Jacob George: Larry, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me. A great pleasure.
I was born and did all my schooling in Singapore, and came to New Delhi only after that, to do my Undergraduate course in Architecture. I had the good fortune of being born into a music-loving family and community. My mother was, at the age of 82, still is, believe it or not, a very good singer who was always at the forefront of all church singing in the community. Yes, it was strictly all gospel music, and all not in English, but in our mother tongue – Malayalam. My uncle was the choirmaster and he also composed music, and the two of them even used to do broadcasts for the radio. I therefore grew up around basic recording equipment, even doing basic recording, as both my uncle and my parents had tape recorders (spool, using 3/8 inch tape, I believe). My uncle had the really high-end stuff, like the Grundigs and later the Tandbergs and Studers.
As far as my own musical development goes, I was introduced to western classical music when I was about 10, and learned to play the violin formally, doing all the Royal Schools of Music exams and so on until I was 15, when I had to give it up to concentrate on my studies as education was a big deal in our community. This also enabled me to play in the school orchestra. No, I would not say that I was an excellent violinist, and I have to admit that I did not put a lot of effort into my musical studies. But yes, it engendered my love for music, and it also gave me a very good perception of instrument sounds of various kinds at a very early age.
We also always had record players at home. I remember growing up to the sound of 78’s playing all kinds of Indian film music of the 50’s and 60’s. And in my early teens, I started playing LP’s of my own on our home system.
My introduction to Indian classical music therefore happened only late, once I was in Delhi. While I did not have a natural affinity for Indian classical, I still made it a point to go to all the concerts whenever possible, as I had several friends who were into Indian classical. Besides, Delhi being Delhi, we got to hear the best of the best. It gave me a good foundation into the appreciation of a completely different genre of music.
LB: I know that you spent a number of years in the United States, and received part of your professional education here. Share with us how that experience shaped you, including any impact it had on your interest in high-end audio.
Jacob George: These were great years of exposure and education. Twelve of my most formative years (16 to 28) were spent in India. And it was amazing to come to the U.S. after getting used to the total chaos that defines India. But it was a reasonably easy transition, as I came to NYC! And…what a city. Although I spent only five years there, New York has seeped into my psych, never to leave. I also spent three years in Washington D.C., a completely different experience. I was fortunate though to live so many years in two of the greatest cities on the planet. Without getting into detail and losing the audio train, let me just say that it gave me another perspective on life, society, and the environment, one that was completely missing from my life in India.
As for high-end audio, yes, this was the first time I was really exposed to the high-end, although again, my indulgence in it was zero, as I came as a poor student from a 3rd world country, and became an even poorer professional with a wife and baby son to support! But I did make the rounds whenever I could, more to ogle and listen than to buy. My first high-end piece of equipment was a Creek integrated amp – one of those tiny cute ones with wooden boxes.
LB: I know that some speaker builders begin at a very early age. Is that true for you, or did you begin later? And when did you make the transition from hobbyist to professional, and what was the motivation for starting Rethm?
Jacob George: Much later. I started when I was 40.
The motivation came when I bought my first pair of Lowther DX 3’s, put them into a garage-built enclosure, and got just a small taste of the magic, despite the first few iterations being terribly tonally unbalanced and so on. It was a life changing experience. Then, my designer’s instincts took over, as I realized that I could probably do what many others could not or did not, by bringing “out of the box” design solutions to solving the problems that traditionally plagued Lowther-based loudspeakers.
LB: Until quite recently (we’ll get to that in a moment), all Rethm speakers used Lowther drivers. Did you experiment with other wide-banders such as those from Fostex and Jordan and if so, why did you settle on Lowthers?
Jacob George: Yes, I have heard the Fostex’s and Jordans, and they quite simply did not have the resolution that the Lowthers had. The flip side of course, was that they probably did not have the problems the Lowthers had either. But I decided that the challenge was going to be in keeping that which made the Lowthers special and engineering out the problems instead of taking the easier way out – of using a less problematic driver that did not need a lot of work, but which at the same time lacked the magic.
LB: Rethm speakers have a highly distinctive appearance, undoubtedly reflecting the adage “form follows function.” Please tell us a bit about their unusual construction, and how they function.
