Compression Guide (CG) Stereo System
as reviewed by Michael Wechsberg
While strolling through the halls of THE Show Newport a few weeks ago I came across an old familiar product name that I had not seen for many years, Rogersound Labs. When I first moved to Southern California over 30 years ago RSL, as it was known, ran a chain of stereo stores known for providing good sound and great value. One store was located just down the street from where I lived during those days and, not having much money at the time, I was very attracted to the good deals available there as were my friends. RSL was especially known for their store brand speaker line (they started out as a speaker manufacturer) that featured good efficiency, a forward but smooth sound and a great beat that made music jump out of the speakers. As time went by, the RSL chain was sold by the original owners and slowly passed out of the scene as the economy in SoCal wavered.
Around comes 2011 and not only is the RSL brand back but so is the original owner, the very personable and enthusiastic Howard Rodgers. Mr. Rodgers retired comfortably after selling his retail chain, but some years back, after the chain went out of business, he purchased back the RSL trademark and intellectual property. He didn't do anything with this for several years, but about three years ago he began building his own ultimate home theater system. He says the custom speakers he came up with "blew the socks off" of both casual and professional acquaintances he played them for, and this eventually led to the company's re-entry into the audio market. Today's RSL speakers are available over the web and consist of a line of 5.1, 7.1 and 7.2 Home Theater speakers plus the Audiophile Stereo System and a Studio Monitor System.
In his demo room at THE Show Rodgers was appropriately featuring his "audiophile" stereo system consisting of the CG4 Monitors and the RSL Speedwoofer™ 10 subwoofer, available on the web as a system for $1250 (with free shipping!). Mr. Rodgers is not a fan of fancy power cords and speaker wire and he was using a modest CD player and integrated amp for his demonstrations. Kind of sacrilegious for a show aimed at audiophiles. The subwoofer, which produced really startling bass, was actually hidden in the back of the room providing the illusion that the modest-sized CG4's were real boomers. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the RSL room including my brief conversation with Mr. Rodgers, so after THE Show I requested a set of speakers to review.
The RSL CG Stereo System comes in a single 95-lb. box containing the two monitors and the subwoofer. The monitors feature a 4" woofer mounted above a 1" dome tweeter. A rectangular port dominates the lower portion of the enclosure. The finish is a nice black piano gloss. Here are some other specifications on the CG4 Monitors from the RSL web site:
Some comment is appropriate about RSL Compression Guide tuning. I don't know what it is but it attempts to cancel cabinet resonances and it works! The CG4 cabinets are pretty lightweight and you can feel them vibrate with the music, but the drivers are remarkably free of the smearing and peakiness characteristic of cabinet resonances. The same approach is used for the subwoofer and is said to enable it to blend seamlessly with satellite speakers while providing especially fast bass response needed for special movie effects and for music! The Speedwoofer™ 10 consists of a 10" woofer and a good old Class AB amplifier (no Class D here!) with a glossy black finish to match the monitors. Here is some other information on the Speedwoofer™ 10 from the web site:
RSL Speedwoofer 10™
RSL Speedwoofer 10™ Amplifier
The subwoofer, which is available separately for $750, comes with a remote control and a neat little control box, also in piano black, that connects to the subwoofer with a shielded category 5 Ethernet cable. This allows the subwoofer volume and crossover point to be adjusted from the listening seat, a real help during setup.
I told Howard Rodgers that I would not use high-priced electronics to evaluate the CG System, so instead of installing the speakers in my main listening room, I set them up in my family room where I have my home theater set up. I used remnants of an old stereo system I still had in house, including an Audible Illusions III preamp and a 1986 vintage Perraux PMF 1050 solid-state (MOSFET) power amp capable of 100 W/channel. Source was a Music Hall Maverick SACD/CD player. This set of electronics might cost $4000 - $5000 today, not too far out of line with the RSL speakers. Most importantly these electronics still sound great. For cables I used whatever I had around with the right lengths including Audioquest, Nordost and MIT. For speaker cables I requested and received some RSL High Resolution Speaker Wire that looks quite a bit like standard 12-gauge zip cord but may have some special properties.
