Sony ES SS-M9 loudspeaker

Conventional wisdom has it that large Japanese corporations are insular. But when it comes to audio, Sony bucks the conventional wisdom as much as it does in pretty much everything it does. In Europe, the company has long had an excellent reputation for producing loudspeakers using local design talent, so I wasn't surprised to see Sony launching a line of American-designed and -made speakers at Stereophile's 1994 High-End Hi-Fi Show in Miami. Stereophile writer Barry Willis came away from that Show raving about the Sonys: "What we heard was gorgeous, absolutely beautiful: rich, warm, and deep, with a seductive midrange, a shimmering, delicate, grain-free top-end, and a soundstage to die for," he wrote about the sound of the three-way SS-M7 in Miami (footnote 1), 1 concluding that "WATT/Puppy performance is now available at Vandersteen prices in an American-made loudspeaker sporting a Japanese badge."

For its ES line, Sony gave ex-Polk engineer Dan Anagnos a clean slate to produce loudspeakers that could compete in the High End. The ES SS-M9 is the largest in that range. Introduced in 1995, it is a floorstanding three-way design that resembles the M7 but features a larger cabinet with twin woofers. Conceptually, it is a two-way minimonitor—the tweeter and midrange unit are mounted one above the other in the enclosure's narrow top—crossing over below 200Hz to a subwoofer. The goal was to combine the sonic advantages of a full-range design with those traditionally associated with a minimonitor: high loudness capability, excellent bass extension, midrange neutrality, and well-defined stereo imaging. In Sony's words, they wanted to "produce an extremely accurate, revealing, and uncompromised loudspeaker system [that] was capable of conveying the naturalness, musicality, and effortlessness of a live performance."

A key aspect of the M9's design is the cabinet. It needs to be narrow in the region of the tweeter and midrange unit in order to optimize treble dispersion, hence imaging. However, it also needs to be wide enough to accommodate one or more woofers capable of moving sufficient air to achieve good bass extension. The result is a narrow pyramid—fabricated from MDF, veneered on both sides, and filled with polyester fiber—that is considerable deeper than it is wide. A number of horizontal figure-8 braces provide rigidity, and bituminous pads mop up any stray resonances that remain. The front baffle is complex, with four separate facets. Completing the picture is an excellent grille made of black material stretched over a wire frame to minimize any acoustic obstruction in the vicinity of the upper-frequency drive-units.

All of the drive-units are labeled "Sony." The tweeter, a 1" fabric-dome unit, looks rather like the excellent Danish Vifa used in the Joseph Audio RM7si that I reviewed last February; the 5" plastic-cone midrange unit, mounted in its own cylindrical sub-enclosure, looks similar to a Norwegian SEAS unit. The tweeter's front plate has a hemispherical profile to add a degree of acoustic coupling. The two 8" plastic-cone woofers have a shallow rubber-roll surround and are mounted with eight hex-head bolts. They are reflex-loaded by two large, 3"-diameter ports at the base of the rear panel. The ports are flared on both the internal and external ends to minimize wind noise at high levels.

Electrical connection is via two pairs of gold-plated binding posts on the rear panel above the ports, and internal wiring is of heavy gauge. While clip-on connectors are used to hook up the drive-units, these are subsequently soldered. I couldn't get access to the midrange/tweeter crossover, but the low-pass filter was mounted on its own printed circuit board screwed to one of the cabinet sidewalls. This filter features three large air-cored coils, each carefully oriented for minimal magnetic interaction, and three electrolytic capacitors bypassed with small-value plastic-film caps.

Other than the prismatic, pyramidal shape of its cabinet, the SS-M9 is somewhat unassuming to look at. Its interior, however, reveals great attention to detail. The three stainless-steel spikes supplied for each speaker, for example, are supplied with matching circular plates about the size of a dime to avoid damaging finished wooden floors. Color me impressed.

Various other reviewing commitments kept me from doing any serious auditioning of the Sony for about six months. But when I did finally listen to the speaker, I could have kicked myself! The SS-M9 takes quite a lot of break-in, particularly regarding its woofers (a period of 100 hours is mentioned in the well-written handbook). But when its performance finally does reach a plateau, it is one heck of a fine speaker.

If you've been reading my loudspeaker reviews for any length of time, you'll know that I value realistic bass very highly indeed. In fact, I value it so highly that much of the time I go without, and use minimonitors rather than subject myself to the thickened, "puddingy" boom that many designers of full-range speakers seem to think is "good bass."

When you next attend an unamplified classical or jazz concert, listen carefully to the quality of the low frequencies. While you'll hear that acoustic bass instruments have LF extension commensurate with their physical size, you won't hear any boom. In fact, it's the clarity and definition of live bass that I singularly fail to hear from almost any loudspeaker. Perhaps the huge Dunlavy SC-VI that Steven Stone reviewed in August (Vol.19 No.8), and Stereophile's 1995 "Product of the Year," the awesome Wilson X-1/Grand SLAMM, come closer than any other speaker I've heard to being able to reproduce the tight, well-defined lows that I experience live—but both those systems cost a lot of money.

