Watching a kettle boil, waiting for a cheque to arrive, counting the minutes until The Return Of The King appears on the screen at the local Odeon - not truly comparable with the 10-year-long vigil for the Stradivari Homage, but you get the drift. Yet our impatience can't even begin to mirror the anxiety of Franco Serblin, capo of Sonus Faber and the designer responsible for the three models in the Homage series.
It was 10 years ago that the Guarneri revolutionised the shape and sound of the compact high-end speaker. It remains in the catalogue to this day and is one of the best-selling high-end speakers of all time. Five years later, its floor-standing sister, the Amati, arrived. While a sublime speaker, too, it didn't rock the industry to its foundations as did the Guarneri. After all, it simply looked like a Guarneri that had been extended downwards - hardly a radical fashion statement. And the sound? Though categorically providing more bass and sounding wonderful, it didn't represent a Great Leap Forward either.
Fans of the Guarneri and Amati knew, though, that Serblin was saving something special for the final model that he would offer in tribute to Cremona's greatest violin-makers. And we didn't need to turn to Encarta to know that it would honour Antonio Stradivari. What we couldn't imagine is what would be the non-sequitur that would represent Serblin's life-work. A subwoofer system? Towers? Dipole arrays? This was, after all, the man who gave us the Snail and the Extrema, the man who re-wrote the book as far as speaker styling was concerned, who single-handedly proved that high-end speakers don't have to look like shit. And that means most of them.
How wrong we were. Instead, the Strad features drivers in a vertical array, two rear ports - Franco even dispensed with bi-wiring. On paper, the Stradivari was almost conventional...if you can call a speaker using violin-making techniques like staves of solid wood and 'mystical' lacquers 'conventional'. Serblin was deliberate in his decision not to dabble with freakish technologies, materials or tweaks. He stated bluntly that, 'It would not have been right to inject high-tech into the Stradivari, to try to reinvent the speaker. It is an evolution.' So he limited the 'newness' to the shape and to a quartet of drivers made to his specification, which included near-impossible standards of tuning and construction.
In all the years I've known Franco, I have never seen him so sapped, so drained - nor so relieved. My Italian is too poor to appreciate all that he said, but there's reason to believe that this is his final no-compromise design. He never said a word about retirement homes or sailing off into the sunset, but he did describe the Stradivari as, 'The ultimate statement of what Sonus Faber means. I have stayed faithful to the original concept, that this is my hommage to the greats of Cremona.'
Of course, he could be like another famous Italian who'd threaten to retire and then stage an awe-inspiring comeback: Frank Sinatra. On the other hand, I can say after living with the Stradivari, that he has nothing left to prove because the Stradivari isn't simply the best-looking speaker I've ever seen, bar none. It's one of the very best performers I've ever heard, regardless of price.
Let's dispense with the looks in one paragraph. A friend's wife, who detests hi-fi more than any human being I've ever met in my 51 years on this planet, took one look and said, 'I could live with those. They're sexy.' Hearing that remark is tantamount to seeing Chrissie Hynde eating at McDonald's.
Coinciding with Sonus Faber's 20th Anniversary, the Stradivari Homage is the culmination of everything Serblin has learned since producing the Snail. Its evolutionary path is clear. You will note, for example, that the carcass of the speaker looks like a pair of Amatis turned face-to-face. There is no mistaking its family resemblance to the Guarneri despite the relocation of the lute shape (or 'boat-tail') to the ends of the speaker. And it's here that we see what is Franco's latest (if not last) revolution, within the confines of classic speaker design philosophy.
It's been years since I used a dynamic speaker that was more than twice as wide as it was deep, and that was the box-like Goodmans Eleganzia of 1963. It was an early attempt at making a large speaker shallow enough to wall- or shelf-mount, while retaining enough enclosure volume to allow it to load a massive woofer.Read more about the Sonus faber Stradivari Homage speakers on Page 2.
