Sonus Faber Extrema loudspeaker Page 3

A number of fine, recommendable speakers can only scale the audiophile heights when their idiosyncrasies have been pandered to. They are sufficiently flawed as to need great care taken with placement, height, separation from boundaries, and angling, as well as being very sensitive to the complementary sounds of cables, power and control amplifiers, even to CD sources and moving-coil cartridges. They might have suspect bass and require the most careful positioning of both speaker and listener to involve the room acoustic in some kind of bass equalization. The result may still be more than satisfactory, but it is always something of a compromise. Speakers unduly critical of height or lateral axis tend to have poor drive-unit integration as well as uneven directivity patterns. The fact that a unique axis can be found on which frequency response sounds flat doesn't affect the sound off-axis, which then voices the room acoustic in a characteristically uneven pattern. A disparity is then apparent between the optimum on-axis sound and that present in the room.

I felt comfortable with the Extrema's sound early on in the system alignment. On- and off-axis, in the room and around the speaker, the tonal quality sounded consistent and neutral. In my book, this behavior implied fundamental strengths in overall integration, tonal accuracy, and a good directivity pattern—a most welcome first result.

In fact, the Extrema's tonal accuracy proved to be its enduring strength, distinguishing it from a large number of audiophile speakers. The Extrema often sounded like a well-set-up Quad ESL-63 electrostatic mixed with BBC-derived balances, such as that of the Spendor S100 and S20. In some recent speaker reviews I have commented that some designs have sounded a touch exaggerated, almost "speakerish"—recognizably good, but insufficiently neutral to allow one to forget the sound sources. The WATT 3/Puppy, however, can do the trick. Now, so does the Sonus Faber Extrema. Although not entirely devoid of "character," the Extrema proved consistently faithful to balances present on the recordings. In this respect, it could be regarded as a small-scale recording monitor.

For consistent tonal neutrality, a speaker also needs to be low in coloration. Coloration—false tonal or timbral effects occurring in narrow sectors of the frequency range—may be due to a peaky area of the frequency response or long-term resonances or hangover (such as bell-like acoustic features hidden in the overall sound) occasionally brought into prominence by the spectra of specific instruments. The Quad ESL-63 is one of the finest low-coloration loudspeakers; for moving-coil designs, the WATT 3/Puppy and now the Extrema run very close seconds. Praise indeed!

The subjective frequency response was wide and linear, with the low-frequency output solid right into the bass. The treble was open and effective to the edge of audibility. Moreover, this speaker sounded uncannily smooth, never aggressive, hard, or unfriendly except where the program demanded. It was very easy to live with for long periods. This is an underrated factor; often those excitable, exciting "flavor-of-the-month" designs prove exaggerated and fatiguing in the long term. Sometimes they insist on playback volume levels that are too high for long-term comfort. I see the Extrema settling into a classically furnished room and being left to get on with the job for years to come.

Having covered the case for accuracy and lasting quality, the audio conservatives have been satisfied. But can the Extrema boogie? The answer is a resounding "Yes—and how!" This speaker does not quite match the remarkable rhythmic integrity of the WATT 3/Puppy, but it surely comes close—so close, in fact, that without the WATT available as an immediate reference, I was indisposed to doubt the Extrema's rhythmic capability. It can rock with the best of them, aided by its facility to fine-tune the bass to a valuable midline between the conflicting attributes of weight vs crispness at low frequencies.

On both classical and rock material the Extremas repeatedly presented the music's pulse, transforming the reviewing task from chore to pleasure. Quite simply, the speaker was fun to be with. Another vital area was also dealt with most effectively: its rendition of transients was fast, lively, and accurate. Compressive effects were very low; the speaker sounded very dynamic, explosive when so required by the source. Crescendi were seemingly effortless, even with big musical forces; the Extrema's dynamic capability went far beyond expectation for a stand-mounted, two-way design. In this respect it happily matched the performance of the larger high-performance three-way designs.

I found the Extremas' soundstage to be very well focused, a quality maintained from far left to far right. Stage width was very good, and in the right room could be increased by careful balancing of the speakers' positions relative to the side walls. Height was also presented well, though not to the inflated degree achieved by such tall speakers as the big panel systems or the Infinity IRSes. Height information was presented more stably than usual. However, the Extremas also performed exceptionally well in regard to stereo depth, sounding as transparent as the best of them; images were deep, clear, and very spacious. The neutral tonality helped preserve a believable perspective, and the high degree of depth layering was most entertaining and rewarding.

The very good transparency was allied to high-definition, high-resolution performance. Definition was excellent, with much detail evident over the Extrema's full working frequency range. It was obvious that the wide variety of electronics used during the review process often set the practical limit to the resolution, not the Extrema. Much like the WATT, the better the sources, the better the Extrema sounded.

As speakers go, the Extrema was relatively unbounded, justifying a big expenditure on ancillary equipment if its owner feels so disposed. In this respect it reminded me of a scaled-up, turbo Epos ES11. On one occasion, however, I used the Musical Fidelity Tempest/Typhoon budget pre/power amplifier set (ca $1000), yet the Extrema remained well-balanced and enjoyable, albeit working at an understandably lower level of quality.

The Sonus Faber's bass was remarkably good for a compact speaker; so good that its attack and verve embarrassed many prestige designs. It played tunes consistently well on electric guitar and bass viol, and had a real grunt at the bottom end which remained consistent over a decent dynamic range. It's rare to find a more-than-satisfactory bass extension like this allied to good timing and good dynamics.

Whereas a naked WATT used in a domestic setting pleads for a woofer system (broader band) to create a "free-field" tonal balance rather than the nearfield-monitor sound Dave Wilson created (hence the WATT/Puppy's success), the Extrema didn't sound as if it lacked anything in the bass. In fact, experience so far with subwoofers and their necessary electronics teaches me that the Extrema is better left well alone. As with the Wilson design, I find it all too easy to impair the innate quality and transparency of such speakers with bolt-on accessories. The Extrema's bass was powerful, satisfying, and well-extended; I was happy to take it exactly as it came. If you want fine subwoofer performance down to 20Hz or so, look elsewhere.

Though the Extrema did not and could not deliver output in the really low bass, what it did give was meaty and satisfying. But it's certainly no subwoofer: the bass range stopped pretty quickly below 27Hz in a normal room. Excessive underdamping will increase the apparent extension, but at the expense of some subjective slowness and an impairment of that remarkable foot-tapping sense of timing.

Sonus Faber
Sumiko - distributor
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 843-4500