Review: Vienna Acoustics Mahler Speaker

Category: Speakers

I have waited until I lived with the Mahler for a while to insure that the units were broken in (over 600 hours of play time), I purchased these in March of 2002.
It should be noted that I have taken considerable time to treat the room acoustics to good benefit, using absorptive materials behind the speakers and the main listening position, as well as wall and ceiling diffusion panels for the first and second arrival points. These treatments have been responsible for allowing the best possible performance these speakers are capable of and really do a magnitude of order improvement to any decent speaker system; with a great speaker system, these treatments can be a revelation.
What follows is how I arrived at my personal choice, this is not to say that the Mahler is a better speaker than the others I allude to (No Flame Wars please, I won’t participate), the Mahler was just a better choice for me given the myriad factors involved in making such choices. I have included general comments as regards the other speaker contenders I auditioned, just as a general point of comparative reference to those looking as well. Since the audition time with the others averaged about four hours; in a single setting, and I have lived with the Mahler for several months, it is far from a fair or definitive conclusion even as regards what I may ultimately have been happiest with. But, as with all things in life, circumstances play a role in such matters.
My musical tastes run the spectrum. I listen to a lot of pop, orchestral, acoustic, blues, blue grass and rock etc.
When I was auditioning, I listened to models from Sound Lab, JM Lab, Avantgarde, Magnepan, Revel, B&W, Sonus Faber, Pipe Dreams, Martin Logan and numerous British manufacturer’s, many in the same general price range, with a few less and a few more.
First thing, these speakers are not a difficult load to drive, at least not for my tube mono blocks, which are rated at 90 w/ch. At the 9 o’clock setting, I get 95db levels on peak playback. These speakers can easily put out 110 db cleanly, ten o-clock setting on my rig, likely more, but that was as loud as I could stand it when I was testing their limits.
I ruled out the Sound Lab, Maggie’s and Pipe Dreams (need multiple amps) and or very high output amplifiers early on as I did not want to upgrade my amplifiers just to meet the power output needs of these speakers. Otherwise these manufacturers make some great speakers any of which I could have lived with easily.
I ruled out the Avantgarde for reasons of setup and amplification. They were IMHO the best of all the speakers I reviewed in terms of dynamics, inner detail and sheer naturalness. I can’t say it any better than this, they just sounded more “right” than anything I have listened to date. However, every indication that I have gotten says that they are a bear to setup properly. I did not want to have to rely on a dealer with spectrum analyzers to get it right every time I relocated them. Also, they require very, very quite amplification, and once again I did not want that added cost.
The Mahler upper octaves are absolutely crystalline and as fast as the electrostatic models I have auditioned and in no way bright or annoying, they are just correct as far as my ears can tell. Although I won’t go as far as to say they have the crystalline silvery quality of the Maggie’s ribbon drivers, that may be a voicing decision on the part of the designer as they are known for their warmth. They are in balance with the characteristics of the midrange drivers. It often seems the case with many designs that I have heard, that one of the drivers does not sound of a coherent cloth with the other drivers; this is not the case with the Mahler. I ruled out the Revels because I felt the treble was fatiguing (bacon sizzling next to your ears annoying) although this may have been a dealer room interaction?
The issue of room acoustics is a pet peeve of mine. Most dealers I have visited seem to have gone out of their way to create lousy room acoustics, there almost seems to be a high level of skill in this regards; most living rooms sound better than most dealers show rooms. Interestingly some of the best auditions I have had, were in home-based dealerships.
The Mahler midrange is very impressive as evidenced by their handling of both male and female vocals and woodwinds. As a side note, I was playing around with a sound effects recording, just for fun (go ahead, tell me you’ve never done that), and had on a track of cat and dog vocalizing. Our cat came into the room, walked around and around the speakers vocalizing her puzzlement at no cat present for the better part of several minutes. Our dog came in, stood listening to the dog barking track, cocking its head side to side, barked several times at the speakers, then promptly went and peed on the coffee table to mark his territory against this intruder (better the coffee table than the tube amps). The weird part is that I have played this recording before on my previous speaker systems and never got the slightest reaction out of them prior to this.
