Review: Vienna Acoustics Mahler Speaker
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.
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 power conditioners
No strategically placed magic stones or hummingbird ding-dongs
Sound Lab, JM Lab, Avantgarde, Magnepan, Revel, B&W, Sonus Faber, Pipe Dreams, Martin Logan and numerous British manufacturer’s