Nothing but the truth
Should audio components always be 100% truthful to the source? Ahhh, that’s one of those questions that has resulted in untold audiophile angst, much like the supposed supremacy of analog over digital, or tubes vs. solid state. In the end, it’s ultimately up to the ear of the listener, and nothing else. If it sounds good to you, then it’s probably good.
Me? I’m an unabashed truth guy. That’s perhaps why I tend to gravitate toward pro audio DACs and speakers for instance, which are purposely designed to tell the truth: nothing more and nothing less. I prefer resolution and purity of timbre, even if it’s not always pretty. Even so, I can appreciate that many audiophiles (and music lovers…) like a bit of embellishment, maybe as a filter to guard against less than stellar recordings of music they nevertheless enjoy. Perhaps a bit of distortion here or there is just the thing to help transport us to the venue itself, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing!
Just the other day, amplifier legend Nelson Pass sent me a little gizmo to try out. It’s a second-order harmonic distortion generator. Yep, you read that correctly — a device that intentionally adds distortion to recorded music while on its way through the playback chain. Why? It’s quite well-known that many folks appreciate a bit of that kind of sonic fuzz tossed their way. It helps make the music sound more real, or so they say. Just ask anyone who’s been smitten by low power single ended triode tube amps. They’ll tell you all about it, and maybe even ask you over for a listen. If so, take them up on the invite and judge for yourself.
So yeah, Nelson’s little device made the music sound different. As in more fleshed out, phasey, and dimensional. It was a fun experiment, but I tired of it somewhat quickly. I took the thing over to Scot Hull’s place for him to try out. We’ll see what he thinks, but I suppose I may be too much of a purist to fully appreciate it, though I’m certain that others will.
From the Old Country
So why bring up my lust for audio truthfulness in the context of my review of a new Italian monitor speaker, the $2299 (without stands) Sonus Faber Sonetto II?
Well, that’s a thing. These little speakers have gotten me thinking about my long-held stance on sonic truth, as I’ll spell out for you as we move through the review.
First, a bit on Sonus Faber, the company. Founded back in 1983, this company has been satisfying the speaker needs of audio enthusiasts world-wide ever since. While I haven’t had a lot of experience with Sonus Faber products, I have always liked to imagine them as being hand-made by caring artisans in a small shop in Italy, in much the same way stringed instruments have been crafted there for hundreds of years. Stradivari and Guarneri, anyone?
The Sonus Faber Sonetto II
My understanding of this speaker, here for review, is that it is part of Sonus Faber’s more lifestyle-oriented Sonetto lineup of products. As a serious audio enthusiast, anytime I see something described as “lifestyle,” I think, “Here we go again…” So maybe these little monitors are at the more affordable end of Sonus Faber’s offerings, but that shouldn’t dissuade anyone looking for a true audiophile stand-mount from giving these speakers some serious consideration.
Spec-wise, the Sonus Faber Sonetto IIs are impressive at their price point, seemingly benefiting from considerable “trickle-down” of technology from their more distinguished (and expensive) brethren. Oh, and the craftsmanship is pretty darn nice as well. Take the cabinets — they’re just gorgeous. Bowing outward and then back inward again in a “lute-like” profile when viewed from above, the speakers offer up a most pleasing contoured shape. No tired looking boxes here, no sir-ree. These cabinets were finished in a lovely figured walnut veneer whose features delicately trace the enclosure’s horizontal curvature. The top is figured in genuine black leather, adding to the luxuriant feel. At the bottom front of each speaker is what appears to be a slotted port.
Covering the upper frequency range is a 29 mm dome tweeter custom sourced from a German supplier, DKM. The midrange/bass driver is a 165 mm diameter cellulose pulp affair. Efficiency is reported at 87 dB, with a nominal impedance of four ohms. The frequency range is a generous 42 Hz up to 25,000 Hz with a crossover at 2650 Hz. I tend to think that the efficiency number is rather conservative, as I had no issues driving the Sonettos to pleasing levels with low-powered (20 watts per channel or less) amplifiers.
The Sonus Faber Sonetto II can be bi-wired as evidenced by two pairs of metal binding posts on the rear panel; I left these with jumpers in place for all of my auditioning, thus foregoing the bi-wire option.
