Stand mount speakers
ushing through the halls of the MOC exhibition center in Munich, trying to keep all arranged meetings with various people and to attend all expected showcases, I somehow missed the presentation of the latest speaker line from Sonus faber. I have no idea how this happened, but I suspect that the emphasis placed by the exhibitor on the top series didn’t allow me to focus on anything else. Due to my earlier oversight, it was only a couple of months later that I could now see the speakers with my own eyes for the first time.
According to the Sonus faber literature the new series design solutions derive from experience gained with the flagship Aida speaker. The name refers to the monumental Teatro Olimpico ("Olympic Theatre"), the work of a great Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio, created before his death as a gift to Vicenza, between 1580 and 1585. Since 1994, Teatro Olimpico, along with other Palladio buildings in and around Vicenza have been on the UNESCO World Heritage List as "City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto". The reviewed stand-mounter looks like a classic two-way bass-reflex design. The former is true, the latter not entirely so. While neither bass-reflex port nor passive membrane are anywhere to be seen, the Olympica is not a sealed design. The manufacturer describes it as “paralaminar stealth flow vented loudspeaker”, which is closer to the aperiodic enclosure. Looking at the speaker from the side, we can see that one side is more curved at the back than the other. The resulting gap is plugged with a narrow, vertical perforated metal stripe, covered with a damping material from the inside. This is the aperiodic vent to control the sound radiated from the rear of the driver unit.
The rear panel is very narrow due to the Sonus characteristic lyre-shaped cabinet. What's more, its sides are not exact mirror reflections but are shaped differently, vividly recalling the shape invented by Franco Serblin for his last design, the Accordo stand mount speakers (see HERE). Although his design features concave cabinet sides which are convex in the Olympica, the basic idea is the same. Hence I think that the reviewed speakers are to some extent a tribute to Franco Serblin. Let me merely say this: with one exception, it is the most beautiful speaker design ever presented by Sonus faber. It combines in perfect harmony and proportion noble wood and leather with minor metal touches. Only the classic Guarneri Homage has something extra that makes it timeless. The Olympica I has an almost identical DNA when it comes to taste, though.
Sonus faber is a company which knows that a proper product presentation is as important as the product itself. Its website and pictures are among the best in the audio business and set an example that should be followed by all high-end manufacturers. The speakers come in a dark graphite and light walnut finish.
Albums auditioned during the review
Small speakers do not reproduce low bass. It is “obviously obvious” and I will not even go there. Even if they seem to reproduce low frequencies, it’s just the higher harmonics and not the actual acoustic pressure below, say, 50-60 Hz. One listen to large floorstanders that easily handle this range is enough to not to come back to it. However, the question how small speakers show the low frequencies within their frequency response is a different matter altogether. I will come back to that.
Much smaller from the Sonus faber flagship stand mount speakers, the Olympica I sound in a very similar way, minus the scale, dynamics, and bass extension. These limitations naturally modify their sound. Within these limits, however, they have reached a place where that can be easily forgotten.
Studio recordings, like Chet Baker and Art Pepper’s The Route or Alison Moyet’s The Minutes, bring a much more direct and tangible sound. The Olympics I speakers showed it exactly that way. The momentum and soundstage scale remained unchanged but now more important became perfect consistency and smoothness. The above recordings are 57 years apart, which was immediately shown as differences in managing sonic images and integrity between the instruments. The Sonus faber’s tendency to combine everything into a logical chain was reflected through coherence. The result was not a set of juxtaposed sounds but their composition. It would seem so obvious, wouldn’t it? In the audio it’s not entirely and completely true. The Italian speakers built presentation as if they directed a performance. It was naturally an illusion as the actual director had been on the other side of the chain, in the recording studio, yet I couldn’t help the impression of them being the "driving force". The point is that playing any given track we get something new, both emotionally and aesthetically. The tracks "happen" every time anew, according to internal rules, developing and creating tension between our expectations and the music.