Set up of the RSL system was made easier via the very informative and useful Owner's Manual that is also very entertaining to read. The cover says it is "Written By People With Short Attention Spans Who Hate Manuals," and it fits that bill exactly. Much of the manual is devoted to home theater set up but there is a separate section for stereo set up that is especially helpful in finding a position for and adjusting the subwoofer. The Speedwoofer™ 10 has four connection options. It can be connected via the low frequency effects (LFE) output of a home theater receiver, it can be installed between a preamp and amp utilizing either the internal high-pass and low-pass filters or separate high pass filters, or it can be connected via speaker cables utilizing high power filters inside the subwoofer. I inserted the Speedwoofer™ 10 between my preamp and amp using some long interconnect cables so I could move the subwoofer around the room. I sat the control box on top, connected to the subwoofer via the supplied Ethernet cable. Power for the control box comes via the cable. The Speedwoofer™ 10 has controls for level and crossover point. In addition it sports a phase switch (0 or 180 degrees), a power switch, voltage switch and power cord receptacle. The unit can be left switched on all the time as it contains a sensing circuit that will turn itself off after 20 minutes with no music. A run-of-the-mill power cord is supplied.
I placed the CG4 satellites about 7 feet apart and 3 feet from the rear wall. I used adjustable speaker stands (RSL sells a set of speaker stands separately but these weren't supplied for the review). After some tinkering I settled for a stand height of 32 inches that placed the tweeters an inch or two below my ear level from the listening chair. I pointed the satellites straight ahead as toeing them in added some harshness to the sound. I listened with the perforated metal grills attached. The grills are held on by magnets inside the speaker cabinet (slick!). The satellites are pretty forgiving of position as long as you keep them a few feet away from back and sidewalls. In my room the speakers were at least 5 feet from any sidewalls.
Next came subwoofer positioning, which is a little more complicated. I started out with the subwoofer centered between the satellites because this is where my home theater subwoofer blends well. I used my trusty Radio Shack sound level meter and a test CD I once obtained from Wilson Audio to help with setup of their subwoofers. In this position, which required two pairs of short interconnects, I was able to get a good blend with the satellites but no bass below about 40 Hz. So, I proceeded to move the subwoofer around to a few different places while listening to the test disk. I settled on a position a few feet to the left of the left speaker but still a couple of feet from the corner of the room. I set the crossover at 100 Hz as suggested in the manual and adjusted the volume level until, according to the sound level meter, I achieved a relatively smooth response down to about 25 Hz. After listening to this set up for a while I lowered the crossover frequency slightly using the remote (really convenient) and backed off on the volume a shade as well. I pretty much left the settings this way for my remaining listening although I did play with the subwoofer volume a bit depending on the recording. Overall I spent less than two hours on this set up which is probably more than you will spend.
The first thing I noticed when I sat down for serious listening was that the speakers completely disappeared. This fundamental and sought-after characteristic of all music systems is hard to achieve, especially at this price range and often at much higher price ranges. I've heard many multi-kilobuck speakers that are tonally more accurate than the RSLs, but that can't get the music out of the box. The performance of the RSLs indicates the Compression Guide resonance control is probably working and the cross over and filter designs are effective. The blend between the subwoofer and satellites seemed very good in this initial listening session as well. The speakers threw a wide and deep image with great definition throughout the soundstage. This has always been an advantage of small satellites but often falls apart when the subwoofer is added. Not so with the RSLs.
The tonal palette of the speakers was on the warm side, probably due to tube preamp, but at the same time the sound was fast and clean. Vocal music, both male and female, was full with plenty of midrange detail. Female voices were sweet but a little on the dark side until I made some changes described below. I played some big symphony works and they sounded wonderful from the deepest bass to the highest highs. The system was especially good at portraying hall acoustics faithfully. I was very conscious of the acoustics in the silent spaces between cuts or movements.
