Northern Italian loudspeaker manufacturer Sonus faber made quite a splash with its statement Aida loudspeaker a few years ago. If I recall correctly my TAS colleague Neil Gader ventured all the way from Los Angeles to Venice—Italy, not California!—to witness the rollout. Now comes the Lilium, a smaller dual-chamber, 3.5-way loudspeaker that may weigh less than the imposing Aida, but is not a loudspeaker to approach lightly, either. John Quick of dCS, a former strength and conditioning coach at Boston College, and I, no slouch in the weights department, uncrated the Lilium, hefted it into the air—and promptly decided that in this instance discretion was very much the better part of valor.
Due to its orthogonal structure, the weight of the Lilium is unevenly distributed. The speaker wants to squirm sideways out of your hands when you carry it, which is why I waited until Sumiko, which distributes the Lilium, could send two genial representatives, Dave Stafford and Allan Haggar, to complete the install. After I flagged a friendly neighbor who happened to be strolling by my garage, the four of us transported the Lilium into my basement, with Dave carrying one end in his lap as we descended. You can look at this two ways: Sonus faber needs to figure out a way to make the darned thing easier to move or, more charitably, you’re getting an incredibly solidly built loudspeaker for your shekels.
Was the hassle worth it? Indubitably, as P.G Wodehouse’s Jeeves liked to say. This is not merely a very nifty looking loudspeaker with a fine finish and relatively small footprint. The Lilium is also an extremely nimble and explosive-sounding loudspeaker, one that marks a big step forward for the Sonus faber brand. I know there are those out there who pine for the older days before Fine Sounds acquired the company and when the late Franco Serblin headed the outfit.
But it didn’t take long at all to hear what the Lilium brings to the table, particularly as Stafford and Haggar—both, not so incidentally, accomplished piano players—set it up with precision and care. Once you have the speaker set up on its base, it’s quite easy to move around and tweak its position, at least if you’re on a hardwood floor, as I am. Since Stafford and Haggar visited me, a number of changes in my system, including the addition of the Stillpoints Ultra 6 footers, have upped the musical ante in my system, which only made it even easier to discern the Lilium’s sonic characteristics.
The bulk of the Lilium makes sense when you consider how much technology Sonus faber has packed into it. The front baffle features a 1″ damped apex-dome tweeter, a 7″ midrange driver, and, not least, three 7″ woofers made with a lightweight sandwich-cone structure, tuned to cover frequencies below 250Hz. There appear to be three crossover points: 80Hz, 250Hz, and 2500Hz.
In a separate enclosure, the Lilium also boasts a passive-tuned radiator with what the company deems “zero vibration transmission” that employs a “powerful long-throw motor.” To get the most out of the loudspeaker it is imperative to mount the Lilium on its custom stands or you will stifle the performance of the passive radiator, which requires a bit of distance from the floor to operate properly. You can boost or cut its output via a dial that is mounted on the rear. The speaker itself is constructed with three cabinet walls and copious internal bracing to minimize standing waves. This loudspeaker truly represents a lot of high technology, including premium (and pricey) silver/gold/oil Mundorf capacitors in the crossover. To get the fullest sense of the craftsmanship that went into this loudspeaker, I urge you to consult the very detailed description on Sonus faber’s own website. With a sensitivity of 92dB and nominal impedance of 4 ohms, the Lilium was a fairly easy load to drive for my Ypsilon SET 100 Ultimate amplifiers.
Drive isn’t a bad word to use in connection with the Lilium because, like a fine Italian sports car, it displayed laudatory finesse and alacrity. It’s not designed to blow you out of the room with its power, though it has plenty of that. Instead, what came across to me right away was the purity and resolution of the sound. In the past I’ve always enjoyed Sonus faber loudspeakers, which sounded musical, though often a little dark, syrupy, and rolled-off. I suppose you could argue that audiophiles have gone a little bonkers in the transparency and fidelity department, but I don’t really buy it. The search for higher resolution is one I happen to welcome, and the Lilium helps provide more of it.
The more a high-end audio system can capture the micro-details, the more lifelike it sounds. A welter of things contributes to that sense of verisimilitude—pulse, intonation, accents, a sense of hall spacing, and so forth. Listening to Sir Charles Mackerras’ Telarc recording of Mozart’s Gran Partita with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, for example, provided me with a reminder of this phenomenon. The suppleness of the ensemble came through with unprecedented vividness as did the intonation of the woodwinds, particularly the clarinets. With the subtle nuances delivered by the loudspeakers, the dancelike character of the partita became palpably audible.
It’s also the case that tiny details add to a larger overall sense of drama. Here I have in mind a recording on original instruments on the Harmonia Mundi label by three peerless musicians, Alesander Melnikov, Isabelle Faust, and Jean-Guihen Queyras, of Beethoven’s trio in E flat major. The most rapid passages, where the violins and piano seem to be skittering across the music like a rock rapidly skimming a pond, were captured without a hint of blur. The music simply appeared to become more intelligible—the timbre of the original instruments, the sudden swells in dynamics, which in the case of Beethoven can be quite a tohubohu. Rather than individual notes being hurled at you by the loudspeakers, you get violins drenched with rich harmonic overtones and a real feel for the continuity of the music. This is seat-of-the-pants playing—there’s real heft and excitement to the presentation when you hear it conveyed with such immediacy.
