MBL Radialstrahler 126 Loudspeaker Review
Radialstrahler 126 Loudspeaker
AUD $18,995 RRP
The more expensive loudspeakers get, the more diverse they become. Down in the budget sector of the market, multiple companies are trying to produce different versions of what’s basically the same thing. For example, almost all cheap speakers are two-way designs using moving coil drive units, screwed into MDF boxes covered in a vinyl wrap – or wood veneer if you’re lucky. But when you’re spending this amount of money on a pair of MBL Radialstrahler 126s, for example, you’re in an entirely different world of engineering.
Of course, you can still get boxes with conventional drive units in this rarefied price category – but you don’t have to. There’s a far wider variety of choice that spans electrostatics, electrostatic/moving coil hybrids and various mixtures of ribbon and moving coil drivers in panel or box form. Basically, all that extra cash allows designers to follow their own specialisations, and the mini MBL you see here is a perfect example. Arguably, the 126 is the company’s most interesting product because it’s just about compact enough to be used in most people’s listening rooms. Originally launched in 2009, it’s the smallest omnidirectional speaker yet developed by the company.
The Radialstrahler 126 is a three-way standmounting design, using an 11-litre reflex-loaded cabinet with the port tuned to 50Hz. One each of the company’s special new radial drivers takes care of the high frequency and midband duties (a Radial HT37, CFK and Radial MT50, CFK respectively) while twin conventional 125mm drivers handle bass notes. Crossover frequencies are 650Hz and 3.5kHz, with a Linkwitz-Riley 4th order (LKR4) type crossover doing the work; a Quasi Butterworth 5th order sub-bass filter is also fitted.
Those trick drive units are, of course, the key to the 126’s appeal. The Radialstrahler driver was initially conceived by MBL founders Meletzky, Bieneke and Lehnardt – which explains the company’s name – and was evolved by the company’s chief engineer Jürgen Reis. It’s a unique and bespoke technology that’s unlike anything else I’ve seen and gives an omnidirectional 360° spread of sound across a wide bandwidth. This is unlike conventional speakers, which easily radiate sound all-around at low frequencies but get progressively less able to do so further up.
MBL says its drivers “entirely pulsate throughout the room”, which “drastically reduces the impact the first reflection wave can have, especially when the acoustics of the room might be less than ideal.” This is an interesting point because not only do the drivers have benefits in of themselves, they have significant secondary advantages in how they interact with (invariably) imperfect room acoustics. Because the midrange and tweeter array is by definition baffle-less, the petal-shaped carbon fibre segments aren’t impeded by the ‘dead hand’ of a speaker enclosure; the company told me that “no energy from 650Hz upwards is stored in the cabinet.”
By MBL standards, this enclosure is a tiny 252x603x343mm (WxHxD) – needless to say, this 15kg speaker is considerably smaller and lighter than MBL’s 1,000kg, four-tower MBL 101 X-Tremes! It comes in either black, white or silver with piano or satin finishes, with chrome or gold contrasting. A bespoke speaker stand is also available as an options extra. Regardless of the finish, this speaker looks quite striking in the flesh; I don’t think you could call it beautiful, but it’s certainly distinctive.
The combination of the very inefficient Radialstrahler drive unit design, allied to a modest internal cabinet volume, delivers a speaker that’s not in any conventional sense easy to drive. Indeed, with a very low quoted sensitivity of 81dB (1W/1m) and a nominal impedance of 4 ohms, it’s a really tough cookie for any power amplifier. The manufacturer quotes a 180W power handling but a maximum sound pressure level of just 99dB; this is low in absolute terms, although the speaker is likely to be bought for reasonably near field duties. MBL told me it’s optimised for rooms less than 30m2. A frequency response of 70Hz to 17kHz is quoted.
The reference system comprised an MBL N31 CD player, N11 preamp, twin N15 monoblock power amps with Townshend DCT Isolda speaker cables and Furutech interconnects and mains cables, plus a Clearaudio Innovation/Tracer turntable and arm and a DS Audio DS-E1 cartridge and phono stage.
If you’ve never heard an MBL Radialstrahler before, then you should. I’ve reviewed a couple in my time in one capacity or another, both far larger than this. They were memorable things, largely down to their incredible speed and transient attack, allied to ghostly ‘out of body’ imaging and also massive physical heft, with a bass that was strong enough to remodel any plastered wall or ceiling. Fascinatingly, the 126 lacks the latter, but that doesn’t necessarily make it worse. Actually, the absence of vast tracts of bass helps you focus in more on its transcendental midband.
The result is a speaker that I think is no poor relation to the big MBLs, at least in the most important sense. In addition to the ability to home right in on its exceptional talents from the lower midband upwards, there are two other things in its favour. First, it is smaller and therefore much more room-friendly than other MBLs, and secondly, it’s – relatively speaking – far more affordable. So after just a few seconds of listening, my thoughts centred around “what’s not to like?”
Let’s be clear here. Providing you’ve got the system to drive it – and that means seriously powerful and gutsy power amps – then listening to the Radialstrahler 126 is a revelation if you’ve not heard an MBL before. There are no other loudspeakers on sale that I’ve come across which combine such dizzying speed with this cinemascopic stereo soundstage. It delivers a hugely immersive sound and one that feels startlingly real. As a result, you end up experiencing recordings much closer to how they were recorded. For example, Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill came over as spatially imperfect – a little close-knit and shut-in perhaps – yet wonderfully clean and detailed as so many of those mid-seventies rock records were.