I happened to receive the Sonus Faber Sonetto II speakers concurrently with a Naim Uniti Atom all-in-one music server/DAC/amplifier unit. I thought the two might be a good match, so I set them up together in my downstairs media room (umm… living room). My gut instinct was correct: the Naim combo unit drove the Italian speakers with synergistic aplomb.
Placement-wise, I merely stuck the Sonettos on the hutch which also houses the TV and other media devices. As the resulting height put the tweeters right about at ear level, I found this setup to be musically satisfying. Even though the rear panel of each speaker was only about eight inches from the wall, I heard no particular nasties in the lower midrange and bass, partly thanks to the forward-firing port-slot.
I spent a solid month (and then some…) listening both casually and intently to the aforementioned setup. As both the Naim and Sonus Faber gear broke in, I could sense the sonics converging toward that happy place we all hope our systems eventually reach. As I had expected, the Naim amp is all about honest tonality coupled with snappy pace, rhythm, and timing. It is British, after all. These characteristics mated exceptionally well to what I suspected was a definite warm, full, and even romantic tonality from the Sonus Faber Sonetto IIs. I was reminded of mixing chocolate and peanut butter: two great tastes that taste great together, or however the old jingle went. This was a sound I could really live with at least for awhile, streaming untold hours of Tidal and internet radio. I was in no hurry to mix it up, but mixing it up was what I knew I had to do.
Toys in the attic
So up went the Sonus Faber Sonetto IIs to my attic listening area. That is, the place where the serious stuff commences. I run two systems up there: the east system and the west system. No code here: the east system is on the east wall, and the west system is on the west wall. The east system is where the Sonus Fabers went; it’s a fun system and always in flux. A nice, ever-changing mix of old and new, conventional and oddball. Here, I fed the Sonetto IIs with a steady diet of both digital and analog, powered by a First Watt F7 amp. The digital source was a Tascam CD200 disc spinner feeding my Border Patrol SE DAC, while the analog goods were provided by my heavily modified Steve Frosten AR XA turntable sporting a vintage Grace 704 tonearm hung with a Nagaoka MP110 moving magnet cartridge. Both sources fed into a tweaked out Superphon Revelation Dual Mono Basic preamp, which, by the way, boasts a really good phono stage.
While the speakers were supplied with stands that I think would be fine (and attractive) in a lifestyle sort of way, I preferred to mount them on my own pair of ultra-substantial classic four-pillar (read: heavy) Target stands.
Watt’s up, doc?
The first thing I noticed when I set the Sonus Faber Sonetto II speakers up was the supple, but deep bass I got via the little First Watt F7. This amp puts out only 20 watts per channel, but it never broke a sweat driving the Sonetto IIs. While the First Watt amps aren’t powerful, they can put out some current, and I suspect that the speakers responded well to that.
I continued to have the distinct impression that these Sonus Faber speakers lean toward the forgiving, tonally luxuriant side of the audio spectrum. Not my cup of tea, you say? No… Wait, I think I said that… Nevertheless, I still found myself sucked in, enjoying the music encased in those silver or black grooves. Am I talking about “too forgiving” to rock out?
Quite the contrary, in fact. Thanks to the Sonetto II speakers, I found myself rummaging through vinyl from my teen years, digging out a bunch of old Genesis albums, a veritable prog-rock party. Geez, how long had it been since I last spun these discs of black gold? Honestly, I can’t remember. Regardless, my room was suddenly filled with percussion and synth-laden goodness of yesteryear, just like I remembered hearing it on those hot summer nights of long ago teen-dom. On went Abacab, followed by Invisible Touch (both LPs, Atlantic), and then the old classic Foxtrot (LP, Buddah Records). All fun stuff, well-remembered and enjoyed.
I wasn’t done yet. Off the shelf came my original pressing of Frank Zappa’s Zoot Allures (LP, Warner Brothers), another favorite from that same time of youthful abandon. Thanks in part to the Sonus Faber Sonetto II speakers, this album seemed to play with way more clarity than I had remembered from before. I could easily discern and hear into Zappa’s blazing guitar riffs and fully appreciate the intricacies of Terry Bozzio’s pyrotechnics on the drum kit. There’s not a bad tune on the album, but my personal favorite has always been the title cut. Almost pompous in a Zappa sort of way, and never in a hurry, this is some of my favorite of the guitar master’s soloing, and the system really let me hear into it. I heard beautiful tone, from the lead guitar right down to the lugubrious electric bass, but with no apparent loss of detail. So yes, these Italian speaker jobs can rock on, with the warm tone making me warm (and nostalgic) along the way.
