste of what specialty audio can deliver through an artfully balanced set of qualities: ample detail retrieval, beautiful tonal balance, a fantastic sense of musical drama, and good looks, too. Anyone considering the Music Culture route need not question his or her “audiophile cred” just because the components come from the same company.
SPECS & PRICING
MC 501 CD Player
Outputs: Two pairs analog, XLR and RCA; one digital RCA S/PDIF
Dimensions: 18" x 5.7" x 16"
Weight: 26 lbs.
MC 701 Integrated Amplifier
Power output: 120Wpc
Inputs: One balanced (XLR), four unbalanced (RCA), and one HT/power-amp (RCA)
Outputs: One fixed (RCA), one pair speaker terminals
Dimensions: 18" x 5.7" x 17"
Weight: 37 lbs.
Price: $4495 (includes remote control)
MC RL 21 Loudspeaker
Type: Two-way, vented-box system
Drivers: One 6.5" woven Kevlar mid/bass, one 1" soft dome tweeter
Frequency response: 45Hz–30kHz (–3dB)
Sensitivity: 84dB ((1W/1m)
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 8.7" x 14.3" x 15"
Weight: 26 lbs. each
Price: $2995 (pair) rosewood, piano black, metallic black, metallic silver
Analog source: Basis Debut V turntable with Vector 4 tonearm, Benz-Micro LP-S cartridge Digital source: Ayre C-5xeMP, Marantz SA11-S1, Marantz DR-17 Phonostage preamp: Ayre P-5xe Linestage preamp: Ayre K-1xe Integrated amplifiers: Hegel H200 Power amplifier: Gamut M-200 monos Speakers: Dynaudio Confidence C1, B&W 805 Diamond, Wharfedale Opus-2 M2 Cables: Shunyata Antares interconnects and Orion speaker wire, Wegrzyn power cords A/C Power: Two 20-amp dedicated lines, FIM receptacles Room Treatments: PrimeAcoustic Z-foam panels