This baby MBL has the ability to take you into the world of the mixing booth, dissolving layer upon layer of fog and haze that so many speakers introduce due to their boxy colourations and phase-corrupting drivers and crossovers. Only the very best loudspeakers offer this experience – it is the exclusive realm of true high-end designs. Almost all such speakers with this resolving ability, at least the ones that I’ve heard, aren’t box designs at all and invariably have expensive, ultra low mass diaphragm drive units. Few that I can think of even approach the MBL in the sophistication of their drivers.
That’s why when I switched to some very different programme material – Manix’s Too Strong for So Long – out came a completely different sound. This drum ’n’ bass-infused slice of electronica is only a few years old and recorded in a completely different way to the Peter Gabriel track. Accordingly, the Radialstrahler 126 instantly transported me to another time and another place. It was able to unpeel the various layers of the mix like a banana; the outer covering came straight off, and the listener was ushered right into the centre of the proceedings. It was a striking change of mood, with this speaker’s bass units suddenly getting a real airing. Yet they integrated very well with the midband and treble, which were faithfully reproducing the glassy, pristine sound of the piano cadences, synth glides and frenetic drum machine.
With this track, I was struck by two things. Firstly the soundstage was so solid, it was as if someone had mortared it all together and left it to set in the summer sun. The man behind Manix, Marc Mac, composes his pieces very tidily, and there was an architectural precision to how one sound was layered upon another. Secondly, the Radialstrahler drivers are so light and sensitive that they’re very neutral; you can really hear the tonality of the chosen sounds and samples, despite the recording being heavily processed. This brings another dimension to the listening as if you’re suddenly able to watch something in colour when previously it had been multiple shades of grey.
More evidence of this was Southern Freez by Freez; this is a classic early eighties funk track with only a light sprinkling of electronics and some raw sounding keyboards, vocals and guitars. Again, it was as if someone had squeezed first pressure on the shutter of an autofocus camera; as soon as the needle hit the groove, things snapped into focus, the MBLs telling me all about the studio and the mix. I soon found myself tapping my feet in a way that few speakers permit; the exhaustingly fast pace that the drummer keeps up seemed quicker still through these speakers, and everything syncopated beautifully with one another. I found myself following the rhythm guitar more than I usually do, as it scratched away in an unexpectedly funky fashion. Also, the singer’s somewhat fragile voice came over as yet another rhythmic instrument, as well, of course, as intoning the lyrics.
This classic Britfunk track has its own share of dynamic crescendos, and the Radialstrahler 126 tracked these brilliantly. It was a most expressive and articulate loudspeaker at medium to highish volumes, but there was just a touch of compression at very high levels. Be Bop Deluxe’s Modern Music showed this – it was ever so slightly noticeable with cranked-up guitars on crescendos – yet in no way did it sully the enjoyable performance. Indeed, this speaker is well able to capture the drama in any piece of music you care to through at it and makes you realise how flat and ‘sat upon’ most conventional moving coil speakers sound.
Most high-end speakers tend to do a couple of things exceptionally well yet are mediocre in other aspects, whereas the MBL proved surprisingly good all round. However, were I being really picky, I’d draw attention to the slight disconnect between the bass and the midband and treble. REM’s Welcome to the Occupation showed that the 126 doesn’t completely defy the laws of physics. Its crisp, supple bass guitar sound was very well carried, but I was always aware that it didn’t quite have the lightning-fast transients of instruments working more in the midband and treble. This is an occupational hazard of any hybrid loudspeaker, I’m afraid, but generally, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks – and that was certainly the case here. Also, considering this speaker’s price, I can’t think of any stand mounter that comprehensively betters its low-frequency performance. It goes decently deep, is satisfyingly taut and never once impedes your enjoyment of the speaker as a whole.
Last but not least is the Radialstrahler 126’s superlative stereo imaging. As I alluded to before, its most extraordinary party piece is ‘jaunting’ the listener from one recording studio to another, in only the time it takes to change the track being listened to. Yet once you’ve got over this novelty, you can sit back and bask in this speaker’s excellent spatiality. Of course, this is dependant on placement and set-up to a degree, but this omnidirectional design never forces you to reposition yourself in the room to get a decent sound out of it. Its wide spread makes listening easy, as does its natural balance; there’s no sense of the speaker artificially pushing instruments out beyond where they should be, like some kind of superannuated ‘stereo wide’ switch. Instead – as a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony showed – you get a beautifully natural soundstage with a laser-like focus on the location of the different instrumentalists. The speaker also does depth perspective very well, never once trying to ram the recorded acoustic down your throat.
MBL’s Radialstrahler 126 is a real class act. What you lose in bass extension and sheer punch compared to its huge and super-expensive bigger brothers isn’t enough to lessen its appeal one bit. Indeed I’d say it’s almost a case of the opposite being true – because it gives you a taste of something extraordinary to hear, but without most of the cost, and in a more domestic-friendly package. For this reason, I’d say that – for real-world requirements – the 126 is the best MBL you can buy.
It’s not only special in MBL terms, though, but it’s also superb in the wider scheme of things. The ‘go to’ high-end speaker around its price point is B&W’s 803D3; although a bit pricier, this offers a really powerful expansive bandwidth sound, plus lots of detail and finesse. Yet, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Radialstrahler 126 across the mid and treble, simply because it is limited by its conventional design. This is why the high-end speaker market is so interesting because suddenly, you have a real choice. My advice to you would be to exercise it – and go and hear a pair for yourself if you possibly can.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.