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.
The cavalry came in the form of the Classe DR10, two of which arrived the same day as the Extremas. Easily bridgable through a switch accessible at the top, I used the DR10s for bi-wiring rather than bi-amping, as a mono'd DR10 delivers more grunt than one half of a stereo DR10 on each driver. My trusty Aragon 4004s also proved up to the task, as did the sadly out-of-production Beard P100, about which I shan't torment you.
The next platoon of cavalry came in the form of Acoustic Energy, who showed remarkable grace and gallantry when you consider that Sonus Faber is a competitor of sorts. AE provided me with a pair of the only stands capable of supporting these deep'n'heavy speakers with total confidence, the two-pillar versions of those cast jobs which look like they were nicked from a model of the Acropolis.
Wired with A.R.T.'s superb speaker cable, I was ready to rock, but dreaded the fine-tuning. Think about it: with spikes top and bottom and stands weighing, what? 50lb each?, under speakers at 40kg per, the combo is not one which you want to move about in centimeter increments. And as with all small-ish monitors, relative placement to walls is crucial for finding the right bass balance.
The rear plate protecting the B139 helps minimise the importance of the speaker-to-back-wall positioning. It's as if the Extrema came fitted with a portable rear wall all its own. Moving the speakers fore and aft produced only marginal changes in the bass, but this did affect stereo imaging as severely as with other speakers. So, a freebie from KK for any who may have to position Extrema: place them as far from the back wall as you can before domestic harmony is threatened. I used them a meter into the room.
Then there's toe-in, another major schlep. My tip? Position them so that, when seen from the 'hot seat', you're looking straight at the baffle. This is a severe amount of toe-in, similar to what seems to work best for the SL700s, but such is life. On the other hand, less toe-in will provide you with a more sociable speaker, at the expense of some stage depth. Tonal balance seems unaffected by the amount of toe-in and the hot seat isn't that narrow even when you optimize them as above, suggesting pretty good off-axis response.
Then there's the damping, which affects the signal at around 40Hz, in 3dB steps. This can only be adjusted by ear. With the AE stands and a concrete floor and solid walls, I set them in the middle position for starters, eventually dialling in minimal damping. It's subtle, but you'll find it a bonus tweak if your room is a bit, uh, floppy.
I ran 'em for three days before doing any deep listening. It took all my willpower -- gawd, are they sexy! -- but managed to resist. A cup of decaf, my favourite discs, and...
The thesaurus is locked away. I am not going to sink into purple prose or pretend that I'm Hunter S Thompson writing about a medicine cupboard smorgasbord. But I've gotta tell you, this loudspeaker -- like the AR M1 which dazzled me for other reasons -- restored my faith in the high end.
Nagged as we (the hi-fi press, retailers and manufacturers) are, I've grown tired of defending eye-popping, wallet-bursting price-tags in a world where people don't bitch about the �160 needed for a Mont Blanc pen when a Bic is 79p. Nor the �2000 for a Leica M6 when a throwaway Kodak costs about �4. They simply buy something else.
So why, oh why, do you lot judge everything on arbitrary value-for-money assessments when something -- anything -- is ONLY WORTH WHAT THE INDIVIDUAL DEEMS IT TO BE? And to do so when you have the freedom not to buy something? Why, for God's sake, are you so resentful of those who have earned enough to purchase such delights, which in turn benefit all of us because of the trickle-down nature of every man-made object since the first wheel?
Nobody, but nobody can justify �6000 for any piece of hi-fi when it will feed a few thousand famine victims for a month, buy a 10th of a house or the furniture to fill it, or three nose jobs if you have triplets with a proboscis crisis. But that's not the point. The price tag is a fact. If you think it's too high, beyond your budget or politically unholy, than shop for something else. But don't, PLEASE!!, discourage others from enjoying such rarified treats.
What is the Sonus Faber Extrema? A wild contradiction, a small-ish speaker which has the slam, extension and dynamic capabilities of a behemoth of Duntech proportions. Given an amplifier with power to spare, it will scale the heights and plumb the depths without showing a bead of sweat on it's well-oiled walnut cheeks. My pet speaker buster, Willy deVille's 'Assassin of Love', has rarely sounded as 'big' and free from compression, and only sounded better through the Apogee Diva, the Grand and the Infinity IRS Beta. All this from a speaker occupying about the size of 20in TV.
The transparency, what hooked me in Lorenzo Zen's listening room the night before the press launch, is on a par with the best dipoles -- electrostatic or ribbon. You listen into a 3D performance, nothing obscured. It's a device to please detail fanatics, the ones who listen for the rustle of Ofra Harnoy's by now threadbare green dress, the click of an errant fingernail against a piano key.
But it's not overwhelming in its presentation of detail. Unlike this speaker's only rival, Wilson's WATT*, Extrema does not come across as hyper-analytical. You can relax with this speaker, sink into it and forget all about the march of time, the 10 o'clock news or the next morning's sunrise. Or you can drive yourself nuts listening for minutiae, missing the forest for the trees if that's your drug.
Unlike the WATT, the Extrema delivers the goods without a costly sub-woofer (which is almost a value-for-money remark...). And the 'goods' consist of a top-to-bottom 'whole', with smooth transitions from loud to soft and back. There's enough weight to deal with bass-boosted garbage such as 'rap'. The tweeter copes with highs of every stripe: pungent, punchy brass (listen to the brass on Otis Redding's 'Respect', in the clean-as-a-whistle Stax box), the screech of a violin, the clear-as-Evian vocals from country queens like the Judds.
The Extrema loves woody acoustics, doing things for the guitar playing of rural blues singers which were unimaginable when they dragged their tired forms into makeshift studios. If Robert Johnson were alive and collecting the royalties he never got to enjoy...
Juggling neutrality and musicality -- a nifty trick. Too much concentration on the former and there's a risk of stripping away the soul. Too much of the latter and you're left with, well, an inaccurate sound, however enjoyable it may be. Extrema is a technical achievement from artisans. Or an artistic achievement from technicians. It is one of a handful of loudspeakers which qualify as legends.Everything breathes through this speaker. Except for you, the listener. Because I swear it'll take your breath away.