Ruark Audio R4 Mk3 Review
Thanks to Ruark for the loaner.
First Impressions: I always seem to picture these sort of audio products as being rather like some bedside alarm clock. I really don’t know why I do this because I know what size they are but there is just something to the look of them. Hmm maybe someone needs to make a mini version for a bedside table? Of course you could squeeze this on to a little bedside table if you wanted but at £650, yeah its clearly not a bedside alarm / radio at that price!!! So fishing the thing out, it’s really a weighty little beast. It feel very solid and I especially notice its legs as being solid lumps of metal. It’s really quite nice actually. Hmm not sure I get why the front is grey but the main body is white, why isn’t it all white? Hmm yeah if it was my own money the black or walnut ones look better in pics. Soft white, yeah I can’t say I’m particularly taken with it.
Powering it up, the oled little display lights up but I see it’s got a line that’s dead. That’s unfortunate but its review unit so these things happen I guess. It’s a clean simple display. I do think it touch odd that the front is perfectly vertical yet the controls all require you to be looking down on them to read what they say, so you can’t really see the display while pressing. Eh? Still as this a Mk 3 of a largely unchanged layout clearly it doesn’t seem to be thought an issue. I however can’t help but feel I’d like the front angled upward a touch but whatever.
Inserting a shiny coaster to for simplicity and bugger me there did that bass come from!!! Playing about I see someone has bumped its bass output level up. Still, there is a serious power output potential from this little box. Jesus it’s got some oomph in there.
Setup: Well for reviews it’s nice to just have one, plain simple set up and for most components that something easy to do. However this is a device that wants to be your all, your everything so its “setup” is variable dependant on which of its many inputs are being used
Inputs: The R4 Mk3 is a myriad of inputs. It wants to be your everything and I can see why that the device is so popular with nicer hotels. The first one I’m going to look at is the one you can instantly see. The CD drive, the slot on the front where you can slide in those musical shiny discs. While they may be in decline they still represent the major way people buy music and in my case, it’s pretty much the only way I buy music. Right under that CD slot there is a sticker listing the other options you have available, of which there are many. There is (fingers crossed I don’t miss any) Radio, including FM, DAB and the newer standard DAB+. (DAB+ uses higher bitrates and better codec’s than the original DAB that foolishly the BBC jumped on when no one else in the world did.) It has a USB socket so you can plug in a USB drive and play MP3 files from it, not just MP3 but AAC and WMA. However the socket is on the back which I find rather curious a placement particularly given its obvious use as a USB charging socket. On the front we do have a 3.5mm aux input socket in addition to a phono connector one on the back. Next to which is a phono connector out.
The most interesting input, for me at least is that it has an optical input connection. For all the things that this could be used for the one that stands out in my mind in for connecting a TV. As we all know that thin TV’s need thin speakers and by stint of their shape are all terrible. Not just, not very good but utterly terrible. If you don’t realise this then you have never used anything else.
Last of all, we have Bluetooth. For me it’s not such a big dear but I’d bet that it will be the R4’s primary input source. With not just Bluetooth but aptX support it is intended for audio streaming. You pair up your phone and then you can go nuts with whatever musical option you like, be it on board, Spotify, Deezer, Google Music, Itunes or whatever else you fancy.
It’s a very broad selection of options and I can see why it makes the R4 so popular with Hotels.
Audio Output: For many this section will be the heart of the review. After all at its core the R4 is a musical device, that is its rason-detre. Naturally it’s not the devices only consideration as the most cursory glance at it, its self-evident that its looks and thusly its form factor are of massive importance. As is with modern thin TV’s there is a great deal of compromise made to fit a pair of speakers into ever thinner screens the R4 is better shaped yet it still retains limitations. Namely that it’s small, it may be huge for a bedside radio but its hardly vast. The most obvious impact this has is on driver size, the mid/tweeters are 3.5 inch drivers and then there in an additional 4 inch “sub woofer.” While the bass output produced by a 4 inch driver will blow away the things you’ll find in a TV it simply cannot compare to the likes of output that a 10 or 12 inch drivered sub can produce. It is simply a matter of air movement in the same way a VW Golf estate may be a great little car for hauling stuff about but you cannot compare it to a Transit van.
Lows: In the controls we have a curious set up, not just a bass level adjustment but a “sub” adjustment too. It only has a variation between -2 and +2 whatever they mean and the “bass” control has -4 to +4. I would say slap the bass to 0 and the sub to -2 but I suspect that many users will want to max them both. There is this notion that more bass is the same thing as better. Now if you are one of those people you will no doubt be impressed with the capability of the R4 to produce a hearty lower ish end roar. I have no doubts that when demoing one of these in a cavernous John Lewis that this elevated response will be smile inducing and for many be the key reason they desire to throw £650 Ruark’s way.
