Russell K Red 100: review

The Russell K Red 100 (£1950) were released back in 2014. Remember those simple happy days? We’ve all aged more than a little since then. I’ve been drawn to the Red 100 since they came out basically. First, I love how they look. Albeit not the weird red and grey version, but the one now sitting on top of my less-than-ideal cheapo speaker stands from Dali. The Red 100 are in oak with a retro black front baffle. Second, I love how they make music sound fresh and immediate.

I reviewed the Buchardt S400 (approx. £1700) back in August. Great speakers, with the ant-sized caveat that the midrange was a little recessed – specifically with acoustic instruments and vocals. With electronic music they were close on perfect! And they were placement/room agnostic which has become increasingly important for me and for the scope of this website: a loudspeaker that can work in many different rooms and positions is a loudspeaker that you keep.

The Buchardt S400 and the Russell K Red 100 are kinda the same size and they are almost the same price. A comparison seems reasonable.

Build

Outwardly, the Russel K Red 100 have an unadorned aesthetic which I always prefer over anything glossy. Give me wood! The Red 100 look a bit cruder than the smoked-oak S400 that I have – but that rusticity appeals to me. The black baffle and the cabinet oak just look really cool in my room. Less clean than the S400 but with more personality. In some ways, that is a distinction that carries into the how these different speakers sound.

The Russell K Red 100 are special. Sure, they have two drivers, which are placed in a rectangular box (HWD:400+260+270) with a front port. Nothing untoward here. But one of the things that set the Red 100 distinctly apart is the construction of the cabinets. The walls themselves are thin MDF, just 16mm. Only the front baffle is a whopping 19mm. The cabinets are designed to vibrate and flex in time with the main drive unit. The cabinets are well braced, certainly, and there are various intricate shelves within the cabinet, but the real kicker is that these loudspeakers are completely undamped. Thin-walled and undamped – that’s a novel proportion.

According to the Russell K website, one of the benefits behind this approach is that if a speaker is sufficiently braced, damping it will often prove detrimental, specifically in the bass. Damping slows the sound and ultimately renders it out of sync with the output of the driver. So, damping is bad, eh? That is a bold statement: apart from my Quad 63 ESL, I believe all other speakers that I’ve owned have been damped. But I can’t be certain because I’m not the kind of person who takes his gear apart to look at the insides.

There’s a special place in my heart for engineers who design things off the beaten path. Especially if those designs have clear and logical advantages. That’s probably why I’m currently listening to speakers from Larsen HiFi and Omega Speaker Systems. And it was one of the reasons why I was drawn to the Red 100: here’s a guy with a lifetime worth of experience in the loudspeaker business who has set out for himself with a conspicuously novel design approach. I’m attracted to the boldness of the thinking behind these speakers. Time will tell if the sound matches the boldness…

Sound

…And time did tell: the Russell K Red 100 sound boldly alive. There is so much open space within the music through these speakers. They bounce and pounce. They are startingly vibrant. If this is what an undamped, well-braced cabinet does for sound, ATC, Harbeth, Spendor, KEF, and all the other small speaker companies need get their act together. The Russell K Red 100 are special and they sound more engaging and exactly right than most other speakers I’ve had through here.

It was a lucky coincidence that I came across the Russell K Red 100 standmounts again. I had sort of forgotten about them. One day I was at a local shop and another bewildered audiophile was demoing them in a room. I just heard them through the half-open door and the music was so open and tangible that I knew instantly that I had to review them…

And now I’m sitting at home, in a room I know, with gear that I know, listening to these speakers and the sound is, again, incredibly open and textured. When I played Agnes Obel on the Russell K Red 100 for the first time, I sat in disbelief with a smile on my face. I have never heard her voice so released from a pair of speakers. It was almost like some thickly-sweet liquor, dripping in the air before me, so real I could almost taste it. It was a corporeal experience.

At the same time, I heard a sense of the room she sang in like I’ve not heard before. There was an echo-y quality to her voice that was immediately addictive. She sounded more sensual, more present, and more silky-smooth alive than I have heard through any other speakers. That’s the midrange talking and the midrange on the Red 100 is, again, open, textured, tangible, and project waaaay out into the room. These speakers almost sound horn-y but with the bass grip and control of a traditional speaker. There’s a weird thing going on with the midrange, I think. It is a once forward, crisp, and hyper present, and at the same time, smooth and refined. That’s a precious combination.

About the bass. The Russell K Red 100 are standmount speakers, front ported, and they reproduce bass down well into the mid-thirties. The way Red 100 do bass is the opposite of soft and bloated. There’s no woolliness here. It’s fast and more than deep enough for my needs. And it keeps being fast, tight, and deep as the volume goes up. Ditto when the Red 100 were put in a bigger room. The bass is still there, taut and extended.

