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In this hobby's consumer rather than DIY division, most put all their eggs in one basket. In each component category, they buy the very best they can; often in stages due to the required investments. Their not unreasonable hope behind it all is that just as with any other appliances, they'll be properly set. Until things begin to break down that is and require more repairs than they're worth.
But unlike with cars, refrigerators and washing machines (CD players and cartridges certainly excepted), hifi machines generally don't break for many a decade. When they do eventually, it usually happens a lot later than most original owners hold on to their gear. That should be excellent news. Why then can't we leave good enough alone?

I have my own theory. Let's disregard the very real chance that we never got our system right in the first place. Or—equally if not more likely—that we don't believe we have because insufficiently broad exposure, endless review reading and natural human curiosity all conspire to a nagging suspicion that a lot better isn't merely possible but waiting just around the bend.

Those are both plausible scenarios for why we keep chasing the rainbow. But I side with a third yet more deeply rooted explanation. Having caught on to—and more importantly, up with—my own inability to remain satisfied with sameness no matter how good, I now own many different systems. Rather than aiming for one best or ultimate as though it existed as an immutable quantity like some eternal mountain, I've strategically expanded on my hardware inventory. Whenever boredom sets in as it inevitably will, there's another speaker in the closet, another amp or preamp in some rack that'll shift things enough to jump the rut. There are too many different possible takes with their own merits on the subject. Just as eating the same food every day becomes tiresome, confining oneself to just one sonic flavor could entail similar frustration.

I of course never get in a rut with our second-hand Subaru station wagon. Nor any other household appliance. It's the harboring of emotional expectations from hifi appliances that causes these self-inflicted wounds. I don't expect a sonic facsimile of the live event by the way. To begin with, I don't have the space to realistically host more than a string quartet within my own home. Despite massive walls and even though I could and occasionally do, my townhouse rental also doesn't create the necessary mental nonchalance to play big ensembles at live-venue volumes, neighbors be damned. Obviously then, any semblance to 'live' gets compacted dimensionally into a smaller space and most all of the time scaled down in intensity to lower SPLs.

But facsimilitude—what a nasty word—would not be my sonic aim even if I did live in a lakefront manse with no immediate neighbors. What I'm after is an emotional hit or contact high. Ideally that would be on par with what I get from a good live performance. More realistically though, it's a quite different kind of emotional response. It's not only equally valid but has the potential to go far deeper. That's because I can determine the exact time and space to coincide with personal readiness; and there are no external distractions to pull on my attention.

Of course basic human psychology remains the deterrent. Turning on a hifi is far too easy compared to the preparatory ritual of attending a concert. There one has to make special time. One might have to save up for the ticket or at the least, plan and pre-commit to a specific time and place. One dresses up, leaves early, deals with traffic and parking, mingles with strangers and friends. One is out on the town. There's a lot more to the eventual social music experience than just sound. But none of it is included or repeatable in the home. There it's just the sonic scraps encoded on the software. No wonder that goals of verisimilitude inevitably get lynched. It really has nothing much to do with the hardware. It's mostly about psychology, emotional preparedness and the relative rarity of the concert experience which makes it special. It's also about two entirely different conditions with only limited overlap. By extension, routine playback can seem trite and psychologically ineffective. It requires nothing of us but a paid electricity bill so the components come on.

If we're lazy—and I would argue that we are about this— the burden of the experience befalls the electronics. Yet it's not the electronics which ever were responsible. It was their novelty value plus the monetary expense which, while freshly marring our bank balance, helped us manage a justifiable reaction. Those factors triggered an automatic psychological preparedness of anticipation, keen curiosity and heightened attention. Our just rewards. Those elements became the circumstance in which a powerful emotional experience could arise. That's fundamentally not so different from a teenage crush. And ultimately just as doomed.

If we just knew how to set up this psychological space of high expectancy and desirous anticipation ourselves... we'd be forever liberated from hardware dependency. But the entire ritual of preparedness is down to flipping a few switches. Compared to any live performance, most of us get far too lazy and uninvolved in the process. We ask too much of the equipment. Its cold inanimate nature cannot possibly respond by manufacturing feelings for us. Hence the usual dissatisfaction. It's intrinsic to the entire approach.