In this regard, a clear standout is the Lilium’s tweeter. I admired its ability to render the gruff raspiness of one of my go-to CDs, Leonard Cohen’s CD Old Ideas. When it comes to delicacy of timbre and refinement, the Lilium’s tweeter delivered the goods. This came through not simply on voice but in the aforementioned accuracy of string bowing. On another of my favorite CDs, a Carlos Kleiber recording of Johann Strauss waltzes, the various sections of the orchestra were rendered with a luxurious, cashmere-like sheen.
At the same time, the speakers are capable of switching from a seductive, lush sound to whiplash speed. The sheer nimbleness of the Lilium, much like the Dynaudio Evidence Platinum loudspeakers I reviewed in 2013, is a pleasure to behold. When you have the smaller driver complement featured in a loudspeaker like the Lilium, the box just seems to disappear beautifully. Not to the degree of the Magnepan 3.7 loudspeaker that I also had the good fortune to audition, courtesy of the company’s Wendell Diller. I’m afraid that no moving-coil design I’ve heard can match the Magnepan in terms of coherence. But the Lilium comes darn close.
When it comes to tonal color and bloom, the Lilium lands somewhat on the cooler side of the musical spectrum, which is obviously quite a contrast to its forebears. I may be more sensitive to this than some, as it may partly be a consequence of its somewhat more diminutive presentation when compared to my reference Wilson Alexandria XLF loudspeakers, which are coupled with a pair of Hammer of Thor subwoofers and move a lot more air. By this I don’t mean to indicate that the Lilium had any difficulty filling my large listening room with a propulsive and dynamic sound. It didn’t. Indeed I was somewhat surprised by the effortlessly loud presentation of the Lilium. Images are extremely precise. It’s no challenge to identify various sections in an orchestra and sonic images float beautifully. But the Lilium simply isn’t as majestic as the XLF, though the comparison really isn’t quite fair, given the considerable gap in speaker size, not to mention price. I found that the new Transparent Opus Gen 5 interconnects and loudspeaker cable, which offer a deep and defined bass sound, mated best with the Lilium. Indeed, overall I welcomed the attributes of the Transparent, which emphasize a holistic and musical sound, when mated with the Lilium.
The bass performance of the Lilium aims at speed and transparency, not refulgence, doing a heroic job of integrating the bass region with the mids and treble. It’s truly impressive that the whole thing hangs together when you consider how much Sonus faber has packed into the Lilium. It could easily have been a sonic mess. But the speed and punch of the bass ensure that the overall sound is cut from the same sonic cloth. On the spectacular new Acoustic Sounds 45rpm release of the Ray Brown trio’s Soular Energy, for example, Brown’s bass emerged on “Sweet Georgia Brown” with visceral force and palpability.
The Lilium is clearly not the final station for Sonus faber, which is evolving in a new direction. But the combination of high-tech wizardry, superb parts, and winning musicality already mark it out as a prime contender in the fiercely contested $60,000–$100,000 zone. At these dizzying prices, I hesitate to call it the sweet spot of loudspeakers, but then again, there are a lot of other loudspeakers, including the Aida, that go considerably north of them.
As always, when listening to a new loudspeaker, there are powerful reasons for reassessing preconceived notions when it comes to price and performance. For some, the Lilium will seem stupendously expensive—for others, not expensive enough. There is no dispositive answer to the conundrums posed by various loudspeakers. I can only say that whether it’s the Vienna Acoustics Liszt or Magnepan 3.7, I’ve always been surprised by how good lesser-priced loudspeakers can be. What the Lilium offers when contrasted with such products is another degree of refinement harnessed to dynamic speed and power. Is it a bargain? At these prices that term can hardly be employed with a straight face, and I’m not about to try. But after spending several months with the Lilium, one thing is clear: It’s a suave performer whose prowess may entice more than a few audiophiles to succumb to its sonic blandishments.
SPECS & PRICING
Driver complement: 11″ passive radiator, 7″ woofers (x3), 7″ midrange, 1″ tweeter
Crossover frequencies: 80Hz, 250Hz, 2.5kHz
Frequency response: 20Hz–35kHz
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 491mm x 1600mm x 705mm
Weight: 226 lbs. each
SUMIKO (U.S. Distributor)
2431 Fifth Street
94710 Berkeley, CA
Continuum Caliburn turntable, SAT and Cobra tonearms, Lyra Atlas and Miyajima Zero mono cartridges, dCS Vivaldi digital playback system, Ypsilon PST-100 silver preamplifier and VPS-100 silver phonostage, Transparent Opus Gen 5 and Audience cabling, Tom Tutay custom buffer box, and Stillpoints Ultra 6 footers.
By Jacob Heilbrunn
The trumpet has influenced my approach to high-end audio. Like not a few audiophiles, I want it all—coherence, definition, transparency, dynamics, and fine detail.More articles from this editor