A dream I have had since I discovered the pleasures of music is to possess a time machine. Not a fancy one, just a small device that would allow me to escape modern music-making and drop in to hear what must have been some of the greatest musical experiences of all time. Classical music presents no problems: Off to 18th-century Leipzig on Sunday, of course, to hear J.S. Bach play the organ in church, after an early 19th-century Saturday evening spent in Vienna listening to Beethoven improvising at the pianoforte. During the week it would still be Vienna, but forward 80 years or so to hear Brahms premiere one of his chamber works after afternoon cocktails at the Wittgensteins', with perhaps a trip to England's Three Choirs Festival just before the Great War to hear the first performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. And the time machine would have to have transatlantic range—I couldn't miss Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic around the same time. But with jazz and rock—music that is reborn every time in performance to a greater extent than in classical—there is a bewildering choice of live events from which to choose.
Back in the early 1970s, the BBC needed a physically unobtrusive, nearfield monitor loudspeaker for use in outside-broadcast trucks. Accordingly, they instructed their design department, which at that time featured such luminaries as Dudley Harwood (the "father" of the polypropylene cone, who went on to found Harbeth) and the late Spencer Hughes (the "father" of the Bextrene cone, who went on to found Spendor), to produce such a model. Thus, not only was what was then probably the finest collection of British speaker-design talent involved in its development, there were no commercial constraints placed on the design. The only limitations were intended to be those arising from the necessarily small enclosure and the absence of the need for a wide dynamic range under close monitoring conditions.
Ever since the 1960s, when I built a pair of Altec A7 clones, I've had a preference for relatively big speakers. Yes, I was seduced by the Stax F-81 electrostatics because of their incredibly low coloration, but inevitably I felt the need to return to something that would move more air. Regardless of the type of music (I do like the big stuff) or the sound levels, unless the sound has solidity and size, I can't easily suspend disbelief.
While it is not quite accurate to say that $500/pair loudspeakers are a dime a dozen, they are by no means unusual. And since this is a price area where major design compromises are mandatory (footnote 1), the sound of such loudspeakers tends to vary all over the map, from pretty good to godawfuldepending on what performance areas the designer chose to compromise and by how much.
I approached this latest half-grander with little enthusiasm, despite Siefert's persuasive literature, I have, after all, been reading such self-congratulatory hype abiout new products for longer than most Stereophile readers have been counting birthdays. This, I must admit, was ho-humsville.
I always look forward to Stereophile's Home Entertainment Shows, where I scout out interesting new models of affordable loudspeakers. At HE2007 in New York City, I was struck by the Silverline Audio room—not only by the sound I heard there, but by the way Showgoers reacted to that sound.
When someone is described as having "written the book" on a subject, it is generally taken as a figure of speech. But veteran speaker designer Joseph D'Appolito, PhD, quite literally "wrote the book." His Testing Loudspeakers (Audio Amateur Press, 1998) is an invaluable resource for those of us who, lacking any talent for designing speakers ourselves, nevertheless find the subject of speaker performance endlessly fascinating. So when Snell's PR consultant, Bryan Stanton, contacted me a while back about reviewing the LCR7, the first design D'Appolito had seen through from start to finish for the Massachusetts-based company since he had replaced David Smith as Snell's chief engineer, I suffered from more than a little anxiety.
In some ways, building an inexpensive yet musical two-way loudspeaker is a greater design challenge than creating a cost-no-object reference product. Although the latter is a much more complex endeavor, the venerable two-way box seems to bring out the creativity and resources of the designer. Rather than throw money at the product in the form of more expensive drivers, enclosures, or components, the designer of a low-cost two-way is forced to go back to the basics, rethink closely-held tenets, and rely on ingenuity and sheer talent to squeeze the most music from a given cost. Consequently, the inexpensive two-way is the perfect vehicle for designers to develop their skills. If one has mastered this art form, one is much more likely to achieve success when more ambitious designs are attempted.
Solamente una faccia bella? At first glance, the Sonus Faber (pronounced Fah-bear) Electa Amator appears to be a typical minimonitor: a small vented box with two drivers. The speaker is significantly better-looking than Franco Serblin's first speaker system, the Snail, a subwoofer with two satellites attached via arms (see photograph in Vol.11 No.3, p.34). And, like the Oracle Delphi turntable or Goldmund Apologue speakers (the latter also an Italian design), the Amator's appearance has received at least as much attention as its performance. But is it just another pretty face?
Sonus Faber was founded in 1981 by Franco Serblin. Real wood has always featured strongly in the construction of this company's evolving range of costly, compact loudspeaker systems (footnote 1). The first was called the Parva, now in its FM4 form. This was followed by the Minima, a Tablette-sized model. The upmarket Electa came through in the last few years, followed by the Amator-Electa. This series increases in size and weight with each new introduction—for example, the Minima weighed 6kg, the Electa 12kg, the latest Extrema a massive 40kg or 88 lbs.
At present, my writing chores are divided between two fields: domestic audio and lutherie. Having invested considerable time in both, and having by now met a number of builders who are distinguished in one or the other, I can say with all confidence that the best share a simple, single point of view: Everything makes a difference.
Sonus Faber provides a fascinating and challenging insight into the art of high-quality sound reproduction. This Italian company makes two costly two-way stand-mounted speakers that couldn't be more different from each other.
Audiophile eyes usually roll when a manufacturer describes a loudspeaker as a "genuine musical instrument." Musical instruments have specific characteristics of pitch and timbre. Ideally, a loudspeaker should be a portal to the music; the speaker itself should be neutral in pitch and timbre—in other words, the opposite of a musical instrument. That the sound produced should be "musical" is a different argument.
Imaging, imaging, imaging. That's what I thought when I first heard the Sonus Faber Electa Amators reviewed by Jack English last October. How could such small speakers create such a wide, deep soundfield? John Hunter, president of Sumiko, Ltd. and importer of Sonus Faber products, was amused but not surprised at my reaction. I did the natural thing and begged for a review pair.
I know, I know"NOT ANOTHER $%#$ SONUS $%#$# FABER REVIEW IN $%#$# Stereophile!!" In just the past two years or so alone we've spilled a pretty fat bottle of ink on this Italian speaker line: Martin Colloms reviewed the $12,500/pair Extrema (Vol.15 No.6) and $9000/pair Guarneri Homage (Vol.17 No.7); Jack English covered the $4500/pair Electa Amator (Vol.15 No.10); and Larry Greenhill wrote about the $1800/pair Minima FM2 (Vol.16 No.4). That's a lotta jizzatoni, so let me tell you right off the bat that when I called Italy a few months ago, speakers were the last thing on my mind.