Review by Werner Ero for MUSIC EMOTION Magazine
This test differs in a number of aspects from what I have been doing in the audio field in recent years. It concerns a couple of small monitor loudspeakers from a somewhat lower price range of a brand unknown to me. Ingredients that even beforehand have led to a certain amount of thoughtfulness and suspicion on my part. Why? Smaller loudspeakers are often inextricably characterised by a fair amount of compromise. In particular, the lack of credible timbres, a miniature scale and hindrance from dynamics compression at even low volumes can be quite disturbing factors. On top of that, they often deviate so much from the pursuit of true musical realism, that I can rarely listen to them uninhibited and not without an emphatic hi-fi feeling. Why I tested them with great pleasure, you can read in the following story.
Actually it is quite amusing, because the above intro is by far the least inviting I have ever written in my hifi career. But it is not a lie and, with a few positive exceptions, I rarely experience musical pleasure when listening to an arbitrary mini monitor. That it finally happened is mainly an indirect merit of Frank Vermeylen. He is the person behind the Belgian high-end audio importer Very Fine Solutions and represents beautiful brands such as Tidal loudspeakers, Thrax amplifiers, Synergistic Research cables and accessories, the digital audio products of MSB, the affordable electronics of Exogal, the acoustic measures package of Artnovion and last but not least the speakers of the Russell K discussed here. When he says it is really worth listening to, it can be assumed that these are really special products.
Very Fine Solutions
Prior to the test, he invites me to come and get acquainted with the complete Russell K. product line as well as the other brands from his portfolio in his beautiful new Antwerp accommodation. When I arrive at the location, I immediately realise that the simple word ‘house’ is a gross understatement for this truly wonderful accommodation. The description ‘city villa’ fits this large, distinguished and stately building much better. It’s great that you’re here, Werner, because apart from making acquaintance with my products, I’m naturally also delighted to show you this new accommodation with its wide range of possibilities. Although a lot of work has already been done, you’ll soon see that we (Frank and his wife Martine) still have a long way to go. During the tour, two aspects immediately stand out. On the one hand, there is the ‘wow, what an impressive building with, if possible, an even more impressive grandeur’, but also the realisation that the higher up we go, the more work still needs to be done! You do realise, of course, that a project like this cannot be realised in just a few months. Especially since we encounter new challenges with every part we strip. The end goal of all this is that, in addition to our private home, it will also become a vibrant music centre. On the one hand, the showroom, perfectly finished down to the smallest detail, ‘filled’ with the special audio products that I represent here on behalf of my company Very Fine Solutions in the Benelux, but certainly also vibrant due to the various rooms that we are creating on the top floor. The intention is to eventually accommodate three conservatoire students here, and a special acoustically isolated practice room will be set up on the ground floor. And what could be better than to enjoy music together once in a while? After this explanation, we admire the various rooms, including the very spacious ‘living room’. Here we find various setups using both the truly beautiful creations of the German high-end loudspeaker brand Tidal, as well as a first visual introduction to the floorstanding Red 120 and Red 150 by the very experienced English designer Russel Kauffman, better known as Russell K.
At the sight of these two models, different impressions compete for precedence. Yes, these floorstanding models are also typically (conservatively) English due to their angular appearance. But… the black piano lacquer version of this Red 150 really is piano lacquer! That means many layers of lacquer, each separately polished for a very nice, deep shine. The next striking aspect is that the real wood veneer of the Red 120 presented here is much nicer and deeper in tone than I normally encounter in this price range, and in fact well above that. Both models are also perfectly finished up close, down to the smallest detail, and the whole looks even more artistic because of the white ‘signature’ of Russell K. on the chassis edge of the tweeters. Finally, in Frank’s study in the basement, I come face to face with the Red 50 and the somewhat larger Red 100 monitor reproducers for the first time. The former is finished in a really beautiful and ‘exciting’ chosen walnut veneer, while the latter is again finished in the perfectly applied black piano lacquer.
With its chosen proportions, compact dimensions of 31cm high, 20.5cm wide and 20cm deep and 2-way configuration, the Red 50 is reminiscent of Rogers’ famous LS3/5A BBC monitor from the 1970s. But time has not stood still, of course, and aside from the visual similarities, the Red 50 soon turns out to be a completely different speaker in many respects. Basically it is a completely undamped(!) cabinet that, apart from the 1.9 cm baffle, is made of 1.6 cm MDF and has a small bass reflex port at the back that is tuned to 55 Hz. The only internal acoustic control consists of a panel with a few strategically placed openings. At the front, a 2.5 cm soft dome tweeter takes care of the highs, while a 12.5 cm paper unit takes care of the mids and lows. Finally, the specified frequency range in a normal room is 45 Hz to 22 kHz at a very friendly 8 Ohm impedance. Finally, the 12 dB/octave crossover is worth mentioning, with only one component per unit in the signal path and a single pair of high-quality connectors to handle all types of cable connections.