As regards detail resolution, the Mahler’s are on a par with the Maggie’s, Sound Lab and Revels IMO and better than the JM Labs or Martin Logan in this regard; although the Sonus Faber Amati Homage was definitely the last word in this regard of the models I listened to, being a slight step ahead of all. But the Sonus Faber were not as dynamic as I would have liked; and at twice the cost, that was a consideration; once again this may have been the associated equipment at the dealers? (All Krell)?
The Mahler bass delivery is deep enough to be satisfying on large scale orchestral and rock and roll as well having the volume of air movement I normally associate with a modest sub-woofer. These don’t go down to 20 HZ, but rather around 28 HZ; what is there is of good quality and satisfying. I have the speaker DIP switch set for bass enhancement, which works well in my large listening room. My house is a very open architectural layout, which may account for my not getting bass emphasis in the enhanced position. On Telarc, Eric Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Copeland recording, the large drums on Fanfare for the Common Man, are very fast and taught, the membrane is clearly reproduced with impact and size that will startle you if you are not prepared for it. This is not one note bass by any means. The Mahler was the equal or in some cases the better of the competition as regards their bass (not necessarily in terms of how low they went, but how well they went low), the exception being the Pipe Dreams which move a great deal of air.
Sonically the character of the speakers lean a little toward the warm side overall, so what, who wants cold and clinical. I’m not a reviewer, I am a music lover and want my sound system to be enjoyable not challenging. I listen for long periods of time, and don’t want an over etched sound.
In my particular room, which is about 24’ by 32’, the speakers are placed on the long wall, about 14 foot apart, 4 foot from the rear wall and 16 foot from the listening position and are toed in almost straight at the listener.
The imaging/sound-staging abilities of these speakers are indeed holographic and among the best I have ever heard. They throw a large soundstage in terms of width and depth. Interestingly, I owned speakers a while back that were ribbon based by the designer of the Pipe Dreams, and got used to their signature large sound-staging capabilities. The Mahler is capable of projecting an image that extends well beyond the sides of the speakers and forward into my neighbors yard across the street when the recorded material is appropriate. The walls just seem to disappear. As an example, on a Kodo Drummer recording (MP3 Internet, origin unknown) I have, there is a woodwind player who stands about 20 feet behind the plane of the speakers stage left, the player strolls across the soundstage to the right, and then proceeds to walk towards the back of the soundstage, an apparent distance of about 50 to 60 feet. This is not a sort of vague, he is getting farther back I often hear on many speakers, but one where I can clearly follow his rearward movement almost foot by foot. On another recording I have of African Water Drums, the image extends forward into the room with a very 3-D quality that places you in the midst of the drummers. Images are placed with a three dimensional realism on the soundstage that is impressive, with an excellent sense of differentiation of height (these speakers do height better than any I have ever heard), with no image wander as an instrument progresses through its range.
I used Roger Waters Amused to Death as one of my setup recordings, I highly recommended it for this purpose, it is Erie how the sound stage wraps 180 degrees as if you were listening to a coherent version of surround sound. But once it is right on this recording all others sound right as well. This is by the way a great recording for evaluating changes in room acoustic treatments, as you can hear the more subtle changes associated with cable upgrades for instance.
All that this review proves, is that purchasing is a combination of factors; what you can listen to, what is set up well at a dealer you can get to, what interacts well with your equipment and the cost you can bear to live with. In this price range there are likely many good choices you can make and few bad one’s.

