Sonus Faber Guarneri memento loudspeaker Page 2

Experienced speaker designers working from exemplary measurements made under controlled conditions can usually allow for low-frequency "room bump," off-axis absorptive energy loss (or additive reflective gain), and other predictable conditions typically found in the imperfect listening rooms of most audio enthusiasts, in the full knowledge that the speaker's anechoic and quasi-anechoic measurements will then no longer be accurate. And while the intelligent use of computers has made the measuring of speakers far more sophisticated and accurate, measurements still don't reflect all of the information your brain receives and processes while you're listening to music.

When you read about a "no-compromise" speaker design, rest assured that you're reading advertising copy and little more. Even in the absence of constraints of budget or size, every speaker design represents a series of technical and artistic compromises—and the smaller the speaker, the more compromises must be made, and the greater the reliance on the art of design. No matter how much science and money are thrown at a speaker prototype, the laws of physics will prevail: producing a truly deep, powerful, and tuneful low-frequency response requires the pressurization and movement of large volumes of air, and that has long required relatively large drivers and enclosures—though a generation or three of long-excursion woofers coupled with high-wattage amplifiers has changed things somewhat.

So it's easy to understand audiophiles' skepticism about spending $15,000 on a small, two-way speaker sitting atop a passive stand that, for the same money, could instead have been the large, ported woofer enclosure of a nearly full-range three-way system. In fact, the Guarneri memento's footprint and height (with Column stand) is close to that of the superbly measuring Focal Electra 1037 Be, which has a 1" tweeter, a 6" midrange, and three 7" woofers (see my review in the July issue). The Focal goes lower, plays louder, and is a full 5dB more sensitive, yet costs $4000/pair less than the Guarneri: $10,995.

I haven't heard the original Guarneri Homage, so I'm not in a position to compare, but it's no overstatement to write that, in my more than two months of listening, the Guarneri memento never produced a sour note, and never failed to astonish and surprise me by producing (among other things) remarkably deep, powerful, well-textured, and nimble bass free of midbass bloat and overhang—at least down to just below 40Hz, which is deep enough for most of the range of both acoustic and electric bass.

Acoustic Sounds' recent 45rpm reissue of The Wes Montgomery Trio (2 LPs, Riverside RLP/AJAZ 1156) features Montgomery and a rhythm section of Melvin Rhyne on organ and Paul Parker on drums. The organ provides the bass line, and when it went low, the Guarneri memento followed it down, pressurizing my room without bloat or exaggeration. I didn't hear the speaker straining to produce the impression of "bass," as some small overachievers do. Instead, I could have sworn there was a subwoofer somewhere in the room.

Despite its heritage in the making of violins, the Guarneri memento could rock very well. From its opening deep drone, Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain," from Classic Records' reissue on 200gm vinyl of So (no catalog number on record or jacket), recorded in analog and mastered from the original analog tape (despite claims to the contrary by some), demonstrated the memento's unexpected bass power and grip. When the drums throbbed, the memento responded with surprising urgency.

While the pair of mementos couldn't produce ear-damaging SPLs, they did play remarkably loud without congestion, or noisy complaints from their ports. I clocked 95dB on an SPL meter with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," from Nevermind (LP), and was more than satisfied with the volume level, and especially the clarity and absence of distortion or compression.

When I turned the volume up to rock-concert levels, the Guarneri mementos protested with mild compression and a trace of distortion. But when I hit their loudness sweet spot, these little guys unleashed credible kick and snare drums while outlining the details of the splash cymbal with almost alarming precision, free of grain and glare.

This is not to suggest that hard rockers will be drawn to this speaker, or that Sonus Faber designed them with rock in mind. Just know that, if your musical menu includes some rock, the Guarneri mementos, unlikely as it might seem, will both whet and satisfy your appetite—just as they delivered symphonic music with satisfying scale, as long as I didn't expect the full weight of orchestral dynamics, or the spatial presentation that only a pair of large, full-range speakers can provide.

However, what the Guarneri memento couldn't deliver at the frequency and dynamic extremes was more than compensated for by its magic in the midrange and upper midrange. The speaker's excelled in the re-creation of small orchestral and vocal ensembles and solo performers—even in large venues. The recent 200gm, 45rpm reissue of Astor Piazzolla's Adios Noñino (Foné 013J), with violinist Salvatore Accardo performing the solo part and conducting the Orchestra da Camera Italiana, and recorded in Pontificio Istituto di Musica Roma, is the kind of disc for which the memento was created. The recording's mid-hall perspective makes it sound most realistic with the volume appropriately lowered. Accardo's violin then soars sweetly, with good image focus, expressive texture, and harmonic completeness, while the hall's acoustic provides a subtle and surprisingly spacious backdrop. Turn the volume up and the sound gets excessively midrangey and shouty—a function of the recording's spacious perspective, not the speakers' sonic character.

