The Rethm Method

by Gautam Raja

Published in India Abroad Magazine, June 12, 2015.

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An Indian high-end audio brand is poised for its much deserved North American distribution. Gautam Raja meets the founder of Rethm speakers at T.H.E. Show Newport in Orange County

When an audio dealer from Iowa walked into room 418 at The Hotel Irvine, he liked what he heard and saw. Playing inside were Kerala-made high-end audio speakers, the $10,500 Rethm Maarga, a single driver design with built-in bass units.

“This is exactly what my clients are looking for,” said the dealer of his customers at a community where the who’s who of America have holiday homes. These aren’t people who are going to sit in the ‘sweet spot’ and listen, he continued. They want music playing from a good-looking, high resolution system while they entertain.

Designed from the ground up by company founder Jacob George, Rethm speakers are quite special, in both aesthetics and engineering. With their silver sides and tall, narrow profile leading to a single paper cone driver in front, they have an ethereal look in a product category dominated by heavy, almost brutalist designs.

The dealer was interested enough to go out of the room to talk money with George’s brand-new North America distributor Robert Neill. But Neill soon came back in. No sale.

Too expensive? Hardly. George’s speakers were not expensive enough. “My clients want $80,000 speakers, not $15,000 speakers,” the dealer had said.

“What do you do?” asks George as we sit on an orange sofa in the lobby of the hotel on the last day of T.H.E. Show Newport. “I’m trying to bring speakers that I think are good value for money, I feel that even this is too expensive.”

‘Exactly,’ you may well be thinking. ‘Forget $80,000, even $10,500 for speakers sounds outrageous to me.’

Welcome to audiophilia. If you think high-end audio ends with NAD, or worse, Bose, then discovering this world is like walking into your bedroom closet and falling out of the back into Narnia. Out here in Irvine, CA, at this annual event is an exhibitor list of 250 brands you’ve never heard of, from Denmark’s Aavik Acoustics amplifiers to Utah’s Zu Audio speakers. And at this claimed largest high-end audio show in North America, some of the prices are so high they lose meaning.

As Neill said, room 418 was one of the cheapest (and best sounding) at the show, with “just” $30,000 of equipment on the floor.

“That’s just the cables in some other rooms,” I said, only half joking.

“It’s a cable in some other rooms,” corrected Neill in all seriousness. “I was in another room, and the guy is using a $27,000 power cable.”

Some of the systems are worth $500,000.

From buildings to speakers
So what’s a lean, pony tailed 58-year-old architect from Cochin doing trying to sell speakers out in Orange County? Like so many great product stories, it began in a garage in California. In the 1980’s George came to the US to study architecture and was exposed to hi-fi equipment—in the true sense of “high fidelity”–for the first time. He’d always been interested in music, growing up in a musical household in Singapore and learning classical violin as a boy.

His first “bottom of high end” system, a Creek Audio amplifier and M&K speakers was a good start, but by the late 1990s, he had specific requirements. “I wanted high-efficiency speakers so I could use low-powered amplifiers,” says George. He decided he would build something because everything he wanted was too expensive.

He learned of the Lowther full-range driver favoured by DIYers, and began designing an enclosure for it. When he heard the finished product, he “sort of fell in love”. It was a completely different experience from anything he’d heard until then. “The ‘liveness’. It’s live. That sense of clarity and detail. The dynamics. The coherence.” It’s not something you can explain easily, he said, but when you sit and listen, you say, “Wow, this sounds right.”

Earlier that morning I’d all but mouthed those words in front of his speakers. Though they had a smooth, warm sound, I was surprised at how much attack and kick there was from the drums. There was an immediacy and tactile quality to the sound that I want to return to–this is a room I’d have gone back to again and again if there’d been more show days.

Distributor Neill of Worldwide Wholesales, thinks the Rethm’s are exceptional. He compares them favourably with his other high-efficiency speaker lines, Casta from Italy, and Horning from Denmark, but what makes them unique, he says, is that they’re half the price. “I think it’s going to be a real home run.”

Single-minded technology
Most loudspeakers these days are “two way” or “three way” meaning they have two or three units to play back music. The tiny, agile tweeter handles high frequencies, there’s the mid-range driver, and the large woofer moves enough air to produce the bass. An electronic unit called a crossover in each speaker acts like a traffic cop, splitting the music into high, mid and low, and sending the signals to the correct drivers.

Crossovers are generally a sore point in the audio world. They are difficult to design and introduce a range of distortions, from something as simple as sapping amplifier power by their very presence, to phase and timing errors caused by splitting the signal. Single-driver speakers like the Rethm eliminate the crossover altogether by using one speaker cone to cover as much of the frequency band as possible. Without the distortions and errors, says George, our brains don’t have to constantly work around them as they do with conventional speakers, making it easier to connect emotionally with the music. Also, these speakers are incredibly sensitive, and can be driven loudly by a 3-watt valve amplifier.

Their drawback, at least as pure single driver units, is that they have very little bass. “Initially I was a hardcore single-driver guy. So I wasted the first seven years of my life with Rethm trying to make it sound right with just one driver.” (Talking to George, you can see where the directness of his speakers comes from.)

George played around for months with the “labyrinth”, the enclosure he’s designed himself that boosts the lower frequencies (in the Maarga model, it’s effectively 6′ 8” long). Finally he had to concede. So now all three Rethm models, the Trishna, the Maarga and the Saadhana have built-in bass amplifiers and drivers to supply that bottom end power.

Much work has gone into integrating this bass response with the rest of the frequency reproduction, and because bass isn’t too directional or tonal, it’s less subject to the vagaries of timing than high frequencies. Says Neill, “I’ve never heard another point-source single-driver speaker that could play all the different genres of music. So it’s exceptional in the fact that it can play jazz, blues, orchestral, and it never distorts.

“I think it’s one of those products you’ll see in quite a few stores in the next year in North America. That’s my goal.”

With everyone telling George that his speakers are too cheap, it may be your last chance to own a pair for $6,000, $10,500 or $15,750 depending on the model. Unless of course, you’re in the market for those $80,000 speakers.

Visit www.rethm.com for more information. Rethm speakers are available in North America through Worldwide Wholesales, www.worldwidewholesales.com. Visiting India? They sell there for just over half the cost