The Sony SS-AR2 is a smaller version of the Sony SS-AR1 that appeared to general acclaim a year or so ago. Sony is at some pains to make clear that the AR2 is not in any way a compromised version of the design principles of the AR1. It is simply smaller, to fit acoustically, as well as physically, into smaller rooms. The same standards of speaker design as high art are applied in the AR2 as in the AR1, and both are creations of the same designer, Yoshiyuki Kaku, who has worked at Sony for many years studying how to make the sound of speakers as nearly ideal as possible. In my view, the AR1 was a remarkable speaker, and so is the AR2. It is just smaller.
Smaller does not mean small in sound, however. In a room of anything like ordinary domestic size, the AR2 produces abundant bass and life-like dynamic levels. (In fact, at the 2012 T.H.E. Show in Newport, Sony demo’d the AR2 in a large ballroom, a situation that the AR2s handled with aplomb and distinction, producing one of the best sounds at the show.) And it has extraordinary sonic qualities of its own, independently of its big brother.
Before the AR1, for all its size and importance in audio, Sony was not usually thought of as a major source of high-end speakers. The AR1 changed that, and the AR2 solidifies the change. Sony is definitely here to stay in the high-end speaker market, and the AR1 turned out to be anything but a “one-hit wonder.”
Like the AR1, the AR2 is a combined work of technology and what one can only call art. The technology is there in the high driver quality. (Although the sizes of the drivers are different than those in the AR1, they’re still custom-made by the same manufacturer, Scanspeak.) But the art is the part of the picture that is most unusual.
Many speakers today have high-tech, ultra-quality drivers. Few have cabinets designed and built like musical instruments, made of specifically chosen wood from special locations, Finnish birch and hard maple from Hokkaido forests in Japan, harvested at the time of the year when the wood is at its hardest. As with the AR1, one thinks inevitably of stories of Antonio Stradivari going out into the forests to listen to the trees fall and picking the ones that “sounded right” to him as they fell as the source for wood for his violins. This is just one aspect of the remarkable attention to detail that makes this speaker what it is. Seemingly every aspect of the design that has sonic significance has been extraordinarily carefully considered. And it shows: The sound of the AR2 has a refinement that goes far beyond what most speakers aspire to— without sacrificing dynamic punch and bass. Not to put too fine a point on it, the sound of the AR2 is really something! But it sounds somewhat different from the AR1, as it happens.
Appearance and First Impressions of the Sound
The AR2 is a floorstanding speaker of moderate size, 371⁄2" high with an 11" wide by 16" deep footprint. It has a superbly executed “piano-black” finish that is very attractive visually but makes the speaker inconspicuous, more like a guest with exquisite manners than the bodybuilder flexing muscles that is brought to mind by a lot of high-end designs.
The AR2 is a three-way speaker with two woofers, ported at the rear of the enclosure. The nominal cut-off frequency is 42Hz. The grilles are easily removed and replaced, and they should be removed for serious listening. With the grilles on, the elegant AR2s are a discrete presence, content to fit into the décor until the time comes for music. And then comes the “wow!”
For a start, the AR2s have remarkable, glorious, warm, full, and most of all musical bass and lower midrange. There is none of the sonic effect of mini-speaker- plus-discontinuous-subwoofer that is all too typical of floorstanders. Pianists have strong left hands, as they should, orchestras have real cello, doublebass, and trombone sections, and rock music has a bass guitarist that makes his presence felt.
Music is what we are talking about here, in the most positive sense. The AR2s do not quite go down literally to the bottom of the audible range the way the AR1s did (in in-room response). But in practice, this won’t be a problem. The strength—and the precision—of the bass from the mid-30Hz range on up carries the music to where it belongs. Only pipe organ enthusiasts might want a subwoofer. Everyone else will just bask. It is quite an experience to hear the bass of an orchestra coming out of a speaker of such moderate size with its real power and fullness intact. Gratifying, indeed. (Truth to tell, in technical terms there was a little more energy around 100Hz in my room than techno- correctness would call for, but musically I never minded it. Better a couple of dB too much there than the enervated, eviscerated sound that all too many high-end speakers of moderate size— and even some really large ones not designed to deal with the “floor dip”—produce in actual listening rooms.)
Some orchestral favorites—the Delos Dvorák New World (New Jersey Symphony, Macal cond.) and the Telarc Rachmaninoff Second Symphony (Baltimore Symphony, Zinman cond.) both presented a solid, warm, appropriately Romantic orchestral sound. If these pieces do not sound like Romanticism on the hoof, something is wrong. Here it was right.
