RB-61 II Home Theater System
Captivating senses from all angles is what the RB-61 II home theater system does best. Built for intensity, this system engulfs any room in sheer sonic pleasure from start to finish.
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Home Theater - RB-61 II System (09/20/2011)
Price: $3,350 At A Glance: 90-by-60-degree Tractrix horn • Extremely focused imaging • More decibels for your watts
The story of Klipsch is often told, but the storytellers, myself included, typically fail to mention two of the three key principals. Every audiophile has heard of Paul W. Klipsch. He founded the loudspeaker company that bears his name in 1946 and spent several decades patiently perfecting his use of horn-loaded drivers to provide—and here I’ll just quote the Klipsch mantras—high efficiency, low distortion, controlled directivity, and flat frequency response. Paul was also known to take notes during sermons so that he could grill the minister afterward on the fine points of theology.
The unsung hero and heroine of the story are Fred and Judy Klipsch. Fred saw a newspaper ad for Paul’s company, discovered they were long-lost cousins, and in 1989 he and Judy bought the company. Operations moved to Indianapolis, although distribution remained in Klipsch’s (and President Clinton’s) birthplace of Hope, Arkansas. Today Klipsch is a power in many kinds of audio: home theater, two-channel, per sonal, wholehouse, custom installation, cinema, and industrial.
By this strange series of circumstances, Klipsch has remained until now one of the few family-owned companies in the speaker business, maintaining a steady heartbeat as it has continued to assert the principles of its founder.
With the recent sale of the company to Audiovox, the Klipsch story is starting a new chapter. Fred Klipsch is stepping down as CEO of the Klipsch Group but will serve on the boards of both Klipsch and Audiovox. You may be relieved to hear that Audiovox plans to operate Klipsch as a standalone entity. Operations of the Klipsch and Audiovox brands will not be merged, with the possible exception of car audio. The third chapter of the Klipsch story may be worth reading—but the debut of the Klipsch Reference II series gives us one last chance to linger over chapter two, the era of Fred and Judy Klipsch.
The Klipsch Reference II is the fifth generation of a line introduced in 1999, well into the Fred and Judy era. Its 17 models include four bookshelf ( I call them monitor) speakers, four centers, four surrounds, and five floorstanding models. Pricing runs from $300 per pair for the RB-41 II monitor to $3,200 per pair for the RF-7 II tower. The 5.1-channel system under review includes two RB-61 II monitors ($550/pair), the RC-62 II center ($550), two RS-62 II surrounds ($600/each), and the SW-310 subwoofer ($1,050), for a total of $3,350. (Note that Klipsch sells a similarly designated RB-61 II package that uses the same front left/right monitors and woofer but smaller center and surround speakers for $2,550).
The Roman numeral II signals a bevy of improvements, including drivers, crossovers, and other elements. Perhaps most noteworthy, Klipsch’s Cerametallic woofer—anodized aluminum with a thin ceramic layer on both sides—is now folded at the outer edge to tighten and stiffen the cone in an effort to further lower distortion.
All Reference II models include 1-inch titanium-domed tweeters deeply recessed into a Tractrix horn (except the architectural models, which have different waveguides). While the horn appears square and smooth at first glance, its flare disperses sound at 90 degrees horizontal by 60 degrees vertical. This allows for startlingly high sensitivity ratings: 95 decibels for the monitor, 98 dB for the center, and 97 dB for the surrounds. (See HT Labs Measures for our test results.)
The higher the sensitivity, the less power is required from your A/V receiver for a given volume level. However, be warned that these speakers’ high resolution makes them unsuitable for cheap, dirty, distortion-laden amps. A few exquisite watts are what they need.
The RB-61 II monitor is a basic two-way design with one tweeter, one woofer, and a front slot-shaped port. While the monitors, center, and surrounds all have magnetically attached grilles on front and gold-plated, plastic-nut binding posts on back, only the monitors have biwire/biamp terminals. The RC-62 II is a horizontal center speaker with one tweeter flanked by two woofers and two ports at the outer edges.
The RS-62 II surround has two angled baffles with a single wraparound grille, the same driver array as the monitor (but doubled), and a total of four small ports at the sides. At first glance, it appears to be a bipole/dipole design, a type of surround that places the listener in a diffuse soundfield. However, during my listening demos, I found that surround effects were stronger and more directional than I’d expect with such a design. I queried Klipsch and was surprised to learn that this model fits neither the definition of a classic bipole nor dipole. Instead, the two pairs of drivers generate 180 degrees of surround coverage, with each 90-degree horn providing half of that. While you can’t completely avoid interference patterns, the difference here is that the design intention is not to accentuate the null field associated with bipole/dipoles. Klipsch refers to this using the trademarked phrase Wide Dispersion Surround Technology.
Note that the RS-62 II isn’t sold in mirror-imaged pairs. This is to allow flexibility in placement. If they can’t go in the side-surround position, they can be placed farther back.
The SW-310 subwoofer has three drivers, all with 10-inch woven-fiberglass cones, one active and two passive. In lieu of a port, the two passive radiators contribute bass from the sides of the enclosure in a highly controlled manner. This eliminates the audible vices of port turbulence and chuffing.
