CAS 2013: Rethm

CAS4Rethm‘s progenitor, Jacob George, brought a simple, attractive system to the third floor. The speakers, his middle model Maarga ($8500), were partnered with his 16 watt, two chassis Gaanam integrated amplifier ($7500) and a Nagra CDP (I didn’t ask). Everything rested on two of his Taalam racks for what was, to my taste, the best looking system at the show.

Mr. George must be starting to hate me. I keep playing music that should, by God, make a single driver system keel over and beg. The last time I saw him at a show, I played a Dizzy Gillespie cut (“School Days” from Dizzy Gillespie at Newport) that will quite literally make people jump out of their chairs and run away from most Lowther systems. My first visit this time coincided with an empty room, so I asked to hear Zoë Keating’s “Tetrishead” from One Cello x 16: Natoma.

“Do you mind the cello?” I asked.

“It’s my favorite instrument,” was the reply. I probably should have warned him what was coming.

Zoë Keating is a cellist who uses digital delays to accompany herself. The “x 16” in the album title refers to how many times she loops over herself while building her compositions. Putting it gently: this music is not to everyone’s taste. Many would dispute that it even is music. Those people couldn’t be more wrong. It’s not only music, it’s wonderful music that you should procure for yourself with all reasonable speed. Unfortunately, as more people wandered into the room, I spent too much time desperately hoping that Mr. George’s graciousness hadn’t cost him any future customers.

Despite the awkwardness, using this as a demo track has some advantages. First, you get to hear how a system handles a cello. If it can’t do that justice, you might as well walk away. The second bit is that you’ll learn how the system handles reasonable complexity. The sound of sixteen cellos is easily blurred into an indistinct mess. If a system sounds like a muddy wall of tone, or, worse yet, a screeching ball of metal, the system isn’t capable of living in my house. The last bit that’s important for a test track — especially after a long, beer-fueled slog through the Audio Mines — is that the track is self teaching. You’ll hear the same bit of music several times in different contexts. If a system is falling down, your reference point is only a few seconds old.

The Maarga and Gaanam more did plenty of good work here. While there’s only so much impact you can reasonable expect from a 6″ driver, the Maarga’s trio of them managed to exceed those expectations. The widebander had more than enough speed to do justice to Keating’s insistent plucking, of course, but I was surprised by how well served the cello was by the powered bass section. It easily matched the speed of the widebander, and provided a remarkably realistic, remarkably seamless presentation. The sweet spot also allowed for Keating’s knob-twiddling sound stage experiments to bloom properly, creating a wholly immersive, trippy space around my head.

Sunday saw us wandering back in and begging to hear the slightly-more-crowd-pleasing “Oh, Lady Be Good!” from Count Basie and the Kansas City 7. This also has several merits as a test track, starting with the fact that I enjoy it.

The Maargas weren’t as strong here. While they were adequately fast, and more than adequately fun, you do sacrifice some realistic scale in favor of domestically friendly size. The tone, delicacy and speed were superb, but I found myself thinking of the Maargas as strong competitors in their price range rather than superpowered giant killers. Not that it stopped me from wanting to take them home, mind you. They’re likely the smallest speaker that’s ever had that effect on me.

Were there weaknesses? Possibly. Some of the sound that escapes from the labyrinth behind the widebander touches on the male vocal range. If you find yourself listening to a great deal of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, you may find some of the lower vocals broadcast with a slight woodiness and delay. The treble remains whizzer treble (albeit very good whizzer treble), so you won’t get that last bit of sparkle that some more single-purpose drivers can offer. Finally, while the tone of the speakers was remarkably consistent throughout the room, the real magic happened in a fairly small sweet spot. This is only an issue if you’re used to getting up and walking around inside a big Tannoy’s sweet spot. In other words, their focus might be the one trait they have that most resembles other hi-fi speakers. These seem like reasonable tradeoffs compared to the rest of what the speaker offers.

As for the Gaanam amplifier… that’s a harder call. There’s no way to see it without falling slightly in love with its looks and its ergonomics. At first blush, it seems like almost the perfect 6c33c SET — which is to say that it has the characteristic dryness that makes it sound more like a really good solid state amplifier than any sort of tubey contraption. If you’re looking for some sort of magic glow, you’ll want to go elsewhere.

If it’s not obvious already, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this room. Jacob George is a gentleman with an obviously refined taste. It’s comforting to know that his ear seems to be at least as good as his eye.