My personal antidote is two-pronged. My meditative practice helps me to be more emotionally available and thus triggered more easily. Just like any other muscle, capacity for heartfelt response benefits from exercise and can be honed. Call it the music lover's contribution. A good inventory of hardware meanwhile is the audiophile contribution. It supports plenty of mixing and matching options to alter many a sonic parameter. That variability contributes to repeatable novelty. Since I have neither unlimited funds nor space, most my gear tends to occupy a particular cost bracket. And my speakers are deliberately manageable in size and weight. They can store in closets and be moved into position easily enough to have me actually do it often enough to serve the intended purpose. My review responsibilities merely apply solid regularity to this rhythm of constant change. (It also means one never gets to live with anything extensively long. But that's a different story and part of the choice I made.)

This finally connects today's commentary with actual hardware. The bandwidth of difference possible within the price and performance range of components I own is naturally restricted by prior selection. Like the next audiophile, I have specific tastes. Nothing I'd pay good money for could possibly conflict with those biases. That limits the ultimate scope of achievable aural flavors. But I'd not enjoy all achievable flavors. Even a short trade show attendance would drive home that point should anyone doubt it.

That said, one of my setups is the most different from all the others. The enabler is a loudspeaker. While it's true that this speaker also enables the use of my Yamamoto A-08S 45 SET —a very special machine of far too lowly output power to be practical anywhere else—this amplifier really is only modestly different from the solid-state FirstWatt J2. The real difference factor is the speaker. I'd listen to it a lot more regularly if it didn't run self-amplified bass systems. Those undermine most review assignments by not directly reflecting the subject's full bandwidth behavior. This speaker is also more involved to set up than others but recent Version 2 modifications seem to have addressed that.

Anyway, the holiday spirit and miserable weather suddenly had me in the mood to pull out the Rethm Saadhana again. I also had a review amplifier I wanted to hear with it. Having twice reviewed this speaker formally to keep abreast of significant changes, I'll not go into any details today. Rather, I want to tie the knot with the conceptual preamble above. Given my personal need for an emotional experience and complete satisfaction at lower to outright subdued playback levels, the Saadhana is utterly unique among my hifi possessions. It also makes for a presentation that is the most different from what else I can put together.

What makes it unique? As I interpret it, very nonlinear dynamic behavior. The designer has tamed the infamous Lowther shout to such an extent that its small remaining frequency rise is no longer an issue. In fact, it's a performance enhancer and intensifier particularly at subdued listening levels. More importantly, the kind of musical expressiveness we usually see bundled with microdynamics is extremely acute in the midrange. This works out to very uncanny resolution not only about the basic who, what and where details but the vital how. Musical meaning occupies the how. This is made more apparent and more often by just how the Rethm Saadhana deals with the most minuscule turns of phrase in their usually depressed dynamic existence which hovers between a few puny decibels.

Mention dynamics to the average bloke however and he immediately thinks of the big picture. Horse power. Top speed. The Big Bang. But this is expressively not about the big bangs. This lives within those tiny flutters in the cadence of a singer's phrase or how a guitarist molded a helter-skelter run. It's here where I find my things of greatest fascination. An instant verifier for that is throttle twitchiness. If I feel compelled to turn up the volume, something most assuredly is amiss. It's the very absence of the throttle reflex which sets the Saadhana apart. I actually think that this speaker is too sophisticated and civilized for habitual rockers whose trigger points are wired to far higher levels and who are after an altogether different kind of impact. This includes Apocalypse Now Valkyrie riders of the storm, i.e. large-scale classical. (Such material by implication is impossible to recreate credibly in average-sized rooms, hence a common tendency is to compensate with higher volumes than are appropriate for the space.)

My Favorites of 2009 CD listing nicely showcased the type of music I find most suitable to harness the special Rethm allure. It's about true subtleties of tone modulations, the finest of fades and the faintest of pulses within melodic and accompanying lines. It's about space and silences, the inner rather than the outer game. How readily the Saadhana grants access to this inner game directly reflects how often and easily one slips into the zone to have deep encounters of the actual kind.