However, I am a bit of an audio snob and so I don’t want a gigantic heap of monotone bass any more than I want a coffee with 10 sugars in it. It isn’t nuanced or in any real way articulate. It’s a tiny little hammer smashing away with astonishing vigour beside a crane mounted wreaking ball. Real bass needs a big driver, it needs to move a larger volume of air and there is simply no way an itty bitty 4 inch “sub woofer” can keep up.
However…….. yes yes another however, that is for music and not even all music, just bass heavy stuff. You slap on a little Nora or Susan Wong and you really don’t notice its shortcomings as there music has very little down low anyway for the R4 to explode. Anyway….where the R4’s low end shines a little bit is when you hook up that optical out to a TV. TV speakers cannot in anyway go near a low note and the R4 will very happily fill in. You want to watch some Hollywood visual extravaganza, things exploding left right and centre, the R4 will blow you away.
Mid’s: Once more in purest musical terms the drivers at work in the R4 are not best suited to the task they have been landed with. Still the main drivers, the 3.5 inch woofer/tweeter is physically best suited to the mid-range most of all. So, given they are some pretty reasonably capable drivers they are not bad, not at all bad. A little rich, warm, smoothly capable. It’s that so common and so generally quintessential “British” sound when it comes to Hi-Fi. Vocals may not be the most over explicit and crisp but they have a gently natural joy and civility to them. It is about being kindly gently to the ear. Slap on some Nora, Regina or Tori, something of that ilk and you’ll be presented with a highly pleasant rendition. It’s not capable of comparing to a real Hi-Fi of ability but for something so diminutive, so compact and convenient it’s something that you could live with. Actually not just live with but come to rather enjoy I think.
Once more however the start use case is when used as a TV speaker replacement. Its musical abilities may be a wash of compromises but compared to any TV, it will blow them away. Voices sound full bodied and authoritative. This in a hotel room, or perhaps a minimalist living room and you could really live with it. While I know that the same expenditure could get me something acoustically superior I not only find the vocals to be liveable but enjoyable.
Highs: Those drivers’ strike again. 3.5 inches for a tweeter is rather on the large side. Actually if it were a dedicated tweeter that would be enormous. The tuning however with that afore mentioned “British” acoustic style, warm, rich etc etc comes into play and thus we don’t really need all that much treble. That generally suits me too as I am quite treble sensitive, far better to be somewhat muted than to be harsh. There is nothing harsh here, that smoothly welcoming feel again shines through. This is just so exactly wat you want in a hotel, something to warmly and gently envelop, creating a warm, inviting, a homely comforting feel. It’s just perfect for making a stranger feel welcomed.
It’s not as crisp as some might want but I suspect those people aren’t looking as such a convergence device as this anyway. The treble here is nice, ear pleasing, delicate, lightly refined and moderately subdued. It’s pleasant and pleasing in equal measure.
Soundstage: On its default setting the R4 is small, no two ways about it it’s got physically hardly any separation in the driver placement and thusly it can’t magically fool your ears. It however does have a couple of “features” to attempt to. First up we have something called “3D” and when you turn that on it adds something sort of timing flutter to things. Personally as a bit of an audio purist this got on my nerves quickly. It certainly did make to overall sound more diffuse and ill-defined in placement so, sure I can see it being thought of more room filling. Personally though I’d keep its use only for movie playback. There it really helped to make things seem larger than just from some little box.
Dynamics: Then we come to the second sound adjustment feature. This one is called “loudness” to which I’m curious, what the volume dial is for then but anyway……. Mostly this seems to increase the dynamics. Music seems that bit more excitable, agitated, dramatic and for pop music I can see there being some benefit. However for more grown up music I just found it irritating. For movie use though, yep it’s pretty nifty, you want a rip roaring time full of drama and explosions then its surely the way to go.
Volume: How loud can it go? Well I don’t know because I chickened out long before getting near its cap of 31. Okay Ruark I’ve got to ask, why 31? I got to 21 before I felt I was pushing things to a level I’d never use in real life. Certainly not for music anyway. For movie playback where there is a full dynamic range at work then perhaps but I’d be expecting neighbour complaints if you do. Naturally it’s better to have an abundance of power in reserve than to not.
Aesthetics: I have the white one here and if I’m honest I’m not in love with it. It’s a nice thing but I see photos and think the black or that walnut one would look much nicer. That could just because I don’t have them (grass is always greener) but regardless, the R4 is a pretty good looking object. It’s just the sort of thing I would expect to see is some boutique hotel room. Thoroughly modern but with a bit of a hint of more rustic time past. Everyone tastes are their own but I’d struggle to imagine any having a strenuous objection to the R4’s looks.
Power: For all the volume it can output the raw power available is a touch uncontrolled. It’s really that “sub” and the bass in general. They are just trying too hard, much, much too hard for such little drivers to spit out such a bass quantity. You crank that volume and it just can’t scale comfortably. While the spec sheet says 80 watts it avoids any specificity on that number. If you want a rampaging dinosaur attack while watching Jurassic Park you’re grand, if you want Carmina Burana…… yeah, not so much.
