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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S; Opera Audio Reference 2.2 Linear; Raysonic CD128; Ancient Audio Lektor Prime
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio Passive Magnetic; Bel Canto Design PRe3; Wyetech Labs Jade; Supratek Cabernet Dual; Melody HiFi I2A3; Eastern Electric M520; Yamamoto HA-02; Almarro A318B [on review]
EQ: Rane PEQ55 active merely below 40Hz
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE; Yamamoto A-08S; FirstWatt F3 & F1; Bel Canto e.One S300; Firenze Audio Rosso 460B [on review]
Headphones: AKG K-1000 w. hardwired Stefan AudioArt harness; audio-technica W-1000
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Pro in custom lacquer; Anthony Gallo Acoustics Ref 3.1; Mark & Daniel Ruby; WLM Diva Monitor with Duo 12 passive subwoofer, Alto bass amp, Pre/Passive and Bass Controls
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Zu Cable Varial, Gede, Libtech and Ibis; Stealth Audio Cable Indra, MetaCarbon & NanoFiber [on loan]; SilverFi interconnects; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; double cryo'd Acrolink with Furutech UK plug between wall and transformer
Stands: 2 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco Modular 4-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S fed from custom AudioSector 1.5KV Plitron step-down transformer with balanced power output option
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio Extreme SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Walker Audio Reference HDLs; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 9' h in short-wall setup, with openly adjoining 15' x 35' living room
Review Component Retail: $7,895/pr including bass amp/xover modules
The first pair of Saadhanas in the designer's listening room
Due to post-review design refinements I became privy to because I'd purchased the review pair; and also because I removed an apparently minor driver tweak which turned out essential for best performance, thus had to be reinstalled and then promptly negated certain observations - this review unfolds over four long pages in quasi installments. This impromptu story could have been redrafted after the fact to cut it down in length. However, leaving it in its entiry as it originally unfolded gives the reader some unique insights into the review process as well as on the feedback loop between published opinion and a tireless designer who was intent on overcoming any and all criticisms. Pour yourself a nice cuppa Joe and be prepared for a meandering -- but hopefully worthwhile -- read. Or else, jump straight to the concluding page - Ed.
|In the flick Two for the money, there's a key scene. Al Pacino, professional sports betting advisor Walter Abrams, crashes an AA meet. It's for compulsive gamblers like himself. After a newbie confesses to impotence at stopping his gambling addiction despite the wife threatening to walk out and the repo men at his heels, Pacino launches into a fiery monologue. "It's not gambling that's your problem. It's the defect in you that needs to feel something. You feel at your most alive when they rake the chips away from you, not toward you. You're like a lemon car. Lemons like you and me, we need to fuck shit up all the time to feel alive, to feel that we're still here, standing, despite a catastrophe this side of malignant cancer we just created for ourselves for only about the twentieth time." It's a bravura performance only Pacino could deliver - including hustling a meet attendee on his way out with a business card and his outfit's betting averages.
|In this movie, Al Pacino is the smoothest of seducers. He's a jviing, taunting operator who preys on the obsessive human condition and knows just how to drive the hook deeply into your psyche. Diabolical really. And Lowthers are similarly diabolical seducers. They compel manufacturers to overlook their core defect in a long-shot gamble to overcome it despite lousy betting averages. In most serious circles, Lowthers get little luv. And even among Lowther friends, excuses are made, for lack of bass and the need to assemble ancillaries carefully as to minimize what otherwise will often be an overly energetic presence region. There's one powerful reason
|however why this archaic driver hasn't been relegated to the scrap heap of audio history yet. What it excels at it excels at so vigorously, so monstrously -- the vocal band to be specific -- that once exposed to it, many simply can't settle for anything else. They've been permanently ruined. So they bite into the lemon and do what needs doing to minimize the driver's weaknesses in whatever implementation they've settled on. Masters like Tommy Hørning for example denude their Lowthers of the telltale whizzer cone, then restrict operation to the midrange, augmented above and below by conventional drivers. Therein lies a rub though. Conventional rarely ever is good enough to suitably mesh with a Lowther.
