Russell Kauffman’s Russell K company make just two models of loudspeaker. Here Dominic Marsh takes a listen to the bigger Red 100 standmounters costing £1784 in the piano gloss finish and with grilles, though less pricey options are available. 

As a reviewer for Hifi Pig Magazine you mostly get assigned what you are going to review by our editor Stuart.  But, every once in a while either he asks if we have any components we have on our ‘hit list’ we would like to review and this particular review is the result of one of those instances.

I first set eyes upon Russell K speakers during a dealer visit to Bob Hesketh at Tavistock Audio in the early part of this year.  As always, I only spotted them as I was about to leave and the looks alone intrigued me to say the least, but there wasn’t the time available then to hook them up and have a quick listen.   It wasn’t the piano gloss black cabinetry or the bright red baffles and grey cabinets that drew me towards them, it was the name “Russell K” screen printed on the tweeter surround that said to me if someone puts their own name to a product in that way, there was a real driving passion behind it for doing so.  Brave man.RK2s

Russell who?  He has worked as a speaker designer for some famous names in the industry for a good number of years, the last being Morel, so although you may not recognize the name, he has probably been the brains behind a goodly number of class act speakers.  It has always puzzled me why the large corporations harbour a massive wealth of talent under their roofs, yet manage to frustrate them so much they end up leaving and flexing their wings and being highly successful in their own right.  Russell left Morel because him being based in the UK and Morel headquartered in Israel wasn’t conducive to a fruitful working environment. Their loss is our gain it seems.

One of the (few!) upsides of a reviewer’s  job is you get to meet the people behind the brands and the overwhelming majority are nice friendly people with the same lunatic passions as the consumers of their products possess, so they mostly understand what we in the audiophile fraternity actually seek from the products we might buy from them.

Due to a busy schedule however,  I had to put a follow up call on the back burner for a while and when I did at last have to the time to make further enquiries, Russell Kauffman was not easy to get hold of with his busy schedule either.  Such is life.  Anyway, at long last I managed to get hold of Russell and ask very nicely if he would consider a Hifi Pig review of his speakers, to which he readily agreed and here below is the result.

CONSTRUCTION

According to Russell K’s website, either side above and below each bass unit is a bracing shelf containing multiple apertures with the reflex port located under the bottom shelf. The midrange energy from the rear of the bass/mid unit is contained within the two shelves which mean only bass escapes into the full volume of the enclosure. The result is a drastic reduction of midrange standing waves and almost no midrange energy making its way out of the port tube. The very low port tuning frequency of 35Hz on the Red 100 produces a bass that is extraordinarily tight and very well extended.

Another feature of the design is the complete lack of damping material in the cabinet, either in the form of bituminous panels or long haired wool or fibre type material.  Russell Kauffman says this gives rise to sloppy bass characteristics so has completely eliminated it from his designs, by using those braces and baffles to effect the necessary damping of the bass/mid drive unit.

The crossover circuitry too plays an important part in a loudspeaker’s sound characteristics, so the design brief was to keep it simple and is centered around a 12db per octave slope crossing over at 2.2KHz with only one inductance coil for the bass driver and just one capacitor feeding the tweeter, also maintaining a benign load for the driving amplifier, even low powered single ended valve amplifiers I am told.   Nominal impedance is 8 Ohms.  Connections are made via a single pair of good quality 4mm binding posts that will accept bare wire, spades or banana plugs, with no bi-wire or bi-amping facility.Red 100 Crossover

Driver complement consists of a 165mm doped paper bass driver and a 25mm soft dome tweeter in vertical alignment to the centre of the baffle, along with the reflex port near the bottom edge.  I haven’t tried this myself, but Russell assures me that if someone pokes the tweeter cone in it will pop out of it’s own accord some time later.  I will take his word for that.  However, if you have some little persons in your household with inquisitive fingers that have the propensity to explore button-like protuberances on speaker drivers, then grilles are available to protect them from the aforesaid mischievous digits.

The grilles are an extra cost option at £84.00 a pair you will note, as the standard speaker is supplied without any grilles at all.  The grilles themselves are made from a perforated metal sheet with a metal insert in each corner to hold 4 individual magnets which for their size are quite powerful.  Embedded into the front baffle during construction are 4 equally powerful magnets which line up with the grille and are hidden from view due to the baffle’s final surface finish.  I am pleased to say that the magnets are strong enough to hold the heavy grilles in place, yet not so strong as to make removing the grilles a grappling match either.

