Whether it’s designing and making cars, shoes, art, fashion, furniture, or even loudspeakers, you can count on the Italian commitment to doing things with style. Such was the case at the Sonus faber world-premiere launch event February 2nd where a trio of gorgeous-looking and -sounding new loudspeakers was unveiled. Formally christened the Homage Tradition Collection, the new lineup largely builds upon the sonic and technical foundations of the existing Homage Collection and features gloriously striking, custom, real-wood cabinets with contrasting wood inlays and aluminum accents in a titanium finish. Offering equal measures of Sonus faber’s proprietary technologies for delivering high-end sonics and the design inspiration, aesthetics, and precision construction that draw on centuries-old Italian traditions of handcrafted musical instruments—the lute and the violin, in particular—the Homage Tradition Collection combines form and function beautifully.
The Italian marque, one of a handful of heritage high-end audio brands (along with McIntosh and Audio Research) under the auspices of the World of McIntosh Group (WOM), hosted the event for select members of the hi-fi press and international distributors, marketers, and sales folks. The affair was held at the historic five-story WOM Townhouse on Lafayette Street in Soho near Nolita. Reflecting high design to the hilt, the multi-functional space strikes a stylish balance between industrial-looking original details (such as exposed brick and pipes) and modern, luxurious comforts (such as the indoor swimming pool with an audio system, the lushly landscaped rooftop terrace with outdoor speakers, and the contemporary art—by Keith Haring, for one). Interestingly, the circa 1890s building once served as a power substation that provided current to nearby subway stations, so it seems oddly fitting that the space is now powering the sale of high-end audio electronics, speakers, and sources.
I attended a WOM event at the townhouse once before, at which the McIntosh Group’s brands were introduced and the company’s intention to market to a broader, luxury-minded customer base was emphasized. Now, under the leadership of a new CEO—Charles Randall, CEO of McIntosh Laboratory, Inc., who took over after Mauro Grange stepped down at the end of 2016—the primary focus seems to have returned to the core audiophile market, though other areas, such as high-end lifestyle and car audio, are still important. Indeed, an automotive project involving two of the WOM brands is slated to be announced soon. Additionally, per information shared at the event, 22 new products are to be launched within the next year across the Group’s three core brands—McIntosh, Sonus faber, and ARC.
Speakers…and the Speakers
But let’s get back to the primary reason we were there—the Homage Tradition Collection loudspeakers, which is a revamping of the Homage Collection and includes three updated models—the two-way Guarneri stand-mount pictured below ($15,900 with carbon-fiber monocoque stands), the three-and-a-half-way Amati floorstander ($29,900), and the Vox horizontal three-way (not shown at the event)—plus one brand-new loudspeaker, the Serafino, a three-and-a-half-way floorstander with dimensions slightly smaller than the Amati’s that will retail for $21,900.
Before the new loudspeakers were unveiled—and they literally were, as seen in the photo below—four speakers (the human kind) from Sonus faber and the McIntosh Group took the floor in a round-robin presentation in which each shed light on a different aspect of the lineup’s evolution. Marta Veciello Reane, Marketing Manager with Sonus faber, provided some company history and context, from its founding in 1983 and its first two-way monitors in leather and solid-wood, to the ongoing study of Italian violin and lute-making traditions that inform its acoustic design. The company says it thinks of its loudspeakers as musical instruments to be created as such. In fact, the new Serafino Tradition loudspeaker is named after legendary 18th-century Venetian violin (and lute) maker Santo Serafino—and the speakers are shaped to resemble that classic string instrument’s form. Not just for looks, the curves of the sides change and double, and this shape is said to allow the cabinet to better control internal resonances. Taking the Italian string instrument inspiration and aesthetics to the next level, the Homage Tradition line speakers are available in either a rather vibrant red with walnut wood with black inlays combined with brushed black aluminum and black leather, or Wengè/coffee finish with maple inlays and brushed aluminum coated in a titanium finish with brown leather.
McIntosh Group Chief Design Officer Livio Cucuzza followed with a discussion of the Homage Tradition line’s design influences and inspiration. Not surprisingly, these elements ran to iconic Italian cultural references—think Italy in the 1960s, La Dolce Vita, ocean waves inspiring the reflex port, and in a more direct reference, the Riva Aquarama wooden motor boat of the era. The top of the speakers, seen in the photo below, was designed to echo the look of the top panels of those boats. (Incidentally there was another nod to the Italian/British 1960s already in place: A movie poster for the Antonioni film Blow-Up hung by the staircase to the townhouse’s top floor.)
There was also a promo video shown celebrating la dolce vita featuring a glamorous woman driving an Alfa Romeo to meet her beau at a giant villa or grand hotel on the Italian coast, a pair of Homage Tradition speakers set up (most improbably) on a pier out on the water. To say this screams “lifestyle” and “luxury” would be an understatement.
Next up was Paolo Tezzon, Sonus faber R&D Manager and Chief of the Acoustic Team for McIntosh, who began his talk by warning us that his technical part of the presentation would be boring, but it certainly wasn’t. Broadly speaking, a number of patents and technological solutions (the drivers in particular) found in the Lilium and Il Cremonese models have been repurposed and/or evolved in the Homage Tradition lineup; I’ll cover some other highlights here:
The Stealth Ultraflex system, employed on all the Homage Tradition speakers, comprises the wave-shaped external duct on the back panel and the surrounding wave-inspired forms made of extruded Avional aluminum billet that are designed to control the airflow within the cabinet to reduce distortion and coloration, and support lower-end frequencies. The aluminum forms are also part of the Exoskeleton system that now has a vertical profile rather than the previous design, which was tilted backwards at an angle. This upright update reportedly improves phase relationships for better coherency. Aluminum dampshelves have also been added to the top and bottom of the speakers to further reduce resonances.
