Sony SS-NA2ES loudspeaker Page 2
And then I broke it. I was performing some preliminary in-room measurements of one SS-NA2ES, using a new D/A converter directly feeding a power amplifier. I inadvertently began a sweep tone without first checking that the DAC's volume control had been correctly set. The DAC was set to maximum volume. The woofer voice-coils banged against their end stops, and by the time I'd leapt across the rooms to switch the amplifier off, the sweep had burned out the tweeters of the speaker I was testing. Shamefaced, I let Yuki Sugiura know what had happened. Rather than a single replacement, he sent a new matched pair of SS-NA2ESes. I had marked the precise speaker positions with tape, so I set the new speakers up in the identical positions and continued with my auditioning. All of my following comments refer to those second samples.
Pink noise sounded smooth with my ears level with the tweeters, though the mid-treble was somewhat prominent. Sitting up in my chair so that my ears were level with the speakers' tops gave the best-balanced sound, which is not whatI would have expected from the Sony's measured vertical dispersion.
The SS-NA2ESes offered a warm, rich balance with Brahms's Symphony 2, with Kurt Sanderling conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden (Apple Lossless files ripped from CD, Eurodisc 69220-2, long deleted), with no suggestion that the top octave was elevated. However, I first began listening to the Sony SS-NA2ESes when we were auditioning candidates for June's "Recording of the Month." Initially, I had not been impressed by Aidan Baker's Already Drowning (CD, Gizeh GZH 043CD), thinking that its cymbals, particularly in the title track, had been hyped in the treble. I told Stephen Mejias, who had proposed this recording, that the sound of the cymbals reminded me of the mixing engineer's cliché of "10 at 10": ie, using a parametric equalizer to boost the 10kHz region by 10dB, which adds "life" and "sparkle" to otherwise dead-sounding mixes. But even as I was won over by the extraordinary music making on this disc, I began to wonder if what I was hearing was at least in part due to the Sony speaker.
This suspicion was confirmed when I played "Mr. Big," from Free's Live! (Apple Lossless file ripped from CD, Island CID 9160), which had been recorded by the late great Andy Johns in 1971: Simon Kirke's crash cymbals in the song's intro had too much sizzle. (The young JA, who saw Free play live several times around the time this album was recorded, used to dis bassist Andy Fraser for not playing enough notes; the 2013 JA admires how Fraser was wise enough to play no more notes than were necessary.) This aspect of the Sony's sonic signature was not an issue when the recording had a natural tonal balance, as with the Sanderling Brahms disc mentioned above, or Jeff Beck performing "Corpus Christi Carol," from our June 2010 "Recording of the Month," Emotion & Commotion (Apple Lossless file ripped from CD, Atco R2 523695). But it will make integrating the Sonys into an existing system based on more mellow-balanced speakers rather tricky.
At the other end of the spectrum, the lower-frequency, 1/3-octave warble tones on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2) were reproduced with full weight down to the 50Hz band, with the 32Hz warble reinforced by the lowest-frequency mode in my room. The 25Hz tone was audible, albeit at a reduced level. On the half-stepspaced toneburst track on Editor's Choice, the tones spoke very cleanly for a ported design. The chromatic bass lines in Philip Ledger's performance of Liszt's Prelude & Fugue on B.A.C.H., from his Organ Music from King's (24-bit/192kHz transfer from LP, EMI HQS-1356)in German, the note B is referred to as H, "B" being B-flatsounded both even and weighty, with good low-frequency extension. Similarly, In John Marks's excellent-sounding recording of Beverly Jerold performing Bach, captured to 24/192 PCM with the Ayre QA-9 A/D converter (see "The Fifth Element," April 2013), the organ's bass register had excellent weight and extension for a speaker with a relatively modest footprint.
The sound of my Fender bass on the Editor's Choice CD's track-ID signals was very clearly delineated by the Sony speaker, though with a slight suppression of the lowest fundamental at 41Hz. Nevertheless, J.V. Collier's bass-guitar solo in "Rainbow's Cadillac," from Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers' download-only album Dagle's Choice Vol.4 (16/44.1 FLAC file, recorded live in Asheville, North Carolina, July 25, 2009), had excellent definition and the appropriate weight. And the kick-drum explosions from Sonny Emory that punctuate Hornsby's ragtime-meets-Monk piano intro to this song also sounded appropriately explosive. This pair of Sonys may have four woofers of relatively small diameter, but the speakers' low-frequency dynamic range didn't want for much, at least in my 25' by 15' listening room.
