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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
accustomed to narrow-baffled speakers, being confronted by two
wide expanses of wood can be jolting. Because the Stradivaris
have more of a "room divider" presence than most moving-coil–based
speakers, they affect room acoustics even when silent. I could
"hear" them. I wondered how music—especially the
imaging and soundstaging—could not be affected. As I sat
down to listen for the first time, the visual cues took me back
to 1986, to the first time I heard Harry Pearson's Infinity IRS
system, which presented another set of wide-baffled (line-source)
speakers just a few feet away from the listening position in a
very small room.
But once the
music started, skepticism went out the window—in New Jersey
as it had in Italy. In some ways the Stradivari's overall tonal
presentation reminded me of the much less expensive Krell Resolution
1 (see my review in the November 2004 issue), though more accomplished
in every way, and more extended on top. The sonic picture the
Stradivaris produced was impressively large, especially in terms
of height, though the tweeter is only a little more than 3' from
the floor. The tweeters never gave away their locations, driver
integration was as good as I've ever experienced in my room—especially
for a full-range speaker—and the first sensation was of
a velvety-smooth richness and unforced physicality with no particular
tonal color. The immediate communicative essence was identical
to what I'd heard in Italy months earlier.
it to analytical scrutiny in order to figure out what was causing
it to happen, this speaker, more than any other I've reviewed,
communicated music's emotional content. Listening to the Stradivari
was a sensual experience—more in the chest than in the head.
this wasn't based on checking off items on an audiophile's list
of performance parameters. The seamlessness of the sonic whole
discouraged that kind of exercise—even in the mind of a
veteran reviewer. That first day of listening to the Stradivaris
at home, I felt what I'd felt in Sonus Faber's listening room.
I also felt it the last day, and every day in between. If you
get a chance to listen, don't expect to be bowled over or wowed
or to have your molecules rearranged. Be prepared to fall in love.
Part of the
Strad's emotional appeal was its sonic physicality. It goes very
low—it's spec'd to reach 22Hz. Even in my moderately sized
room, it responded down well below 30Hz, though without much output.
Above 30Hz, with test tones and, more important, music, the speaker
responded with impressive bass authority—something I could
not get the Amati Homage to do in my room (though I have heard
it so in others).
The Trumpets that Time Forgot (SACD, Linn CKD242), a gorgeous,
spacious recording featuring selections by Richard Strauss, Edward
Elgar, and Josef Rheinberger for two trumpets and organ—in
this case, the mammoth Hereford Cathedral Organ, built in 1892.
The Stradivari's rendering of the organ's lowest pedals was visceral
yet well controlled. The recording is on the warm and distant
side, yet the speaker delivered the bass notes and the distinct
sense of the large space without blurring the two or throwing
mud into the mix. The trumpets had just the right balance of brass
and air to be credible, and the organ's upper registers were cleanly
delineated. The Krell was very good at this too, though not quite
as well organized (no pun intended), and not with the same solidity
or purity of tone. My reference loudspeakers, the Wilson Audio
WATT/Puppy 7s, give greater emphasis to the brass and better delineate
the distance between the trumpets and the church walls, but they
don't plumb the depths; they therefore miss the organ's lower
pedals and can't convey the space nearly as well.
the Stradivari's bass performance, the word I kept coming back
to was solidity—exactly the word I couldn't use to describe
the bass performance of other Sonus Faber speakers I've heard,
reviewed, and owned. Those speakers concentrated more on getting
bass textures and tonality correct. The Strad changed that—as
well it should, for $40,000!—and did so without sounding
overdamped or mechanical.
be disappointed with the deep, tactile, well-controlled, pitch-perfect,
solid bass the Stradivari could deliver. It reproduced standup
bass properly sized, with a convincing balance of string pluck
and woody resonance, and electric bass with mesmerizing rhythmic
nimbleness. This speaker could do jazz, rock, and classical equally
well and without apology.
rendering of Speakers Corner's recent "must-have" reissue
of János Starker's prized Mercury Living Presence set of
J.S. Bach's Suites for Solo Cello (3 LPs, SR3-9016) provided a
memorable listening experience. The instrument's fundamental frequencies
range from around 70 to 750Hz. The 300Hz woofer/midrange crossover
sits near the middle of that sensitive range, yet the Stradivaris'
rendering of the sound of the cello was easily the most convincingly
three-dimensional, solid, and silky-rich I've ever heard it reproduced.