The first listening impressions arise in Frank’s study, where an Apple MacBook Pro and a tiny MyAmp amplifier/DAC by Micromega, drive a pair of Russell K. Red 50. The whole set up is nicely practical on a long sideboard, and as such, it actually reflects very well on how many people are likely to set up such a Red 50 in their living room. While the music is softly playing in the background during Frank’s explanation, I am already aware from the first second that this is not the ‘standard’ reproduction for speakers of this size. In contrast to the often well-known thin and timid sound, I hear a remarkably high coherence in combination with a room filling and especially remarkably artefact-free sound! After also briefly listening to the larger Red 100 on another wall of the room, I realise that designer Russel Kaufmann, with his experience from big names such as Wharfdale, Monitor Audio, Morel and Bowers & Wilkins, designs his speakers essentially differently from the majority of other brands. Especially the free, uncoloured, unforced and yet precise, natural character makes for relaxed enjoyment without missing the musical message and tension. After having listened to several other very fine products from the Very Fine Sounds product range, it is high time to load a pair of Red 50 loudspeakers into the car. Once back home, the very first thing I do is unpack them in our living room and place them left and right on the far corners of our 150 cm long TV cabinet. Amplifier on duty here is the faithful Naim Nait 5i in combination with a CD 5i CD player, while Netflix, TV channels and Blu-ray discs with the necessary feature films are also used. Although our viewing and listening distance with 4.3 metres is above average for this limited width, it starts off remarkably well. Immediately I hear that remarkably homogeneous and coherent sound again. As if there is only one very good single coaxial unit making music. This, in combination with that typical neutral but also unforced musical character, makes for long and relaxed listening. Audiophilically speaking, you could also characterise these Red 50s as ‘fast’ and transparent and they feel completely at home with many types of music and styles. Just like the well-defined and uncoloured mid and highs, the low frequencies also appear to have remarkably good qualities. There are no false accents and the quality is closer to taut and unadorned, than over the top and fat. In terms of tonal build-up, there is a good suggestion of what is happening in the deeper layer, but the Red 50’s are not capable of delivering really serious pressure build-up. Also in terms of a physical sensation, these reproducers are not at home. On the other hand, with a good amplifier, these reproducers can play considerably louder than you would expect while maintaining their high qualities.
To determine what these high-quality littles are really capable of, I move both Red 50s into the listening room. There, they are placed on two solid 65 cm high stands (Stand 6 by Dynaudio) and I can start looking for the best possible position in my room. Not entirely surprisingly, the Red 50’s appear to be remarkably insensitive to this and that is of course a very valuable thing when placed in a normal living room. Of course you get more low pressure when you come closer to the back wall and the spatial freedom in such a completely free arrangement also increases considerably. But it is much less pronounced than I am used to. In other words, you cannot set up these reproducers really wrong very quickly. 150 cm to 240 cm from each other and some turning in will do the rest. As amplifiers, a Hegel H90 and two high-end mastodons are present. The first is the ultra-stable Mark Levinson No.585, while my own reference Zanden 6000 is the maximum achievable. No, these last two will never, ever be combined with such a favourably priced rebounder. This does not mean, however, that it is not useful, interesting and above all fun to experience whether the reproduction then improves further or whether it stops at a certain point. With its soft, smooth and balanced character with a lot of grip and control, the Hegel proves to be an excellent combination with the Russel K.’s. Partly due to the optimal placement in the listening room and its very good acoustic properties, the image is now much larger and looser than I heard it in both Frank’s workspace and our own living room. Yet it is also nice that the tonal balance and overall impression has shifted much less than I had expected and these reproducers are considerably less sensitive than average in terms of both placement and set-up. The enormous price-technical jump to the expensive Mark Levinson is mainly expressed in a substantial increase of ease, richer and more saturated sound colours, a higher load capacity and an even somewhat larger stereo image. Fully in line with its much higher price, the Zanden 6000 lives up to its reputation once again. It is a pity that few people ever get to hear this kind of combination, but it is simply bizarre what such an extremely good amplifier can do to the reproduction of such a good monitor as the Red 50. Especially the complete stripping away of any hi-fi feeling is a wonderful cherry on the musical cake. But in the end it is the scale, the dynamic contrasts and the musical credibility that increase the most. In complete darkness, I finally managed to fool some friends. While they thought they were listening to small floorstanders, their disbelief really hit home when they saw that they had been fooled when the lights were on! It remains very nice and bizarre that you can get such a big sound from such small speakers. For me this is the proof that the overall concept of these Russell K. reproducers is in any case very good. Finally, I think the only real shortcoming of the Red 50’s is the partial lack of a real height image. In this price range, of course, much less of an issue than with really expensive high-end reproducers, but for me still a bit of a shame. Even with the Zanden amplifier it was not possible to get a height image higher than the top of the speaker cabinets. Width and depth certainly have their limits, but otherwise give a good impression of scale and the overall picture. The strongest aspects of the Red 50 models, however, remain the very good coherence, speed, freedom of colouring, a fluently presented musicality and a kind of natural correctness without placing too much emphasis on the recording quality.
The Russell K. Red 50 loudspeakers have really succeeded in making me look at small monitor reproducers in a much more positive way. Of course, I’ve known for a long time that small speakers can sound very spacious, need little colouring and can make music in a catchy way. But in many such cases, I find the lack of truly natural timbres, the disturbingly high level of compression and the lack of any physical impact so great that it soon starts to bother me. Yet these particular Red 50 reproducers are partly a different story. Admittedly, they share with their peers the lack of real physical impact, while the presented 3D stereo image is even more limited than the best competitors in their price range. But… what a nice coherence and what a well-chosen balance between (catchy) musicality and speed/natural detail! Furthermore, here is also a wonderful constant definition over the reproduced frequency range and a more than good focus on the musical event without becoming too emphatic. For power rock, of course, these little ones are not ideal, while even large classical works ultimately lack the necessary rich timbres, overview and scale. But if you are looking for a natural-sounding all-round loudspeaker with a very balanced character, a remarkably wide range of uses and a pleasant sensitivity to placement, then this is the one for you. Then this is a really good choice for a wide range of electronics!
Original article translated from Dutch: Werner Ero for MUSIC EMOTION Magazine