HTS Moderator , Reviewer
RSL 5.1 Theater System Speaker Review
By Jim Wilson (theJman)
The subject of this review is the RSL Speakers 5.1 Theater System, a home theater package that consists of four CG4 satellites, one CG24 center and the SpeedWoofer 10 subwoofer.
RSL Speakers is actually the reincarnation of a company formally known as Rogersound Labs that was based out of Southern California in the 1970's and 80's. Rogersound was owned by Howard Rodgers, a guy who started tinkering with speakers in his garage. That lead to a successful chain of hi-fi stores, but they ultimately went out of business quite a while ago. Before it's untimely demise Rogersound Labs apparently had a rather large following of devote fans. His new company -- RSL Speakers -- deviates from Rogersound Labs in one very significant way; they are no longer a brick-n-mortar company but are a true ID (Internet Direct) manufacturer, so all of their sales are done from their website.
All of the components included in the Theater System are small yet weigh far more then you would suspect, owing to the well thought out engineering and heavy duty materials employed. The SpeedWoofer 10 is only 16.5"x16.5"x17.25 (HWD), yet weighs in at a hefty 62 pounds. The class A/B amp is rated at 375 watts, with no peak specified, and has a frequency response of 24-180Hz, +/-3dB. The CG4 speaker is just 10.5"x6"x6.33" (HWD), but weighs a full 9 pounds. It has a stated frequency response of 100-25kHz, +/-3dB. The CG24 is identical in size except for the height, or width depending upon how you orient it; the CG24 has dual 4" midrange drivers and can be used either horizontally or vertically. It's 16"x6"x6.33" (HWD), but weighs a solid 13 pounds. The stated frequency response is 85-25kHz, +/-3dB. Everything comes with a 5 year warranty except the amp in the SpeedWoofer 10, which has a 2 year warranty.
The satellites, center and subwoofer all utilize a unique design RSL calls Compression Guide Technology. CGT is essentially a variation of bass reflex that utilizes a slanted internal plenum not unlike some transmission line systems, but RSL doesn't consider CGT to be a transmission line design. More on CGT a bit later though.
Purchasing from RSL is done in the same manner as any other ID company, directly from the manufacturer. You can use their website or toll free number (800-905-5485).
The Theater System costs $2,075, which is the same price you would pay to purchase all 6 pieces individually, so there's no discount for buying the "package". That price does include shipping, and something pretty unique today; return shipping. If you decide the RSL system is not for you they pick up the tab to send it back. The company must be very confident with what they're selling to make an offer like that, especially when you consider it's well over 100 pounds of equipment we're talking about.
The subwoofer and all the speakers came packaged in a similar manner. This was a well traveled set that has been used for several prior reviews so I'm not certain if the packaging is indicative of what a "normal" customer would get when they receive their order from RSL.
Everything came double boxed with hard styrofoam blocks on the top and bottom for protection. The speakers and subwoofer were covered in a nice cloth sheet and wrapped in plastic. The SpeedWoofer 10 also had hard styrofoam pieces slipped into the corners of the inner box, further protecting it from damage. If this is an example of how the review samples are protected, then I can only imagine new product is packed at least as well. If that's the case then RSL does a very solid job of protecting their products from the abuse they're sure to encounter when shipped.
The majority of the included accessories were for the SpeedWoofer 10, which consisted of a set of low metal carpet spikes, little half-circle shaped rubber feet, power cord, a remote with batteries, the subwoofer control box and the RJ45 cable to contact that to the SpeedWoofer 10. All of the accessories were bunched together in their own separate compartment in the packing material for the SpeedWoofer. That struck me as a very well thought out design, a theme that repeated itself over and over again throughout the time I had the RSL Theater System.
Let's start with the documentation, because it was a breath of fresh air for me. I review an awful lot of equipment, and I make it a point to read all the documentation for every single product. That can be a rather painful process to be quite honest because it seems far too many companies consider the manual an after thought, and it shows. Not RSL though, because whoever wrote their documentation did a fantastic job.
It's very obvious that person has a sense of humor because the manual is written in a light-hearted, conversational manner with some comedic aspects thrown in to ensure you're paying attention - there are several anecdotes slyly inserted into strategic locations, some of which caught me completely off guard. The cover states it's "Written By People With Short Attention Spans Who Hate Manuals", so right off the bat you know it's going to be different then the standard fare. It proved to be a refreshing change from the dry technical manuals that generally accompany speakers and subs.