I was deeply impressed by My private audio history written by Mr. Shirokazu Yazaki, a long-time engineer and head of research for Teac and Pioneer, a designer and music lover, currently head of SPEC Corporation (see HERE). I wasn’t alone in this and judging by the e-mails from all over the world Mr. Yazaki’s story was a revelation to many. It was the first time I heard a head of research in a large Japanese corporation talk so openly about himself and his work. We could all see that behind its products there are real people of flesh and blood who combine vast experience with incredible work ethic. No wonder that my first audition of the SPEC RSA-V1 integrated amp from a then completely unknown manufacturer made on me an impression comparable to that of the best 300B amplifiers (see HERE) – all the more so as it was a class D design! According to Mr. Yazaki’s story, the amplifier owed its superb sonics to several key components, including Mr. Honda’s novel implementation of a PWM modulator from International Rectifier, and the coupling oil capacitors from Arizona Capacitors, Inc. This American company is the successor of WEST-CAP, manufacturing this type of components for the U.S. military in the 1960s.
Mr. Yazaki doesn’t use them only in his amplifiers and preamplifiers. Another remarkable product I have been using for the last two years that sports the U.S. oil capacitors is the Real-Sound Processor RSP-101/GL.
Upon unpacking a neat cardboard box and untying a silk scarf, I saw a small wooden box with a pair of speaker terminals. It was wonderfully made as only the Japanese can do, and bore the serial number 0001. The Real-Sound Processor was created to remedy problems associated with class D amplifiers. This type of amplifier design turns out to be susceptible to the back electromotive force generated by the woofer that significantly modifies the original signal. To counter this, the SPEC Corporation engineers designed a special passive filter with an oil capacitor in the main role. What’s the result? Well, their impact extends beyond class D amplifiers. The RSP-101 plugged between the Harbeth M40.1 and the Soulution 710 brought a smoother, fuller and positively darker sound. Beyond any doubt, the results in my system were positive. Since then, the wooden boxes have stayed on the lower platforms of my Acoustic Revive stands, coupled to the speakers with short Oyaide Nigo cables.
In March 2013 I received from Mr. Yazaki the following e-mail:
To rely on the manufacturers’ opinion can be a risky business, at least when it comes to the sound of their products. With eyes fixed on their creation, their "baby", they often can’t or don’t want to see want to see obvious flaws, omissions, modifications or compromises. Their love for and acceptance of what they do is unconditional. Some don’t listen to anything, instead relying on measurements and coming up with fairy tales for the public. Others can hear perfectly well and are capable of accurate assessment of their designs, but in trying to "tweak" their presentation they confabulate. Hence, it is my general rule to read with attention and respect what they write, but also to verify that right at the very start of auditioning. I try not to forget or miss anything under the assumption that the more I know about a product, the better. This is the basic principle of any scientific study and is (or at least should be) taught at every college.
So when Mr. Yazaki sent me the filters and stated in an accompanying letter that in his opinion the new version sounded deeper, smoother and more natural, I chose several recordings to help me take a stance on his opinion. Everything he wrote turned out true. This is a rare case of a humble man of great experience who knows what he's doing, hears perfectly and comes up with an accurate diagnosis. The same happened before when I talked to Mr. Ken Ishiguro and reviewed his Acoustic Revive products.
The new filters promote midrange. At first glance, they seem to emphasize it. I think the older design had simply less midrange, which was even flatter dynamically and tonally without the filters altogether. The RSP-501EX makes the speaker, regardless of its make and type, sound more saturated, with a clearly more tangible 3D midrange. The new design seems to have less treble. I thought long and hard about it and it seems to me that the top end is indeed slightly withdrawn. Yet it is much richer at the same time and as a result better linked with the rest. The Revel and the Sonus faber particularly benefitted from that. But even the Harbeths showed something new. While they could certainly do with a bit more treble, now they sounded even more absorbing and “from the gut”. If you own speakers, any speakers, give SPEC a chance. If it fits your expectations, it will bring the kind of improvement that is difficult to achieve with anything else. It may not be huge in terms of quantity, but extremely valuable in terms of quality.
