I got my first (and ongoing) writing gig 12 years ago with the Radio Listeners Guide, an annual magazine covering all things radio. Published by a friend, it’s full of reviews and broadcast information. And being available in early December it makes an ideal stocking filler. Advert over.
I mainly review radios and Bluetooth speakers / systems. A few duds come across my desk. Some surprises too – Ikea’s Vappeby lamp/Bluetooth speaker is amazing for £60. But a few brands deliver time after time, none more so than Ruark, purveyor of chic radios and systems.
This year I’ve looked at its R1S, a small streaming radio. Big thumbs up. The R410 system was lovely; beautiful lines, broad functionality and sound up there with the best (What HiFi preferred it to the Naim Mu-So).
And then there are the tiny MR1 Mk2 speakers. They impressed me so much I bought the review pair, which are now ensconced in my partner’s dining-kitchen. From where I write these words, the speakers playing in the background. It’s a role they relish. They also shine when they’re centre stage though – at my partner’s they’re the main source of music. If they can delight this sonic fusspot then maybe they could work for you too, hence this review.
Simplicity is key
The £349 MR1 Mk2 is a stereo pair of Bluetooth speakers with additional analogue and digital inputs. Bluetooth is Version 4.0, and includes the higher quality aptX variant. The optical digital input handles up to 24 bit / 192 kHz PCM, the analogue line input is on a 3.5mm connector. There’s also a subwoofer output – ideal for Ruark’s matching RS1 subwoofer (£349), although any third-party model with RCA input should work too.
The main MR1 speaker contains all the electronics, connecting to the other via the supplied 3.5mm lead. It’s braided and colour-matched to the speakers, a typical Ruark touch. Power is courtesy of a 14V wall-wart adapter. An optional £69 battery pack caters for up to 12 hrs of playtime (mfr spec).
Operation is simple. Switch between inputs with a short press of the main speaker control knob. Turn the speakers on / off with a longer press. Rotate it to change volume. Or use the small remote control. It’s not rocket science.
On looks, Ruark has absolutely nailed it. The deft design shows real attention to detail. The tiny dimensions just work (each is 130×175×140mm WHD). The finish is exemplary – the review pair were in Rich Walnut, a Soft Grey Lacquer is also available. Both have fixed lead-grey woven fabric grilles. All of which comes together into something greater than the sum of its parts. Jony Ive (of Apple fame) would be proud.
Each speaker sits on small rubber feet, leaving just enough room for the ports to breathe. That the ports fire downwards makes placement easier – rear walls mess up the sound less. And being minute the MR1 Mk2 will fit most places. They were great as a desktop speaker. Bookshelves are a natural habitat – at my partner’s they sit in a display unit, looking fabulous. Or stick them up on your wall with the optional brackets that screw into the rear of the speaker.
At its simplest, Bluetooth your phone into the Ruarks, sit back and enjoy music. Which I did, feeding the speakers a diet of Tidal and Qobuz. That worked fine, except when other apps on the phone kept interrupting. Either that or I closed all apps on my phone, music included. Cue expletive.
Hence wiring a WiiM Pro streamer into the MR1 via the optical input for trouble-free playback (I would have used the WiiM Mini had I still got it). Ruark clearly approves as it sells both models on its website.
You can plumb a turntable into the MR1’s analogue input and enjoy vinyl playback. Ruark recommends the Pro-Ject E1 Phono turntable, a sensible choice. Others will work, just ensure they have an in-built phono amplifier (or use your own external one).
Or finally, exercise your inner geek by connecting a dongle DAC to your phone and playing through the MR1’s analogue input for even better quality. I used an Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt to very good effect
All of the above work even better with a subwoofer in circuit. For the Radio Listeners Guide review I used the Ruark RS1. Not this review though, the sub had long returned to bass (sic!)
However I used the Ruarks, the defining feature was a wonderfully large soundstage with plenty of detail. It was a surprisingly big, clean sound from remarkably small speakers.