But even though the manual is the size of a magazine, and has comical overtones, don't equate that to mean it's a comic book. It ably covers the complete product line in detail -- speakers, center and subwoofer -- as well as company history, room acoustics and placement assistance. There are detailed diagrams for 5.1, 7.1, even 7.2 configurations. The font is large and legible, with headers that clearly denote which sections are important and which can potentially be skipped. It's about as good as documentation could possibly be, and I applaud RSL for their approach and the effort it must have taken to create that.
Once you start looking at the system it quickly becomes apparent this was designed as a whole, as opposed to a collection of parts; everything blends seamlessly into one cohesive piece. The appearance of the satellites, center and subwoofer is identical, with softly rounded front corners, squared off back corners, a thin front-facing slot port and impeccable gloss black paint. Even the external control box for the subwoofer has the exact same styling and design queues. The cabinets are thick and solid. Binding posts are high quality 5 ways that you generally see on more expensive speakers. The overall look and feel is one of excellence and substance.
The grill used on the SpeedWoofer 10 is made from .75" MDF and was very strong, with a transparent material stretched perfectly over it. The grills on the CG24 center and CG4 satellites are made from a sturdy perforated metal and have a slight arch to them. They're secured using magnets which are hidden in the cabinet. The corresponding magnets on the grills were covered in felt, so as to prevent any scratches. I love attention to detail like this. The grills affix themselves perfectly to both the center and satellites every time. All you need to do is get them close and they "jump" onto the cabinet, in the exact spot they're supposed to. I actually tried to mis-align them, just to see if I could, but it wasn't possible; no matter what I did they attached to the cabinet precisely where they should have every single time.
One thing you may find lacking is the fact you can't bi-wire or bi-amp the CG4 or CG24. That probably won't matter to many people though, because most small speakers are not hooked up in that manner anyway. The CG24 is designed to be oriented either horizontally or vertically, so you can use it for the mains as well as your center. The CG4 satellites can also be positioned "upside down"; they're intended to be used with the midrange driver on top, but they work equally well flipped over so the tweeter is on top instead. The vast majority of the time I used them with the midrange on top.
The SpeedWoofer 10 comes with a separate control box that allows you to set the gain and crossover easily, without having to reach around the back like you would with most other subwoofers. The box is about the size of a pack of cigarettes and has a wireless remote too, so making changes is a breeze. When the subwoofer is active the dial lights turn blue, while in standby mode they switch to red. The connection between the control box and the SpeedWoofer itself is a standard RJ45 Ethernet cable, so if you don't like the color or length of the cable RSL Speakers provides you can simply change it with one from any computer store.
While the SpeedWoofer 10's control box might have value for the person who perpetually tinkers with their settings, I'm not sure it's really much of a feature for the vast majority of the population. From my experience it seems almost everyone gets their system dialed in and simply leaves it alone. They might make the occasional adjustment, but that can be facilitated by changing the output level on their AV receiver instead of reaching for yet another remote. I only used the control box when making the initial adjustments.
The inside of the speakers and subwoofer are absolutely stuffed with damping material; it feels like perhaps something poly-based. All that stuffing made it a bit difficult for me to see the main attraction though; RSL's Compression Guide Technology. CGT is a variation of a tuned bass reflex design that has it roots in the 1970's Rogersound Lab speakers. To paraphrase Howard Rodgers...
RSL felt that internal resonance was a problem for accurate sound reproduction because it degraded a speakers transient response. Rodgers worked on the problem for about 15 years until he felt comfortable that his design mitigated the deleterious effects of resonance, at which point he patented it as Compression Guide Technology.
CGT essentially divides the enclosure into 3 areas of higher and 2 areas of lower pressure. This is accomplished with a diagonal board inside the enclosure that extends from side to side, but doesn't extend the full height. As the rear sound wave from the driver passes through these areas of varying volume and pressure the audible effects of resonance are lessened. Eventually the cabinet vents to the outside with a rectangular tuned passage. At this point the port is the same as a properly tuned bass reflex system would use. I did find the port made noticeable noise while I was running the measurements, but no disturbing sounds were evident in day-to-day usage.
