Sonus Faber Guarneri Evolution loudspeaker Page 2
Setup and installation
On the one hand, the Sonus Faber cartonactually, a wooden crate tucked inside an unprepossessing cardboard boxwas the heaviest thing I've ever lifted by myself. On the other hand, no prospective Sonus Faber owner should be deprived of the pleasure of unpacking these speakers for himself. The crate was better built than my house. Something in the boxthe wood, the grilles, the whateverexuded a pleasantly exotic, almost turpentine-like aroma. It was love, already.
Setting up the Guarneri Evolutions proved slightly more challenging than average, and my own tentative first steps didn't get me where I wanted to go. Then Bill Peugh of Sumiko, Sonus Faber's US distributor, visited and took over the job, performing what his company refers to as the Master's Protocol: The installer begins by aligning a single speaker to the room, in an effort to maximize first bass extension, then bass output, then bass linearity. In the next step, the installer turns his attention to the other speaker, doing much the same. Finally, he adjusts the toe-in of the two enclosures, after which the rake angles of the two loudspeakers are aligned with one another. I was surprised by the importance of that last step: I expected its impact would be limited to the sort of fussy, head-in-a-vise, depth-obsessed imaging artifacts in which I have no interest whatsoever. In fact, "syncing" the speakers' rake angles was critical to locking in a perception of aural openness and scale from every listening position. Interestingly, the Evolution stands aren't spiked (good), and thus lack easy adjustability (bad). Peugh gamely compensated by using short lengths of cable under the front portions of the marble bases, rolling them slightly fore or aft to achieve just the right rake.
A word about power: Although I've long admired the performance of the various Sonus Faber models I've heard at audio shows, it was the company's US distributor that approached me regarding the possibility of a Guarneri Evolution review, rather than the other way around. I reminded Sumiko's Bill Peugh of my predilection for low-power amplifiers, and of the fact that the most powerful amp I own provides a modest (by most people's standards) output of 25Wpc. The review proceeded as planned, although when Peugh visited my home to fine-tune the installation, he observedand I agreedthat the Guarneris' performance in my room might have been enhanced by another 25Wpc or so. I made an effort to borrow either a more powerful version of the Shindo Corton-Charlemagne or another pair of basic Corton-Charlemagnes, for biamping, but that didn't work out in time for my deadline.
That's germane, owing to a shortcoming I noted in the Guarneri Evolution's performance in my system: It didn't allow recorded music to "breathe" as well as other, more efficient speakers with which I'm familiar. Without question, that's the sort of thing that might have been coaxed along with a bigger stick.
That said, the combination of Sonus Faber Guarneri Evolution and Shindo Corton-Charlemagne was consistently engaging and emotionally effective, owing mostly to its superior way with musical timbres. While some loudspeakers are designed to excel at bass extension, or stereo imaging, or sheer touch and impact, it seemed that the Guarneri's raison d'être is tone: deep pools of pure, undiluted, richly textured, richly colored, real-life tone. If tone were a controlled substance, the pleasantly warm Sonus FaberShindo combination could prove lethal.
And what a way to go. Clarinets, cellos, bombards, violas da gambatry almost any track on Musica Antiqua Vienna's fascinating Le Jardin Musical (LP, Supraphon 1 11 2126)pianos, English tenors and English horns were all drenched in believable timbral color. The Sonus Fabers were also superb at getting across the percussive components of those natural sounds, as of the woodwinds, harp, double bass, and piano featured in the Woody Herman recording of Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto (LP, Everest SDBR 3009). Forgive this comparison for having more to do with merchandise than with music (and for my having used it a few times too many), but the Guarneri Evolutions presented sonic details in the manner of my Quad ESLs: not by dint of brightness, but with subtlety and the sort of warm clarity that suits my tastes, though I suppose it may confound listeners who prefer a lighter, perhaps more open presentation.
For all that, the Guarneri Evolution rocked quite nicely, with good momentum and musical flow, and surprisingly good freedom from timing distortions. Brisk tempos, as found throughout the dB's underrated The Sound of Music (LP, IRS 42055), came across well, as did the sound and impact of larger pop ensembles, as in Roxy Music's tear-jerking live cover of "Jealous Guy," from The High Road (LP, Warner/EG 23808-1B). Bass extension was notably less than that of my reference Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE speakersthe measured response was a couple of dB down at 40Hz, with some audible output at 31.5Hzbut satisfying nonetheless.
