Grant Fidelity RBS-1 Speakers
MSRP = $2200 USD
Lorin J. Elias
Writing audio reviews should be easy. All you need to do is assemble a collection of audiophile clichés, such as “there was so much bass, people were looking for a subwoofer”, or “I could tell whether Diana Krall took cream or milk in her coffee that day”, and “the component was so beautiful that my wife said it would be welcome in the living room”. Mention a few overexposed recordings, cut-and-paste the blurb about your reference system, say that the component under review is better than anything else at (or even twice) its price, and the review is over. Easy, right?
Not this time. In this review, every time I rely on an audiophile cliché, I will punish myself by placing 25 cents in my “cliché jar”. You have probably seen a “swear jar” before, which is the same idea. We will be avoiding clichés like the plague. Oh no – there goes my first quarter.
The HUGE box arrived (and by huge, I mean that it will not fit in your car’s trunk, unless your car is both from an American manufacturer and from the 70’s), and my wife did not look impressed. What had I brought into the house this time? I started opening the box (that contains BOTH of the relatively large two-way monitors), and as I started removing the protective wrapper from one of them, my wife started gushing already. “Wow – those are beautiful. Maybe the best looking speakers you have ever brought into the house. You could put those in the living room, they would go great in here. I love the curved wood, and the high-gloss finish is quite trendy right now”. I know, I know, that just cost me another quarter. 25 cents into the cliché jar.
Even worse, I checked the Grant Fidelity website that night to start collecting the specifications on the speakers. I hung my head as I read the following passage:
“The HD MDF / real wood cabinetry is simply beautiful, huge WAF (wife appreciation factor), very low resonance and no equal sides rival speakers costing over multitudes more. When we test-marketed them at a local dealer it was fun to watch the better half go to the RBS-1 and say, "you can have that in the living room, dear".
I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. So far, this is all terribly predictable. I could go on and on about how nice the speakers look, but you probably won’t believe me. After all, you can see the pictures for yourself, and you might think they remind you a bit of Sonus Faber gear (with the exception of the grilles, they resemble SF gear quite a bit). However, the pictures do not do these speakers justice. They look much better in person, as is the case for most Jungson products – but I am getting ahead of myself.
Like so much of the kit distributed by Calgary Alberta’s Grant Fidelity, the RBS-1 (Reference Bookshelf Speaker) are manufactured by China’s Jungson company. They are designed around the well-respected Morel drivers (MW -166 6" double magnet, midbass driver and MDT-32 Soft Dome, 110mm tweeter), interfaced with a custom 1st order crossover designed by Grant Fidelity. The design goals for the project were extremely ambitious. According to Ian Grant, this speaker is not just meant for domestic applications, but also studio monitoring duties, with the richness of Sonus Faber, the sweet and detailed top end of Focal, the tonal characteristics of Paradigm, and perfect midrange of the Rogers LS3/5A, and the time/phase relationship of Green Mountain Audio speakers through the 1st-order crossover. As design goals go, the word “ambition” does not quite capture the audacity of such an attempt, especially when one could argue that some of these goals are mutually exclusive. It is also easy to dismiss these lofty goals as marketing blather, but I prefer to use them as context for the review. I don’t hear much LS3/5A in these monitors, nor do they remind me of any Paradigm gear I have encountered. The comparisons to Sonus Faber and Focal are quite fair though, especially given the cosmetics and Morel drivers. However, Chinese imitations of European designs are not exactly uncommon!
I was getting quite excited about the speakers. Initial listening impressions were quite good right out of the box, but my heart sank when I read the following instructions on the Grant Fidelity website:
“The Morel driver's [their misplaced apostrophe, not mine - there are many typos on that same webpage] can take extended time to burn in, especially the woofer with it's [again, not my mistake] 3" voice coil. 400 hours of power applied is the general guideline. The RBS-1's sound great out of the box, but the crossover only starts working properly after 75 hours, the tweeter after about 100 hours and the woofer after about 400 hours. After about 500 hours the speakers start to perform their true magic and with age only get better and better.”
400 hours? I was only scheduled to try these for 30-days, making proper break-in a daunting task. After confirming with the always-present and always-helpful Rachel at Grant Fidelity that these samples were factory-fresh, I started them on a rigorous break-in regimen, mostly comprised of playing selections from Israel’s techno sensation Infected Mushroom. Some prefer to use pink noise to break in equipment. I use techno.
Once the speakers had logged around 100 hours, I moved them from my secondary system (computer source, Musiland MD-10 DAC, Consonance Ref 150 tube hybrid integrated amplifier) to the bigger system, where I thought the Grant Fidelity RBS-1’s would feel at home. The partnering equipment there is mostly manufactured by Jungson, driving the RBS-1’s with a Jungson WG-Pre1 preamp and Jungson WG-200 (200wpc solid-state) poweramp, fed by a Slimdevices (now Logitech) Squeezebox transport through an Audio Zone DAC-1. The results were fantastic – much better than I had anticipated based on my experience with the smaller secondary system. The bass, pace, air, and soundstage were all just fantastic.
But what was I comparing them with? A very similar speaker, in most respects, the Usher Be-718. See the table below for a relative summary of the two speakers:
These are two closely matched competitors. On spec, the Usher wins out in several respects. It is considerably heavier, a touch larger, , a bit more sensitive (despite its reputation for being hard to drive!), the tweeter extends much higher, but it also costs $600 more. If you spend a little more time poking around Steremojo.com, you will discover that $600 is enough money for a respectable pair of 2-way speakers, so the price difference is not trivial. You should also consider that the Usher Be-718’s are not exactly typical examples of what you can buy for $2800 USD. A consensus is a very rare thing in the audiophile community, but look at the list of accolades decorating the Usher Be-718: It is a Stereophile Class-A recommended component, an Absolute Sound product of the year, Absolute Sound Editor’s choice, Soundstage Network reviewer’s choice, 6moon’s Blue Moon Award winner, winner of a 2008 CES Design and Engineering Innovations Award….I could go on, but I think I already owe another quarter for rambling about my reference components. In any event, the Usher comprises some rather stiff competition for the Grant Fidelity RBS-1.