RSL claims Compression Guide Technology provides 3 major benefits:
- More detailed bass
- Removes "boxy" sound in the midrange
- Better pinpoint imaging
The SpeedWoofer 10's driver is something to behold, the epitome of stout and over-built. The cone is a heavy paper based material, has a rather substantial 9.5 pound magnet made from double stacked slugs that includes a rear bump out, 4 layer voice coil, huge half-roll rubber/foam surround and a massive vent in the center of it all. The frame is cast aluminum and powdercoated, so it's been designed for the long haul. Oddly, this beast of a driver is only held in using wood screws. I would have preferred to see either inserts or t-nuts used for a driver in this class.
The midrange used in the CG4 and CG24 speakers is a Peerless unit, so right off the bat RSL started with something good. Like the SpeedWoofer's driver, the midrange uses a powdercoated cast frame and a large magnet assembly. Also like the SpeedWoofer, it's held in by wood screws. However, in this case that's an acceptable way of mounting a 4" driver.
My living room is 13x17x8 (1768 CF), so it's not terribly large. The main seating position is approximately 11 feet away. Since this was a system that had been used for other reviews no break-in was necessary.
The RSL Theater System produced some of the most natural and clear voices I've heard from drivers this small. Due to the 4" midranges they didn't quite have the depth to make it sound as though the people were actually in the room with you, but everything else about them was near perfect. These speakers uncovered nuances in very familiar source material that went unnoticed during reviews of other systems. I found myself playing movie test scenes a second or third time, simply because I enjoyed them so much the first time. The accuracy and balance of the CG4 and CG24 speakers was uncanny; a bit on the warm side, but pure and expressive nonetheless. I would honestly be able to listen to these speakers all day. There was literally no fatigue, regardless of how long I used them.
The Theater System is clearly intended for the discerning individual, the one for whom balance and accuracy is of paramount importance. Even though the upper range of the CG4 and CG24 speakers is stated to be 25kHz I think a touch more "sparkle" in the high frequencies would be nice. They do exhibit a very neutral sound and rarely go lacking. Of particular mention is the integration between speakers and sub which was nearly flawless, even using the recommended crossover of 100Hz. To me that's a bit on the high side, and can often lead to subwoofer localization, but I was never able to tell where the speakers stopped and the subwoofer took over. There were times that I actually forgot I was doing a review and ended up completely immersed in what I was watching. Realistically, isn't that the goal? The SpeedWoofer 10 could be a bit more potent in the low bass regions -- SpeedWoofer 12 perhaps? -- but beyond that there's really very little to complain about, sound wise.
Like most people I have specific movies and particular scenes I use when testing speakers and subwoofers, all of which I used here. Each individual test is listed below in the format of Movie: Scene.
Lord of the Rings: Bridge of Khazad Doom (blu-ray)
The RSL Theater System did very well with this movie. The voices of all the characters, whether speaking loudly or softly, were clear and precise; it was easy to tell what they were saying at any given moment. Tiny details, such as the crackling of stone structures or the "swoosh" of the Orcs arrows, were more pronounced coming through the CG4's then with most speakers I've heard recently. Even when the volume was increased to a level I normally don't listen at the presentation was still detailed, without any perceptible harshness. Dynamics remained strong as well, with the variation between distinct elements clearly defined.
The SpeedWoofer 10 did a surprisingly good job of producing the foreboding rumble a part of this scene. I had to remind myself this was a single 10" driver, because it had depth and output one normally doesn't associated to such a small subwoofer. It's not going to dislodge the filings from your teeth, but most people would be hard pressed to believe it's just a 10" driver.
During the opening scene -- One Ring To Rule Them All -- there is some brutally low bass notes. In specific, when Saron's hand is cut off and the ring falls to the ground there is a very low bass sweep. The notes are so deep they can be felt coursing through your chair, assuming the subwoofer you're listening to can actually produce them of course. To it's credit the SpeedWoofer 10 valiantly attempted them, and it was actually somewhat successful, but it wasn't quite up to the task. It was more composed and potent then I thought it would be though.
