It was Franco Serblin's burning desire to thank the great violin makers of Cremona. He chose to do it with a range of speakers bearing their names. But maybe it was also the challenge of following the Extrema. Or perhaps it was time for a stylistic change to keep the clonemakers jumping. More likely, all three combined at the right time to inspire Serblin to move Sonus Faber another step ahead of the competition. That's because nobody expected the Guerneri Homage, nor anything like it. Not its sound, not its styling. Guarneri Homage is the beginning of Sonus Faber, Phase 2, or Sonus Faber: The Second Decade. And it leaves all others in the dust. To say nothing, though, about the Amati and Stradivarius models to follow...
So what's the significance of this? That digging into the past just might have resulted in the wisest rethink of high-end speakers this decade?
Producing speakers to commemorate the works of the greatest instrument makers of all time is a perilous task. They must be of the same standard as the works of art they're intended to honour; if not, then they fail to serve their purpose. So what do you do? Produce a speaker which makes everything sound like it's being played on said instrument? God forbid that anyone should ever create a speaker in honour of the glockenspiel...
Appropriately, Serblin has managed to endow the Guarneri Homage with the many of qualities of the very violins it honours, and not just visually. To make this point hit home, those of us lucky enough to have attended the world launch in Cremona got to hear a solo performance on a Guarneri, just in case we didn't know what a real one could do.
The whole project is steeped in 'authenticity', perfect for celebrating Giuseppe Guarneri's achievements during the 250th anniversary of his death. The cabinet's cross-section, the view from the top so to speak, is the same as that of a lute. The result? A flat front baffle but curved sides resulting in an interior without parallel side walls to minimise unwanted standing wives...just like a violin. In keeping with both Guarneri and Sonus Faber traditions, the woodwork is exceptional, the cabinet consisting of 42 individual, solid, handsawn sections of walnut, maple and limewood, all the pieces having been naturally slow-dried for two years and stabilised in kilns. Age-old methods have been employed in the construction, including the use of materials such as natural dyes and organic glues throughout: oliban, copal gum, propolis, Venetian larch turpentine, linseed oil, wine alcohol, gamboge. No, I haven't heard of half of those materials either, but, damn, it's one evocative litany -- could be a shopping list for the Magi or the contents of Bilbo Baggins' tool chest. The sectional bonding is completed with heat pressing techniques used centuries ago for violin making.
Tuning of the cabinet has been accomplished with proprietary sheet copper and lead tuning elements which damp the interior walls of the speaker. The back section, which contains the port and the terminals for bi-wiring, is fashioned from a single block of solid limewood. All together, this forms an absolutely gorgeous piece of fine furniture measuring 380mm tall, 190mm wide and 375mm deep. And the picture is completed by the stand, which continues the 'strings' motif of the grille. Yes, the idea of a single piece of foam or cloth has been abandoned for this model; instead a row of elasticated strings running top to bottom reminds you of violins. And, no, the strings don't 'play along with the music', as one wag suggested.
Much though I'd rather stick to the purist notion of sound uber alles, I cannot undervalue the importance of the looks and the finish. Of all the many speakers I've had in my studio, of all the speakers I've seen at shows, the Guarneri Homage has elicited more sighs of lust than any other I can name. It is, without question, the least likely speaker to antagonise the traditional enemies of hi-fi, eg interior designers and house-proud wives. I have no doubt that they, too, will get caught up in the Guarneri Homage mythology, their cocktail party banter moving toward delicious trivia like, 'Did you know that pair No 001 is in Cremona's Salon of Violins?', or 'You do realise that this finish consists of no less than 10 coats of varnish, hand-sanded between each application?' Not precious enough for you? Add into the conversation, as you puff your pipe or sip your Armanac, that the wood was prepared for finishing with a sealing coat of albumin, or that the final polishing consisted manual effort using felt and oil, with a final buffing stage producing the mirror finish. In terms of mystique, snob value, class, sex-appeal, prestige -- call it what you will -- no other hi-fi product I can name even comes close. This is, without question, the first to ooze glamour.
Inside, Guarneri Homage employs carefully chosen components fine-tuned for the application. The 5.5in mid/bass driver is proprietary, with extra attention having been paid to the voice coil and the surround air gap to prevent compression. The tweeter? This is a silk dome with its own acoustic chamber cut from solid maple, said to possess the lowest resonance ever recorded. Both drivers are subject to long run-in periods before being mounted to the sculpted baffle to ensure optimal performance. The crossover is a modified 6db/octave design with inductors incorporating silk-wrapped Litz wire and all the crossover's individual components were chosen by ear as well as measurement for maximum transparency.
Other details? The stands bring the speakers up to chest height, they weigh enough to make you grunt and they're fitted to chunky slabs of the same granite-like material used for the stone/wood stands for the other Sonus Faber models. The binding posts accept all types of connector, and it's interesting to note that one set is gold-plated, the other au naturel. (This amused me no end because it confirmed my musings/findings a few years ago when I was short two identical pairs of banana plugs, and mixed gold with nickel -- gold for '+' and nickel for '-'. )Read more about the Guerneri on Page 2.
