Sony SS-AR1 Loudspeaker (TAS 214)

Equipment report
Categories:
Floorstanding
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Products:
Sony SS-AR1
Sony SS-AR1 Loudspeaker (TAS 214)

As the co-inventor of CD and SACD, Sony stands astride the audio world like a colossus. Thus it is a bit surprising that Sony’s presence in the upper echelons of speaker design has been rather limited. There have been occasional Sony speakers of distinction, the ES SS-M9ED from not too long ago, for example. The SS-AR1 is the latest of Sony’s serious attempts, and it is distinguished from the ES SS-M9ED in that it is a design straight from Sony of Japan, not an external design built by Sony.

A corporation like Sony has resources that no small company can muster, and Yoshiyuki Kaku, the designer of the AR1, was given an extraordinary opportunity to spend many years studying the most refined aspects of speaker sound. The AR1 is the flagship of a line that will bring the benefits of all this research to lower-priced speakers as well. A medium-sized, three-way floorstander with two 8" woofers, a 5" midrange, and a 1" dome tweeter, it looks fairly conventional, though the elegance of the craftsmanship is immediately apparent, as is the distinctive shape of its enclosure. But there is much about the AR1 that is anything but business-as-usual in speaker design. And the sonic results are truly extraordinary.

If a speaker can be a work of art, then a work of art the AR1 is indeed, in its extreme attention to subtleties. Aspects of its sound that, at least in Sony’s description and to my ears, seem to be altogether outside the realm of more ordinary designs have been carefully optimized. Some of these aspects seem more akin to the making of musical instruments than the manufacturing of speakers, notably the use of specifically chosen natural woods—maple for the front , birch for the sides and back, with the maple harvested from the forests of Hokkaido in November only, that being the month in which the wood has maximum hardness, and the birch being imported from Finland. One thinks of Stradivari, according to legend, going into the forests and listening to the sound of the trees as they were felled to select those he would dry and age to use in his violins.

As expected from a company with the effectively unlimited technical resources of Sony, the design is very sophisticated, but some of the choices are unusual. For example, the speaker uses what are called multi-slope crossovers, with second-order high and low pass on the midrange, but third-order low pass on the woofer and third-order high pass on the tweeter. (Crossover points are 400Hz and 4kHz.) The perceived balance of the speaker is slightly idiosyncratic, whether for this reason or otherwise (more on this later). But other aspects of the design go far beyond matters of ordinary measurements or technical descriptions. Art the AR1 is, indeed.

Before going further into the physical details of the speaker, let me say something about the sound itself upon first impression. U.S. business manager Michael McCole and Sony product manager Motoyuki Sugiura were so kind as to visit and help to set up the speaker optimally. But the speakers themselves arrived a day earlier, and I could not resist plopping them down and having a preliminary listen. This was in a position chosen for momentary convenience, with other speakers still lying around, with a low-power amplifier that happened to be handy to drive it, and with no acoustic treatment installed. But even in this preliminary listen under less than optimal circumstances, the speakers showed extraordinary sonic qualities.

As it happened, the first thing I listened to was the BIS recording of Freddy Kempf playing Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Kreisler’s “Liebesleid.” This recording contains a great deal of the fine structure and complexity of piano sound. And the music runs repeatedly over the keyboard from bottom to top. The AR1s revealed the fine structure superbly well, and to a surprising extent maintained the transparency of the sound all the way down to the bottom notes. The top end of the piano sounded a little different than what I was accustomed to, but the overall sense of piano sound, especially in the lower frequencies was excellent. There was none of what happens all too often when the upper mids and highs are clean and clear but, as the music descends in frequency, a certain kind of muddle arises. Here, with the AR1s, when the music descended to the lower parts of the piano, the impression of hearing everything that was going on remained intact. And yet there was no sense of this precision being attained at the expense of appropriate warmth and fullness—no sense at all of the lower-frequency clarity being purchased at the mini-monitor price of attenuating the lower frequencies. Indeed, the speakers effortlessly covered the lower frequency range with full strength.

Optimization of placement, removal of the other speakers that had been still standing around, use of a high-powered amplifier (I chose the remarkable Sanders Magtech, a reference amplifier if ever was one), and the installation of some foam padding over some nearby small windows naturally improved things in various directions. Even from that quick start setup, it had been clear that the AR1s were an unusual accomplishment in speaker design. But with everything optimized, the sound took on true excellence. The coherence of the presentation and its top-to-bottom transparency even on the most complex orchestral material were of a most extraordinary kind. And moreover, the sound had a kind of naturalness that is not easy to formalize.

Naturally, I tried to figure out why. That is, after all, part of the reviewing job. An undifferentiated “wow” may be enough to arouse interest. But a review should go further, if only to provide signposts on the listening path when you hear the speakers.

