AXPONA 2015: Sonus Faber


By John Stancavage

What is tall, stealthy, prefers the cover of darkness, makes incredible sounds and is rarely seen in the wild?

If you guessed a certain bipedal hominoid that’s the subject of so many current cable TV shows, well, nice try. But in the crowded urban environment of AXPONA 2015 in Chicago, such creatures were a no-show.

What was lurking in the darkness of the highest-altitude terrain, though, was something almost as elusive: A pair of Sonus Faber Lillium loudspeakers ($70,000 a pair).

On the 12th floor of the Westin Hotel O’Hare, Quintessence Audio and Musical Surroundings teamed up to showcase an amazing “best of the best” selection of gear.

One of the three rooms the retailers outfitted was particularly dim, with only the most minimal accent lighting. On one end, lurking in the blackness, was the Lilliums, while slightly higher-output lighting revealed a side-wall rack consisting of an Audio Research GS preamplifier ($15,000), Audio Research GS-150 stereo amplifier ($20,000) and Audio Research REF CD9 DAC.CD player ($13,000).

Also invited on this expedition was an AMG Viella Cherry turntable with 12-inch tonearm ($17,500) and DS Audio DS-W1 “Nightrider” optical cartridge system ($8,500). Support was provided by a Harmonic Resolution Systems SXR rack, with Kubala-Sosna Elation cables.

I always feel lucky to register a confirmed sighting of the larger, higher-end Sonus Faber speakers. The company makes so many models at so many price points that it seems many of its dealers just stick with the lower-cost stuff (none of which you still would exactly call cheap).

Sonus Faber has staked out its own niche in the market, one that may not be to everyone’s liking. If you prefer audio fireworks, dynamic bombast or sharply etched highs, then these are not the speakers for you. If, on the other hand, you appreciate a more refined presentation — a creamy texture that doesn’t draw attention to the transducers, but which also creates a strong emotional connection to those with the time to listen closely and reflect on the program material, then there’s not much competition out there outside of a few electrostatics.

All Sonus Faber speakers have these qualities. What you get as you move up the line is an increasing amount of detail and resolution. The ability of the company’s engineers to do this, and not overwhelm the trademark liquidity and ease of the brand, is truly remarkable.

As I was admiring the Lilliums, an impeccably finished, 3.5-way floorstander, Illinois Jacquet’s Swing’s the Thing began playing on vinyl. There in the darkness, I could almost swear the bandleader was huddled in the corner, leaning over his horn and producing some of the most beautiful notes and tuneful honks imaginable. The room may have been dark, but the Sonus Fabers illuminated the composition, bringing Jacquet to life in a way that’s rare even in the high-end.

That was followed by a Beatles track, also on vinyl, that proved the Lilliums could rock and roll, too, when called upon. You could easily separate John Lennon’s voice from Paul McCartney’s on the harmonies, and to hear each trying to outdo the other was thrilling.

Undoubtedly contributing to the smooth sound was the DS Audio cartridge, an innovative optical design that I first saw demonstrated at the Rocky Mountain Audio Show. The cartridge, which comes with its own phono preamp, seems to produce very polished images, with a surprising ability to convey the music rather than every click and pop. When I first saw the DS “Nightrider” in the system, I wondered if its presentation might be too much of a good thing with the Lilliums, but instead they turned out to be a fine match.

As for me, alone, loaded down with gear and getting hungry, just like the Discovery Channel’s “Survivorman,” it was time to move on. I was leaving the darkness, but taking with me what I hoped was non-blurry, conclusive photographic proof of the Lilliums, and I’d also had another sighting of the equally rare DS Audio cartridge. All in the same day! It was only Friday in my weekend-long quest and I already was one happy Audio Traveler.