My favorite part of this scene to play around with is the Balrog's roar. There's an instance when you see it for the first time that I just love to crank way up. He jumps out of a cavern and lands right behind the Fellowship with a thud, and then lets out a fire-breathing roar (I really enjoy seeing how loud it will play). The SpeedWoofer 10 was a bit overmatched by the depth of the Balrog's roar and stomping. The huge impacts created when the Balrog's feet hit the ground as he chases after the Fellowship came through with good definition, but could have been more impactful. The sound of the flame coming through the speakers and center was quite nice though, with great definition.
Collateral: Club Fever (DVD)
Although this scene doesn't contain a tremendous amount of LFE information it does have a driving musical soundtrack and over-emphasized gun sounds. The music portion I've found can cause trouble for a subwoofer because it does tend to drown out the voice track in certain spots, especially if it lacks clarity and speed. Because of that articulation is crucial. With the RSL Theater System, nothing seemed out of balance.
If you aren't careful you may think this scene is nothing more then a music soundtrack and gunshots, but that's not the case. If you listen close -- and your speakers are good -- you'll hear other elements; subtle background voices, foot steps, the clinking of glasses at the bar, etc. The RSL speakers rendered all of those supporting elements distinctly, with sufficient detail to make them almost seem real. Voices even sounded like voices, which is no small feat given all the other things going on simultaneously. The club music had a decent amount of drive and low end too, but didn't quite feel like a club. The gunshots could have used a bit more kick, but for the most part they were solid.
Avatar: Assault on Home Tree (blu-ray)
I always seem to start by listening to just this one scene, and if I like what I hear go on to several others. With the RSL system I was more then happy to run a few other scenes, because it did a remarkable job.
As the gunships approach Home Tree their rotor blades cause quite a lot of air swirl on the ground, and I was actually hearing the sound of leaves rustling. It was subtle, but apparent. Voices were clear over the din of all the other sounds going on. That level of detail is not something I hear with every set of speakers. Dynamics were strong, and there was what I would call an uncanny sense of realism for such modest speakers. As the volume was raised the speakers didn't seem to compress, nor did the subwoofer audibly struggle.
Although I would have liked a little more "kick" from the SpeedWoofer it was hard to fault the bass it produced - it was very precise and had extremely good detail. The individual engine sounds can get lost because of how many different gunships are flying around, but the RSL System held it's own quite admirably. Considering it was just a single 10" driver the tactile sensation was better then what you might expect too. At no time did I find myself feeling as though I was missing out on anything.
War of the Worlds: The Machine Emerges (blu-ray)
This is the scene often used to test subwoofers, but I know it so well by now that I opted to use it anyway. I was glad that I did, because it turned out to be a pleasant experience.
Small sound effects were clear and precise, like the noises associated to the fences rattling and the laundry flapping that occur prior to the first lighting strikes. That may seem inconsequential, but background sounds such as those help create the overall sense of what's about to happen. They establish a more realistic feel, and the CG4 and CG24 speakers did a yeomens job bringing them to life.
As the chaos increases the speakers kept up with it, providing a balanced and proportioned sound field. The heat ray sounded wonderful, with a nice rich tone and solid impact. As the pavement begins to crumble and buckle the whole presentation was one of cohesiveness; there was nothing that seemed to be lacking, the entire RSL system just went about it's business in a very well controlled and precise manner. You needed to be a bit judicious with the volume, because of the heavy dose of ultra low frequencies, but even if you did bump into the SpeedWoofer's limiter it was handled gracefully, with no unpleasant sounds. Simply put, the RSL system did better with the scenes form this movie then I expected it could.
10,000 BC: Mammoth Hunt (DVD)
OK, I'll admit it; the only reason I included this scene is because of the insane amount of deep bass. That's valuable when testing subwoofers, but is there enough other stuff going on to effectively test a full 5.1 system? As luck would have it, yes.
Along with the thundering sound produced by dozens of massive feet, there is also background detail that can give some indication of a speakers performance. There's a lot of dialog too, and I use voices as a yardstick of sorts. As has been the case thus far, the RSL system comported itself quite well. All of the details -- like trumpeting mammoths and individual characters voices -- were distinct and clear. There's not much in the way of dynamics during this movie, but what was there had a very solid presentation.
The SpeedWoofer 10 struggled to impart a sense of realism with the rampaging horde of mammoths, but it didn't over-extend itself either. By that I mean what it couldn't do it simply didn't try; there was no untoward driver or port noises evident. Basically, it gave what it could with repose. Overall, the RSL System presented a very balanced and clean sound.