Manufacturer’s website: www.spec-corp.co.jp
I am quite sure that it is the type of loading of the mid-woofer unit that is in some way responsible for such natural dynamics. Listening to the already mentioned album The Route, I turned my attention to the bass drum presentation. Since I happen to do live mixing of drums fairly often, I know that the bass drum true dynamics, speed and color can’t be carried over into home. Audio system limits are still too high. Sound compression is one of the more troublesome among them. This is where home speakers are several lengths behind the – much less linear and less refined tonally – professional speakers. In this one respect the pro audio technology beats what we have at home. In audiophile designs the problem is the type of driver unit’s loading – usually a bass-reflex vent – and the woofer’s high-hysteresis high-excursion rubber front suspension. Knowing that, I have a better understanding for music lovers who prefer old woofer designs – large low-excursion paper cone drivers with textile suspension in a sealed enclosure or open baffle. And for those who prefer full-range drivers. They offer the kind of transient response, immediacy and micro-dynamics translating into precise attack and hence a sense of "presence" and "vibrancy", which are much better than that of the vast majority of modern design. There are of course exceptions to this rule, such as my Harbeths. The Olympica I from Sonus faber also overcame this limitation, and did a very good job of it. The bass drum I mentioned was flat and fast, just like a real "skin", of course to the extent allowed by the recording technique and medium limitations. I had a similar feeling listening to electronic instruments on Martin Gore’s albums or on Alison Moyet’s disc mentioned previously. In the case of electronica there’s no natural "reference point", yet I could compare the Italian speakers to best designs I’d had at home. This comparison is extremely favorable for the speakers from Italian Arcugnano.
There has never been nor will ever be a perfect speaker. Every copy is tainted with distortion, and music playback at home is an nth generation copy. We operate within the narrow confines of pre-determined limitations and are doomed to compromise. What the best designs manage to achieve, however, is nothing short of amazing. The Olympica I from Sonus faber is a speaker whose limitations are clear from the first minutes of listening, and whose compromises are fairly easy to identify. Giving up a large enclosure in favor of a small stand mount cabinet and focusing on a small mid-bass driver straight up eliminates much of bass extension and hence of the music. The bass is the foundation of not only the low range sounds, but also of everything that’s above it. Coming over from the big Revel Performa3 F206 floorstanders and even more from the Harbeth M40.1, we hear it immediately, mainly as a decrease in the volume of sound. However, since the speakers under review are exceptionally well designed, we adapt to it very quickly and in a few moments simply listen to them, without comparing to what was a moment earlier. The more so as they are definitely not short on bass. Deep bass notes on electronica albums were clearly indicated and their higher harmonics beautifully conveyed, integrating with the midrange. The classical vocal recordings showed changed room acoustics, but the vocals tone remained virtually unchanged. It’s very nicely audible, assisted by great bass differentiation and its natural color. The treble sounds in much the same way. Not as resolute and rich as with the Guarneri Evolution, it’s still excellent. The midrange is simply natural and doesn’t collide with what is at the top and bottom ends. Actually, as I wrote, the speakers sound more like one driver units, not emphasizing any particular sub-range.
I vividly remember all the Sonus faber speakers I have reviewed, as well as the two – unfortunately the only two ever – speakers designed and built by Franco Serblin under the aegis of the company named after him. No single one of them can be passed over with indifference. I also remember my doubts as to whether, after the departure from Sonus of its spiritus movens, something of his legacy survives, and whether the company acquired by an investment fund, a profit oriented business whose main objective is to maximize profits, will manage to keep its most important asset – the spirit. It turns out that the Italians went their own way and using the company’s earlier "patents" came up with speaker designs so different as to make them difficult to compare directly with the older products. Such designs as the Sonus faber, the Aida, and – especially – the Venere line manufactured outside Italy were intended to attract new fans, the way I see it. Something changed with the Guarneri Evolution. Or perhaps nothing changed and there is simply a consistent implementation of the plan - I do not know. Regardless of what the truth is, it works.
The speakers are awarded the RED Fingerprint Award
Design finish has for years been Sonus faber’s hallmark and distinguishing feature. It's an Italian job from beginning to end, by people who know what to do and how to do it. That’s important, since there are so few examples of good industrial design in the hi-fi audio world and any attempt to make this world look better commands a deep respect.
On the technical side, the Olympica I is a two-way loudspeaker in a side vented enclosure. Instead of a classic bass-reflex or transmission line we have here a variant of the former called stealth reflex. The only information found in the company literature is that it’s a design based on concepts by Onken and Jensen. The cabinet is made of natural walnut staves, with narrow joints in light maple. Sonus faber calls the cabinet “enhanced Lyre shape” design. The sides are not identical and the rear panel is slightly off-axis, just like with the Accordo from Franco Serblin (see HERE). The company literature speaks of hyperbolic shape and “duck-tail geometry” design concepts.
