Although I’d heard good things about RMB loudspeakers – and after all they’ve been around for a fair few years now – I’d never actually had the opportunity to hear a pair, let alone in the context of my own system. RMB take loudspeaker design very seriously, yet their approach and the visual aesthetic is quite different from the norm.
For a start, including a stand as an integral part of the loudspeaker is something of a rarity. Unless you hark back to the Quad 57 there are very few speakers whose legs are fixed. Angling the drive units to fire more upwards than towards the listener is not unknown (Neat’s Iota Alpha being a notable example), but remain comparatively uncommon. Single loudspeaker connections are provided, so despite two- or three-way working, none of the RMB designs provides the listener with easy access to a bi-wiring option.
Visually the range – comprising two floorstanding models and one standmount – is striking. The main cabinet and internal bracing material is 18mm birch ply, well finished (and with a range of finish options). All are bass-reflex designs with either rear or downward-firing ports, and although all are visually similar they are nevertheless still quite distinctive. As RMB say on the back of each model: ‘Very carefully designed and built in the UK’.
Following RMB’s room-sizing advice I opted for the Model 22/3, intended for listeners with a room size up to about 16 square metres. The other specs of note are a minimum amplifier requirement of 15 Watts, placement “effectively flat against a rear wall” with a speaker driver complement of two 145mm mid/bass units with natural fibre cones, and a 28mm fabric-domed tweeter.
I was curious about the slightly upward-firing drivers as most designs intend that you be almost on-axis for the very best listening experience. However, having spent many years playing live music in a variety of ensemble settings, and attending many live concerts of all sorts of genres over the years it dawned on me that it’s actually very rare to find yourself directly ‘on axis’ with a live performer. Even in a small jazz ensemble (for instance, with a trumpet, bass and piano), how often will that trumpet bell be pointing right at you during the course of a set. Where exactly is ‘on axis’ for a piano. And as I have said in reviews many years ago, if you ask a double bass player which bit of his instrument makes the noise he’ll look at you in astonishment. ‘It all does’ will be the most common reply.
I suppose, put simply, most instruments simply ‘launch the notes into the air’, and regardless of which venue you happen to be in, different places within that venue will sound different. Well, that’s an awful lot of waffle to set the scene. The important bit is ‘how do they sound’?
A recent release on the Naxos label hit the player first – George Enescu’s Piano Quartet No.1 (8573616). A work full of colour, superb dynamic contrasts and a lovely depth to the piano’s lower registers. Here the RMBs started to work their magic but initially fell a little short in the bass weight department. Well, the instruction manual does state that the speakers should be used ‘with the backs in close proximity to the wall behind’. Maybe, at a foot or so, I had them out just a little too far? So I eased them back leaving a four-inch gap and tried again.
Much better. The superb focus didn’t change, but now there was that initially elusive depth to the piano, and the cello filled out a bit in its lower registers too giving the whole presentation considerably more realism. Chamber music can often tease out the nuances of a solo violin, and as I know from experience, some of those nuances are not always ‘nice’. A violin in full flight can sound surprisingly shrill when required. Despite being ‘off axis’ the tweeter in the 22/3 is more than up to the task, and seamlessly moves from the violin’s sultry lower strings to the shrill upper registers, conveying with extraordinary realism just how a violin sounds in real life.
However, realism isn’t always the be-all-and-end-all. Sometimes we just need to throw something on the system and let it play. So Bela Fleck hit the player, with the oft-played Flight of the Cosmic Hippo. Even though this particular album is over thirty years old its exploration of a tuneful bass is still a challenge for some systems, particularly the section with the tune (such as it is) in the bass, and the electronic harpsichord above. The title track usually sounds ‘better’ on systems where the speakers use large (12 to 15inch) drivers, so I was quite curious to hear what the 22/3s could do.
Well, there was certainly no loss of bass weight, no loss of depth and (probably thanks to RMB’s use of an ‘extremely powerful proprietary magnet system’) a thoroughly engaging and rewarding reproduction of this track. The bass stayed firm, deep and taut, and there was no upset in the musical activity taking place in the upper registers. It would seem RMB’s crossover design is something really rather special, as there was absolutely no way of hearing where the crossover point was. The voicing and crossover design are obviously the result of considerable research.
Female vocals are another test of a loudspeaker system, especially with regard to how well to they cope with the range of colour, texture and tone that the singer is able to produce. BIS recently issued a disc entitled Ombres: Women Composers of La Belle Epoque (BIS2546). For lovers of the classical voice this is a real cornucopia of songs sung by Laetitia Grimaldi (accompanied by Ammiel Bushakevitz). The vocal textures range from earthy to soaring, loud to unbelievably quiet, warm to hard-heartedly-cold as she explores works from the early part of the 19th century through to the mid twentieth.