Hence this speaker invites introspection. This inward orientation on part of the listener supports different kinds of emotions than the powerfully physical responses which a big Brazilian Samba or Caribbean steel drum band will stir up; or an anthemic rock arena bash with distortion-laden guitars and deaf drummers. Listeners most in tune with sonic physicality—the vitality and sensuality of it—could well find the Saadhana too ethereal particularly at the lower levels where it so excels. Such listeners might relate to the corresponding atmosphere or participatory attitude as too mental. Curiously, it's precisely this mindful approach which creates access to the stiller, more expansive altered feelings of inner spaces. For voyages into these realms, I find the Saadhana a particularly brilliant companion.

Each time I try to analyze just what makes it so, I end up with a combination of extreme intelligibility and transparency at very low levels; and the associated micro-ripple responsiveness of dynamics which sound alive and well without requiring a volume boost. Nothing else I presently own or have in the past competes. When it comes to filigree, gossamer and twilight magic, the Rethm rules. Which doesn't mean it won't play loud. Nor that it won't do physical or soundstage with immensity. It simply means that while those destinations remain open to attach attention to, I'm most attracted by the inward option. It's here that I find the greatest distinctiveness of this speaker versus all my other hardware choices. For Rock or anything hard-hitting and massive, I'd favor the beefier feistier Zu Essence for example.

What the Rethm celebrates is a form of resolution which in most audio talk gets short shrift. It also includes great magnification power in the upper frequency reaches but has nothing in common with brightness. Ultimately it isn't even that extended. But these registers of harmonic excitement are certainly most informative in a musically relevant way which deals with the transmission of energy. The amazing thing is how exceptionally well all this operates at low volumes. This certainly isn't the only way to enjoy music nor the only way to enjoy the Rethms. However, it is squarely where they stand apart.

A practical fringe benefit of this speaker choice is how cheap and simple amplifiers can work wonders. Think $269 delivered anywhere MiniWatt for example. Popular wisdom automatically aligns Lowthers with tubes. That's utter crap with the Rethms. As shown above, I run an all-transistor system with zero hankering for valves. In fact, the only applicable valves would be those which don't at all thicken the stew to maintain the uncanny openness and directness this speaker delivers. Add very high sensitivity to noise and many tube amps simply fall by the wayside. That's where the Yamamoto A-08S comes in. It's the classiest of all the valve amps I've tried yet on this speaker. Once my Trafomatic White Range Kaivalya monos arrive, they'll be put to the Rethm test even though I really commissioned their 25 push/pull watts for my ASI Int. Tango Rs.

There are of course many different audio presentations to enjoy. The one I sketched out here is merely one. It simply happens to really suit the music and moods I turn to for pure pleasure and 'spiritual' rejuvenation. In that pursuit, facsimilitude isn't just a dirty word, it's utterly irrelevant. It's not about sounding like. It's about triggering a compelling emotional response. Live music includes far more trigger points than playback ever can. Hence the listener should maximize those which playback leaves us with. If nonlinear dynamic reflexes with associated hyper speed in the midrange push your hot buttons, then that's the path you should pursue to be triggered more often.

It'll take resourcefulness to hear a Rethm though. And you'll absolutely need to be emancipated from the need for test-bench confirmation and peer approval. There you need 600 watts into 2 ohms to be happy. Manly big woofers. Excursions you can see from the seat. Beryllium tweeters and nanofiber Carbon. Three-inch aluminum baffles, X material and other hi-tech stuff. And much 'L' for boastful linearity.

The Rethms only give you antiquated but expensive paper drivers. There are PVC pipe chassis, light weight, very unusual cosmetics and Indian origins. All that is reflected in the header. Different. After eight years of constant reviewing and many more years working in the industry, this speaker remains unique. I feel privileged to own a pair. I get to explore this particular avenue whenever the mood strikes. I must merely reach into the closet beneath the stairs. This doesn't make the Saadhana the best all'rounder. It's too specialized for that. In my book, it simply makes it the trippiest. And that has nothing to do with hippies or stoners and all with visiting elsewhere. What others call the zone ...*

* There are different zones of course. This being my article, I could only talk about my kind of zone. That's one of the many limitations which are inherent in this reviewing business or general hifi talk. It's really about personal choices and discoveries and trusting the validity of one's own subjectivity.