It was with some surprise, therefore, that I realized that the bass pumped out by the modest-looking SS-M9 was, if not the closest to live that I've heard from a speaker, then at least up there in the Top Ten. And without apparently heroic efforts—just two pairs of 8" woofers. Somewhat lean- and barren-sounding before the speaker was fully broken-in, the M9's bass had an excellent combination of clearly drawn leading edges and bloom, without any hint of deterioration into boom. On my bass-definition torture track, Pat Metheny's "Last Train Home" (from Still Life (Talking), Geffen GEFD 24145-2), the repeated eighth notes on the electric bass guitar were as tight as a nut, laying down a solid foundation for the melodic and harmonic changes. Similarly, my Fender bass tracks on Stereophile's Test CD 2 (STPH004-2) sounded weighty but ultra-clear. Even high-level kick drum sounded tight, with good punch. In fact, drums in general had excellent definition.

I've come to expect this kind of bass definition from well-designed sealed-box designs; it was a surprise to hear it from a reflex speaker. But the twin ports on the Sony's rear do indeed appear to be capable of reinforcing the speaker's low-bass region without muddying up the mid- and upper bass, the differences between the different vibratos I used on different notes on the Test CD 2 Fender tracks being easily discernible. (Some reflex-loaded loudspeakers have sufficient overhang to reduce these differences to inaudibility.) In fact, for a bass guitarist, the Sony is a delight, the individual characters of different instruments being easily discerned.

Without any added boom, it might be easy for some audiophiles to assume the Sony had lightweight lows if they listened to music that itself didn't have much bass content. But when the music had low frequencies present—the deep organ pedals on the Test CD 2 Gerontius excerpt, for example, or the synthesizer bass on Annie Lennox's version of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down" (Medusa, Arista 25717-2)—the Sony delivered its full measure. The warble tones on Stereophile's Test CD 3 could be heard right down to the 20Hz band. And when pianist Robert Silverman hammers up the keyboard with the "loud" pedal down at the climactic broken F-sharp chord before the closing Andante sostenuto of the Liszt B-minor Piano Sonata (Sonata, Stereophile STPH008-2), the Sonys allow you to hear how physically big and powerful a Steinway actually is. (Though the speaker's bass extension and low-frequency clarity also allowed me to too easily hear a distant motorcycle at one point in the recording that I had assumed I could live with when I was doing the mixing and editing.)

One aspect of good low-frequency extension that is rarely considered is the impact it can have on soundstaging. Much of the low-bass information on classical recordings is hall ambience and noise rather than the sounds of musical instruments. When this is accurately reproduced, the improved sense of image palpability can be awesome. The artificial reverberation on the Pat Metheny cut mentioned earlier, for example, could be heard on the Sonys to define a billowing dome of space above and behind the speaker positions. The surrounding space of the Albuquerque church on Sonata was easily apparent. And even when the recorded ambience was subtle, such as that on the excellent Chesky Mozart Piano Concerto CD from Salzburg (Chesky CD156), the Sonys allowed me to hear into the recorded acoustic in a very satisfying way.

Higher in frequency, the M9's midrange was impressively neutral. Try as I could, I was never bothered by any coloration in this region—and I tried to be bothered, believe me. The treble was generally clean, though there was a narrow band of brightness occasionally apparent at the top of the midrange unit's passband. This was only present to a mild extent and didn't get in the way of the music, other than pushing hi-hat cymbal a little forward in the soundstage. However, the Sony didn't work too well with the tubed Cary amplifier, this residual brightness balance becoming exaggerated to the point of unacceptability. I expect the measurements will reveal why this was so.

Every now and then I thought I caught a glimpse of a trace of wiriness in the high treble, but again, this didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the music. What was apparent about the Sony's treble was a somewhat polite top octave, with a slight lack of air noticeable. Rendering the speaker's balance generally forgiving of recorded HF nasties, this wouldn't be considered too serious a fault by many audiophiles. I did feel, however, that it detracted somewhat from ultimate transparency.

The big Sony's dynamics were excellent in that it would play pretty loud without strain—Sonata, for example, topped out in my room at about 102dB (average) at the listening position without any feeling that the speakers were working particularly hard or that detail was being obscured by compression. Yet neither did the speaker seem opaque at low playback levels.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with the SS-M9s. Not to put Sony down, but given the company's inevitable mass-market focus—large companies do have to address themselves to the largest market—it was surprising to find out how good a speaker the M9 was. It was as if you'd found an inexpensive Gallo White Zinfandel sweeping up all the oenophile accolades at a wine tasting. Certainly the M9 indicates that Dan Anagnos is a speaker designer to watch—and listen to.

It is always a satisfying event when a reviewer finds a product that sounds better than he expected. Such was the case with Sony's ES SS-M9. Neutrally balanced, with well-defined imaging, a clean treble, and truly excellent low-frequency extension, this is obviously a loudspeaker with a "mind behind." The design is thoroughly worked through, from the alignment of the twin woofers, through the rigid, optimally braced enclosure, to the well-implemented crossover. The M9's flaws are minor, outweighed by the things it emphatically does right. To those who might wish for more bass "boom" I say, "Hi thee to more live concerts." To everyone else, I recommend they check this big Sony out: it offers more than you might think at a price lower than you'd expect. The M9 deserves a high Class B rating in Stereophile's "Recommended Components."

Footnote 1: In the August 1994 Stereophile, Vol.17 No.8, p.78).
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