Each driver is each housed in its own chamber. Starting at the top, the DAD H-28 XRT-04 tweeter is the same silk dome that Sonus faber developed for its Lilium and Il Cremonese models (DAD stands for damped apex dome, which is designed to improve off-axis response and to help the speaker disappear). The M15 XTR-04 neodymium-magnet midrange and the two W18XTR-08 layered-cone woofers (for the Serafino and Amati speakers) are also the same as those found in the two aforementioned models. They run in parallel for faster bass response.
The Guarneri and Serafino speakers feature Silent Spikes made of coaxial metal and elastomer to reduce vibrations; these build upon Sonus faber’s patented Z.V.T. (Zero Vibration Transmission) technology. The crossovers use Paracross topology, a non-resonant design said to optimize amplitude and phase response, along with Jantzen inductors and the latest Mundorf capacitors.
The final presenter was Dan Wakefield, VP of Sales for the North America McIntosh Group—and the first non-Italian—who took the floor and started off speaking in the Italian accent of the three previous presenters. (This seemed slightly awkward for a moment, until we found out afterwards they’d all been in on the joke.) Wakefield discussed new initiatives for the line’s merchandising and marketing, including enhanced dealer support, in-store displays, and more. The Homage Tradition loudspeakers are due in market starting in March.
There were three demo rooms set up, one for each of the new speakers. The Serafino was set up in the largest, yet most acoustically challenging of those rooms. Among other sonically dubious architectural elements, it had an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling window panes facing the outdoor terrace. Unlike the other two demo rooms, this room was untreated. So my listening notes and comments have to be considered with these less-than-ideal conditions in mind.
What struck me most upon my first listen to both the Amati and Serafino speakers was their overall coherence and impressive dispersion (better than I’d remembered from some other Sonus faber speakers at times). As I expected, given that they have some driver elements in common, these two did share some sonic characteristics with the Lilium and Il Cremonese. They presented a big, full sound with quite high resolution, for instance, but their degree of verisimilitude varied. At times timbre would shift slightly towards the darker, richer side of the spectrum, but this depended on the source material—and the electronics.
In the Serafino room, pictured above, the three-and-a-half-ways were paired with McIntosh electronics and sources, including a D150 digital preamplifier, a C1100 tube preamp, a C1100 controller, an MPC 1500 power controller, and an MCT450 CD/SACD player and MT5 precision turntable with McIntosh tonearm and Blue Point No. 2 cartridge. Plenty of female vocalists were on demo with this setup, from Lyn Stanley on vinyl to a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by Elisa that featured some rich and full-sounding organ effects. As I’ve experienced at other times—and as JV has recently commented on—CDs fared better sonically than other digital tracks, even higher-resolution ones. Piano tended to sound darkish in timbre and not the most realistic, but on many vocals and other instruments this richer, fuller sound fared better. Bass seemed quite deep reaching even if could have used a touch more control at times. But this warmer, more bottom-up sound was also quite lovely on the aforementioned female vocals. Still, as mentioned, this room was not the most acoustically favorable.
What a difference electronics can make! In the room pictured above with the Amati loudspeakers (biwired) driven by ARC’s Reference electronics (Reference 6 preamplifier, Reference 250 tube monoblocks with a Reference digital CD player source). The sound was gorgeous and for the most part, highly resolved. It didn’t hurt that Will Kline of the McIntosh Group, who was running the room, had a wonderfully eclectic playlist that kept me guessing (and kept me around for a while), ranging from Leonard Cohen, James Blake, and Cesária Évora to Led Zeppelin, Yello, and Regina Spektor—OK, it was a custom CD playlist, but this system seemed to transcend the digital medium. (Still, I was wishing I’d brought some vinyl.) The Yello track made me want to get up and dance, the bass had such presence and heft, though it could have used a little taming at times (as was the case on some other source material as well). On Leonard Cohen’s “Never Mind” the degree of detail was astonishing—you could clearly hear every sound his mouth and lips made. This track also showcased the extremely dark, quiet background.
I also played the first couple of tracks from El Vy’s Return to the Moon on CD; these were reproduced with superb solidity and jaunty musicality and appropriate weight but still leaned towards a relatively bottom-up presentation, though plenty of detail shined through. The cymbals and other driving percussion at the end of the title track had quick and crisp leading-edge transients. “I’m the Man to Be” was rendered with a pleasing sense of presence and body with good dimensionality, even if it wasn’t the height of realism. Still this system boasted a big, rich sound that maintained a sense of openness and expansion throughout the midsized room. Thoroughly enjoyable and engaging listening overall.
Last but not least, the Guaneri stand-mounts were demo’d with Audio Research electronics (LS28 tube preamp, VT80 Foundation series amp, and the ARC CD6 player).
They displayed remarkably deep-reaching bass for two-ways. Their big, bold fullness and good dispersion reminded me of the TAD Micro Evolution One (aka TAS-ME1-K) I heard at last year’s Tokyo International Audio Show and at this year’s CES.
All told, with this launch Sonus faber seems to have succeeded once again in paying homage to the Italian traditions of fine woodworking to heighten musical and acoustic performance coupled with the company’s formidable and thoroughly modern technologies for high-end sonic experiences.