The Guarneri mementos' midrange transparency and freedom from congestion or obvious tonal coloration got me as involved in the music as I could be—the subtlest musical and spatial details were revealed with pinpoint precision across and within a far larger, deeper, and stabler soundstage than such small boxes had any business producing. Solo vocalists were rendered with a complete absence of nasality, chestiness, or other obvious distractions, thanks both to the speaker's freedom from midbass bloat and its silky-smooth yet finely detailed top end.

If your musical taste runs toward solo or small-ensemble acoustic music or vocals, the Sonus Faber Guarneri memento will not disappoint. It reproduced every instrument in the orchestra—brass, woodwinds, strings, percussion—with a silky, satisfying purity of tone and texture. Here, the speakers arrived just in time to feed my recent and unlikely addiction to the sacred cantatas of J.S. Bach, thanks to three superbly recorded and pressed sets of LPs from Telefunken Das Alte Werk. Through the mementos, these performances by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien never failed to produce a pleasing stupor as I sat entranced by soaring vocals with natural clarity, free of grain and etch, and by strings and woodwinds with visceral textures and harmonic fullness, all set against the backdrop of the reflective hall. When the chorus chimed in, the individual voices arrayed across the stage were presented with solidity, weight, and the clarity of high-definition video. When the massed voices pronounced sibilants, they sounded as they do live, instead of locking together to form the large masses of mechanical-sounding esses that some speakers produce.

Whether driven by the solid-state, 1000Wpc Musical Fidelity kW monoblocks or the 100Wpc Music Reference RM-200 tube amp, the Sonus Fabers performed the same delicate balancing act of detail, texture, transparency, and harmonic completeness.

While the Guarneri's in-room measurements may not be quite as flat and impressive as those of the Focal Electra 1037 Be, I predict that, within its more limited bandwidth, the memento's measurements will be more than credible and reasonably flat, with a top-end rolloff designed to compensate for the rolloff below 40Hz. If there turns out to be a mild midbass "bump" designed to increase the illusion of deep bass, it's extremely well hidden. I couldn't hear one when listening to music, though the impulse created by lowering the stylus into a record groove created a mild telltale honk.

The Guarneri memento's performance in the midbass and lower midrange—especially with well-recorded female vocals, which usually reveal any response "bump" with chestiness and discontinuity—was beyond reproach. The speaker delivered low-frequency power and produced enticing, utterly credible renderings of male and female vocals—a major accomplishment for such a small speaker.

Toward the end of the listening period, Sumiko's John Hunter stopped by and carefully dialed in an REL subwoofer (driven from the amplifier terminals), sent along as a low-frequency reality check. Yes, the sub opened up the soundstage when the recording venue was a big hall, and added weight and substance where appropriate without calling attention to itself, but despite being used to a reference speaker capable of going down to 20Hz, I didn't miss the additional bottom octave when listening to the Guarneri mementos.

This loudspeaker is another stellar blend of art and science from the house of Serblin. You'll pay dearly for outstanding engineering, superb build quality, and off-the-chart appearance. You can get greater extension, increased dynamics, and somewhat more revealing and airy upper-octave performance elsewhere. And if you listen exclusively or mostly to rock, you'll be wasting your money. But for those whose tastes run to small-ensemble classical music or jazz, don't have room for larger speakers, but need whatever speakers they buy to complement an elegantly appointed room, a pair of Sonus Faber Guarneri mementos will surely satisfy.

While Sonus Faber's Guarneri memento won't play extremely loud, it played loud enough. While it doesn't go way down low, it went deep enough: just below 40Hz with conviction. And while it can't produce the dynamic slam of a bigger speaker, it provided a convincing spectrum of dynamics, particularly at the microdynamic end of the scale, where music lives and breathes.

But I easily and quickly forgot what the Guarneri memento couldn't deliver, because of the quality of what it could: transparency, delicacy, detail; a lack of mechanical artifacts such as dryness, edge, and etch; and a wide, surprisingly deep, ultrastable soundstage. In terms of pure musical pleasure and involvement, the Sonus Faber Guarneri mementos rank near the top in my listening experience, especially in the reproduction of small acoustic ensembles. I went in a skeptic and came out a believer.

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