Sonus Faber Guarneri Homage loudspeaker Page 4

Once everything was in place, the Guarneri really sang. Forget mainstream hi-fi; forget head-banging levels; forget gut-wrenching bass; forget the garage-door slam! Instead, remember the purity, unmistakable sense of liveness, scale, and sense of presence of real sounds in the listening space—this is what the Guarneri is all about.

In these abilities, the speaker that comes closest to the Guarneri is the Quad ESL-63. I admire the Guarneri's ability to conjure up a Quad-like, electrostatic sound from a pair of moving-coil drivers, even if they're encased in a truly remarkable wooden enclosure. I could easily say, "If you appreciate the broad midrange fidelity of the Quad, but wish for a sensitive, beautifully crafted miniature on a tall, elegant pillar, then look no further than the Guarneri."

It's rare to find a speaker that's truly balanced—with a tonal, harmonic linearity that extends from the upper bass to the high treble. In this respect, the Guarneri eclipses the other Sonus Faber designs. The bigger models, particularly the Electa Amator and Extrema, will play louder, are more dynamic, and have better, deeper bass; but rarely is a speaker as truthful to its source as the Guarneri.

In a typical room setting—ideally one with a ceiling higher than 10'—the Guarneris disappeared acoustically, leaving a remarkably high, wide, and deep soundstage that had state-of-the-art focus. The speaker's tonal quality spoke of chamber music played in an 18th-century paneled room with polished wood floors and a few carpets, the walls hung with oil paintings and a few medieval tapestries.

Astonishingly, that character did not obscure musical detail or atmosphere. In fact, the Guarneris were very transparent, with high resolution and recovery of low-level detail and ambience. Definition was lost only when the speaker was worked hard in the bass, and the reflex port added some mild distortion.

More than anything else, the Guarneri's neutrality and low levels of coloration, born of an accurate frequency response and overall frequency balance, defined the speaker's exceptional, wholly believable performance. The sound of the Guarneri was beautifully proportioned—like its appearance. There was no deep bass, but because the speaker's sound was otherwise so complete, I didn't notice the loss.

The Guarneri's inner balance and smoothness were so good that the speaker proved unusually tolerant of a wide range of program qualities and matching ancillaries, cables, and amplification. They handled natural acoustic sounds best; this means that, to some degree, the speaker might be less impressive on heavy rock or strongly synthesized sounds. Nevertheless, although the Guarneris were more believable on orchestral music, they still rocked better than any true miniature I know of.

Transients were excellent. Subtle sounds, such as the brushstrokes on drums and cymbals, and Airto Moreira's natural percussion repertoire (Killer Bees, B&W Music 041), were rendered with the startling accuracy of a good electrostatic. Vocals were articulate, unforced, and harmonically correct. This speaker could have been designed to reproduce only Vivaldi, so well did it capture the atmosphere of a string performance. And though the Guarneri is small, like its Sonus Faber brethren, it didn't show it. Without any false brightness, this speaker provided an upbeat, involving tempo, showing good timing on tight jazz combos.

Subtle and fine-grained, the Guarneri did not need a "power" amplifier, in the accepted sense of the word. Rather, it derived its finest performance from a harmonic match to a sweet, pure amplifier—preferably tubed—in the 50-100W range. (Solid-state amplifiers are by no means ruled out, but the Guarneri neither needs nor benefits from such major powerhouses as the Krell KSA-200S or -300S.) With such a combination, I found I could listen to digital sources for longer periods without fatigue.

The Guarneri also played quite loud, its good sensitivity making the most of my amplifier. Once I adjusted to its sense of natural scale and superb perspectives, I found this system wholly satisfying. Time and again, the reproduction had that ring of truth—the richness and rasp of orchestral brass, the singing quality and "edge" of violin, and the attack and pitch of xylophone and woodblock. On Steve Reich's Music for Mallet Instruments (Elektra 7559-79220-2), the Guarneri revealed the complex interplay of musical strands while preserving the overall structure and almost relentless flow of the compositions.

One aspect did prove worthy of experiment. In my room, the exceptional height (39") of the pillar stand placed the woofer's acoustic center close to halfway between the floor and the 110" ceiling. Such a position maximally excites the half-wave floor-ceiling mode, which in this case lies at 60Hz. The high odd-order modes—at 180Hz, etc.—are also excited by placing the speaker on such a high stand, endowing the speaker's lower midrange with a characteristic "boxiness."

If the Guarneri is custom-ordered, the customer can request moderately different pillar heights. I didn't have any other Faber pillars, so I used 31" Stone stands. These worked just fine, moderating the mild room-mode coloration. A slight uptilt corrected for the change in vertical axis—this and the degree of toe-in can be used to fine-tune the tonal balance for a particular room acoustic. I liked the Guarneris best with my ear level with the midrange/woofers (see measurements).

If the Guarneri is not used with appropriate ancillary components, it becomes simply good hi-fi. But if set up properly—taking account of its unique qualities—the Guarneri breathes music.

The Sonus Faber Guarneri Homage may be a small speaker, but it sure portrays music with style and class. How can you dispassionately place a value on its superb, fine-furniture-quality enclosure, the visual unity between the speaker and its pedestal, and the spirit and labor that have gone into the creation of this remarkable product?

Technically, the Guarneri is a very well-balanced, elegant design with a useful sensitivity, allied to a kind amplifier-load characteristic. Coloration was low, response uniformity very good, distortion moderate, and it was very easy on the ears. It doesn't have extended bass, but the bass it does produce is sufficiently weighty, articulate, and tuneful. However, this description doesn't do justice to the sheer quality of sound produced by this highly refined instrument.

When the Guarneri is driven by good tube electronics, you can forget about the mechanics of hi-fi and let the music take precedence. Though it may not be suitable for headbangers or technofreaks, the Sonus Faber Guarneri is a classic whose purchase you'd be unlikely to regret. Franco Serblin has upheld the worthy goal of honoring the great tradition of Guarneri stringed instruments.

Sonus Faber
Distributor: Sumiko
3101 Telegraph Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94705
(510) 843-4500