One aspect of the sound is easy to describe. These speakers, though not enormous, are truly full range. With the nominal -3dB lower limit being 28Hz and the upper limit a surprising 60kHz, nothing is missing. Perhaps someone wishing to hear the very bottom of the pipe organ at enormous volume (16Hz for the lowest notes) in very large rooms might consider a subwoofer, but for any other music at rational volumes, the AR1s have the bass completely there in extension and unrestrained dynamically.

Moreover, the speakers interact with the room very well indeed, with none of the floor cancellation problems almost endemic to floorstanders. Any reasonable attention to Allison Effect matters will result in a lower midrange (and upper bass) of surprising smoothness, much superior to what commonly occurs. Placement for good smoothness in this critical and often problematical region was remarkably easy and effective. Presumably this is related to the double woofers and their no doubt carefully chosen position relative to the floor. But in any case, in my room, this is a speaker that attains on its own essentially the kind of smoothness in the boundary-influenced region (below 300 Hz) that is usually obtainable only by DSP manipulation. As noted, and in good part consequently, the lower ranges of the piano sound more like a real piano than with almost any other speaker.

On the best listening axis, the sound is the proverbial silky smooth with transitions between drivers seamless. Moreover, the careful attention to the driver’s material nature has resulted in a speaker with no apparent coloration from materials of the drivers. The drivers, made by Scanspeak to Sony’s design, are stiff aluminum woofers, slightly more flexible treated-paper midrange, and fabric-dome tweeter. (The midrange is sliced and re-glued in a pattern designed to reduce resonances.) The idea is that as the frequencies go up, the driver character changes in a way to give consistent sound over the whole range. This somewhat unusual approach actually works. The character of the sound changes really not at all over the frequency range in terms of materials coloration—or in this case the absence of it. This may run contrary to the everything-should-be-rigid viewpoint. But it works as intended, and the kind of hardness of the sound that can and almost always does arise from hyper-rigid drivers (those often-painful ceramics) is most gratifyingly not present.

And yet there is no loss of perceived or actual resolution. Everything is most satisfactorily unraveled in even the extremely complex music. Richard Strauss would have loved this—the listener can hear everything he was up to with his high-density orchestrations. Micro-detail is revealed in a fashion equal to electrostatics, but with a power, when power is called for, that no electrostatic could dream of. Strauss’ orchestrations were made clear and transparent on the Telarc Don Juan (Vienna Philharmonic). And John Eargle’s masterpiece recording of the Dvorak New World for Delos (New Jersey Symphony) was exquisitely clear and resolved yet still full and powerful. The third movement, especially its remarkable opening, Dvorak’s homage to Beethoven’s Ninth in his own ninth, was positively hypnotic—it was hard to stop playing it over and over just to hear everything that was going on going on.

But perhaps most striking of all the orchestral music I tried was Kubelik’s recording with the Danish Radio Symphony of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony [EMI], recorded live in Copenhagen’s Radiohuset in 1983. When I was living in Copenhagen in the 1980s and 1990s I used to go to the Danish Radio Symphony concerts in Radiohuset very frequently. Listening to this recording on the AR1s was an uncanny experience. To borrow Telarc’s phrase, I really felt I was listening through “a window in time,” as if the intervening years had vanished and I were back there then listening once more to that very orchestra in that exact hall, as I used to do so often. This was a remarkable experience, I assure you, and one that I have seldom had with such intensity.

The AR1s indeed respond with ease not only to complexity but also to loudness. When the music gets loud, they do not harden, do not shift in character, do not sound stressed. They just get loud. And they will get really loud. One of the demo discs that the Sony people played was part of Joe Morello’s Morello Standard Time. The speakers effortlessly produced the loud live levels of a drum kit at close range. And they seemed completely at ease doing this, as was the amplifier of course. (The Saunders has huge power and sounds unforced and relaxed at any output level likely to arise in domestic listening.) Of course any speaker can be over-driven, but in a room of anything like domestic size, dynamic limits will not be an issue.

And low-level performance is also exemplary. The music does not lose liveliness as it gets softer; it just gets softer. The AR1s are exquisite in pianissimo, with the refined precision and continued vitality of real music at low levels.

 At this point, the AR1s must be beginning to sound like a perfect speaker. They are indeed extraordinary, but, as is inevitably the case, they have certain characteristics—all speakers have some specific radiation pattern or another, for example. And one of these characteristics perhaps approaches a kind of artistic license, namely the exact choice of balance here.