Cabinet dimensions are  40cm high, by 26cm wide, by 27cm deep, making it slightly squat and boxy in appearance.  The buyer has a choice of finishes to choose from, ranging from a red baffle with a plastic type of grey vinyl material to the rest of the cabinet as the base model, to a satin black baffle with either real veneered Oak, Walnut, or Mahogany finishes, or the full monty piano gloss black or piano gloss white  finish on all sides including the baffle.

The pair submitted for review were finished in a piano gloss black finish.

Prices at time of testing are:

Red baffle, grey cabinet:£1,250.00 inc VAT

Satin black baffle, wood finish:£1,475.00 inc VAT

Piano gloss white or black:£1,700.00 inc VAT

Front grilles (Pair):£84.00  inc VAT

The price differential between the basic grey and red variant compared to the full piano gloss version raised some concerns with me, given that the cost of the piano gloss finish represented a good percentage of the speaker’s base cost to begin with.  Russell said it was a high price due to the fact that the piano gloss finish is hand prepared with rubbing and sanding down between the base paint coats and the final lacquer coats which is of course is highly labour intensive work and the additional cost is reflected in that.

I am informed that a dedicated stand is being designed for the 100s and will be completed in due course. In the absence of same, I tried them on 50cm stands which were too low and a 60cm pair brought the speakers up the correct height for me.  Russell said they were a bit finicky with what stands they are paired with and I am not aware if my Partington Ansa stands were on his approved stands list but they sounded fine to me.

SOUND QUALITY

With a build specification like that, you might expect a sound that was well off the beaten path and you would be right to think that.  While the overwhelming majority of the speakers out there are designed with a whole series of compromises (Including aesthetics and cost), the Russell K 100’s are not that way inclined, as the designer has reportedly spent an inordinate amount of time, effort and no doubt money too, in refining the design to have as few if any of those compromises that others are plagued with.  Russell Kauffman has put his very being into the design and every single aspect of them has been paid meticulous attention to and the sonic rewards to you the listener are immense.

The greatest triumph of the design for me has been the bass performance and while I am not an advocate of bass reflex designs as a whole with their chuffing ports and woolly bass output, much preferring the solid weight and control of an infinite baffle design, the Russell K 100s sports the very same reflex port I am wary of and have quickly come to the conclusion after hearing these speakers, is that the reflex port per se isn’t to blame, it is the poor implementation of the reflex port principle that is the real bogeyman.  A large hole drilled into the baffle or back plate and some cheap plastic tube shoved in there, do not a reflex port make and these speakers demonstrate that rather concisely.

Russell Kauffman claims the port is tuned to 35Hz and I would be the last to dispute that figure, but what I can tell you is this speaker goes LOW folks for a mere stand mounted speaker and in complete control too I might add.  No boom, no overhang, no wooliness at all, that leading edge is good enough to shave stubble off your chin, it is that keen and in truth puts many a large floor standing model to shame for good measure.  There is a slight raising of upper bass energy which the designer is aware of and I think the sound benefits from that by adding a touch or warmth to the midrange which otherwise would be on the cool side.

The word “articulate” is much bandied about by reviewers to describe bass that they hear and I often think to myself is that word used as a true description of what is being heard, or just another euphemism or plucked from the ether kind of word slotted in when the description memory bank starts running aground?   The bass output of the RK 100’s is articulate in every sense of the word, inasmuch as it’s as real a standing next to the bass guitarist, drummer, cellist, flautist, whatever and hearing every single timbre and harmonic from those instruments deep into the bass registers.  Let’s not completely ignore the tweeter’s role in this scenario either as it’s no shrinking violet by any means, as it’s not merely a supporting act for the bass driver, oh no, this driver is crisp and clean, insightful without being explicit.  The pair are very well matched to the crossover, giving a refreshing cleanliness to the midrange and I couldn’t hear any bloom or fogging in that area of the audible spectrum.

Onto some music then and hoping that you own or have listened to my often played favourite album for putting a system through its paces.   If you don’t own or have not heard it, then I suggest obtaining a copy of Fink’s “Wheels Turn Beneath My Feet” live album so you can relate to what I am referring to in my reviews.  Fink’s artistic talents may not ring your bells (it didn’t mine at first) but it has certain elements in the recording that makes faults shine like a beacon, a joy when reproduced accurately.  Tidal has a higher resolution than Spotify, which while acceptable doesn’t have the same resolving power as the original CD or high resolution downloads for a listen to this album.  Dan Worth also uses this album for the same reason.

