Sonist Concerto 3 loudspeaker Page 2

While cabinet location wasn't much of a challenge, cabinet aiming certainly was: With their front surfaces aimed directly at the listening area, the Concerto 3s sounded a bit aggressive and a bit too forward. With the cabinets aimed straight ahead—and thus with most listening done off the axis of the high-frequency ribbons—those problems were banished, but the superb stereo imaging performance that I came to admire these speakers for wasn't at its best. In particular, there seemed to be a distinction between images heard right at the speaker itself and images that should otherwise have sounded near to but not quite at the speaker. Drastic toe-in angles, with the tweeter axes crossing in front of the listening area—which work with my Audio Note AN-E/SPe HEs—didn't work with the Sonists at all. Ultimately, the solution was to toe-in the enclosures very slightly—no more than 10°—toward the listening area, in which case center-fill imaging was tight and well-focused without being fussy or exaggerated, while high-frequency smoothness endured. Fussiness did, however, raise its Clairol head when I stood the Concerto 3s on their threaded spikes (included): I very much preferred letting the cabinets sit directly on the floor.

The Concerto 3 revealed differences among various amplifiers, but without exaggeration (which would itself be a potential sign of wiggy impedance). The speaker was, indeed, electrically sensitive enough to be driven by the smoothly clear and altogether wonderful Fi 2A3 Stereo amp—at least, that combination worked well in my moderately sized room—but there were obvious gains in drama and whomp from using very-high-power amplifiers such as Shindo Lab's 20Wpc Haut-Brion and 25Wpc Corton-Charlemagne. And, yes, I'm smiling as I write that.

As I suggested earlier, the design of the Sonist Concerto 3 seemed flag-raisingly simple, and despite my initial positive responses, I kept waiting to uncover some horrid flaw in its performance—especially its bass, which I assumed would be somehow compromised. Yet when I listened to "Chapeau Blues," from the Stéphane Grapelli–Stuff Smith duet album Violins No End (LP, Pablo 2310-907), I was pleasantly surprised: If anything, Ray Brown's decidedly West Coast–style bass sounded even deeper, richer, and stronger than usual. The Sonist didn't just retrieve the percussive component of the instrument: It allowed each note to realize its fully, believably colored sustain component. On that and literally scores of other recordings, the bass range of the Concerto 3 also had good color contrast: Timbral distinctions between various low-pitched instruments were clear and distinct. Nice.

Over the days, as my listening expanded to include more orchestral music, I found a few recordings where some very deep (sub-50Hz) bass notes sounded slightly boomier and a little less well controlled than others: a mild sort of comb-filter effect that may or may not have been treatable with still more attention to placement—and a concomitant rethink of my seating area, which may have been closer than ideal to the wall behind me. In any event, the Concerto 3's bass performance was fine overall, with especially satisfying deep-bass extension (4–6dB down at 31.5Hz) and power.

The Concerto 3's treble range was musically clear: The speaker didn't distort pitches or pitch relationships by adding unpleasant harmonic products. In that classic recording by members of the Vienna Octet of Brahms's autumnal Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op.115 (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 2297), the second movement begins with a melody played by the clarinet and the first violin in succession, after which the two play together in harmony-cum-counterpoint before taking up the melody once again, in unison. Then the two instruments play a high F-sharp together, at which point two things happen: The violinist increases the depth of his vibrato, and the combination of the two notes creates a very slight "beating," as one would hear when tuning an instrument, at the moment when two sounds are almost identical in pitch. The Sonist got both effects clear as a bell.

On first listen, the Concerto 3's treble range also included some roughness and grain, but that improved drastically over the course of a few days. Still, after listening to the Concerto 3s every day for a little over a month, I think of their trebles as very slightly grainy, though not at all objectionable in that regard: Some musical sounds just persisted in having a little more texture than they should, such as very small crash cymbals—one of which inhabits "Human Highway," from Neil Young's Comes a Time (LP, Reprise MSK 2266).

With some music, the Sonist Concerto 3 was also a bit lacking in note-to-note flow; those recordings—all of them CDs—were also the ones with which the graininess seemed most pronounced, leading me to wonder if the extra texture wasn't getting in the way of the Sonist's otherwise natural, delicate note decays. I found that solo piano was most affected by that, going so far as to make some players sound somewhat more mechanical than they really are.