Three people compared the Grant Fidelity RBS-1 to the Usher Be-718 in my system, and two of the three preferred the Grant Fidelity RBS-1! If any part of this review makes it into an advertisement, it will probably be that last sentence. However, I hope it does not get quoted out of context, because I was the one of the three that preferred the Usher. My wife preferred the RBS-1, and I really don’t want to dismiss her opinion or excellent ears, but I cannot help but suspect that she was “listening” with her eyes instead of just her ears. Yes, the RBS-1 is better looking – no contest there. A good friend of mine with good ears also preferred the RBS-1, conceding that the Usher played higher, louder, produced a wider (although not much deeper) soundstage, and resolved more midrange and high frequency detail. With those concessions, why prefer the RBS-1?
“I just love the way those sound” was the initial reply, which is not all that helpful. After some prodding, we both agreed that the RBS-1’s were easier to listen to. The tweeter is not as “hot”, making the speaker less likely to make any offending/harsh sound, even if they exist faithfully in the recording. This effect was especially pronounced with recordings of acoustic guitar, such as the sublime recording of “Arms of a Woman” by Amos Lee or the Gypsy Kings album “Somos Gitanos”. John Mayer’s live recording of “Man on the side” contains lots of extra noise and even some high pitched feedback, and yet it is quite listenable through the RBS-1’s. The midbass is a bit warmer on the RBS-1, again contributing to the easiness of the listening experience. I found this effect particularly obvious with solo cello recordings, such as Yo-Yo Ma’s album creatively titled “Solo”, but also clear with some recordings of male voices, such as Peter Gabriel’s song “Father, Son” from his underrated album “Ovo”.
The Ushers can really make a great recording sound fantastic, but fed with a bad recording (especially a recording in a live venue), they won’t do it any favours. Not so with the RBS-1’s. These speakers make mediocre recordings sound quite good, and most music lovers are stuck listening to a lot of mediocre recordings after all. Audiophiles that spend more time listening to their gear than their music stick to only the best possible recordings. Music lovers choose recordings mostly for the content, not the presentation. The first time I heard someone claiming that there was a difference between an “audiophile” component and a “music lover’s” component I was quite intolerant of the distinction. These speakers have changed my mind.
It is time for me to spend another quarter. The bass from these monitors is extremely robust, tuneful, and all without bloat or a midbass hump that tries to fool you into thinking that they can do things they cannot. If you are considering these RBS-1’s and comparing them to some similarly priced floorstanders, don’t chose the floorstanders in hopes to get better bass response. Here drops the quarter. One listener actually started looking around for the subwoofer (the recording was “Ungodly hour” by The Fray). Cliché, yes. True, yes. Better bass than the Usher Be-718’s? Sigh….yes. According to the Grant Fidelity website, the “RBS-1 speakers are powerful enough to replace large box speakers, yet still amazing at very low intimate volumes, in even very large rooms”. Agreed.
Before I wrap up, let me offer a few words about partnering equipment. The RBS-1’s are rather inefficient (85 dB), and although I did not try powering them with a low-powered tube amp, I cannot imagine that combination working particularly well. I drove the RBS-1’s with four different amplifiers: Consonance Ref150 tube hybrid integrated (120 WPC), Kavent P-1100 tube hybrid monoblocks (100 WPC), Jungson WG-200 solid-state poweramp (200 WPC), and a Roksan Kandy 2 solid-state integrated (125 WPC). The three Chinese amps loved the RBS-1’s, but the British-made Roksan did not. Why? I don’t know. Through the Roksan, the music just didn’t have nearly as much “life” in dynamic contrast, nor was the imaging and soundstaging very convincing. Adding to the confusion, the Roksan just loves the Ushers. The difference was so large, I actually had to double-check whether I had connected the RBS-1’s incorrectly, perhaps mixing up my blacks and reds with one speaker lead. I did not. They just didn’t like the little British integrated. Generally, I did not find the RBS-1’s to be fussy about amplification, but proper component matching always seems to pay off.
I think Jungson offers some of the very best value I have experienced in Hi-Fi, at least with respect to their amplifiers (tube and solid-state) and speakers. I have not experienced their digital source products first-hand, and the reviews (and reports of reliability) in forums are mixed on these products. I think it is a company to watch carefully as it expands into the North American market, and Grant Fidelity should be able to enjoy considerable success distributing for and collaborating with Jungson. When I initially received the review sample, I could honestly say that it is the best $2000 speaker I have heard. However, don’t take my last quarter away yet. During the review period I took delivery on a small floorstander that is slightly cheaper and slightly better in most respects. The RBS-1 is an exceptional value, and a product that is very easy to enjoy. I could provide a long list of similarly priced speakers that I consider inferior to the RBS-1, including some popular models like the B&W 705 or Totem Model 1 Signature.
This is a fantastic speaker, and a great value. It looks superb, it is not particularly fussy about partnering equipment, and it is easy to enjoy. However, this is not the speaker you buy to impress your friends with a boom-and-sizzle audiophile extravaganza (it is lacking the ribbon tweeters and huge bass bins for that). Instead, this is the type of speaker you settle-down with and spend your time listening to the music, not just your gear.
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