Sonus Faber Cremona loudspeaker Sam Tellig January 2003
"My aim is to arrive at a musical instrument."
So said Franco Serblin, designer of the Sonus Faber loudspeakers, as we talked last fall at the 2002 TOP Audio/Video show in Milan. He continued:
"It is usual in hi-fi to say, 'Ah, incredibly good sound, just like live.' But no—my idea is different. My idea is that it is possible to invent new emotions in terms of sound reproduction.
"Sometimes it is possible—with a good speaker, careful setup, and a high-quality amplifier—to experience a different perception of a piece of music than you would have when listening live. With a Beethoven piano sonata, for instance, you might have a more intense emotional experience with a recording than a live performance. It is for this reason that I continue to believe in hi-fi."
Franco is not your usual speaker designer. He talks more about music than measurements, more about producing musical instruments than loudspeakers. His Homage series of speakers are named after the legendary Italian violin makers Guarneri, Amati, and Stradivari. The Strad will be a luxury model and will likely cost more than some luxury cars.
But wait—Franco has also launched a more affordable line of loudspeakers, named the Cremona series after the North Central Italian city where Guarneri, Amati, and Stradivari perfected the art of making stringed instruments. Franco probably has some secrets of his own. Sonus faber means "sound maker" in Latin—or, as Franco translates it, "hand-made sound." And, like those ancient fiddle firms, Sonus Faber is family-owned.
The nomenclature is confusing, however: The floorstanding Cremona speaker looks like a miniature Amati Homage. The Amati, reviewed by Michael Fremer in June 1999, retails for $22,000/pair, the Cremona for $7495/pair.
Like the Amati Homage and Guarneri Homage, the Cremona is shaped like a lute—inspired by Stradivari, according to Franco. The Cremona's curved sides are fashioned from 32 layers of maple; its top and bottom are solid blocks of the same wood. A light, medium-gloss finish is applied by hand. The appearance is exquisite. (A metallic-gray "Graphite" finish is also available.)
Like those of the Amati and Guarneri speakers, the Cremona's "grille" is a series of cords fastened to top and bottom plates. Insert the bottom plate into the base of the front baffle, stretch the cords, and insert the top plate into the top of the baffle. Ecco! You have a sonically transparent grille.
But the Cremona looks beautiful without its grille. The front baffle is padded and covered with leather—not for looks, but to prevent backwaves from bounding off a hard surface. Two metal crossbars screw into the base of each speaker. Threaded holes in the plinths accept the spikes. Sonus Faber recommends adjusting them so the back spikes are lower than the front ones, which tilts the speaker back by about 5 degrees for better sound dispersion. Every detail received special attention, including the single pair of binding posts. Each nut on the binding post is shaped like a lever, so you can tighten it without resorting to tools.
The Cremona measures 41.5" high by 9" wide by 17.25" deep and weighs 75 lbs. Its sensitivity is stated as 90dB/W/m, its nominal impedance as 4 ohms. The frequency response is 32Hz-40kHz. Plus or minus how many dB? Sonus Faber and Franco Serblin don't specify.
Along with the main speaker, the Cremona line includes a center speaker, a powered subwoofer, and a stand-mounted monitor, the Cremona Auditor. The idea is to offer a complete Cremona array for multichannel sound. But, like the main speaker, the Auditor can be used in a two-channel, music-only system.
Franco himself seems none too keen on home theater. Speaking with me in Vicenza nearly two years ago, when I visited the factory, he told me that he found a center-channel speaker "destructive of the stereo image"—the same objection voiced by Renaud de Vergnette, of French manufacturer Triangle.
But some markets demand multichannel. Franco said that in Spain, for instance, two-channel stereo has all but disappeared. The opposite seems to be true in Germany, he told me in Milan last fall. There, two-channel stereo appears to be flourishing, perhaps even enjoying a renaissance.
"At the last Frankfurt hi-fi show, I noticed that many young people were all into two-channel stereo—music, not home theater. Home Theater is okay for large-quantity [manufacturers]," he continued. "Two-channel hi-fi, by contrast, is a small market. But this market will continue to exist, as it is impossible to remove music from our lives."
If Franco Serblin doesn't talk like most other speaker designers, Sonus Faber doesn't act like most other speaker manufacturers. They don't revise their product line every two years or so, replacing models so they always have something "new." Sonus Faber products evolve. They follow, one from another, in a kind of logical sequence. And Sonus Faber speakers tend to stay in production, more or less unchanged, for a decade or more. The Minima FM2, for instance, was made from 1984 to 2001. And the Guarneri, the first speaker in the Homage series, has been produced since 1993. If the past is any precedent, the Cremona won't be replaced anytime soon, or updated in another year or two with a Mk.II version.
Sonus Faber established its reputation in the 1980s with a succession of stand-mounted monitors—the Parva, Minima, Electa Amator, and, in 1991, the Extrema. The Minima remains one of Franco's favorites and, for him, a reference.
"I aim for simplicity," he told me in Milan last fall. "With the Cremona, you'll notice there is a single pair of speaker binding posts. I don't believe in biwiring or biamping. It just introduces complications."
The Guarneri Homage was Franco's first speaker to use a cabinet "in the ancient shape of a lute designed by Antonio Stradivarius," wrote Franco, in the company's literature. Sonus Faber holds a patent on the shape. The speaker retails for $9995, including the integral stands. Some consider this Franco's finest speaker to date.
I asked Franco about the shape—and the evolution of the Cremona—during our lunch at the TOP Audio/Video Show.
"The Cremona is the consequence of the Guarneri Homage speaker," he told me. "The Guarneri was born 12 years ago. For me, this was a new idea in cabinet design. There was nothing else like it on the market. It was a simple idea: You remove one side of the cabinet and you control resonances."
Eliminating parallel walls—especially the back wall—helps control or kill standing waves. The curved side walls make the cabinet rigid, and also help to control resonances. And the tapered form facilitates the transmission of back waves to the ports. The midrange driver "sees" its own separate chamber and is vented via a small port in the upper third of the cabinet. Backwaves from the bass drivers evacuate through the larger port below.