Tons of Fun

Unlike many high-end manufacturers that concentrate on one type of product, MBL casts a wider net. For three decades, this German company has developed super-sophisticated—and super-expensive—speakers, power amps, preamps, integrated amps, optical-disc players, and D/A converters. At the top of its speaker heap is the 101 X-treme, a stunning sonic and visual masterpiece.

The 101 X-treme is a 4-way design that comprises two towers, both over six feet tall. The subwoofer tower includes six 12-inch aluminum-cone drivers and no power amp—yep, it's a passive sub. The other tower delivers everything above 100Hz and is based on MBL's Radialstrahler omnidirectional drivers, including two magnesium-aluminum alloy woofers as well as two midranges and two tweeters made of carbon fiber, all in a mirror-image configuration. There's also one upward-firing "ambience" dome tweeter at the top of the tower.

Radialstrahler drivers start life looking like flowers. The corrugated "petals" are then bent to form ovoids and spheroids that vibrate equally in all directions, driven by voice coils at one end. As a result, the speaker is said to sound the same no matter where you are in relation to it, though reflections from the walls, ceiling, and floor must have some effect that can't be predicted without knowing the room's dimensions and décor.

The 101 X-treme was designed by Juergen Reis (left in the photo above), pictured here with MBL founder Wolfgang Meletzky, an engineer who introduced his first speaker in 1979. The company's goal has always been to "redefine sound reference while maintaining a stunning visual design," a goal that is certainly met in this case.

Anyone considering this incredible speaker had better have reinforced floors—the combined weight for a 2-channel system is 3600 pounds! Part of that mass is no doubt due to the base of the Radialstrahler tower, which is a constrained-layer sandwich of birch wood, brass, and aluminum.

With a claimed frequency response of 20Hz to 40kHz (no tolerance specified) and sensitivity of 88dB/W/m, the 101 X-treme has a power-handling capability of 500 watts continuous and 2200W peak. MBL recommends using its flagship 9011 power amp for each tower at a cost of $42,900 each.

That just leaves the price of the speakers themselves—$250,000 per pair. A 2-channel rig with four amps will set you back $421,600, and a 5-channel home-theater system is over a million bucks—but hey, at this level, who's counting? After all, each speaker is hand-built and calibrated, a process that takes 90 days to complete.

I've not heard the 101 X-treme system, but others whose ears I trust have, and they report that it's among the most neutral, uncolored speakers they've ever listened to, an observation borne out by their own measurements. To me, that's the ultimate compliment, making the extreme cost worthwhile for those few who can afford it.

jarod's picture

This may be a stupid question,but with no amp running the subwoofers how do passive subs work? I always thought that passive subs acted like radiators to other subs that are powered by an amplifier with which they share an enclosure with.

David Vaughn's picture

Scott, Are you sure that isn't a flux capacitor? David

Scott Wilkinson's picture

Jarod, the terminology is a bit confusing. What you're describing is called a passive radiator, which is a diaphragm in a subwoofer that is not driven by an amp. It shares the same enclosure with an active driver, which is driven by the amp. A passive radiator vibrates in response to the vibration of the active driver. By contrast, a passive subwoofer is an entire enclosure with one or more active drivers (and perhaps one or more passive radiators) but no internal amplifier. An external amp must be connected to a passive sub in order to make it work. David, this thiing does look like it might be able to time travel!

jarod's picture

Thank you again. You have a great way of explaining termonalogy that is easy to understand. You are the A/V Yoda! I think a flux capacitor would be cheaper to build then these puppies!

Scott Wilkinson's picture

For your kind words, thank you I do!

Bruce in CO's picture

There's nothing worse than running a nice set of speakers with a cheap amp. $43k?!? C'mon. These babies deserve a really good amp like the Goldmund Telos 5000 at $190k per channel.

Steven Becker's picture

The text states: "a stunning sonic and visual masterpiece" then later states: "I've not heard the 101 X-treme system, but others whose ears I trust have, and they report that it's among the most neutral, uncolored speakers they've ever listened to, an observation borne out by their own measurements." To paraphrase Ivor T., 'If you haven't heard it, you don't have an opinion.' To this reader, this article comes off as unpaid advertisement that expresses opinions without having heard the product. Readers beware! We better watch what's published here pretty carefully if this sort of thing gets past the editor(s). This is a pretty low standard of integrity.

Steven Becker's picture

Drear Mr. Wilkinson, I hear what you are saying, but your intent that a blog be fun doesn't mean you shouldn't take some care with what you publish. Had you simply not put in an opinion of the sound quality of the product without ever hearing it, I wouldn't have had the slightest concern with the article.

Bruce in CO's picture

Sorry Steven, but you referred to it as an article, not Scott. Scott's commentary is a blog. At over $1M for a 5-channel set-up, this also cannot be considered unpaid advertising as probably 99.999% of the readership aren't potential customers. In media, there is absolutely nothing wrong with highlighting over-the-top products for the fun and interest of the readership. I suppose you don't subscribe to Road & Track or Automobile because they constantly put Ferraris and Lamborghinis on the cover?

Barry Willis's picture

Steven Becker misses the point of this series, which is not to report Scott's personal experience but to showcase ultra-high-performance audio products, which typically come with ultra-high prices. I have heard the MBL 101 many times. It's one of the few speakers at any price that's capable of making recorded music sound like the real thing. In particular, MBLs have the ability to render struck cymbals as they sound live. I always spend time in the MBL suite at CES and at audio shows because it's always a great party. The MBL guys are wonderful people and true music lovers. Most speakers are deficient in some regard, and most manufacturers are very careful about the recordings they play. MBL isn't afraid to throw anything into the mix, because they know their gear can handle everything easily and render it beautifully.

Steven Becker's picture

Folks, calling something a blog doesn't meaning abdicating responsibility for basic journalism. Mr. Wilkinson is a well respected (and for good reason) expert on a topic. People read and rely on the information he publishes. A conservative and responsible approach would be to not express an opinion on something one has not experienced! Are you actually advocating the approach of writing opinions about the sound quality of equipment you haven't heard? SGHT should be better than that. It certainly used to be.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

I agree that calling this a blog does not mean abdicating basic journalistic responsibility. On the other hand, calling it a blog clearly distinguishes it from a review and identifies it as being much less formal. As I see it, the problem with your argument is that I didn't express my own opinion; I reported the opinion of others whose ears I trust, and I made it clear that's what I was doing. I see nothing wrong with that, as long as I'm up front about it. I hold myself and this site to very high editorial standards, and nothing you have said persuades me that I have not maintained those standards in this case. On the other hand, I'm sure there's nothing I can say to persuade you from your position, so we'll simply have to agree to disagree, which people of good conscience must do from time to time.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

BTW, we haven't been SGHT for many years; we are Ultimate AV or UAV. Also, I helped launch SGHT, so I know very well what it used to be, and I remain convinced that UAV upholds its tradition of journalistic excellence. I'm sorry you don't agree.

Chris Bruner's picture

Scott, I have always read these were great speakers yet few have explained how they produce sound. Do the "flower petals" {as you descibe them} move up and down like an umbrella ?

Scott Wilkinson's picture

As I understand it, as the voice coil at one end moves up and down with the audio signal, it deforms the "petals," bending them slightly outward, then inward. Thus, the entire ovoid or spheroid pulsates in and out, sending sound waves in all directions.