Jacob George: It is indeed “form follows function” as this is one of the fundamentals of my architecture as well. I believe that aesthetics should not be arbitrary. The form adopted in any design solution needs to be driven by reason. I am talking now of the “big picture” of aesthetics – the “architectural form” of any product. There are areas of aesthetics that are more subjective of course, like the color one may like, or the kind of wood one may choose to use.
But fundamentally, the “form” one sees on the Rethms are dictated by principles that I believe will bring that last bit of refinement to the reproduction. The curved and painted shells – one of the most distinctive features of our line – are there for several reasons. First, to eliminate standing waves inside the enclosure. Second, to lend rigidity to an extremely thin walled shell (it is just 5 mm thick). And last, to eliminate the “beaming” of reflected waves. Sound waves from the drivers get reflected off the front baffle of every loudspeaker. When the front baffle face is curved, it disperses these reflections in all directions. Quite a bit of work has gone into this aspect of reproduction, as I believe that secondary reflections smear the sound that ultimately arrives at the listener, with consequences on both clarity and sound-staging. This is also why we design the placement of the driver such that there is minimum baffle area around it: as close to having a “driver in free air” as possible. And even the driver surround ring is curved (on all the earlier models) to disperse any reflections. In the new models we have perforated the surround ring to, in effect, do the same thing but this time by breaking up the reflected waves.
And these are the same reasons why all our loudspeakers are deep but have a very narrow front, as side reflections tend to be a lot less damaging to the reproduction than front face reflections.
LB: Rethm speakers have undergone a number of changes since the company’s inception, the first significant one occurring perhaps two years ago when you added woofers. Tell us the thought processes that brought you to this decision, and how you implemented it.
Jacob George: How time flies…….
Actually it was 4 years ago that we made the big switch from a pure single-driver loudspeaker, to one augmented by a powered bass section.
Why did we do this? Quite simply because there are practical reasons why we cannot get bass into the 20’s from a single wide-band driver. Even if the driver was capable, and I don’t think any of them really are, the enclosure needed to reproduce these frequencies would be enormous, and thus wholly impractical in a residential environment. I actually tried, and showed my “folly” at the CES in 2007. Needless to say, I was the butt of several jokes that made the rounds! Well deserved, I might add.
And without real bass, Rethm loudspeakers were quite simply not being taken seriously as a commercial product. And again, admittedly, with reason. That is when we decided that to be a great loudspeaker, it had to be truly full-range. Sure, the magical midrange is where most of the secret lies, but any complete speaker has to have the bottom end.
The philosophy and the fundamental solution we adopted to this problem has not changed from its inception. Only the details of the implementation have changed over the years, with higher levels of refinement being worked in.
Fundamental philosophy: Use the wide-bander as a wide-bander, with no restrictions whatsoever. No filters. And just bring in the bass to fill in what the wide-bander cannot do. One of the first problems we faced, of course, was that there was no way we could match the efficiency of the wide-band drivers with our bass drivers. This automatically meant that we needed to add bass amplification to give us that added “boost” in the bass to bring it up to the levels of the wide-bander. And we of course needed a low-pass filter. Through the first generation of loudspeakers, we used only passive filters. But with this next generation, we have also started using active filters to allow us to more precisely contour the bass roll-off.
And then it was onto designing the enclosures, and selecting the appropriate drivers to give us a seamless blend with the ultra-fast and dynamic wide-band drivers. This was a tough task. While we managed to get the speed and integration, dynamics was never totally perfected in the first generation of loudspeakers. That is one of the things we have improved in the second generation.
We have had to experiment extensively to give us the right response in the bass, as we had to play with multiple variables – the filter values, and the enclosure size and internal damping – until we got what we wanted in terms of frequency response and dynamics and control.
One other feature we have on all our loudspeakers is a level control in the bass section. We are able to do this, of course, only because we have individual amplifiers driving the bass modules in each enclosure. This enables users to modulate bass levels depending on the behavior of their listening rooms. And on the Saadhana, our biggest model, we will additionally have a four position filter switch, which will enable the user to also choose the most appropriate low-pass filter setting for their space. While bass is essential to the “total” reproduction of music, overblown, or fat, or slow bass can be ruthless in its decimation of a performance. (I come from the school that says that no bass is better than bad bass.)
It is an on-going process…as you well know.
LB: The more recent change is your decision to no longer use Lowther drivers. Was the impetus cost, sonics, or both? What drivers will be used in lieu of the Lowthers?