On up in the frequency range, the speakers sound very smooth and uncolored overall. (Their exact tonal character will be discussed later on.) They are also exceptionally coherent. Even quite close up, the drivers continue to integrate and at any reasonable listening distance, coherence is complete. They are, however, sensitive to the vertical position of the listener, and the most nearly neutral axis is quite low (more on this later).
The AR2s also offer an extraordinary sense of quietness behind the music and an associated clarity of detail without edginess that is very pleasing. On something like that old chestnut of a test disc for space and imaging, Opus 3’s Tiden bar gaar, one hears not just the details of the voice and instrument but also into the acoustic space of the recording in a very convincing way. One not only hears what one almost always hears—where the instruments and the voice are—but one senses also the space in which the instruments are located. Since there is nothing in that space of course (by definition), where the instruments are not, it is a little hard to put in words exactly what this means. The idea is that the instruments exist not only in locations of their own but in a coherent space that encompasses all of them. The description sounds like audio-babble, but the effect is real. And of course it occurs in real life as well. Spatial coherence and resolution, whatever you want to call it, is here—unusually so—and quite fascinating to listen to. Even after one gets used to it and stops listening to the effect as such, it remains there and contributes to the sense of being enveloped in the music in musical terms.
People who work on auditorium acoustics are very interested in this matter of feeling enveloped by the sound. It turns out to be musically crucial in the auditorium situation. Few speakers in my experience do this as well as the AR2. Presumably the technical explanations are a combination of the frequency response, the way the speaker radiates into the room (with its fairly wide front and curved sides), and perhaps the nature of the cabinet itself. In any case, the effect is definitely worth listening to and for.
This kind of spatial effect occurs a lot with these speakers, and people do notice it. Even casual listeners remarked on the spaciousness and the enveloping character of the sound. Symphonic music in particular sounded more unconfined than usual. This is not really a question of ultra-wide imaging of an artificial sort as much as a feeling that the sound is detached from the speakers in an unusual way. If this sort of thing intrigues you, then you owe it to yourself to listen to the AR2s, whether or not they are really in your price range, just to find out the sort of things that can happen.
On recordings with convincing ambience, the presentation of space can be very special. On Reference Recordings’ Rutter Requiem, one feels not just in the presence of the chorus but immersed in the space of the whole recording, almost as if one were in the auditorium with the performers. And while the AR2s do not plumb the very deepest depths of the organ notes there, they do provide a satisfying warmth and fullness to the overall sound. Their presentation of the voices is very convincing and indeed beautiful. And while this recording tends to be gorgeous on almost all good speakers, here it is especially so.
This recording also illustrates well the ability of the AR2s to resolve detail without sounding edgy or nasty in any way. The clarity of the words is superb, for example, with articulation that is at once natural and yet very precise. And one hears individual voices when one should, but not exaggeratedly. For reasons that are not clear to me, the focus of images here and on Tiden bar gaar was not quite as precise as one sometimes hears. This was natural sounding enough—real life tends not to offer pinpoint images—but something of a surprise to me. Perhaps it has to do with the (relative) dip in response above the midrange compared to the midrange, as discussed below.
The AR2s’ Tonal Character
So far, the AR2s, with their spaciousness, warmth, dynamic power, and non-edgy sound must seem like something close to a nearly perfect speaker, at least for a room of ordinary domestic size, if total bass extension is not indispensable. But other considerations arise. One has to begin by noting that all speaker designs make some kind of choice of balance. This is inevitable. And the slight bass emphasis of the AR2s seemed to me in my room, if not perfect at least more than acceptable in musical terms, perhaps even flattering to most material. But there is another aspect of the balance of the AR2s that is to my ears somewhat more problematical. While the AR1s had a small perceived midrange forwardness (around 1–2kHz), the AR2s have even more of this. With the AR1s it was not so much an explicit tonal alteration as a kind of “cast” to the sound, like a small color adjustment in a photo program. But in the AR2s, it can sound like a coloration in a more ordinary sense.
This coloration is added to by suckout above the tweeter axis somewhere around 4kHz, which makes 1–2kHz sound somewhat more projected than it might otherwise, except on a low listening axis. To get the most neutral sound, one really needs to be on (or better, slightly below) the tweeter axis. But considering that the speaker is only 37" high, this can be a little tricky to arrange. Of course one can tilt the speakers back somewhat. And one should, unless one wants to sit very low.
