Do I seem paranoid? Beaten and battered? All of the above: I'm just not in the mood to underplay what may be the most exciting new product this year. Neither am I in the mood to face the inevitable backlash which follows reviews of hideously expensive products. Should I bury my enthusiasm to avoid offending those who are incapable of reading about leading-edge hardware without going into an 'I can't afford it so how dare you write about it' sulk?
To hell with it: I ain't playing to the bores any more. This magazine is supposed to be committed to exploring the furthest reaches of hi-fi achievement, to spreading the word on What's Out There, and I will not do a disservice to a company like Sonus Faber, which has the sheer chutzpah to produce something like the Extrema. So save your second-class stamps and letters written in green ink. Or go read What Hi-Fi. The Extrema -- which lives up to its name -- is outrageous on every level, and it will infuriate so many of you that I expect share values in Milk of Magnesia to shoot through the roof.
But is this the same Sonus Faber you know for producing outre but eminently 'friendly' mini-monitors? The same mob renowned for mouthwatering woodwork and non-cubist styling and 'almost affordable' pricing? Yep. The Italian firm has decided to enter its second decade with a product which will cause as much of an uproar as the Wilson WATT (at one end) or the Infinity IRSes at the other.
Viewed from the front, the Extrema looks like nothing more than a slightly larger Electa or Electa Amator. Its frontal area only occupies a space some 280mm wide and 460mm tall, not too large by any standards. Your eyes take in the luscious curves around the woofer, the bottom portion all Italian walnut in shades of chocolate and coffee. The taper forces your eyes up to the satin black 'hood', grooved at 30mm intervals and reminiscent of a Pharoah's headpiece.
Walk around to the side. Whoa. This bambino is 550mm deep, huge chunks of walnut and that black capping giving it, in SH's words, a 'thrusting' look. It's an audio pit bull, small yet overpowering, densely packed and, well, chunky. You've never seen anything like it, although on one level it's just another box-type enclosure. But on another level, it's not of this earth.
You continue around to the back. Weird appendages for a passive loudspeaker, you think, marvelling at a heat sink, a knob and a black metal plate with a shape that rattles your memory bank. Sheepishly, you admit that the only familiar hindmost details are the two sets of gold-plated speaker terminals, for bi-wiring or bi-amping.
You notice that the plate, measuring 310x225mm and curved at the top and bottom, is raised on little legs, away from the speaker. Zoom in: the metal shields a third driver. There it is, a KEF B139 used as a passive radiator. You look at the knob. It selects one of five positions for damping the KEF. But you still wonder about the heat sink.
Back to the front and off with the grille. At the top of the leather-clad baffle is the 28mm soft dome Esotar 330/SF tweeter from Denmark, as used in the Electa Amator. It's 'cut into' the 190mm Audio Technology woofer, a strange-looking beast featuring a textured polypropylene cone coated with something called carbonium-acrilate. What you can't see is that the woofer's magnet is the same diameter as the cone. Still, you get the impression that it's a capable driver, even without anyone telling you it can handle 2kW for 10ms.
If you were to dismantle the speaker, you'd find that the cabinet is made up of sections, those grooves at the top giving you an indication of the patented sandwich construction. It's dense and dead and contributes to a weight of 40kg per speaker. Go ahead if you wish; rap the cabinet with your knuckles. Trying to elicit some tell-tale hollowness will result only in bruises.
And still you're puzzled by the heat sink. Then you notice below the 'Extrema' legend to the right of it a little logo which looks like an electronic component, bearing the words SINE CAPPAT. And it all ties in to the crossover which is, like the outrageous styling and the dial-in damping, another novel -- not novelty -- feature.
The crossover of the Extrema bears no capacitors. I phoned MC -- the man you want on your team if Trivial Pursuit ever adds a category called 'the History of Loudspeakers' -- and he told me that (1) to the best of his knowledge this is the first time a capacitor-free crossover has been used in a commercially available dynamic speaker and that (2) it's a pretty nifty idea but not without its disadvantages. Sonus Faber is frank about the latter, dealing with the need to dissipate whole watts of wasted power through the fitting of the heat sink. To quote Sonus Faber, 'The fact that the amplifier is forced to deliver higher power on a prevalently resistive load of lower modulus cannot be considered a disadvantage for a correctly designed amplifier.'
The assumption is that this product, gaining in transparency by eliminating a key component from the crossover, will be driven by the kind of amplifiers which won't be affected if some of their wattage is wasted. And -- I may as well shock you now -- at �6490 per pair, the Extrema is unlikely to be mated to amplifiers short of grunt.
SINE CAPPAT is a first-order parallel rather than series filter. By completely eliminating a whole component, it allows the tweeter to deliver greater transient response and 'snap' as well as higher transparency. As the tweeter's level still has to be attenuated relative to the woofer, due to the former's higher sensitivity, an inductor is fitted parallel to the tweeter.
But the use of such a technique places extra demands on the amplifiers, which explains why the nominal 4 ohm impedance and sensitivity of 88dB/1W/1m meant little in practice. The losses were such that some frighteningly robust amplifiers were driven into clipping, amplifiers which I would have wagered could drive the Extrema. It was a shame, for example, to disconnect the gorgeous Marantz MA-24 Class-A monoblocks which made such sweet music with the Extremas at low-to-normal levels. Along would come some crescendo, and blaaat!, the poor babies clipped with a sound like the exhaust of a pre-war Alfa. And I'm not even certain if the extra 3dB provided by running two pairs would have made much difference.Read more about the Extrema on Page 2.