For Sonus Faber, compactness was not a motivation. As the technical papers which accompany the speaker attest, Serblin was more interested in exploring the concept of a baffle as an infinite plane. In doing so, Serblin has produced a shape at 53.5in tall and 26in wide but only 12in deep that's more in keeping with a Quad 989 - a true electrostatic non-hybrid panel - than a box containing dynamic drivers. What's so eerie is that the Stradivari sounds like a dipole panel, too.
Only with bass.
Now please note that although my comments are appended to MC's review as a glorified footnote, we have not 'collaborated' on this review and I have no idea if Martin will agree with what I am about to write or not. His far deeper understanding of speaker design might render my contribution as complete load of bollocks.
When you see a specification of 4 ohms and 92dB/1W/1m, you have every right to expect a speaker that will be easy to drive. However...if that specification describes a huge floor-stander rather than a cheapo two-way or a horn-loaded system, the odds are that it's wishful thinking hiding something nasty that will eat your amplifier, like a vicious impedance dip at a key frequency. Not so the Stradivari. Although I used it for most of its stay with the 2x100W McIntosh all-valve MC2102 power amplifier, I also hooked up an assortment of 'baby' amplifiers and had no trouble whatsoever in driving it consistently to high levels. So shock No 1 was finding that this speaker does not require the sort of amplification that's delivered by fork-lift.
Shock No 2 was hearing the best vocal reproduction I've ever savoured, exceeding in detail, warmth and clarity the BBC LS3/5A, ribbons, ESLs - even Stax headphones. I'm currently reassessing my stance on modern vocalists, having heard Rod Stewart's and Cyndi Lauper's recent releases covering standards, in which both prove that they have the chops to stand alongside the greats of the 1950s. Both releases - Lauper's At Last and Stewart's Great American Songbook Vol 2 - are beautifully recorded, as if to capture the sound of 1950s Capitol LPs, and the vocals are so delicately handled that they approach test-disc standards. (And you will have to eat every nasty word you may have uttered against Cher...)
Through the Strad, the sound is so dazzlingly life-like that I experienced more of those deceptive in-the-room frissons in the passage of one CD than in a month of normal listening. Lauper's rebirth reveals her to possess incredible vocal power; the Stradivari coped with the dynamic swing with a fluidity that I hadn't heard since the days of the Apogee Scintilla driven by true Class-A Krells. What was also evident was a continuity between the drivers, attesting to a sublimely-tuned crossover, that gave the speaker an of-a-whole sound previously familiar only to Quad ESLs owners.
Which brings us to Shock No 3. The lower octaves were the smoothest, best-controlled, least-coloured I've experienced in my 12x18ft listening bunker. The extension exceeds that of any speaker I've had in the room, there's no misbehaviour I could identify, and the slam and snap are devoid of any overhang. This was independent of music type, which is as it should be. From the big-band gentility of those standards albums to the kick-ass thump of Living Color's latest is as big a leap as I can imagine. The Strads took both in stride. But it was the bass of the big band surrogates that laid the foundation for Shock No 4.
In completing its masquerade as a dynamic speaker with panel virtues, the sense of scale and sheer mass that emerges from the Strads is without equal. Serblin's work with an 'infinite plane as baffle' has resulted in a box-type speaker that can vanish as convincingly as any panel I've tried. But unlike the vast majority of panels - Alastair Robertson-Aikman's Quads are an exception - the Strads have all of the punch and slam (as well as safe SPL capability) that can only come from big, dynamic woofers.
So what do we have in the Stradivari Homage? We have the clarity, transparency, openness and soundstage reproduction of an ESL. We have dynamics, power and bass control of Wilsonian credence. We have a soundstage to rival the finest point sources. We have vocals that massacre even the BBC LS3/5A. We have playback levels that will even satisfy a nu-metal moron. But above all, we have the elegance, finesse and grace that have signified every top-end Sonus Faber model for 20 years.
Oh, and we have looks to die for, a new style that you can bet will be ripped off by the pirates in time for CES 2005.
You should know that I wrote the above before learning the price, which I assumed would be in the 25,000- 30,000 bracket, having been told that Americans will pay $39,000 per pair. I have since learned that the price will be 'circa 20,000'.
Between you and me? You can add another zero.