When Starker dug in, the bow scrapes never sounded metallic or
hard, yet textures were never glossed over. As you might imagine,
male voices, which share that range, were equally well served;
there was plenty of natural body, but no chestiness, nasality,
Stradivari delivered the most satisfying, balanced bass and midbass
performance I've ever had in my room—perhaps most convincingly
in the way notes faded, decayed, then cleanly stopped. The bass
was never "one-note," and never sounded artificial or
mechanical. Instead, it was rich and tactile without sounding
sluggish or sloppy. And it was there in ideal proportion to the
rest of the spectrum.
It's no coincidence
that Franco Serblin chose to run the midrange driver between 300Hz
and a highish 4kHz. That is the fundamental range of the female
voice, and if you listen to a lot of it, you will love this speaker.
It was magical, whether reproducing Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell,
Mary Black, or Renata Tebaldi. Instead of sibilant, ghostly, throat-centric
images, the Stradivari produced, fleshy, solid, full-bodied ones.
How many times
have I mentioned Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall or the Weavers'
Reunion at Carnegie Hall? The Stradivari reproduced the vocals,
male or female, more convincingly as real flesh and blood than
I've ever heard them sound, and without becoming soft, warm, and
cloying over time. In fact, in conjunction with the baffle arrangement
,this Audio Technology driver—the same brand Rockport Technologies
uses for the woofer and midrange in the Antares that I reviewed
in August 2002—produced the most delicate, textured, coherent,
and believable midrange performance I've yet heard—positively
addictive, and to a great degree responsible for the Stradivari's
ability to mesmerize and convey music's emotional center.
at 4kHz to the Scan-Speak ring-radiator tweeter means the midrange
driver handles almost all instrumental fundamentals and the tweeter
sees almost entirely harmonics. It also means the cone midrange
handles higher frequencies than usual, which with a 6" unit
might have a tendency to beam, leading to anomalies in both frequency
response and imaging. Whatever John Atkinson's measurements of
the Stradivari may reveal in this regard, I noted ultrastable
imaging and a subjectively seamless midrange/tweeter transition.
It could be that the lush midrange is partially a result of a
slight depression near the crossover point. I'll take it!
ring-radiator tweeter is a well-respected design featuring a neodymium
motor system and a die-cast aluminum chamber, which Sonus replaces
with a proprietary wooden chamber as well as adding its own waveguide
faceplate. While not sounding quite as supple as Dynaudio's Esotar,
the Scan-Speak subjectively offers more uniform off-axis dispersion
and greater high-frequency extension.
In this application,
I occasionally noted a slight sparkle, perhaps caused by a narrow,
high-Q peak in, I would guess, the 10kHz region. Or it could have
been the tweeter's response relative to the possible dip at the
crossover point. Whatever caused this subtle, not always audible
sparkle, it gave the Stradivari's top end an open, airy, transparent
sound without adding crispness or edge. I've heard cymbals and
other percussion instruments reproduced with more edge and bite,
but with a loss of some shimmer. The Stradivari reproduced more
of the true "meaty" sound of cymbals that you hear live.
all together: The Stradivari Homage is a full-range speaker with
a big, deep, solid, supple bottom end; a tactile, lush, velvety
midrange; and an extended, well-behaved top—all brilliantly
integrated by one of the world's premier speaker designers. Above
all, what made the Stradivari special over the long haul was its
Which is not
the same as saying it didn't have a character. Some may find the
balance too lush, the transient attack somewhat less than sharp,
the resolution of inner detail a bit lacking compared with some
of the "fastest" loudspeakers out there. But there are
tradeoffs with any design—the fastest speakers usually have
a threadbare midrange and somewhat stunted harmonics.
Stradivari's drive-units and the attention paid to its cabinet,
you might expect exceptional dynamic abilities. You wouldn't be
disappointed. Like all great, large, expensive speakers, the Stradivari
delivered the musical goods with a confident grip at both ends
of the scale, and without breaking a sweat. Most noticeable were
the low-level dynamics, especially in the bass and midbass region,
where, at the ends of familiar bass lines, the speaker seemed
to reveal a last bit of decay that had been previously obscured.
Played at high SPLs or at a whisper, the Stradivari remained open,
extended, velvety-smooth, and in complete control.
wide baffle produced a singular sonic picture. Instead of the
more common narrow-baffle, low-diffraction sound, in which a speaker
"disappears" to leave behind a ghostly apparition of
a three-dimensional sound picture, the Stradivari presented a
more weighty, unusually solid picture that seemed to be a three-dimensional
curtain wrapped behind the baffles and extending well back into
virtual space. While more conventional baffles have produced wider,
more transparent soundstages and perhaps more focused and upfront
images, none has delivered such a solid and physically believable
three-dimensional soundstage in my room—aided, I'm sure,
by the Stradivari's rich, palpable midrange.