Associated gear
Associated Equipment:
Melos CCD-2 CDP (tubes)
MSB Full Nelson (24/96 with HDCD)
Melos MA-333 Preamplifier (tubes)
Melos 90 W/Ch Mono blocks (prototypes not placed into production)
Interconnects and Speaker Cable – Jon Risch DIY Belden based
No platforms
No power conditioners
No strategically placed magic stones or hummingbird ding-dongs

Similar products
Sound Lab, JM Lab, Avantgarde, Magnepan, Revel, B&W, Sonus Faber, Pipe Dreams, Martin Logan and numerous British manufacturer’s
Bioman, you have written a very nice and thoughtful review. This has inspired me to write a review of the Mahlers in the future.

Truthfully, I do not know much about your Melos gear that you have, and I have never owned a Melos product (I have read good things about their gear though).

I am not sure I would recommend driving the Mahlers with tubes (though I have hooked a Cary Rocket 88 tube amp into my system to see how it would sound). I only say this because the Mahlers will go quite deep in the bass, and unless you have a seriously ballsy tube amp, low end bass performace and control will be sacrificed. I use solid state to drive my Mahlers, and I continually find that small adjustments/upgrades can really increase the bass performance.

You do not sound like a tweaky kind of guy (not a bad thing), but you may want to try some upgraded power cords on your amps. It is very depressing to note, but power cords can make a huge difference in the sound of any system. I would be the first to have stock power cords, if they did not make a big difference. The other component I would put a nice power cord is on your transport. I would recommend Virtual Dynamics Power Cords. They are an amazing value used.

I know some people who love tubes (and you sound like one of them), but if you ever want to try something different driving the Mahlers, I would whole-heartedly suggest a GamuT-D200 amp. The D-200 is solid state, but it sounds nothing like what any solid state amp I have heard. I could go on for quite some time about how great the GamuT amps are, but I will save that for my review of the D-200.

Anyway, I like your review of the Mahlers and think anyone who writes a review here should take as much time as you did in your review. Too many people write a 'I love this product' paragraph here and really put nothing into context.

You put things into a nice context that enable me to understand your rational for why you like the Mahlers so much.

Thanks for the review!

Thanks for the feedback; it was fun summing it all up. The funny part is I started writing this review a few months back, but had to keep updating each time I inserted a new interconnect, speaker cable, DAC, Acoustic Treatment etc. into the system, as they all had profound effects on sound.
My initial review started out with a few negatives as regards the Mahler performance, but as I added upgrades it turned out that it was the components prior to the Mahler that were the culprit. I believe that I do not yet have the full measure of these speakers, and will see further improvements with additional upgrades. The next upgrade I am planning is a stand-alone transport to replace my CDP, which is getting long in the tooth.
My tube Amps can apparently drive difficult loads, you could probably weld with them, and they have driven a variety of speakers from electrostatic to planar etc. over the last 12 years without fault. I have had several solid state amps in place rated at over twice their value that could not do what they can in terms of bass, I will look into this further in future when they give up the ghost or are hopelessly obsolete…will look seriously at the GamuT then based on your recommendation. The Melos gear was such a good value for the money I got spoiled, I have never had to spend mega bucks for electronics having gone through several generations of Melos pre-amps and even speaker systems over the years they were in business.
I am thinking about trying out an upgraded power chord, likely I will DIY as I find that half the fun of this hobby, just to see if it does anything, if so I will do the whole chain. What component would you start with first, or will it make an improvement anywhere in the chain equally? Again, thanks for the feedback.
Power cords tend to affect Digital Transports/CDPs and Amps the most. Of coarse effects vary depending on the power cord and the component.

I seriously recommend Virtual Dynamic power cords. They offer free demos. They cryogenically treat their cords, and I doubt any DIY cables can match that treatment. I have heard their Nite AC cord and at full retail of $1500 (sounds really steep), but it could be worth every penny if one had certain electronics (not joking).

If you want a stand alone CDP, I would suggest trying an Ayre CX-7. If you can swing, $2-$3k for digital, this really is an amazing player. See my review of it here at Audiogon.

If an Ayre dealer is not close to you, let me know and I can hook you up with one. Even at the full $3k (retail) the Ayre is worth evey penny. If you can get it close to $2k, you are getting a steal.

Let me know how your quest goes.

Thanks for the detailed and enjoyable review, I really like your perspective on things. I have only heard the Mahlers briefly in a shop, driven by Levinson 33H mono's, and was extremely impressed. In fact, even given that short exposure, I found myself nodding in agreement with your assessment of their sound as I read your article. I would have described them as very natural and easful-sounding, with great authority and coherence. They excelled at projecting a realistically proportioned image of a singer, totally free of the soundsources. Not the slightest sense of strain or harshness, with just a hint of overall warmth to the presentation, but imbued with lifelike deep detail that just existed as an effortlessly portrayed part of the whole, not dissected and thrust at your ears. They just struck me as a very complete and ingratiating design - and looked as nice as they sounded.

