Silverline Audio Hits Musical Mark

Almost every audiophile, whether hobbyist or professional, has taken a stab at building loudspeakers. Combine the fundamentals of cabinetmaking with some basic electronic theory, connect a few good drivers to a well-designed crossover network, and you're on your way to pretty good sound. And now, with widely available resources like crossover design software and high-quality prefabricated cabinets, the task is easier than it's ever been.

Amateurs and would-be professionals alike thus have an excellent chance of producing decent-sounding speakers on their first or second attempts---a fact that tempts many hobbyist builders to try manufacturing as a business. Every year at the Consumer Electronics Show, previously unknown loudspeaker companies test the waters, and every year many speaker-building startups quietly slip beneath the waves, having discovered two hard truths about the most popular pursuit in the audio business: 1) It's easy to build a decent speaker, and very difficult to build a great one. 2) There's a world of difference between building a few pairs for friends and family and actually running a business.

Designer Alan Yun learned all the lessons early in his career. An audio hobbyist from childhood, he built his first output-transformerless amplifier at the tender age of 10. "I was a very serious child," he says. In his native Hong Kong, he was called the "little old man." His interest in electronics eventually culminated in a university degree in engineering---he is also a trained musician---and a job with NEC's computer sales division in the 1980s, selling high-end industrial printers throughout Asia. The memory now makes him wince. "Our cost was $3950 for a printer with a list price of $6000. Somehow our competitors could supply them to our clients for $4000, and we had to meet their price. It was madness."

While with NEC, Yun developed his own brand of loudspeakers, the Classics One line, ranging from minimonitors to huge floorstanding systems. Classics One enjoyed a strong following among Hong Kong audiophiles, and, through 1995, when he began preparing to emigrate to the United States, Yun had sold more than 4200 pairs of speakers. By 1996 he and his family had settled in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco, and Yun was back doing what he loved best: designing and building loudspeakers for audiophiles.

Silverline Audio Technology, Yun's new company, made its official debut at the Stereophile show in 1997 with a couple of products that were "whipped together at the last minute." Since then he has expanded the line to include everything from shoebox-size mini-speakers at a few hundred dollars per pair, to multi-way monsters at many thousands. (His "statement" product, the Grandeur, sells for $35,000/pair.) With over 20 dealers nationwide and representation in Europe and Hong Kong, Yun stays incredibly busy, but not manic. The seriousness of his youth has been replaced by the perpetual cheer of a man who has fun all day, every day. He is particularly happy at the moment: his little $695/pair SR-12 won high praise in the May issue of French audio journal La Nouvelle Revue du Son.

I was unaware of Silverline Audio until about two months ago, when Mobile Fidelity's Jon Wood told me about Yun. "You need to know about this guy," he said with a knowing nod. Always eager to follow a hot lead, I made Silverline's display one of my first stops at HI-FI '99. I was extremely impressed by Yun's Sonatina and Sonata models, driven by KR Enterprise electronics---so much that I returned twice, as did several other journalists. Yun's speakers exhibited a stunning sense of ease and naturalness, and a liquidity that I heard from little else at the show.

Last week I was able to spend a day with Yun at his office in Walnut Creek, where we spent the better part of the afternoon listening to every type of music. (Nasty work, I know, but someone has to do it.) I was just as taken with the $3.5k/pair Sonatina here as I was in Chicago. The little three-way, four-element column shares a swept-back look with its larger sibling, the $5k/pair Sonata---think of ordinary rectangular columns magically bent back in the wind, as in one of Salvador Dalí's dreams. Wrapped in bird's-eye maple, the design is both retro and amazingly au courant. Based on looks alone, I imagine the spousal acceptance factor of these speakers would be extremely high.

But the proof is in the listening, and the sound from the Silverlines is to die for---delicate and deep, precise and powerful---like real music! Both models employ German WIGO 2" fabric-dome midrange drivers and 1" dome tweeters. Yun departs from the standard wisdom by mounting the midrange at ear level, with the tweeter above it. Many manufacturers place their tweeters at ear level, a practice that can make a speaker sound too edgy. J. Gordon Holt's first rule of audio, "Get the midrange right," is also Alan Yun's mantra. "I start with the midrange and work outward toward the frequency extremes," he says. Many of his competitors do the opposite, creating products with sizzling highs and prodigious bass, but mistreating the soul of the music. All of Yun's designs are what he calls "true 8 ohm speakers" with impedance curves that vary from 7.2 to 8.8 ohms---in other words, ±10%. None of this amp-destroying 1.6-ohms-at-40Hz impedance-dip nonsense for Alan Yun. He hand-selects all of his crossover components, finding only about 10% in any batch that meet his stringent specifications.

The Sonata---a "true four-way," as Yun describes it---has the luscious, delicate, all-revealing midrange of the Sonatina, but more weight and authority in the bottom end. We listened to both speakers driven by an Art Audio Jota (a 20W or so single-ended tube amp) linked by AudioTruth Dragon solid-core cables, with a Wadia 860 CD player spinning the tunes. The nearest sonic comparison I can make to the Sonata is Sonus Faber's fabulous Amati Homage, which Michael Fremer raves about in this month's Stereophile. I, too, have spent some time with the Amati, and agree completely with Mikey. It's a wonderful speaker, among the very best. It also costs 20 grand.

The Silverline Sonata gets very close to the Amati's performance for only 25% of its price. At five grand, the Sonata is ridiculously underpriced---and will likely stay that way, at least for the near future. "I'm a small guy," Yun shrugs. "Nobody knows about me." Audiophiles take note: that particular injustice of the marketplace is likely about to change. Silverline Audio might be the next hot ticket to musical nirvana.