On the maximally flat axis, the AR1s sound, as noted very smooth and integrated—but not exactly flat. There is a dip in the 3–5kHz range and a return to level and on the axis with the most high, to somewhat above level in the top. The high treble is as usual somewhat directional so getting a bit off the tweeter axis will pull it down some, closer to flat. Indeed , the maximally flat axis seems to be somewhat below the tweeter height at normal listening distances. However, on other axes, the dip and return to level (and then some), becomes quite large, and the overall sonic effect of all this is an airy but somewhat subdued sound as far as “presence” is concerned. In a sense, the speaker has something like the traditional moving-coil cartridge balance.

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Sidebar: How the AR1s Are Built

The cabinet is made of natural wood, no fiber board or peculiar composition materials involved: hard maple for the front, more flexible birch for the sides and back. The reaction of the rigidity-über-Alles crowd will no doubt be shock and disdain. But in fact, there are deep and reliable precedents for this idea again in the BBC research program of years ago, in particular.

The cabinet finish is black lacquer, with many layers. Look closely (try a flashlight) and it has depth and variegation, like a fine piano finish. This is elegant furniture, indeed. And it really is handcrafted. The complex shape is hand-carved to a template, not cut out by a robot or the like. Seldom has a speaker looked so graceful, but with a form that follows function—as noted, the curves provide minimization of diffraction and correct loading of the drivers. (Almost the only comparable design in this regard that I am aware was the DALI Grand, which had eventually to be discontinued because the woodwork was too difficult and expensive.)

The cabinet-related sonic results are superb. The sense of silent background and hearing all the way into the music and its original acoustic venue borders on the fantastic. However poetic the descriptions given, the result is poetry in reality. The curved sides minimize standing waves, and the termination in a flat panel rather than having the sides come to a V-point in the back is based on sonic experimentation. In trials, the V-shape produced an audible coloration, according to Sony. This cabinet design is unexcelled in attention to things with sonic meaning, as well as being superbly elegant visually.

The interior of the AR1s is divided in two. The midrange driver is separated completely from the woofers’ enclosure so that the speaker is in effect a small two-way with a woofer system attached below. Somewhat unusually, the midrange enclosure is vented, though not in the usual bass-reflex sense (the port tuning is very far from the driver’s operating range). This according to Sony’s description improved the sound. (The reasons are not obvious to me, but experience with plugging the ports on bass-reflex speakers has suggested to me and many other people that in general there is a subtle but definite change in the sound far above the range where the port loading is overtly involved.) The position of the port for the woofers has been carefully chosen to make the motion of the two woofers as nearly identical as possible. (This is described as having some considerable effect.) Details have most definitely been attended to here!

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The loss of energy in the 3–5kHz region also sets off a perceived midrange emphasis, some prominence around 1–2kHz. This emphasis is further set off by some sense of loss of energy in the 600–800Hz region, at least in my room and at my listening position. None of this may seem in practice a really serious distraction, but the midrange prominence and the presence-range dip are definitely audible. On some material, this may all add up to a kind of flattery. But on orchestral music, in particular, there is a certain character to the speaker that is not really totally neutral. You need to listen for yourself to find out whether this appeals to you.

Being as I am, I experimented with EQing the speaker to be flatter on the preferred axis. This sounded more accurate to me and somewhat more musically gratifying, though the change in strictly musical terms was not huge. But there was a change in the tonal character of the top notes of violin and piano, for example, and for that matter in the lower notes of the violin as well, though that was subtler. And the overall tonal nature of orchestral music shifted. However, few people are likely to want to EQ an expensive speaker on a permanent basis, so you will need to evaluate the balance of the speaker on its merits as it is. 

It does occur to me that the dips noted might also be in a sense responsible for the remarkable coherence of the speaker. (External EQ is not the same as crossover design and, EQ’d, the speakers retained their coherence). The ear is much touchier about peaks than dips and perhaps it is the case that say the dip at 3–5kHz is exactly what makes the transition from mid to tweeter so convincingly inaudible. Crossover design is always about compromise, and I would not want to say the choices here are anything but good ones. Indeed, the mid-to-tweeter transition is in a way reminiscent of the BBC approach of long-standing, and in particular of the Spendor BC-1, one of the all-time great speakers. The judicious dip as a mechanism of driver integration has a grand history!

The relaxation of energy in the 3–5kHz range also acts naturally as forgiving of a lot of over-recorded material. And I do not want to exaggerate at all the extent of this. Indeed, one has to keep in mind that audiophiles who form standards by listening to contemporary speakers are, in fact, likely to have a quite wrong idea about how much energy a speaker ought to have between 2 and 6kHz. A great many speakers nowadays are in fact a dB or two or even more elevated in response in this region, presumably in the interest of sounding “detailed” or “right there” or “real,” whatever buzzword answers, never minding that real music in fact sounds rather the opposite of this kind of projection. The AR1s are blessed exceptions to this unfortunate trend.