Eat your heart out Sonos Move or similar. No amount of technical wizardry – clever software, multiple drives etc – can portray as convincing an acoustic as a good stereo pair. Two speakers just sound more real. And the MR1 Mk2s sounded very real. Even their lack of low bass didn’t detract from the music.
In fact nothing detracted from listening to the Ruarks. They put in a balanced performance that did no harm, one-trick-pony doesn’t figure in their vocabulary. Right from the off they engaged me, drawing me into the music in the way a ‘proper’ system does. Unlike many similarly-priced Bluetooth speakers that tend towards making a nice noise.
Tonally the MR1 Mk2’s sound isn’t rich or overtly warm, their clarity grabs your attention first. It’s by no means overdone though, the treble is refined enough to avoid harshness, yet clear enough to allow copious detail through. The speakers are also good at separating out the different elements of a mix, presenting it in a controlled way.
True, dynamics are not overly strong. Nor do the Ruarks do scale, in fact that’s probably their weakest aspect. Nearfield listening works well, as does mid-field. Room filling they are not though. If you want party animals look elsewhere.
Does that mean the MR1 Mk2s aren’t well suited to Rock? Well if that was my main diet I might look elsewhere. But, a flurry of Beth Hart saw them digging deep and sounding thoroughly bombastic. On Schiller’s ‘Empire of Light’ from Illuminate the addictive synth line carried me along as usual. And Kham Meslien’s double bass in ‘Ta Confiance’ (from Fantomes…Futures) was remarkably full.
It’s as if pigeonholing the Ruarks as small speakers only served to rile them into action. Just try to position them reasonably close to a rear wall. Up to 30 cm out worked best for me, helping to fill the sound out a little. A bit richer, a tad more heft. In free space ‘undernourished’ came to mind once or twice.
Squeezing the pips
The above was using ‘lossy’ Bluetooth, how most people are likely to use the Ruarks. The WiiM streamer upped the ante though, the MR1 Mk2s lapping up lossless music. And engaging full on nerd-mode – Dragonfly Cobalt with USB Audio Player Pro software – sounded positively marvellous. Think: notably bigger soundstage, decidedly more vibrant music. The improvements were not subtle.
In the real world I’d opt for the WiiM Pro, freeing me up from being shackled to my phone. No more interruptions from calls, no more fat fingers closing Tidal. For which I’d forgo the slight uptick in SQ from the Dragonfly Cobalt / UAPP option. Indeed that’s what will be in situ soon at my partner’s place.
I did try the Ruarks with the Dragonfly Cobalt plugged into my laptop though, Audirvana’s software ensuring the highest possible quality. Best of all worlds? You bet.
In the Radio Listeners Guide review, adding in Ruark’s RS1 subwoofer was also beneficial. Tonal quality was a bit richer, bass went noticeably lower. For £620 (bought together you get a discount) the sound quality had a lot going for it. The elegance, the simplicity, of the two speaker setup was lost though. More wires, more boxes, more tweaking for optimum sound. And the MR1 Mk2s sounded great without the subwoofer. Me? I won’t be suggesting one to my partner. Your preferences may vary.
The MR1 Mk2 make great lifestyle speakers, their looks appealing to the style conscious non-audiophile (as my partner has discovered). Ruark seems to have a real Apple-esque touch when it comes to design.
Sonically they’re great too, sounding like a smaller-scale ‘proper’ system rather than grown up Bluetooth speakers. Reviewers often say they could live with a component in the knowledge they’ll never have to. I am living with the Ruarks, regularly, using them predominantly with Bluetooth at the moment. That I keep forgetting it’s lossy music I’m listening too, that I look forward to switching them on, that I’m getting lost in the music rather than pining for my ‘big rig’ at home is more the point. All for £349; an obvious Hifi Starters Best Buy award is in order.
Postscript: The MR1 Mk2’s sound would appear not to be overly small-scale. We’ve just had the first ‘comment’ from the adjoining neighbours about the ‘new speakers’. I may have to experiment a bit more with positioning!