But the best thing about this speaker system is the way music literally leapt out of the speakers. Its not that they had an exaggerated front and center perspective but the timing and pace of the music were so palpable it was hard to sit still. I found myself playing the RSLs much louder than I usually listen because the music just didn't want to stay inside the speakers. It wanted to come outside and boogie. At the same time slow and quiet songs and movements drew you inside to enjoy the terrific detail.
I really believe the star of the RSL CG system is the Speedwoofer™ 10. Once properly set up it delivered strong, deep and dynamic bass with truly excellent detail. In my main system I use a subwoofer that costs 3 times the RSL yet does not go as deep with the same level of detail. With the remote control it's easy to tune in the balance between the subwoofer and satellites and this greatly enhances musical enjoyment. Since the subwoofer affects the music up into the midrange it's important it be clean and resonance-free and this is the case with the RSL. I'm guessing but I believe the choice of an older style Class AB amplifier instead of a cheaper Class D design may be responsible for the clean response of the Speedwoofer™ 10. That and an obviously good filter design and implementation.
The RSL system is not without flaws. After all this is a $1250 system. The upper midrange and treble are a little peaky. Sibilants were a bit strong and the highs took on some harshness when I turned the speakers toward the listening position. Although the highs were well extended, there was a lack of detail and some haze evident at times. The lower midrange could sound a bit thick at times, but this depended on the musical selection. I consider most of these problems relatively minor. They did not take much away from the overall excellence of the sound and the level of enjoyment these speakers could bring to just about all recordings.
Now, the performance I've been talking about has been achieved using some pretty mediocre 12-gauge zip cord for speaker wire and a subwoofer power cord not much heftier. Although I had promised Howard Rodgers I would review the speakers in a system consistent with their cost I could not resist trying some better wires. I had on hand the MPC Audio Evolution speaker cables from France that I recently reviewed for PFO. I found these cables to be excellent yet the pair costs twice as much as the entire RSL speaker system. When I hooked these up the surprising thing to me was how little they changed the sound. The most important improvements were to the already good timing and pace of the RSLs, which got better. Some of the midrange haze was removed and there was a shade more detail to be heard in the lower midrange up to the lower treble. There was not much change to the high frequencies that I hoped would improve more. I only made this one cable substitution but my conclusion is that the RSLs are less sensitive than other speakers to cable parameters. It's probably not necessary to spend a fortune on cables to make these speakers sing, and the RSL zip cord may work just fine for you.
I was surprised at the larger change I heard when I substituted an alternate power cord for the Speedwoofer™ 10 standard cord. I used a relatively modest PS Audio power cord that has fairly plain terminations but is well shielded. With this cord I noticed a subtle but important shift in tonal balance in the bass. The mid to upper bass range, say 60 – 120 Hz became slightly depressed, but the lower bass became stronger. It seemed like the level and crossover points on the remote control were slightly changed but they were not. The result was improved balance and clarity not only in the bass, but all the way up into the upper midrange frequencies and beyond. The sound became faster and lighter and some of the thickness I complained about earlier disappeared. I especially noticed horns and woodwinds in some orchestral recordings became more clean and palpable. Music remained very dynamic, female voices and strings became sweeter and low-level detail was much improved. I could hear even more hall acoustics and reverberation than I heard before. This reinforced my feeling that the Speedwoofer™ 10 is the star of the show for the RSL speakers.
No, the RSL CG Stereo System is not the best speaker system in the world and it may disappoint some audiophiles who are seeking the utmost detail in their recordings. But, RSL gets "it", that listening to music should be fun and you will have fun with these speakers. If you are shopping for speakers in the $1000 price range you should give the RSLs a try. Even if you are willing to spend twice as much you should listen to the CG Stereo System. RSL has a 30-day no risk money back guarantee and they even pay for return postage if you don't like them. And, if you still have an old pair of RSL speakers, as many in Southern California do because they were built to last, it's time to try the new generation. You are sure to enjoy all your old recordings more than ever before. Howard, it's good to have you back! Michael Wechsberg
RSL CG Stereo System
RSL Speaker Systems