Tron: Legacy (blu-ray)
Another staple of my subwoofer tests -- because of it's Daft Punk soundtrack -- but a selection made based upon some of the other elements it contains. There's a lot going on in this movies audio track, and if it's not rendered properly you miss key elements.
For example, voices (there he goes with the voices thing again!). A surprising amount of this movie revolves around characters speaking, which is one RSL's strongest attributes. Rarely have I heard voices portrayed with such accuracy and balance. There were times that previously indecipherable lines had been made intelligible simply because of the new found accuracy. The bass during special effects and the soundtrack was clean and precise, but could use a bit more extension. As a whole, the RSL 5.1 System performed extremely well on this somewhat difficult material.
Underworld: Awakening (blu-ray)
A movie similar to Tron: Legacy, with lots of voices and deep bass. In this case, very deep bass. And, also like Tron: Legacy, the RSL system did remarkably well.
As with everything else so far, the voices were easy to hear and understand. Individual sound effects -- like those of feet walking or the clanking of swords during battles -- were unique and distinct. I was so impressed with the detail that I started focusing on just the little nuances, and came away duly impressed with how the CG4 and CG24 speakers produced them.
The SpeedWoofer 10 held it's own with the ferocious bass in this movie, but realistically it was a little out of it's element. The gunfire wasn't terrible explosive, nor were the huge Lycans footsteps when he's prowling around in the underground lair. And while my walls were not exactly rattling the SpeedWoofer 10 was never out of control. At no time did I experience any driver distress or port noise. There was never any complaint, even when I started to increase the volume. All that happened was it simply stopped getting any louder or going deeper. Rather then attempt something it couldn't do, it just refused to lose comportment. Personally I would much rather have that; not only does it make for a better overall impression, it also prevents any damage to the drivers.
Virtually all the music was configured to run in stereo, which means only a pair of CG4 speakers and the SpeedWoofer 10 were being used. As it turned out, that proved to be a nice setup.
Pink Floyd - Dark Side Of The Moon (CD)
Who needs an introduction to this album? Even though my CD is the remastered version from 1992 it keeps all of the tonal balance and essence of the original 1973 pressing. Like many people there's not a single part that I don't have completely memorized, which is why I use it for testing; I know exactly what it's supposed to sound like.
The opening heartbeat of Speak To Me had excellent clarity, with a nice deep pounding sound. The alarm bells on Time -- which is my 2nd favorite Pink Floyd song -- were crisp and clear. The bongos had a nice sharp tone about them too. Roger Waters open E note on his bass guitar was powerful and solid, with sufficient treble to make it convincing.
Clare Torry's haunting voice on The Great Gig In The Sky was slightly drowned out by the music unfortunately, which was quite surprising given how beautifully the CG4 speakers had done with voices before. The overall tone of the horns in Us And Them was very accurate and a pleasure to listen to. Eclipse could have used a little more punch when I cranked it up though, which I did because it sounded so good otherwise.
The one area I was the most surprised by was when I heard the slight pitch change during the opening bass riff in Money, which is something I don't recall ever hearing from speakers before (only when using headphones have I heard that in the past). To me, it speaks volumes about the design of the RSL system; here's a song I've probably heard a thousand times -- literally -- and yet there was a subtle nuance that was only evident to me before when I was wearing headphones. Amazing.
Motley Crue - Dr. Feelgood (CD)
One of the few Motley albums that was actually mixed decently; most of the early stuff sounded horrible, with terribly compressed dynamics.
The opening of Dr. Feelgood, with the driving guitar and bass, sounded great. Each instrument maintained it's own space, yet blended very well. Mick Mar's guitar on Rattlesnake Shake has a very distinct sound, which the CG4 speakers reproduced beautifully. Tommy Lee's drumming was solid as well, especially the snare which was sharp and crisp. Kick Start My Heart was what I wanted to hear though. That's just one of those songs -- like Steppenwolf's Born To Be Wild -- where you're simply compelled to reach for the volume and crank it up. I did just that and the RSL system complied by producing a surprising amount of clear and precise music, even at a pretty high volume level. The CG4 speakers did not become harsh until pushed very hard, but just before that level Vince Neils voice was still manageable (no small feat, since his falsetto does lean toward the annoying on lesser speakers). I think the CG4's natural tendency to be on the warm side helped greatly here.