There’s a phrase: close your eyes and you’re almost there. Well, this disc coupled with the 22/3 speakers is real-sounding enough to provoke exactly that reaction. The speakers are able to convey very subtle changes of colour and timbre in Laetitia’s voice, and equally able to convey the power and weight (sometimes) and gentleness and sonorities (at other times) of the piano. This is beautiful salon music, and the speakers are well up to the task of reproducing it in a thoroughly believable way.
But with small-scale performances some would argue that it’s not difficult to get it right (not a sentiment I’d necessarily agree with). After all, with smaller ensembles there’s nowhere to hide. But in some ways ensemble music fits into the home rather more readily than trying to squeeze a full symphony orchestra, a choir and organ, or a full-blown rock band on the stage at Glastonbury.
However, in deference to the lovers of big things I replayed a recording of Coldplay at Glastonbury (unashamedly saved on my Sky-box) and cranked up the volume. OK, so it was an interesting challenge persuading my head that I was in the crowd of thousands in front of the stage but in terms of whether the speakers could cut it, undoubtedly they did. They can make the floor shake. They can go uncomfortably loud without breaking up or becoming distressed. They can still image at huge volumes and generate a remarkably believable ‘stage presence’, and yes, they can make the neighbours turn their heads when they walk past outside the window (with eyebrows raised, I hasten to add). These RMB’s can punch and kick with the best of them.
The last adventure was heading into ‘large spaces’ – choral works from Manuel Cardoso on Toccata Classics (TOCC0498). The Choir of the Carmelite Priory under Simon Lloyd give a sublime rendition of two of Cardoso’s Masses, and two works by Palestrina. Again the voice is used as a testing ground – that and the piano are perhaps two of the hardest things to get right in any part of a home music replay system. The choir here is sublime, recorded in St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead. The recording has captured all the nuances of vocal choral music sung in a large resonant space. With just 16 singers, anything amiss in the performance would be immediately noticed – a loss of balance or focus, a shift in tone, something off-key, and having got used to the 22/3s I was well aware that, while not ruthless, they are transparent enough to be able to let such misdemeanours be heard.
I needn’t have worried. The presentation was just as if I had been sitting about a third of the way back in St Jude’s. It wasn’t quite so difficult to let the insides of my head expand to encompass the venue, and the impression of air, space, and actually a sense of occasion all came through with remarkable ease and realism.
I suppose, on reflection the one thing the 22/3s do is present a very believable aural image of a musical event. There’s nothing ‘flat plane’ about how they do it. They manage to convey a remarkable sense of depth, and perhaps because of the angle of the drivers, height as well. Their ability to produce an appropriately believable soundstage width is exemplary too, offering a narrower presentation for a small ensemble, and widening to encompass a larger group or venue. They certainly don’t lack impact, and I suppose the one thing they do really well is ‘disappear’. After a couple of long evenings’ listening I realised I was no longer aware that I was listening to loudspeakers, but had become totally immersed in the music. That has to be a serious plus.
Partnering equipment needs to be high quality, but not necessarily high power. While an SE 2A3 amplifier would give excellent results on small ensemble music in my room, for something ‘bigger’ a few more watts are needed. A Leak Stereo 20 did a very good job, but they really start to come alive with around 25-ish watts available. A good preamp is also a prerequisite as any shortcomings in that area will be revealed.
As for styling, they’re not your average black box, and their looks are certainly a function of their performance. I doubt Richard Best would have compromised their sound in pursuit of ‘domestic acceptance’. To be honest they won’t suit every domestic environment. However, if exemplary, engaging, unfatiguing musical enjoyment is what you’re looking for, then these RMBs are really worthy of serious (and I mean ‘serious’) consideration.
At their price point they are a musical bargain. They don’t excel in any one particular area, they excel with everything I threw at them (and it was a lot more than just the few I’ve referred to above). Is there anything they don’t do – well, no, not really. They are slightly finicky about placement – as I discovered they do need to be pretty close to a rear wall to get the real deep bass they’re capable of. RMB supplied me with some DNM cable ‘to enjoy the optimum performance’. It was certainly different from my usual cable but that’s the fun of tweaking a system. Cables can make a difference, but do they improve (active verb), or do they simply align the sound to your taste. What a can of worms that is. The DNM is fine, simply different from my own.
The RMB 22/3s come highly recommended. I would encourage you to audition them if you can (they garner plaudits at shows on a regular basis) but be ready not to be ‘wowed’. They don’t do anything outstanding. But they do everything outstandingly well.