Sony SS-AR1 loudspeaker Page 2
It didn't take special effort to recognize that the SS-AR1's wonderfully articulate bass and lower midrange were well proportioned to a cleanly detailed upper midrange and extended treble. I hadn't gotten around to measuring the SS-AR1s before (maybe I just didn't want to), but now they measured quite flat from 16Hz to over 20kHz in my room, and, with 1/6-octave smoothing, the in-room response remained within ±5dB limits over that range. This new musical balance made listening no longer an obligation but a pleasure.
The SS-AR1 had remarkably full, extended bass quite disproportionate to its size, yet that bass was clean and precise all the way up to the midrange. For relishing the intricacies of the scoring for lower strings and brass in Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin, with Antál Dorati and the Detroit Symphony (CD, London 411 894-2), I have not heard the Sony's equal. Sure, it may not have gone as low as some bigger speakers or subwoofers, but it conveyed all the requisite weight of Bartók's percussion without obscuring any detail. The epitome of the SS-AR1's quality was that, in the midst of all the orchestral tumult, I could hear the conductor clear his voice at about 2:40 into the ballet, something I hadn't heard before from this familiar recording. Similar things happened when I listened to the subtle fingerings of guitarists Mark Knopfler or Eric Clapton at any volume level, from accommodating to very loud. Deep voicesfrom Leonard Cohen's on I'm Your Man (CD, Columbia CK 44191) to Willy DeVille's on Miracle (CD, A&M CD 5177)were simultaneously as deep, rich, and ominous as Gottlob Frick's Hunding in Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic's recording of Wagner's Die Walküre (CD, Decca 455 555-2).
The SS-AR1's midrange clarity was similarly impressiveI could hear intimate musical details that, through lesser speakers, were covered by the ensemble. In Osvaldo Golijov's Three Songs, with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony (Oceana, Tenebrae, Three Songs, Deutsche Grammophon B0009069-02). The ASO doesn't sound as rich here as they do on their Telarc discs, but I could hear all the lovely tone coloring in Golijov's score, and the exquisite soprano Dawn Upshaw clearly standing just in front of them, slightly to the right of center. Her voice is captured with gleaming warmth, and I could hear her turn toward the first violinist as he takes up the melody and she croons along.
So I could no longer delay the expected gratification of hearing Robert Silverman's complete set of Mozart's piano sonatas (SACD, IsoMike 5602), for which Ray Kimber used the SS-AR1s, among other speakers, as monitors. No disappointment. This was truly wonderful, and probably the best reproduction of an acoustic piano in my living room that I've heard. How much of my enjoymentaside from Bob's artistrywas due to Ray Kimber's IsoMike team and how much to hearing these recordings through the speakers that were used to vet those recordings, I cannot say just yet. Nonetheless, my admiration goes out to all, but especially to Bob.
I had anticipated that I would still find the Sony's extreme treble muted, but that bias was easily dispelled. The exotic percussion and sound effects that Golijov uses in Ainadamar, again with Spano and the ASO, and Dawn Upshaw (CD, Deutsche Grammophon B0006429-02), were piquant, and present in reasonable balance. But the acid test, for me, was "Yulunga (Spirit Dancer)," from Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth (CD, 4AD 45384-2). After the melismatic introduction, a single maraca is shaken and, past listening experience has told me, should sound as if played precisely at the left speaker position. The SS-AR1s made this as eerily striking as I have ever heard it, then went on to reveal all the layers of the music as the deep drums played louder and louder. What a kick!
If the Sony SS-AR1 had a fault, it was not in dynamics or transient responsemany of the recordings mentioned above deliver those in spades. These speakers could be startling, especially if I foolishly began with the level a bit too high. Somehow, the SS-AR1 always let me know when the volume setting for the music I was playing was not just right. If I set it too high, I got a punch in the face. If I set it too low, the sparkle and presence noticeably dimmed.
Set-up for soundstaging and imaging was critical with the SS-AR1s. They provided punctate placements of voices and instruments, both between the speakers and way, way back behind them. The left and right boundaries of the soundstage, however, were marked by the speaker cabinets themselves, unless I listened from much farther back than my usual 10'. From 15' back the soundstage was considerably wider, though at the cost of precise lateral localization between the speakers. When I listened to the Cowboy Junkies' classic The Trinity Session (RCA 8568-2-R), the SS-AR1s revealed all those little ambient noises that audiophiles have relished hearing from this recording for over 20 years now, and conveyed an immensely realistic sense of ambience and spacebut with less width than I have experienced before in two channels.
Compared to the Revel Ultima2 Studio and B&W 800 Diamond, the SS-AR1 distinguished itself with its strong, explicit low end and the soft, silky smoothness of its treble. Each of these three models has a detailed midrange, but the Revels seemed to have less heft, even though they lacked none when heft was demanded. Dynamics were great with all three, but the Revels and B&Ws were capable of throwing bigger soundstages that seemed to nearly wrap around me. Apparent stage width and the related sense of immersion in the soundfield depend as much on the room acoustics and speaker placements as on the speakers themselves. It is thus impossible to say which of these three speakers offered a more accurate depiction of the original recorded event. Despite my preference for greater immersion, the Sony SS-AR1s may have been the most truthful.
The Sony SS-AR1 is an impressive loudspeaker. Mated to suitable amplification, it offers honest, detailed sound without significant dynamic or spectral limitations. Not only does it join a select group of accurate and enjoyable speakers, it brings the analytical capabilities of studio monitoring to the listening room. It is best enjoyed aimed on-axis at the main listening position, from a generous listening position, and, if possible, in a large room. A price of $27,000/pair is not out of line with the SS-AR1's quality of its performance and appearance. Sony has made another statement product.