The front is not a simple flat surface and has been shaped a bit like the fronts of Avalon speakers, with its sides and corners diamond cut shaped. Two driver units designed from beginning to end by Sonus faber engineers are mounted to the flat surface of the front baffle with concealed screws. The treble is handled by the "Arrow Point" DAD 29XTR2 tweeter, where DAD stands for Damped Apex Dome, a combination of the classic dome and ring transducer. It has a large 29 mm diameter and features a neodymium magnet and the "arrow point" in the center to linearize phase response.
The stands also command attention. Although they don’t look as massive as the Guarneri stands, they are really well made and look great. Their whole body is made of aluminum, except for the steel spikes. These are higher in the front than in the back to tilt up the speaker. The stand’s upper plate is very small and the speaker, as usually with Sonus, is screwed to it.
Specification (according to the manufacturer)
- Turntable: AVID HIFI Acutus SP [Custom Version]
- Cartridges: Miyajima Laboratory KANSUI, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory SHILABE, review HERE | Miyajima Laboratory ZERO (mono) | Denon DL-103SA, review HERE
- Phono stage: RCM Audio Sensor Prelude IC, review HERE
- Compact Disc Player: Ancient Audio AIR V-edition, review HERE
- Multiformat Player: Cambridge Audio Azur 752BD
- Line Preamplifier: Polaris III [Custom Version] + AC Regenerator, regular version review (in Polish) HERE
- Power amplifier: Soulution 710
- Integrated Amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Stand mount Loudspeakers: Harbeth M40.1 Domestic, review HERE
- Stands for Harbeths: Acoustic Revive Custom Series Loudspeaker Stands
- Real-Sound Processor: SPEC RSP-101/GL
- Integrated Amplifier/Headphone amplifier: Leben CS300XS Custom Version, review HERE
- Headphones: HIFIMAN HE-6, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE | HIFIMAN HE-300, review HERE | Sennheiser HD800 | AKG K701, review (in Polish) HERE | Ultrasone PROLine 2500, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro, version 600 - reviews (in Polish): HERE, HERE, HERE
- Headphone Stands: Klutz Design CanCans (x 3), review (in Polish) HERE
- Headphone Cables: Entreq Konstantin 2010/Sennheiser HD800/HIFIMAN HE-500, review HERE
- Interconnects: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, review HERE | preamplifier-power amplifier: Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo, review HERE
- Loudspeaker Cables: Tara Labs Omega Onyx, review (in Polish) HERE
- Interconnects: Acoustic Revive RCA-1.0PA | XLR-1.0PA II
- Loudspeaker Cables: Acoustic Revive SPC-PA
- Power Cables: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300, all system, review HERE
- Power Distributor: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu Ultimate, review HERE
- Power Line: fuse – power cable Oyaide Tunami Nigo (6m) – wall sockets 3 x Furutech FT-SWS (R)
- Power Cables: Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version, review (in Polish) HERE | Oyaide GPX-R (x 4 ), review HERE
- Power Distributor: Oyaide MTS-4e, review HERE
- Portable Player: HIFIMAN HM-801
- USB Cables: Acoustic Revive USB-1.0SP (1 m) | Acoustic Revive USB-5.0PL (5 m), review HERE
- LAN Cables: Acoustic Revive LAN-1.0 PA (kable ) | RLI-1 (filtry), review HERE
- Router: Liksys WAG320N
- NAS: Synology DS410j/8 TB
- Stolik: SolidBase IV Custom, read HERE/all system
- Anti-vibration Platforms: Acoustic Revive RAF-48H, review HERE/digital sources | Pro Audio Bono [Custom Version]/headphone amplifier/integrated amplifier, review HERE | Acoustic Revive RST-38H/loudspeakers under review/stands for loudspeakers under review
- Anti-vibration Feets: Franc Audio Accessories Ceramic Disc/ CD Player/Ayon Polaris II Power Supply /products under review, review HERE | Finite Elemente CeraPuc/ products under review, review HERE | Audio Replas OPT-30HG-SC/PL HR Quartz, review HERE
- Anti-vibration accsories: Audio Replas CNS-7000SZ/power cable, review HERE
- Quartz Isolators: Acoustic Revive RIQ-5010/CP-4
- FM Radio: Tivoli Audio Model One