In 30 years as an audio casualty, I must have played with over 4000 different components. Some have been forgettable, some memorable and some so nigh-on-perfect that I've toyed with unspeakable, nay, inenarrable plots for acquiring them. So delicious is the product about to be discussed that your scribe even considered - if only for a mad, flashing moment - the truly unthinkable: selling his treasured watch collection to pay for a pair.
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If that doesn't tell you what to expect for the next 2000 words, then you must be the sort who didn't twig when some lout at the local Odeon revealed that Kevin Spacey - no, I can't complete the analogy. But you should know that before it even arrived, word had reached this magazine that the Amati homage had won the most envied award in all of audio: Japan's Component of the Year in the loudspeaker category. Which puts hi-fi journalists outside of Japan in the same intimidating position as, say, a critic who has to review a film which has already received an Oscar. But even with a major award to its credit, the second commemorative loudspeaker from Sonus Faber has a near-impossible to task to accomplish: it has to better Guarneri.
Back in June, 1993, (has it really been over five years?) the Italian speaker geniuses unveiled Guarneri Homage, launching a programme of three tribute models dedicated to the Cremonese Grand Masters of the art of violin making: Giuseppe Guarneri, Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari. Blessed by the audio gods with the privilege of reviewing the Guarneri, I wrote in conclusion that, 'I risk much by saying this, but I believe Guarneri homage to be - - the best small monitor I've ever heard in my own system. And the only other qualifier to that statement is that I admit yet again to being immune to the charms of cavernous bass.'
This is what Amati had to better. Five years on, those words still hold true, but with one slight alteration: nowadays, I kinda/sorta get a wee buzz, perhaps a teensy, hackle-raising frisson from the occasional bit of bass thuggery. So now imagine the following: that Sonus Faber took the Guarneri as a starting point and improved every single one of its sonic characteristics, that the company thought not about size nor cost constraints, and that it decided to eliminate the one repeatable criticism of the Guarneri: that its bass extension left much to be desired by those who worship the bottom octaves.
To the above recipe, add divine looks which are unmistakably Guarnerian, driveability which will allow even a humble 50-watter to do justice to the speaker and a price which is still so far below the high-end norm as to force the mouth, against one's better judgement, to form the word 'bargain' - as if suffering from an audiophilic case of Tourette's Syndrome. In other words, we are looking at a milestone product with the (future) historical importance of the Rogers LS3/5A, the Dynaco Stereo 70, the original Quad ESL and the first Koetsu m-c cartridge, so boundless enthusiasm is unavoidable.
Like Guarneri, Amati's cabinet design was conceived to exhibit absolute structural rigidity, full command of resonance control and room-filling sound dispersion. Like its little sister, the cross-section is that of the lute shape first developed by Sonus Faber in 1990 and eventually copied by Celestion and others, so employed because the absence of a flat rear wall and curved sides render the cabinet extremely rigid and immune to vibration. Sonus Faber also posits that the shape 'encourages a more homogeneous response from the loudspeaker than is possible with usual parallel-sided shapes'.
In practice, according to the designer, its back wave is easily transmitted to the reflex channel, to reduce inner reverberation. Taking it a stage further, the three-way, vented Amati features three copper/lead tuning ports, the it provides being flexibility reminiscent of the two easily-changeable port cylinders supplied with Wilson WATTs. Using only the lower of the three orifices, just above the hefty WBT multi-way binding posts, the listener can insert special foam-covered plugs and detect with ease the changes they impart...even while standing to the side of the speaker.
As with Guarneri, the Amati's cabinet is the sort of wooden construct which will, in 200 years, confuse the hell out of the crew, who will wonder how such craftsmanship manifested itself in a hi-fi product of late 20th century origins. It's fashioned from 21 sheets of wood of various consistency, joined together by a polymeric glue 'with a high coefficient of viscosity in order to dampen vibration'. Sonus Faber employs this complex technique not just because of its resemblance to the craft of the luthier, but because such construction improves dynamic contrasts.
Measuring 265x580x1170mm (WDH) and weighing a back-breaking 70kg apiece, the Amati is large by any standards south of a SLAMM but still too elegant to seem obtrusive. It looks precisely like a Guarneri which grew downwards to reach the floor separate stands, while all other dimensions increased proportionately. Amati's presence is felt immediately, and we are talking about a speaker that will never masquerade as a mini-monitor in any room smaller than 8x12m. Even so, in my circa 4x7m lounge, they seemed just large enough to elicit comment but not large enough to suggest a future riddled with alimony payments. They're the closest any audio component has come to deserving the use of the adjective 'voluptuous'. If Sonus Faber were honouring the stars of stage and screen rather than violin-making, this would have to be called the Claudia Cardinale.
Unquestionably, Amati is so utterly gorgeous that even philistines who like Formica table tops will be moved to sighing. The 'artisan-grade finish' is hand-applied by skilled craftsmen, by now well-trained and experienced after five years of Guarneri-making. The distinctive, in-a-class-of-its-own lacquering consists of seven coats of red and black, in remembrance of the instruments made by Andrea Amati. The gloss, colour and finish on the cabinetry will be recognised, even by those with no appreciation of nor interest in woodworking, as something rare and precious. And details like the metal frames which create the spiked plinths, the grilles fashioned as per Guarneri from elastic 'violin strings' - even the paper used for the owner's manual and the wine-coloured socks in which the Amatis are packed tell you that this is no ordinary speaker.
And an extraordinary speaker demands extraordinary transducers. Handling the upper frequencies is a 28mm soft-dome, multiple coating, high resolution, ferro-fluidless tweeter. The absence of ferrofluid, a reaction against the status quo, is a result of the designer believing that the moving coil can better reproduce the softest musical transients without ferrofluid interfering. Midrange frequencies are covered by a 180mm paper/carbonium titanium cone, also multiple-coated and designed for excellent linearity. And to give Amati the extension which makes this more of a cello than a violin, there are two woofers, a brace of 210mm extra-rigid, multiple-coated paper/carbonium cone.
This material, as employed for the mid and woofer cones, is said to avoid break-up phenomena; each bass driver is individually equalised with damping substances. All of the Amati's drivers benefit from a system which controls the impedance according to frequency variations, and all are manufactured according to what Sonus Faber calls 'the free compression driver concept, able to reproduce the slightest musical detail at high speed, with absolute control and great power'.Read more about the Amati on Page 2.