One is a simple delicacy, the other a complicated dream. If someone could morph the dream into this dimension, it'd be a delicacy fit for royalty. The person with a chance at manifesting this dream is Jacob George of Rethm. In my book.


So perhaps kheer with rose water should have gone into the headline. Rethm is headquartered in the state of Kerala in Southern India after all. Same thing in the end though. Lowthers don't make bass. Even Jacob's Second Rethm flagship effort could be accused of making less than required to be considered uncompromised. Any perfectionist would naturally obsess over such limitations. Even after authoring what is arguably the most brilliant truly wide-band Lowther speaker of all time: the Second Rethm's second incarnation.


There's the whole persnickety issue of sales volume though, especially being an India-based audio firm. Just how much R&D time and money can one justify throwing at a perennially elusive challenge, e.g. getting mainstream bass from Lowthers? How to go about it without screwing up what makes Lowthers desirable in the first place - blazing speed, coherence and immediacy? Once you overcome their presence region peak that is, another considerable challenge but one which Rethm has licked with its custom driver modifications. Fortunately for us, Rethm sales have made headway in their native India. Perhaps not enough so to really justify revisiting the challenge but Jacob's core business as architect and furniture maker has now allowed him the luxury of revamping his entire lineup. He's been hunting Lowthers with bass with Quartermain's rifle from a Royal Enfield in fourth gear - legendary stuff in other words.


That should really read Lowthers with more bass. Especially his Second Rethm as-is is probably as bass-endowed as a rear-hornloaded DX4 can be made. But the Third Rethm and its smaller Fourth and Fifth siblings never cut the mustard with US-style bass expectations. Hence Jacob decided to finally tackle the issue once and for all. What you see above is the new Saadhana with a retail of $6,500/pr as shown. That includes a pair of 8" x 8" x 4" Rethm bass amps finished in the speaker veneer and bass cabs. Bass cabs? Yeah. And solid bass to 32Hz.


Here's Jacob in his own words on the most recent big-bass safari sightings: "Over the years, the one adverse and consistently offered comment about Rethms -- and obviously a very very serious one -- has been that they lack bass. Which of course they do especially when compared to mainstream speakers. After several years of hearing this lament and reinforced by sincere entreaties from several well wishers who believed that more bass can only help an otherwise competent speaker, I became convinced that it was time I addressed this issue. And that's what I have been busy with over these last several months. I decided to drop the 3rd Rethms and stay with just a three model lineup -- the 2nds, 4ths and 5ths -- but with all three completely reworked to include bass modules.


"This was a difficult task. I wanted to retain all that was great about the Lowthers as full-range units, yet bring in bass that integrated perfectly. What I have ended up with are not exactly subwoofers but something close by being powered bass modules, one for each channel. I am a firm believer in stereo even at bass frequencies. [That makes two of us - Ed.]


"All the speakers are therefore 2-box units now. My initial idea was to have the bass drivers share the same labyrinth as the widebanders to time align them perfectly and give them the same character. Sadly, this didn't work. I was getting reflected bass energy leaking through the full-range driver to make it vibrate. Not acceptable. The 2-box solution eliminates this phenomenon and keeps everything very clean. The bass enclosure is completely decoupled from the full-range enclosure. However, the bass enclosure ended up becoming a reasonably complex isobaric horn-loaded affair that I had to devise to give me the bass quality I wanted. We use 6-inch drivers for the bass to keep them light and fast but we use two per side to produce the necessary SPLs.


"The bass module on the Saadhanas is designed such that the drivers are enclosed in a cylindrical isobaric chamber, with the rear driver of this isobaric pair firing into a sealed asymmetrical chamber (I dislike the sound from ported enclosures) and the front driver firing into a horn of similar length as the horn of the main enclosure, thereby keeping time alignment almost perfect. It creates very clean, tight, fast, horn-loaded bass that integrates perfectly with the full-range Lowther unit. The Lowthers are still used as full-range units in a horn-loaded labyrinth. Nothing comes into their signal path. It was quite a job getting the kind of clean tight bass I wanted. We went through the whole gamut of driver options, from rubber surrounds to foam to ultimately cloth. The Peerless guys working with us kept thinking that bass drivers had to have rubber surrounds or at the very least foam (virtually nobody uses cloth as a surround material for bass drivers). But neither of those options were the equal to the cloth surround drivers in terms of tightness, dynamics and lack of overhang. And the interesting thing is that the frequency response charts for all three models are very, very similar, something one would not have guessed by listening to them in their enclosures. [Jacob's self-designed and -built living enclosure below.]