Build: Lovely. No question it’s a nice object that is nicely put together. It feels extremely solid and the dial with buttons feels pleasantly firm and quality in the hand. It’s a premium product and it both looks and feels justified in its premium price tag.
Headphone Amp: Well I was a little bit perplexed here. Thea headphone socket was quiet, very quiet, so quiet that on the occasions I tried it I ended up with the volume maxed at 31. It wasn’t particularly loud at that either. I truly don’t know what to make of it. So while headphones may be my area of expertise I’m simply going to say that the R4 has a headphone socket but I don’t expect it to see much if any use, ever, by anyone.
Alarm Clock: One of the key features of the R4 is its Alarm clock talents, you can in fact set the thing up to have a two different alarm times. A nifty feature but I’m a little unclear on how you make the first alarm not wake the person the second alarm is for? Anyway……. For a potential bedroom or hotel room it’s a boon feature on a convergence device. One things for sure, you can set the volume to be easily loud enough to wake anyone.
Controls: The dial on top is a nice control method. The interface however leaves a little to be desired I felt. While I see that most settings are things you’ll set up once and then never touch, for a review where you are playing about with the bass and treble adjustments, it felt a little clumsy. Likewise the singe button to cycle through the various inputs rather than simply have a list of them as separate buttons. Now I grant that in the real world the device is likely to primarily use the optical in and the Bluetooth connections, it felt a little superfluous to have the multi button hit to cycle through, then accidently missing and having to go round again. The remote was a little more clear, actually I rather liked its shape in my hand. Particularly when I was playing back a CD.
One thing to note, the play/pause/select button on the remote doubles (quadruples?) as a mute button. So if you’re playing back Bluetooth or optical connections and the phone rings, you can hit the mute rather than fiddle about.
Value: The R4 MK3 comes in a substantial £650. Google tells me that right now that’s just over US$915 (though that includes UK tax so may retail for less in the US.) Let’s not try to argue that the R4 is not a bit of wallet ouch, £650 is a fair chuck of money. You do get a premium object that’s for sure, it’s an attractive, nicely build thing that has a great deal of versatility to it. In terms of value it shall depend on how you plan to use it, what you expect from it and just what level your expectations are. If you want a proper audio experience, size, cabling, placement all be dammed then frankly it won’t score highly. However the R4 isn’t pretending to be that, it’s very upfront about its being a convergence device. It want to be a bit of a jack of all trades, acoustically, physically, visually and in terms of its input capabilities. If you’re after a TV sound bar / CD playing Hi-Fi / Bluetooth capable player for the odd dinner party / super fancy alarm clock to show off your swanky guest bedroom, then you’re onto a winner.
Conclusion: I have somewhat mixed feelings oubt the R4 MK3. In purest audio terms I find it lacking, not just lacking but then I see that price tag and I cannot help be a little horrified. The things is though I have a set of Acoustic Energy Radiance 1’s sitting on my desk, flanking my computer monitor. I recognise that they are far too big to really belong on a desk and that any normal, rational person simply wouldn’t put up with it. The R4 therefore couldn’t possibly be less aimed at me. It a device that while I call convergence, to me I also mean compromise. It is a device that is full of compromises, that they call a 4 inch driver a “sub woofer” has the audio snob in me aghast. So let’s be clear the R4 MK3 is not a product for me, that however does mean it’s not a device you shouldn’t think about.
There are many people who this device is just perfect for. That it’s on a MK3 variant should make that clear. For instance if I ran a nice little hotel, it would be just perfect, just simply perfect for going in every room. That the thing has a Kensington lock on the back goes some way to making clear that it’s an obvious target market. One of these, sitting below the TV in a hotel room providing the audio out for the screen, plus its Bluetooth abilities would be perfect. In fact the only thing that I’d change would be to put the USB socket on the front rather than the back. Why on earth its hidden back there I have no idea but it’s nothing leaving a cable plugged in can’t fix, to allow guests to charge their phones or whatever. It’s just made for that occasional, little bit of everything scenario. It doesn’t have to a paragon of sonic balance and purity, that isn’t what it’s trying to be in the slightest.
So should you buy one? Well it depends on what you’re wanting. If you want a real Hi-Fi and all you care about is audio quality then, no, absolutely not. That would be like wanting a car to drive Formula 1 and picking some Golf GTI. The Golf may be a more capable than many but it can’t compete with a purist, specialist F1 car. Likewise the R4 MK3 has too many masters it’s trying to please and while it does a highly adept job at pleasing on all fronts, its size, its looks, its connectivity options and its acoustic talents. By stint of being a device that has so many concerns it makes compromises acoustically. Yet it is for all that a crowd pleaser, to be cherished by many I’m sure.