One glance at the SteinMusic HighLine Bobby M speakers lets you know they aren’t typical transducers. First off, it’s not every day you see horns, especially here in the U.S. of A., let alone my review samples’ shiny, fire-engine-red-lacquered ones (here charged with high-frequency duties). Second, to a casual observer the Bobby M might appear to be a floorstander, but it actually comprises two entirely separate enclosures—the entry-level, two-way Bobby S (for Small) monitor seated atop an “atypical” bass-reflex Bobby Bass Extension—that essentially function as a single unit. The Bobby and Bobby Bass Extension sell for $7000 per pair each.
Stein’s Bobby speakers are modular: The M (for Medium) designation actually refers to the duo under review. But if you stack two bass extension units per channel, with one atop the Bobby S monitor and the second beneath it, you’ll have a Bobby L (for Large). The Bobby M and its myriad configurations are uniquely striking-looking and wonderfully musical-sounding transducers that actually make good sense when you break them down—or, should I say, when you put them together. The M could claim to provide the best of two worlds: the convenience of a compact with the bass benefits of a floorstander. And the sound! The Bobby M system offers smooth treble response, sans any etching or beaminess, coupled with abundant midrange microdynamics and seamlessly integrated low-end extension for full-range playback in a smallish setup.
Compared with larger floorstanding speakers, many smaller monitors have plenty going for them. They tend to be compact in size and more placement-friendly, not to mention less costly. Although their strong suits often include clarity, coherence, and capable soundstaging, lower-octave output will be limited. Sure, you can add a subwoofer (or two), but that introduces more complexities of integration, room placement, etc. SteinMusic’s perfectly matched, passive Bass Extension units with built-in crossovers offer a simple and practical solution for easy integration, both spatially and sonically. The bass modules are designed to stack below the monitor and also to serve as, well, a bass base of the correct height—no stands required. The bass modules completely isolate the lower frequencies from the upper ones, which results in fewer resonances and cleaner sound, as well as greater coherence. If you feel the urge to “downsize”—even temporarily—you can simply disconnect and/or remove the bass extension units and play music through the S monitors all by themselves. You’ll need speaker stands, of course, or at least somewhere solid to place the S’s. (I’ll say more about the monitors later.)
These entry units of the Bobby Series are designed to offer a flexible solution in subtler ways, as well. The S monitors have two sets of terminals each and each bass module has a single pair, so the M configuration can be bi-wired, bi-amped, tri-wired, or even run single-wired. (SteinMusic includes jumpers/bridges to connect the mid and bass terminals, though my review pair happened to arrive without them, so I used others I had on-hand.) Stein indicated that bi-wiring is the preferred configuration, so that’s what I chose, with spade connections attached to both the HF driver and the bass unit on each speaker side.
The designer behind these speakers is Holger Stein, whose fertile imagination and passion for music—hence the SteinMusic name—has spawned an extensive and eclectic lineup of products over the past 30-plus years. The Mülheim, Germany, company not only makes speakers but also amps, preamps, wires, and a wide range of analog room-sound-and-treatment accessories that must be among the most mysterious and esoteric out there. You could say Stein’s room treatments are a bit New Agey (crystal and gem usage inside the H2 Room Acoustic System, specially shaped wooden Quantum Organizers, and small adhesive E-Pads, for instance). But damned if I and many of my music-loving visitors haven’t heard radical improvements—or at least very apparent changes—in A/B tests. Beyond the high-end-audio sector, SteinMusic’s clientele also includes well-known concert halls and musicians. (See sidebar for more on SteinMusic.)
Unsurprisingly, his speakers incorporate tweaks for fine-tuning. On the back panel of the S monitors are two tiny levers labeled “Slope” and “Level.” The former, as you might expect, pertains to the crossover slope between the tweeter and woofer. Per your room response and character, and your own sonic preferences, you can select a steeper or shallower slope for less or more substance in the mids. The latter switch (Level) tweaks the tweeter output for greater or lesser brilliance or emphasis in accordance with your system’s amplification and your listening room, notably how damped it is (or not). I experimented with these small switches, but most of the time kept them in the same positions, the Slope one “up” (I’m somewhat sensitive to treble/brightness) and the Level one “down” (my room is less damped and has high concrete ceilings). In my room I found the differences the switches made were relatively subtle, though, as one might expect, on certain recordings they were more pronounced than on others. I also felt the switches effected more noticeable changes on certain acoustic or more sparely orchestrated recordings, and when playing the monitors (the Bobby S’s) alone (i.e., without the Bass Extension units).