"Both the Saadhana and as yet unnamed new 2nd are designed along very similar lines except for the size of the bass drivers (which is kept the same diameter as the full-range driver). The bass module of the new 5th is a lot simpler. Work on the Saadhana and new 5th is over and I shall be starting on the makeover of the 2nds shortly. All the new bass drivers are custom made for us by Peerless because I wanted high-efficiency paper-cone woofers, again to retain as many similarities as possible with the Lowthers. The amplifiers and passive filter units are built here by us, with special attention given to phase shift, one reason why we decided on a passive filter. We have managed to keep phase shift to a very minimal 10 degrees. Accordingly, coherence is truly exceptional.


"Although there are now two separates enclosures per channel, they are designed to nest such that they fit together and look like one unified speaker. The depth of the Saadhanas has increased by about 9 inches but all other dimensions remain identical."

So let's see: Lowthers with bass in a reasonably sized enclosure for the Saadhana and by virtue of provided bass amps, still ideal for micro-power SET aficionados. It seems as though Rethm was making a very serious appeal to not yet relegate Lowthers to the heap of the tried, interesting but ultimately too compromised. Instead, we're to revisit them with a promise of discovering bona fide 21st-century music makers.


Let's be clear that Lowthers really are the text book example for why speaker shopping based solely on frequency response specs misses the boat completely. By a mile and in broad daylight. One look at a Lowther response curve tells a sordid tale. Based on it, you'd not give such speaker a second thought. Yet sophisticated music lovers embrace Lowther-based speakers to suggest that fidelity in the amplitude domain, at least to them, isn't as important as fidelity in the time and transient domains. Let's also be clear that due to its minimal
+/-1mm Xmax (maximum allowable voice coil travel), Lowthers as direct radiators -- i.e. without the benefit of 10dB acoustical horn-loaded gain -- have severely limited dynamic range. Large-scale orchestral with huge swings at realistic SPLs is beyond them. Lowthers can also be finicky drivers whose voice coil misaligns in transit. Yet for all their flaws, Lowther devotees are drawn to them for certain qualities where they exceed other drivers made. How to minimze Lowther liabilities while maximizing their assets has been the challenge which all Lowther-based speaker designers must welcome for various personal reasons and to woe their limited clientel. [Interiors of Jacob's Zen-in-India residence next.]


I of course right away assumed that the prior appeal of the reviewed Second -- rather reasonable bass over its clearly bass-shy siblings like the Third -- had now been undone by the newly bass-fortified Saadhana. And there are presumed added benefits from a Lowther of smaller diameter. The DX45 might be even more transparent in the vocal range than the 8-inch DX4 of the Second. It's a very real problem for any loudspeaker designer, you see. Once ongoing R&D trickles down to improve lower priced models, there could be fewer degrees of separation and desirability for the upmarket items. Make cheaper models too good and cut into sales of the dearer stuff. I was wondering whether Jacob had perhaps made the Saadhana too good now. Was that the very reason why the Third had vanished? Did Jacob really suck just a bit at being the ruthlessly shrewd business man and prince of the rupee lakh (one lakh equals 100,000)?


Suck is putting it mildly. The entire Rethm venture is a labor of love. The craftsmen making the speakers are otherwise engaged as furniture builders. Loudspeaker production gets scheduled by order volume. That certainly wouldn't keep the crew of highly trained workers full-time busy. Only in what's sadly referred to as a 3rd world country is it even possible to manufacture Jacob's complex cabinetry at the retail pricing charged. While China has garnered the lion's share of press coverage for its audio products, it's an emerging manufacturing giant keen on high-volume shifts. Rethm is Indian. Actually, it's Sanskrit for harmony. It's also the antithesis of deep margin high volume. Forget giant anything. That actually goes with the Lowther territory. It's esoteric stuff and Rethm is perhaps more esoteric than most in this circle.


Rethm as harmony is also embodied in the refined yet simple aesthetics of Jacob's home. It's about space and peace, not excess and showiness. The latest crop of Rethm speakers is an outgrowth of the same attention to detail, of sincere commitment to purity of expression. Those attending the Consumer Electronics Show 2007 will have an opportunity to judge for themselves whether concept, execution and personal experience will meet in the new Rethms as anticipated. If I can pursue Jacob to dispatch a Saadhana from Kerala to Coral Bay, I just may have more to report on this in person.


I know one thing already. Each time I've heard Jacob's presentation in Las Vegas in the past, it was one of my favorite rooms. I'd specifically time my visit when I needed a respite and oasis. He'd have the speakers pulled deep into the room, with the listening seat facing the door. The room would be devoid of any fittings and very stark. Jacob would say very little. He'd just spin first-rate music or let the guests hear their own. And without fail, the presentation would have a very peculiar aroma of extreme otherness. As though listening was supposed to be an out-of-body experience. So what if blockbuster fare and get-down slam weren't fully on the menu? For pleasure listening scaled to ordinary rooms, you'd not expect to reproduce Shostakovich mayhem at full boogie. Since I'm not going to Las Vegas in January, I envy whoever gets to enter the Rethm room. If you're up for it, report back on what you thought...
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