The AR1s sound beautiful remarkably often, independently of exact balance questions. This beauty arises from their remarkable freedom from grain and perceived distortion. While acoustically generated music itself typically has a bit of grain structure, few speakers refrain from adding some of their own. The AR1s are almost uncanny in their freedom from this. Music sounds truly pure and remarkably beautiful. The Grieg Sonatas recording on the Bridge label (still available!)—with Gerald Tarack, violin, David Hancock, piano, and engineered by Hancock himself (talk about the compleat recording artist)—was positively exquisite in its purity and beauty of sound. And again truly hypnotic: Writing about it, I suddenly felt compelled to (and did) pause to listen to the second Sonata once more. For me, this is the sort of thing that truly justifies serious audio.

I also gave in to the temptation to play along with the recording. The match with real violin sound was surprisingly good, considering that the recording was in a hall while I was playing in a small room. There were some small shifts in timbre, also observable in non-comparative listening, both in the character of the high notes and also in the bottom octave of the instrument—quite subtle in the latter case. Of course there were also differences between the violins, and I had to factor in that the sound to the player is not the sound to the listener, but I am used to those considerations. The essential gestalt of the violin was definitely well preserved, including the characteristic variations of timbre from note to note.

There is always a circularity in this sort of evaluation, in that recordings are used to judge speakers while speakers were used to judge recordings when the recordings were made and afterwards, too. Who really knows what any given recording sounds like by nature, exactly? (And never mind that many of the audiophile classic “Golden Age” recordings are demonstrably quite wrong). But overall, the AR1s made something like concert music out of a surprising number of recordings that I had some reasonable reasons to believe ought to sound like that. It is hard to ask for a lot more than that! But the speaker is somewhat intolerant of the older recordings with their rising top-end microphones.

All speakers have the characteristics of their general approach to radiating sound into the room. Dipoles, omnis, line sources (whether dipole or forward-radiating), forward-radiating speakers with controlled radiation pattern (whether horn-loaded or otherwise controlled), and wide-dispersion point-source forward radiators all sound quite different from each other no matter how their frequency response is set by design or adjusted after the fact. This is simply a fact of audio life.

The AR1s belong to the moderately-wide-dispersion, forward-radiating, point-source family. This means on the plus side that they have the possibility, and in this instance the reality, of sounding remarkably like actual instruments and voices, with no directional artifacts. On the other hand, it also means that they are by nature quite sensitive to the room around them and in particular to the nature and proximity of the surfaces from which early reflections happen. Installation of foam pads, for example, altered the sound quite a lot.

The speakers have minimized diffraction and they vanish very well as apparent sources, and do the soundstage trick to a fare-thee-well. There is little to say about them in this regard because they simply do it right. There is no artificial widening or generated depth from oddball diffraction or reflections from the speaker structure. Since the nature of diffraction is well understood, it is an ongoing mystery how some nominally high-end speakers have straight hard-squared edges running around near the drivers and things like that, guaranteed to generate diffraction effects. Well, none of that here: The AR1s carefully curved shape is clearly designed to deal with diffraction problems and so it does, very effectively. (Incidentally, grilles off please! The grilles make the response bumpy in the lower treble—not disagreeable but not doing justice to the speakers’ potential.)

Audiophiles are constantly reiterating that all they care about is the sound. But recent reactions to various speaker design have suggested to me that the audio public can be easily impressed by claims of technological breakthroughs, perhaps too easily impressed. The truth is that the conventional idea of how a three-way speaker works is a good one, a really good one if you can get it all to work exactly right. People would be making a serious mistake to dismiss the AR1s because they look like an ordinary speaker as viewed from the outside. If one does what audiophiles always claim they do, listen rather than look, the amazing qualities of the AR1s will be apparent. If you are happy with the slightly idiosyncratic choice of balance, this could well be your speaker of a lifetime. It is truly extraordinary, and it most surely shows that when it turns a hand to it, Sony can do speaker design at a level that most companies only dream of.

I tend to write dry, hard-edged reviews, and perhaps this one came across as no exception. So let me conclude by saying that for me there were many moments of absolute musical magic with the Sony AR1s, far more than with most speakers. One could be truly transported. There were indeed moments when it seemed that I was giving up less of the concert experience than with almost any other speaker. One can hardly ask for more than that.

SPECS & PRICING

Type: Four-driver, three-way floorstanding speaker, bass-reflex loaded
Driver complement (per speaker): Two 200mm aluminum woofers, one 130mm treated paper midrange, one 25mm fabric-dome tweeter
Frequency response: 28Hz–60kHz
Sensitivity: 88dB
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 12" x 42" x 19"
Weight: 125 lbs. each
Price: $27,000

Sony Electronics Inc.
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127
sony.com/ar1

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