Expensive, exquisitely built, with high-quality drivers and crossover
components, and superbly finished with a stylishness of which
only the Italians seem capable, Sonus Faber's Stradivari Homage
is, in my opinion, the finest loudspeaker Franco Serblin has designed,
and the most accomplished his company has built. That was his
goal, and he has succeeded.
I know many
owners of the Guarneri Homage who have told me they think it a
better-balanced speaker than the Amati Homage, even if it can't
go nearly as low. I don't think Guarneri partisans will feel that
way about the Stradivari. For whatever reason(s), the Amatis didn't
like my room enough to deliver a credible bottom end. (The Aerial
20T, which I've heard deliver the low-frequency goods elsewhere,
had the same problem when I reviewed it in the April 2004 issue.)
But the Stradivaris and my room proved to be the best of friends,
delivering nearly ideal bass, though I'm sure greater extension
and more forceful expression are possible in a bigger venue.
Rated at 92dB
efficiency, depending on the phase angle, this 4 ohm speaker shouldn't
be difficult to drive. It sounded rich and lush with a brute of
a solid-state amp in my room, and with a relatively low-powered
tube amp in Italy. I'd stay away from soft-sounding cables and
cartridges, but your tastes may vary.
Like the far
less expensive Krell Resolution 1, the Stradivari is in some ways
old-fashioned in its emphases on the music's physicality and weight,
on harmonic richness over resolution of inner detail, and on ear-popping
3D imaging, which has become a fixation among designers—probably,
in part, in an effort to create a compelling "picture"
to compete with video (call me crazy). Yet the Stradivari also
resolves detail and delivers microdynamics, allowing the listener
to hear the very last drop of decay and the lowest-level musical
gestures with great clarity and without compression. Its balance
is notably rich in the midrange, but with its prodigious and well-controlled
midbass and low bass and its clean, smooth top end, the sensation
of having everything in good balance is achieved with ease.
sonic particulars, and more difficult to describe and explain,
was the Stradivari's ability to convey music's emotional content.
The speaker was not the most analytical and revealing design I've
ever heard, but it was illuminating enough. It was, however, the
most emotionally communicative speaker I've ever heard. Can a
speaker have "soul"? I don't know, but this one comes
the closest to making me think so.
A parade of
great and expensive loudspeakers has marched through my room in
the past year, with more to come. Though some were a less good
match for my room than others, all have performed brilliantly,
if differently. Each did some things extremely well. For instance,
the mbl 101E's overall high-frequency performance remains unmatched
in my listening experience, as does the Aerial 20T's high-frequency
resolution and transient delivery. For $11,000/pair, the Krell
Resolution 1 is the biggest bargain in full-range, "CinemaScopic"
speakers I've heard. Yet, overall, I kept going back to the $39,000/pair
Rockport Antares as my favorite—until the arrival of the
Stradivari. Now it's a toss-up. For $40,000, you should have it
all, and with all varieties of music. With the Antares and now
the Stradivari, if you can afford them, all is what you get. As
with the Antares, I envy the audiophile who can afford to listen
to, look at, and own a pair of Sonus Faber Stradivari Homages.
A stellar achievement.
Three-way, floorstanding loudspeaker. Drive-units: Scan-Speak
1" silk ring-radiator tweeter, Audio Technology 6" pulp-cone
midrange unit, two SEAS 12" aluminum/magnesium-cone woofers.
Crossover frequencies: 300Hz, 4kHz. Frequency range: 22Hz–40kHz.
Sensitivity: 92dB/W/m. Nominal impedance: 4 ohms.
Dimensions: 53.5" (1360mm) H by 25.6"
(650mm) W by 19.7" (500mm) D. Weight: 165 lbs (75kg).
Finishes: violin red, slate gray.
Serial number of units reviewed: 003.
Price: $40,000/pair. Approximate number of dealers:
Manufacturer: Sonus Faber, 36057 Arcugnano (Vi),
Italy. Tel: (39) 444-288788. Fax: (39) 444-288722. Web: www.sonusfaber.com.
US distributor: Sumiko, 2431 Fifth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710.
Tel: (510) 843-4500. Fax: 510) 843-7120. Web: www.sumikoaudio.net.