Sony SS-NA5ES loudspeaker

Your little car gets in and out of traffic better than minivans or monster trucks. Your little dog runs rings around the other dogs at the park. Maybe it's time to get a couple of little loudspeakers, too?

The reasons for doing so are pretty much the same: little speakers deserve consideration not because they sell for little prices—although some of them do—but because they're nimble, they're fast, and they get out of the way of the music they play. That last characteristic can be crucial to listeners for whom stereo imaging is important: A small speaker has less cabinetry to diffract and delay high-frequency spatial information, and a small box is better than a large one at approximating an acoustically ideal point source. But a small enclosure also stores less energy than a large one, which itself translates into cleaner, clearer sound. Regarding the latter characteristic, and to paraphrase the 19th-century economist John Stuart Mill, while it is not true that all large speakers are dumb, it is unassailably true that most small speakers are smart.

Throughout their 70-year history, Sony Corporation has designed scores of little speakers, most of which have been at the budget ends of their product lines. Yet with their new SS-NA5ES ($6000/pair), Sony sets a loftier goal: to create a compact loudspeaker that's as well balanced and as reliably musical as their SS-NA2ES floorstander ($10,000/pair)—currently the top of Sony's ES line, and a product that has impressed me at two recent audio shows.

Description
Small or large, the loudspeakers I consider most impressive are usually the work of a designer with a strong point of view—and such creatures aren't often found at large, multinational consumer-electronics companies. A notable exception is Sony's Yoshiyuki Kaku, designer of the SS-NA5ES and the SS-NA2ES. In a white paper that accompanied my review samples of the former, Kaku confirmed that, in designing the smaller speaker, he wasn't interested in impressing listeners with "lots of bass coming out of a tiny cabinet." Instead, he strives to "make the listener oblivious to highs and lows when listening to music, and instead, have the listener feel the music, as if it were being played right." I am, as the young people say, down with that.

At first glance, the SS-NA5ES appears to be little more than the top third of an SS-NA2ES: as if someone approached the latter with a chain saw, measured 13.75" down from the top, and started cutting. There is slight justification for this point of view: As Kaku also writes, both the SS-NA2ES and Sony's flagship SS-AR1—a $27,000/pair floorstander he designed in 2010—are "effectively high-end bookshelf speakers seated on a high-quality subwoofer system." That said, deriving a well-balanced and musical—as opposed to merely analytical—bookshelf speaker from a floorstander requires as much cunning as cutting.

Ultimately, Kaku adapted his earlier design in three distinct ways. The first and perhaps least immediately apparent change was to make the lowest portion of the SS-NA5ES's baffle narrower than the same point on the larger speaker's baffle. The second was to create for the smaller speaker a very different loading scheme: Whereas the SS-NA2ES has a single reflex port for its twin woofers, in addition to a separate, upper-cabinet vent intended to lower the effective resonant frequency of its midrange driver, the SS-NA5ES has twin reflex ports, the final positions of which were said by Kaku to be determined "through hundreds of design iterations and tests."

The third adaptation is also the most apparent: In place of the larger speaker's 5" spiral-cut paper midrange cone is an identically sized woofer cone of aluminum, anodized for greater rigidity. According to Kaku, this woofer is unique to the SS-NA5ES, with a distinctly different surround and spider—the latter is made from a special blend of wool and polyester, to lower the driver's resonant frequency—from those of other Sony drivers. Like all of the SS-NA5ES's drivers, this one is made to order in Denmark, by ScanSpeak.

Mated to that midbass driver is Sony's I-Array multiple-tweeter system, which first appeared in the SS-NA2ES: By supplementing a single 1" soft-dome tweeter with two 0.75" soft-dome tweeters, one above and one below, and giving all three the same operating bandwidth, Yoshiyuki Kaku was able to combine the wider dispersion of the smaller tweeters with the superior power handling of the larger, to maximize both soundstage size and smoothness of high-frequency response. (Remember that, as the radius of a circular driver approaches or exceeds a quarter of the wavelength of the tone being played, its dispersion of soundwaves becomes increasing beamy.)

The metal plate that forms the basis of the I-Array is finished in black textured paint and measures 4.5" wide by 7.5" at its tallest point (its bottom edge has a curved cutaway whose radius matches the outer edge of the midbass driver's frame). Each of the 0.75" tweeters is spaced 2" on-center from the single 1" tweeter, in a vertical array. As John Atkinson observed in his review of the SS-NA2ES in the September 2013 issue, in order to prevent the polar-response irregularities that might otherwise result from such an array, it was necessary for Kaku to place the motor of the larger tweeter slightly behind those of the smaller ones, relative to the listener; the solution was to manufacture the I-Array plate with a slight depression at its center. I checked this with a machinist's straightedge and noted a maximum deflection of less than 2mm.

Also like the floorstanding SS-NA2ES, the enclosure of the SS-NA5ES—which measures 13.75" high by 7.9" wide by 11" deep—is made from Scandinavian birch ply, as are its internal braces. The side edges of the 1.2"-thick baffle are beveled, at an angle that's greater at the top and bottom of the baffle than in the middle, lending a sculpted appearance to the front of the enclosure; the side edges of the removable grilles, which I didn't use during my listening tests—leaving them off resulted in a more open sound—follow the shifting angle of that bevel. All surfaces are veneered, and given a semi-opaque finish that is dark brown in direct light but otherwise looks black: let's call it off-black. (Judging from what I could see of the grain, I would guess that the veneer is mahogany.) Overall, I admired the SS-NA5ES's appearance, even if its tweeter array, with those multiple dark domes of different size, reminded me of spider eyes.

