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.
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 -
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
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
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.
Unusual for a post-Eighties design, Amati is not bi-wireable, the
company in agreement with Wilson and a few others who feel that a
properly designed crossover obviates the need for whatever gains are
attributed to splitting the signal and inserting extra lengths of
speaker cable. Amati's cross-over is optimised to absorb the minimum
energy, unlike the hungry Extrema network, to provide 'the best
possible impulse response, as well as maximum transparency'.
Minimum-tolerance components selected by ear are used throughout, with
high-conductivity copper and silver cables used for all wiring. The
network is insulated against vibration with the company's proprietary
'resin encapsulation system'.
Crossover points are bass-to-mid at 200Hz and mid-to-treble at
2.5Khz, while sensitivity is stated as a user-friendly 92dB/1W/1m, with
a nominal impedance of 4 ohms. The company recommends a minimum
amplifier power of 30 W/ch (and a 300W maximum), which conveniently
allowed the use of its own Musica integrated amplifier at TOP Audio in
Milan. At the risk of seriously pissing off both Sonus Faber and the UK
importer, it's worth pointing out, too, that the Amati simply adored
single-ended triode amplifiers of Italian origin, made not a million
miles away from the Sonus Faber factory.
Other numbers you probably want to read are the frequency response,
stated as 24Hz-30kHz, with the tuning port included, and - unavoidably
- the price. But it's only right that you proceed no further without
knowing that the cost of entry into this sub-division of paradise is a
princely 11,450 per pair. While the tariff is ameliorated by the
speaker's ability to perform with less costly amplifiers than would be
the norm - 20k's worth of Krell or ARC or Levinson would merely ice
especially when compared to other speakers in the high-end arena with
price tags better suited to a small bungalow, I must respect the
insidious, small-minded meanness of most audiophiles. So the Amati
costs big bucks. There. I've said it. Now, can we proceed to the orgasm?
Connected variously to Sutherland 2000 monoblocks (solid-state),
Unison Research Smart 845 monoblocks (single-ended triode), two of the
six (50W) channels on the old Marantz AV-95M (solid-state) and GRAAF's
5050 (push-pull valve), with either ART or Kimber Select speaker wire,
the Amati was fed signals from the Krell KAV300cd, Theta's DATA III,
Musical Fidelity's totally luscious, embarrassingly under-priced X-RAY
and the Basis 1400/Basis 300/Grado Reference analogue front-end. These
drove pre-amplifiers which included the Lexicon DC1, the Krell KRC-3
and the Unison Research Mystery One, connected with Kimber Select.
It may strike some that I go out of my way to be recalcitrant, that
I am consciously and actively looking for ways to irritate. Believe me:
it comes naturally. But I swear on my 'Butcher Sleeve' that it was
wholly by accident that I discovered what will truly horrify designer
Franco Serblin. For five years, Guarneri fans have apologised for that
speaker's too refined, too subtle, too genteel, too civilised mien.
Again and again, I've heard people say, 'Awesome speaker, but only for
string quartets', or some such rot. It has been tarred with the
classical brush, in the same erroneous manner with which it was applied
to the BBC LS3/5A and both generations of Quad ESL. As I said with the
Guarneri, appreciation of it requires re-educating the listener.
One is right to expect the same of Amati, which - added bass aside -
does sound so much like Guarneri in all key areas that it unwittingly
provides a unique source of comfort for Guarneri owners: they needn't
bother upgrading to Amatis if they're (1) happy with the Guarneri's
bass or (2) restricted to rooms smaller than, say, 4x6m. But please
keep in mind that Sig. Serblin is so utterly and unselfconsciously
refined in a particularly Italian/patrician way that he's probably
unaware that any music was written after 1920, or that any instruments
were ever electrified. If you once short-listed the Guarneri and then
resisted because you succumbed to rumours of its inescapable
ultra-politesse, or felt that it couldn't fill your room, or you merely
wanted more bass without resorting to a subwoofer, then crack out the
Predictably, I started with the usual diet of Italian crooners,
marvelling at how this much larger speaker retained every single one of
the qualities which made the Guarneri one of my all-time faves. Its
mid-band is so lifelike and its trebles so sweet that you might be led
to thinking that the Rat Pack still lives and swings from Las Vegas
saloon to Hollywood haunt. I'm pretty certain that no purple-label
Capitol recordings from the Eisenhower era are to be found in Sonus
Faber's listening room, but the Amati suggests otherwise.