Now, the bit I dreaded: system building. Without question, Guarneri Homage ignores any logic vis a vis amp matching. You can make no generalisations because these speakers respond to amplifiers the way violins respond to violinists. One minute, you think they're ideal with solid-state because the Krell/Guarneri mating is akin to that of Rodgers and Astaire. Then you try some underpowered tubes which shouldn't even drive the Guarneris and it's Romeo and Juliet. But so much for the confusion: future Guarneri owners have no choice but to audition the speakers with their own amplifiers.
Admittedly, I only lived with these speakers for around two weeks. I only managed to try six power amplifiers, settling on Krell's MDA300s because of their speed and control and -- especially -- their flawless lower registers. And there's a reason behind this: the dearth of bass is the only aspect of Guarneri performance that I have heard criticised with any consistency, so what bass signals you do feed into it must be as close to perfect as possible.
In a nutshell, there isn't much really deep bass. Especially not by WAMM/Statement/Grand or even Extrema standards. Conversely, though, this speaker is much more than an Armani-clad LS3/5A. So, before I go any further, I want to qualify my remarks with a reminder: I do not give a damn about deep, thunderous bass. I find the obsession with sub-70Hz sonics to be not just juvenile but anal. And I can think of no lower life form than the kind of mutant who puts twin 15 inchers in the boot of his Escort, driving along with 125dB's worth of 40Hz grunge in each lughole.
So is that why am I'd overlook Guarneri's less-than-ponderous bottom end? No, it's because the sounds I heard in my own studio and the demonstration I heard in the Sonus Faber room in Milan convinced me that there's more to conveying the weight and mass of a performance than sheer low-end energy. I sat there enthralled, listening to the wee Guarneris filling a good-sized room and driven by only a small and elderly Spectral amplifier, but that's partly because the amp was selected by Lorenzo Zen, the Italian retailer who knows more about setting up Sonus Fabers than anyone outside the company. It was an upscale replay of the debut of the Minima Amator.
Upscale? Yes, because Guarneri adds to the sound of its 1500 sibling a level of finesse, of detail and of precision which I find unrivalled by any speaker of any type. To match it, you'd have to turn to Stax Lambda Pro headphones. The Guarneri Homage, like a violin by its namesake, is a tool of delicacy and refinement. It is petite, though only in actual size -- not sound. With even greater skill than a Wilson WATT (sans Puppy), the Guarneri balances a light touch with a kind of richness which logic tells you should not be there. But it only does this when handled properly.
It's too easy to compromise Guarneri Homage. It needs to be installed with the kind of attention to detail which I used to associate only with cartridge set-up. That's because the Guarneri reflects its design and build quality in its personality: it is a product of attention to fine details, like a wristwatch or indeed the very music it is asked to reproduce. Thus it behaves fastidiously rather than analytically. For straight analysis, the music lover can turn to Wilson WATTs or, indeed, the Extremas, both favouring head over heart. But Guarneri, if it were a person, would be an artisan rather than a technician.
I never thought I would hear sweeter or more lifelike vocal reproduction than I already get from an LS3/5A. And yet, when the source changed from the clear vocals of Ella to the resonance of Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Guarneri simply changed its behaviour to suit. And here's where all of the analogies fall to bits, and why the Guarneri Homage is not like a violin.
The Guarneri violin has unique character, a specific sound which a skilled violinist will use to suit a mood or material. The Guarneri Homage? It lacks a specific character because it is a universal instrument. It even works with rock and roll, despite street chatter that suggests you should only use a Guarneri Homage for playing back recordings of string quartets. Sheer nonsense? Merda de toro is more like it. The Guarneri Homage fears nothing, not even the grumbling bass on Jeff Beck's 'Ain't Superstitious'. And however much they might seem insipid if played next to a pair of Infinity IRSes or some other behemoth, they would win the heart of the music lover because of what they do above the mid-bass frequencies. And that most certainly includes playing loudly enough to be convincing, with dynamic contrasts wide enough to do justice even to orchestral works.
The Guarneris disappear, so the sound floats around the speakers, with a stage so authentic and so large that you can only marvel. I don't just mean big; I mean huge. And deep, the back of the room disappearing into some parallel dimension, only to return when the music stops. Within this work space? The kind of image positioning and shape/solidity that means the difference between a suggestion of a musical event and a bona fide replica.
But that bass lightness requires re-education in the listener, especially if he or she is a pathetic bass junkie who equates horsepower/length/price with quality. I say it's a matter of taste; others would argue that it's the loss of the music's foundation. All I know is that I felt no loss of pleasure playing even the most ponderous pieces through it. So maybe Guarneri Homage is, like its designer, disarmingly soft-spoken. But every word it says counts.
More true to the Guarneri's spirit, though, is a characteristic I've never found so vividly accessible as I do with this speaker. It's the ability to convey the resonances and tonal 'colours' of the actual materials of the instruments. No, that's not a way of saying that you shouldn't play synthetic or amplified music through Guarneri Homage, just because they won't exploit it. Rather, it's to warn you that you've probably never before heard a speaker which reproduces so realistically the woodiness of an acoustic guitar or the metallic coolness of a trumpet. The speaker doesn't just respond to the ambience and the feel within a recording; Guarneri exposes it. As for voice, well, you're left in no doubt that Italy is the land of opera lovers.I risk much by saying this, but I believe Guarneri Homage to be -- as far as my own preferences are concerned -- 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. Sadly, the speaker's 5500 tariff is beyond my reach, but I swear that if I had such an amount to dispose of, I'd put my name down for one of the 10 pairs they'll make this month.