Track one begins with “Biscuits For Breakfast” with some crisp cymbal strikes to the centre of the Ride Cymbal from the drummer that has resonances and ringing within the cymbal strikes and it takes a great tweeter to capture that essence, which the Russell K’s do admirably and run a very close second to some ribbon tweeters I have heard.  Bass guitar has a taut deep growl to it and goes very low while at the same time it captures the fret finger movements from the guitarist with uncanny realism.

This album as I have probably mentioned a good few times in my reviews, has each track recorded at different venues and it takes a very competent speaker to let you the listener know that they have been, with reverberation and ambience cues ranging from intimate to large scale.  On one track the microphone is slightly misbehaving too and the Russell K’s let you know that is occurring as well, whereas it slips under the radar with most other speakers.

When we come to the track called “Sort Of Revolution” the drummer drives down hard on to the Floor Tom and by golly it generally makes my listening room almost expand and contract with the power and energy released.  The Russell K’s though do it rather differently, by exposing every part of that strike into separate compartments, as in you can hear and almost feel the drum stick hitting the drum’s ‘skin’, the body of the drum reacting to that and begins vibrating with an almost aural picture in the air of the drum itself and yes the energy is still there, but taut and very controlled, down to the decay.   At first it was rather disconcerting, having become accustomed to a single powerful burst of energy emanating from the speakers, but since hearing what I have done from the Russell K’s it has set a brand new benchmark for me that other speakers which follow for review will have to strive towards.   This track has a visceral pounding rhythm to it and is a good test of both timing cues and separation between instruments, so while the drummer is maintaining a steady beat on the Kick Drum, the bass guitarist is mirroring that pace and the audience is clapping along.  If this doesn’t lift you up and invigorate you into enjoying the music you are in need of help.Terminals

Of course being an album recorded live, I will pay particular attention to how the audience sounds.  Any speaker that makes the audience clapping sound like bacon sizzling in a frying pan or a thousand crisp (potato chips) bags being rustled is a complete no-no as far as I am concerned.   I need to be made to feel as if I am surrounded by cheering enthusiastic people, catcalling and whistling as individuals I can place in locations around me (well, as far as a stereo image will let me perceive anyway).

As a contrast to that, some electronic music in the shape of Tripswitch’s excellent album “Geometry”.  There is some superb layering in this album and it takes a sure footed pair of speakers to unfold and pull back all the layers so each strand is separated and clear.  The bass lines are really deep, subtle in places too and can easily be muddled by the music around it.  The Russell K’s certainly did untangle and strand out all of the music and the bass was separated out almost into a compartment on it’s own, untroubled by whatever else was going on around it.

Naturally, I played a large range of music genres and the Russell K Red 100’s acquitted themselves very well.  My final test though was Porcupine Tree’s “Deadwing” album and that will either sound dreadful with it’s raw uncouth recording, or acceptable, with little middle ground in between.   The opening title track has the sounds of a train pulling into a station with plenty of brake squealing sounds and it’s electric motor humming away in the background while the passengers alight.  The Russell K’s certainly picked up these sounds with great clarity and as is the norm with good sounding systems it fair set my teeth on edge.  Now if the sound was smooth and rounded then I would have been concerned.  Further into that same track there is a bass guitar riff with a long low note that shouldn’t just ‘emerge’ as a grumble from the speakers, it has to flow and roll out seemingly low down near the floor to be credible.  I got that full effect from the Russell K’s and to my surprise I could almost count the bass guitar’s string vibrations.  Spooky.

If you are the kind of listener who revels in the sound of female vocals then these speakers will delight.  Haven’t heard Loreena McKennit sounding better and Dido’s “Life For Rent” album took on some new dimensions that convinced me I should listen to it more often from now on as I had mostly dismissed it as being a typical commercial pop recording.  Not so.