Large-scale classical music was handled exceptionally well by the Guarneri Evolutionsand their timbral warmth and innately good musical flow made CDs a bit more listenable than usual, encouraging me to sample some of the many opera recordings I have in that format. When I listened to my favorite stereo-era recording of Puccini's Turandot, with Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Bjîrling, and Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Rome Opera House Orchestra (CD, RCA Victor 62687-2), the Sonus Fabers sounded clear and unstrained on massed voices, with enduringly good color and texture on strings and brass, and reasonably good weight on drums (as in "O, giovinotto"). Also impressive was the sheer feel of the pizzicato strings during the orchestra's dramatic accents in "Signore, ascolta!" and elsewhere. Dramatic contrasts and peak dynamic levels were limited compared to the more efficient speakers I'm used to, but that, too, could be expected to improveup to a point, given the natural limitations imposed by the speakers' sizewith the application of more power.
Spatially, the Sonus Fabers were very much to my taste. Perhaps because of the overall tonal balance for which they were voicedone in which treble extension appears to have been intentionally limited in order not to call attention to the lack of very deep bassthe Guarneris weren't among those speakers known for razor-sharp (and fussy, and ultimately unrealistic) delineation of instrumental and vocal images. Yet the Sonus Fabers did, indeed, "disappear" when optimally set up: When I walked into the room where they were playing, when I stood nearer one speaker than the other, and when I sat in the sweet spot, the speakers themselves seemed silent, a colorful and lovely stretch of sound appearing from just a short distance behind them.
Unusually for a pair of speakers that demand such care in terms of getting the cabinet angles precisely correct for both channels, the Sonus Fabers were tolerant of off-center listening. Yes, sitting at or near the sweet seat rewarded me with maximum clarity, openness, and imaging focus, but I found that I could move my seat, or even stand and walk about the room, without disrupting my listening pleasure. That was especially nice with larger pieces of music, such as my preferred recording of Richard Strauss's Tod und Verklärung, recorded in September 1957 by Artur Rodzinski with the Philharmonia Orchestra (LP, Seraphim S-60030). Scale was goodsurprisingly so for such a small speakerbut not of the highest order. My reference Audio Note loudspeakers, which are still better in that regard, are unashamed of their means of sounding big: they use their own generously sized walls and those of the room to reflect the sound, helping the ears believe they're in the presence of something sizable. With their more-or-less absorptive baffles and their streamlined enclosures, the Sonus Fabers couldn't do quite the same trickyet they managed nonetheless to produce a soundfield of reasonable size, when that was called for.
Drawbacks? Though consistently colorful, well textured, and possessed of relatively good impact (for a two-way, non-horn-loaded speaker of average sensitivity), the Sonus Fabers were somewhat program-dependent. XTC's Nonsuch (CD, Geffen GEFD-24474), auditioned as a rip of a "Red Book" CD through my computer-audio setup, sounded surprisingly rolled off, veiled, and unsatisfying through these speakers. Switching back to my Audio Notes, I was reminded that the recording has a somewhat soft EQ, without much in the way of transient snap in Colin Moulding's electric bass or drummer Dave Mattacks's drum kit: Somehow, the Sonus Fabers seized on those characteristics and exaggerated them. Similarly, the fine recording by Hilary Hahn and Colin Davis of Elgar's Violin Concerto (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 00289 474 8732), which is a bit dull-sounding under even the best circumstances, was unlistenably so through the Sonus Fabers: It took on the tonal profile of a 78rpm record, but without the format's redeeming presence and force. Still and all, the almost incomparably brilliant The Boatman's Call, by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (LP, Mute/Reprise 46530), which is not at all an airy, sparkly recording, sounded fine through the Guarneri Evolutions. Go figure.
There are lots of positives here and relatively few negatives. Chief among the former is the realistic manner in which the Guarneri Evolution, working in the context of my system and my room, was able to suggest the natural textures and colors of musical sounds. Listening to its way with instrumental and vocal timbres was almost like viewing and touching a rare Sarouk rug, or drinking a 40-year-old Armagnac. For the listener who delights, above all else, in the rich, saturated, velvety tones of real instruments and voices, I can think of no more appropriate loudspeaker.
Obviously, there are loudspeakers that can scale greater dynamic heights with the sort of gear that I ownyet the vast majority of those are large and costly, and they ask the listener to make sacrifices in other performance areas. Viewed in the context of traditional high-end speakers, there's a lot of competition at or below the Guarneri Evolution's price. Of the models with which I'm familiar, the Quad ESL-2905 ($12,499/pair), Vivid B1 ($14,990/pair), and, especially, Wilson Audio Sophia 3 ($17,600/pair) offer similar levels of musical involvement, albeit with different combinations of sonic strengths. Judged solely on the basis of technology for the dollar, all three would appear to offer greater valuethough it's less easy to estimate the worth of the handcrafting that makes the Guarneri Evolution what it is.
Which brings us to where we began: Some people don't mind paying a premium for all the things that make a difference, as long as the difference is one that matters to them. For domestic audio enthusiasts who are pleased by golden, not gray, to whom the hue and the flesh are nearly everything (and musical momentum, flow, and touch are everything else), a device such as the Guarneri Evolution might be worth whatever Sonus Faber asks for it. Warmly recommended.