Jazzin’ it up
Moving on to some well-recorded jazz, I wanted to see if the Sonus Fabers could continue to impress and hold their own. So onto the player went a cd of Todd Garfinkle’s superbly realistic recording of Milcho Leviev and Dave Holland’s album Up and Down (cd, MA Recordings). This is a recording of a live session of the duo made in Tokyo back in 1987, and it’s a sonic spectacular. This is an airy, realistic recording full of tonal texture and intricacy. One thing I noticed immediately from the system is that Holland’s acoustic bass was beautifully rendered in a weighty and most lifelike manner. I could easily hear how he shaped his notes, both plucked and bowed. The bass sounded truly woody, with plenty of resonant detail. I could easily picture vibrating strings launching tone directly off of a wooden soundboard; I was literally hearing the instrument vibrating.
Further, the recorded piano sounded realistic and decidedly “non-tinny.” Even a well-recorded piano can hurt the ears when played back through a poor system, but this one got it right. The Sonetto IIs were providing me with plenty of correct harmonic cues along with the complex overtones one hears when in the presence of the real instrument.
A listener can gauge a great deal about both a recording and playback system by listening to recorded applause from a live audience. Here, the collective sounds of many hands clapping (as opposed to one hand clapping) sounded exquisitely real in both a tonal and dimensional sense. The overall effect was decidedly non-digital, and I could easily hear that the audience was positioned deep in the soundstage, well behind the microphones.
Regarding detail retrieval, I could easily pick up what I presume to be Dave Holland’s foot tapping along with the beat on the cut “Up and Down.” The realism of a shoe’s sole slapping against a wooden floor was uncanny in an almost scary sort of way. I’m not just talking about a sound that I could discern from a complex mixture of other sounds; I’m talking about something that sounded spookily real and organic.
Comparison 1: the Fritz Carbon 7 SE ($2500 per pair)
The Fritz Carbon 7 SE speakers have long been a fixture here in the main listening area due to the fact that they sound better than good in nearly any audio setup. Tonally speaking, I’d say that they come close to the Sonus Faber Sonetto IIs in terms of warmth and accessibility. Both speakers fall most definitely to the warm side of neutral in an inviting sort of way. Difference wise, the Sonus Fabers seem to be more focused and tight, while the Fritzes offer up a looser, more casual sense of pace and rhythm. Stereo images also seem more sharply focused, with greater delineation via the Sonetto IIs. In contrast, the Carbon 7 monitors provide a somewhat billowy, less defined sense of space that some listeners may find more three dimensional and pleasing.
Comparison 2: the Amphion Argon 3S ($2690 per pair)
Compared to the Sonus Faber Sonetto IIs, the Amphion Argon 3S is something of a different beast. The latter speaker boasts a decidedly modern look and sound; not something one would mistake as coming from Gippetto’s woodshop in the “Old Country.” Not quite as romantic as the Sonetto IIs, the Argons preach clarity with a certain smoothness that has a bit more of a “jump factor” than the more laid-back Sonus Fabers. The harmonic richness of the Sonetto IIs is replaced by a sense of speed and pacing that plays to the service of the overarching tonal truthfulness of the Amphions.
These are both great monitor speakers at a similar price point that deliver slight (but distinct) differences in sound, while offering vast differences in appearance. If you are more in search of absolute truthfulness to the source and extraction of tiny musical details, I’d advise you to look more closely at the Amphion Argon 3S speakers. If, however, you tend more toward the warm richness of Vivaldi or complex tonality of Respighi as performed in a warmly lit plaster-walled villa, then the Sonus Faber Sonetto IIs will most likely light your fire.
So then, did the Sonus Faber Sonetto II speakers cause me to change my listening preferences forever? Well, not exactly; but the invitation to explore that a bit of extra romance and sonic panache was delightful. In fact, these speakers are just exceptional. I think of the Sonus Fabers as mood speakers- as in, they put me in the mood! I can close my eyes and visualize myself cruising down the canals of Venice under the light of the stars, or maybe being serenaded along with mia amore by an Italian tenor in the town square. If that doesn’t make you want to smile, then I don’t know what would! Bellissimo!
Sonus Faber Sonetto II Speakers (website).
$2299 without stands; $2798 with stands.