Richard Shahinian has been offering loudspeakers to music lovers for more than 15 years. I use the word "offering" here in its strictest sense, because Dick has never "sold" his products—by pushing them. Indeed, he is probably one of the worst self-promoters in the business. If we think of "soft sell" in the usual context of laid-back and low-pressure, then Shahinian's approach would have to be called "mushy sell."
It must be difficult for makers of audio equipment to decide how to best exhibit their products at events such as the annual Consumer Electronics Show. If you're doing a demo, you want it to impress audio journalists and potential dealers, and sometimes just playing music is not enough: you need something extra. A few years ago, Joseph Audio put on a demo, supposedly of their top-of-the-line floorstanding speaker, during which Jeff Joseph removed a cloth that had been draped over what was assumed to be hotel-room furniture. Under that cloth were the speakers that were actually playing: Joseph's new in-wall model, mounted on flat baffles. Wilson Audio Specialties demonstrated their speakers with purportedly ultra-high-end electronics and digital source, then revealed that they were actually using a modestly priced preamp and power amp, and that the source was an Apple iPod.
The Type A has served as Snell Acoustics' flagship loudspeaker since 1974. The Type A Reference System reviewed here is the sixth update of the late Peter Snell's original three-way floorstanding design, and is the most radical departure from Snell's original. Gone is the pair of "upright bricks of polished wood and stretched cloth" (footnote 1) that delighted decorators because they functioned best against a wall. Today's Type A Reference $18,999 price tag (footnote 2) purchases two tall midrange-tweeter towers, two huge subwoofers, two short but heavy enclosures housing the outboard passive crossover networks, and a small electronic crossover.
Say "Type A" to a group of psychologists and they immediately think "hard-driving, workaholic executive." Speak the same phrase among audiophiles, and the late Peter Snell's (1946-1984) flagship loudspeaker comes to mind. The model reviewed here is the seventh iteration of Snell Acoustics' Type A, and this is the 12th published review of the product in American audio magazines. (The last one published in Stereophile was in March 1996, Vol.19 No.3, of the Type A Reference.)
"How do you make an object common as a box iconic?" asked Bob Graffy, Snell's vice president/brand manager. He and Joseph D'Appolito, Snell's chief design engineer, were sitting in my listening room, discussing cabinet designs. Graffy noted that KEF had sought the same in their distinctive, silvery, cylindrical Muon loudspeaker ($150,000/pair). For the flagship model in their Illusion series, Snell commissioned Gerd Schmieta, former designer for Ideo, to integrate D'Appolito's wish list for an ideal enclosure: a narrow, rounded upper baffle for the midrange and tweeter, wider at the base for the woofers, holding a constant cross-sectional area while maximizing cabinet volume, and compliance with a 15° tip test.
The Snell Type C/IV's design has been highly influenced by both the testing methods and philosophy of Canada's National Research Council in Ottawa. Other well-known loudspeakers to have benefited from the NRC's testing facilities include the Mirage M-1 and M-3, PSB Stratus Gold, the Waveform, and Camber 3.5. The NRC provides a variety of services to loudspeaker designers, notably use of their testing facilities which include a full-sized anechoic chamber. In addition, the NRC is heavily involved in carefully controlled blind listening comparisons between loudspeakers, used to aid the loudspeaker designer while the product is under development. The NRC doesn't provide design services, but rather the means of testing and evaluating work in progress and finished products.
Despite not offering design aid, many loudspeakers created with the NRC's testing and listening laboratories share some common philosophies. Chief among these is the belief that flat amplitude response is far and away the most significant factor in listener preferences and thus should be the paramount design goal. Many NRC-influenced loudspeakers share steep crossover slopes, wide dispersion, smooth off-axis response, and pay considerable attention to the way the loudspeaker interacts with the listening room.
When I say that this past—and last—Summer CES in Chicago was dead daddy dead, I'm not talking about fewer high-end exhibits and attendees than ever before. I'm talking I walked in the front door of the Chicago Hilton and almost puked from that smell of dead, mealy meat that hits you in the face and kicks-in the gag reflex. The smell of death you can taste even if you're breathing with your mouth. In most religions, it's a sin to let something that dead just sit there without at least spreading some lye on it to kill the stink. I once cut a man for misadjusting the VTA on my cartridge, and that man lying on my listening-room floor with an Allen wrench still clenched in his hand wasn't as dead as this last SCES.
One question posed by John Atkinson at the July 1991 StereophileWriters Conference had to do with the ease of reviewing: Is it harder to write a bad review of an expensive product than a good review? I find it hardest to write a good review of an inexpensive product. If I admire a less expensive loudspeaker, for example, it may become a recommended component, and can displace a more expensive speaker (that received mixed comments) from our twice-yearly rankings. This can be a big responsibility; even a conditional rave of a low-cost product means that JA may assign another Stereophile reviewer to do an immediate follow-up report. The Snell Type E/III loudspeaker may be a good case in point.
The patter of the snare drum began softly and I leaned forward in my seat. Avery Fisher Hall fell silent as Riccardo Muti led the New York Philharmonic in Ravel's Boléro. Ravel once described this masterpiece as "lasting 17 minutes and consisting wholly of orchestral texture without music—of one long, very gradual crescendo." Though the hall was silent and expectant, the stage was packed with musicians waiting for...what? To gradually join in, one by one and layer by layer, to drive that gentle but relentlessly mounting crescendo. Ravel accomplished this by "having solo instruments play the melody...[then progressing] to groups" and finally "arranging the scoring so that the dynamics are self-regulating" (footnote 1). When the final, thunderous E-major chord stopped the piece by locking "all its harmonic gears," the hall erupted in ecstatic applause, and we all leapt to our feet.
Time thins the ranks of specialist industries. Trends, products, and companies come and go. High-end audio is a poster child for this reality, and most veteran audiophiles have evidence of the casualtiesliterature or orphaned products, stashed away somewhere. But a small number of true believers remain true to their visions, and persevere to help advance the state of the art.
I know from conversations with other reviewers that this sort of thing happens all the time: Something new comes alonga product from a company we've never heard of, a technology we've never encountered before, whateverand when we're impressed, we end up wondering if the thing is really as good as we think. We're insecure, just like you (footnote 1).
The Amati Futura is the third Sonus Faber loudspeaker to be called an Amati. The first, named simply the Amati and priced at $20,000/pair, was reviewed for Stereophile by Michael Fremer in June 1999. I reviewed the second, the Amati Homage Anniversario ($27,500/pair), in May 2006.
Back in the day, one of the first reviews to be posted in our free online archives at www.stereophile.com was Michael Fremer's June 1999 report on the Sonus Faber Amati Homage loudspeaker. The Amati was the second in the Italian manufacturer's top range, the Homage line, which is dedicated to the master makers of stringed instruments of 17th-century Cremona. The first was the Guarneri Homage (reviewed by Martin Colloms in July 1994), while the third was the Stradivari Homage (reviewed by MF in January 2005). Mikey was so impressed by the Amati that he purchased the review samples and used them as his reference for almost three years.