Equipment report

Designer Yoshiuki Kaku’s speakers for Sony have won a place of honor in the high end, beginning with the introduction of the SS-AR1 model in 2008. Kaku’s avowed goal in speaker design is to make speakers that give listeners the same sense of anticipation and excitement they feel at live events, though he is quick to add that, of course, the beginning of this is correctness in basic technical behavior. But in addition to paying attention to smooth frequency response, low distortion, and other technical matters, he spends a great deal of time and effort investigating the micro-effects of materials and of resonance control on the sound, and on other matters of detail that are outside the scope of standard speaker measurements. All his designs involve a great deal of careful listening. They are also individual—one of the things corporations can do is to not act corporate when it seems appropriate, and Kaku’s designs are as much the work of an individual designer as those of a one-person company.

It is not a simple matter to evaluate a speaker in emotional terms—to say in any objective, transferable sense, whether the speaker generates anticipation and excitement or not. One might expect such things to vary from person to person. I do not review with “listening panels,” and my reviews tend to be my own view alone. But as it happens, I had the Sony SS-NA5ES speakers up during the holiday season, and a lot of people were coming by for one reason or another. Everyone who heard the speakers was in fact truly beguiled, ranging from people who would not dream of spending so much on speakers but after listening realized why one might do so, to sophisticated audiophiles who were equally enthusiastic. My own overall reaction was that, while I cannot justify a fifteenth set of serious speakers, if I had room for another pair, these would surely be strongly tempting. So perhaps Kaku’s goal is on the face of the evidence not so evanescent after all. I think he has actually succeeded in that elusive goal of making a speaker that has universal sonic appeal, to the extent I could evaluate this.

But for formal review purposes, I shall continue by describing the sound as such.

How the Speakers Perform in General Terms
The Sonys are relatively small and to get dynamic power and reasonable bass extension out of speakers this size is no easy task. The Sonys use an anodized-aluminum bass/mid driver which has a quite startling ability to handle power even at very low frequencies—the speakers have solid output down to 50Hz, with a fairly rapid roll-off below that. This gives them enough bass extension to cover both orchestral and rock music convincingly.

Sony offers a subwoofer (not available for review) intended for use with these main speakers for people who want to get down into the bottom octave, but the speakers alone are surprisingly convincing in the bass.

And they will play surprisingly loudly, too. We are not far beyond the territory of the mini-monitors of years past, which would bottom out and/or compress at the slightest hint of realistic dynamics for large-scale music, especially in the bass. One of the things that modern driver design has made possible is greater bass power and extension from small drivers, and here one hears this in action. The Sonys were undisturbed by the bass whomps at the opening of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances (in my usual version, Dallas/Mata on ProArte). Piano music too could be played at convincing levels without strain and without any sense of “shatter” on the hard attacks. There is a lot more to life than loud, but most music, including classical music, is loud sometimes, and the Sonys are far more ready for this than one might expect given their size. If the Sonys were potentially part of a home-theater system (and Sony has companion rear, center, and sub offerings to accompany the NA5ES), one can easily imagine them sailing through action films without problems.

Getting bass performance like this out of a smallish speaker has involved fairly low sensitivity (86dB), but the Sonys thrive on power up to quite a high point, and with a suitable amplifier really come to life dynamically. Undistorted levels in the mid-90dB range or even higher seemed not to be a problem. And the speakers did not change character as the sound got louder. Of course these are small speakers—and one cannot expect them to fill enormous rooms. But in my moderate-sized living room, I never felt dynamic constraints to be an issue. I was using a Sanders Magtech amplifier, which drove the (4-ohm) Sonys with complete aplomb, as indeed it will drive effectively anything at all, and with very satisfying sound all around. (Perhaps it is not entirely on point to this review, but I should mention that in fact the Sanders is one of the best amplifiers there is, and perhaps the best for odd loads, and is very reasonably priced. A great piece of work!)

The upper frequencies are handled by Sony’s innovative tweeter array, which involves a central dome tweeter with two smaller domes above and below, mounted on a metal plate that makes possible precise determination of the distances between the drivers. (According to Sony, the mounting of the drivers directly on the baffle would not give sufficient precision for the inter-driver distances.) The smaller tweeters are not “super-tweeters” as such. Rather they are intended to give a better radiation pattern than would a single dome of sufficient size to meet the bass/mid driver’s operating range. This is of course a perennial problem in two-way speakers—how to get the tweeter to go down far enough, which tends to require diameter, while still getting it to be not too beamy in the top.