My only system comments would be to second Tok20000's motion about the digital front end. Based on my in-home previous experience with the MSB Gold Link (essentially a digitally-balanced Full Nelson) + P1000 driven by my Theta Pearl, I believe your system merits a better CD source than you currently have. Although these MSB units with upsampling do sound smooth and warm, they won't give you the neutrality, extension, dynamcis, or resolution your system could transmit. If I was looking today, I would probably focus on trying to find a one-box solution instead of my legacy-of-system-evolution three-box affair (including a jitter-box).

I would also go further than the power cord suggestion, and urge you to try out one of the PLC's offering balanced AC operation for your source and preamp (I use an API Power Wedge Ultra, but there are also the PSA Power Plant units and others). In my estimation, the improvements offered by feeding the source components power that is not just filtered but also balanced can give very worthwhile benefits in such areas as transient cleanliness, dynamic liveliness, interstitial 'blackness', and image dimensionality.

Let us know how it goes if you make yourself some AC cords (a shielded version of your speaker cables?), and happy listening with your new speakers!

Great review.I'm a fan of Vienna Acoustics myself. I
own the Bachs and love them. I will write a review
soon as well.
Bioman, nice piece. I know everyone has their own opinion on how to improve things and you will have to take them all in the spirit in which they are intended - friendly advice and an effort to help. Personally, I agree that improving your front end will show you even more of what the Mahlers can do. I certainly do not want to prey on the "weakest link" paranoia by suggesting that you spend more money, but I think you have a set of speakers that, as you note, are potentially capable of even better sound.

If I may, I can suggest one possible upgrade which I CANNOT recommend more highly after my recent experience. I have Lamm monoblock amplifiers which have very good power supplies. I had two dedicated lines put in a number of years ago before the benifit of all that I have learned and studied (many as a result of the fine people on this forum - Bob Bundus and Subaruguru in particular on this one). Those two lines were 12 gauge Romex with no conduit or twisting of the conductors. They were used with various power conditioners over the years mainly on front end and preamps but not my amps (didn't have long enough cords to reach the amps). I recently put in four more 20 amp dedicted lines (on the same phase) of 10 gauge THHN solid core wire with the three insulated conductors twisted and placed in Greenfield conduit with Watt-A-Gate outlets (two duplexes that I had) and two ACME cryoed outlets.

I have my CDP on one, each Lamm amp on one, and my preamp on the fourth (with my subs and ESLs on the old ones). The Lamms are straight into the wall with no power conditioning.

Total cost of the lines (excluding the Wattagates) including labor - $450.

All I can say in that if I could get the kind of improvement from a $450 upgrade like this every time, I would have a whole lot more money in the bank. My system is pretty resolving and I have very good PCs and cables/interconnects on my stuff so I thought the improvement would be subtle at best. NOT! I won't go into too much detail here except to say that the bass was deeper, tighter and more articulate, the highs were clearer but less strident, the overall presentation was more resolute while less analytical and the noise floor went down so much that I finally could understand Graham Nash crystal clearly on a passage that I have never understood before.

Thus, if you want a cost effective upgrade, you might also consider this as an option. Subruguru was very helpful and he sells some Belden 83802 (I believe that's the one) which I was interested in due to its ease of installation (before I decided on the 10 gauge for other reasons).

Enjoy your new babies!!
Can I e-mail you Fmpnd? I am thinking about doing the dedicated power thing and want to discuss in a bit more detail.

This is a link to see pictures of the Mahlers in my system.

Bioman, I have been pretty ill the last few weeks (pneumonia) and do not know if I ever got back to you on this issue. If I didn't, let me know and we can discuss it at your convenience!!
I love my Mahlers.
Why did you turn your woofers inward? Small room?
Did you try it both ways?