Sonus Faber Cremona Elipsa loudspeaker Page 2
Hmm. "Smooth treble." "Smooth midrange." The word smooth does, indeed, appear throughout my listening notes, and classical music benefited from this characteristic. Returning to Mahler, Amazon.com recently recommended that I buy Claudio Abbado's live 2005 recording of his Symphony 6 with the Berlin Philharmonic (SACD, Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 5684). Abbado's 1970s Mahler cycle with the Chicago Symphony had been a favorite of mine back in the days of LP, so it was with anticipation that I unpacked the cardboard box with its familiar swoosh logo. Yes, this recording sounded smooth through the Elipsas, but not in the sense of detail being obscured or the high frequencies being suppressed; instead, the balance between the midrange and the high frequencies seemed in natural proportion. Both the timpani strokes that lead into the chugging rhythm of the symphony's Scherzo and the thunderclap hammer blows in the final movement were beautifully defined, for example, as were the individual characters of the orchestra's string, woodwind, and brass choirs. I kept coming back to how grain-free, how clean the Elipsa's treble was above 4kHz, yet without the music sounding rolled off. The triangle Mahler uses for emphasis, for example, neither sounded exaggerated not dulled.
Piano recordings don't have as much energy present in the top two octaves, yet they also sounded superbly natural through the Elipsas. September's "Recording of the Month," Zenph Studios' "re-performance" of Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations (SACD, Sony Classical 88697-03350-2), convincingly put me in the hall when played on the Sonus Fabers, as did my own recording of Robert Silverman performing Beethoven's Diabelli Variations (CD, Stereophile STPH017-2). The differences between pianos —a Yamaha Disclavier Pro for the Goldbergs, a New York Steinway in the Diabellis—were clearly delineated, as were the acoustic characters of the recording venues: respectively, the small, rather dry acoustic of the Glenn Gould Studios in Toronto; and the larger but rather characterless Austad Auditorium at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. And as with the Mahler, the climaxes seemed effortlessly reproduced. When Bob Silverman pounds the piano's bass notes in the Diabellis' final fugue, my room shuddered.
Over time, however, I became convinced that there was a narrow band of brightness in the speaker's mid-treble —not so much that any coloration was audible, but the speaker was definitely a bit fussy with recordings with a lot of energy in that region. For example, I had the Elipsas set up while I was doing the final mixes for the new CD from the Minnesota male choir Cantus —titled, with commendable imagination, Cantus (Cantus CTS-1207). The DPA microphones I like to use to record Cantus have a touch of excess sparkle in the presence region, so when mastering their CDs I generally apply a touch of equalization to get the most neutral treble balance. Not much —perhaps a shallow trough 0.75dB deep between 2 and 5kHz —but auditioning the master files with the Sonus Fabers, I felt that a bit more reduction in presence-region energy was needed.
The Elipsa definitely worked better in the treble with the darker-hued Mark Levinson No.33H monoblocks than with the lighter-balanced Parasound Halo JC 1 monos. The Boulder 860 stereo amp proved silky smooth in the highs with the Sonus Fabers and got the best from the speaker of the three amplifiers I used while preparing the review. However, it couldn't match the low-frequency impact of the Parasound and Mark Levinson monoblocks, both of which gave a better marriage with the Elipsa's low frequencies. The slam of the bass and kick drum in guitarist Eric Johnson's "Desert Rose," on his Live from Austin TX (CD, New West NW6084), had to be heard to be believed through the Elipsas, though this recording's overcooked highs were definitely pushed forward in the soundstage.
The question has to be asked: How does the $20,800/pair Elipsa compare with the $30,000/pair Amati anniversario? The latter are long gone from my listening room, but I consulted my auditioning notes to remind me of what I had experienced. I loved that speaker. "The Amati anniversarios opened onto the recording venue a clean, uncolored, undistorted window," I wrote in 2006. The window opened by the Elipsas was less clear, a little more blurred, in that the imaging was not quite as delicately delineated, the speakers disappearing not quite as effortlessly.
I also wrote that the Amati loved female voices. And so did the Elipsa, though the less-expensive speaker's mid-treble was balanced a touch more forward than I remembered the Amati's as being. With the Boulder amplifier still in the system, I dug out a DVD-Audio disc I hadn't played in a long time, Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now (Reprise 9362-47620-9). Her husky, cigarette-stained alto and the Elipsa's midrange clarity were made for one another. Every small nuance of the singer's phrasing, the grace notes and ornaments, the difference between tremolo and vibrato, was clearly evident, without being confused by the loudspeaker's own character. The backing orchestra was arrayed behind Joni in a deep, supportive semicircle (in two channels, of course), and I quite forgot I was supposed to be listening critically.
In the final analysis, that's what matters: the musical experience. As I write these words, I'm listening to the 24-bit/96kHz FLAC download of Linn's recording of the Mozart Requiem with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, decoded by the Slim Devices Transporter WiFi DAC and reproduced by the Sonus Faber Cremona Elipsas driven by the Parasound Halo combo of JC 2 preamp and JC 1 power amps that Sam Tellig reviews in this issue's "Sam's Space." A delicious mystery to the sound of the solo bassoon in the Introitus, a rich, broad sweep of sound in the Kyrie, and, in the Lacrimosa, a delicate depiction of the violins' obbligato underlying the hauntingly delineated voices —all of these effortlessly transported me into the music. It doesn't get much better than that.
Well, okay, it can: The 24/96 LPCM version didn't quite reach the sonic heights of the DSD-encoded SACD (Linn CKD211) played back on the Ayre C-5xe universal player in terms of sheer believability and that sense of hushed expectancy before musical climaxes. And the Elipsas had no difficulty in allowing me to hear that improvement.
It is not quite without character —that slightly warm upper bass and slightly forward mid-treble will need some adjustment in system setup and/or choice of ancillaries —but Sonus Faber's Cremona Elipsa is, overall, a superb performer. It also looks stunningly beautiful. If you can stretch your budget by 50% for the Amati anniversario and be prepared to work harder to integrate it in your room, that might be, overall, the better choice. If not, the Cremona Elipsa is a loudspeaker for which no apology need be made.