But there’s a peculiar thing happening with the relationship of the midrange and the bass. The bass is there and it’s sumptuous and tight, but the midrange is so prominent that the bass takes a slight backseat in the presentation. Not a by a lot. It’s not way in the back of the bus, but it’s the midrange that is in the driver’s seat. That’s great for most genres. The National is a moody favorite that sound spectacular on the Red 100. I have a special affinity for drummer Bryan Devendorf and his drums explode into the room. Miles Davis’ Seven Steps to Heaven – his best album? – is magical. Dynamically alive, macro and micro. And ambient explorations like Lost River by Michele Rabbia, Gianluca Petrella, and Eivind Aarset are painted with all inner detail and space to make that record blossom. The Russell K Red 100 makes me want to listen to the track What Floats Beneath all night.

The treble is sparkly and detailed and very alive. Not that it is grating or too insistent, but these speakers are not laidback in any sense of the word. If you want a cuddly warm speaker look elsewhere. I’m listening to Nils Frahm’s Felt album, which is full of inner ambient detail. The sound of the room within the piano where he placed the mikes is enormous, and all the external sounds in the studio – creaking floorboards, heavy breathing, the mechanics of the piano – is part of this incredibly intimate album. The piano seems as big as a concert hall. This album is full of micro dynamic information that on lesser speakers can overcook the treble – or simply not get translated making the album sound flat. That is not how the Russell K Red 100 play it. They do the opposite. Felt becomes palpable, incredibly open, and dynamically alive. Very impressive.

Soundstage is high and wide, if not particularly deep. What stands out for me is a direct and transparent sound with a tangible texture to the music where you feel you can touch the notes on the guitar. That texture was especially apparent with voices. Agnes Obel’s voice was right there in the room – which sounds like a cliché, but that is what it felt like. And, anyway, clichés are not always wrong or lazy.

A note on timbre: these speakers have such a beautiful timbre; acoustic guitars sound true and real. Almost like a live act, or even like my own Martin guitar. I think I’ve seen Neil Young seven or eight times and, playing what might be his best album, On the Beach, felt eerily like being at a concert with him. Which is a weird thing because at a Neil Young concert you are listening to all the electronics of the venue rather than a purist rendition of his instrument and voice. But I stand by that statement: the Russell K Red 100 make my hifi system sound like I’m at a concert more than any other speaker I’ve tried.

Comparison

The Buchardt S400 didn’t quite make it in our living room. 60 m2 is a tough space to fill for such a small speaker. It came close, though. Therefore, I started my time with the Red 100 in my smaller, dedicated listening room. But after a week I moved them into the big space and man! The Russell K Red 100 came even more alive and filled our living room and adjoining kitchen with music. Where the Buchardt faltered a bit, the Russell K shone. To be fair, the Red 100 are a bit bigger than the Buchardt S400 which might explain why.

I used a combination of different amplifiers. And actually “just” using the Schiit Vidar and the Hugo2go (review here) as streamer/DAC/preamp was wonderful. More refinement, more body was added by using the Exposure 2510 integrated and the Hugo2go as streamer/DAC. Further travels included the completely underrated Croft Micro 25 and Series 7 combo. I think my favorite setup was with the Hugo2go as source, the Croft 25 as preamp, and the PS Audio Stellar S300 as powerhouse.

When I put on Jon Hopkins’ Immunity, that first-class album – sonically and artistically – have never sounded so direct and raw in the best sense of the word. The bass doesn’t go as deep as the S400 and it is certainly not as pronounced, but, still, in a big room there’s more of it. With the Red 100 music exploded into the room; with the Buchardts there was a sense that they were struggling. The Russell K Red 100 will play LOUD with seeming effortlessness.

I sat amazed that what I already thought were a superb loudspeaker in my small room was now one of the most engaging listening experiences I’ve had.

Back in my smaller room I tried a few albums, a few different genres, and a few amplifiers to get a feel for how these two speakers might compare in more of a 1:1 evaluation. And the results were as you’d expect from my ramblings above: the Red 100 are lively and bouncy, the Buchardt are more controlled yet still fun to listen to. The Buchardt sounds a bit V-curved whereas the Red 100 sound like the opposite. The Buchardt have more pronounced and slightly deeper bass, which means I prefer them with some, but not all, electronic music. But the Red 100 have a much more pronounced midrange that leaps from the speakers and I prefer them by a significant margin when it comes to jazz, acoustic, rock, and anything with vocals.

I thought the Buchardt S400 were great speakers. The Russell K Red 100 are greater still. They might be the most suprising and surprisingly enjoyable and engaging speakers I’ve listened to.

Why would a website review a pair of speakers that came out seven years ago? For the same reason people still listen to Quad ESL 57s. New isn’t (always) better. Which is an important lesson for the purview of Green Audio Review. Some audiophiles feel that the Quad 57 haven’t been bettered at what they do. I think the Russell K Red 100 will always be special. And perhaps, like the Quad 57, they’ll never be bettered at what they do. As ever: time will tell…

 

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