I ran the SW-310 at a higher percentage of its volume control’s range (one-half in lieu of my usual one-third). I also raised the subwoofer output by several decibels in my A/V receiver, which indicates less gain in the SW-310’s internal amplifier than I’d expect. With these settings, the sub gave me the bass output I needed. With all five speakers having 6.5-inch woofers in good-sized cabinets, it almost goes without saying that the sub crossover operated at 80 hertz.
Associated equipment included a Rotel RSX-1550 A/V receiver and Oppo BDP-83SE universal disc player. All movie demos were on Blu-ray Disc.
The Deep End
Battle: Los Angeles (with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack) plunged me into battle scenes that started early and never let up. I quickly discovered that the RC-62 II’s superb control of dialogue allowed the entire system to run at a low to moderate volume that made aggressive ballistic and explosive effects relatively easy on the ears. This was merciful, since my reference AVR has no low-volume listening modes to narrow dynamic extremes.
The Island is another unfortunate victim of Warner’s policy of using old-school Dolby Digital on a Blu-ray Disc, which could easily accommodate a lossless or uncompressed PCM soundtrack. So the soundtrack was identical to the one I’d heard in the DVD release a few years ago. But even a lossy soundtrack delivering a cheap synthesizer-dominated score can sound pleasing, and this one did, aided by my Rotel AVR’s conscientiously clean power output. The trajectories of surround effects were strong and specific.
A Profusion of Surround
A Scarcity of Miracles: A King Crimson Projekct by Jakszyk, Fripp, and Collins arrived in a rare but welcome form. The two-disc set included a DVD-Audio disc comprising MLP 5.1 lossless, MLP 2.0 lossless, DTS 5.1 lossy, and LPCM 2.0 uncompressed soundtracks. The other disc was a CD, which made for convenient ripping en route to one of my iPods. Having heard this album in both low-resolution two-channel form and high-resolution 5.1, I can attest that the latter utterly transformed the experience of listening to these half-dozen melancholic ballads and two instrumental improvs.
With years of experience in listening to surround mixes, I’ve come to group them into three categories: the proscenium mix, with performers and audience on either side of an invisible divide; the horseshoe mix, which allows the performers to creep closer to the audience at the sides (incidentally, this is my favorite kind), and the dreamscape mix, which acknowledges few if any boundaries in the use of the soundfield. The dreamscape approach is the riskiest: It can become annoying in a hurry. Yet in this instance, it worked.
While the rhythm section remained rooted in front, the guitar, guitar synthesizer, lead vocals, and choral vocals roved a bit, while the saxes remained most often in the surround channels. This isn’t an arrangement found in nature. Yet it established a soundfield with a logic and consistency of its own, allowing freedom of movement to the glassine forms of Jakko Jakszyk’s massed voices and Robert Fripp’s guitar synth, while I remained rooted to Klipsch’s horn-defined sweet spot. There was no place I’d rather be.
Putting aside my surround obsession, let me note that every instrument benefited from the interaction between high-resolution format and speakers. Tony Levin’s bass and Chapman stick got the tuneful treatment his instinctively melodic playing deserved, the impacts and pitches of Gavin Harrison’s drums were precise, and Mel Collins’ saxophones had the dynamic character of singing voices.
I went on to the Blu-ray and DTS-HD Master Audio release of the Nobel Prize Concert with violin soloist Joshua Bell and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic led by Sakari Oramo. Does life get any better? I haven’t been to the Stockholms Konserthus, but this Accentus Media disc was as miraculous an evocation of top-notch concert-hall sound as anything I’ve heard. The string sound neatly side-stepped familiar dichotomies.
It was warm but not laid back, front-row but not in your face, with a vinyl-like feel—if you define vinyl-like as a Linn LP12 with all the mods and accessories playing a vintage RCA Living Stereo, Deutsche Grammophon, or Telefunken LP.
Gift, by Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson, arrived on CD. I made my usual comparison between the stereo original and rechanneling in the Dolby Pro Logic II Music mode, and I detected a slight difference between the center and monitors. The center speaker playing in DPLII sounded brighter than the two monitors playing in stereo. The difference was slight but discernible, and I preferred to play the album in stereo, which did justice to a mother-daughter team with two of the best voices in the British folk revival. Waterson sounds, as usual, like finely aged velvet, while her daughter Carthy has moved from the crystalline purity of youth into the huskiness of middle age with no loss of control.
Looking over my Klipsch reviews from the past couple of decades, I recall a lot of products I respected and liked but none that I fell in love with. The Reference II is the first Klipsch product to tip over that subjective line. Not that the character of the original Reference has changed that much: The difference is subtle. But it’s real enough to turn this product into one that I could live with for a long time.
Let me repeat my warning that to get the best out of these highly revealing speakers, you’ll need low-distortion amplification that tends to the warm side. Like Klipsches in general, these speakers don’t need much power, but they do need clean power. You also have to be the kind of now old-fashioned listener who’s willing to live in the sweet spot.
But if you’re thinking of buying into the Klipsch philosophy, the Reference II is an excellent way to do it—and this is the right time to do it. Farewell, Fred and Judy Klipsch—and for your too rarely celebrated contributions to the audio industry, thank you.