Blessed with the sort of refinement one might attribute only to
small electrostatics, the Amati possesses the near-magical ability to
endow small, delicate notes with room-filling presence. It's a curious
effect, juggling the reproduction of actual scale (i.e. lifelike and
correctly 'life-sized' images) within a seemingly limitless soundstage,
but it's there for all to hear: set up with just the right amount of
toe-in, and with the listener selfishly occupying the sweet spot, the
Amati creates a wall-disdaining picture I'd previously only heard from
large panels of the Apogee persuasion. Naturally, with live recordings,
you hear the dimensions of the hall and nothing more. Nor less.
But back to my shocking discovery. For whatever reason, my hand fell
on a stack of 'party' CDs assembled to help one see out the current
millennium in mind-numbing, drunken, nostalgic bliss. Unsurprisingly,
given the nature and tastes of the typical sodden, partying Brit, the
music consisted of rowdy gems from T Rex, Slade, most of the Seventies'
chart-topping disco kings and queens, reggae pounders and thumpers,
Mud, the Sweet and enough Sixties hits to inspire visions of those
mutton-dressed-as-lamb fiftysomethings who, on 31/12/99, will wail
'Auld Lang Syne' in pubs which could pass for the Queen Vic - you get
Now this stuff is right up my alley, me being somewhat crass and
uncultured (though tee-total), so I cranked that mutha up to 11 and -
lo and behold - the Amatis delivered the richest, deepest, most
concrete and palpable bass I've ever heard from a non-sub-woofered
system. And, unlike 99 percent of the sub-woofers we suffer/tolerate,
the bass was conclusively
headroom! No kidding: I pushed the system to playback levels louder
than any I've inflicted on my cats and neighbours in nearly a decade.
Not a crack, not a thwack, not a grumble - no trace of clipping sullied
Eddy Grant's lowest-octave growling or Gary Glitter's motorcycles.
And yet the Amati's probity was never, I repeat
not for a moment. Those of a devious, cynical bent might elect to
recall those uncomfortable recordings in which famous opera singers
butcher Broadway musicals or Sinatra tried to cover the Beatles, or
perhaps suggest an analogy along the lines of using a vintage, acoustic
Martin to play heavy metal, but it wasn't like that at all. The Amati
rose - proudly, aristocratically, its head held high - to the occasion.
And rocked like a sonovabitch.
Slam, energy, power, range,
Ferrari is to Alfa Romeo, Beluga to Ossetra. It is the next step for
those who adored Guarneri, and who are unwilling to change heart for
brain by moving, say, to rivals from Wilson. And that's it right on the
button: Amatis are romantic, warm, passionate, whereas Wilsons are
cerebral, analytical, rational. And both do things the other cannot: an
Amati, for example, doesn't have the sheer, unlimited capabilities
which would allow it to replicate the absolute grandeur of 70,000-plus
worth of SLAMM. But neither can the SLAMM nuzzle the back of your neck
and then caress your soul.
While both Sonus Faber and Wilson give more than lip service to
their alter-egos, as all speakers aspiring to high-end supremacy must
do, there's no mistaking that their respective personalities remain
dominant. Hence, the Amati is assuredly a product of the culture of
Casanova, Nuvolari, Pavarotti and - despite a lapse which led him to
emigrate to that hell-hole called France - Bugatti.
May I leave you with this thought? As of 1999, as far as I'm
concerned, the Sonus Faber Amati is the finest dynamic loudspeaker in
the world. In 2003 or 2004, given the rate at which Amati appeared
post-Guarneri, Franco Serblin will probably unleash the Stradivari.
Again, using what has gone before, it will probably sell for the
equivalent of 18,000 in the Euros of the day. It will probably be so
gorgeous that we can't even consider, with our underdeveloped,
non-Italian taste buds, what final form it might take. It will probably
earn the title of the First Great Speaker of the Third Millennium. And
if Stradivari does to Amati what Amati did to Guarneri, I probably will
be selling my watch collection.