An Interview with MBL’s Christian Hermeling
An Interview with MBL’s Christian Hermeling
Where did it all begin for MBL?
MBL started in 1979 with its “Radialstahler” MBL 100. There was a time when the “Radialstrahler” was only an idea on a sketch-pad. An idea that many people believed would not work, was turned into a patent. Thirty years and countless awards later, thousands of audiophiles around the world are now closer to their beloved music than they had ever dreamt of.
Why the name?
The name MBL is basically attributed to the initials of the former founders and co-founders (Meletzky, Beinecke, Lehnhardt). MBL represents innovative high-end audio technology – Made in Germany. Though the name MBL stands for its own and is well established in the market.
You are most recognized by your legendary Radialstrahler speakers. What was it that allowed you to construct this type of speaker?
With traditional drivers it is not possible to create this homogeneous 360° radiation pattern so we had to develop a driver system which radiates initially with 360° degrees. This drove us to the idea of pulsating spheres where we have those bended segments which are fixed on one side and mounted on the other side and a moving coil. The segments are arranged around a middle axis so when the moving coil moves up the segments bend more outwards. The segments are over bridged with air seals when the moving coil moves up we increase the volume of the melon and so creating the sound pressure. With no other type of technology it would have been possible to create this type of sound also with this high amount of accuracy for linearity in frequency and for undistorted sound.
The resulting prototype was actually made of three pulsating spheres: a large egg-shaped design for low frequencies, an avocado-sized unit for the middle frequencies, and a walnut-sized nub for the treble. Although it’s been refined over the ensuing quarter-century, today’s model is similarly configured, with the exception of the more conventional subwoofer housing on which the spheres sit. The facts are: this type speaker radiates sound evenly, 360 degrees—it does not simply fire forward as a traditional speaker does.
The Radialstrahler can play any music you like—from a Bach solo violin piece to a Bill Evans piano trio to a Mahler symphony to the pulsating hip-hop beat of OutKast—with a staggeringly lifelike sense of scale and volume. But it is true that classical music will sound more life like playing the music over our Radialstrahler. Every instrument and every aspect of the music can be heard as if you were sitting in the concert hall. Therefore we can understand why audiophiles see our speakers more for classical music.
Loudspeakers housed with an enclosed volume of air – as the vast majority of them are – are too inert and inefficient to be truly capable of transmitting a really fast signal. So with music reproduction it’s not just the light and rapid tweeter that has to play its part, the heavier middle range coupled to a volume of air has also got lots to contribute. The drive-unit consists of two 22 cm diameter aluminum basses which work on the push-push principle and thus largely neutralize any forces impacting on the enclosure. Further decoupling from the lateral baffles is designed to ensure that not a drop of energy gets lost in the MDF.
Did MBL originate as a speaker company? Why and when did you start manufacturing electronics (amplifiers, pre-amps etc.)?
Initially MBL started as a loudspeaker company but the sonic quality and the sonic transparency of the system was so high that we were able to hear every mistake or error in amplifiers which we have used for shows. We were thinking why not produce and develop our own electronics to ensure the final sound that can live up to our speakers, matching the high demand of quality. We first began with the preamplifier in 1982 so it was relatively early in the history of MBL and then about 1989 we began with power amplifiers. From that moment on we continued to improve the sound of our preamplifiers and of our power amplifiers. We were actually very happy to have such a consistent sound from our system.
You offer solid state electronics. How do you see the differences between tube and solid state? What is your approach and specific design philosophy?
On the world market there are some good tube electronics and also some good solid state electronics. The main reason why we haven’t chosen tube electronics is that the sound is changing when the tubes is altering. With our MBL omni-directional speaker system we have a very consistent system that will never change the sound during the years so we also wanted to have electronics which sound consistent regardless of their age. For us it was a clear decision to develop solid state electronics but we will always keep in mind that we have to focus to have a liquid sound and not a harsh typical solid state sound. For example, in our power amps we have Class A output stage which delivers a very smooth sound but this output stage would not be powerful enough to drive the system so we have the output stage voltage swimming on a Class A/B output stage which moves the class A output stage up and down with the music. The signal always goes through the Class A stage and the Class A/B stage only delivers the voltage.