Jacob George: Yes, this is perhaps the biggest change we have made since Rethm Loudspeakers was born. And clearly the most important, and that which took the most amount of work, time and money. The fundamental reason for the decision was performance. Lowthers have very real problems, and I was one of the few in the industry who actually modified those drivers to try and minimize those problems, although they were impossible to eliminate. But it came to a point where we felt that the Lowthers were limiting the performance of our loudspeakers.
Cost was indeed a factor too, although this was seen more as a bonus than a prime motivator. However, at the moment, we are paying more for them, as we have spent large amounts on the R&D that has gone into them.
A third and actually rather crucial factor was one that was less tangible, namely the notorious reputation that Lowther has among audiophiles. We found that a lot of people were turned off at the mere mention of “Lowther.” There was a strong feeling among friends in the industry that customers may be a lot more receptive to Rethm if we could develop a new set of wide-banders. A tall order, but one we took on as a challenge. Of course, it would depend on the quality of the wide-bander. And of course, we were not going to invest vast sums of money and our reputations on drivers that were not an improvement over the Lowthers.
And they were. And what we are therefore using now are our very own, custom-designed and custom-manufactured wide-band drivers.
It took us a year of work, and many, many iterations of each driver going back and forth between the manufacturer (located in Bombay) and us. We have developed three new drivers, one for each of our models. We therefore have a 5”, a 6” and a 7”. They are all similar in design – essentially drivers with whizzer cones. All made of the same paper. But that is where the similarities end. The voice coils are different, the spiders have different stiffness, the magnets are different and we had to experiment extensively with both whizzer cone configurations such as size, angles, perforations and phase plug shapes to optimize the performance of each.
LB: What models comprise the current Rethm line, and what are their MSRPs?
Jacob George: We have three. The baby of the line is the Trishna at US$ 4,750; next up, the new Maarga at US$ 8,750; and finally the new Saadhana at US$ 14,750.
LB: Will Rethm be introducing any other products in the near future?
Jacob George: Yes, indeed we will. We are on the verge of launching a pair of amplifiers. One is a pure valve in the 12- to 18-watt range depending on triode or ultra-linear operation, and the other a hybrid in the 50-watt region. Both shall be integrated amps.
LB: I know that Gideon Schwartz of Audio Arts, who was the subject of a recent Dagogo article, recently became the U.S. importer. How did this arrangement come to pass, and what are your collective plans for Rethm?
Jacob George: I was introduced to Gideon by my dealer in Monaco, as he is also a dealer for the Voxativ line (another single driver speaker) for which Gideon is the North American distributor. Judging by the success of Voxativ in North America, we have confidence that Gideon really understands the beauty and unique attributes of these designs. But even more importantly, he really enjoys good music. On my last visit to Audio Arts, we simply sat and listened to music for hours. This alone speaks volumes and I am happy to collaborate with a genuine partner like Gideon. Judging by the early success of the Trishnas, I am confident that his sincere passion for audio and music will manifest into wider recognition for Rethm.
LB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us, regarding Rethm or the industry in general?
Jacob George: Rethm came into being with the aim of bringing to the music lover equipment that which sounded special, and yet did not cost a fortune to own.
The one thing we will never do, is bring out “more of the same.” We will bring out a product only if we think it is unique and different enough to demand attention. No, not being different for the sake of being different, but actually giving music lovers something that is different, and hopefully, positively.
The reproduction of audio is actually not a very subjective area, as a piece of equipment either sounds accurate and real, or it does not. However, most folks who buy audio buy it on the basis of how “nice” it sounds to them. Clearly, therefore, we are not going to appeal to everyone.
As for pricing, I would have liked to price our equipment lower. But the production costs (we are not China, and our loudspeakers are literally hand made, one at a time) and market equations will not allow us this luxury for various reasons. I am one of those who believes that the High-End Audio Industry is pricing itself into extinction. I hope I am wrong.
LB: Jacob, on behalf of Dagogo I’d like to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. I have long been a fan of your speakers, and wish you great success.
Jacob George: Thank you, Larry, for making the time and the effort to do this interview. And I thank Dagogo for publishing it. I hope you get an opportunity to hear our new line soon, and that you will like them enough so we have the honor of continuing to have you as one of our fans.
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