After establishing a reputation for building small, magnificent-looking, very expensive, stand-mounted loudspeakers, the Italian manufacturer Sonus Faber has hit the ground running. First came the moderately priced ($3500/pair) floorstanding Concerto Grand Pianos, and now the company's "statement" loudspeaker, the Amati Homage--a $20,000/pair visual stunner that earns its keep almost by looks and touch alone.
I've never heard a pair of the Italian Sonus Faber speakers I didn't like. What I've never liked was the US price: too high. And then you have to put them on costly stands. Plus, you're paying a premium for the magnificent woodworking and exquisite design—something I wasn't into, since I live with my stereo in a basement office/workshop/listening room some (who shall remain nameless) refer to as the "habitat for inhumanity."
It is the audio writer's nightmare that the combination of the large number of exhibitors at a Consumer Electronics Show and the very limited amount of time the Show's doors are open will lead him to miss the event's biggest story. I came close to living that nightmare last January, at the 2007 CES, when I realized that I had missed an entire floor of Las Vegas's Venetian Hotel. And it was, of course, the floor where, among other high-profile high-end companies, Sumiko was debuting the Cremona Elipsa from Italian speaker manufacturer Sonus Faber.
"The Sonus Faber Cremona is the finest cabinet-built speaker I have heard for under $10,000/pair," wrote the usually reticent Sam Tellig in the January 2003 Stereophile. "Bravissimo...Molto, molto bene" he added to his paean of praise for the Italian speaker manufacturer's founder and chief engineer, Franco Serblin.
Yamaha once made a loudspeaker shaped like an ear. I felt sorry for the guy (especially if he was an audiophile) who had to write the ad copy explaining why a speaker shaped like an ear would sound better than one shaped like a shoebox or a wedge of cheese. An ear-shaped loudspeaker makes about as much sense as an eyeball-shaped television. But what about a loudspeaker that is designed like a musical instrument?
Conventional wisdom has it that large Japanese corporations are insular. But when it comes to audio, Sony bucks the conventional wisdom as much as it does in pretty much everything it does. In Europe, the company has long had an excellent reputation for producing loudspeakers using local design talent, so I wasn't surprised to see Sony launching a line of American-designed and -made speakers at Stereophile's 1994 High-End Hi-Fi Show in Miami. Stereophile writer Barry Willis came away from that Show raving about the Sonys: "What we heard was gorgeous, absolutely beautiful: rich, warm, and deep, with a seductive midrange, a shimmering, delicate, grain-free top-end, and a soundstage to die for," he wrote about the sound of the three-way SS-M7 in Miami (footnote 1), 1 concluding that "WATT/Puppy performance is now available at Vandersteen prices in an American-made loudspeaker sporting a Japanese badge."
The occasion was the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show, and I had sought out the Sony suite at Bally's—the word in the Las Vegas bars where audio journalists hung out was that Sony was demonstrating the production version of their SCD-1 Super Audio CD player. I was glad I'd made the trek along the Strip: As I reported in the May 1999 Stereophile, the sound of a DMP recording—of unaccompanied choral music recorded and mixed in DSD by Tom Jung—was breathtaking, I felt, with an exquisite sense of space. It was definitely the best sound at the CES.
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."
A highlight for me of Stereophile's 2011 equipment reviews was Kalman Rubinson's report on Sony's SS-AR1 loudspeaker in July. I had been impressed by this unassuming-looking floorstander at the 2009 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, when, courtesy Ray Kimber, I had used a pair for my "Loudness Wars" demonstrationand was equally impressed when I used another pair for a dem of my recordings at Massachusetts retailer Goodwin's High End, in summer 2011. The SS-AR1 costs $27,000/pair and combines a full frequency range with an uncolored, detailed midrange, sweet-balanced highs, and excellent dynamics. "The Sony SS-AR1 is an impressive loudspeaker," summed up Dr. Kal; "it brings the analytical capabilities of studio monitoring to the listening room." So when I learned that Sony had introduced a smaller, less-expensive version, the SS-AR2 ($20,000/pair), it took me less than the proverbial New York minute to request a pair for review.
The Sound-Lab electrostatic loudspeakers are legendary. Many serious audiophiles have heard of them, and rumors of their existence abound in audio circles. But, like gnomes, UFOs, and poltergeists, Sound-Lab loudspeakers are sufficiently hard to find that it is sometimes difficult to prove to skeptics that they exist at all. Well, I can now report that they do. As proof of this contention, I can point to the two which are actually occupying solid, tangible space in my listening room at this very moment. I have even taken a photo of them, which will be published along with this report if they leave any sort of an image on the film emulsion. (Many such apparitions do not!)
I'm never more conservative than when the subject turns to home audio. And at the end of the day, I want little more than to preserve the hobby's finest institutions: Alnico magnets. Parchment cones. Mono. Sonata form. Ballads that actually tell stories. Give me tubes. Give me vinyl. Give me thin-walled hardwood cabinets, obsolete tweeters, and handmade polypropylene woofers. Give me the Spendor BC1.
I am puzzled. No, really. I know you find it hard to believe that we sacerdotes of the golden-eared persuasion could ever be perplexed, but I have been pondering the imponderables of ports. Ever since the classic work of Richard Small and Neville Thiele in the early '70s showed how the low-frequency response of any box loudspeaker can be modeled as an electrical high-pass filter of some kind, with the relevant equations and data made available to all, there would seem to be very little reason why all loudspeakers with the same extension should not sound alike (or at least very similar) below 100Hz. Yet after reviewing 20 dynamic loudspeakers (and using 24) in the same room over the last seven months, I am led to the conclusion that speakers vary as much in the quality of their mid-to-upper bass as they do in any other region. A few are dry, more are exaggerated in this region; some are detailed and "fast," most are blurred, with the upper bass "slow" (by which I mean that the weight of bass tone seems to lag behind the leading edges of the sound).
Really Big Hi-Fi came to live with me for a couple of months this past spring in the form of a pair of Tannoy Churchill loudspeakers. They were trucked directly to San Rafael, California from Kitchener, Ontario, in flight cases so bulky they could double as coffins for NFL offensive linemen. Once ensconced chez moi, the Tannoy dreadnoughts provoked bewilderment, alarm, curiosity, envy, admiration, awe, and amazement in all who heard and saw them.
My friend Harvey Rosenberg, who had more clever ideas in a day than most of us have in a lifetime, was a Tannoy loudspeaker enthusiast. I, on the other hand, had little experience with the brand before 1995, when Harvey invited me to come over and hear his then-new Tannoy Westminster Royals.
Tetra Speakers may not be a familiar name to many US audiophiles. Based in Ottawa, Ontario, the company has been around for a decade, but has taken a slow and steady approach to building its visibility in the insanely competitive and trend-conscious world of high-end loudspeakers.