Installation and Setup
Like most bookshelf speakers, the Sony SS-NA5ES isn't really meant to be placed on a bookshelf, just as most sports jackets aren't made for sports and most cowboy boots aren't made for cowboys. These speakers like to be on stands, such as the model that was supplied to me by Sony for this review from TAOC. This is a single-column steel stand that holds the speaker 23" to 23.5" off the floor, depending on the adjustment of the base plate's four spiked feet. For shipping or storage, it can be easily disassembled by loosening a few well-fitted bolts. These stands are well made and pleasant to use; unfortunately, TAOC products don't appear to be distributed in the US at this time.

COMPANY INFO
Sony Electronics, Inc
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127-1708
(858) 942-2400
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COMMENTS
BradleyP's picture

The dealer network for these primo Sonys seems a bit, um, unconventional. $6k standmounts are the purview of high end brick-and-mortar shops, but these are not available in such shops. Perhaps the distributors are custom installers, but I can't quite tell from the Sony ES website. That's quite a hindrance.

koshy1972's picture

I guess you can find your nearest dealer from this website.
http://www.sonypremiumhome.com/mapJS/index.php

Seems like not so many inventories left, so probably took some time to receive. Hope this helps.

Anon2's picture

I am sure that these speakers sound fine. But we are to pay $6,000 for some Scanspeak drivers in a laminated wood enclosure?

I hope we can see a test of these--reportedly outstanding--speakers for $2,500 less:

http://aerialacoustics.com/portfolio/aerial-5t/

Or for roughly the same price, we can afford ourselves of a tried and true design, with some elements of advanced materials science:

http://www.bowers-wilkins.com/Speakers/Home_Audio/800_Series_Diamond/805...

And for less than 1/2 the price, it might be time for a very long overdue test of these speakers that boast plausible technology, perhaps better than this product under review, and the same billed weight:

http://www.amphion.fi/en/products/argon3s/

If I were so endowed financially, I might save my pennies for another year or so and get these highly decorated stalwarts:

http://www.dynaudio.com/home-audio/confidence/c1-platinum/

And, based on my actual experience of listening at a show, we might, again, save a few more dollars and get this speaker which has some proprietary technology to bring to the table:

http://kef.com/html/en/showroom/hi-fi_series/THE_REFERENCE/fact_sheet/Bo...

It might be time for Stereophile to emulate our friends from the UK and do some head-to-head group testing of products. $3,500 for this product? Maybe. $4,000 is a stretch. But $6,000? I don't know.

Allen Fant's picture

Nice job! AD
it is good to see Sony ES back in the speaker facet of our wonderful hobby. Most will snub Sony for making speakers, this is just one reason why there is not better representation in the B&M world. Sony knows their customer base and has corresponding dealer/retailers strategically placed across the USA.
Further, back in the early 1990's Sony has a set of "ES" marqued speakers that were for home Audio and car Audio too.
A very fine return to form, IMO. Happy Listening!

Anton's picture

First, great post, low2midfi! I am with you!

Regarding these new Sony speakers.

I hope they are great and wish Sony the best. The main problem I would say "I have" with makers like Sony or Technics is that they disappear from the hobby for X number of years, then 'mount an assault on the state of the art' with products like this, then disappear again shortly thereafter.

I have not seen a tradition of models evolving or being improved over time, no evolution of a model (think Vandersteen, Thiel,) etc... These models are hit and run, which I think diminishes their value.

If you look at the history of many (most?) of the most esteemed speakers in this category, they have a history of incremental improvement and of ongoing product support, even trade ups!

So, I don't give this new Sony as much credibility as its price wants me to, because this speaker will be out of production in a cycle or two. I know this because I know Sony's history in this regard.

So, enjoy the speaker now, but it's a bit of a 'one night stand mount' product when compared to models that have traditionally 'stand mounted by their man' over time.

;-D

funambulistic's picture

I bought a pair of Sony ES SS-M5 speakers in '97 from my local brick-and-mortar store at a VERY large discount. The discount was primarily because of the Sony badge (though they were hardly a Sony speaker). I was shopping around with the various brands this retailer carried in my price range (Definitive, Paradigm, B&W, etc.) and, for the price, the Sony's were a clear winner; in fact, they were some of the best speakers I have ever owned (how I parted with them is rather tragic). They were shortly discontinued and only the SS-M9 (with the new "super tweeter") continued on for a year or two. I am glad Sony, Technics and Pioneer (or TAD) have new "SOTA" speakers, but, for what they do, their prices are too dear. I would rather stick with a manufacturer that constantly improves their product (as you mentioned, Vandersteen, for example) than what most certainly will be product on a limited run.

avanti1960's picture

I have heard these speakers on a few occasions and immediately noticed that they have a distinctive, somewhat unique character when compared against other stand mounts of similar size. A few listens with familiar program material and you know what they are all about. It is very obvious.
Yet a terse (or any) description of their sound was nowhere to be found in the text. A few words about it would have been most helpful because these speakers are not neutral and their sound flavor might be construed as polarizing.
Being familiar with their sound and then reading the review has given a unique perspective- one that makes me wholly disappointed in what I have read because it failed to communicate their essence.

Anton's picture

Would you be willing to elaborate on your impressions?

This is interesting!

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