RETHM SAADHANA SPEAKERS

List Price: $12,000/pair


Review by

James Darby

 

The Rethm Saadhana is no stranger to us here at Stereomojo, the original version has twice been voted by our staff Best Sound at Show; once being driven by tube amps and the other by solid-state. When one considers how many speakers we hear at each show, most at prices well above these, that feat is quite remarkable. But designer Jacob George, a successful architect, is not one to rest on his laurels; thus we have a substantially improved version 2.

Though each speaker looks as if it's a single cabinet, each is actually composed of two separate modules; one containing a single Lowther driver and the other containing three woofers and a dedicated amplifier to drive them. A pair of metal bases is provided to dock the modules together. Such is the precision of the design and implementation that each base is factory made to fit each pair so perfectly that each gets either a left or right designation to match its attendant module. Precision is a hallmark of a Jacob George design.

Lowther drivers, in this case a 5 1/2 inch DX 55, have been universally deified and vilified for their sonic attributes. Deified because of their heavenly midrange so pure and so natural sounding that they defy description. Detractors point to their “cupped hands” character that has been dubbed the “Lowther shout”. Both camps are right.

 

The other issue is that they have a limited frequency response, especially at the low end. So, Jacob's job was to retain the angelic qualities while eliminating the hellacious. I asked him why he chose the Lowther in the first place, to which he replied:

“I started down this road when I first heard, and fell in love with, the 8 inch Lowthers -- despite its very obvious flaws. I was hooked into the high efficiency, single-driver school from then on, as at least for me, it had a very special "directness" and "liveness" in its presentation that even the best multi-driver loudspeakers fail to emulate. Biased? Maybe. But I had no reason to be biased at least initially, when I was not even aware that I was going to go into this business. Rethm spent its first 7 years firstly, figuring out how to smoothen out Lowthers ( get rid of its "peakiness" -- what people generally refer to as the "Lowther shout" ) and make them "mainstream" in its reproduction, and secondly, trying to get as much bass as was possible from them. 

But in 2007, I finally realized that there were two problems I was never going to be able to get around if I stayed with the designs I was doing then. First -- I realized there was no way I was going to get REAL bass from a full-range driver -- unless the horn-loaded cabinet became as big as a large closet: and second -- there was no way I was going to get the highs I wanted from Lowthers 8 inch drivers. This is when I threw out whatever we had till then, and started with a clean sheet. And on the clean sheet was just these 4 points:

 

  • Retain the liveness, directness, dynamics, and tonality of the earlier versions with no compromises to its single-driver characteristics.

 

  • Make the speakers truly full-range -- bass down into the upper 20's ( Hz ) -- ( this was my goal at that point ).

 

  • Make the bass fast and therefore blend seamlessly with the reproduction of the seriously agile Lowther 5.5inch full-range drivers.

 

  • Enclose all of this into a package that was acceptable in size”. 

 

 

One of the things Jacob did was to heavily modify the driver itself. As brilliant a designer as he is, it's taken him the better part of nine years and thousands of tests to perfect what we hear in version 2. Attached to the rear of the driver is a long cylinder made from polyurethane foam, similar to the kind you buy in an aerosol can that expands and hardens as soon as it meets the air. The cylinder then tapers to a point, optimizing the compression ratio and eliminating the nasty reflection wave enhancing the purity of the sound. He also fashioned a very unique looking wooden phase plug surrounded by a perforated paper cone (don't call it a whizzer) that itself took hundreds of trials and errors to get precisely correct. Did I mention anything about precision?

The whole thing is sent into a labyrinth of pipes with an effective length of over 7 feet! All of this to tame those devilish peaks and smooth out the frequency response.

According to Jacob, as much work that was done to the Lowther, even more was poured into the separate base module. Of this he says, “Yes, the hardest thing is indeed trying to match a bass module to a fast full-range driver like the Lowther. The 4 things I insisted on was: bass drivers that were no bigger than 6 inches ( as this would be the closest match to the 5.5 inch Lowthers, and keeping them light ); drivers made of paper cones, with cloth surrounds ( as this gave us the tightest sound ); a sealed bass chamber ( which again gives the tightest, fastest, most accurate bass, with minimal overhangs ); and horn loading. Common wisdom is that sealed chambers sacrifice depth for tightness -- and that if you want  a sealed chambered bass unit to go deep, one would need a lot of "power". I believe I got around that problem with our unique isobaric configuration -- which retained the sealed bass sound while giving the drivers a much friendlier environment in which to go down low without having mammoth amplifiers.

