Sonus Faber Stradivari Homage loudspeaker Page 2

When you're accustomed to narrow-baffled speakers, being confronted by two wide expanses of wood can be jolting. Because the Stradivaris have more of a "room divider" presence than most moving-coil–based speakers, they affect room acoustics even when silent. I could "hear" them. I wondered how music—especially the imaging and soundstaging—could not be affected. As I sat down to listen for the first time, the visual cues took me back to 1986, to the first time I heard Harry Pearson's Infinity IRS system, which presented another set of wide-baffled (line-source) speakers just a few feet away from the listening position in a very small room.

But once the music started, skepticism went out the window—in New Jersey as it had in Italy. In some ways the Stradivari's overall tonal presentation reminded me of the much less expensive Krell Resolution 1 (see my review in the November 2004 issue), though more accomplished in every way, and more extended on top. The sonic picture the Stradivaris produced was impressively large, especially in terms of height, though the tweeter is only a little more than 3' from the floor. The tweeters never gave away their locations, driver integration was as good as I've ever experienced in my room—especially for a full-range speaker—and the first sensation was of a velvety-smooth richness and unforced physicality with no particular tonal color. The immediate communicative essence was identical to what I'd heard in Italy months earlier.

Without subjecting it to analytical scrutiny in order to figure out what was causing it to happen, this speaker, more than any other I've reviewed, communicated music's emotional content. Listening to the Stradivari was a sensual experience—more in the chest than in the head.

Appreciating this wasn't based on checking off items on an audiophile's list of performance parameters. The seamlessness of the sonic whole discouraged that kind of exercise—even in the mind of a veteran reviewer. That first day of listening to the Stradivaris at home, I felt what I'd felt in Sonus Faber's listening room. I also felt it the last day, and every day in between. If you get a chance to listen, don't expect to be bowled over or wowed or to have your molecules rearranged. Be prepared to fall in love.

Part of the Strad's emotional appeal was its sonic physicality. It goes very low—it's spec'd to reach 22Hz. Even in my moderately sized room, it responded down well below 30Hz, though without much output. Above 30Hz, with test tones and, more important, music, the speaker responded with impressive bass authority—something I could not get the Amati Homage to do in my room (though I have heard it so in others).

Check out The Trumpets that Time Forgot (SACD, Linn CKD242), a gorgeous, spacious recording featuring selections by Richard Strauss, Edward Elgar, and Josef Rheinberger for two trumpets and organ—in this case, the mammoth Hereford Cathedral Organ, built in 1892. The Stradivari's rendering of the organ's lowest pedals was visceral yet well controlled. The recording is on the warm and distant side, yet the speaker delivered the bass notes and the distinct sense of the large space without blurring the two or throwing mud into the mix. The trumpets had just the right balance of brass and air to be credible, and the organ's upper registers were cleanly delineated. The Krell was very good at this too, though not quite as well organized (no pun intended), and not with the same solidity or purity of tone. My reference loudspeakers, the Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s, give greater emphasis to the brass and better delineate the distance between the trumpets and the church walls, but they don't plumb the depths; they therefore miss the organ's lower pedals and can't convey the space nearly as well.

While experiencing the Stradivari's bass performance, the word I kept coming back to was solidity—exactly the word I couldn't use to describe the bass performance of other Sonus Faber speakers I've heard, reviewed, and owned. Those speakers concentrated more on getting bass textures and tonality correct. The Strad changed that—as well it should, for $40,000!—and did so without sounding overdamped or mechanical.

You won't be disappointed with the deep, tactile, well-controlled, pitch-perfect, solid bass the Stradivari could deliver. It reproduced standup bass properly sized, with a convincing balance of string pluck and woody resonance, and electric bass with mesmerizing rhythmic nimbleness. This speaker could do jazz, rock, and classical equally well and without apology.