A closer inspection of the Bobby S monitor reveals a pair of small round ports on either side of and slightly behind each horn. The tweeter horn comprises a high-tech fiberglass composite coated in Stein’s proprietary, carbon-enhanced Maestro lacquer to enhance the speaker’s aesthetic and sonic properties for smoother response. Just below the horn-loaded tweeter is a mid/bass dynamic driver (which also serves as a midrange driver when the Bobby S is paired with the perfectly matched passive Bobby Bass Extension unit). The Bobby M configuration under review could be called a two-and-a-half-way.
The crossovers employ oil-impregnated Mundorf film capacitors that Stein custom-processes in-house. Interestingly, both the Bobby S and the Bass Extension units use identical 6-inch drivers—one serves as the monitor’s midrange (or mid/bass if the S is used alone) and the other two deliver bass in the extension units. Their diaphragms are carbon-coated natural-fiber cones.
The cabinets were lighter weight than I expected, which made them easier than most to unbox and move into position, but caution is in order should you accidentally bump into them. They’re cleverly designed and contain no internal damping material. (Stein believes that damping sucks energy out of the music.) Their structure is asymmetrical to minimize standing waves—wider at the back than in the front in a precisely defined ratio. The Bass Extension cabinet has a vent in the lower front, opening onto bass-reflex tunnels of gradually increasing diameter for better contouring and control of the lower frequencies. Radiation resistance also improves.
Finishes come in bold combinations of black and white—my review samples were white with red horns. The horns are available in all RAL colors, so if you want it to match your décor or even your car, you’re in luck. The round feet on both units are made of solid walnut, and those on the Bobby S monitors nestle nicely within mahogany contact surface “cutouts” on top of the bass cabinets. It didn’t appear that there was a way to adjust the feet on the Bass Extension units.
Of course, it’s not just the system’s slick, sleek looks that command attention. SteinMusic speakers certainly have a distinctive house visual style, but how about the company’s house sound? Whenever I’ve encountered SteinMusic systems at audio shows, I’ve been consistently struck by how natural, immediate, open, and airy the presentation was, even coming from Stein’s largest flagships. What’s more, the Steins have always displayed a degree of coherence not always found in speakers with so many drivers—and of different types, no less. The far more compact Bobby S, M, and L units were developed following in the footsteps of Stein’s larger, open-baffle models, with the object of keeping their basic “familial” sonic traits intact—no small feat given their differences in dimensions (and price). These li’l offsprings’ sonic achievements would make their parent speakers proud. Stein’s primary focus on presenting the music itself and maintaining its purity in a natural way really comes through. I’ve come to associate SteinMusic loudspeakers with a sense of immediacy and ease, an open, freed-up feeling in playback, along with microdynamics that support music’s energy.
I auditioned the Bobby High Line M speaker with a couple of integrated amplifiers in different price categories, the higher-end MBL Noble Line N51 and the more affordable Hegel H90 with integral DAC. Both played well with the 4-ohm Bobby M, though as you might expect the N51’s 380Wpc (into 4 ohms) generally delivered fuller, more robust sound with more meat on the bones on “richer” recordings. That’s not to say the H90 tended toward leanness—it still boasted plenty of substance and presence but with just a bit sparer and more delicate character. Given that the MBL’s price is more on a par with that of the speaker and that the Stein system seemed to demand more substantial power to show its best, overall I preferred the N51 with the Bobby M, and the listening examples here played back on that amp.
Starting with the N51 and spinning some vinyl on a Clearaudio Performance DC Wood turntable with Tracer tonearm, Talisman MC cartridge, and Balance phonostage, I dug deep and chose a 10-minute jam of full-on funk—“Agboju Logun” from Shina Williams & His African Percussionists off the Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970’s Funky Lagos LP [Strut Records]. This cut’s talking drum part wowed me—it was perhaps the best reproduction I’d heard of that instrument, so expressive were its 3-D body, skin, and subtle tones. The Bobby M system’s propensity for speed and freed-up open sound complemented the full ensemble’s multi-layers and polyrhythms—percussion, saxes, brass, the whole works. But where would funk be without proper bass? The Bass Extension pairings served up the deeper octaves with articulate smoothness and coherence. Even on Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” there was just enough bass augmentation to render the drop buzzy and satisfying. But don’t expect to get subwoofer-style subterranean octaves; we’re talking about an extension for a two-way monitor—albeit a highly capable one with good control.