The MBL 6010D also known as “Der Vorverstärker” is a full-function solid-state preamplifier. One of our most successful products with a huge fan base. It includes a lot of features like full remote control, first class moving coil-capable phono section, dual adjustable (for level and left-right balance) single-ended and balanced outputs, and a full bevy of line inputs that can be adjusted so that all input levels are similar. It weighs 77 lbs and is equipped with two CD inputs, a tuner input, two tape loops, and six output terminals.
MBL develops and manufactures all components in our own factory in Germany. That is how we are able to warrant the strictly controlled quality of our equipment. It also enables us to react to innovations with great flexibility. We exclusively use trusted high-end technology combined with solid, high-quality materials. Our quality is in worldwide demand.
In the head office in Berlin and in our factory in Eberswalde there are all together 50 employees.
Do you still believe in traditional German quality?
It’s only here that we can find the experts we need to help us achieve our goals. Superbly educated and highly motivated specialists who share our vision. This is why we research and manufacture exclusively in our own factory. For us our adherence to Germany as a hub of excellence which offers us all the opportunity to keep faith with our philosophy is a self-evident truism.
MBL and Burmester are some of the most recognized German high-end brands. What is the difference between the two?
MBL and Burmester are both highly respected companies in the high-end audio market and they both deliver high quality products. But each company has their own philosophy regarding sound and design. Please bear with us that as a matter of principle we never talk about our evaluation of competitor’s products.
What is it that sets MBL above the competition?
Over the last three decades, MBL has played a major part in breathtaking developments in the worldwide audio sector. MBL accompanied and influenced the birth and growth of high-end audio equipment. Every single MBL component is man-made, from development and design to the manufacturing, testing and listening – from the idea to the finished product. And during all these years we only had the best possible sound and the best possible quality in mind.
Is there a specific sonic approach or do you tend to be neutral sounding?
Our main goal is we want the listener to have the same feeling as he would be having during a real concert. Hence we do not concentrate on specific other brands how they produce or engineer. We just listen to real life performances make measurements and listening tests in order to find out how to create the same emotional impact when listening at home as if you were sitting in a concert hall.
Many companies are starting to use PWM Class D amplifiers. What are your thoughts about it?
Nearly 95% of all PWM Class D amps on the market are sounding much too bright, too thin and artificial. This would not be our target. But similar to our different thinking about our loudspeaker, we are working on a different method with PWM amplifiers. So with this Class D design concept we will have a totally neutral distortion behavior. We are still in the design phase, but maybe in the future, for some of our products we will release this new technology.
Are there some special and innovative approaches that you use with your transistor designs?
Besides the Class-A output stage which I already described in a former section we also have direct push-pull and isolated gain cell technology in our amplifiers. Direct push pull means that we do not have any differential input stages where we would split the signal into positive and negative waves. We are directly driving it from the input of the transistor both phase in and off phase so we have a much faster and much detailed signal transfer but the main thing is the isolated gain cell. Every transistor has some un-linearities that change the performance over current, over voltage, over temperature and we have simulated and measured all of the misbehaviors of the transistor and we compensate all the misbehaviors and this is the so called isolated gain cell. The transistor that makes the sound and the amplification in the amplifier is held absolutely constant so the voltage on the transistor and the current will never really change the performance of the transistor. This is a really unique point you will not find this in any other product. This is also the reason why our power amplifiers does sound so fine and on the other hand can deliver such high output power.
How do you see the current state of high-end?
In the former years high-end was mostly orientated to sound and the design aesthetics was always in the second row. Nowadays people do not only want the best sound they also draw more attention to the design and that their audio equipment fits perfectly into their living rooms. Additionally audio systems are more and more part of a network where computers, house automation and other devices are connected to each other. This asks for new interfaces so the audio system integrates neatly into the network.
When it comes to effectiveness in our processes we definitely work hard to be very cost-effective. But when it comes to the selection of components and materials we definitely prefer thinking about quality and not so much about costs. The result of this approach is that the customer can rely on getting the best product money can buy.
