Sonus Faber Stradivari Homage loudspeaker

Yamaha once made a loudspeaker shaped like an ear. I felt sorry for the guy (especially if he was an audiophile) who had to write the ad copy explaining why a speaker shaped like an ear would sound better than one shaped like a shoebox or a wedge of cheese. An ear-shaped loudspeaker makes about as much sense as an eyeball-shaped television. But what about a loudspeaker that is designed like a musical instrument?

When Sonus Faber's Franco Serblin began creating his Homage series of loudspeakers (footnote 1) to honor the great violin makers of Cremona—Amati, Guarneri, Stradivari—his design inspiration curiously turned out to be not the violin but the lute. Speakers shaped like instruments make about as much sense to me as speakers shaped like ears, but in the case of the curvaceous lute shape, the claim that fewer parallel surfaces result in fewer standing waves seemed to make sense. Whether that was Serblin's real reason, or he just likes the lute's looks, his designs have been extensively copied.

For his final Homage model, the $40,000/pair Stradivari Homage (named, of course, for Antonio Stradivari), Serblin's instrumental inspiration actually was the violin. The Strad's tall, unusually wide and shallow speaker cabinet forms a graceful, narrow ellipse. Black-lacquered concave endcaps suggest the violin shape. This is one speaker that looks equally attractive (or ugly) from all sides. Some visitors to my room found its looks odd—"like a piece of toast," said one. From a listener's perspective, the wide front baffle is unusual—especially if you're used to modern narrow-baffle speakers designed to reduce cabinet diffraction.

To me, the Stradivari—with stained-lacquer wood stacks, center leather-covered insert, and gently raked profile, all reminiscent of Sonus Faber's Amati Homage—looks graceful and dramatic from all angles. Every line seems to have a purpose. As with many things unfamiliar, the more time I spent with it, the more appealing its looks became, and the more I was able to appreciate its many subtleties of design. No doubt a good part of your $40,000 goes to pay for the speaker's looks; if you don't like what you see, chances are you're not buying, even if you like what you hear.

What's the big idea?
The Stradivari is a three-way speaker with two stiff, lightweight, 12" aluminum/magnesium-cone woofers custom-built for Sonus by SEAS. These are crossed over at 300Hz to a 6" Audio Technology pulp-cone midrange driver (Scan-Speak and Dynaudio were both founded by Audio Technology founder Ejvind Skaaning), which in turn hands over the signal at 4kHz to a custom version of Scan-Speak's silk ring-radiator tweeter. This features both a proprietary dual-toroidal waveguide designed specifically for the wide baffle, and a wooden acoustic labyrinth rear-wave damping system designed by Sonus Faber. The rear-ported woofers are tuned using the entire internal volume of the enclosure, while the tweeter and the ported midrange unit are contained in a substantially braced, cardioid (heart-shaped) subenclosure, compression-held in place by the main enclosure walls.

The main enclosure is constructed using a wood laminate, with constrictive damping inserts in between additional front-panel layers of laminate, in the style of the Amati Homage, which was built of stacks of solid maple. The interior of this enclosure, too, is strongly braced. A series of photos supplied by Sonus shows how the laminated wood is clamped in order to achieve the curved shape—clearly a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that is reflected all too faithfully in the retail price. Also like the Amati, the Stradivari Homage is painstakingly hand-stained and -lacquered, in a difficult process that Sonus Faber says that only a small number of craftsmen are capable of performing.

The Strad is available in the familiar violin-like red-orange finish used on the Amati, and in a more subdued slate-gray finish. Easily the most beautifully constructed piece of loudspeaker cabinetry I have ever seen or touched, it looks dramatic and statuesque from any angle. Pictures don't do it justice. When you (and a helper) pick it up, you can almost feel the wrapped-tight energy required to hold the structure together, as well as its solidity and physical integrity.

Sound with no strings attached
When I visited the Sonus Faber factory, in Arcugnano, Italy, last winter, I spent an hour listening to a pair of Stradivaris in Franco Serblin's listening room while he conducted some business with Sumiko's John Hunter. The room was significantly larger than mine and far more reflective, but the speakers stood in free space far from any wall. Hooked up to them were an Accuphase SACD player and a David Berning ZH270 output-transformerless tubed power amp with two inputs and a volume control. The Strads are rated at 92dB efficiency, so a 70Wpc amp should have had no trouble driving them. It did so with ease.

Music, system, room, and speakers were all unfamiliar to me, but now that I've had the Strads in my room for a few months, I know I could have pretty much written the review back in Arcugnano. I spent that hour in an emotional zone, soaking in the music and sound, hardly paying "reviewer attention" at all. It's rare that I can be sucked in so deeply under such circumstances, but I was. Had Serblin's meeting taken another few hours, I would probably have just continued to sit there, contentedly listening. That's what happened at home.

I set up the Stradivaris myself and found them not particularly fussy to optimize. Later, when John Hunter and Patrick Butler paid a visit to get the speakers maxed out to their satisfaction, they ended up moving them only slightly, but they also changed the rake angle using the spiked feet, which greatly improved the Strads' already impressive overall coherence. The pair ended up close to where almost all speakers sound best in my room: a few feet from the front wall, about 8½ feet apart. I was told to leave the elastic string-type speaker grilles off for best sound, so I did. This is one speaker that deserves to be seen and appreciated uncovered.

Footnote 1: The Guarneri Homage and Amati Homage were reviewed in July 1994 and June 1999, respectively. —Ed.
Sonus Faber
US distributor: Sumiko
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
(510) 843-4500