CONCLUSION

When I first laid eyes on the Russell K Red 100’s there was a gut instinct feeling that they were “right”somehow.  Don’t ask me to explain why because I can’t, I just sensed it.  I hadn’t even heard of them before, nor of Russell Kauffman the designer for that matter, even less heard them fired up in action to make some sort of value judgment call and they weren’t even red, but in a piano black finish.  Certainly wasn’t their looks as they are to me a short wide box rather than a slim elegant  design that fits neatly into contemporary homes, nor was it a heady mix of exposed exotic drivers in the cabinet to get my juices flowing either.  Maybe it was the screen printed name in white on the tweeter of the man himself and I could easily go nuts here trying to figure it out where this gut feeling sprang from.  It was that gut feeling that drove me on to get in touch with Russell Kauffman to arrange a review pair and am so glad that I persisted because it has been very worthwhile.

These speakers may just change your perceptions about stand mounted speakers as it has changed mine.  Reaching  down to the bass regions where many a floor stander cannot get to is a revelation in itself, making that bass so controlled and so articulate is breathtaking and a tribute to the designer.  Great bass is one thing, matching that to an equally impressive well performing treble and midrange says these speakers are no one trick pony and a lot of thought and expertise has gone into their creation.

I had visions of clinging on to my resident speakers until my final breath and while there has been a procession of speakers through my hands for review, none have tempted me to change until the Russell K’s came along.  I have ordered a pair for myself and if that isn’t putting your money where your mouth is, then I don’t know what is and how much better a recommendation would you possibly want from me?

As ever don’t just take my word for it, arrange an audition to gauge suitability for your tastes, preferences and system synergy which will always be the ultimate arbiter.  But I do implore you to at least have a serious listen to them, as they may just raise the bar for you too.

Build quality: 8.6/10RECOMMENDED LOGO NEW

Sound quality: 9.3/10

Value for money: 9/10

Overall: 8.96/10 

Pros:                            

Exceptional sound quality and fine build in an affordable package.  Few rivals within this particular price band or indeed even higher for the base model red and grey cabinet variant. 

Cons:        

£84.00 for a pair of grilles. Ouch!

Dominic Marsh

 

Designer’s Notes 

The design goal on the Red 100 was to make a loudspeaker that sounds as close as we could get to the real thing at an affordable price.  As a new company with Red 100 being the first product, it was essential to bring some original thinking to the party in order that the speaker would not be instantly dismissed. As a starting point we decided to cut everything from the design that was not critical to the sound. Some examples of this thinking being; the grille is an extra cost option; many customers will take the grille off and never use it, but have paid for it in the complete speaker. A Russell K customer is given the choice. The packaging for transport is simple but safe and there are no brochures. The more controversial cuts include the decision not to use famous brands for drive units, but well made, good sounding drivers adapted for Russell K, and the now familiar ribbed plastic coated grey cabinet with a Ferrari red front baffle. This finish option saves the customer a lot money with no loss of sound quality.

Starting with drive units, the first test is to connect a woofer, or for that matter a tweeter, directly to the amp with no crossover or cabinet and just listen. If the sound is bad then no crossover will really help, and it is amazing how different, and sometimes bad, even the best tweeters can sound. In the case of the Red 100 tweeter it sounds smooth and can even play a bass tune – in fact it sounds like a small speaker.

The woofer size came next and we went for a nominal 6 inch unit. We feel this  has the best compromise between efficiency, power handling, bass extension, clarity and dispersion. Next we did a bit of maths to find the optimum volume (size) for the cabinet and found it really was most comfortable being a stand mount rather than a compromised floorstanding enclosure.

There are many different ways to design a speaker and I don’t claim to have the only correct way. In many respects I try to work to my strengths and avoid going into areas that I am not so secure about. This is a roundabout way of me saying that measurements and theory are always going to be the slave of what I hear. I do believe a speaker should have a relatively flat measured response, but I will not allow the sound to suffer to get it. This sets me free to bend some of the rules such as no internal damping in the cabinet, no resistors in the signal path, and not using textbook values for the crossover components.

The design studio allows me to measure and listen without having to move the speakers or disconnect them from the Hi Fi system. This means I can listen, make an adjustment, measure and then listen again allowing me to control the process of voicing the speaker. I use a lot of different music with no particular test tracks, along with spoken word. I also check and recheck many times to be sure I didn’t fool myself into thinking I have made the best speaker in the world.

The final product is designed to work with both transistor and valve amps, and whilst it does not have a Hi-End price, it should be set up with the same care and attention. For sure I treated this speaker with the same respect during development that I lavished on a £25,000.00 loudspeaker designed for a company I was a consultant for.

Russell Kauffman 

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