At my first encounter with them at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2006, I was delightfully surprised by the transparent delicacy, nuanced musicality, harmonic complexity, and agile authority of the Vienna Acoustics Mahler speakers, driven by the Jeff Rowland Design (JRDG) 312 stereo amplifier, and JRDG Capri preamplifier. There commenced a lasting love affair that culminated in the purchase of my own set of Mahlers.
The elegance of the Mahlers is simplicity itself. Standing almost five feet tall, less than nine inches wide, and almost nineteen inches deep, these 120-pound master creations of Vienna’s founder Peter Gansterer sport twin 10" side-mounted subwoofers; the towers are raked back gently to optimize the time alignment of the remaining three forward-firing drivers, which are protected by a cloth grille that I removed for critical listening.
While technically the Mahlers are a three-way design, one might almost deem them to be a four-way. The crucial midbass to lower treble region is served by two, highly modified, 7" Scan Speak drivers using carbon-fiber-filled air-dried paper cones, one positioned above the other. The upper one serves a broad range of six octaves from 70Hz to 4kHz, while the other, with a lower crossover point than the first, is progressively filtered towards the midrange and treble. This slightly unusual design provides a generous cone area for robust, unrestrained overall sound, while giving the Mahlers their hallmark delicacy and focus in the critical midrange. A single hand-coated, silk-dome 1.2" Scan Speak tweeter is located above the two midranges, and is mechanically decoupled from the speaker’s enclosure by being mounted in a trough of ferrous-silicone material. The design minimizes sonically harmful mechanical interactions and resonances, allowing the tweeter to reveal the subtlest treble detail.
The dual side-mounted 10" honeycomb Ultra Lo Frequency (ULF) subwoofers are made from highly modified Eton honeycomb drivers. According to Sumiko—Vienna Acoustics’ importer in the U.S.—they are 70 times more rigid and 30% lighter than comparable cone material. They extend the frequency response from 70Hz down to 22Hz.
Vienna Acoustics sources speaker drivers in identical batches of 3000 units. With each fresh batch, engineers painstakingly recalibrate the dual-board crossover network of the Mahlers—a first-order slope that incorporates MKP capacitors, 0.7% tolerance inductors, and 2% tolerance inductance-free metal-film resistors.
The back panel reveals two round bass-reflex ports toward the top and bottom of the cabinet. The twin 5-way gold and silver alloy binding posts are massive machined units that require 9mm spades, reflecting Peter Gansterer’s preference for single wiring. A recessed switch can be selected to boost the bass response by 3dB in overdamped rooms, while a second switch can be activated to depress treble response. Both switches remained at default settings during my evaluation.
An Italian wood joinery near the Swiss border manufactures the furniture-grade cabinets of the Mahlers using advanced technologies. Highly specialized membrane-inflation presses—similar to those employed by British car manufacturer Rolls Royce for the wood trim elements of the Silver Seraph—gently mold sheets of flamed, book-matched palisander rosewood veneer hand selected by Maria Gansterer, and bond them to the braced 1.6"-thick HDF front and rear baffles and to the MDF side panels. Edges are trimmed by hand, culminating in a seamless look.
Let’s start with the Concertgebouw under Bernard Haitink in its classic 1968 recording of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 [Philips]. Standing just over 10.5 feet apart, driven by the Rowland 312, the Mahlers generate a soundstage more than 16 feet wide and over 6 feet tall, with a depth that extends well beyond my back wall. Sitting eleven feet in front of the speakers, I experienced a broad sweet listening zone and could move freely within a circle almost 5 feet wide with only moderate softening of the three-dimensional illusion. The Mahlers rendered the lower strings in the opening bars of the First Movement with tuneful authority, with the faintest hint of pleasing warmth, and no trace of bloat. The themes, elaborated by contrasting orchestral sections from the lowest octave up to the high treble, revealed the seamless integration of the Mahlers’ drivers. From the tweeter down to the bottom octave of the twin subwoofers the Mahlers yielded a coherent musical presentation without perceivable hot spots or troughs. The Mahlers render the fff transients of brass cuivre and percussion with fast, earthy, and full-bodied authority. The high damping factor of the Rowland 312 controlled the Mahler’s subwoofers with seamless ease.
The subtly taut tunefulness of the doublebass line in the second movement of Dvorák’s Ninth Symphony with Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic (DGG) confirmed the exquisite bass rendering capabilities of the Mahlers. The bowed bass viols become even tauter under the iron grip of the Nuforce Signature V9 SE monoblocks, but perhaps less nuanced than with the 312.
Astor Pizzola’s “Tango Suite” with Yo Yo Ma from The Soul of Tango [Sony Classical] highlighted the Mahlers’ transparent subtlety. The Mahlers imaged Piazzola’s bandoneon, Ma’s cello, Agri’s violin, as well as bass, piano, and guitars with a crispness and speed of transient attack that exposed their rhythmic interplay. The cello’s hiss of rosin, shimmer of harmonics from a textured midrange, and subtle vibrato in the fuga were tell-tales of the Mahlers’ excellent microdynamics, while their superior resolving power never allowed the ensemble to collapse into a homogenous mass, even in the most congested and most dynamic passages. The treble from violin and piano was extended and crisp, but never brittle, with only the slightest hint of tameness.
The mix of Norah Jones’ “Seven Years” from Come Away With Me [Blue Note] was both expansive and focused; Jones’s pleasingly breathy voice was articulated with detail and the subtlest hint of warmth. She floated clearly front and center of a vast stage, where I could easily focus my attention on individual members of her ensemble.
Conceived ahead of their time during the early 1990s, often driven by electronics capable of only moderate damping factors, the Vienna Acoustics Mahlers garnered an early and unjustified reputation for a warm musicality combined with an over-exuberant bass. Yet, a thorough break-in of over 700 hours, a synergistic matching with superior amplification capable of delivering high current with a high damping factor, as well as careful in-room placement through the Sumiko Masters Setup, reveal the authentic soul of these classics: tuneful authority, broad frequency extension, finely textured and filigreed harmonic resolution, and a superior ability to image and project a solid stage. Over a decade since their introduction, the Mahlers remain more than ever exquisite musical instruments for the music lover.