The Sony SS-NA2ES offered an uncolored midrange, with a balance in this region very similar to what I remembered from the SS-AR2, if with not quite the same purity. Neither was its midrange as clean and clear as the YGA Sonja's, though it was less laid-back than that of the Bowers & Wilkins 804 Diamond, which Kal Rubinson reviews elsewhere in this issue. Female voicesAnnie Lennox's in "Downtown Lights," for example, from her wonderful Medusa (CD, Arista 25717-2), or S¢nia Grané's soprano in Trevor Pinnock's excellent new chamber-orchestra recording of Mahler's Symphony 4 (24/192 ALAC files, Linn Records, from CKD438)were presented as being slightly forward of the plane defined by the speaker baffles. Even so, stereo imaging was precisely defined, stable, and accurate, dual-mono pink noise being reproduced as a narrow point midway between the speakers, though the image was slightly wider at high frequencies than in the midrange.
This combination of a slightly forward tonal balance and precise stereo imaging allowed me to comprehend and enjoy a wealth of recorded detail. The antiphonal spatial effects in Prefab Sprout's "When Loves Breaks Down," from the 1984 album Steve McQueen (CD, US title Two Wheels Good, Epic EK 40100), produced by Thomas Dolby, was readily apparent. (The Lennox and Sprout recordings date from that Golden Age when engineers and producers of rock recordings were still comfortable with preserving dynamic range and space and contrast in their mixes.) The slight change in recorded perspective between the two outer movements of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto 2 and the inner movement, in which the baroque trumpet is tacet (with Richard Egarr directing, from the harpsichord, the Academy of Ancient Music; 24/88.2 Apple Lossless file, Harmonia Mundi HMU 807461.62), was very noticeable through the SS-NA2ESes.
Similarly, the differences between the close, dry acoustic of Robert Silverman's delicate performance of Mozart's Piano Sonata in D, K.311, which I recorded in concert at our Home Entertainment 2005 show in New York (24/44.1 AIFF file), the more reverberant acoustic of the similar-sized recital hall in which I recorded Bob performing Beethoven's Piano Sonata 21 ("Waldstein") in 2000, from his complete set of the Beethoven sonatas (16/44.1 Apple Lossless file, OrpheumMasters KSP-830); and the more anonymous in character but obviously larger college concert hall in which I'd recorded him performing Beethoven's Diabelli Variations in 2004 (CD, Stereophile STPH017-2), were all readily apparent through the Sony speakers.
As Robert Silverman did with the Diabellis, Bruce Hornsby plays a Steinway. But the demands of live rock concerts mean that, even when the instrument is featured, as in Hornsby's recital of five Goldberg Variations accompanied by a heavy drum beat at the start of his live performance of "Gonna Be Some Changes Made" (256kbps MP3, from Noisemakers Summer 2007), it sounds rather undistinguished, even as the Sony speakers pulled it out of the mix a little. But after I pulled up this track on the Marantz NA-11S1 media server (to be reviewed in the October issue), I ended up listening all through the entire double album, so enticing was the sound of the Sonys driven by the combination of Classé power amplifiers and Pass Labs XP-30 preamplifiereven with MP3s!
With a footprint no larger than that of a bookshelf speaker on its stand, Sony's SS-NA2ES is beautifully finished, and offers low coloration, high sensitivity, accurate and stable stereo imaging, and enough low frequencies to be musically satisfying.
To get the bad news out of the way, the SS-NA2ES doesn't sound quite as superb, overall, as Sony's SS-AR2. The good news is that, at $10,000 rather than $20,000/pair, the SS-NA2ES offers its owner 90% of the performance of the SS-AR2 for 50% of its price. Unless your collection consists of naturally recorded jazz and classical recordings, the speaker's top-octave balance will require a little more care in system matching than the SS-AR2's, but with that proviso, I confidently recommend the SS-NA2ES.