Sony SS-AR1 loudspeaker
Every few years, it seems, Sony offers a statement product. Sometimes they do it to define a new product categorythe SCD-1 introduced to the world the SACD/CD player. Sometimes they do it because they can, as with the outstanding ES SS-M9 and ES SS-M9ED loudspeakers, enthusiastically reviewed by John Atkinson in Stereophile in September 1996 and August 2001, respectively. So when I heard that Sony would introduce a special new speaker at a "by invitation only" event at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show last January, my interest was piqued. I've always kicked myself for not buying a pair of ES SS-M9s ($3500) when I could have. The ES SS-M9EDs were even better, said JAand, at $16,000/pair, a lot more expensive. Now, a decade later, Sony has decided to make another "statement."
At the CES unveiling, an unfinished speaker cabinet stood before us as we were presented with some Sony history. Then Motoyuki Sugiura, the SS-AR1's product manager stepped up to explain the philosophy behind and the construction of the new Sony loudspeaker. The empty cabinet was there to demonstrate the SS-AR1's 2"-thick front panel, which is made of laminations of maple felled on Japan's northern island in November, when growth is slow and the grain is tight. Sugiura told us that using this wood for the entire cabinet would result in an excessively hard, rigid sound, so the rest of the enclosure is made of Finnish birch, a somewhat softer cold-climate wood. The various pieces and panels of the display cabinet had been so precisely machined and joined that it could be held together by only the tight fitting of its parts, without glue or screws.
Then came encomia: from Ray Kimber, who had already used prototype SS-AR1s in demonstrations at two Rocky Mountain Audio Fests; and from Chad Kassem, who has utilized the SS-AR1 to demonstrate some of the latest recordings from his Analogue Productions label. There followed a relatively brief demonstration of a pair of finished SS-AR1s. JA noted in his CES report that, "Driven by Pass Labs amps and an EMM SACD player, the SS-AR1s were demmed in too small and crowded a room for me to pronounce on their sound quality, other than to note that the midrange seemed exceptionally clean and uncolored."
Amen. Offered the opportunity to review a pair, I jumped on it.
Arrival and setup
Each SS-AR1 (footnote 1) arrived in a large, wheeled transit case. I found it relatively easy to unpack and set them upyes, I can still heft a 125-lb speaker, so long as it has a port to grab it by. I walked them into position and snapped on their fabric grilles.
The finish is an exquisite deep, dark, nearly black gloss, but in the right light one, can see the wood's rich grain glowing deeply from within. The two woofers of this three-way system are mounted on the front of a lower ported chamber, the midrange and tweeter on an upper one; each chamber has a rear port; the upper port is centered, the lower one displaced a bit to the left to minimize panel resonances. The chambers are isolated from each other by two rigid panels that themselves are separated by an air cavity. Because of the upper port, the 5" ScanSpeak midrange drive-unit doesn't suffer from excessive pressure on the back of its cone, despite covering an extremely wide range of 4004000Hz. Though this represents only one decade, it's probably the most important one. The 1" silk-dome tweeter that shares that chamber is driven by a motor powered by a ring of six neodymium magnets, and isolated from the midrange's rear output energy by its own back chamber. Technical details were sparsesee all of them in the head note, under "Description"but the SS-AR1 is clearly a high-quality product, and I don't need a plethora of numbers to influence my assessment of what I heard.
I connected the Sonys to the 4 ohm output taps of my 300Wpc McIntosh MC-303 three-channel power amplifier. The SS-AR1 has only one pair of terminals, so I replaced my normal AudioQuest biwire speaker cables with a pair of Straight Wire Maestro IIs. I didn't fine-tune the speaker's positions or toe-in angles, as Motoyuki Sugiura would visit within a day or two; I planned to let him set up the Sonys "properly" before I began personalizing the setup to my taste.
Sugiura's visit was a delight. After an exchange of greetings and cards, he gave me a less formal, more detailed presentation of the SS-AR1's construction and the design philosophy behind it than he had at CES, and answered all of my questions about design issues and choices. Then, using his own musical selections and my laser level, he spent an hour or so reorienting the speakers. His results turned out to be just 1" forward of, and 4" farther from the sidewalls and toed-in a bit more sharply, than my own guesstimatesbut the audible difference was marked. He then took his leave.
I first ran through all the usual suspects among my reference discs; later in the week, I began to listen to whatever music suited my fancy. With every recording, the SS-AR1 sounded clean and authoritative. The bass was tight, but noticeably more full than with the B&W 800 Diamonds that the SS-AR1s had displaced. Upper bass, too, was powerful and well articulated, and while the midrange and treble were smooth and unaggressive, the overall impression was of a warm, rich, powerful sound. Transients could be startlingly dynamic, but there was a lack of snap and sparkle unless I really turned up the volume. Although rated for a maximum of 200W input, the SS-AR1 was never taxed by >100dB levels as the McIntosh's meters flicked up to almost 300W. The lateral soundstage was detailed and stable, but didn't extend wider than the speakers until I moved 45' behind my normal 9' listening distance. The depth of soundstage, too, seemed limited at my regular seat.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the SS-AR1s over the next few weeks, but I was troubled by the soundstage limitations and, increasingly, by the abiding warmth of the speaker's tonal balance. Some might describe the SS-AR1's sound as smooth, unaggressive, and rich; it certainly was all of that, but those characteristics were also constant, in that they were imposed on all sources. It seemed hard to believe that such a sound, however much it might appeal to some tastes, could be acceptable for a recording-studio monitor. Clearly, some experimentation was called for in amplification, cabling, and, perhaps, subtle repositioning.
Here's what worked. I replaced the MC-303, a lovely amp to be sure, with a pair of Bel Canto REF1000 Mk.II monoblocks, and connected the latter to the SS-AR1's terminals with QED Silver Anniversary XT banana-terminated cables. Most of my listening was done with Sony's own XA-5400ES SACD player feeding the XLR inputs of a Parasound Halo JC 2 BP preamplifier. Each REF1000 Mk.II is rated at 1000W output into 4 ohms, so power was not an issue.
Footnote 1: I chose not to abbreviate to "AR1" my references to the SS-AR1, out of respect for Acoustic Research's classic AR-1 loudspeaker, introduced in 1954 and a pivotal product in the success of domestic hi-fi and stereo.