I awaited the arrival of the $1794 RBH CT-MAX 5.1-channel system with much anticipation, realizing that its manufacturer has been in the business of producing affordable, high-performance speaker systems for 30 years. But the system I wanted to evaluate is one designed for smallroom home theaters, where the order of the day is to conserve space and preserve sound quality, while keeping within the constraints of tight budgets. Coming in to this review, I wondered if the “compact size + affordable price” equation might add up to sonic compromises, but in the RBH system’s case it certainly did not.
Two examples of similar small-room designs that I have reviewed recently are the Tannoy Arena 5.1- channel speaker system (Issue 66) and the Hsu Research Ventriloquist VT-12/STF-3 6.1-channel system (Issue 67). Although both these systems had merit, neither was conducive to use of audiophile-grade speaker cables, which can do so much to help improve sound quality. Sonically both systems performed well in some areas, primarily on films, but had shortcomings with multichannel music.
The CT-MAX system uses RBH’s C-4 speakers for front and rear surrounds as well as for the center channel. I was pleasantly surprised from the moment I took the beefy little C-4 speakers from their boxes and discovered they featured rigid, cast-metal enclosures housing D’Appolito-type (mid/tweeter/mid) driver arrays, with aluminum mid/bass drivers. The C-4s were designed to accept heavy cables and were weighty enough to stand vertically with no danger of tipping over due to cable weight. In contrast to the C-4s, the MS-8.1 200W powered subwoofer seemed surprisingly small and light (35 lbs.) when I lifted it out of the box. I wondered how it would compare to the 78-lb., 300W behemoth Hsu Research STF-3, with subs being Dr. Po Ser Hsu’s specialty. Smaller and lighter than the STF-3, the MS-8.1 nevertheless has a clever design, with one eight-inch aluminum woofer facing forward, and another firing downward to use the floor as a reflector.
This sub was to show that it could equal, and in some ways surpass, the performance of Hsu’s STF-3.
If a small surround-sound system is going to satisfy great expectations, then it has to do justice to high-drama episodes such as the “Under Attack” chapter from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The sub will see plenty of duty from the cannon booms and explosions as cannon balls sweep across their targets, but much of the atmospheric sound relegated to the front and rear surrounds also plays a crucial role. The footsteps of sailors scrambling from below decks to take their stations must be distinct and follow the movement of sailors fore to aft to reinforce the illusion of battle-fed adrenalin build-up. Voices have to have the exaggerated fear-filled edginess of battle to pierce through shattering wood and exploding masts and the general creakiness of a sea-tossed wooden hull still has to come through to contribute to a sea battle’s authenticity.
The CT-MAX system was superb in this “put-up or shut-up” test of its prowess. I was startled by the clarity of the satellites and the sub did its job with convincing vigor. The sub also showed its clarity and brilliance in “The Echo Game” chapter from House of Flying Daggers. Although Mei’s long sleeves, which she hurls through the air to strike drum faces in this scene, appear to be made of silk, once they strike the vertical drum heads in the game, the sound has to be resoundingly loud, low-pitched, and clear, so that you hear the taut skins of the drum heads being struck as if by a heavy weight. The MS- 8.1 handled this challenge better than any sub I’ve tested, leaving me pretty much with mouth agape (and my cat scurrying for the kitchen at break-neck speed).
Although you can’t have a convincing home-theater setup without a strong sub for blasts and booms and a good center channel for voice clarity, you also obviously need front and rear surrounds that can handle the discontinuous atmospheric sounds of a scene such as the “Sky” chapter from Jet Li’s Hero. Set in a chess club outdoor courtyard during a light rain, Hero and Sky do battle in the cobble-stoned courtyard while an elder musician plays a koto (a steel-stringed, strummed instrument) that intensifies with their fight. All the while rain falls to the cobblestones and into earthen jars set at the foot of the courtyard pavilion’s sloping roof. The more strident koto and these lighter rain sounds need to be distinct to sustain the atmosphere of the martial contest. At the conclusion of the battle, Hero’s slow-motion sword lunge pierces rivulet after rivulet of rain, as does his face, in the final drive to kill Sky—all sonically, yet subtly portrayed through the surround satellites. The CT-MAX system, again, carried off this challenge as well as any system I have recently heard, including the highly regarded Triangle Odysseys (see Chris Martens’s review, Issue 63).