This somewhat midrange-oriented character can be attractive. It flatters the female voice, and it makes music sound “non-edgy” for lack of a better word. While the real top end goes way on out (to 60kHz, according to the specifications) and indeed rises somewhat on the tweeter axis in the top (audible) octave, the overall effect is to de-emphasize edge while still providing ample perception of detail. On much music, the balance may please enormously. But on broadband music with a definite kind of real-life balance— orchestral music, for example—one does notice the coloration. Snare drums, for example, sound rounder and less aggressive than in life. On the Nielsen Fifth Symphony (EMI, Kubelik cond.), which had so impressed me with its realism on the AR1s, the sound was still attractive but not the last word in realistic tonal balance that the AR1s had offered. The shock of reality recalled, which the AR1s had offered, was not so conspicuous. And though the voices were attractive on the Rutter recording, they were also too forward in the mix, spatially and tonally. And on the Harnoy/Dussek recording of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata (BMG), the cello sounded again somewhat too forward and slightly nasal—almost “shouty” as the British critics used to say. This is not really the true-to-life cello sound that this recording has when neutrally reproduced. Whether one likes this midrange orientation or not might be a personal choice, but the forwardness is not really correct—not exactly what is on the recording, nor indeed true to life.
It is curious that this whole business does not really look like much in measurement terms—a couple of dB over the 1–2kHz octave. But that is a rather crucial octave in terms of perceived speaker sound. It is also worth noting that pushing this part of the midrange forward seems to be some sort of fashion at the moment. Even some speakers that aspire to be “monitors” are beginning to be like this. Maybe this was wished upon us by people listening to “female vocals” and trying to make them sound a certain way. In any case, some people have decided they like this—and there are reasons why they might. But it is still not quite what is really on the recordings, and personally I much prefer the presentation when this coloration is EQ’d out—or, better still, not there in the first place.
I suppose this just shows that such rather subtle matters of tonal balance are likely to vary from one person to another. And you may fall for the sound of the AR2s yourself, especially if female vocals are your big thing in audio life. One can, of course, flatten the AR2s with EQ, and the result sounds considerably closer to neutral—in fact, very close. (This will be discussed further in my upcoming review of the DSpeaker Dual Core 2.0.) It is interesting that one can get that nearly perfect neutrality here so easily if one wants it. It is hard for me to understand why not everyone wants this true neutrality since the corrected AR2s sound so much like real music as to be truly startling—really something to hear. But apparently some people, and serious people, too, like the little extra midrange.
The Overall Picture
It is hard to be the little brother of a triumphant big brother. The Sony AR1 was and is a sensational speaker, and it met with acclaim, sometimes quite wild acclaim, in all quarters. The AR2 is, in many respects, also a spectacular speaker, and many listeners will fall in love with it, including at my place a professional composer, a serious musician, who was quite entranced. And the AR2s sound is indeed very attractive and very impressive in many ways. The warmth and the absence of edge can be addictive, as can the spaciousness. But the two speakers, the AR1 and the AR2, are different in some definite and explicitly identifiable ways. The AR1 has more extended and somewhat more precise bass, though in most instances this will not be crucial since the AR2 has satisfying, full-bodied bass in its own right, if not the same 20Hz extension. The more important difference to my ears in musical terms is the extent of the midrange emphasis, quite slight in the AR1, more apparent in the AR2. Whether this is a source of even greater musical beauty in the AR2 than in the AR1 is up to you.
Like the AR1, the AR2 presents a vision of speaker design as art as well as science. Which vision you prefer is, as with all true art, a somewhat personal matter. Both are quite wonderful speakers. I prefer the AR1, which seems to me closer to being perfectly neutral. But you have to decide for yourself which musical vision coincides with your own for the long term. Both of these speakers should be heard by, to borrow HP’s phrase, all “students of the audio arts,” for audio art they very much are.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Four-driver, three-way floorstanding speaker, bass- reflex loaded
Driver complement: Two 61⁄2" aluminum woofers, one 51⁄2" treated paper midrange, one 1" fabric dome tweeter
Frequency response: 42Hz– 60kHz
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 11" x 371⁄2" x 16"
Weight: 84 lbs.
SONY ELECTRONICS INC
16530 Via Esprillo
San Diego, CA 92127