The Stradivari's rendering of Speakers Corner's recent "must-have" reissue of János Starker's prized Mercury Living Presence set of J.S. Bach's Suites for Solo Cello (3 LPs, SR3-9016) provided a memorable listening experience. The instrument's fundamental frequencies range from around 70 to 750Hz. The 300Hz woofer/midrange crossover sits near the middle of that sensitive range, yet the Stradivaris' rendering of the sound of the cello was easily the most convincingly three-dimensional, solid, and silky-rich I've ever heard it reproduced. When Starker dug in, the bow scrapes never sounded metallic or hard, yet textures were never glossed over. As you might imagine, male voices, which share that range, were equally well served; there was plenty of natural body, but no chestiness, nasality, or bloat.

Overall, the Stradivari delivered the most satisfying, balanced bass and midbass performance I've ever had in my room—perhaps most convincingly in the way notes faded, decayed, then cleanly stopped. The bass was never "one-note," and never sounded artificial or mechanical. Instead, it was rich and tactile without sounding sluggish or sloppy. And it was there in ideal proportion to the rest of the spectrum.

It's no coincidence that Franco Serblin chose to run the midrange driver between 300Hz and a highish 4kHz. That is the fundamental range of the female voice, and if you listen to a lot of it, you will love this speaker. It was magical, whether reproducing Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell, Mary Black, or Renata Tebaldi. Instead of sibilant, ghostly, throat-centric images, the Stradivari produced, fleshy, solid, full-bodied ones.

How many times have I mentioned Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall or the Weavers' Reunion at Carnegie Hall? The Stradivari reproduced the vocals, male or female, more convincingly as real flesh and blood than I've ever heard them sound, and without becoming soft, warm, and cloying over time. In fact, in conjunction with the baffle arrangement ,this Audio Technology driver—the same brand Rockport Technologies uses for the woofer and midrange in the Antares that I reviewed in August 2002—produced the most delicate, textured, coherent, and believable midrange performance I've yet heard—positively addictive, and to a great degree responsible for the Stradivari's ability to mesmerize and convey music's emotional center.

Crossing over at 4kHz to the Scan-Speak ring-radiator tweeter means the midrange driver handles almost all instrumental fundamentals and the tweeter sees almost entirely harmonics. It also means the cone midrange handles higher frequencies than usual, which with a 6" unit might have a tendency to beam, leading to anomalies in both frequency response and imaging. Whatever John Atkinson's measurements of the Stradivari may reveal in this regard, I noted ultrastable imaging and a subjectively seamless midrange/tweeter transition. It could be that the lush midrange is partially a result of a slight depression near the crossover point. I'll take it!

The Scan-Speak ring-radiator tweeter is a well-respected design featuring a neodymium motor system and a die-cast aluminum chamber, which Sonus replaces with a proprietary wooden chamber as well as adding its own waveguide faceplate. While not sounding quite as supple as Dynaudio's Esotar, the Scan-Speak subjectively offers more uniform off-axis dispersion and greater high-frequency extension.

In this application, I occasionally noted a slight sparkle, perhaps caused by a narrow, high-Q peak in, I would guess, the 10kHz region. Or it could have been the tweeter's response relative to the possible dip at the crossover point. Whatever caused this subtle, not always audible sparkle, it gave the Stradivari's top end an open, airy, transparent sound without adding crispness or edge. I've heard cymbals and other percussion instruments reproduced with more edge and bite, but with a loss of some shimmer. The Stradivari reproduced more of the true "meaty" sound of cymbals that you hear live.

Putting it all together: The Stradivari Homage is a full-range speaker with a big, deep, solid, supple bottom end; a tactile, lush, velvety midrange; and an extended, well-behaved top—all brilliantly integrated by one of the world's premier speaker designers. Above all, what made the Stradivari special over the long haul was its uncanny seamlessness.

Which is not the same as saying it didn't have a character. Some may find the balance too lush, the transient attack somewhat less than sharp, the resolution of inner detail a bit lacking compared with some of the "fastest" loudspeakers out there. But there are tradeoffs with any design—the fastest speakers usually have a threadbare midrange and somewhat stunted harmonics.

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