 

The bass cabinet is a rather complex design that uses 3 drivers in a very unique 2 chamber sealed isobaric system. And the output from the only driver that faces outwards -- is also horn loaded, and passes through a 4-foot horn before exiting at the bottom of the enclosure. The other two drivers are internal, and only help in controlling and helping the outermost driver work optimally. Going low -- was an empirical exercise. I was told that it would be impossible to get such low bass from a 6-inch driver. I figured that if I allowed the driver to work optimally, there was no reason why it could not produce deep deep bass. Yes, a 6 incher has limitation in the volume of air it can move -- but I compensated for that by horn loading the driver and therefore increasing its output. Once the basics were figured out, it was a matter of experimenting with the prototype to optimize the output of the driver. The amplifier is a regular full-frequency amp of excellent quality -- but just with a low pass filter built in that makes it function purely in the "bass amp" capacity. 

Jacob told me, “I was told that it would be impossible to get such low bass from a 6 inch driver. I figured that if I allowed the driver to work optimally, there was no reason why it could not produce deep deep bass. Yes, a 6 incher has limitation in the volume of air it can move -- but I compensated for that by horn loading the driver and therefore increasing its output. Once the basics were figured out, it was a matter of experimenting with the prototype to optimize the output of the driver. The amplifier is a regular full-frequency amp of excellent quality -- but just with a low pass filter built in that makes it function purely in the "bass amp" capacity”.

The lower limit of the Saadhana is said to be 25 Hz, but after listening for some time and playing some bass torture tracks like pipe organ and large symphonic works (sometimes one in the same as in Saint-Saens #3 “Organ” Symphony) I sent Jacob an e-mail telling him I thought they went even a bit lower. He responded, “I was very surprised by the response of the new Saadhana myself. A new dealer I have in Taiwan decided to take in-room measurements after we set them up ( with no break-in ). I told them that it goes down cleanly to about 25hz -- but all of us were very pleasantly surprised when we saw what the computer showed us -- 15hz!”. It's nice to know I was right, especially since I know for a fact that I cannot hear down to 20 Hz much less 15. I am firmly convinced that not all of our sound perception comes through our ears. What do you think?

One of the qualities that we heard at two different audio shows that garnered the Saadhana “Best Sound” was its incredibly natural and vast soundstage with precise imaging, well defined layers and infinitesimal detail without ever sounding overwrought, pinpointed or harsh. I can state categorically that the Rethm Saadhana is one of the least fatiguing, easiest to listen to for long periods of time speakers we've heard. Listening sessions with Linda and me often lasted four hours or more. That means sitting and listening in the dark focused entirely on the music. Notice I said “music” and not “the speakers”. One factor that contributed to our award voting was that the room in which we heard the Saadhana was not a particularly good one, oddly shaped and not conducive to great sound. More impressively, there was not a bit of room tuning or any other sound controlling devices as was apparent in many other rooms. What we heard was raw, unadulterated Saadhana sound and it was glorious.

At home in our well-tuned listening room, the sound was even better. Much better, inspiring Linda to say that this is one of her favorite all-time speakers. regarding that, I have to tell you a story. Just before we sent the Saadhana back, I asked her if these were still one of her favorite speakers. Surprisingly, she hesitated and seem like she wanted to avoid the question. Of course I kept probing and finally she said, “they're one of my favorite sounding speakers for sure, but… it's the way they… look”. While this was just plain shocking because she had always said how beautiful they look, so I pressed on. “They look a bit… disturbing sometimes”, she whispered as if somebody else might hear her. I told her I had no idea what she was talking about. “Don't you think they look a bit… sexual?”, she whispered even quieter. I thought for a minute, study the speakers and replied that I suppose they could look like breasts if I really had to come up with something. “No… not breasts…”, she demurred. I had to know the answer, so I kept asking. Finally she blurted out, “They look like penises!” It took me 10 minutes to stop laughing.