Whitney Houston - I Will Always Love You (MP3)
What is this nonsense? A Whitney Houston song from an avowed metalhead?! Relax, it's not time for me to turn in my man card. What better way to test a speakers ability to do voices then with a singer who had a voice like she did? No, this is not my kind of music. However, I can still spot talent outside my musical genre and there's no doubt that she had a remarkable voice.
I closed my eyes while listening to this song and focused primarily on her singing, with little thought given to the underlying music. It's truly a shame what happened to her because I was captivated by the power of her voice. This was one of the rare times I switched to multi-channel stereo, so I could bring in the rest of the RSL speakers and get the full effect. All I can say is Howard Rodgers got this part about as perfect as you possibly can with satellite speakers. If you like vocal music the RSL System should jump to the top of your audition list. Put succinctly, the RSL speakers are detailed, precise and perfectly weighted.
Electronic - Various Groups
With this source material I didn't really expect too much, because it requires massive amounts of low bass. I ended up being impressed by the outcome though because the SpeedWoofer 10 providing more depth and mid-bass "slam", for the most part, then I expected from such a modest subwoofer. As with the movies before, when it encountered notes below what it was able to play the SpeedWoofer simply didn't try. It just rolled off in a progress manner without a lot of fuss. By the time I was done pounding on it the amp had gotten rather warm, but I didn't notice any degradation in sound quality. Judging speakers with this type of material is futile though, so I didn't really bother.
- Bass Mekanik - Quad Maximus (CD)
When I first started playing Welcome Stranger I recall myself thinking "this is going to be funny". However, that smirk turned rather quickly to surprise when I realized this little subwoofer was holding it's own! You couldn't crank the volume too loud, of course, but the SpeedWoofer 10 was actually pumping out some very solid bass. I knelt down close to it so I could see if there was any audible port noise, but didn't really detect any. While room pressurization was obviously missing there was some genuine bass "feel" being generated. Lock On Target was just OK, but it was rather amusing to watch the subwoofers control box move around on top of the SpeedWoofer during this song. Bass Mekanik, Funky Annihilating Bass and Doctor Oblivion were all similar to Welcome Stranger, in as much as they had more bass then I would have guessed going into this. At one point my notes simply said "is this really just a 10" woofer?".
- Bass-o-Tronics (MP3)
As it turned out, my question above was answered rather quickly because with this material you could tell the SpeedWoofer 10 was no longer in it's element. Truth be told, this is very punishing so the outcome wasn't totally unexpected. Whether it was Bass I Love You -- the granddaddy of all subwoofer torture test songs -- or Sub Bass Excursion, the SpeedWoofer 10 struggled to produce the really low notes. This was one of the rare instances that the clarity and definition seemed to suffer a little. Not that this music has much of either, mind you, but it became evident I was testing the limiter on a few occasions. The SpeedWoofer 10 gave a valiant effort, but ultimately this proved too much for it.
I dealt directly with Howard Rodgers the entire time, even while arranging the review units, so it's difficult for me to give an accurate assessment of the support provided by RSL. I can say this much though; Howard is a very pleasant man with a long history in this business, so chances are you'll be in good hands. I don't recall ever seeing a negative post or comment about him either, which further reinforces my suspicion that the support will be as solid as the products RSL makes.
dictionary.com defines "integrated" as 'combining or coordinating separate elements so as to provide a harmonious, interrelated whole', and that pretty much sums up the RSL Speakers 5.1 Theater System perfectly. The entire speaker package has been coalesced to near perfection, from the appearance to it's sound everything blends harmoniously. This is a home theater package for the discerning individual, the person who wants everything to look and act as one cohesive unit; it's a well integrated set of speakers and a subwoofer that make an excellent home theater setup for small to mid-sized rooms. RSL Speakers should be commended for their achievement, because they executed brilliantly.
Please use the RSL Speakers 5.1 Theater System Discussion Thread for questions and comments
These measurements are of the SpeedWoofer 10 using XTZ Room Analyzer II Pro. It represents the summed output of both the driver and port. The unit was indoors, physically positioned in the center of my listening room. No other speakers were running.