Sony SS-NA5ES loudspeaker Page 2

Screwed to the bottom of each SS-NA5ES is an aluminum plate 8" wide by 9.9" deep by about 0.2" thick. Fastened to the bottom of the plate, one at each corner, are four thin, stiff, self-adhesive rubber pads. I sat each speaker on its stand and made sure that each pad was in good contact with the steel beneath. After that, and before making final adjustments to the spiked feet, I experimented with speaker placements while listening to recordings of music with reliably good bass content, as well as to test tones, such as the delightful "Pink Noise at –20dB L + R (Uncorrelated from 1:11)," from Stereophile's first Test CD (Stereophile STPH002-2). While enjoying the latter, I also made use of Onyx 3's RTA Spectrum Analyzer app for Apple iOS 7.0.

At the end of the day, literally and figuratively, I achieved the best results—defined for my purposes as the smoothest bass response, not the deepest bass per se—when the left-channel Sony was 28.5" from its sidewall, the right-channel Sony was 30" from its wall, and both were 40.5" from the front wall. I heard the best combination of spatial performance and treble naturalness when the baffles were aimed directly at my ears, and while the bass went apparently lower when I moved my listening seat closer to the rear wall, the Sonys' spatial performance was best enjoyed from a distance of 6' to 7', measured on-axis from both cabinets.

Those chores attended to, I leveled the stands while making sure their spiked feet were adding maximal height—when I sit on the hard-cushioned settee I use for listening, my ears are about 4' above the floor, yet the TAOC stands limited the height of the Sonys' top tweeters to 35.75"—then settled in to listen.

Listening
The first words in my listening notes: "Masterly. Clear. Authoritative. Not showy. And big—surprisingly big. If loudspeakers were parents, this one would be Atticus Finch."

When I wrote that, I was listening to the Boston Symphony Chamber Players perform Dvorák's String Quintet in G, for string quartet and double bass (LP, Deutsche Grammophon/Speakers Corner 2530 214)—a great-sounding recording (and remastering) of a work I'd never heard of before last January. Typically, the music is rich with Slavic folk melodies—by the end of the piece, after a gorgeous, nocturne-like center movement, one of Dvorák's most memorable tunes arrives in the form of a rhythmic peasant dance—and the recording is full of color, texture, and the subtle snap and impact of spirited bowing and plucking. Yes, because the SS-NA5ES is considerably less efficient than any of the other speakers in-house, I had to turn up the volume to 12 o'clock (instead of my usual 9 o'clock or so); the Sonys satisfied nonetheless, allowing this record its full measures of sonic weight and beauty, and musical nuance and momentum. On its first evening in my system, the SS-NA5ES sounded familiar, in the best possible way.

From there, I branched out. In Metamorphosis One and Metamorphosis Two, from Valentina Lisitsa Plays Philip Glass (24-bit/96kHz AIFF file, Decca), the sound of the piano lacked a bit of weight, leaving Lisitsa's right hand to sound disproportionately forceful. That said, the instrument sounded timbrally rich and physically big, and the Sonys did an excellent job of getting across the sound of the recording space, and portraying note decays as realistically generous, but without exaggeration.

Ambient information in another download—the title song of Brian Eno's latest album, The Ship (16/44.1 WAV file, Warp)—was also well handled. This intensely atmospheric piece begins with sustained, isolated synth notes, some of exceptionally low pitch; the Sonys did a satisfactory job of communicating not only the depth and weight of these notes, but also the mild disquiet they provoked. As the piece unfolds, the backing becomes airier and more ambient, with bits of heavily distorted voices buried in the background, and occasional punctuation by gamelan-bell-like sounds. By the six-minute mark, the key is identifiably C major, and Eno's voice, apparently treated to give a basso profundo effect, enters, with a high harmony—also Eno?—droning chant-like on C. The Sonys did what they needed to do: They sounded big, enveloping me with sounds both beautiful and eerie, and leaned into the music with fine momentum.

I didn't wait terribly long before playing some large-scale symphonic music through the Sonys, if only to hear how well they might or not convey the weight and impact of a full orchestra. Cruelly, I began with my preferred recording of Mahler's Symphony 3, with Jascha Horenstein conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LP, Nonesuch HB-73023). When it came to reproducing the fundamental A0 (27.5Hz) of the orchestral bass drum used so liberally in the opening of the first movement, the Sony's 5" woofer—the cone of which appears to have a diameter of about 3.75"—was no match for the 13" woofers of my Altec Valencia, or the powered 10" and 12" woofers of the Auditorium 23 Hommage Cinema. Yet that note's second harmonic (55Hz) was played at or near full strength. In fact, in my room, the Sonys exhibited strong response down to approximately 49Hz (G1), below which bass response began to drop off gradually.