The most brilliant wideband Lowthers I've heard -- i.e. not augmented by tweeters or woofers -- have always been those by Indian speaker house Rethm. With seriously modified Lowthers in ultra-modern cabinets that combine PVC, plywood and metal into sculpted creations, each Rethm exhibit at the annual CES shows was always a triumph in justifying the Lowther while downplaying (though never eliminating) its weaknesses. Neither was I alone in my admiration. Serguei Timachev of Stealth Audio Cables has always considered Jacob's Second Rethm his loudspeaker of choice. Serguei with his amorphous and carbon conductors, custom connectors and complicated cable geometries is certainly one of the more radical extremists in the audio sector. Rethm's implementations on Lowthers were always similarly extremist, albeit certainly not free of remaining compromises.
|The most debilitating compromise -- to the legions of Lowther naysayers anyway -- has been the lack of real bass. (The only known cure is a gargantuan rear-loaded horn whose required length could suffer time lag, never mind domestic unacceptability). Rethm's revised lineup for 2007 squarely attacks this bass blemish for each of its three new models. From the top down and christened in Sanskrit, they are the Moksha (Liberation), Saadhana (Discipline) and Maarga (an Indian dance).
Lowthers with bass. This returns us to conventional woofers, subwoofers even. Or rather not. Jacob was adamant. His bass augmentation scheme had to be seamless, inaudible as anything other than full-range Lowther magic. That meant matched sensitivity, diaphragm material, driver diameter and loading between main Lowther and woofers. It meant a discrete though nested bass cabinet rear-horn loaded. For the Saadhana's DX55, it meant custom 6" Peerless paper cone drivers with cloth surrounds, two per side loaded isobarically. Rubber and foam surrounds proved not fast enough. An in-house designed and fabricated transistor bass amp with adjustable low-pass filter and attenuator -- one per side -- complete the package. Phase shift of the bass package remains below 10 degrees. It's a feature Jacob is especially proud of to help disguise the electronic and mechanical seam between Lowther and woofers.
|If you're a Rethm, there's another liability. You're from India. You're from a low-volume custom house. It's not like shopping Main street with its Ferrari, Mercedes and Lexus dealerships. For hi-end speakers, India is about as off the beaten path as it gets, not that Lowthers are anywhere near the mainstream. Nor are there shiny ads or ten-deep reviews in the glossies to spread the gospel. It's testament to the Lowther's diabolical lure that Jacob George would even gamble on revamping his entire lineup and eliminate all previous models from the Fifth through the Second Rethm. Only concrete results could justify such extremes. For the Saadhana, those results are a claimed 98dB sensitivity with 32Hz bass extension. In a cabinet only 9 inches deeper than the Fourth Rethm it replaces. According to Jacob, the Saadhana outperforms his older flagship, the Second Rethm (Serguei's reference). The Saadhana is a full-on, you might think final attempt at winning the Lowther crown when using a DX55 without any crossover in its path but sneakily augmenting it below 75Hz to turn it effectively full-range.
The Saadhana's two-tone aesthetic of veneered plywood and painted PVC comes in four designer flavors - Southern Oak with silver; Teak with metallic grey; black stain with dark metallic grey; and Padauk with copper brown. Internal wiring is cryogenically treated flat solid-core copper in loose Nylon sleeving. Premiered at CES 2007 still with the external amps, most show reports proclaimed the Saadhana showing as Rethm's strongest ever.
|A shared quality of room comments echoed Al Pacino's defective speech about the need to feel alive. It's something Lowthers cater to extremely well - making music come alive. Even prior unbelievers like Greg Weaver of Positive Feedback were seduced. "I never thought you would catch me admitting to falling for a Lowther based speaker, but the Rethm Saadhana... has earned my respect... Sparkle, space, tonal accuracy and detail were the strengths here. Keep your eyes on Jacob's new Rethm speakers. They will deserve your attention."
