You know the value trend is not a fad when names like Sonus faber, which in the past only produced lines at the very pinnacle of high-end performance and price, begin to launch more affordable lines. Sonus faber has a long history of designing and manufacturing premium speakers in Italy. The speaker designs often take cues from classical stringed instruments, and the speaker lines and product names often honor the greatest classical composers and operas. Currently, the company's flagship Aida speakers weigh in at $120,000 per pair and compete with the most elite products from the likes of Wilson, Magico, Rockport, and MBL.
A few years, Sonus faber took the audio world by storm when the company launched its first foray into more affordable speakers with the Venere line, manufactured in China and featuring floorstanding speakers ranging from $2,500 to $5,000 per pair. The Venere line had the flexibility to accommodate home theater fans with a matching center channel and a variety bookshelf options, also at much more affordable prices. While some feared the move in manufacturing location would impact quality, the Venere line proved to be worthy of the Sonus faber brand name.
Fast-forward to today. Sonus faber has introduced a new entry-level line called Chameleon that is manufactured once again in Italy. The line features one floorstanding model called the Chameleon T (priced at $1,999 per pair), as well as the center-channel Chameleon C ($549 each) and the subject of this review: the Chameleon B bookshelf speaker ($899 per pair). If someone had told me five years ago that you could get a full five-channel Sonus faber home theater speaker set for under $5,000, I would have laughed in their face, but it is a good time indeed to be an audiophile.
In traditional Sonus faber fashion, the aesthetic design of the Chameleon speakers is as much a part of the value proposition as their performance. As the name Chameleon suggests, the whole line comes with multiple aesthetic options, in the form of interchangeable, colored side panels. My samples came with four red side panels, two for each speaker. Slipping them in place required no effort at all. You can buy two extra pairs of side panels for the Chameleon B in multiple colors (black, orange, red, white, metal grey, or metal blue) for $199.
As far as bookshelf speakers go, the Chameleons are fairly lightweight and compact, weighing in at 14.8 pounds and measuring 12.4 inches tall, 7.3 inches wide, and 11.1 inches deep. The B is a two-way bookshelf with a 1.1-inch tweeter and 5.9-inch midrange/woofer. Around back, two pairs of standard speaker inputs are housed in a slightly recessed well, with the inputs tilted upward to allow for easy access and flexibility to connect with banana plugs, spade plugs, bare wire, or just about any speaker wire connection you prefer. I connected them using my reference WireWorld Silver Eclipse 7 speaker cables to the recently reviewed Outlaw Model 5000 amplifier. Other associated equipment included the Outlaw Model 975 preamp and a Sony Playstation 3 game console.
It seems these days that everything on TV is a reboot, remake, sequel, or some combination thereof...but I think that's okay. I don't mind so much a familiar theme as long as there's some degree of newness in the material. I began my evaluation by streaming the first episode of the newest season of The X-Files. Dialogue sounded very clean throughout. Even at low-volume whispers, I could hear all the detail and graininess in Fox Mulder's familiar growl. In fact, the Sonus faber speakers performed well with the subtleties within many quiet scenes. At the end of the episode, when the Cigarette Smoking Man appears in Mulder's living room, you can hear the crackle from a hole in his throat as the embers in his cigarette ignite. The speakers had a very natural, sweet sound to them, very much in line with what you would expect from a Sonus faber speaker. Their performance doesn't sound quite as "acoustic," if you will, as many of their bigger brothers in the Sonus faber line. It's just a more natural, mellow sound. Imaging was very accurate, placing most sounds where you would think they ought to appear based on reference from the video. I did notice that the Chameleon B speakers were just a tad forward in their presentation.
While the reported specs have the Chameleon Bs listed at a fairly low 87-dB sensitivity and a nominal impedance rating of four ohms, they were actually quite easy to drive ,and the Outlaw amplifier did so with ease, pushing the Chameleons to astonishing volume levels. In one of the later scenes in the X-Files episode, Sveta, an abductee, is driving her car alone on a long stretch of deserted highway. A man-made UFO overtakes her car, hovers overhead, and sends an energy beam that obliterates her vehicle. The Chameleons appropriately cranked up the volume and delivered room-filling sound from the energy beam to the car explosion. However, while the Chameleons did provide the coverage needed, they did struggle a little to deliver the full punch-you-in-the-face sound that my B&W CM6 S2 bookshelf speakers can do. It's worth noting, though, that the B&Ws are more than twice the cost of the Sonus faber Chameleon Bs. Still, some may consider the Chameleons to be a little less energetic or slightly polite in their sound.