Of arguably greater importance was the SS-NA5ES's exceptional bass clarity, and its resistance to the blunting of note attacks and embellishing of note decays. After the opening fanfare of the Mahler symphony has died down, the bass drum plays a series of notes that resolve into a march pattern—a triplet of eighth notes followed by a single quarter note, then a quarter rest—played solo until the fourth time through. Through some speakers—hell, in some competing recordings—the solo measures are just a quiet mush; through the SS-NA5ESes, each tap was distinct, each repetition of the pattern clear and musically meaningful.

As for the other end of the audioband, even those of us with fond memories of the original ProAc Tablette acknowledge its occasionally overbright balance—and, consciously or not, we tense up when we see another small speaker coming our way. Thankfully, and notwithstanding the fact that each SS-NA5ES contains three times the number of tweeters as most other speakers, the Sony was well balanced and, ultimately, well behaved. Sure, bright recordings sounded bright—but dull recordings sounded dull, and the Sonys distinguished themselves by never pushing borderline-bright recordings into unlistenability.

Among my luckiest recent antique-store finds is a mint, first-pressing US copy, with tri-color "steamboat" label and original inner sleeve, of Are You Experienced, by the Jimi Hendrix Experience (LP, Reprise RS-6261)—for $5. (Similar copies range from $100 to $200 on Popsike.com.) Apart from containing some of the most brilliant music of the 1960s, it's a decent- if dated-sounding recording. There's not a lot of deep bass, and the dynamic range has been compressed—although not as badly as one might expect—while vocal sibilants and the more trebly guitar sounds can be a bit too keening through some playback gear. Yet that was not the case through the little Sonys, which were also so spatially accomplished that they brought fresh clarity and believability to the strange and, in some instances, out-of-phase vocal overdubs in "Purple Haze."

Perhaps most important of all, the SS-NA5ES reproduced singing voices with the highest fidelity imaginable, in every sense. Countertenor Alfred Deller's distinctive tone and diction in Purcell's "O Solitude," from a Deller Consort album of that title (LP, Harmonia Mundi HMC 247), emerged unscathed, with appropriate timbral warmth and fine presence—and with perfectly satisfying weight from the double-bass continuo. In "For Free," from her Ladies of the Canyon (LP, Reprise 6376), Joni Mitchell's no less idiosyncratic singing, with its no less distinctive approach to diction, was equally well served—brilliantly served, really: her voice came across without coloration, and with no blunting of her gorgeous vibrato. Even Joe Strummer's raspy voice in the Clash's "London Calling" (12" 45rpm single, UK CBS 12-8087) was its expressive-if-not-always-tuneful self, right down to his ad-libbed rooster crowing (as in Wake the hell up!) in the instrumental breaks. Moreover, this record proved that the Sony speakers could rock—a little . . .

If there was an area in which the SS-NA5ES fell short, it was the Department of Swing. Yes, the Sonys allowed me to enjoy "London Calling" in every respect: I was caught up emotionally and intellectually, and found myself on the verge of air-drumming when percussionist Topper Headon changed his timing and his snare pattern for the lines beginning "The ice age is coming / The sun's zooming in." But other, more sensitive speakers allow such music to swing more—to sound less constricted and a bit more free-revving, if you'll forgive an automobile analogy. The same comparative shortcoming also applied to the Sony's reproduction of such recordings as "Off Minor," from the Thelonious Monk Septet's Monk's Music (LP, Riverside/Original Jazz Classics OJC-084). The Sonys communicated that music's sense of loose-limbed drive just well enough—surprisingly well for a speaker so correct, so controlled, so uncolored. Still, you can find more of those sorts of positive qualities in vintage speakers with large, low-excursion woofers in aperiodic cabinets.

Conclusions
Is a renaissance in small speakers underway? The past few years have seen a number of notable minis hit the market, including the hi-tech Technics SB-C700 ($1699/pair), Falcon Acoustics' seemingly definitive reincarnation of the BBC-designed LS3/5a ($2195/pair), the BBC-inspired Harbeth P3ESR ($2195–$2395/pair), and the enduringly popular KEF LS50 ($1499/pair). Not since the days of the Celestion SL-600, the Acoustic Energy AE1 (oh, how I coveted that speaker—especially the original version with the Elac tweeter), and the original-production LS3/5a from Rogers, Chartwell, et al have I been so tempted to think small.

Into this resurgence steps the Sony SS-NA5ES, to which the shallow-minded, numbers-oriented me would give a 9 out of 10 for its cannily chosen bass-to-treble balance, an 8 for its clarity, another 8 for its sense of scale and ability to sound big when needed (if the rating were weighted for cabinet size, the SS-NA5ES would get a 10), and at least a 7 for musical momentum and flow: seriously good numbers, all.

Value? Some will reasonably say that six large is on the high side for a pair of small speakers. True—but in some circles it's a perfectly reasonable price for good speakers. And the SS-NA5ES is seriously good, in a buy this and forget about speakers for a decade or more kind of way. Sincerely recommended.

COMPANY INFO
Sony Electronics, Inc
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127-1708
(858) 942-2400
ARTICLE CONTENTS

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-D3.html

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/Bookshelf/REFERENCE_1/index.html

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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