Sony ES SS-M9ED loudspeaker Page 3

Aiding the Sony speaker's clarity was a superbly clean-sounding treble register. While the SS-M9ED was in no way reticent in the highs, those highs seemed completely free from the grain that would otherwise have me reaching for the volume control. Since I heard Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy Smith live at the Blue Note last February, his Dot Com Blues CD (Verve 314 549 978-2, Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" for April 2001) has been spending a lot of time in the Levinson transport. Like many recordings these days, its recorded balance is a little hot in the treble, yet Smith's stereo-miked and Leslie'd B-3 punches out convincingly from the speakers without sounding aggressive or getting in the way of the horns or the vocals of the various guest artists.

In fact, this was perhaps the Sony SS-M9ED's most convincing attribute: individual sonic objects within the soundstage didn't interfere with others, even when they coincided in frequency range—female voice and electric guitar, for example, or electric guitar and electric guitar. In B.B. King's guest spot on Jimmy Smith's "Three O'Clock Blues," there are some tasty second-guitar lines from Phil Upchurch. Very reminiscent of the kind of linear comping Eric Clapton did so well on the Fresh Cream album, Upchurch's figures occupy the tenor range where bass, organ, and King's "Lucille" guitar also have energy. Yet just as in real life, the Sonys allowed me to focus on low-level details such as this even with louder instruments present in the mix.

This impressive clarity and freedom from treble grain allowed the Sonys to stay out of the way of complex classical scores. A big fan of the BBC's series of CD releases of broadcast concerts, I recently picked up the 1969 John Barbirolli performance with the Hallé Orchestra of Mahler's Symphony 3 (BBC Legends BBCL 4004-7), considered by Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke to be the finest ever laid down on tape. The long and winding resolution of the final movement, Sehr langsam, concludes with a brass choir overlaying the scrubbing strings and pounding timps with a triumphant D-major resolution of the work's D-minor tonality. Without the speakers crossing that important line between "revealing" and "ruthlessly revealing," I could hear tiny details of the ensemble, such as the slight comb-filtering that occurs when two trumpets play in unison. Yes, you could also hear the analog tape hiss on this 32-year-old recording, but that don't bother me none.

I had been very impressed by the bass performance of the original SS-M9. Too many loudspeakers are tuned to produce "impressive"-sounding low frequencies. Yet if you listen to much live music, you quickly become aware that real bass doesn't boom or roar. Instead, there is a sharply defined edge to the onset of the bass sound, with then a literally visceral impact. This was how the M9ED presented low frequencies. Dutch bassist Tony Overwater's double bass on OP, his SACD tribute to Oscar Pettiford (Turtle TR0008), for example, sounded, to use that much abused adjective, "fast."

The bass guitar's low B string on guest artist Keb' Mo's "Over and Over," on Smith's Dot Com Blues—this song was a highlight of Mo's Saturday-night gig at Home Entertainment 2001 in May—had the authentic mix of fruity body and finger-on-string starting transient via the Sonys. Returning to that Mark Levinson double-bass recording on the Red Rose Music SACD, it had sounded a little overcooked through the otherwise superb Revel Ultima Studios. Via the Sonys, this was the best I have heard reproduced double bass: intimate yet powerful, rich yet controlled.

About the Sony's midrange I have nothing to say. There was no coloration in the usual sense of the word. Whether it be Chico Freeman's tenor sax on the Red Rose disc, Maarten Orstein's different-sounding tenor sax on the Tony Overwater SACD, or Sonny Rollins' horn on the new XRCD2 remastering of Way Out West (JVC VICJ-60088), instruments were reproduced with the maximum differences apparent between their tonal colors. Just as they should be. Just as they are in real life.

The SS-M9ED's dynamics were excellent, in both the macro and micro senses. "Macrodynamics" is easy to define: the ability of a component to play loud without strain. The concept of "microdynamics" is more difficult to grasp; I use it to mean a component's ability to preserve the subtle dynamic relationships that exist in and perhaps even might be said to define the music. To illustrate what I mean: While waiting for finished copies of Robert Silverman's Beethoven sonatas set to arrive from Orpheum Masters, I heard on WNYC a performance of Sonata No.31, Op.110, by Wilhelm Kempff. Now Kempff is regarded as one of the last century's great pianists, but having been immersed in Op.110 while mastering the Silverman performance, I was puzzled by what I was hearing.

Just before the great fugue resumes after the G-minor Arioso in the last movement, there are 10 repeated G-major chords marked "crescendo" in the score. Kempff plays these with very little differentiation between each chord (other than the introduction of the B natural in the bass for the last four chords). Time passes, but I am left pondering the musical meaning of 10 almost identical, equally loud chords. By contrast, in his set, Bob Silverman shapes the entire phrase dynamically so that the subsequent diminuendo on the rising G-major arpeggio leads inexorably into the inverted reiteration of the fugue (now in G rather than A-flat). This is the kind of musical detail that the Sony speaker got right but many lesser speakers obscure, to the detriment of the musical flow.

At $16,000/pair, the Sony ES SS-M9ED is expensive enough that any faults at all should deny it a recommendation. But when I considered the speaker performance area by performance area, I could find nothing to criticize. Other than its fundamentally lean balance, its level of coloration is vanishingly low, and its performance at the frequency extremes is almost beyond criticism, especially in the treble. Its dynamic range is enormous, aided by imperceptible levels of grain and distortion. Its stereo imaging is accurate and precisely defined, and the result is deep, stable soundstages. The sonic window the pair opened up onto the recorded acoustic is one of the most transparent I have experienced from a moving-coil box design. In every individual area, this is a Class A loudspeaker.

Yet despite my very positive feelings about the SS-M9ED, particularly with respect to its superb sense of coherence and its grain-free, transparent highs, I was ultimately left vaguely dissatisfied with its presentation. The M9ED's balance is so revealing, so accurate, that it seems almost churlish to end my review by deciding that the speaker's balance lacks sufficient warmth for ultimate comfort. It's not alone in this; I had similar feelings when I auditioned the superb-sounding Audio Physic Avanti III, which Michael Fremer reviews elsewhere in this issue. But my friend and erstwhile Stereophile writer Wes Phillips summed up the Sony's presentation best after an evening we'd spent auditioning some of our favorite CDs and some SACDs: "This is a speaker whose achievement must be respected. But it sure is a speaker that's hard to love."

As I point out in the "Measurements" Sidebar, the Sony's overdamped, slightly shelved-down bass alignment is not optimal for my already lean-sounding room, particularly as, even using the compact Krell, I couldn't arrange for the speakers to get close enough to the wall behind them. It's possible, therefore, that my feelings of dissatisfaction with the Sonys would evaporate were I to audition them in a very different room. The low frequencies also became better fleshed out when I used the fairly new AudioQuest Gibraltar speaker cable, which is less tightly controlled in the bass than the AudioQuest Sterling I had originally been using.

This superbly well-engineered loudspeaker from Sony has such an impressive design pedigree and does so many things superbly well that I urge you to listen to it for yourself. Under the right circumstances, the SS-M9ED might well be a speaker that you will love.

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