Musicality and a gorgeous midrange are definitely two of the Chameleons' strong suits. and this was never more apparent than during the famous training scene in Rocky on Blu-ray disc. As underdog Rocky trains hard in preparation for his title fight against reigning champ Apollo Creed, Bill Conti's theme song "Gonna Fly Now" blasts away in the background. All those brass instruments seemed almost meant for speakers like the Chameleons and their very rich, well-balanced sound. It's the kind of sound that gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling, much in line with what the scene is trying to convey. The sound was so inviting that I repeated the scene a couple more times just to enjoy it.
As I mentioned previously, Sonus faber has always prided itself on taking cues from classical instruments in its speaker design. So, it came as no surprise to me that, with music (especially acoustic music), the Sonus fabers were completely in their element. And it wasn't just with the classical music. I queued up a favorite rock ballad of mine, "To Be With You" by Mr. Big from their Lean Into It album (Atlantic, CD). I like this song a lot because it's one of the rare instances you see Paul Gilbert playing an acoustic guitar rather than shredding on his electric guitar. This song has all the elements of a traditional rock ballad: the harmonious singing, the slow strum from an acoustic steel-stringed guitar, and the simple bass lines. Even without a subwoofer, the Chameleon Bs were able to reproduce Billy Sheehan's bass guitar really well. Bass was tight and musical. Gilbert's steel strings resonated against that deep wood acoustic sound. It was a delightful feel. And at the upper end of the midrange, Eric Martin's smooth rock voice had just a tad of grit in it to remind that you he's still the singer of a hard rock band, not a boy band.
I did notice that the cymbals were a little flatter and not quite as crisp sounding as they are through my B&Ws. And, at louder volumes, the Chameleon Bs did sound more like speakers, as opposed to disappearing into the room. But neither of these minor blemishes were enough to detract from the overall enjoyment I got listening to the Chameleon Bs.
The Chameleon B speakers don't have a lot of glaring faults, especially for a product in this attainable price range. While the Chameleons never sounded small or inadequate, bigger, heavier speakers with larger cabinets would deliver that extra level of heft and scale, especially in a larger room. Pricier models in the Sonus faber lineup will bring even greater clarity and refinement while being a bit more transparent. For instance, I've heard the Olympica line (and certainly any line above that) almost disappear when listening to music--you don't hear any speaker, just the music. The Chameleons still leave a detectable sonic footprint, although it is never obtrusive. Going up in price will probably get you speakers that can deliver a bit more immediacy and be quicker-sounding. Lastly, while the Chameleons excel in a very well-balanced midrange, some speakers in the same price range--like the GoldenEar Aons--might win in high-frequency clarity.
Competition and Comparison
The under-$1,000 price point is very crowded nowadays. The SVS Ultra bookshelves come in at $1,000 per pair and feature a slightly larger woofer, which means they will play down a little lower and add a little more muscle to the sound. The Ultras will probably power through a larger space, as well. Sonically, the SVS is a little more neutral-sounding, while the Sonus fabers lean a little more on the warm side.
Also for $1,000 per pair, the GoldenEar Aon 3 bookshelves are quite a value. With a bigger woofer and low-frequency radiators, the Aons offer bigger, deeper sound, while their ribbon tweeters would give an advantage in high-end detail and transparency. However, the Sonus faber speakers' natural, sweet sound is one that many gravitate to for good reason.
Finally, retailing for $898 per pair, the Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 65s will also give the Chameleons a run for their money sonically and will have very strong soundstage performance, delivering a wide sweet spot for listening due to their design. However, the Sonus faber Chameleons deliver an aesthetic innovation with their interchangeable colored side panels that give them flexibility in matching decor, furniture, or mood that no other speakers in this price range can claim.
The Sonus faber Chameleon B speakers are superb value-oriented performers--truly musical speakers that have a very rich, sweet sound profile...one that I absolutely loved. Aesthetically, the ability to change colors with different side panels makes this a unique proposition for those with a bit more modern tastes in design. Overall, the Chameleon Bs sound great and are fairly easy to power. At $899, they would be a fantastic addition to any reasonably sized listening space. Just don't expect them to defy physics and muscle through a banquet-hall-sized room the way the big brother, the Aida, probably could.
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