The thing is that the MBL sound is unique and it also has a specific fingerprint so if you are an MBL fan or a fan of the MBL sound you will also like the other lines. The sonic signature does shine through to all three model lines.
Where does the hi-fi stop and the high-end enter in for MBL?
With MBL we are claiming high-end sound quality and we can definitely say that we do serve the high-end market with all of our lines. We do not deliver products for the typical hi-fi market.
Our goal is to be the cutting edge market leader in terms of technology, quality, design and ease of use. Developing the most advanced speakers and electronics worldwide.
What is the future of digital audio?
If we compare to the CD format which is now over 20 years old (CD has only 16 bits 44.1 sampling rate) we can see two tendencies one tendency is the so called “loudness war.” Most of the CDs which come out nowadays are so high compressed and dynamic that the CD format wouldn’t even be necessary for this music. On the other side there are some small companies which are out of the “loudness war” and try to produce good sounding music but those companies are the minority. It is very difficult to answer that question but we are hoping that there will be sufficient companies that will support high quality digital audio.
We think that the non physical medium will rise but the physical medium will stay for the next 20 years. The reason is that there are different kind of customers some want to buy the physical medium maybe a CD so they can hold something in their hands and also will be able to play it back immediately after its been put into a playback player. For the download area there is a tendency of some labels which offer high resolution downloads but those customers are different kind of customers than the customer who likes it to have the hardware in his hands.
Do you plan to introduce media server?
What do you think about phono preamps. Are they in demand?
With MBL we also have very high quality of phono modules which can be put in our preamps. We do not emphasize in this area because phono playback have some similarities with the tubes the playback format is not stable it alders with temperature, humidity and age so we will not invest that much in that field in the future. We introduced a very high quality moving coil preamp stage three years ago so if the customer really wants vinyl playback this is possible with an MBL preamp and this phono stage.
We haven’t seen an MBL turntable yet. Any future plans?
What is your reference when designing and testing new products?
For many years now our chief developer Jürgen Reis has been responsible for shaping the acoustic imprint of our audio systems. Time and again he and his team of engineers have developed jewels of sound whose naturalness and harmonies far exceed those of any established standards.
He can do this because in his long experience as a musician and sound engineer he has found that in the world of sound, with its multilayered sound patterns and interwoven structures, there are dimensions that lie beyond anything you can learn from electrical engineering text books.
For Jürgen Reis, technical sophisticated circuitry is just the first step in a long journey of listening and research: the quest for the perfect component. It takes hours, days and weeks of painstaking work to develop the perfect device which withstands the test of all benchmarks over and beyond measurable parameters. Because only when not just the technical side of music but its very being is reproduced, only when the act of listening to music matures into a highly emotional experience can a development at MBL be concluded.
Yes indeed our development is in steady growth. We are very content with the progress we are making over the years. In a time where – for some companies – quality is not always as important as turnover MBL is like a tower of strength. Our customers and our business partners all over the world do recognize and appreciate the quality and passion we are offering in our audio systems. That might be one reason for our growth and our success.
What defines high end reproduction for you?
Our aim is that the customer really enjoys listening to the music so we want the technical part always behind the acoustic. We really want to transport the feeling of the music to the listener and to reproduce an illusion and that the emotion that the musician is creating shines through to our systems.
Actually there are different kinds of customers we have. All share their love for music and all none accept compromises when it comes to sound quality and build. But more and more we see a type of customer who is not really an audiophile but who can afford to always have the best money can buy. He has expensive cars, nice houses with expensive furniture and he wants the best quality audio system that also fits nicely into his living room. On the other side there is the audiophile and music lover who withdraws his savings to bring the best possible sound into his living room. We at MBL serve all kinds of customers equally by caring for our products and the quality and sound they deliver.
Any last thoughts for our readers?
We have told you how we work and how we think, what drives us and why MBL products can only sound the way they do. Only with this unique blend of innovative technology and craftsmanship can we achieve our declared aim of producing audio systems that are really the only viable alternative to actually sitting in the concert hall. High-end instruments that create genuinely lifelike music in your living room.
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