As mentioned earlier, during my critical listening I experimented a bit with the switches for Slope and Level, and in general left them in the position of the former “up” and the latter “down.” But I noticed the differences in settings more on Sharon Van Etten’s “Jupiter 4,” an atmospheric track that swirls around and envelops you. Here, the Level switch in the “up” position seemed to project her haunting vocals and the cymbal taps into the foreground, heightening their definition. Maybe this also helped sharpen their transient attacks in the upper midrange? With the switch in the “down” position, both Van Etten’s voice and the cymbals blended more into the mix for a more ethereal presentation. On “Don’t Wait Too Long” from Madeleine Peyroux’s Careless Love MoFi LP, I had similar impressions with the Level “up” position: Her vocals shifted forward in the soundstage and increased in clarity, and there was more emphasis on the snare brushstrokes, taps, and textures; with Level “down” these elements were more in balance and imaged closer to the same plane.
Next I shifted to streaming digital via an older MacBook Pro (running Qobuz and Tidal), USB-connected to an MBL N31 DAC/CD player. Another great demonstration of the Bobby M’s ability to sort and convey realistic microdynamic details burst forth on Violent Femmes’ “Black Girls,” a gritty, dirty, and rather un-PC ditty. Amid snappy snare, throbbing upright bass, and honking horns, the trio cuts loose in a raucous cacophony of unhinged percussion midway through—an agogo bell, a mouth harp, etc. This section has the potential to sound like a muddled mess, but the Bobby M with N51 took it all in stride, scaling and resolving each instrument convincingly.
After disconnecting the Bass Extension units, I played the two-way Bobby S monitors alone. Compared to the bi-wired setup, it seemed as if some low-end extension was traded off for slightly more focus, higher resolution, lusher textures, and a touch more liveliness. The frenetic Violent Femmes track described above unleashed more exciting energy and air along with increased clarity and dimensionality of the instruments.
On the Deutsche Grammophon LP of the Labèque sisters playing Bryce Dessner’s new Concerto for Two Pianos with the Orchestre de Paris, the scale of the orchestra was reasonably approximated, with fairly good depth of field. Thinking that maybe more could be done for the soundstaging, I tried adjusting the speakers to have a little less toe-in and the soundstage opened up and widened some. Additionally, a clearer, more distinct image emerged of two pianos along with the placement of the various orchestral sections that pop into and out of the piece.
All told, there’s plenty to adore here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some minor shortcomings. Leading-edge transients were quick, but there were a few occasions when I might have wished for slightly harder-hitting attacks, such as at the opening of the Concerto for Two Pianos with the Labèque sisters where the initial strikes of percussion (flat wooden sticks) and the piano attacks should be startling.
There were a few other musical occasions where more slam would have been desirable, but obviously these are smallish speakers—even with the Bass Extensions in place—so there’s only so much one can expect given their driver complement and enclosure dimensions. That said, with their horns and other clever design elements, the Bobby Ms deliver more immediacy and nimble speed of attack than you might expect from speakers of this size. Reasonably powerful amplification benefits them, too.
The SteinMusic High Line Bobby M offered such pleasing and smoothly natural musicality and impressive dispersion that at times it was easy to forget I was listening to loudspeakers—a rare event. Nothing felt forced or aggressive. Any type of music I threw at the system just came through full of detail, with microdynamics galore, but without sterility, artificial spotlighting, or emphases in certain frequency ranges. I just wanted to keep on listening. Time seemed to pass as ephemerally as the soundwaves. No fatigue, either.
While the Bobby M setup (or its S monitor as a standalone) might not be the least expensive speaker around—and certainly faces some competition in its price category—it is special, indeed, offering beautifully pure and natural, airy sound in a unique and versatile modular package. SteinMusic’s passion for music shows, and the High Line Bobby M comes recommended, especially for those who appreciate artisanally made speakers that offer something outside the ordinary in both style and sound…with colorful horns, to boot.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Two-way monitor plus separate reflex-loaded bass extension module
Driver complement: Horn-loaded tweeter, 6″ cone midrange (monitor); 2x 6″ cone bass drivers (bass extension module)
Frequency response: 34Hz–24.8kHz
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 230mm (front)/280mm (rear) x 1015mm x 290mm
Weight: Set, 66 lbs.; Bobby S monitor, 29 lbs.
Price: $14,000/pr. for the set; $7000/pr. for Bobby S monitors
STEINMUSIC Pro GmbH
+49 (0)208 32089
FIDELIS (U.S. Distributor)
460 Amhurst St.
Nashua, NH 03063