Overall, the Concerto 3's midrange linearity was praiseworthy—again, especially for so sensitive a loudspeaker with so minimalist a crossover. Singing voices were free from all of those colorations that appear to have been named in a doctor's office: nasal, chesty, hooty, pinched. Indeed, the Sonist was more neutral than the otherwise superb Audio Note AN-E speakers I use as a reference, in addition to which the Concerto 3 was a little less demanding in terms of seating height.

The Sonist Concerto 3 had superb scale, especially for a non-horn speaker of less than extravagant size. Used with the Shindo Corton-Charlemagne monoblock amplifier—itself an exceptionally big-sounding thing—the Sonist consistently put across convincing and recording-appropriate senses of size. Going back to that Brahms Quintet: When played back at a realistic level, the sounds of the instruments on that recording filled my moderately sized room pretty much as I'd expect the real items to do: slightly imposing at times, but never straining or overloading the acoustic space in front of me. Orchestral music was engagingly if not completely, realistically big—limited again by my room dimensions, this time in a different sense—and studio rock records such as Neil Young's Zuma (LP, Reprise MS 2242), and the aforementioned and even bigger-sounding Comes a Time, were surprisingly wide and spacious.

And what a pleasure it was to enjoy a SET-friendly loudspeaker with such good stereo imaging. Here, indeed, was a real "soundstage," with considerable depth and, within it, a convincing sense of spatial detail and instrument-to-instrument perspective. Listening to the charming recording of Saint-Saëns' Symphony 2 by Jean Martinon and l'Orchestre National de la RTF (LP, EMI ASD 2946), it was easier than usual to hear and appreciate the positions of the different instruments—and, of course, to discern that recording's typically European orchestral seating, with first violins on the left and second violins on the right. Much the same could be said of the well-recorded Bruckner Symphony 9 by Carl Schuricht and the Vienna Philharmonic (LP, EMI ASD 493). In the first movement in particular, every section of the orchestra was clearly distinct from the others. Moreover, string tone and texture in that generally tone-rich recording came across well, if a little less juicy than the best.

There was even a generous sense of stage width, especially on those wonderful early-1960s Decca recordings of orchestral music. During the first movement of Debussy's Petite Suite, performed by Ernest Ansermet and l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (LP, Decca SXL 2303), a line played by the string basses very high in their range came from so far to the right of the right-channel speaker that it made me jump in my seat.

More or less the same was true with well-recorded rock, and even with the indifferently recorded variety. The Byrds' very peculiar recording of "Satisfied Mind," from Turn! Turn! Turn! (LP, Columbia/Sundazed CK 5058), was presented well by the Sonist: Singers were globbed together in a reverb-y mess to the center and slightly behind, with the drier-sounding electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric bass, and percussion each occupying their own clear, forward spaces to the sides. Cool.

In all, I really enjoyed my time with the Sonist Concerto 3. It came as close as I've heard to being the one true, affordable, all-around satisfying choice among the SET-friendly loudspeakers with which I'm familiar. The last speaker I'd tried that combined this level of sensitivity with such reasonably neutral mids and superb stereo imaging was the Horning Perikles (see "Listening" in the February 2006 Stereophile), which sold for over twice as much ($8500/pair) and is apparently no longer in production.

Far too often in the past, SET lovers and others of us who prefer low-power amps in general have been conditioned to think that sensitivity and drivability can be had only at the cost of neutrality or smoothness or bass extension—especially if the speaker costs less than $10,000/pair. The Sonist Concerto 3 is the strongest contrary evidence I've heard to date. It isn't without flaw, but then neither are any of the other $3500/pair speakers I've heard lately—and most of them can't get out of their own way with less than 50W.

Ten minutes from now, this review will be in John Atkinson's in-box, and I'll be moving on to other assignments. But the Sonist Concerto 3s are still playing in my room, and while my regular speakers are indeed better in a great many ways, I'm in no hurry to swap things around quite yet. I know from conversations with other reviewers that that often amounts to the highest praise of all.

Sonist Loudspeakers
11333 Moorpark Street, No.80
Studio City, CA 91602
(818) 632-0692