Of course, I reported this to Jacob who knows Linda and, like everybody else, likes her a lot. He told me that this was not the first time he heard that. “It must be about the phase plug”, he answered via e-mail. I could hear him laughing from 1000 miles away.

There are several other improvements in version 2: The side panels constructed of padded silk fabric for resonance control are better looking and you have to look close to realize it's fabric at all. The overall look is much more sleek and modern. The amplifiers in the base modules have their power upped to 120 W per side. The plinth has been redesigned for easier and better set up, the controls for bass crossover, bass volume and the speaker posts have all been moved to the bottom sides of the speaker for easier adjustment.

One of the Rethm Saadhana's best attributes is their 98 DB sensitivity rating, one of the highest in all speakerdom. What this means is that you can use virtually any amplifier to drive them. I used four different amps, including the miniature $375 MiniWatt tube amp that puts out a whopping 3 1/2 watts per channel. The little bugger filled the large room with sound aplenty, reaching sustained levels of 90+ DB. I like a little more headroom since I listen to a lot of very dynamic recordings, but as little as 20 watts will drive these things forever at levels any sane person would love. Speaking of levels, the Saadhanas will play loud with peaks exceeding 100 DB before they start to compress and breakup a little bit. If you play recordings with huge, deep bass drum hits at high levels, you may hear some distortion in the bass, but that's rare and never happened under normal listening conditions. The Sandman’s will give you loads of fast and wide dynamics that contribute to the overall natural sound. Nothing sounds overly compressed or stilted. There's definitely some serious Mojo happening with the Sandman’s.

In addition to my reference LSA Statement amp, I also threw in my Virtue Sensation Tripath amp in with wonderful success. What an amp! What speakers!

SOME SAADNESS

We’ve talked about the Saad’s strengths, what about the weaknesses? The biggest drawback is their loooong break in period. 500 hours? A thousand? Depends who you talk to. Many Lowther enthusiasts claim that they never truly break in, they just keep getting better indefinitely. I don’t buy that one, but the minimum is definitely 500 hours and they don’t sound all that great right out of the box. Expect to put some time in.

As with any amplified speaker, you need to plug ‘em in, so there’s a couple of extra wires with which to contend. Speaking of wires, the speaker connectors are by Cardas that many believe are the best sounding available, but they necessitate using either spades or bare wire. No bayonets need apply.

One great thing about the Rethms is their sleek, contemporary, European vibe. It’s also one of the detractions. If you like a speaker that looks like none other, looks extremely cool (and expensive) and you don’t mind a bare white driver (that may or may not look like it has a penis), this is your speaker, bucko.

 

The Rethm Saadhaha loves you to listen to it. It will do everything in its power to caress you and seduce you for hours on end into thinking your listening to the most heavenly music on this planet. If you listen to a lot of vocals, the Saad's midrange is so pure and holographic...well, it just loves vocals. Strings, too. Small ensembles to the grandest Mahler is taken in stride and projected into a voluminous soundstage that is amazing - and you don't need to spend hours adjusting them "just right". The bass controls will let you tune the bottom to your room, though.

If you listen with a partner, the wide sweet spot is ideal for 2 or more. It will certainly rock, and do it loud. And it sips wattage like a Prius sips gasoline. At 98 db sensitivity, pick an amp. Any amp. There is no better speaker to use with small output SET amps, in our opinion. Give it 20 watts and the things will give you dynamics that will thrill even in large rooms while nerver being harsh. Good transparency, but some more expensive will give you more. Women seem to dig 'em. The smooth sound appeals to their more sensitive ears.

Be prepared for a long break in time. Designer Jacob George hasn't solved that problem yet. Made in India, but not sent offshore. Jacob is a native of India and commutes between there and the US when necessary. This speaker, we believe, would cost much more made almost anywhere else. The craftsmanship is beyond superb.

If you like (or think you like) a more aggressive, hyper-detailed, studio monitor type sound, these will probably not satisfy you. While they go extremely low into the 20's, they probably won't be a favorite of the boom-boom crowd. The bass is musical, not boomical.

If you value audiophile talking points over natural sounding music makers, you should probably look elsewhere.

Oh yes…and if you’re into spending super big bucks on megawatt amplfiers, buy something else. Or sell them and buy a good 20 watt tube amp and you’ll believe you are running 1,000 watts with the Saad’s.

 

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