|While Mr. George in years past would have felt a churlish cheat for adding anything to a Lowther by way of companion drivers, that really was stubborn madness. No single driver today will competently reproduce the full audible spectrum. Running a single driver from 75Hz to 20kHz remains seriously wide bandwidth. With its 98dB sensitivity, tone and purity kings in the SET amp realms (triode or transistor) will have a field day with the Saadhana. The last two octaves below SET influence are handled by dedicated transistors. That frees the amp dedicated to the pursuit of magic from hard labor, a very sensible proposition indeed: Lowthers with active bass systems..
|On February 28 07, I got an e-mail from Design Combine. Not recognizing the sender, I opened it to realize that Jacob had sent it from his business account. "After the change I had made and which I reported to you, I was still not completely happy and did a few more prototypes. I finalized the design only last Friday. But we are already into full production of 10 pairs as we speak so no more changes.
|Apart from further improvements in sound, we have also gained some advantages on the practical end. We have now eliminated the external amplifier boxes and have managed to house 'em within the envelope of the speaker enclosure itself (although still done as a separate box, simply integrated into the design). Apart from the obvious advantages of eliminating additional boxes with their placement and shipping issues, the other major boon is that the customer needs just his single pair of loudspeaker cables where before he needed 3 pairs of varying lengths." Design Combine indeed.
|The "not completely happy" bit meant ongoing comparisons to the previous Second Rethm. Jacob was committed to outperforming or at least equaling every aspect of its performance. From the tone of his e-mail, he had succeeded. When you consider the older Fourth Rethm (shown to right with optional Supravox driver as sold by Reson Rethm in Switzerland), you'll appreciate that 32Hz bass and 2nd Rethm midrange from the Saadhana's barely larger 2-in-1 enclosure, mono bass amp inside now, is quite the proposition. While I'm not sure exactly what Jacob has in mind for
|his new Moksha flagship -- it has to wipe the floor with the Saadhana to justify its existence -- the Saadhana seems the go-to model of the new line.
I'm impressed too that despite CES accolades, Jacob kept at it to make the finished product not only better but more user-friendly. Though not for publication, I was shown a cross-sectional rendering of the Saadhana, vertically sliced in twain front to back. The full-range module contains a 360-degree rear line with three right-angle bends of the constant-diameter pipe which then flares upwards for the last third of its travel, fires into a dispersion lens and then reflects downwards and out through the opening above the plinth.
|As is common for Rethm, a snowcone-shaped assembly gets attached to the Lowther magnet, pointing into the rear horn line to guide the back wave while avoiding subsequent reflections through the diaphragm. The bass module contains the isolated amplifier unit high behind the metal band. The back-to-back woofers are loaded in an angle, with the lower one firing down into a sealed chamber, the other up into the top of the enclosure, then
|down into a flared opening and out through the plinth, mirror-imaging the DX55 line. The bass module cables connect to the full-range module fished through slots and stacked atop the custom binding posts. This trick and complex enclosure job of two fully discrete halves sets up in-room with a 4mm gap to avoid all mechanical energy transfer. If you want to reverse-engineer a Saadhana, you'll have to buy one and cut it open with a bandsaw.
On May 18, 2007, another e-mail arrived: "The NYC show was good in that it seemed to impress all the people that needed impressing when you're a tiny manufacturer. And we have four review requests as a result, including Art Dudley. But the sound was not the greatest. It was too thin, at least to my ears and to a couple of others. And it was a room problem. I knew we were in for a compromise even while we were setting up but my fellow inmates in this case would not have allowed me to turn things around 180 degrees as I often do! We were extremely detailed, transparent, extended and dynamic but with a suckout in the 80 to 300Hz area. We were showing with Dan's Modwright preamp and phono stage, Peter's Redpoint Audio turntable and Joe's Art Audio PX 25. And we have a distributor for the US now, a young man called Frank Kraus, a good chap with his heart in the right place. And coincidentally, he was also an architect like me though he gave it up and went into the audio business. He already represents ModWright, RedPoint and Acoustic Zen."