Space and Imaging
Imaging behavior is influenced by frequency response, and one effect of the contouring noted is that the images are backed up slightly. But there is another notable aspect of the Sony’s imaging, which does not seem to be related to frequency response in any obvious way. I can perhaps explain this best by talking first about those familiar test CD (or record) tracks that contrast the two channels in the same polarity with the two in opposite polarity. The difference is of course always clear. But with most speakers the out-of-polarity situation, while diffuse in the sense of not locating a central image, tends to seem as though it is trying to put the image somewhere, just not in the middle and not very stably. With the Sonys, an out-of-polarity signal sounds truly diffuse—it is like a curtain of sound in front of you, with the source not even trying to be anywhere. The in-polarity situation, of course, focuses the image in the center but does so in a way somewhat different from the usual sense of an artificial point, sensitive to an extreme to exactly equal distances from the speakers. The Sony version of this seems more stable but less exact. One might suppose that this has to do with the multiple tweeters, which set up an interference pattern different from the one arising from a single tweeter in each channel.
Is this “right?” Perhaps not in theory, but is it natural sounding? Absolutely, yes. As I suppose everyone knows, stereo is not a flawless medium as to imaging, especially as usually practiced by recording engineers. The Sony version seems to me to be very convincing on a wide variety of recordings.
The Sonys also present a sense of large space. On the Dorian Violin and Piano Music of Dvorák (Zenaty violin, Kubalek piano), the violin and piano are surrounded by a huge acoustic space. This recording was made, as were many Dorian recordings, in that acoustic marvel, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, and the ambience of the place is remarkably in evidence on the Sonys. One hears the great hall on any system, but the Sonys seem to retrieve ambience unusually well. I am at a loss for a reason why except perhaps because of the speakers’ high resolution as a whole.
And high it is. In some online reviews of the “wrong but ready” type, comments have been made that the Sonys are not top-notch in resolution. In actuality, the resolution is excellent, but not generated by frequency-response effects, a distinction that RH emphasized in the January 2016 issue’s From the Editor. The dip around 3kHz refrains from flinging detail at the listener, but real detail is abundant—one has the sense of hearing all the way into the recording.
Indeed, this is one of the outstanding features of the Sonys. Listen, for example, to “Our Love is Here to Stay” on Doris Day’s Hooray for Hollywood. Without being aggressively presented at all in the tonal sense, the individual voices of the accompanying singers are completely delineated. So are the individual singers in the chorus on Reference Recordings’ John Rutter Requiem disc. The harpsichord part in the nineteenth variation of the Sitkovetsky arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on Nonesuch is there in all its microstructure, but without being in any sense shoved forward in the sonic picture. It is all there—just as it should be, but with natural-sounding balance, exactly the effect that would occur in live performance. (The above “wrong but ready” remark definitely does not apply to all the reviews that have come out before this one. In particular, the review in Sound and Vision by Mark Fleischmann is to my mind very perceptive and very accurate. Interestingly, we came to much the same conclusions even though we were mostly listening to quite different kinds of music.)
The resolution of the sonic picture and the sense of nothing added, no grunge in the background, are continuing sources of musical pleasure. One is listening only to the music, not to any artifacts from the speaker itself. Wonderful!
The Overall Picture
I was an admirer of the Sony designs by Kaku from the start. The SS-AR1 in particular seemed to me a speaker at the forefront of dynamic-driver floorstanders, at a price far lower than its ultra-high-end competition. I still find this to be true. But in the presently reviewed NA5ES, designer Kaku seems to have moved to an even higher level of excellence, almost completely defying the intrinsic limitations of smaller speakers. The NA5ES is something of a marvel—one of those speakers that seems possessed of almost magical properties. No, it is not a “monitor,” and to make it sound like a monitor, its frequency response would need to be moved around a little to make it more nearly flat. But in musical terms, the NA5ESes as they are do a superb job of bringing out the best in recordings. I really liked these speakers, just to be perfectly clear!
Incidentally, the best listening axis for these speakers is rather lower than normal ear height for a seated listener when one is at all close to the speakers. Try a low seat—or even sitting on the floor if you want to hear what they can do at their best. Or you could use high stands or tilt the speakers up. They sound agreeable when the listener is above the axis, but the real sonic glory is on the right axis.
The Sonys do not sound exactly like ordinary speakers. But I can promise you that if you grant the design the premise of its balance, you will find them hugely rewarding. With a subwoofer system added—either Sony’s dedicated one or some other that suits the speakers—you would have a full-range system that in a room of ordinary domestic size, is truly extraordinary at any price. To my mind, the word “masterpiece” applies.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Two-way, four-driver stand-mount loudspeaker
Drivers: Two 5.25" aluminum-cone woofers, two 0.75" textile-dome tweeters, one 1" textile-dome tweeter
Impedance: 4 ohms
Sensitivity: 86dB (2.83 V/1m)
Max. input power: 70 watts (instantaneous)
Dimensions: 8.13" x 14" x 12.88"
Weight: 22 lbs.